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GP5Jan05: Electric Power and Staying Power

Hot or Cold.  In our “Ninety Degrees of Uncertainty,” we touted ourselves as agnostics on the Global Warming controversy.  Nonetheless, we are very certain that climate should now move to the center of our computer screen.  The weather outside deserves extra attention, because it looks to be getting ugly, and the climatic catastrophes ahead will make the tempests of men appear to be little squalls in a teapot.  Nature’s about to run rampant.   Simon Winchester, in “The Year the Earth Fought Back” (New York Times, December 29, 2004, p. A23) speculates that we have stumbled into a period of exceptional worldwide earthquake activity.  Last year, in case you did not notice, the gods of weather belted out a record-breaking number of tornados.  The only way to feel good about the earth’s groanings is to pull out Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather” (www.heptune.com/lyrics/stormywe.html) and down an extra ration of rum. 

Despite our quibbles, the scientific consensus potentates think we are burning up the joint because of our CO2 emissions and their Greenhouse Effect.  For more on this, please look at “Bonfires and Apocalypse Now” on Big Ideas so that you can, as Fox News likes to say, get a “fair and balanced view” of the Global Warming thesis.  Enough said. 

Burn Out.  Warming aside, the scientists have fairly convincingly shown that we are running down our stock of fossil fuels.  We can treat their assertions on this subject with greater confidence.  The energy crisis, which has been bruited about for at least 30 or 40 years, is finally here, and it has all sorts of implications with which we can and must reckon.  Do we have the tenacity to do something about it?  Dick Rhodes in his book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is dead sure that the atom is the only answer to our energy prayers, even though we ourselves have been plumping pretty heavily for other alternate energy ideas in Big Ideas on the Global Province.  We’d  remind everybody, however, that fission energy has flared out of control at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and other sites, and that it produces a host of dirty end products that rival the particles coal fired plants throw up in the atmosphere. 

That brings up to fusion—an idea that has been gestating forever but never quite sees the light of day.  As one wag in the electric power industry is fond of telling us, “Fusion has been the best idea for the future since I got into electric power.  Chances are it always will be.”  The science, as you will learn below, has advanced quite a bit, but the practical engineering problems are still horrendous. 

Our friend, plasma physicist William Grossmann, writes from Germany to let us know that fusion is an idea whose time has come so it had best be resuscitated: 

When I was the American Physical Society, Division of Plasma Physics secretary-treasurer, I invited Isaac Asimov to be the after dinner guest speaker at our annual meeting in New York City in 1981.  He showed up early, wandered through the pre-dinner cocktail party  “to pick up the vibes“ so he could tailor his talk to our scientific community’s main interest—fusion energy.   

Asimov’s talk was a masterful  performance, speaking without any prepared notes,  weaving in many of his early technology interests and predictions such as pocket calculators, a few of his famous limericks thrown in for good measure, and finally connecting to our community‘s holy grail, nuclear fusion power.  He concluded with a plea that when we achieved our goal to please stand at the foot of his grave and shout: “Asimov, we made it!,” because, as he said, “I’ll want to know!”  Twenty-three years later we still haven’t made it and the goal of fusion energy is, according to U.S. government strategy, still 35 years away—a more or less constant future date starting from when controlled thermonuclear fusion research was declassified at the 1958 Atoms For Peace conference in Brussels. 

To read the full transcript of Dr. Grossmann’s remarks to us, kindly see “Fusion Time?” in Big Ideas.  Like it or not, we are at one of those turning points in the earth’s history where we have to take up really big ideas like fusion if we are not to wind up with our head caught in a cold wringer. 

Staying Power.  Fusion exposes a dilemma of the American Mind.  We’re probably best on earth at dreaming up and starting new things.  But we don’t stay the course and are simply lousy at the finish.  We did a lot of original things once upon a time in solar power, but now the Germans and Japanese are a few light years ahead of us (see Big Ideas #177).  Big wind farms got their start in the States, but Europe, particularly the Danes, ploughed ahead to solve the practical engineering problems and to really produce scads of energy (see Big Ideas #58; also see “All Those Unfamiliar Places,” Harvard Business Review, November 2004).  The Finns have taken healthcare ideas that essentially were borne in Minnesota and put them to work to such great effect that they have extended the lives of their citizens (see Stitch in Time #102 and #104).  Similarly, we have put fusion on the back burner, and other nations are doing a bit more.  With resources becoming scarcer in the world and global competition becoming tougher, we must ask ourselves how we can graft strategic staying power onto our penchant for opportunistic inventiveness.  That would point to some alteration in our political process, which today favors hot air instead of cold determination.  Bright ideas are simply no longer worth it unless we can really, really make them happen.  Rebuilding all our infrastructure, including our energy mechanism, requires 20- and 30-year commitments.   

Most worthwhile accomplishments take that long anyway.  We are reminded that Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart….  It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”  (See “Even Einstein Had His Off Days,” New York Times, January 2, 2005, p. WK 9).  Of course, almost everybody takes a few decades to achieve wisdom: it’s ironic that we send our leaders into retirement just when they are achieving enough acumen and humanity to lead.  


The Last Fifty Yards.  A fellow from England once lectured us royally every time he got in his cups about the last 50 yards or so of rowing.  That’s the tough part that separates the losers from the winners.  In telephony we learn that it’s relatively easy to build the grand network, but hard to get wired from the curb into the house.  At a restaurant the chef, the maitre de, and the waiter think they have done their job when the entrée is on the table, and so they often do the dessert, the coffee, and the check (especially the check) badly.  They blow the glow away because they don’t really understand that the experience begins when you call for a reservation and does not end until you have reminisced about the meal once more with pleasure at home.  Everybody lets up at the last, short of the goal, before the battle is won.  In small matters and large, we have a need to endure through the whole contest. 

Deliveries.  About fifteen years ago, we ran a test, pitting The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Investor’s Daily against each other.  We wanted to see how their delivery services stacked up (taking orders, halting the paper, getting the paper to the front door on time, etc.).  It was amazing.  Investor’s Daily consistently got its paper closest to the front door; the Wall Street Journal was always about half way down the path; the New York Times just made it on the curb.  And, in general, that pretty much symbolized the quality of their services across the board.  Incidentally, that would still be true today, as our recent problems with the Times demonstrate.  In general newspapers tend to think that getting out the paper is what their business is about, not getting them to you, not getting them read.  This is one reason why newspaper readership is eroding in the United States and Europe.  You’ve got to get it into the hands of the reader and you’ve got to get it used.  Again, you have to pay attention to the last 50 yards—a key element of sound strategy. 

For these reasons, we find it worrisome that at least half of Amazon’s promised delights did not make it here in time for Christmas: we will not be giving a good rating to its stock.  We find it highly encouraging that Bergdorf Goodman got one gift to a New York address the very day we placed the order, and another to the sticks the following day.  We will be meeting with its management to deliver our personal congratulations.   

P.S.  The Economist could not send a replacement copy for the year end double issue of its magazine that did not make it to our doorstep: it had none on hand.  Or, rather, its fulfillment service did not have any copies and it did not care to find some.  After an outburst on our part, suddenly spare copies of the magazine were discovered. 

P.P.S.  In our “Authentic Conversations,” we cited Michael Crichton’s new book, State of Fear, which suggests that both our environmental anxieties and man’s part in messing up the world are vastly exaggerated.  For counterpoint, we would suggest a read of Jared Diamond’s Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  To over-simplify, Diamond shows us that societies are more likely to evaporate from destroying their environments than from their clashes with one another.  Deforestation, in several cases, knocks the props out from under a nation or people.  In this view, our survival is intimately related to the degree of harmony we achieve with the ecosystem in our neighborhood.  Always timely, our old friend Judge Richard Posner is just out with a new book called Catastrophe: Risk and Response.  Here he considers the costs of natural and really big manmade disasters—and what kind of costs might be involved in avoiding catastrophe.  His assessment will not appeal to ideologues of any streak but might get us thinking about which elements of our fragile, outdated infrastructure we do want to fix.

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