Film: The Man From Earth

This 2007 film by director Richard Schenkman is based on a story by the late Jerome Bixby, the author of many excellent science fiction stories (as well as some Star Trek classics). I highly recommend this movie as one that “makes you think.”

On the surface, the film is a fascinating exploration of how people approach a wild story that is very hard to believe, and how the individuals process the fantastic information and come to their own conclusions. It is also about faith, trust, friendship, personal relationships and even jealousy.

But this is not a movie review. You can certainly learn a whole lot more about this movie on my favorite source of cinema information, (A word of advice: see the film first, before viewing the commentary. In fact, the DVD has two commentaries – in my opinion, the one narrated by the author’s son and a principal actor is the better one.)

The purpose of this article is to discuss an aspect of the film that I found to be profoundly interesting. It raised a question that is seldom asked, and provokes further discussion.

This question the film poses is: “Can you ever prove to others that anything about you is absolutely true?”

If I say that I as born in New York City, what actual “proof” is there? A birth certificate, the testimony of parents, attending doctors… we take these “facts” to be proof. But documents can be forged (with ever more sophisticated methods), memories fail, loved ones and witnesses die. With the advent of digital imaging, even photographs are no longer the certain “proof” that here appeared to be only a decade ago. The actual indisputable information resides in only one place: the individual’s own mind.

So far, there is no reliable method of reading the contents of one’s mind, although a host of scientists are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (F-MRI) to attempt to do this in real time. In fact, CBS network’s 60 Minutes recently had a (rather simplistic) segment dedicated to this exact topic. Until the time that such “mind reading” becomes commonplace (and there are a lot of people who hope that day never comes), we just have to take a person’s word for the accuracy of the information they provide. Or can we even do that?

Of course, this begs the question as to what the nature of reality is… which will be the subject of many additional posts here in the future.

In the meantime, give some thought to how many times you are certain that you know what another person is thinking… and then, think again.

Windmills: Beauties or Beasts?

There is a raging debate regarding large windmills; are they a blight on the landscape or a benign benefit that provides clean energy?

It may simply be a case of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

On a recent evening ride from the Toronto airport into downtown, I passed a large wind farm as the sun set. It was a magnificent sight. The blades turning at various rates created a majestic ballet of form on the horizon. Without the windmills, the only visible structures would have been high power lines, a few industrial buildings and parking lots. In this case, the windmills were certainly an improvement to the landscape.

But what about wind turbines in more pristine locations?

“Cape Wind,” is a proposed wind farm comprised of 130 turbines located about six miles off the coast of Cape Cod. For years, the project has been challenged primarily because of the adverse effect it would have on the beauty of the ocean scenery – as seen from exclusive beachfront properties. Ironically, the opposition even includes local environmental groups. Many key opponents feel the potential impact to the views and tourism outweighs the significant benefits of powering half of Cape Cod.

(Note: Typically, such wind turbines are spaced about one half mile apart. Their foundations actually create new underwater habitat for marine life. If placed properly, the slow-moving blades usually have minimal impacts on seabirds and would not obstruct aircraft or water-borne vessels.)

As seen from the shore, the white, 260-foot towers would be tiny structures on the horizon and very difficult to see with the naked eye.

Proposed Cape Cod windmills

Windmills as seen from Cape Cod - six miles away. (simulation courtesy Cape Wind)

Although a recent court ruling went against the opposition, there are many regulatory hurdles that need to be cleared before construction can commence.

On land, wind farms are usually located in either industrial areas near cities, or on more rural properties away from large residential neighborhoods. Therefore, land-based wind farms are usually viewed from highways or points at some distance from the towers themselves. On land, concerns for birds are usually the primary environmental concern, but many people still oppose the sight of wind towers in any natural landscape.

For all we know, traditional windmills in Europe may also have been seen as less than ideal structures when they were constructed. However, today most people find these historic structures quite appealing, even if they dwarf all the other buildings on the surrounding fields.

In time, as more wind power facilities are constructed, the public may grow to appreciate their design aesthetic – as they embrace the clean power the windmills generate.

An Energy Desert in a Sea of Oil

In the center of a country that is awash with oil – and oil money – virtually all of Nigeria is in the grip of a perpetual power shortage.  Recent statistics indicate that the nation’s energy generation capacity is at most 25 percent of the current demand.  Although that is a horrible situation, the actual conditions are far worse, since those power plants are only operating at about 40 percent of capacity.  Outdated facilities, poor maintenance, and limited power distribution lines result in less than 10 percent of the country’s power needs being met.

Ironically, this huge oil producer (Nigeria is the world’s fourth largest producer of crude oil) is a prime candidate for alternative energy investment, especially in systems based on solar technologies.

In many part of this country, wind is unreliable. Here in the Sahel region (the semi-desert expanses just south of the advancing Sahara), one day the air is filled with wind-blown dust to the chocking point, while the next the air is as still as can be. So wind is a secondary option at best.

All of the power provided by the government-run electric utility serving most of Nigeria originates at hydroelectric plants associated with dams built on the rivers near the Nigerian capital city of Abuja. There appear to be no viable locations for constructing additional hydroelectric facilities, thus placing an effective cap on the amount of energy available to a growing population. As a result, as more people require power, less is available for each individual or business.

To make matters worse, the hydro-generated electricity must be transmitted long distances to reach outlying cities – in some cases, many hundreds of kilometers. Electricity is lost during transmission, further reducing the amount of power reaching customers.

Desperate residents spend their hard-earned cash on small generators and diesel fuel… in fact, the sale of small generators is one of the biggest businesses in this metropolitan area of up to 10 million people (nobody knows for sure how many people actually reside in Kano State at any given moment).

diesel generator with air compressor

Kano bike repair shop's small diesel powered air compressor.

Businesses and Industry are hit even harder. Limited reliable power means that workers cannot work during the frequent lapses in power – which in most areas is the majority of the workday and most of the night hours. Productivity plummets, the cost of business goes up, and goods are expensive to produce.

The situation is so bad that virtually every business, industry, hotel, school, hospital, government office – in other words, everyone – now depends almost entirely on their own generators for power. This results in generators that go full-bore all the time, limiting the average life of most generators to about one – possibly two if they are fortunate – years of service. Since they operate at peak capacity, they overheat like clockwork, shutting down about once an hour, in my experience. In addition, the smallest boost in regular demand causes the generators to quit immediately.

Roadside diesel sales

Typical Nigerian roadside diesel fuel sales stand.

So what is the solution? I have spoken to many top officials in the Kano State government over the past year – including the directors of planning, land management, commerce and industry – and to a man (I didn’t see women in government to offer their opinions), they agree that solar solutions would be the perfect answer. Clean, quiet, scalable solar power implemented on a large scale, would free local businesses from a never-ending cycle of power outages, high fuel costs, equipment failures and maintenance problems.

The government has money to spend on large-scale infrastructure improvements, and a sincere wish to solve the energy debacle.. The answer is a political one, and the will to take action must be summoned by the local, state and federal governments. With no additional power sources on the horizon – and the population increasing – the time to act is now.