Category Archives: opinion

Nuclear power is good – it has an unfair reputation

Humans need a lot of energy. We consume energy for light, heat, transport, food… Basically everything we do requires energy. The problem is that using energy in it’s popular forms is doing some serious damage to our environment.

Currently most of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) which we burn to create energy. Unfortunately burning those fossil fuels also pollutes the air and drives global warming. Global warming = bad.

So we need to change our habits (waste less energy) and we could change our energy sources (to those less damaging). There are renewable sources like solar and wind power which basically make use of the copious amounts of energy the sun beams down to earth every day. However, these sources are expensive, inconsistent, and chew up large amounts of space.

Nothing is ideal, but you should be rational and not emotional in your decisions.

There is another great option, also not ideal, but the best (in my opinion) currently available. Nuclear power has an unfairly bad reputation. When used properly it is an excellent energy source – and it produces no air pollution! As the Economist says:

  • Nuclear power offers the possibility of large quantities of electricity that is cleaner than coal, more secure than gas and more reliable than wind. And if cars switch from oil to electricity, the demand for power generated from carbon-free sources will increase still further. The industry’s image is thus turning from black to green.

The Economist has articles here, here, here and here describing that:

  • Nuclear power is very clean as the graph below shows.
  • Nuclear power can be safely generated. Even taking into account Chernobyl (4,000 dead) and Three Mile Island (0 dead) nuclear power is extremely safe – and getting safer.
  • Nuclear power can be generated cheaply. Initial costs are extremely high, but over time it makes economic sense. This would be especially true were the negative environmental costs of fossil fuels built into their already high cost.
  • There are pretty good ways of storing the radioactive waste generated.
  • Many previous nuclear protesters and “greens” are changing their minds and advocating nuclear power.

Richard Dawkins explains reasons to believe things

Richard Dawkins - excellent author and scientistRichard Dawkins is a great author and evolutionary biologist – I have several of his books at home. Dawkins is also well known as a vociferous atheist which means many people blindly reject what he says. I recently read a letter that he apparently wrote to his 10 year old daughter back in 1995 about belief. It makes for excellent reading – very easy to understand which is important.

Basically, he is writing about why she (and people in general) should believe things. The GOOD reason for believing in things is evidence:

  • Direct evidence. For instance astronauts have been out into space and seen that the earth is really round. That is a good reason to believe that it really is round.
  • Indirect evidence. Where direct observation is not possible we can still find evidence that an idea is right. Dawkins gives the example of a detective at a murder scene. He can still work out who did it, even though nobody actually saw the crime.

Dawkins then goes on to describe BAD reasons for believing something:

  • Tradition. Beliefs are often passed down through generations. Just because they are old beliefs doesn’t make them true. As Dawkins says “No matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was”. Tradition is a bad reason to believe something.
  • Authority. Just because somebody tells you to believe something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes I do take somebody’s word on something – like the speed of sound. The difference is that there is evidence that I can look at if I wanted. I have taken a shortcut, but I can do that because there is evidence available.
  • Revelation. Dawkins defines revelation as when people have a “feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true”. Unless there is actually evidence (a good reason) which agrees with your gut feeling then it is a bad reason to believe something.

The last bit of the letter is what I am increasingly finding crucial. People need to learn to think a little:

Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Tiger Wheel & Tyre insurance – not worth it

Tiger Wheel & Tyre offers a tyre insurance that they heavily advertise (details here). I bought some tyres there recently and the salesman told me that it’s an excellent deal and that he “can’t understand how they are making a profit”. I know enough about insurance to be sure that they are making a tidy profit – but I still wondered if it would be worth it.

The short answer was: no it’s not worth it. Lets look at how I came to that conclusion in the shop.

First the details of the insurance policy:

  • You must insure all 4 tyres. In my case that came to about R80 for R1,600 worth of tyres (after VAT).
  • Insurance covers only the tread not used up. So if the tyre was 50% used up, then they pay 50% of the replacement cost.
  • The insurance only covers 50,000km even if the tyres are still good after that.
  • Obviously they only replace the damaged tyre even though you would almost always need to buy 2 new tyres.

So I ran some scenarios in my head.

Best case scenario
If I drove out of the shop and immediately lost a tyre then I would have paid R80 for insurance and it would have saved me R400 for replacing the tyre = R320 benefit. R400 (benefit) – R80 (cost) = R320 gained

However, what are the chances of that happening? If there is a 20% chance then I would only need the insurance once for every 5 purchases. So the benefit from insuring changes to R400 x 20% = R80!

So if I believe there is a 20% chance of needing the insurance immediately, then the insurance is still pointless! Any lower risk and purchasing the insurance is a waste of money. (I know that there is a chance of losing 2 or more tyres which changes things – still not worth it)

The insurance is only valid for 50,000km. I thought that the chances of losing a tyre in that time is about 5% not 20%. That means that I would definitely lose money if I took out the insurance.
R400 x 5% = R20 (maximum benefit) – R80 (cost) = a R60 loss!

Insurance in general
Remember, the insurance companies are making money. That means that on average the insurance is NOT worth it to us and they are taking the difference as profit. There are a few good reasons to take out insurance:

  • If you think that you are more at risk that the average person.
  • If you can’t afford to take the hit. I can’t afford to replace a car so I insure mine even though in the long run I know it will very probably cost me money. I take that cost because I can’t afford to take the risk.

In the case of tyre insurance, neither of the above reasons are relevant (I am less at risk than the average person and I can afford to replace a tyre) so I had a suspicion that the insurance would not be worth it. After doing some simple calculations I could see that it is a rip-off.

I can easily “understand how they are making a profit”.

The US are obstructing progress on climate change again

The UN climate conference is busy wrapping up in Bali at the moment. Once again, the United States are the main obstruction to progress. The Yanks really annoy me when it comes to climate change. They cause more damage than anyone else, yet they refuse to make real progress on reducing that damage.

In short, most of the rest of the world is calling for mandatory reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases (principally Carbon Dioxide – CO2) and the US (with a few cronies) is saying no.

The States are saying that they prefer “voluntary reductions” over specific target reductions because:

  • Specific targets would limit the scope of future talks“. They think that having no goal other than some kind of voluntary reduction will be more effective than a specific target… Doesn’t make too much sense to me.
  • Targets will “harm the U.S. economy”. Of course they will you morons. Everyone else accepts taking a hit now in the interests of reducing global warming. Basically they are saying: “We want to continue ruining the world for everyone so that we can stay rich for the while”.
  • The same targets are no applied to poorer but fast-developing nations. This sounds like a good point, but it is actually rubbish. For instance per person emissions in India and China are currently less than a quarter of those in the US. And over the last 50 years the vast majority of emissions have come from the Americans. So although there should be targets for India and China, they are already kicking the hell out of the US. See the graph below (click for more detail).

CO2 emissions per person (US, India, China, South Africa)

So the US is full of it. Wired has reported on Al Gore having a go at the States while speaking at the Bali conference. He is basically saying that although the US is “principally responsible for obstructing progress” people shouldn’t give up hope. In two years the US will have a new president who is far more likely to be proactive on climate change than the idiot Bush.

Australia recently replaced their prime minister and the new guy ratified the Kyoto agreement almost immediately. Lets hope something like that will happen in the States.

The religiously sensitive have a go at Gareth Cliff

Gareth Cliff is a “controversial” morning radio presenter in South Africa. He was recently discussing this crazy story about the Sudanese teddy bear circus when he said: “If God is great, why would he be so easily offended by what a mortal man says? If God has such an ego, then he must be petty.”

Large portions of the South African public have now gone nuts and are calling for him to be fired and even fined for his actions. Madness.

I am sick of hearing about this kind of stuff – be confident in your religion. If you don’t agree with Gareth Cliff then don’t listen to his show. Or even, though this never happens, engage him in a logical debate. But he has a right to say what he thinks and that right should be protected.

I often think Mr Cliff is an idiot, but in this case I happen to agree with him. I think it a little strange that people who are so sure of themselves get so easily offended when such mundane questions are asked of them. If you are so sure then just say “‘No, God is not petty.” That should be it!

I know first hand how this plays out too. Yesterday a respected colleague and friend told me that I am “the spawn of evil” when I suggested there is a possibility that there is no God.

We respect your position and you should respect ours.

The Sudanese teddy bear circus

You may well have heard about the British volunteer teacher Gillian Gibbons who has been sentenced to 15 days in prison and deportation from Sudan because she allowed her class to name a teddy bear Muhammad. She was convicted of “insulting religion” because any depictions of Muhammad are deemed insulting – so naming a teddy bear Muhammad is a no-no.

I must admit that I find this kind of thing a little crazy. As I have said in the past, I think it’s very important to be tolerant of other cultures and open to other ways of life. However, I just can’t respect the kind of country/culture that thinks this reaction is OK. Ridiculous.

Even more worrying is the fact that it seems many people in the area thought that this punishment was too lenient for the crime and have been protesting and calling for the death sentence! These guys are completely mental. They need some perspective.

The Economist has an article on the the subject. What they say there is what I have found to be true here in Cape Town: most Muslims in democratic countries also think this kind of reaction is unjust.

Update: I have just read that the woman was given a presidential pardon and has been released. A good step, but I still think that the law was a crazy one.

Tutu for president

Desmond Tutu is someone who I find I almost always agree with. The man does not buy into the loyalty-above-all-else culture of the ANC. He has the guts to take “them” on about a lot of things, but is still perceived as a constructive force. I wonder what his economic policies are – perhaps he could lead a successful opposition.

Anyway, he has just been reported as implying that the ANC should not elect Jacob Zuma because he would shame the country.

Yet again I couldn’t agree more Mr Tutu.

Carte Blanche – watch only sceptically if at all

In South Africa we have a widely watched show called Carte Blanche. There are often interesting stories on the show and they are sometimes genuinely worth watching. However, in general I regard Carte Blanche as highly dubious. On several evenings I have been horrified to see the rubbish they portray as fact. And many (if not most) South Africans swallow the BS as true.

Please people, take anything you see on Carte Blanche with a huge pinch of salt.

For instance they have twice aired stories about this complete fraud, Danie Krugel. He has a machine that uses “the quantum” to locate people using only a fragment of DNA (e.g. he claims that a hair cutting is enough). They reckon this guy is capable of reliably finding people using this technology. In fact he can apparently locate anything (they mention diamonds and oil) using a signature sample of that “thing”.

This is the guy behind the “amazing” technology (I’m not joking – that’s really him):

Absolute and utter rubbish. Crazy stuff that a lot of people swallow hook, line and sinker. Unbelievably Carte Blanche also seem to take this guy seriously. I’m not kidding – they even had a follow up on the story – all very serious. And people believe it…

There are numerous articles (here, here, here, here) offering detailed arguments and evidence that this is real rubbish. Mr Kugel has even been offered $1 million cash for passing a simple test (here) – not interested!

It should be obvious… The whole thing is absolute rubbish.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the motivations behind this story. This guy obviously knows that his technology is rubbish so he is either: (a) nuts or (b) a total crook. I would guess (b), but you never know.

What gets to me more, is the Carte Blanche team. Unfortunately they still have credibility in this country and many people automatically believe what they say. I reckon either:

  • They are ignorant of basic science (and critical thought!) and irresponsible enough not to check their stories;
  • Or, they knowingly mislead people because it makes for interesting viewing and therefore more money for them. Kind of like tabloid magazines.

I think it’s the second one, but either way Carte Blanche should have the very little credibility. It’s a real pity because it seems like Carte Blanche is capable of real reporting too – you just don’t know what to believe.

You cannot, you MUST not automatically believe things you see on Carte Blanche – a lot of it is hogwash!

Is organic necessarily good?

The Economist has this article discussing the latest trends in ‘green’ foods like organic farming and buying local. I am regularly reminded of the article when I hear people advocating organic farming, etc.

If you look at the whole picture, organic farming is not as good as it seems.

  • Farming is bad for the environment – that is a given.
  • We need to minimize the impact of farming, but still feed the masses.
  • Organic farming is not nearly as efficient as that assisted (even responsibly) by synthetic fertilizers, genetic modification, etc
  • Therefore, unless you want people to starve, it is better to use more intensive (non-organic) farming methods
  • The alternative is to farm more land which would have disastrous impacts on the environment

For instance, the article points out that:

Global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation.

It’s great that people are willing to make the effort to “go green”. But you have to look at the bigger picture when evaluating the impact of your actions.

Why I don’t like paying car guards (most of the time)

When I was about 5 I decided that I wanted some money of my own. I knew that in order to earn money you have to do hard work so I went out into the garden and worked really hard at climbing around a tree. After about 30 minutes I went inside and told my mom that I had been working really hard and that she should pay me now.

To my dismay the answer was no. Why not? Well she didn’t ask me to climb all over the tree, and my climbing was worth nothing to her – so why should she pay. Good point.

I feel the same way about 95% of car guards. I almost never want them to watch my car, and I almost always think they are adding no value. My car has been broken into while the car guards were right there.

The guys are providing a service I don’t want and expect to be paid for it…