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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Social Cost of Carbon

Just published in September 2013, the results of a study with implications that are worth publicizing. After examining the true costs of electricity generation using carbon-based fuels, the article points out that the US (also true of most other countries) underestimates the costs of carbon pollution and climate change. Without properly accounting for pollution costs, natural gas appears to be the cheapest generation option for new power plants. The estimates here show that if environmental costs are taken into account, renewable sources of energy are already more cost effective than either natural gas, oil  or coal.

The Social Cost of Carbon: Implications for modernising our (US) electricity system

Abstract: The US government must use an official estimate of the “social cost of carbon” (SCC) to estimate carbon emission reduction benefits for proposed environmental standards expected to reduce CO2emissions. The SCC is a monetized value of the marginal benefit of reducing one metric ton of CO2. Estimates of the SCC vary widely. The US government uses values of 11,33, and $52 per metric ton of CO2, classifying the middle value as the central figure and the two others for use in sensitivity analyses. Three other estimates using the same government model but lower discount rates put the figures at 62,122, and $266/ton. In this article, we calculate, on a cents-per-kilowatt-hour basis, the environmental cost of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel generation and add it to production costs. With this, we compare the total social cost (generation plus environmental costs) of building new generation from traditional fossil fuels versus cleaner technologies. We also examine the cost of replacing existing coal generation with cleaner options, ranging from conventional natural gas to solar photovoltaic. We find that for most SCC values, it is more economically efficient (from a social cost–benefit perspective) for the new generation to come from any of these cleaner sources rather than conventional coal, and in several instances, the cleanest sources are preferable to conventional natural gas. For existing generation, for five of the six SCC estimates we examined, replacing the average existing coal plant with conventional natural gas, natural gas with carbon capture and storage, or wind increases economic efficiency. At the two highest SCCs, solar photovoltaic and coal with carbon capture and storage are also more efficient than maintaining a typical coal plant.

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Walking along the Dragon’s Back

Colorful name. Spectacular trail. Went on a 2 hour hike along a ridge of the Hong Kong hills. Apparently voted the best Urban Hiking trail in Asia by Time. As beautiful as some of the best mountain walks in Austria, with two important differences, 32 degree heat, and ocean views instead of mountain valleys on two sides. Here are a couple of photos.


After the descent down a steep trail, there’s a beach in a small curved bay with a few surfers in the water and medium big waves; and the village of Shek O with a line of restaurants. The choice this evening fell on Thai  food at a roadside restaurant. Excellent choice. All electrolytes and other post-hike necessities of life tastefully replenished in the course of 2 hours.


Usagi is expected to make landfall in Hong Kong on Sunday evening around 7. Hurricane Usagi is currently the most severe tropical storm of the year and the meteorological office has warned everyone to stay indoors and secure all doors and windows. We have three lovely bonsai trees on our terrace that survived the force 8 gale of early August, but Usagi is reputed to be a force 10, so we will borrow a hand trolley from a neighbour tomorrow morning and move the three heavy urns indoors.

Celebrating mid-autumn in Hong Kong

Mooncake.jpgChinese Mooncake

Today, September 19th, is the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival that is widely celebrated in China and Vietnam, and the following day is a public holiday. It is a time when families traditionally get together to celebrate a good harvest. It coincides with the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese calendar. It’s also called the Moon Festival because of the association with the full moon, or Mooncake Festival because these are eaten at this time. Typical mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 4–5 cm thick. This is the Cantonese mooncake, eaten in Southern China in GuangdongHong Kong, and Macau. A rich thick filling usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste is surrounded by a thin (2–3 mm) crust and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. Mooncakes are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea.

Here is a nice link with photographs of the festivities in Hong Kong, including a lantern exhibition and Fire Dragon dance performances.


Earth’s Carrying Capacity

A chance remark by an acquaintance about the world running out of food led me to revisit a paper written in 1979 by Prof. Cesare Marchetti, an iconoclastic physicist and materials scientist who likes to think outside the box. The title of his paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal “Energy” is “10 to the power of 12: a check on earth’s carrying capacity.”  The full text of this paper is available here:

Click to access MARCHETTI-076.pdf

A second writer on this topic, this time in a book called “How Many People can the Earth Support, (WW Norton, 1995)” is Joel Cohen, a mathematical biologist. Check this link for a summary of the book.

Click to access how%20many%20people%20can%20the%20earth-%20cohen.pdf

Even if the contents of Marchetti’s paper are seen as a thought experiment using back-of-the-envelope calculations, it still is a remarkable viewpoint that is worth remembering when faced with everyday accounts of the seemingly intractable flood of problems facing humanity: land degradation, overpopulation, the coming water crisis, climate change, environmental refugees, desertification, deforestation, sea level rise, ice melts at the polar caps, stratospheric ozone loss, excessive ground level ozone formation through traffic pollution and so on. The list of problems is seemingly endless, and reading a newspaper seems to involve ingesting a daily diet of hopelessness. In contrast, here are the concluding sentences from Cesare Marchetti’s and Joel Cohen’s papers respectively below.

Marchetti: It seems that the problems of growth are basically of cultural character. The Judeo-Christian axiom that the earth is given to man to be dominated, very material to western aggressive and destructive attitudes, may progressively be substituted by the Buddhist axiom that the earth is given to man to be contemplated; thanks to an enlightened use of technology.

Joel Cohen: More than ever before, the land that supported people became a partly human creation. For humans now, the notion of a static, passive equilibrium is inappropriate, useless. So is the notion of a static “human carrying capacity” imposed by the natural world on a passive human species. There is no choice but to try to control the direction, speed, risks, duration and purposes of our falling forward.

The conclusions I draw from these two very different studies are the same:

  1. there is no shortage of potential threats to human existence (always has been)
  2. there is no shortage of solutions
  3. there is plenty of work to do, so no danger of long-term unemployment
  4. subtle shifts in the public perception of problems can have tremendous long-term implications (the speed with which such shifts can occur is only the truly new element in global dynamics).

Living on Lamma: Banyan Tree Bay

The principal town/village on Lamma Island is Yung Shue Wan, or Banyan Tree Bay. The beautiful Chinese Banyan, not very different from its Indian cousin is very much in evidence on the island, and seems to be a favourite refuge for several birds, including an elegant species of flycatcher and bulbuls with red cheeks and jaunty pointed crests.


The roots of these strangler trees are commonly seen, and on steep hillsides they provide an invaluable service, holding the soil together and mitigating the effects of disastrous mudslides that occur frequently during the rainy season.


Banyan trees belong to the ficus family, and are related to the common edible fig, Ficus carica. Incidentally, the common name Banyan comes from the Indian word bania, meaning merchant or trader, or those who generally plied their trade in the shade of these trees.

Stories to Go: The Gardener

This story was begun as a fiction exploration to try and get behind the mind of a terrorist,  while avoiding all the cliches of religious fundamentalism that are typically associated with it. After the first few paragraphs, the character took over and the story wrote itself. The portrait that emerges more resembles a reflection of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil;” a person almost complacently setting out to perform deeds with deadly consequences for others, a complacence compounded by the blessings of dubious spiritual leaders. 


 The man walked slowly, limping a little.  “Walk in beauty among the flowers of His garden.  The garden that you hold in trust for Him.  And as you are faithful to your trust, so may you enjoy the flowers and the fruit of your labour.”  He was neither religious nor contemplative, considering himself a doer rather than a thinker. But now the sun was hot and the lines came to his mind unbidden. They could have been from the great poet Rumi, a few of whose verses he had once read in a book years ago, but his friend and teacher the theologian had brushed them aside impatiently as irreligious and therefore irrelevant.
He had not been born with this defect, this impediment in his stride.  In fact, he had acquired this disability only a short while ago.  The sun was hot, the air still and he moved towards the glass doors set seamlessly in the concrete face of the building, knowing well the layout of its air-conditioned interior, knowing the cool darkness within.

He felt nothing as he was suddenly torn apart, his image split down the middle in two equal parts as the sliding doors opened automatically to admit him.  The sweat on his face and beneath his shirt seemed to freeze the instant he stepped into the room. It was so cold inside he shivered.  A nail in the leather sole of one shoe clicked softly like a record stuck in a groove as he walked across the polished marble floor towards the reception desk.  Reaching into the depths of his loose and voluminous robe and the pretty girl behind the counter flinched as though she expected to see a pistol emerge from it.  One could see she was an urban product, with little experience of peasants, disdainful.

She curled her lip at the wrinkled, soiled ticket he laid on the counter.  She examined the ticket and seemed resentful that it was in order.
‘Have you any luggage?’  He did not answer the question, but slowly shook his head, eyes never leaving her face, drinking in every well-groomed feature, the carefully plucked eyebrows, the artfully shadowed eyes with mascaraed lids, the teasing touch of pink around her mouth, the provocatively painted slashes of her fingernails, the unfastened top button of her blue and red uniform revealing the beginning swell of her breasts.  He read faint contempt in the curl of the lips and knew it was because of his clothes and their smell of sweat.  Fundamental in faith, close to the earth, he was a gardener, unashamed of his dress, proud of sacred trust, determined to take the fruit of the garden that the holy book assured.  The stains and the smell were of the earth, things to be proud of, proof of having done one’s duty.

 He had seen this kind of reaction before, and thought he was indifferent to downcurled lips and veiled contempt.  But it still got to him occasionally, as it did now.  The girl sensed something dangerous and her insolent eyes, narrowed in disgust, widened momentarily in a flicker of fear.  They quickly resumed their expression of boredom, but inwardly he exulted at the reaction he had produced in her.  For one small second he had unleashed his carefully hidden resentment and she had flickered.  She had caught a glimpse of the pride beneath the peasant exterior, seeing for an instant the real man and not a dust-covered clod.

He looked away, no longer needing eye contact, having proved a point to himself.  Exaggerating his limp, drawing attention, certain that she was looking at his retreating figure now, he could feel her gaze in the small of his back.  That in itself was quite a victory, but it was only the beginning.  One had to take drastic action to attract the attention of jaded sophisticates, shake them out of their self-satisfied lethargy.

 Had they no eyes in their heads?  Were they blind to the beauties of the garden?  Did they not see its flaws, the sprouting weeds, the fading beauty?  The parched earth cried out for water, depleted and needing nourishment.  Once you saw the connection, it was so simple.  The garden had been neglected and now the people suffered.  Whose fault was it?  Who was to blame for the neglect? He asked himself the questions as he had so many times and answered them with a shrug.  It did not matter whose fault it was.  There was no point in looking back.  He had to go ahead and do what he could do; replanting, transplanting, weeding and watering. “My garden that you hold in trust for me.”  Yes, he would be faithful to his trust and the thought made him raise his head and hold it high.

 He sought analogies from everyday life.  He was like a man working for a company, an advertising company plastering a message across the country: come, see, buy.  Our product is good. He was like an advertising executive.  He smiled, liking the analogy.  Yes, an advertising executive of sorts and today he would open a new account, gain one more customer.  But when he thought of the product he was trying to sell, the analogy failed and the smile on his lips altered subtly; a faint alteration at the corners of the mouth and the smile was humorless, menacing, a snarl.

 It was a nice airport.  The air conditioned interior of the large arrival hall was well lit, the shops with plenty of goods on display, the twinkling lights of the duty-free store, offering a plenitude of perfumes, tobaccos and spirits to soothe the frequent flyer.  There was a coffee bar with comfortable lounge chairs and enticing smells of exotic cooking wafted from the international restaurant at the end of the hall.  The smell of food made his mouth water.  He had been too nervous to eat before setting out. He fished in his coat pocket and found notes of various denominations, large and small.  He counted the bigger notes and looked at the flickering digital clock on a television screen above his head. An hour and a half to go, time enough to eat.

 He limped diffidently into the dimly lit restaurant and no one stared.  On the contrary he was totally ignored.  The waiters rustled by the table he occupied, frowning with intense concentration at orders just taken or deep in thought over conversations with the cashier at the counter.  He fidgeted slightly, grateful for the subdued lighting, furious at being ignored yet thankful for it.  When the tall, thin waiter brushed past for the third time he held out an arm and plucked the man’s sleeve.

 “I’d like to eat,” he rasped at the waiter’s coldly polite, questioning glance.  The man turned wordlessly away, but the next time he passed by, placed a menu card on the table.  Squinting in the semi darkness, trying to make sense of the menu, the names were all strange so he simply pointed to one of the entries at random.
“Lasagna al Forno,” said the waiter. “Only during the lunch hour, between eleven and three. It’s four o’clock now.”
“Well, what can I have?” The waiter pointed to the bottom of the card.
“Yes, I’ll have that,” he said, wondering what kind of spring rolls they were and hoping they were big enough to satisfy his hunger.
“What will you drink, sir?”
“To drink?  To drink… I’ll have some tea.”

The spring rolls to his disgust were dainty little rolls that merely increased his hunger. Fortunately tea was served in a large pot and he drank several cups. There was an old-fashioned clock in a prominent corner and its analog face glinted at him, ticking a reminder that there was only half an hour for his flight. He paid and thankfully escaped from the dark interior, blinking at the brightness of the main hall.  They cursorily checked his passport at the emigration desk and waved him on.  Beyond were the waiting lounges where passengers gathered to board their craft.  One more barrier lay between him and the lounges, five curtained booths, three for men and two for women, each occupied by a security officer of the appropriate sex.  The booth’s metal detector was out of order today as he had been assured it would be.  He counted the booths, third from the right and to be sure counted again, third from the left, the middle one.

Thrusting self-doubt and second thoughts aside, he boldly parted the curtain and entered this booth.  Yes, this was the man, the description fitted.  He looked at the security officer in the tiny booth, saw the start of recognition in the man’s eyes. Unlike him the man was pale and thin, equally tall, but clean-shaven and crisp in a well pressed uniform whose braid rasped like a file when he moved..

 “Passport,’ said the officer, holding out an imperious hand. The accent betrayed good education and the faint tremor of the hand revealed nervousness.  He handed over the passport.  Already in those two syllables, he could detect the guard’s origins, humble as his own though well disguised.  He looked at the officer’s impassive face in sympathy.

Nothing can take your origins away from you, he thought. Wherever you go, however high you rise in the ranks, you will always be branded by your speech.  You will open your mouth to speak words of wisdom, but they will only hear the intonation of your words, not their meaning.  And hearing the sounds, will nod their heads wisely and say, “Here is another one of those rough-necked peasants who’s forgotten his place.” Afterwards they might smile at you in friendly greeting, acknowledge you with words as one of their own.  But in your heart you know you can never belong to them.  You belong to us.
“Have you anything to declare?”
“What?”  He could not believe the security guard’s question, his silent soliloquy interrupted.
“Are you carrying any liquids, sir? Shaving creams or after shave?”
“No.  Of course not.”  He realised they could be heard in the adjacent booths. “No. I’ve nothing to declare. You can search my bag,” thrusting it forward.  The guard searched briefly but thoroughly, not expecting to find anything there.  He looked up with troubled eyes, ritual completed.  ‘You can go through now.’

The departure area was full of passengers.  He mingled with the crowd and the hostess was already collecting boarding cards from those nearest the gate.  She smiled professionally as he filed past and gave his card.  He liked that.  She had looked at him with steady brown eyes, really looked at him, seeing the sweat and the stains on his clothes, and she had not flinched. If there were more like her in the world, he thought, he would not have to do what he was going to do.  She was surely one of the flowers in the garden that the holy book spoke about.  He looked at the flower with possessive pride, suddenly yearning to cup its fragile beauty in his protective hands.  Yes, he would do that.  Later, much later, for now there was work to do.

The bus ride was short and he was in no hurry to enter the aircraft, knowing his seat was right in front of the tourist section, separated from the first class passengers by curtains, the galley and the flight attendants’ cramped work area.

When he reached his seat, he found the brown eyed girl at his side.  She had noticed his limp and helped him stow the small grip in the overhead locker, making sure he fastened his seat belt before moving on to inspect the next row of seats.  He was in no hurry and felt no fear at the vibrating lurch of the aircraft speeding down the runway, the sudden stillness as they left the ground, the strong sensation of his stomach pulling away from him as they climbed steeply.  He felt no fear because he was concentrating on his task, thinking of what he had to do.

He waited till the aircraft had levelled off and the seatbelt signs went out.  He slowly eased to his feet and the girl was solicitously at his side again, raising the arm of the seat, making room.  She caught his look of gratitude and smiling touched his arm, pointing him in the direction of the toilet.  He shuffled to the tiny cabin and once inside lowered his trousers and relieved himself, careful to direct the stream into the center of the bowl and not splash like a peasant.  When he was finished, he lowered the seat and squatted with his right leg stretched before him. He slowly unwound the bandage and freed the dully glinting metal. He rested for a few minutes, kneading the cramped leg and restoring circulation.

He thought of the brown-eyed girl, her unflinching eyes, her ready help and friendly smile.  He felt suddenly lonely. Lonely and old.  If only he had someone like her, if she were on his side, young, fresh, cheerful…

He sighed.  This was the problem.  In carrying out divinely appointed tasks, he had left the world, mere mortals and desires of the flesh, far behind.  If divine will decreed that she survive this mission, perhaps he would come down to earth for a few moments with her.  But right now, he had a sacred responsibility to fulfil and no time for earthly charms.

Bombs as Peacemakers?

Newspaper reports about the conflict in Syria increasingly point to a likelihood: that certain strategic Syrian targets will be bombed by the US, with or without its allies. This is to punish Bashar Assad for having allegedly used chemical weapons against defenceless civilians. Horrible deed.  The perpetrator  deserves to be punished. If Assad personally ordered the killings, will the bombings target him personally? Most likely not. A large number of innocent bystanders will probably be killed. So who is punished by bombing?  Is peace likely to result? The answers are, respectively, don’t know and probably not.

The International Peace Research Association profiles over 450 undergraduate, Master’s and Doctoral programs and concentrations in peace studies and conflict resolution spread over 40 countries and 38 U.S. states. The total expenditure on all these 450 programs can be estimated at US $ 4.5 billion annually. The Stockholm Institute for Peace Research (SIPRI), in its authoritative yearbook estimates that global military expenditure was US $ 1,753 billion in 2012, equivalent to 2.5 percent of global GDP. If these relative expenditures are taken as a proxy for the choice of war or negotiation to settle global conflicts, then the outlook for Syria is very grim indeed.

For further analysis and alternatives to the use of explosives as peacemakers, see Dr. John Galtung’s essay on a path to peace for Syria that appeared on al-Jazeera more than a year ago. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/04/201241785537516373.html