All the News That Fits

The New York Times still has the moniker: All the news that’s fit to print. Yet, over time, the type of news and the reaction to it in comments tends to align more with an editorial bent than just evenhandedly covering the news in general. Take the recent news about Australia’s vote on carbon taxes. This major no vote should have gotten a lot of media attention over the past few days… but it hasn’t at all. So, the new moniker seems to be “All the news that fits my point of view.”

Of course, we have had bigger stories that dominate the media right now. The commercial jet liner that was lost and the escalating tensions in the Middle East. I have been wondering when the big news about Australia’s decision to kill a carbon tax was going to get more attention.

footprintsIt was really interesting to see just how differently the NewYork Times and the Wall Street Journal were in reporting the recent turnabout in environmental policy in Australia. Take a look at each news article and then take a close look at the comments to them. It is hard to reconcile them as a commentary for the United States. Views could hardly be more different.

Wall Street Journal:

New York Times:
So, here we are. These are tough questions and we really do need to move past rock throwing. Do you see any sense of dialogue? Can you hear any humility in the tone? Not hardly.

I would expect the news agencies to publish all the news that’s fit to be published … nothing less and nothing more. Apparently, it is all the news that’s going to fit with getting my readership up.


Convenient Myths

I truly wonder whether we think critically about anything anymore. All we hear are sound bites and quips to justify a position … stake-out ground … and establish a stand. Sometimes I think we’ve become so totally self-absorbed in our own personal point of view because of the plethora of media that allows us to easily find others who agree with us. There’s a TV channel for every perspective. Overlay on that social media available to validate almost any point of view no matter how absurd. We simply filter out those who disagree with us, dismissing them as wrong, and gleefully immerse ourselves with those of like mind.

This is simply not helpful. We need to lower the amplitude, walk just a bit more humbly, and seek dialogue over dispute for the wellbeing of society. Perhaps we should consider our mutual journey here as an opportunity to work together rather than the kangaroo court all communication seems to have become.

It is ironic that we are all trying to be helpful and yet see mythsuch violent attacks on each other. The Sunday morning news shows are demonstrations of this incivility. Where is the dialogue? Where is the synthesis of truly innovative answers? No one listens … everyone labels and then decides who they will listen to based upon their label. We in fact do judge the book by the cover. We have no tolerance for different points of view. We are all waiting in ambush, and that is why the news cycle is so contentious. They know what to feed us.

So, I came up with a new label that highlights the silliness of where we are: “Convenient Myths.” This is obviously a play on words referencing Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” My point is that his statement is in fact a myth, and a convenient one at that. It is not a fact … it is closer to an ideology than anything else … an idea that takes on a life of its own and becomes more than a story. Sure there is truth in what he has been saying. But, there are also inaccuracies.

How do you separate what you believe to be truth from myth? We think of myth as stories and legends of potentially fictitious characters who say and do things we think are exemplary and emblematic. Some of these myths are so central to what we value as Americans that we might also say we believe in this or that and use these stories to recount our reasons why. But, I suggest we should think critically about the difference between saying something is true vs. saying we believe in it.

Consider the recent issue of Time Magazine where the cover announces: Eat Butter, which flies in the face of the long-held belief that eating fat was bad for us. If you have not yet read it, you really must. For decades we accepted the myth that butter and fats were bad for us. When you read the article, you will see that the primary research neglected cultures having very high amounts of animal fats and butter in their diets (France and Germany) because the data didn’t fit the conclusion the author had wanted to reach. Another recent admission from the doctor who had insisted gluten was a bad actor has also rescinded his position.

clip_image002_051Our culture has a conversational paradox when it calls some things myths yet expresses belief in principles we seem so sure are true. We say we believe in them as if it was pure measurable cause-effect fact-based logic. If I were to say we have a democratic myth in the US you would probably recoil. Yet, if I say we believe in democracy, few if any would argue. I think we would also all say that we find many problems with our democracy, yet we essentially still believe in it.

But, think about how different it sounds to say that global warming is a myth vs. saying you believe in global warming.

Some myths are extremely useful and helpful. Some can limit human potential and certainly outcomes. Myths fall into broad categories: fables, charms, etc. Santa Claus belongs to the fable category, rabbit’s feet to the charm category. Fables often have helpful underlying truths, which is why the newspaper article on whether Santa Clause was true drew such widespread approval (i.e., “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”). Lucky charms are everywhere … you see batters go through rituals and hear of seemingly odd behaviors that can include some truly peculiar things.

So, as opposed to Al Gore’s expression of “An Inconvenient Truth,” which presumes we really know for sure what is going on in the environment, perhaps it is more helpful to express his ideas as what he believes is good for humanity, directionally correct, and economically viable. We all have a lot to learn from each other. But, when we decide we truly know the answer, we are certainly less curious about what we might really not know in the first place.

My next blogs will focus specifically at the critical relationship between energy companies and their regulatory and legislative bodies. Following the way we described education in early childhood, I will present a model for how we can Reload the Regulatory Relationship (the new 3 R’s in my opinion).

But for now, let me close with my son’s favorite soliloquy from the Wizard in the play Wicked about what we say we consider as truth according to what we call history:

“Where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.
A man’s called a traitor or liberator. A rich man’s a thief or philanthropist. Is one a crusader
or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist. There are precious few at ease
with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”

Since I don’t have any good ideas, let me just criticize yours!

MichelangeloDavidThat seems to say it all these days. Why should I work at possibly synthesizing your ideas and mine to reach a deeper understanding and a better solution? It is much easier to nit pick your ideas by trying to find exceptions or inconsistencies.

Our marathon trip across Italy, France, and England exposed us to the way the news is presented in Europe. The media seemed much more civilized. Multiple points of view were expressed and people are allowed to finish their sentences. The moderator never pounced on them. It seems that folks are really interested in big ideas and want to move the intellectual ball down the field toward the goal line.

The profound influence of the Renaissance also really hit me. Two individuals we all know made such great strides in Italy: Michelangelo and De Vinci. For the first time, marble statues seemed have life. The Pieta was breathtaking.

As the “local expert” tour guide showed us the towering statue of David, she commented that the block of marble had been rejected by all the other sculptures of the day since it had obvious “flaws” in it. Michelangelo could see past what others had deemed flaws to believe it would produce a depth of character … essentially looking like the veins of a real person. As you look at it closely, it certainly does.

And, I criticized the statue privately to our tour guide indicating that since David was a Jewish boy he certainly would have been circumcised and the statue was not. She immediately became defensive that I had criticized her national hero.

So, here we are … can we really have a conversation about anything important anymore??

Just sayin …

Wishful Thinking and Eye Candy

I have to admit. I am a fan of Big Bang Theory. Maybe it is because my son and I are so similar to these characters. No, I am not a PhD and my son is still in high school. But, Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard all illustrate attributes we can painfully identify with. My son and I are both geeks. These characters on Big Bang Theory are very real stereotypical geeks. At times, perhaps all too many times … we are them. I will not elaborate, but those close to both of us can easily fill in the blanks.

Penny and Priya on the other hand are just wishful thinking. There is no way a eyecandyperson like Leonard would ever stand a chance with either of these two women in real life. The producers know this perfectly well. They write them and cast beautiful women as a great way to build viewership especially for geeks. I have been lucky enough to meet and marry woman myself, but most geeks are resigned to the Amy style members of the opposite sex. They may actually be much more realistic, but her presence certainly doesn’t draw the viewers in. The male masses want to watch Penny and Priya.

I never expected to attract Susan to me. But, why not try, so I did. My mother always told me that women like this were high maintenance and that I should be thankful I wasn’t good looking. She said “The good looking guys have all the problems.” It is funny that I didn’t take it as the insult it was. I found it a bit comforting. So, when I started seeing Susan and found her to be both warm, intelligent (she is a physicist you know), and willing to marry me … well, clearly I was surprised.

Fox News has a similar formula to Big Bang Theory and it is getting very irritating, and they are not alone. Every woman announcer or commentator is gorgeous. Media is pandering to our deep seated wish to be worthy and deemed attractive enough to even be around women who are this pretty. They are simply eye candy. These are defined as visual images that are superficially attractive and entertaining but intellectually undemanding. Yes, I know that many of the women at Fox News are very intelligent, but believe me, that is not what the producers are counting on to get the viewers to watch.

We all know sex sells. The cover of Golf Digest created a frenzy on this mornings’ news. Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of the hockey great Wayne Gretsky has virtually nothing to do with the sport. The swim suit edition of Sports Illustrated could be criticized on the same basis. Sure, it is innocent fun on one level to admit sex sells, but I think part of the reason we seek diversions and wishful thinking is that we are tired of serious talk and our boring lives. We are worn out. Life is too busy and too hard.

Maybe that is the root of the problem. Maybe we simply do not want intellectual challenges. We are intellectually lazy and/or exhausted. We are so weary of the bombardment that we want to lose ourselves in some form of delusion. I often hear of people going to movies to “escape” into another world of thought. Maybe it will make us feel better, refreshed, or inspired to do something meaningful in our lives.

Perhaps the opposite is really what is going on. Our TVs are so full of pixels they rival real life. CGI is now so powerful we can’t draw the line between animation and actual video footage of real events. We can now touch up and photo enhance anyone to look like a supermodel. And, despite our intellectual arguments to the contrary, it works. We are getting sucked in. In fact, perhaps we are so addicted to this visual stimulation that we are just less prone to want to think about the fact that we are.

Can’t get away from it. Our phones are now so powerful they can substitute for TV and our desktops. We watch video on any and all and the quality is addictively good. Merchandizers are onto it. I opened up my browser to order a book on Amazon and this gorgeous model danced across the screen in a “spring fashion” video that, despite my disinterest in the subject, still caught my eye.

Catching my eye. That’s it. Marketers are no longer worried about what you think. It is all about catching your eye. I used to think we were competing for mind share. Now, I think we are competing for eye share. Think about how communications have changed over the past 2500 years.

Plato argued with Socrates that writing would ruin memories about 400 BC when reading and writing were being introduced in Greek schools. He was right. Memories were drastically reduced within 100 years. We no longer rely on our memories. We also no longer write letters either. There are times when I have to sign my name that I struggle to make my hand perform those motions. Whey I try to write a thank you card I really struggle with my penmanship. I can still write equations on the whiteboard, but writing a letter?

Think about how little we now truly listen any longer. I remember listening to stories being told on the radio. Yes, I was a child before TV was introduced. We had to use our imaginations back then. Listening carefully brought us into alignment with the story. Once TV was introduced we relied almost totally on our eyes. Even the small screen black and white TV proved extremely powerful. I am sure some of you remember how addictive color TV was once it was introduced in the 1960s at affordable prices. Now we all watch HD TV where you can see the pores and individual hairs on a person’s face! We now have computer generated imagery (CGI) that dominates much of what we see on TV, our PCs, portable digital devices and phones. And we can watch high definition video that rivals movie quality production values.

We have also lost our appetite for critical thinking. We want to be entertained. We watch a lizard pitch insurance. We prefer funny over challenging. We love dogs and children. Maybe that is why Kaiser Permanente’s ad for health insurance using a small boy was so enchanting. Watch this and compare it to the way we pitch our messages in the utility business:

Maybe that’s our problem. We in the utility business have been too eager to talk about our messages rather than catch your eye. We certainly wouldn’t use gorgeous blonds with long shapely legs to talk about energy efficiency and demand response. And, for female viewers, we don’t use beefcake either. We stay with boring details. Sure we may have prettier colored pictures and charts, but we are still mighty boring. We need to be using dogs and kids and fun.

One of the funniest scenes I have seen on Big Bang Theory was all four guys playing a video game when Penny and her friends walked in scantily clad and suggested a racy escapade. They never looked up. They were having too much fun immersed in their video game. I don’t think it is only the PhD geeks who are so immersed and distracted. Can’t you feel it yourself? We want to escape.

Maybe a game about energy will change this? I asked our son who is a serious gamer and he said “Dad, energy is just boring!” Beam me up Scotty, there are no intelligent signs of life.

Follow the Money

Follow the money is a catchphrase popularized by the 1976 drama-documentary motion picture “All The President’s Men”. It suggested a money trail or followmoneycorruption scheme within high (often political) office. I think the problem has become epidemic, not just in politics, in everything … even the energy business. Yes, even energy efficiency, demand response, and now behavioral programs.

It used to be pretty easy to separate advertisement from news. They used to print it in separate areas and even on separate pages. Now you can’t separate a word you read or hear from what someone has paid for you to be exposed to. The talking points are everywhere for everyone with the money to buy the microphones.

I have watched it happen over time, seemingly slowly at first. But now, it is rampant. Printed copies of papers no longer provide the income. You have to sell your soul to make it in journalism today and it is a race to the ethical bottom of the barrel for all too many. It is simply amazing to watch. Major network news is not immune from it because the people they interview are often on the dole. So, you don’t know what to believe any longer.

It may be the most obvious when political leaders control the message and the “spin” around the “talking points.” I guess that is natural given the democratic process and the fact that the average American feeds entirely on sound bites for their intellectual nourishment. I find it obvious and repulsive when I watch TV now as the pharmaceutical firms buy the airwaves in their rampant greed to push medicines to cure all our fears and achieve all our dreams … with obvious side effects that are harmful. At least now they now are forced to admit them. Listen carefully the next time you hear an ad to improve your T. Pretty scary. I wish there were requirements for the messages from our President to have the same level of disclaimer. “You can keep your doctor.” “You can keep your health plan.” Where were the disclaimers? Fortunately on this one the media is on the hunt for the truth.

The energy industry is swimming in a sea of sound bites surrounded by spin. Superficially appealing notions are being spread as if it were a quick fix for otherwise disengaged consumers. Let’s just use guilt as a way to get people to use less. Who cares that it is obviously not a long term resource. Let’s just spend money, especially if I can earn a return on that expense. There is also a bit of tit for tat here: I will promote this nonsense just as long as you let me build this or that.

I find this terribly disconcerting given the history of the utility industry. It has always taken a hard look at resource planning. It discounted lots of things that simply were not reliable enough to avoid the need to build capacity. As deregulation swept in during the late 1980s the assumption was that the market would take care of this issue. Conversations lately at the FERC and NERC prove quite the contrary. We are headed for a supply side train wreck. Sad indeed.

Take a gander at the FERC conference on winter issues as it highlighted highlights challenges. The exceptionally cold weather this winter pushed the bulk electric system “very close to the edge,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission acting Chair Cheryl LaFleur said at the agency’s April 1 technical conference on the winter’s effects on regional transmission organizations’ markets and operations. The bigger issue “is really the notion of reliability on a going forward basis,” given the power plant retirements coming in the next couple of years, Commissioner Tony Clark said.

“APPA is glad FERC has acknowledged the serious impact of the polar vortex on electric system operations and pricing. We hope they will also analyze the impact on consumers and ensure that they are not negatively impacted in the long run,” said Sue Kelly, president and CEO of the American Public Power Association. “There is a lot to be concerned about here.”

There was general consensus on the need for more infrastructure—particularly natural gas—and for better alignment of natural gas pipeline and electric generation scheduling practices. LaFleur wondered about whether a better way to value baseload generation is needed. There also was some discussion of the need for a North American Electric Reliability Corp. cold weather reliability standard.

The cold weather produced record winter peak demand for natural gas and electricity, significant price spikes (with natural gas exceeding $100/mmBtu at times in the Northeast), soaring uplift charges and “unprecedented” power plant outages, notably in PJM and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator areas. Apart from the Northeast and Midwest, most other U.S. gas price hubs traded below $6/MMBtu during these cold spells, FERC staff said. Natural gas storage dipped to an 11-year low of 896 BCF for the week ending March 21.

FERC staff said they are still reviewing the “unprecedented volatility” in natural gas markets, but the high prices appear to be due to “high demand, pipeline flow restrictions, covering of physical short positions and concern for pipeline penalties.”

“Some of the actions taken by the regions resulted in high, in some cases historically high, uplift payments” for out-of-market measures, FERC staff said. The uplift costs for January rivaled the total uplift incurred by the RTOs for an entire year, they said. A large part of uplift goes to reimburse generators for costs that are not covered through normal energy market and ancillary service sales, the staff noted.

“The amount of unavailable generation was unprecedented,” PJM Executive Vice President of Operations Michael Kormos said. On Jan. 6 and 7, 41,336 MW of generation (29 percent of peak load) was unavailable in PJM; for MISO, the figure was 30 percent, FERC staff said. ISO New England had 1,473 MW of generation out, representing 7 percent of peak load. Less than one-quarter of the outages in PJM and MISO were due to fuel supply issues, while 100 percent of the ISO New England outages were, FERC staff said. To address the outage rate, PJM plans to increase winter testing requirements for generators. Interruption of natural gas “is a concern, and will be even more for the future,” Kormos said.

PJM faces the retirement of some 12,000 MW of coal-fired generation between 2014 and 2016 and plans to replace it with a mix of demand response, imports and new gas-fired plants, Kormos said. However, PJM in 2014-15 will have to rely much more heavily on demand response and imports while new plants are being built, he said. Net interchange is a big issue for PJM, which “has a horrible ability to forecast it,” Kormos said.

“For the first time in the history of our industry, the traditional symbiotic relationship between system operator and central dispatch during emergency operations became suspect,” said John Sturm, vice president, corporate & regulatory affairs, ACES Power Marketing. “This is a relationship based on mutual trust and reliance. The RTO/ISO trusts the generator will respond to dispatch. The generator trusts the RTO/ISO will dispatch it if needed for reliability and will compensate at least its costs.”

At times, RTOs instructed generators to run for reliability needs when gas was not available, Sturm said. At other times, RTOs instructed generators to run for reliability needs and they procured gas, only to have the unit dispatch order canceled a few hours later. Also, generators cleared to run in the day-ahead market, “only to find that gas prices soared once the RTO award was known at 4 p.m., causing extensive losses,” he said.

The long and short of this is that we have a lot of work to do and the situation is only going to get worse if the renewables portfolio grows at projected levels. We are facing a train wreck. Who is going to blow the whistle and slow things down?