Remember the power flow?

It’s downstream from Washington.

Yesterday, I wrote of Texas power woes:

Central planners knew reserve dispatchable (on demand) electricity provision was a weakness for renewables’ case, even as renewables raise the importance of dispatchable power. If planners wanted more renewable energy they had to raise electricity prices to fund building the standby generators and securing the fuel supplies they might not use, or take bigger risks across the board.

Wind and solar were not to be dinged for the increased costs they impose on the grid to ensure reliable generating capacity during extreme weather events. Mustn’t have anyone question whether windmills or solar panels are doing the job you hired them for if you still have to have natural gas plants idling in case of bad weather.

Unsuprisingly, wind proponents would prefer the raise rates solution, now that they can act like they’re not responsible for the lobbying that contributed to it. The WSJ notes: “The wind lobby says Texas should have required thermal (nuclear, gas, coal) plants to be weatherized to withstand single-digit temperatures.

I wouldn’t have phrased it as if the costs might be borne by the conventional power companies. Consumers would pay. And I wouldn’t have accepted the wind lobby’s implication that the thermal power companies were the culprits, since the wind lobby persuaded the regulators to avoid price increases attributable to wind power in favor of higher risk. How do you think the new power transmission lines for windmills and solar are paid for? See also.

When wind lobbyists ask politicians to “require our competition to” it’s just another sign Texas is not a free market in electricity.

Then there are Federal regs.

In this case it seems as if they were used to give Texas a little slap. On Feb 12th, Texas Governor Greg Abbott asked the President to declare a major disaster for Texas’ 254 counties. The President approved it for 77 counties. Grants are now available for temporary housing, home repairs, and low-cost loans for most Texans. That means large population centers like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin…

You can supply your own theory about why rural Texans are considered to have been less damaged.

By Feb 14th ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) was urging everyone to minimize electricity consumption, and had asked the Department of Energy for permission to exceed Federal restrictions (running fossil fuel plants at only about 60% capacity). The DoE approved this request with the proviso, first suggested by ERCOT, that the power would be sold at no less than $1,500 per megawatt hour, compared to $18.20 per megawatt hour in February 2020.

Note: the $1,500 figure, contrary to some reports, was SUGGESTED BY ERCOT. This doesn’t change anything regarding regulatory conditions, it simply means ERCOT knew what they had to do to get approval. DoE may not have initiated the price floor, but they still imposed it.

The letter later referred to this pricing as “a separate mechanism to help ensure this capacity is deployed only when absolutely necessary.”

Webber, the professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that cost was a “minimum price” that would ensure plants permitted to bypass environmental restrictions were not given an unfair advantage.

“Emissions controls cost money,” he said. “It would be unfair to let some power plants turn off their emissions controls, which lowers their operational costs, and then to use that lower cost to underbid other generators who responsibly left their controls in place.”

Ted Kury, director of energy studies for the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida, said “when wholesale prices get high, the market operator is actually hoping that this sends a signal to folks to stop using electricity.” That works for, say, large companies — but it often ends up being punitive for residential customers.

Yes, prices are signals, but I think in this case Texans had already got the conserve power message. Soon enough they couldn’t buy it at any price. No “unfair advantage” there. And we can’t think of any way to have tiered pricing without sophisticated computer systems. And we don’t have that. Right?

Still, we must be absolutely sure that hoarders, wreckers, exploiters, and saboteurs – like some Aluminum smelter somewhere in Texas – didn’t use any of that power. They might have achieved 2 or 3 days production at the same electricity cost they’d have a week later. They might have forced their employees to drive to work under disaster conditions, and then made them sign NDAs to prevent anyone from ever finding out what evil businessmen do when old people are freezing to death. Or, some Bitcoin miner might have done the same thing, because they are really evil and they’d have comparatively few employees. Yeah, THOSE guys could get away with it.

Well, at least until the digital meter monitor reported their electricity usage.

Zuckerberg’s corollary

In 1889 Herman Hollerith patented a “…method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material…” The resulting retangular cardboard slips were used, along with machines of Hollerith’s design, to conduct the 1890 census. Other uses were soon found. For example, punching into a time clock… as an aid to counting beans… initiating the second largest voting dispute in US history. Unless you believe Hillary Clinton’s Russiagate theory, in which case it’s the third largest.

By 1947 the name for the tiny individual bit punched from the cards was established as “chad.” This was a syllabic improvement over “confetto,” though a fluster* of chads are still known by the plural, confetti.

It was at this point that the traditional confetti manufacturing cartel began a slow downward spiral, ameliorated only slightly by the gradual disappearance of the competition; ticker tape. Hanging chads were far in the future.

By the 1960s, Hollerith’s invention had surpassed mere statistical applications, simple time recording, mundane accounting, or future farcical election chaos. Individual consumers were being assailed by “IBM” cards mailed as invoices. We were to carefully return those cards with our payment. No folding, spindling, or mutilation.

I began my IT career in those days as a “unit record operator.” The cards being records, and the various machines (which on occasion mutilated the cards beyond the imagination of the most malicious consumer) being the units operated. Or maybe the single cards were considered units of record. Never thought about that until just now.

In any case, this employment gave me the opportunity to experimentally modify such dunning cards as I received. What would happen if I “overpunched” the amount due? This single new hole meant the figure was owed to me by the vendor, not to the vendor by me.

What would happen if I put a tiny red rectangular bit of tape (designed for the purpose of correction) over the hole of the leading number in the amount due? This would reduce the payment requested, from say, $13.50 to $3.50.

The Columbia Record Club, a thoroughly analog enterprise, was unfazed. Presumably, some other unit record operator had to correct the card when it was rejected by their mainframe, but I never heard about it. I suppose they anticipated enough folding, spindling, and mutilation to have procedures for it.

Meanwhile, computers got much smaller and much cheaper. Confetti dropped off the Sierra Club’s top ten list of industrial waste. Computer errors no longer had to be fixed by anonymous specialists wielding keypunch machines the size of a love seat. Computers and computer errors were being democratized.

By the 1980s the general public was regularly hearing excuses from smaller businesses dependent on computers: “It’s not my fault, the computer says you didn’t pay that invoice,” or “The computer won’t let me give you a refund.” This was mixed blessing. Immediate knowledge that the business was not set up to serve you has value, but it lacks the opportunity for careful sarcastic refinement provided by the calm pace of mail correspondence with a Record Club.

We hear the generic excuse, “I can’t help you, our computer is messed up,” less frequently these days. Of course, we’re less often interacting with a human, from whom it could be just a generic excuse for inaction. Computers do not offer excuses, nor do they argue.

In the 1980s-90s I was a partner in a small business selling custom software, technical support, and business counsel to mostly small business. All my employees were required to read, as cautionary advice, Gordon R. Dickson’s 1965 short story Computers Don’t Argue. I like to think the lesson improved our software. Thereby improving the services of our customers to their customers.

These days there is a lot of bloviating about advanced computer algorithms as artificial intelligence: “AI.” We’re to regard the mindless mining of petabytes of data as intelligence. It isn’t intelligence, much less sentience. And it’s surely not sapience, which is implied as just around the corner. Get back to me when you can actually argue with a computer. Turing’s test has been found inadequate, and playing chess doesn’t qualify as intelligence.

That does not mean that the Algorithm Intelligence of Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Amazon, Pinterest, etc., etc., etc., etc, isn’t dangerous. That not yet even Paramecian level of intelligence may well destroy our chances of ever knowing Artificial Sapience. The jury is out on the benefit of that possibility.

In the 21st century computer blaming tends more toward, “The network is slow today.” Something with which customers are familiar, and unrelated to the specific business. If some clerk tells you their computer is impeding commerce at your expense, you take your business elsewhere. Corporations have outsourced their keypunch data entry departments to consumers.

Most people have learned to reject deflective technocratic BS as an excuse for poor service. They have, however, not learned to get off Facebook – so maybe natural intelligence is overrated.

We have reached a new level of sophistication, some strange limited modified reverse hangout neo-luddism… Here is a company whose computers are indistinguishable from their business, blaming those computers for their business problems when the computers operate as designed:
Facebook Blames ‘Technical Issues” for Its Broken Promise to the US Congress

So, here’s Zuckerberg’s corollary of Hollerith’s patent: “a method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording every separate statistical item pertaining to all individuals by holes or combinations of holes punched into the fabric of society.”

*TOC group name nominee, though I would consider tumult, furore, agitation, or ado.