Category Archives: Countries



image taken from’s latest t-shirt

Before we get to this message’s main event, I’ll throw another brief shoutout to Pope Francis. Sure, he leads one of the world’s socially most regressive organizations, but he seems to be pulling in the right direction, and ultimately, he’s not in fact that powerful — his level of authority is more Barack Obama than Stephen Harper, let alone Kim Jong-Il.

While there’s general awareness of the doctrine of Papal infallibility, it was only formalized in the 19th century, and has only ever been invoked twice. So it’s one of many late-arriving concepts we secular moderns commonly think has always been part the world’s most populous religion. A couple others include:
– having a personal relationship with Jesus (famously invented by German Pietists in the 17th century, and infamously rejected in the 19th century by their very own Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader: Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche), and
– original sin (5th century, and a Western Christian exclusive; Eastern Orthodox Christians scratch their heads at it…)
It was pretty cool that Francis gave a shoutout to Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his speeches, too; Catholics and Protestants don’t always get along, and it’s a sign of openness when one can refer to the brilliance of one’s competitors in the marketplace of ideas. My favourite-ever inter-religious example comes from the Christian “Acts” (“of the Apostles”), in chapter 26. We’re told how Saul [also the name of a Jewish king] was travelling on the road to Damascus after having persecuted the followers of Christ, where he’s confronted by the voice of God. In this dramatic, climactic moment, Jesus … quotes a line from a 500-year old Greek theatre play. Boom!! Mic drop!

Jesus says, “why do you kick at the goads?”, which is from a contextually-identical scene in Euripides’ The Bacchae, where a king [Pentheus] who is persecuting the followers of a God [Dionysus] is confronted by that God. It’s awesome stuff. (Adherents can take comfort that since this is already the third time (!) the author has told this story in his chronicle, he can probably be forgiven for adding a dramatic flourish, if only to avoid boring his audience.)

But enough sideshow, on to the main event!

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Steven Chu’s “Time to Fix the Wiring” at four years

Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s recent resignation — his farewell letter is here  — is no doubt celebrated in the fuel cell quarters as passionately (or more so) than it is mourned in the rest of cleantech.  Early in his term, Chu infamously argued (infamously, at least, to fuel cell enthusiasts) that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV’s) needed four miracles for commercial success, namely:

  1. most hydrogen comes from natural gas (so why not just use that as a fuel?)
  2. improvements in hydrogen storage were needed
  3. fuel cells needed to improve
  4. there was no distribution system in place

While many of my colleagues were hostile to Chu — some more than others (an inside joke) — I was largely unfazed, as Ballard had by then moved on to “everything except automotive fuel cells” in light of the commercialization timelines.  (Which reflected points 3 and 4 above.)  And Chu seemed open-minded towards stationary fuel cells.  From the MIT Technology Review article:

“I think that hydrogen could be effectively a “battery” in the sense that suppose you had a way of using excess electricity–let’s say a nuclear plant at night, or solar or wind excess capacity, and there was an efficient electrolysis way of turning that into hydrogen, and then we have stationary fuel cells. It could effectively be a battery of sorts. You take a certain form of energy and convert it to hydrogen, and then convert it back [into electricity]. You don’t have the distribution problem, you don’t have the weight problem. In certain applications, you don’t need as many miracles for it to happen.”

Chu, ARPA-E, and solar

Many people have already written panegyrics to Chu’s departure, Climate Progress and Grist among them.  Even coming from the fuel cell industry, I think on balance he deserves a lot of praise for carrying out the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to fund next-generation energy research.  Even if he did get a bunch of things wrong, among them the prediction that solar needed breakthroughs to achieve commercial viability.

“But Chu noted that solar power, for one, is still far too expensive to compete with conventional power plants (except on hot summer days in some places, and with subsidies). Making solar cheap will require “transformative technologies,” equivalent to the discovery of the transistor, he said.”

In the past four years, it’s gotten there in Germany, is on the cusp in Australia, and is probably already there in several sunnier climes.  The cost-reductions in that industry have come almost exclusively from economies of scale and the nearly-universally-applicable cost-learning, or experience curve.

Mind you, given my political leanings, I’m generally supportive of government-driven industrial policy.  :)  Societies generally last a lot longer — centuries longer — than any individual businesses, so it makes sense that societies may want to fund projects with a payoff too far out for individual businesses to care about.  That said, I support the notion that “moonshot” projects should ideally have partial private-sector funding, so that business people have skin in the game, and can search out ways to commercialize achievements made on the way.

An intro to “Time to Fix the Wiring”

The above provides good context with which to revisit the essay Chu (and one of his underlings?  :)  ) wrote for a McKinsey & Company series on the future of energy, exactly four years ago today.  This was part of their “What Matters” umbrella, which covered energy, biotech and other topics.

They’ve since taken the series offline — I suppose they need to keep things fresh — but I was able to get permission from a McKinsey representative to reprint the essay below.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and in this case renewable energy has progressed far beyond his Olympiad-ago assessment.  Solar’s costs have come way down, as noted above; renewables may be now viable for 40% of a grid instead of  25% he cites, and some of the geothermal breakthroughs he discusses, can probably be borrowed from the shale gas fracking industry.

All in all, the essay is a reminder to environmentally and stewardship-inclined alike, that the clean energy sector has come  astonishingly far in four years.  I’ll delve into further detail when I continue my series on our renewable destiny. :)


Time to fix the wiring

By Steven Chu

26 February 2009

Imagine that your home suffers a small electrical fire. You call in a structural engineer, who tells you the wiring is shot; if you don’t replace it, there is a 50 percent chance that the house will burn down in the next few years. You get a second opinion, which agrees with the first. So does the third. You can go on until you find the one engineer in a thousand who is willing to give you the answer you want—“your family is not in danger”—or you can fix the wiring.

That is the situation we face today with global warming. We can either fix the wiring by accelerating our progress away from dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, or we can face a considerable risk of the planet heating up intolerably.

The need to act is urgent. As a start, governments, businesses, and individuals should harvest the lowest-hanging fruit: maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing energy use. We cannot conserve our way out of this crisis, but conservation has to be a part of any solution. Ultimately, though, we need sustainable, carbon-neutral sources of energy.

It’s important to understand where we are now. Existing energy technologies won’t provide the scale or cost efficiency required to meet the world’s energy and climate challenges. Corn ethanol is not a sustainable or scalable solution. Solar energy generated from existing technologies remains much more expensive than energy from fossil fuels. While wind energy is becoming economically competitive and could account for 10 to 15 percent of the electricity generated in the United States by the year 2030 (up from less than 1 percent now, according to the US Energy Information Administration), it is an intermittent energy source. Better long-distance electricity transmission systems and cost-effective energy storage methods are needed before we can rely on such a source to supply roughly 25 percent or more of base-load electricity generation (the minimum amount of electrical power that must be made available). Geothermal energy, however, can be produced on demand. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report suggests that with the right R&D investments, it could supply 10 percent of US power needs by 2050 (up from about 0.5 percent now).

Coal has become a dirty word in many circles, but its abundance and economics will nonetheless make it a part of the energy future. The United States produces more than half of its power from coal; what’s more, it has 27 percent of the world’s known reserves and, together with China, India, and Russia, accounts for two-thirds of the global supply. The world is therefore unlikely to turn its back on coal, but we urgently need to develop cost-effective technologies to capture and store billions of tons of coal-related carbon emissions a year.

Looking ahead, aggressive support of energy science and technology, coupled with incentives to accelerate the development and deployment of innovative solutions, can transform energy demand and supply. What do I mean by such a transformation? In the 1920s and 1930s, AT&T Bell Laboratories focused on extending the life of vacuum tubes, which made transcontinental and transatlantic communications possible. A much smaller research program aimed to invent a completely new device based on breakthroughs in quantum physics. The result was the transistor, which transformed communications. We should be seeking similar quantum leaps for energy.

That will require sustained government support for research at universities and national labs. The development of the transistor, like virtually all 20th-century transformative technologies in electronics, medicine, and biotechnology, was led by people trained, nurtured, and embedded in a culture of fundamental research. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—part of the US Department of Energy and home to 11 Nobel Laureates—scientists using synthetic biology are genetically engineering yeast and bacteria into organisms that can produce liquid transportation fuels from cellulosic biomass. In another project, scientists are trying to develop a new generation of nanotechnology-based polymer photovoltaic cells to reduce the cost of generating solar electricity by more than a factor of five, making it competitive with coal and natural gas. In collaboration with scientists from MIT and the California Institute of Technology, yet another Berkeley Lab research program is experimenting with artificial photosynthesis, which uses solar-generated electricity to produce economically competitive transportation fuels from water and carbon dioxide. If this approach works, it would address two major energy challenges: climate change and dependence on foreign oil producers.

In the next ten years, given proper funding, such research projects could significantly improve our ability to convert solar energy into power and store it and to convert cellulosic biomass or algae into advanced transportation fuels efficiently. Combined, this would mean a genuine transformation of the energy sector.

The world can and will meet its energy challenges. But the transformation must start with a simple thought: it’s time to fix the wiring.

This article was originally published in McKinsey’s What Matters. Copyright (c) McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Our Renewable Future part 1: clearing “myth”conceptions

With Obama talking the talk on climate action in his State of the Union address yesterday, now seems a good time to start compiling a planned set of blog entries about renewable energy. Many many others have done so online already (as evidenced by the fact I’m linking to them!) but I’d like to communicate my cautiously nascent optimism in my own words.

I’m growingly confident that I’ll live to see renewables dominate global electricity production, as dominantly as oil dominates global transport today, with immense and commensurate environmental benefits.

That moment won’t come a moment too soon, either, given the calamities that we’ve “locked in” for our children — the last time CO2 levels were this high (about 396 ppm in Jan 2013), sea levels were 25 metres higher than they are today.  The only reason sea levels remain near pre-industrial levels is that the earth’s systems haven’t had time to equilibrate, yet.  To use a baseball analogy, we’re still in the first inning of seeing the effects of our emissions.

Now, when I talk about renewables, I mainly mean wind and solar, which tower over their cleantech cousins like redwoods over a meadow.  (While hydroelectric is renewable and dwarfs these two for now, it doesn’t get the sexy “cleantech” label, being a mature technology.)

But before explaining my new-found confidence — certainty, even — in “Our Renewable Future”, I wanted to address a few major myths, objections and misconceptions about renewable energy — the blogging equivalent of clearing the underbrush, I suppose.  :)

I’ll do so using a Q & A format based on the way John Cook at Skeptical Science addresses common myths about climate change.

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The world (of investing) according to Dante

(originally written Oct 21, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

It seems like the financial markets will have an “upwards bias” for the next few months, despite the circling-the-drain quality of the macroeconomic picture, which inspired this magazine cover from the Oct 1 issue of The Economist magazine.


If there’s anything I’ve learned over my years watching stocks (and, to be perfectly honest, there isn’t  ;) )  it’s to do the opposite of what The Economist says on its cover, a phenomenon known as the magazine cover indicator:

  • you’d’ve tripled your money in Ford in about two years by buying them after the July 2009 “Detroitosaurus Rex” issue
  • a couple months prior to that, the cover story “The Jobs Crisis” coincided with the bottom of the stock markets
  • of course, their timing is occasionally off; they did an oil-barrel cover in May 2008, and the price increased several percent into July before plummeting.

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From housing to plumbing

(originally written Mar 4, 2012.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

Readers (regular and irregular both) may know that about six years ago, I was quoted in MacLean’s saying Canadian housing was in a bubble.  So after six long years of looking very wrong, I was delighted to see the right-wing rag run a cover story proclaiming that Canadian housing is in a bubble!  So I’ll dedicate this email to all the stopped clocks out there — twice a day, your time will come!  :)

Like anyone else challenged by a cognitive dissonance between ego and evidence, I naturally prefer the delusion that I wasn’t wrong, just early.  ;)  Having figured prices would fall by 2008 at the latest, I like to think I was only off by an Olympiad, or eight “Friedman units“.  On the more forgiving fossil-record timescale, I nailed it!

MacLean’s take

MacLean’s cites low interest rates and lax lending standards as a (sub?)prime reason for the real estate boom-turned-bubble.  This can kind of be expected, because most people aren’t great with money.  It’s a financial variant of Sturgeon’s Law, which says that “ninety percent of everything is crap”.  Take housing market predictions, for example…  ;)

Given the opportunity to make very bad decisions by enabling financial institutions, most people will do so.  Indeed, the mutual fund industry owes its existence to people’s predilection for sub-par performance!  Of course, most guys who throw their own darts probably do even worse, so the best way to look at mutual funds is probably to see them as a less-damaging “cowpox” to the “smallpox” of DIY investing.  :)

My take

As you’d expect from a left-leaning atheist on an issue like this, I’m with… Jesus, and blame the bankers.  ;)  If people are trying to borrow beyond their means, competent financial institutions are supposed to not make loans.  Of course, fewer loans means lower profits and much lower stock-option-based executive compensation.  (As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.)  By loosening lending standards, bank executives can enjoy kingly compensation; and by the time the crisis hits, they’ve moved on to other pillage-able pastures.  Which explains why cartoons like this make the rounds:

Banks lending / too much damn money / to people, is a haiku microcosm of how Greece came to be in its quandary: it borrowed more than any sane lender could’ve reasonably expected it to repay.  Which is why European governments are trying to work out “bailouts” by which they launder money through Greece to recapitalize their countries’ banks.  The “choose your own adventure” blog entry here does a pretty good job of showing the stalemate.

Compounding the problem, austerity packages are being pitched, which will only make the crisis worse; in cutting public services, austerity measures reduce a country’s GDP (because public-sector activities count towards GDP) meaning debt has to be repaid from an even smaller national account.

The endgame seems to be that Greece defaults and reverts to its own currency, while everyone else does the duck-and-cover.  After mistiming the Canadian housing market — and fuel cell vehicle commercialization for that matter — I’ll decline to guess when that happens.  ;)  A cheaper currency would cement Greece as a cheap vacationing spot (tourism is one of their biggest industries) and allow them to attract some manufacturing jobs with which to rebuild their economy.

There’re many precedents for thinking that default and devaluation would work.  Iceland defaulted a few years back; its GDP is now higher than pre-crisis levels, and its government debt is now back at “investment grade”!  Argentina also did pretty well after its default in the early 2000’s… and a forgiving of debts (effectively a society-wide default) preceded the rise of democracy in classical Athens.

The march of progress.  And plumbing!

Pessimists might note that we’re not always that good at learning the lessons of history — even as Iceland resurges, Latvia is in a “Shock Doctrine” death spiral.  But here on Team Glass-half-full, I like to think that we do in fact make slow progress.  :)   Consider universal indoor plumbing, which none of us would want to live without.  First invented around 2000BC by some proto-Tommy Douglas of the Harappan Civilization in the Indus Valley, this was such a breakthrough that within thirty-eight centuries London, England — capital of the globe-straddling British Empire — had decided to build its own!  Progress — there’s no stopping it!  ;)

Dinner with the Overclass (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(originally written Nov 17, 2010.  Part of the Great Upload of 2013.)

We had the pleasure of dining with the overclass on Monday, at an event put on by the wealth-services branch of a mutual fund company.  I’d charmed our way into that club earlier in the year, despite falling well short of the minimum asset requirements, using those charismatic powers that my wife seems curiously oblivious to. ;)  What clinched the deal for me, was the lure of a free dinner every time those guys swung through town — finally, someone giving us something for letting them gamble with our money! ;)

While there were a few of us pre-retirees there, the crowd leaned well-dressed and geriatric. No doubt some were keen wanting to move from merely ostentatious to fully obscene wealth — the kind of folks who might have forgotten (or never known?) the more immediate financial concerns of the bottom 98% of their fellow citizens, even in a well-to-do country like Canada. I believe I was the only person wearing sneakers. :)

A lot of people looked like they could’ve been from (exclusive Vancouver private boys’ school) St. George’s class of 1960. Or maybe 1950. But ex-Ballard colleagues were there — which was pretty cool. If anyone wants to get in touch with them, let me know.

The Eur-“uh-oh”-zone

The evening consisted of free (I wish I was a drinker!) cocktails followed by a dinner lecture during which each money manager discussed their economic outlook — which generally fell somewhere in the ominous-to-apocalyptic spectrum. (“The market giveth, and the market taketh away…”) Mainly for the reasons described in this deservedly-viral YouTube video.

With catastrophic irony, though the US Federal Reserve is trying to weaken the dollar with “quantitative easing” (to improve their economy through exports) it seems more probable (60/40?) that the US dollar will rise from here. (It’s notable that the Japanese government has been trying on and off to weaken the yen for, oh, half my life, but their currency recently hit all-time highs against the US dollar.) As bad as things are in the US, they’re even worse in Western Europe. It’s as if the US has halted its horse on the racetrack… but the EU’s horse is moving backwards.

Ireland is going to need a bailout; they’ll probably get one, because Germany leads the Euro bloc, and German banks are acutely exposed to Irish debt. Portugal’s also looking “sinking ship”-shape, and Spain — whose economy is roughly the size of Canada’s — is listing badly. Back in the day the US used “domino theory” to justify propping up governments in south-east Asia to prevent communism from spreading (“if Vietnam falls, Cambodia will fall, then Laos, and then … eventually, India”).

Right now, Eurozone governments are using similar logic, trying vainly to contain the financial contagion. Political problems are inevitably going to emerge from German bankers imposing austerity on Ireland, French citizens subsidizing Greek ones, and so forth. At least in the US, while “red states” might be irritated at having to bail out California, they share a national identity and mythos.


The speakers spent a bunch of time talking about silver, which has gotten a bit of attention with its sharp ascent (and descent) lately. While falling industrial consumption can negatively impact prices during tougher times, it would seem that in upcoming years it should continue to do well. This is mainly because, over the years, the “geniuses” at certain investment banks placed highly-leveraged bets on the commodity’s price… never imagined that anyone would actually be paranoid enough to take delivery of the actual metal, instead of booking paper profits. So they’re actually on the hook for a lot more silver than is readily available for purchase on the market.

Smelling blood, their deep-pocketed rivals have been hoovering up all available silver, in a successful-thus-far attempt to create scarcity and gouge the investment banks. As an example, the Sprott folks recently started up an exchange-traded fund whose business plan is… to store silver bars in a vault. They had to cut their IPO back from $750 million, though, because they could ‘only’ find about $600 million worth of silver on the open market. One of those ‘rich people problems’…

Mind you, I largely ignore the silver market. Because it’s so small, it’s insanely volatile — relatively small flows of money (by global standards) can completely distort the market, upwards or downwards. Most developing countries which successfully navigated their way to reasonable prosperity restricted capital flows for this same reason: too much money suddenly coming into a small economy can quickly create a bubble, and too much money suddenly leaving can exacerbate misery, neither of which are particularly beneficial.

517 – 1 !!  Awwwright!

One bright side for the global south did come out of the Overclass Night, though — it was the firm’s assessment that after centuries of colonization, mercantilism and marginalization, developing countries are generally in much better financial shape than their First World counterparts. Stagnation in the West for the next several years, should contrast with relative health in the majority world. Score one for the underdogs! :)

By my scorecard that makes it — let’s see, Columbus was 1492, right? — oh, about 517-1. ;)

3D electricity (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(written April 13, 2012.  Part of the Great Upload of 2013…)

As a guy whose birthday falls on the 13th, it always bugged me that my 13th birthday was a Saturday… those darned leap years!



One of my concerns in the past several years has been the fact that “energy-return-on-energy-invested” (EROEI) for fossil fuels has been decreasing.  This is most evident in the petroleum sector: in the good old days, all you needed to do was stick a steel straw in the ground, and you’d get oil.  (As an Algerian colleague once told me, “back home, we drill wells looking for water, but all we get is oil.  It’s like, what the hell?  Oil again??”)

In the days of yore (and lost Lenores) for each unit of energy you “invested” to get the oil, you might have gotten 50x or 100x units of energy back.  Alas, this happens “nevermore”.

EROEI has been dropping because, while we’ve become more efficient at extracting oil, difficulty-of-extraction has gone up even faster.  The oil sands are the most extreme case: for each unit of energy you invest to turn the bitumen into oil, you might get… 5x units of energy back.  So if you want to extract 100 units of oil energy, your cost is no longer 1-2 units of energy… but 20 units of energy, plus a bunch up-front!  (This is why it takes many months and mammoth money to increase oil sands production.)

And while recent developments such as North Dakota’s “tight oil” probably have a better EROEI, they won’t reverse the drainward trend.  Coal is in much the same boat, though natural gas is a different story — we only started to tap the world’s largest natural gas field in the past few years, so its EROEI will probably stay high for awhile.*  Since the hydrogen for most fuel cells comes from natural gas, that’s good news.  (Plus, it’s easier to obtain natural gas equivalents from renewable resources, than liquid fuels…)

Declining EROEI is kind of depressing from a societal perspective, because it suggests that we’ll have to work harder and harder to acquire the energy we’ve accustomed ourselves to — as anyone who’s bought gasoline recently can attest.  ;)  (As if environmental damage, converging debt crises and aging populations weren’t enough!)

EROEI for renewables

Fortunately, EROEI is increasing rapidly in the renewables sector, helping it continue its exponential growth — and that is a cause for optimism.  At the end of 2011, there was enough installed solar and wind capacity to provide 3% of the world’s electricity.  (That number already factors in the fact that it’s sometimes nighttime, and windless.)  And the growth rate is high enough that it could hit 20% by 2020.  That’s a lot of coal plant closures!  Much beyond that, though, and you start to run into realistic limits for wind power**, though solar would still have a lot of “blue sky potential”, in the business parlance.  I hope to ramble about the physical laws governing whales and wind turbines sometime soon…

In terms of solar, the main energy input in making a solar panel comes from creating ingots of 99.999 999 9% pure silicon.  These parts-per-billion impurity levels are so low, you have a better chance of winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket, than randomly picking a non-silicon atom out of an ingot!  Companies slice thin wafers off using the industrial equivalent of a deli-meat slicer, and the wafers undergo post-treatment to become the solar panels US Republicans love to hate.***

About ten years ago, solar companies would use wafers about 0.33 mm thick (330 microns), and EROEI estimates for solar panels in reasonably-sunny areas were in oil-sands range, roughly 5:1.  Today’s photovoltaics are a bit more efficient, and based on wafers about half as thick (180 microns), meaning that for roughly the same starting energy input you can get two solar panels, and thus, twice the electricity.  So in the time since George Bush won election 5 votes to 4 in the Supreme Court, solar’s EROEI has doubled to about 10:1.  The physical limit is apparently about 20 microns, which two Silicon Valley startups already claim to be able to achieve… if given enough investor money.  :)  While most startups shut down, solar panels are almost certainly going to get thinner, meaning their EROEI will get better.

On the financial side, the panels aren’t even the cost-prohibitive component of solar arrays anymore: installing rooftop solar in the US will cost you roughly $6/Watt up-front, of which the panel only represents $1.  (The rest is associated electronics, and labour.)  That’s about double the cost in Germany, whose feed-in tariffs allow for project financing of the rest.  This means there’s a big incentive to figure out how to capture more solar energy from a given square metre of rooftop — people with a choice of $6 per Watt or $7 per 2 Watts, are inevitably going to choose the latter, eh?

Into… the third dimension!

Part of the solution will probably be to extend solar panels into the third dimension, in the manner these MIT guys did.  It’s a bit like the moment 400 million years ago when the first Cooksonia pertoni told a friend, “I’m tired of competing with lichens and mosses for sunlight in the x-y plane; imma grow me in the z-direction!”

As such, it’s possible that instead of flat slabs, solar-panelled houses of the future will have bristly, antenna-esque solar panels protruding from their roofs — kind of like the branches of trees.  The “treeing” of photovoltaic arrays makes sense, since trees have had a zillion generations to figure out how to maximize sunlight collection.  Of course you’d figure with all that time, some of them would’ve realized the evolutionary advantage of, oh, being able to move by now…  :)

And while such a future would be aesthetically great for those of us who enjoy the look of Gothic churches or Thai wats (Buddhist temples), for minimalists like Steve Jobs on the other hand…  ;)

– – – – – –

* that is, unless something destabilizes Qatar or Iran, but c’mon, how likely is that?  ;)

** alpha nerds can peruse this link; the rest of you can shake your heads in despair…  :)

*** technically speaking, Solyndra was a thin-film solar company using glass substrates, not silicon.  But such subtleties are not the stuff of Fox News…

Homer (not Simpson) and the Kaopectate Kid

The doctor diagnosed young son Leo recently with the stomach flu — which is colloquial shorthand for a condition which isn’t the flu, per se.  (The most recent editor of the relevant article on the almighty Wiki agrees!)

The Kaopectate Kid

Our medical professional then suggested we give Leo some Kaopectate to soothe his stomach.  So, what is the active ingredient in Kaopectate?  Clay.  Yes, modern medicine’s 21st-century response to our son’s stomach flu … was for him to eat dirt.  (Expert biologists will surely argue that clay isn’t dirt per se, but we ignoramuses outnumber them.  ;)  )

I didn’t realize Kaopectate was a real-life product, never having used it in my youth.  The first time I’d heard of the stuff, I was about twenty, and listening to my brother’s copy of The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight — the fourteen-minute version.  (The song makes Don McLean’s interminable “American Pie” seem short in comparison!)

In Rapper’s Delight — recently rated the 2nd-best hip-hop song of all time by Rolling Stone — one of the MC’s raps about the universal human experience of, um, not enjoying a friend’s partner’s cooking:

“Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat, and the food just ain’t no good?

I mean the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mush, and the chicken tastes like wood.”

… a story which eventually culminates with this masterful flow:

“So you bust out the door while it’s still closed, still sick from the food you ate

And then you run to the store for quick relief from a bottle of Kaopectate.”


Since I’d never seen a bottle of Kaopectate in my life, I’d always assumed it was urban slang…!


The Sugarhill Gang

While The Sugarhill Gang were the ones who brought hip-hop to a wider audience (among other things, Rapper’s Delight opens with the lyrics “I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop”) they were complete nobodies.

As chronicled by Wikipedia’s sources, the Gang were the first to record a popular rap record … mainly because they were the first rappers to record (verb) a rap record (noun).  And that was because most rappers — the better rappers, the artists — weren’t interested in recording.

Instead, it fell to a bunch of rank amateurs — no, make that rank-less amateurs — to bring rap to a wider audience.  Better-skilled, higher-regarded MC’s must’ve been horrified to learn that their art — their art! — was being introduced to white America with legendarily-terrible lyrics like:

“…Like a can of beer that’s sweeter than honey,

Like a millionaire that has no money…”

“…It was the best advice that I ever had,

It came from my wise dear old dad…”


Rapper’s Delight was probably the first rap song to get censored on the radio as well, with these lines addressed to Lois Lane, in reference to Superman:

“He may be able to fly all through the night,

But can he rock a party ’til the early light;

He can’t satisfy you with his little worm,

But I can bust you out with my super [yep, they went there].”

This was immediately followed by the following example of virtuoso “flow”:

I’m goin’ do it, I’m goin’ do it, I’m goin’ do it, do it, do it.

“Big bank Hank” then brings it all home with the now-cliched lines:

“Just throw your hands up in the air

And party hardy like you just don’t care.”


Of course, The Sugarhill Gang weren’t the first to put these lines together (the modern variant of which is “wave them around” like you just don’t care) but again, they seem to’ve been the first to record them.  Like bards of old, MC’s probably kept a mental catalogue of stock rhymes, and “hands in the air / just don’t care” proved popular.  Indeed, Rapper’s Delight is so massively long, that it delivers another variant that fell by the catchphrase wayside.  Partway through, Master Gee raps:

“Then you throw your hands high in the air,

Ya rockin’ to the rhythm, shake your derriere.”


Homer (not Simpson)

The fact that the first rap record was brought out by the marginal, unknown Sugarhill Gang — because no rapper of stature deigned to record themselves — opens the delicious possibility that maybe, just maybe, Homer (of The Iliad and The Odyssey fame) was a third-rate rhapsode in his day.

Back in the day, blind bards would go from town to town recounting their stories, entertaining the masses.  If you were a revered poet, you probably did pretty well for yourself (whatever “pretty well” passed for, in that era) and you probably wouldn’t have the drive or need to collaborate with some scribe on this new “writing” technology.  Indeed, you might take offence that someone else wanted to take your exact words so they could try to replicate your divinely-inspired performances… without you!

But if you were a third-stringer who only ever booked the worst gigs in the barren rock-pile that was ancient Greece (and, what with the austerity measures, future Greece*) well, maybe, just maybe, you might indulge some stranger who came up to you asking if you could recite your story, v-e-r-y   s-l-o-w-l-y, so he could write it all down!  :)


* Greek car sales in 2012 were about 60,000.  Greek car sales in 2008, were about 260,000.  Ouch.  As Chris Rock would say, they’re way past Robitussin.  Kaopectate, too, for that matter.  :)