Texas power outages demonstrate enduring human faith in hindsight?

Texans are suffering with cold weather, power failure, and water supply failure. (In other words, they’re learning what it is like to live in the Northeast; see, for example, the 2011 storm that took out power for 3.2 million people, many of whom went a week without power. In the Boston suburbs it is typical to lose power 4-6 times per year, e.g., due to a fallen tree or a storm, and for durations of up to 48 hours. Also 2013 and 1978 events, in the latter of which more than 100 people died.)

(That we’re calling this the “Texas power outage” might be an artifact of how our media presents things. “Widespread Power Outages Continue in Texas” is the caption the New York Times editors have placed over a map showing that the worst outages are in Louisiana and Mississippi:


The media can find an unlimited number of folks who describe this as a trivially foreseeable event, e.g., “Why Texas’ energy grid is unable to handle the winter storms” (NBC):

The crisis has made the state’s energy grid the focus of fresh scrutiny, primarily due to its independence from the rest of the U.S. Critics say that allowed its infrastructure to shirk federal regulations that require cold-weather capabilities.

Heroic regulators could have prevented this from happening? The governor agrees! “‘Massive failure’: Why are millions of people in Texas still without power?” (USA Today):

At the most basic level, the outages have been caused because demand amid the bitter cold has outpaced the supply of energy used to heat and power homes, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the situation “unacceptable” and said he would add an emergency item to the state’s legislative session on reforming ERCOT. The nonprofit corporation is subject to oversight from the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Legislature.

There were similar events in 1989 and 2011… “Five things to know about Texas’s strained electric grid” (The Hill):

The 1989 blackouts came amid a cold snap in December, while the 2011 blackouts took place during the first week of February when wind and unseasonably cold temperatures hit Texas and neighboring New Mexico.

In total, approximately 1.3 million electric customers were out of service at the peak of the 2011 event on Feb. 2, and a total of 4.4 million were affected from Feb. 2 to Feb. 4.

In a report following the 2011 blackouts, FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation recommended steps including increasing winterization measures.

The report said electricity generating companies operating within the ERCOT system “failed to adequately prepare for winter,” citing inadequate insulation and a failure to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations.

If this was easy to foresee (and maybe it should have been, given what happened in 1989 and 2011), why weren’t these newspapers and interview subjects out there at least since 2011 beating the drum for more power plants and more winterization of infrastructure?

Could there be a general principle in operation here? After a hurricane hits, it is obvious that we should have put vastly more resources into being prepared for the hurricane. After a bad respiratory virus pandemic, it is obvious that we should have put vastly more resources into stockpiling PPE and ventilators (see Paper titled “Stockpiling Ventilators for Influenza Pandemics” (2017)).

Here in the Northeast we know that we could eliminate nearly all of our outages via putting power lines underground, but nobody wants to pay for it. This utility explains:

The main reason why undergrounding hasn’t been fully adopted in the U.S. is the overwhelmingly high cost of installing underground power lines. Estimates place the cost of undergrounding power lines at roughly $750 per foot, compared with $70 per foot to install power lines the way we do today. At over ten times the cost, this would become expensive very quickly.

Take North Carolina, for example. In 2002, the state looked into undergrounding for their three major power companies after a particularly bad power outage that left 2 million people losing power. After it was priced out, North Carolina found that their project would cost $41 billion (six times the net value of those three companies’ distribution assets) and would require 25 years to complete!

People are regularly killed during power outages. Should we pay any price, bear any burden to save lives via underground power lines? Apparently not. (Even though $41 billion rounds to zero in coronanomics!)

Why can’t people see that (1) we don’t have infinite money and time and therefore can’t be prepared for everything bad that might happen, and (2) they’re using hindsight when they talk about how we should have put more resources into preparing against something bad that actually did happen?

As of yesterday, 4 percent of total customers (poweroutage.us), but I am pretty sure that this figure will never appear in a headline (since Texas has such a huge population the outage will appear as the total number of customers who are out).

I asked a California Democrat (and tenured physics professor), who was expressing outrage that the Texas grid wasn’t subject to federal regulation, what he thought the number would be, if not 4 percent, if Texas had been federally regulated. He answered “0 percent”. Let’s have a look at Mississippi, which has federal regulation and has suffered from a similar cold snap. 13.5 percent of customers in MS are out as of the same time as the above map:

How about Louisiana?

Across the three states, it looks as though the outages line up with the USDA Zone 8b (Austin, Texas being included in this zone).

In other words, a cold snap in Zone 8b results in power failures whether the grid is regulated by the feds or the state. (The failures were slightly different in character, with Texas knocked out by high demand while MS and LA suffered from both excess demand and power lines downed by the ice and snow. Both could have been avoided, however, with additional $$ invested in preparation.)

Update, Feb 20, 11:00 am: 6 percent of folks in Mississippi are still without power, mostly in Zone 8b and some in Zone 8a.

(Texas, where the outages started earlier, is 99.4% powered (0.6% without power).)


  • Austin and Lockhart, Texas: 10 barbecue restaurants in 72 hours (fortunately, the smokers will continue to operate without power)
  • “The Texas Freeze: Why the Power Grid Failed” (WSJ) sounds like a great analysis. Companies that generate power aren’t paid to sit on standby, so there is an undersupply of standby power, especially during cold snaps when it would be expensive to prep a plant to keep operating. A big nuclear plant tripped off due to a water supply freeze. The authors attribute the problems to the way Texas set up its market for electric power, e.g., paying only for power delivered and not for being ready. But they never look at why the grid failures were nearly as bad in Louisiana and Mississippi. Maybe this is like coronascience and it is only necessary to tell a good story after data are received?
  • February 2013 North American blizzard (Wikipedia), in which 18 people died, the power failed, and it was both illegal and impractical to travel by road here in Maskachusetts.
  • Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978 (Wikipedia) in which 100 people died.

Very loosely related…

From a 2018 business trip to Dallas, extended due to 50-knot winds in the Northeast and the cancellation of airline flights back home, the George W. Bush Presidential Library (closed for a year now due to coronapanic):

And from the art museum, an unfortunately timely painting, Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs:

Full post, including comments

Sean Connery as an inspiration for American suburban life

From one of our Facebook friends:

RIP, Sir Sean Connery. Your impact on my childhood and becoming a man cannot be understated. Thank you.

This led to a mystified chat discussion. The guy who posted this has been married for 25 years, works at a desk job, never does anything without first asking his wife for permission, never expresses an opinion that he and/or his wife think might upset the town’s cabal of stay-at-home moms, and is an apparent slave to his high school-age daughters. What was the connection between James Bond and the suburban soccer dad? How had Danny Dravot’s attempts to take over Afghanistan in The Man Who Would Be King inspired his trips to Costco?

Also, if Joe Biden delivers on his promise to shut down the United States, do we start calling Anthony Fauci “Dr. No”?


  • Wikipedia reveals the inclusive nature of the U.K. Connery was knighted by the Queen in 2000 despite (a) living in the Bahamas to minimize income tax liability, and (b) supporting Scottish independence.
Full post, including comments

Fears in the 1990s versus fears in the Age of Corona

Happy Halloween! Let’s consider how our fears have evolved.

In the 1990s, we were afraid of the following:

  • The government would invade our privacy via CCTV cameras when we were out walking around.
  • Microsoft would crush upstart competitors by bundling software with similar capabilities into their monopoly operating system. This could cost each of us $100 or more.
  • Everyone will be killed by HIV/AIDS
  • What else?

Fears today:

  • We don’t have to worry about CCTV cameras on the sidewalk since (a) it might be illegal to be out on the sidewalk to begin with, (b) if it were legal, we’d have to wear a mask.
  • Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, et al. will deplatform anyone who disagrees with what they deem to be RightThink on a wide range of issues.
  • Everyone will be killed by COVID-19
  • What else?

A friend’s minivan, decorated by a recent high school graduate…

Full post, including comments

Humans are defeating nanny tech in cars?

A typical new car has a lot of driver assistance features designed to make driving safer. Examples from Toyota:

(Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert are separate features, not on all trim levels.)

And the latest, for the 2021 Camry:

But insurance companies don’t cut rates for cars that have these features (source). Here are some possible explanations…

  • highway driving is already very safe and most of these magic features, e.g., blind spot monitor and lane-keeping, work only on the highway
  • humans aware of these electronic guard rails drive more carelessly to the point that the risk is the same
  • the insurance market is inefficient
  • the technology does not, in fact, work well in real-world conditions (our Honda Odyssey blind spot monitoring works great, though, which might be why this fine machine is the choice of Amy Coney Barrett!)

Readers: How do we explain the apparent contradiction?

Full post, including comments

Time to love smokers again?

Strolling by the smokers’ ghetto outside one of our local airport’s FBOs made me wonder when it will be time to abandon our fanaticism regarding the occasional whiff of tobacco smoke. We are certain that any of our fellow humans may kill us with a breath of coronavirus. Why do we worry about the unpleasantness of someone smoking a cigarette 5′ from an exterior door versus 20′? Do we still need Mini-Mike Bloomberg’s 2011 ban on smoking in various outdoor places, such as beaches and parks?

Do we have the energy to fight the anti-smoking battle at the same time as the anti-coronaplague battle? When do we admit that we’re not as capable as Adolph Hitler and his loyal Germans and even they had trouble fighting on multiple fronts?

I’m not a smoker, but I’m now ready to welcome my smoking brothers/sisters/binary resisters with a hearty “You could be exhaling a lot worse!”

Full post, including comments

Timelock refrigerator and/or kitchen doors for work-from-home fatties?

Our national strategy for dealing with a virus that attacks fat people has been to order everyone to stay home and make trips to the fridge every 15 minutes since mid-March.

Since our coronapanic lifestyle shows signs of becoming permanent, how about the following: timelocks on the refrigerator and/or kitchen doors so that cower-at-home Americans can hit the fridge only at mealtimes? No more midnight snacking. No more second breakfast.

Readers: Would this be a good strategy for minimizing the Covid-19 death rate going forward (a thinner population is a safer population!) and also for minimizing the deaths associated with our shutdown?

Bacchus, from my Boboli Gardens photos (on film!).

Full post, including comments

Nobody cares about the Beirut explosions?

When there is a massive explosion in the middle of a city of more than 2 million people, you might expect people around the world to be interested. Certainly that was true in 1917 when, despite World War I going on, people were interested in the Halifax Explosion (see “City rebuilding costs from the Halifax explosion” for some excerpts from a good book on the subject).

Some graphics from the NYT, taking a rare break from Trump hatred:

Let’s consider my Facebook feed as a good proxy for what the coastal righteous care about. None of my friends care about this explosion! Here is a list of topics from the past few hours:

  • Covid-19 will permanently damage everyone whom it infects, even if it doesn’t kill everyone
  • Trump appointed an anti-abortion person to something
  • whether flight instructors should work in the age of Covid-19 (posted by a Shutdown Karen CFI)
  • Trump struggles to say ‘Yosemite’ at White House speech
  • various articles about whether America’s unionized public school teachers can be forced to work and whether America’s non-unionized private school teachers can be forced to not work
  • exhortations to wear masks more and “more better” (covering the nose, for example!)
  • 2015 Tianjin explosions (loosely related!)
  • “So far 2020 is like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by an airplane” (a meme that could apply to Beirut!)
  • a post about how Republican leadership is bad for the U.S. economy
  • stuff about what will happen when Trump refuses to leave office in January 2021 (with opinions by “experts” on the subject of something that has never happened, i.e., a U.S. president refusing to hang over the reins)

Is it fair to say that Covid-19 primarily affects the mind? Americans (nearly all of my Facebook friends are American) no longer think about anything but their personal welfare with respect to Covid-19 (the Trump-related stuff counts because these people believe that the Great Father in Washington can determine whether or not they are infected).


Full post, including comments

Use testing and tracing infrastructure to enforce alcohol Prohibition?

Back in 2016, I wrote “Reintroduce Prohibition for the U.S.?”, pointing out various advantages for American society if we could reduce alcohol consumption. This proposal was not well-received!

What about in the Age of Corona? Technocrats are gearing up for a massive testing and tracing operation. Example: “Here’s A Way To Contain Covid-19 And Reopen The Economy In As Little As One Month” (Forbes, by a Boston University econ professor). Excerpts:

The solution is PCR group-household testing of all American households every week. … If a household tests negative, each household member would be notified to go to their local pharmacy to receive a green wristband coated to change to red after one week.

This system is voluntary. But if you choose to have your household tested and receive your green wristband, you’ll be permitted by your employer to return to work, by your teachers and professors to return to school, and by proprietors to enter their restaurants, shops, cafes, etc. You’ll also be allowed to frequent the beach, attend concerts, go to the movies, …

Any household that tests positive will be required by the local board of health to quarantine in place for two weeks and then be re-tested. Households that don’t voluntarily get tested will be free to come and go as they wish. But without their green bracelets, they will have a hard time entering into workplaces and other establishments. Employers who hired the untested could face legal liability. The same holds for any business serving the public who lets someone onto their premises without a green bracelet.

My Dutch friend: “This will be just like it was for Jews after the Nuremberg Laws and similar. They were perfectly free, but couldn’t run a business, buy a movie ticket, or go to school.”

Electronic bracelets can also work: “People-tracking wristbands tested to enforce lockdown” (BBC). See also “US, Israel, South Korea, and China look at intrusive surveillance solutions for tracking COVID-19” (zdnet)

Covid-19 is a pernicious disease. It has killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide so far. But what if we could use the above technology and infrastructure to stop a much more destructive killer: alcohol. WHO says that 3 million deaths worldwide are attributed to alcohol. The average age of a death with/from Covid-19 in Massachusetts is 82 and more than 98 percent of those who died had “underlying conditions.” Alcohol often kills people who could have lived for another 40-100 years. In terms of life-years, therefore, we could save many more by discouraging alcohol consumption.

(Is Covid-19 different because an alcohol-related problem is due to a failure of personal responsibility? Consider the child of an alcoholic or a passenger in a car struck by a drunk driver.)

Given that people can brew their own beer or distill their own vodka, presumably it is not possible to achieve a 100 percent reduction in alcohol consumption. But if restaurants, bars, and airlines (to the extent any are left) were not offering alcohol to every customer and there were no convenient liquor stores (“essential”!), wouldn’t it be fair to expect at least a 10 or 20 percent reduction in alcohol-related deaths? (marijuana consumption increased following legalization in Washington State; shouldn’t we expect alcohol use to be reduced following prohibition?)

Since Americans have now decided that “saving lives” is more important than what used to be considered individual rights… If we succeed with alcohol prohibition using test/trace tech, why not use the same technology to attack HIV/AIDS, which has killed more than 700,000 Americans? (Covid-19 would have to kill 7 million Americans to take away a comparable number of life-years, due to the much younger age at which HIV/AIDS victims perish.) There continue to be 6,000 deaths annually here in the U.S., which is roughly comparable to the life-years lost from 60,000 Covid-19 deaths.

None of these public health interventions were doable in the 20th century. Epidemiologists predicted that HIV/AIDS would spread beyond the LGBTQIA+ community and kill millions of Americans. White upper-middle-class single Americans were terrified in the 1980s by this disease that merited cover stories of TIME magazine multiple times. Nobody would have tolerated the criminalization of sex outside of marriage in order to “save lives”. Today, however, there is no limit on the power of the government when there is a public health goal. (Maybe outlaw all sexual activity? If people want children they can be imported via immigration and/or produced locally and without HIV risk via IVF.)

Full post, including comments

Is it more difficult to be a mother today compared to 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000 years ago?

From our local public radio station: “I Love My Kids But I Loathe Mother’s Day — Especially This Year”.

… our culture has a pretty long rap sheet of under-appreciating women. And day in and day out, those moms tend to not get the credit they deserve because they make so much look easy: holding together infinite moving parts to accomplish the mission of the family machine, plus adding glitter. Metaphorical glitter. Sometimes real glitter, added by real children. Which the moms are usually stuck cleaning up.

The truth is, of course, that at this moment nothing’s okay for anybody. And I get that it isn’t the holiday’s fault that we need to adjust gender and work roles and laws and unwritten rules. But right now, it’s easier to imagine a marginally improved version of Mother’s Day (minus the false pedestal mess) than to dare to dream of civilizational change.

Solidarity, moms. Each and every one of you: Happy sub-optimal holiday in these sub-optimal times to some of the most superoptimal people on Earth.

In other words, something humans have been doing for 200,000 years is now intolerably burdensome, despite a climate-conditioned home packed with labor-saving machines.

Readers: Is motherhood in fact now more burdensome than in earlier eras? Or it was always intolerably burdensome, but mothers did not have as many outlets for complaining about the burden so we don’t how unhappy women were in Ancient Athens, Siddhattha Gotama’s India, or the China of Confucius?


Full post, including comments