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* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank

velcro-city.co.uk

orcid.org/0000-0002-3555-843X

www.sheffield.ac.uk/usp/researchschool/students/paulraven

 

OFWAT the fuck?

5 min read

I would say I'm speechless over the latest bon mots from the UK's water regulator, but as the paragraphs below demonstrate, that would be a lie.

Cathryn Ross, the chief executive of Ofwat, said: “The uncomfortable truth is that, when it comes to retail offers, water companies provide an analogue service in a digital age. Customers tell us they think they should have the freedom to choose and don’t understand why water is the only retail market in which there isn’t some form of competition.”

Oh gosh, yes -- your discomfort with this conclusion is palpable, isn't it? I'd be interested to see how that question was phrased to those customers; y'know, whether it was an open-ended "what would be good?" sort of question, or whether you delicately steered them toward the idea that they should have "freedom to choose" (which, lest we forget, is a reminder that late-late capitalism is essentially an endless Groundhog-Day repetition of the penultimate scene in the original Ghostbusters, wherein one is constantly offered the opportunity to "choose the form of the destructor").

But really, Mrs Ross, if you and your colleagues in the UK's water regulatory body can't think of a way to answer that lack of understanding in your client base, I politely suggest that you are in the wrong industry, and that you might be better suited to commodities trading, as you seem to have the requisite instincts.

If you want to explain to people why they don't have a choice of water supplier, you start with our old friend, the hydrological cycle; then you get a map of their region, labelled with the locations of reservoirs and watersheds, and the main trunk pipes of your network, and you explain, as patiently as possible, that the reason you don't get a choice of water company is because geography and physics are immutable even to the magic of capitalism, despite repeated claims to the contrary.

You explain that the hypothetical saving of £8 per household (which is a 25% increase on the per-household savings you were quoting last month, incidentally) will be generated (if indeed it is generated at all) by the same sort of frantic market churn that's ramping up the costs of their gas an electricity every damned quarter, and presumably accompanied by the same opaque and wilfully deceptive pricing tiers to be encountered in the energy market (which, lest you need reminding, is a market repeatedly found to be rigged, over-priced and utterly baffling to most consumers, and appears to have a regulatory body just as craven and capitulatory as that by which you are currently employed).

You point out that it would actually make much more sense to manage water in the UK through one united system that covers the entire country, allowing for movement of water between regions, but that such an option is ideological poison to the sharp-suited lobbyists who really make the choices that matter; you might even reiterate the fact that, since acquiring the actual physical infrastructure of the old water boards -- infrastructure for which the private watercos paid, quite literally, nothing -- the companies you're supposed to be regulating have systematically underinvested in said systems because it made more sense to keep paying dividends to their shareholders, given it turns out that turning a profit on the provision of safe and reliable water for all is extremely hard to do -- in fact, almost impossible -- unless you take shortcuts on capacity and maintenance.

But why bother, eh? People like choice; people like things to be cheaper, even when they're already way cheaper than they realistically should be. Free markets solve everything, after all -- heck, the only reason water isn't too cheap to meter is that the market just isn't free enough!

Of course, this rather elides the root of the problem that marketisation is really meant to solve, namely the fact that the south-east of England already has way too large a population for its watersheds to provide for, while large parts of the north have surplus supply -- thanks, not at all incidentally, to serious public investment back before Thatcher and friends decided to let British heavy industry decline, again based on the assumption that Markets are Magic™! It elides the fact that water marketisation will end up being one more way that the south-east and London gets to suck the marrow out of the hinterlands. It elides golf-courses; it elides the practices of soft-drinks companies and Big Agriculture; it elides the craven complicity of well-heeled consultants and experts from the Sainted Order of the Revolving Door in their enthusiasm to appease the caprice of Mammon, who is their only lord and master.

But it's all too complicated to explain to the proles, isn't it? So buy them off with some bullshit about marginal savings on household bills, file your report; tell Caesar what is pleasing unto Caesar. After all, odds are you'll be dead (or at least comfortably retired) before the true scale of the deliberate and monumental fuck-up you've just advocated will become sufficiently apparent that anyone starts asking where the bodies are buried.

 

 

Hanjin: optimisation is the enemy of resilience

3 min read

So a big shipping company went bankrupt -- why should you care? Because it's a sign of serious trouble in the global infrastructural metasystem also known as "the supply chain":

With little or no inventory of essential goods and raw materials retailers and manufacturers are subject to disruptions all along their supply chains which reach around the globe. A breakdown at any step can quickly bring activity to a halt on the factory floor or on the sales floor.

Just-in-time is very efficient financially (until, of course, it isn't). Little money is tied up in inventories or the space to warehouse them. But just-in-time is not very resilient. It used to be that businesses stockpiled goods and critical resources to ensure against disruptions. But the advent of computerized tracking combined with more efficient shipping practices worked to end the stockpiling of inventories.

[...]

The Hanjin bankruptcy also calls into the question the wisdom of allowing so much freight--7.8 percent of all trans-Pacific U.S. freight--to be handled by one carrier. And yet large size and just-in-time systems create what economists like to call economies of scale. Goods and services are provided more cheaply.

But such systems are not resilient. Resilience often requires redundancy and that spells inefficiency in today's business climate.

This problem is endemic to the majority of infrastructures, if not all of them. Optimisation is the enemy of resilience -- and, indeed, can end up being counterproductive. All complex systems end up with a certain amount of loss to noise and friction, and it is often possible to iterate much of that lossiness away by tweaking the system, adding feedback loops, that sort of thing. But there's a problem not unlike the EROEI problem in energy extraction, in that once the major problems are fixed, the minor problems that remain become ever more subtle and difficult to work on, and you eventually reach a tipping-point where you're expending as many resources on trying to squelch the noise as you expect to recover by squelching it (which takes you into Red Queen's Race territory, wherein you're running as fast as you can simply to stay in place).

This is compounded by an approach to systems management that indulges in what Haraway indentified as the God's-eye view -- it is impossible to truly understand any system to which you perceive yourself as being somehow external or superior.

But mostly it's a bottom-line thing: businesses like Hanjin compete on capacity, as pointed out above, which means that profit margins are very, very thin (a fact obscured by the sheer number of transactions), and the arbitration systems on which the market is based keep a downward pressure on price (to the extent that it is often possible to find shipping capacity available at negative prices -- capacity which the shipper will effectively compensate you for using). The Hanjin bankruptcy may mean we've reached a point where the profit margin of running a sizable shipping company has reached parity with the inescapable losses from noise in the system: they effectively cancel each other out, and the organisation runs at a net loss.

What happens when there's no money to be made in moving matter around?

 

The End of Big Data

2 min read

Jim Bridle turns his hand to writing science fiction, and does a good enough job of it that I wonder why I still bother. Snip:

While I was out cold in my bunk last night, eyes in the sky were dowsing for covert data farms: telltale transmissions near the dew point. You can do a lot with fans, water mist, recirculation and chillers, but thermodynamics is pretty unforgiving. The energy of computation has to come out somewhere, and the combination of heat and rare earth traces is, ultimately, undeniable: a forensics of the machine. Between RITTER’s infrared and the EUROSUR air contaminants grid, we can usually triangulate any processor over 25 kW. A few months ago it took the ground crew almost a week to locate some Estonian ex-Salesforce analysts whose lock-up in Tallinn was cold as stone. Turns out they were piping their server exhaust a kilometer outside of town, but we got there in the end. This morning the sensors picked up suspicious heat sources in Poland and Slovenia. Could be generators, could be thermal dumps. I’ll get to them once my initial sweep is done.

Go read. I nearly cheered out loud at the ending.

 

What The History of Fossil Fuels Teaches Us About Renewable Energy - The Atlantic

Those transitions have also been heavily dependent on the energy infrastructure that came before. The age of steam was not possible without human and animal work to mine the coal and build the machines. Even now, the wind turbines we look to to help us escape fossil fuels are steel towers (you make steel in coal-fired blast furnaces) topped by plastic blades (which comes from petroleum), installed by (gasoline-powered) construction equipment. A wind turbine is a “pure expression of fossil fuels,” said Smil during a 2013 lecture at the Perimeter Institute.

So, while Smil agrees with pretty much everyone else that the next big energy transition is from nonrenewable to renewable resources, he is cautious about the timing. At one level, the change is plainly inevitable. There will come a time when non-renewable resources run out, and Smil says it will be advantageous to transition off of fossil fuels long before then, to avoid climate change.

In this, Smil is no different from countless energy advocates from Greenpeace to Al Gore to T. Boone Pickens. Where he does differ is in his opinion about how quickly it can happen. Where Gore calls for a complete conversion to renewables in 10 years, Smil thinks the transition will take generations.