Tuesday, December 30, 2008

human-caused climate change?

Putting science into climate science.

I did some interesting reading this weekend. I had been under the assumption that climate scientists were basically competent at their science (I don't know why I keep making this assumption of competence mistake). I had assumed that there was some kind of resounding undeniable proof that we are going through an unprecedented rapid rise in global temperatures. I didn't believe that CO2 is as important a factor as is commonly assumed (I think clouds and forests deserve more credit). But I operated under the assumption that there really was some kind of unique, confirmed global warming.

Now, I'm not so sure.

As it turns out, the most important papers on the subject - the papers that caused the Kyoto protocols to be created, endless hands to be wrung, and millions of poisonous light bulbs to be distributed - the papers upon which all discussion of the matter since has been based - were wildly unscientific in very basic and important ways.

Being a fourth-tier science discipline*, a certain amount of fudgery is normal and expected. But to make giant assumptions with no basis - knowing full well that hundreds of billions of dollars depend on the outcome - should be a capital offense.

The basic, untested assumption: that tree rings are accurate ways to measure historic temperatures. I won't go over the details (see the link above), but the general idea is that all old temperatures were measured using tree ring samples while all new temperatures were measured using thermometers. No tree-ring measurements show frightening rising temperatures, all thermometer measurements do. Nobody took the time to do modern tree ring measurements to confirm that the tree ring temperature measurement system is accurate.

I had a chiropractor who did this kind of thing. Each time I went to them, they measured the condition of my back using a different method, never repeating the same test. It allowed them to show that I was constantly improving under their care without ever exposing them to the possibility of actually figuring out what was going on. It should be obvious to everyone that data collected using different procedures cannot be compared to each other in any meaningful way.

I'm not denying that the climate is changing, nor that humans are responsible, nor that there are many other very real environmental problems caused by humans. I'm denying that anyone has ever done an even marginally reliable study of the matter. I am suggesting that it is a very reasonable thing to be more than a bit annoyed about. So many resourced ineffectually tied up attempting to address a problem that hasn't been properly proven to exist is sickening.

I maintain my skepticism towards the reliance on atmospheric CO2 as the sole explanation for why temperatures are rising. If we cannot reliably prove that temperatures are rising above historic levels, how can anyone imagine that we can accomplish the exponentially more difficult task of explaining why they are rising?

That being said, I still think planting trees is always good idea. They're good carbon sinks, help clouds form, and generally reduce surface temperatures by being more reflective than soil and by functioning as evaporation coolers.

* The tiers of science, according to me: tier 1: Physics. tier 2: Chemistry, tier 3: biology, geology tier 4: climate science, ecology, economics, forestry, most engineering, tier 5: civil engineering, stamp collecting. The basic idea is that as you move down the tiers, you make more assumptions and can make less reliable predictions, because each tier relies on the results of all of the previous tiers. This is not a value judgment, just part of my framework of understanding. I function in tier 4 and wouldn't be happier anywhere else.

Monday, December 29, 2008

public transport performance standards

We have none and it sucks.

Twice in the past two weeks my bus run was canceled without notification, warning, or apology, despite perfectly normal weather and traffic and there is no way that this can be justified.

While waiting for a bus that never came, I was thinking about how to solve the problem, and the simplicity of the solution made me a bit annoyed. The ridiculously simple solution: real time monitoring.

A gps locater & a communication device for each bus + a bit of software and viola, problem solved.

The device would monitor the location of each bus and report it back on a real-time basis to the existing central dispatch center. The central station monitoring software would normally just collect information. If a bus gets more than, say 7 minutes late it informs the bus dispatcher, who decides how to respond.

The hardware would cost about the same as one day worth of diesel fuel. I can't imagine that the software would be too tough to put together.

For those of us who only ever take the same bus every day(which around here is the majority of riders), it could be set up to automatically inform us when our route is canceled or more than a certain set limit of minutes behind schedule, so we don't waste our time waiting for a bus that will never come. Theoretically, the bus stop itself could display an automatically updated schedule, but that would be asking too much. All I want is basic competence.

As it is, I have no confidence that the system will ever function properly, so I will just make sure that my next job comes with a parking lot.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

100% of scientists agree: trees are the answer

To global energy supply.

Well, 100% of German scientists who wrote this paper.

The plan: reforest the areas of the world that we deforested with rapidly growing species, then convert the biomass into energy.

They conclude that it is practical and possible to obviate fossil fuels this way, possibly at lower cost than not doing so and to be globally carbon neutral.

They didn't include any analysis of the climate impact of planting so many trees, but it seems likely to be significant.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chu is a smart cookie

He's the new Energy secretary and he is a smart one.

I recently posted a ppt presentation he gave, that is well worth viewing.

Now, to solidify my good opinion of him, he has endorsed the idea of a petrol tax.

"In a sign of one major internal difference, Mr. Chu has called for gradually ramping up gasoline taxes over 15 years to coax consumers into buying more-efficient cars and living in neighborhoods closer to work.

'Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,' Mr. Chu, who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in September.

But Mr. Obama has dismissed the idea of boosting the federal gasoline tax, a move energy experts say could be the single most effective step to promote alternative energies and temper demand."

Higher gas taxes would be beneficial on every front - they would reduce our energy consumption and force our domestic auto industry to get in line with international vehicle expectations. Released from the recent idiotic distraction of trucks and SUVs as passenger vehicles, they would be allowed to focus on cars that appeal to all markets.

This administration looks like it is going to make it a lot harder for folks like myself to maintain proper levels of cynicism.

Officially official

I earned a suffix for my name today.


It means that my signed approval can allow a drawing to be used for construction, that my opinion is legally valuable as an expert witness, and that I can do these things virtually anywhere in the world.

And if I lived in Germany, it would mean that polite people would refer to me as "Engineer" the same way that folks 'round here call people "Doctor."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Chu's worst nightmare - ETA Jan 20

Steven Chu, Obama's energy secretary, has called coal plants his "worst nightmare."

He is the head of the national research lab in Berkley, Ca, and put together a thorough tech-oriented overview of the climate, CO2, and energy problem. He is quite obviously a very intelligent fellow and, based on the style of his powerpoint presentation alone, much more of a thinker than a politician. He is a physicist rather than an engineer, though, so I'm a bit concerned about how capable he is of balancing reality against theory.

As energy secretary, he will preside over a nation that gets roughly half of it's electricity from his worst nightmare. And his favorite new energy supply option? Conservation. In a close second, though, come my favorites of wind/EVs and a new layer of high voltage DC power transmission lines.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

wind/EVs - Stanford agrees with me

A recent study done at Stanford found that the best transport solution is electric vehicles powered by electricity from wind plants.

The worst option, in their estimation, is Bush's favo - cars powered by ethanol produced from cellulosic material. I agree that all things ethanol are 100% idiotic and bass ackwards (why would anyone use a fuel that needs its own brand new distribution system?), but wonder why they think cellulosic ethanol is worse than corn ethanol.

This all presumes that somebody is going to figure out the battery problem, of course. Battery problems, really.

1) there may not be enough lithium in the world to make enough batteries for everyone
2) batteries cost about 10x too much
3) pending confirmation of recent research claims, batteries take up about 10x too much space

Primary point being, wind/EV - it has a bright future once we smooth out a few kinks.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

wind/ev power

From now on, I will no longer refer to wind power without referencing electric vehicles (EVs).

They are entirely co-dependent on each other. Well, wind is entirely dependent on EVs, anyway. And EVs are most beneficial when combined with wind. So, fairly co-dependent.

I've been over this a bit before, but the basic idea is that energy systems with large amounts of wind power are unstable and unreliable - and that is bad for everyone involved. Additionally, they require that old coal plants be kept online and running in their most inefficient range in order to quickly make up the difference when the wind slows. Again, bad for everyone involved.

EVs without wind increase overnight base load - which is great for big coal and nuke plants because they provide the majority of the base load power in the world. This is less good for the self-righteous EV buyers, because it means that they are unintentionally supporting some of their least favorite technologies. No, buying into "green power" options or "carbon offsets" doesn't make a difference. If you use power overnight, no matter where you live or what kind of contract you have, your power mostly comes from coal and nuke plants. These products do subsidize wind power project, but they have no impact whatsoever on where your power comes from or how power in your region is scheduled. Power is scheduled on an hourly least cost basis.

So, the needs of wind and EV buyers are aligned - they complete each other. Wind produces power erratically - and EVs can be set up to charge erratically; or even to give back to the power system when too much of the wind has stopped blowing.

Point being, for large portions of our power to come from wind we need EVs. And for EVs to meet all of the goals of most buyers, we need large amounts of wind power, so talking about one without mentioning the other is shortsighted.

Fortunately, Ford, GM, and Chrysler all have claimed that they'll have an EV on the market within 3 years - and Obama has said he strongly supports wind energy and it is likely to be part of his big infrastructure plans.

Monday, December 8, 2008

domestic automaker protectionism?

One of the things that helped cause the international trade collapse that turned the 1920's recession into World Depression I was nationalistic protectionism.

Every nation suddenly thought buying goods from somewhere else was a bad thing for the national economy. Global trade collapsed, making things worse for no good reason.

I wonder if we aren't looking at some risk of doing basically the same thing by helping the car and truck folks in Detroit out. We have a big domestic auto manufacturing industry, some in Detroit with old American names, some in the rest of the country with newer (and mostly Japanese) names. So, why should one get free money and not the other?

Say we give the American brands free cash and they use it to make their product more competitive - so much so that Japanese automakers cannot compete (far fetched, I know, considering where things stand today (see Ford Thunderbird, Dodge Caliber, Pontiac Aztek). But lets pretend, for the sake of argument that with sufficient free money the domestics could theoretically beat the imports). Given that no new car buying demand will be created, every sales win by the domestics is a sales loss by the imports.

Effectively, the best possible result of the bailout would be to transfer job losses out of Detroit and into Japan, except that most of the Japanese cars sold in the US are not built in Japan.

Most of the "Japanese import" vehicles sold in the US are built in the Southern US (and Canada). So, the bailout, if successful, will at best have a net impact of moving unavoidable job losses from Detroit to the South.

And that is regional protectionism, which is also known as just plain stupid. I'm not assigning morality or blame to any of this, only pointing out what the net impact would seem to be and that no system-wide benefit can come from it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

New Zealand == Iceland?

re: major financial crises that undermine their currency.

I sure hope not, but there are certainly some similarities. Iceland had a newly unregulated banking sector that accumulated astounding amounts of nasty low quality foreign debt, which was quite profitable until it wasn't. Now their economy is only slightly better than that of Germany's - in 1925. They still have fish and aluminum exports and loans from the IMF are keeping them somewhat solvent. It is, altogether, an unfortunate situation that could have been easily prevented through the use of basic financial regulation.

NZ is similar in that it has no exports of significance (#1 being dry milk solids) and had a rapidly expanding financial sector. And it is similar in that it's currency is rapidly losing worth (down about 35% since March from .82USD to .56USD) and accelerating. And part of the cause of their currency problems is the same.

Both countries benefited from the carry trade (people borrowed Yen and USD at low real interest rates, then invested it in NZD and Krona for high interest rates + currency appreciation).

I have no idea how big of trend this is or what happens next, but NZ's economy is small enough that something like this could easily get out of control and result in another addition to the IMF's desperate waiting list.

All in all, this whole crazy year has been an excellent argument for why operating in a small national currency is unjustifiably risky. Letting big banks do dumb things on top of that is suicidal.

When things settle down, I hope that more countries see the light and either join the euro or come up with regional alternatives.

Chrysler gives up the ghost

Well, not yet. But so soon now.

They've hired Bankruptcy lawyers. Considering how badly this will impact the already abysmal resale values of their vehicles (who wants to own a car from a dead automaker? they reek of unfulfilled promises and unsupported spare parts inventories), I doubt that this is an effort to force the gov't's hand into giving them the bailout.

If you're a fan of awful autos, now may be your last chance to buy that Sebring at anything approaching full price.

I called this BK in May, BTW. And I have re-affirmed it about once a month since then.

SRSLY, though, what automaker that produces rubbish like this to compete with accords and camrys ever had a real chance of survival? Their three valuable brands (Jeep, Hemi, & Viper) will probably be bought and find a way to make it through. All the rest of the trash will evaporate, because even pennies on the dollar is too expensive.

Monday, November 24, 2008

the biggest fallacy of efficiency

Most ways to save electricity at home do not save electricity at home.

Those old incandescent bulbs used their electricity 100% efficiently. They used a small portion of the energy to produce visible light and the vast majority of the energy to produce heat. If you heat your home, some portion of the heat comes from your heaters and some comes from your lights (and your electronics, refrigerator, oven, and so on). If you reduce the heating contribution from the lights (and everything else) by investing in expensive high efficiency devices, your heater will have to work harder to pick up the slack, effectively eliminating any possible gains.

If you live in an area where you use A/C most of the year, though, the opposite is true. Any reduction in energy use in the house will be matched by a similar reduction in cooling load, so efficiency improvements will be matched by more efficiency gains.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

why you shouldn't buy a prius - or a volt - or a tesla

Better batteries are coming. Probably sooner than later. They will make today's hybrids look about as cool as Windows 98.

Last week there was a vague announcement in the Korean presses about revolutionary battery technology, that was widely rebroadcast (in the tech gadget community) that I dismissed as unsupported enthusiasm over an unverifiable claim.

Turns out, I was right. Except for the "un" parts.

Their findings have been published in proper scientific journals and referenced somewhat widely.

They know they can build a component that will make batteries much much smaller. The estimate is that the batteries will be 5-10 times smaller.

Roughly speaking, this means replacing a Tesla Roadster's battery pack could give a car that can travel 1500-3000 miles on one charge or the same battery pack could be used to motivate an SUV for 200-400 miles. AKA good enough for 99% of us 99% of the time, AKA the end of petrol.

There are still big challenges to face, but this revelation has the appearance of a major game changer.

the coming plastic scare

Most everyone has heard of BPA by now, (the commonly used plastic additive that can cause fertility problems) but the rule of plurality* is about to turn popular fear against all things plastic in a big way.

* I just made that name up, but the idea is that things usually come in sets of 0, 1, or many. Basically, you can believe that there are no aliens. If you run into one someday, you may believe there is one species of aliens and leave it at that. If you turn around and run into another species of aliens, you have no choice but to assume that there are many, many species of aliens in existence and we just haven't met them yet. It would be very difficult to argue that there are some very specific conditions that led to precisely two or three alien species evolving and no more. Same goes for dangerous plastic. First there were no dangerous plastics, then there was one, and now there is commonly available evidence that there are many.

Science magazine published an article recently about how commonly used plastic equipment is corrupting lab results because of interaction between the plastics and the organic material being used in the study.

Quoth the study:

"...identified the presence of two families of compounds from the plastic that had contaminated their experiments and produced biological effects: quaternary ammonium biocides-anti-bacterial agents that manufacturers add to plastics-and oleamide, as well as related chemicals compounds used to improve the properties of plastics."

(BTW, switching to glass jars or canned foods is of little use - glass jar lids are usually coated in rubberized plastic, and food cans are as well. Otherwise, the food ends up tasting metallic. There probably are safe plastics, but what institution exists today that could be trusted to tell us which ones they are?)

As an aside, I remember reading an article about almost this exact same study published when I was in high school (around 1997, I think). It involved a plastic softening agent acting as an environmental estrogen and interfering with culture growth, I think. A brief search of the interwebs revealed no obvious references to this, but I'm sure I read it. If true, and if people really do get excited about the dangers of food stored in plastic this time, it'd be an interesting study in the propogation of information. Maybe people weren't ready to be alarmed back then. Now that BPA has paved the way, widespread fear of plastic is impending.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

two broken twos

Funny coincidence: two big deal economic indicators are probably gonna break the 2 barrier this month on their way down:

1) Nation median house price fell from $220k to $200k this year

2) National average gallon of regular gas is at $2.05, down from a peak of $4.10 this summer

more evidence that trees are very significant to global warming

Water vapor is apparently a greenhouse gas. Clouds reflect sunlight and promote global cooling. Trees emit chemicals that turn water vapor into clouds. Therefore trees have at least a threefold direct impact on global warming:

1) They promote cloud formation, which reduces the amount of loose atmospheric water vapor.
2) They absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.
3) They usually reflect more heat than the ground cover they replace.

The new part of this (for me, anyway) is the second half of number 1. It has been confirmed by atmospheric scientists that water vapor is a significant greenhouse gas:

"Specifically, the team found that if Earth warms 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the associated increase in water vapor will trap an extra 2 Watts of energy per square meter....

'We now think the water vapor feedback is extraordinarily strong, capable of doubling the warming due to carbon dioxide alone.' "

Monday, November 17, 2008

poorly analyzed: the problem of cheap oil

The WSJ recently published a set of opinions about what can be done about oil prices that are too low. As the national average price of gas is about to dip under $2/gallon, there is a real chance that people will forget that more expensive fuel is a nearly inevitable aspect of our future and that these people will make poor decisions that will endanger our collective national energy security.

Most of the commentators decided to pretend that they were politicians in a debate and completely ignored the question of what to do about excessively low oil prices. Instead, they talked about energy policy generally. As much as I think that all new buildings should be required to conform to high energy efficiency standards, most buildings in the US get their energy from electricity from coal, which has very little to do with oil.

If you're talking about oil consumption in the US, you are talking almost exclusively about transport fuels. And, from what we've seen demonstrated so effectively recently, expensive fuels cause conservation.

Of the commentators, only one touched the magic button for oil consumption:

"Increase federal gasoline taxes. Sadly, the easiest way to hold the gains we have made in reducing oil demand in the U.S. would be to raise federal gasoline taxes as prices fall to lock in a floor price that will continue to stimulate conservation. Some portion of the funds could be set aside for research in alternative energy."

And none mentioned the fact that the EPA fuel efficiency policies push customers into larger, heavier "light trucks" (SUVs) by allowing higher emissions and lower fuel economy without having to pay gas guzzler taxes. This distinction between the classes of cars and trucks is an outdated and perverse one that helped put average americans into insecure energy positions.

So, if the WSJ had asked me what to do to address the dangers of excessively low oil prices, these would be my answers:

1) Phase in a federal gas tax of about $1 adjusted annually for inflation. Use the money to fund personal transportation efficiency research, development, & commercialization. At current prices, this would represent a 50% tax. We'd still have the cheapest gas in the industrialized world, especially when expressed as a fraction of median incomes.

2) Eliminate any regulatory distinction between on-road passenger vehicles types - a car is a truck is an SUV is a motorcycle (obviously, motorcycles would be excused from safety regulations). All of them drive down the freeway with one person inside most of the time, why should their fuel efficiency and emissions be regulated differently?

3) Bring back the the national speed limit. I hate this idea from a personal perspective, but the laws of physics are immutable. Energy spent pushing air out of the way increases with a square of speed, so fuel efficiency rapidly falls. Plus, higher speed limits justify big engines and big engines are less efficient at any speed. I think 55 mph is unjistifiably low, but 65 may be a reasonable national limit.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Paulson: evil or idiotic?

Speaking with reference to the mess that under-regulated financial engineering and blindingly short-sighted Greenspan Fed policy, Paulson said:

"We have in many ways humiliated ourselves as a nation with some of the problems that have taken place here."

Considering that Paulson was CEO of a company that helped produce the bubble and was part of the administration that helped prevent effective regulation, I'd say that Paulson would be correct if he were speaking in the royal "we" and left the nation out of it.

I am unable to imagine that Paulson could possibly think that the nation as a whole played any part in the mess. Sure, lenders, borrowers, agents, and most everybody else involved acted to maximise their own economic interests and the mess couldn't have been made without them. But, that is the whole point of the regulations that Paulson and party fought against - to prevent parties from acting in a way that endangers the whole economy.

And Paulson knows this. Anyone who has taken macroeconomics 101 knows this. It is an economic assumption: individuals act in their own best interest, even if it may be harmful to themselves and others.

So, to get back to Paulson's statement, I don't think "we have humiliated ourselves" at all, I think our regulations have failed.

Also, to be fair, the "as a nation" part is also bunk. The same stupid things that happened in the US happened in most of the rest of the developed and developing nations. "As a people" would be more accurate.

We, as a people, failed to have effective national regulations because of internation competition to juice earnings through the application of shortsightedness. That's how I see things, anyway.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

usage-based car insurance: about freaking time

Available only in Texas today: car insurance by the mile.

Drive half as much, pay half as much. Unlike some silly, overcomplicated approaches to the problem that use far more technology than necessary, you tell them your current odometer reading and how many miles of insurance you want, then they sell you proof of insurance.


If you lie about the number of miles or keep driving without buying more miles of insurance, then you are driving uninsured.

My only question:

What's the hold-up for nationwide implementation?

As little as I drive, I spend more on insurance than I do on gas, which is more than a bit ridiculous.

Can some national insurer please buy this company and offer their coverage nationally already?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

business idea: ways to use free electricity

As more and more of our energy comes from unschedulable sources (like wind), utilities will have no choice but to manage consumption on an hour-to-hour basis. This will mean the price of electricity will fluctuate throughout the day, based on the current system conditions. On a windy night, electricity will be nearly free. On a still, cold day, it may cost significantly more than it does today.

And this is a good thing. It'll give us a chance to make the system smarter and more efficient.

So, the business idea is to come up with ways to take advantage of cheap electricity. Once efficient lighting has been adopted, the next biggest residential/commercial energy use is climate control. The idea is simple enough, move heat energy costs away from the peak energy price times by storing heat for later use.

In the case of a home with central heating, this would mean adding an inline heat supply that uses heated oil. When electricity is cheap, the device heats the oil in the storage tank. When electricity is expensive, the device uses the heat stored the oil instead of using expensive electricity.

In areas that are both cold and sunny at the same time, you could add solar thermal heating to the oil tank. With today's technology, this would result in a far more cost efficient and environmentally friendly way to reduce energy consumption than solar photovoltaic panels. PV panels emit all kinds of nasty chemicals in their production that solar thermal panels don't.

France looks to Obama for leadership

The recent letter from the French president to Obama caught my attention:

"At a time when we must face enormous challenges together, your election raises immense hope in France, Europe and beyond: the hope of an open America, characterized by solidarity and strength, that will once again lead the way, with its partners, through the power of its example and the adherence to its principles.

France and Europe, which have always been bound to the United States through their ties of history, values and friendship, will thus be reenergized to work with America to preserve peace and prosperity in the world. Rest assured that you may count on France and on my personal support."

I agree that the US should lead the way - and that we are uniquely positioned to do so, being the richest, most powerful nation to have ever existed - but part of this belief is a bit of nationalism. I expect that if I were German (or Chinese, Russian, South African, or pretty much anything else), I would think that Germany should be the one leading the way. As president, I expect I would be inviting Obama to join me in my efforts to lead the way, not suggesting that he lead the way and I could possibly be one of his partners in doing so.

I understand that France can't lead the way in nearly everything the way the US does, but the country must have some strong points that it considers world-leading and important, no?

Is there a general sense of helplessness internationally that whatever the US does, that is just the way things are gonna happen? Maybe France will pitch in, maybe not, but who really cares anyway?

Maybe that why there has been so much international celebration about Obama. As a person from an ethnically and culturally diverse background, he is an appropriately international person to lead the culturally and ethnically diverse world.

Friday, November 7, 2008

signs of socialism in "Communist" China

The high point of this entry is that title. The rest is me talking about things I barely understand.

It is commonly observed that China's free-market-based rapid economic growth is decelerating more quickly than most predicted - and that this could possibly lead to social disruptions.

"Analysts worry that a sharp downturn could undermine the country’s already weakening investment climate and impair some of China’s biggest banks, which have bankrolled much of the boom.

Beijing worries that if growth slows to 8 percent or less, not enough jobs will be created in a country that is rapidly urbanizing — and that could lead to social unrest.

To prevent that, the government is preparing a large economic stimulus package, pushing new infrastructure projects, offering aid to exporters and searching for ways to prop up the nation’s severely depressed stock and real estate markets."

For China, which has been communist in name (and frighteningly unpredictable market dictatorship in practice) for decades, this means the billion or so people who have seen precisely zero benefit from the policies so far, who have been politely waiting for their turn to start climbing the economic ladder, may have to adjust their expectations. The kids they sacrificed 60% of their income to send through school so they could get one of the new white collar jobs will have a smaller chance of success.

It is during times of great progress that revolutions happen.

The temporary solution is a bit of socialism - in the form of public works projects much like those that helped bring the US out of the first world depression. This will take cash out of the government coffers. As some have observed, any decline in cash reserves in China is likely to upset US interest rates, since they are the biggest buyer of US treasuries - which help set interest rates. And that would be a bad thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

today's biggest news story

nO, nOt that stOry.

Biodiversity again proved that it is of great worth by giving humanity a fungus that can directly convert cellulose into diesel fuel.

Given that US petrol prices are down below $2/gallon in some cities ($1.92 in Kansas City today, that's $.50/liter for the metrically minded), there may not be much near term interest in fungal diesel in the USA today, but it is good news for any countries with both a large cellulose resource and high fuel prices.

New Zealand, with it's large domestic agroforestry industry and petrol at $2NZD/liter ($4.6USD/gal) could be a good place to incubate the technology.

Monday, November 3, 2008

what if CO2 isn't the most important factor

What if all of our bright climate scientists are stuck in group-think mode and cannot see the possibility that a rise in atmospheric CO2 is correlated with climate change, but not the most important causal factor?

What if the real story is deforestation? What if the complicated climate models underestimated the impact of trees on cloud cover because of cloud-forming factors that they weren't aware of? Scientists recently discovered such a factor.

As a low risk hedge, it would be wise to push for greater global reforestation and afforestation efforts. They will act as carbon sinks, soil stabilizers, sources of revenue, and all sorts of other good things, so little harm can possibly be done by pro-tree policies.

why the rich should pay more

Taken from a purely Market Capitalist perspective:

Because they have the strongest interest in keeping things the way they are.

Sure, in practice, taxes pay for defense, roads, welfare, police, etc. In principle, what this amounts to is the stability of a system. Without a system, we would quickly devolve into a far less economically efficient situation. Those with little income or assets would have little to lose from this change - and some of them would inevitably come out better. The rich and powerful, though, would almost universally become less rich and less powerful.

This principle even works on a marginal basis. If taxes are too low and social welfare program become ineffective, inequality of income and crime will rise - leading to the kidnapping of rich family members that we see in areas with high income disparity and no social welfare. For most, the cost of increased personal and family security would be greater than the cost of increased taxes.

This is such an obvious fact, that I doubt many wealthy people who have actually taken a moment to consider the implications seriously believe that their tax burden should be low.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

petrol prices not crashing for most of the world

Since June, the average price of pump gas in the US has fallen by about 40% from it's high a bit above $4 to the current national average of $2.42, but many nations haven't been so lucky.

As a result of the rapid and massive swings in the values of currencies, many countries are still looking at pump prices near their June highs. In Australia, for example, the crashing price of a barrel of oil has been nearly matched by the 30% crash in the value of their currency relative to the dollar, the price of pump gas has only fallen about 6% from it's June peak (from $6.0AUD to $5.6AUD/gallon today).

Since every major world currency has followed a similar track for the last few months (except for the Yen, which has risen vs the dollar), nobody has seen fuel price declines anywhere close to what we've seen.

The good news is that consistently high prices for a good long time means more people will be convinced that high prices are permanent, which will lead to higher acceptance of fuel efficiency investments and other energy conservation efforts - which should help keep the price of oil on the decline worldwide, allowing us to ridicule petrol conservation efforts and embrace our giant trucks for a few more years.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

why no spiritual descendent of the VW Beetle?

The great thing about the original beetle - the reason there are still so many around today - was the fact that it was designed to be maintained by the owner.

With every passing generation of cars of every make, user maintenance moves further and further into the realm of myth. Because of this, there is no modern-day spiritual successor to the original beetle.

VW is expected to start selling a small rear-engined economy car called the up! that they consider fits the bill. If modern VWs are anything to go by, it will be anything but. Instead, it will be filled with all sorts of impenetrable electronics, a sealed-until-failure transmission, and engine components that cost hundreds of dollars apeice hidden under ugly plastic cladding that requires specialized tools to remove.

That being said, the up! is a cute one that I would consider purchasing if I didn't live in the land of 5000 lb full size trucks that sell for less than the average import economy car goes for (if you haven't heard, you can now buy a brand new base model Ford F-150 for $13k - about the same as a smart fortwo).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

you heard it here first: single global economic system

Just a few days ago, I mentioned how we have a collection of National banking systems failing to respond effectively to a Global crisis.

I have no doubt that economists have been talking about the reform or replacement of the collection of ineffectual loose agreements we have today for decades - the parallels to the League of Nations are overwhelming. But, today is when I saw the first remotely mainstream discussion of the subject - in the financial media.

I also have no doubt that any of the proposed changes will have any useful impact on the current crisis. This crisis is just getting started still, with house prices across the planet still excessively high and falling - destroying wealth and taking the economy of those invested in housing wealth and its derivatives with it (including the unfortunate Icelanders, who are talking about how they have 3 to 5 weeks of imported food left to eat before they have to figure out a way to convince somebody to accept their currency). It seems to me, the main function of any UN of the Economy should be to have the powers to keep individual nations from getting so wild and crazy in the first place to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

international context

the house price crash may have started in the US, but declines are now global and nearly universal across markets, according to the IMF.

house prices, it seems, are the opposite of local.

the repricing of risk and associated deleveraging, evaporation of trust and credit, it seems, is a global issue.

too bad we don't have a global institution that can do something about this - like prevent it from happening again.

Monday, October 13, 2008

US doing something right

With all of the negative talk about politics, corruption, and the unfortunate collection of irrelevant (and often false) personal attacks against any person who catches even a tiny fraction of the world's attention, I was happy to see that the US bureaucracy is actually doing something good:

Free wireless internets for everyone.

"The idea of handing out airwaves potentially worth billions didn't go over very well at the agency. But in May, Mr. Martin proposed auctioning off the airwaves to a company willing to set aside some of its airwaves for free use.

The network would have to reach 50% of the U.S. population in four years and 95% within a decade."

So, you'll get free basic service as a teaser for a subscription-based service. Let's just hope the basic service is good enough to carry a phone conversation so millions of us can get out from under cell phone plans.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

single global economic system

A single global currency is inevitable and the ongoing global financial crisis has precipitated another small step in this direction when all of the major central banks around the world announced a coordinated financial easing policy. Just like it took a world war to create the League of Nations and second world war to create the UN, this financial crisis will help create a financial UN to displace the IMF (which in this analogy is the similarly ineffective and ill-fated League of Nations).

As an aside, I don't think these rate cuts will achieve anything useful re: the current crisis. The fundamental problem is excess debt and the solutions so far have been attempts at making debt easier to acquire. How will encouraging people to take on more debt solve the problem of too much debt?

But that is unimportant. What is important is that it is becoming obvious to everyone that we live in a single tightly interwoven international economy that cannot be controlled by individual national institutions. When this crisis eventually passes, there will be efforts to create something like a UN for the central banking system, though hopefully the design of this institution will take some of the lessons from the successes and failures of both the UN and the European Central Bank.

In the long run, as this institution is seen to be effective, there will be increased pressure to move to a single currency, by adopting the dollar, the euro, or the yuan or creating a new currency.

All of these actions will be supported by the markets because they will reduce risk. Lower risk means greater long term returns on investment.

So, that is the silver lining for the financial crisis, if you were looking for one.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

sufficient grain supply? continued

Some time ago, I posted about how some people had convinced themselves that food was becoming permanently too expensive for increasing portions of the population because of Biofuel policies. Specifically, I posted about how silly I thought this idea was.

At the time, wheat futures had doubled in the previous year and looked ready to rocket off to infinity - effectively pricing everyone out of food. Some economists saw this for what it was - a speculative bubble. Some environmentalists saw this for what it wasn't - a sign that poorly design biofuel policies were making poor people starve.

The update is that wheat futures are back down to where they were a year ago - and are rapidly falling. Considering that the biofuels policies haven't changed, but speculative investment strategies have, this seems to indicate that were we looking at a speculative investment bubble.

That being said, I do still agree that the US biofuel mandate should be modified to exclude any fuel made from food sources. Converting corn sugars into Hummer Juice just doesn't make sense from an energy or food perspective.

Monday, October 6, 2008

expensive vacation timing

first, i went to Australia in April when the USD basically hit its 5-year low vs the AUD at an exchange rate of 1 USD to 1.05 AUD. the same trip today would have cost about a third less, since a Benjamin buys about 140 AUD today.

second, i went on a long road trip over the last few weeks - about 4k miles worth. we paid pretty close to $4 most of the way. today, the national average is $3.45 and falling. given the current plummeting price of crude, i think we'll see gas at the pump break the $3 barrier before New Years. January this year, crude was at the same price as it is today and gas was selling for $2.97.

the overarching theme here being that the world is realizing that while the US economy may not be in the best shape, the rest of the world has their own subprime financial issues that they'll have to freak out about at some point. that, and i have a pretty luxurious job that allows me pretty frequent vacations.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

can we please have a balanced playing field?

Technology-specific subsidies (like the loan guarantees for nuke plants and wind energy tax credits) are extremely effective at preventing innovation and encouraging permanent industrial reliance on government funding.

Subsidies are necessary to bring new tech concepts to commercialization and that is where they should stop. Subsidizing mature commercial products of any variety - coal, nuke, wind, or solar - is socialist and inefficient.

CO2 is a problem, coal plants themselves are neutral. Reducing CO2 production is a good thing, wind farms themselves are neutral. The incentive process should reflect this. Instead, the current incentives encourage coal plants and encourage wind farms more.

If we want to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, all we have to do is remove all subsidies of mature technologies and establish a carbon market that makes CO2 production expensive and CO2 removal from the atmosphere profitable. This must be done in as simple and transparent a way as possible and must be a worldwide effort.

Since a worldwide effort is obviously impossible today, a CO2 tax/subsidy could be established for any product entering or leaving the country. This tax/subsidy would tax any imported product based on the estimated CO2 emissions of production and would refund the CO2 taxes charged against any product exported. This would prevent companies from moving production overseas to avoid CO2 costs.

#1 problem with this idea: it combines the Republican love of markets with the Democratic insistence that CO2 emissions matter.

#2 problem with this idea: all mature industries that are currently subsidized for shortsighted historical reasons would oppose a balanced playing field. Unfortunately, this list includes wind energy, so neither Coal-State Republicans nor Renewable-Mandate Democrats could support it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

a simple explanation of the bill failure

The first iteration of the $700B bailout bill failed today, with the majority of Republican representatives voting against it.

A quick glance at political maps reveals that virtually none of the red states experienced bubbly house prices (hint: bubbly prices in the past are shown as plummeting prices today), while nearly all of the blue states did (the exceptions appear to be Florida and Nevada, which both had price bubbles and are swing states), since Republicans overwhelmingly represent the rural parts of the country while the house price bubble occurred almost exclusively in Urban areas.

From this perspective, the bailout bill is a mechanism for taking money from those that didn’t participate in the foolishness of the last decade (rural populations which tend to be Republican) and bailing out those that did (urban populations which tend to be Democratic). From this perspective, it is understandable that the Republicans killed the bill.

My story is that rural representatives killed the bill and rural representatives just happen to mostly be Republican. I do not claim that there is anything especially Republican about killing this bailout deal. The modern Republican party can make few claims to the fiscal conservatism they used to represent that would impel them to oppose this sort of bill on political grounds.

For reference, I think the whole US Political system is screwed and I have no intention in taking sides (R vs D) in this post, just making simple observations.

thanks to:

zillow map

cnn map

time to buy furniture

this is what Russians (who have watched their currency turn into confetti more than once) do when they think things are about to get much much worse.

the big difference between Russians and USAians, though, is that they have a positive savings rate while we have ever-increasing debt at all levels of society. so, they have cash to exchange for furniture, while we have a total debt burden that is many many times larger than our annual income.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

World Depression I parallels

If the world runs in cycles and if what we are seeing is the end of an 80 year credit cycle and we are looking at World Depression II, then it is interesting to look at parallels.

Considering that it is election season, presidential comparisons are most entertaining:

Bush compared to Hoover (commonly held at least partially responsible for turning a recession into a depression because of his tax policies)

Obama compared to FDR (responsible for the New Deal, a nationwide infrastructure construction project that helped end World Depression I. Obama's New Deal involves national renewable energy infrastructure.)

I don't agree with either comparison 100%, but they are certainly worth a read.

Greenie Joe?

I'm not a big fan of the Federal Renewable Energy (RE) Production Credit because it is tax-based and makes it more difficult for public entities to compete in the renewable energy industry, as I wrote about yesterday.

So, what would be better? One quick thought:

Federal Loan Guarantees - they do this for Nuclear Plants and it is quite effective. Just like Nuclear, most RE projects have front-heavy costs and most of them are paid for with long term loans, so they are very sensitive to interest rates. Just like the housing market, affordability is determined more by interest rates than any other factor. Today, the Federal Government borrows money for 30 years at 4.3%, whereas a small business loan today costs 8%. By giving access to cheap funding, the Federal Government could balance the RE playing field for all parties. Small entities would benefit the most because they have to pay the highest interest rates. This would make it easier for towns, co-ops, and small businesses to invest in RE projects. In practice, it would be very similar to what the invention of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did for the housing market during the Great Depression. It greatly reduced the cost of borrowing money without costing the government hardly anything at all.

Just like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac started with real names that eventually got shortened for the sake of convenience, I'd expect this sort of loan program to do the same. Thus the title for this post.

Monday, September 8, 2008

old hydro vs new wind, public vs private

Why is it that the nation's rivers (and the power from them) are national resources, but the nation's wind resources are being developed almost exclusively by private entities?

In order to end the Great Depression (funny thing: there was a time when WWI was called the Great War), provide cheap renewable energy, flood control, and irrigation water most of the nation's large dams were built in the 1930s - by entities created and run by the Federal government: the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the Bureau of Reclamation to name a few. These entities have defined regional power systems and have run flawlessly since the 1930s. They are excellent examples of how effective public power can be.

Public Power on a day-to-day basis serves the public. When a decision is being made, these organizations actually ask themselves "is this what is best for our customers?" Private Power ultimately serves shareholders. A complicated set of regulations prevents them from excessively abusing their customers, but at the end of the day they ask themselves: "how will this decision impact our stock value?"

Why is it, then that the Federal Renewable Energy Production Incentive is tax-based? This effectively excludes public entities from the renewable energy game. Public entities don't pay taxes, so giving them tax credits is pretty worthless.

It is a worthwhile time to consider this perverse bias, since the Federal Renewable Energy Incentive is expected to be renewed during this session of Congress.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

re: hogwash economics and environmentalism

last week, i mentioned how the fields of economics and environmentalism ignore each other when making their predictions.

this was specifically in reference to a flat out silly claim that air travel will be prohibitively expensive in the future because of fuel shortages. a bit of news today reinforced my argument:

An algae-to-jet-fuel process from Arizona State U is being moved from research to commercialization.

also, a factoid i ran across in a car mag this morning reinforced the point i made about humanity's willingness to convert coal to liquids when the situation demands it:

Coal-to-Liquids process used to fuel Axis armies during World War II.

i'm not saying these are good or bad technologies. i have no special desire to fly using nazi fuel, or hippy gas. all i'm saying is that some parts of popular environmentalism are almost farcical in how they obstinately ignore economics and technology in order to come up with their dire predictions.

and this makes me a bit mad, because i am an environmentalist. but the practical kind of environmentalist that finds the modern extremist anti-humanity face of environmentalism so ridiculous that i am frequently ashamed to associate myself with any part of the movement.

Friday, August 29, 2008

translation to EE-speak

Ignore the below. I did a little more searching and found this paper from 2003 talking about the problems related to shedding large loads as a type of spinning reserve. It endorses the idea of load management for reliability improvement, but suggests that managing small loads is preferable.

I still think the idea I wrote about yesterday is a good one. This is pretty rare for me. I usually bore of my ideas within a few hours or look back on them from another perspective and find that they were unoriginal or impractical or poorly thought out. I suspect that most "new" ideas in the world suffer a similar fate.

But I like this one. It is an evolution of an existing process that may be practical and beneficial enough to be worth implementing. My brief search so far hasn't revealed any previous discussion of this exact idea, so there is even a small chance that it may even be somewhat original.

Utilities do something similar already, establishing contracts with certain customers where the customer agrees to be the first load shed to avoid a blackout in exchange for a lower price for electricity. And at least one California Utility recently established a system whereby several back-up generators already installed at customer sites around the city would be turned on to increase production to avoid a blackout.

So, this is essentially the same idea, but instead of responding to near catastrophic events that occur once a year, it would be designed to respond to economic conditions that occur up to several times a day.

The mechanism for implementation within today's energy market would be to sell the flexibility of a load (or collection of loads) on the energy market as spinning reserves. (Spinning reserves are generation facilities that must be run on a standby basis in order for a power system to remain reliable. If the need arises, these plants can quickly increase their power output, so that supply and demand always match. Usually, they are steam-based fossil-fuel-fired plants where the boiler is kept hot enough to allow a fast response to demand.) All power systems need spinning reserves to function properly. The more unpredictable your supply or demand is, the more spinning reserves you need.

Spinning reserves are a largely ignored blemish on the face of wind power, because systems that have more wind power need more spinning reserves to remain reliable and spinning reserves are a source of CO2. Meanwhile, wind energy producers are given CO2 credits based only on how much energy they sell to the system, completely ignoring the increased need for spinning reserves.

So, there you go. If you are looking for a business plan in the utility industry, this one is available. It'd probably work best in California because they have a screwed up, expensive, and deregulated electrical system, year-round irrigation demand, market-based power scheduling, and high concentration of wind energy. Presumably, you could even come up with a way to demonstrate that the process reduced CO2 (by displacing spinning reserves), so you could also realize profits from CO2 credit sales.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

market driven irrigation scheduling as form of "pumped storage"

A small idea for how to reduce the cost of integrating wind through the addition of complexity:

Run irrigation equipment when the wind allows it. Less succinctly: use real-time market-based electricity pricing to influence the short term power consumption of large electric loads to manage the fluctuations of output from large concentrations of must-run power generation (a replacement for running reserves).

I've previously talked about some of the challenges to integrating large amounts of wind energy into a mature power system and mentioned how real time pricing of power for plug in hybrid electric vehicles could be greatly beneficial. I still think it is a good idea, but one with significant barriers to success. One of these barriers being that there are virtually no plug in hybrid electric vehicles. Another being the general principle that the more people are involved in a process the more likely it is to fail. And this process would require that everybody be involved.

So, the same idea applied to a smaller number of larger loads that actually exist today is called for. Simply stated: when there is excess generation in a local portion of the electric system (when the wind is blowing), the price of electricity would be lowered for large customers and they would choose to run their equipment (the irrigation runs). When there is a shortage of generation in a local portion of the electric system (when the wind isn't blowing), the price for large consumers would be raised and they would choose to not run some of their equipment (the irrigation stops running).

This is a good example because the precise timing of irrigation isn't terribly important. Irrigation represents a large fraction of load in rural areas, so if you can influence irrigation scheduling you may be able to make a measurable impact on your ability to cheaply integrate wind power. Most wind power is located in rural areas near the irrigation loads. A potential problem may be that in many places, the highly variable wind inputs may happen at times of the year when there aren't crops to water (winter in the Dakotas, for example, probably isn't a big watering season).

What does this have to do with pumped storage (seen in the title)? The only practical way to store large amounts of energy today is by pumping water up behind a reservoir when you have excess power, then running it through turbines to generate power when you need it. Using irrigation controls as discussed here is basically the same idea, except smarter and more likely to succeed because it doesn't involve building any new infrastructure.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

hogwash economics and environmentalisms

so much surrounding economics and the environment is pure rubbish.

like these drs. of doom claiming that flying will be prohibitively expensive in our lifetimes.

honestly, how do you fool someone into not laughing in your face when you make such claims?

the claim was probably based on the naive assumptions that oil consumption always goes up, that there is not now and there will never be a replacement for oil, and that there is only so much oil in the world.

1) sometimes oil consumption goes down - in the US with gas prices around $4/gallon (prices that most of the rest of the industrialized world has been dealing with for decades), our oil consumption goes down. we drive less when it is expensive to drive. imagine that. economics work.

2) there are at least hundreds of substitutes for oil, possibly thousands. from biomass to coal-to-liquids to solar to nuclear. we don't use any of them in any significant way because oil is helluva cheap. if push comes to shove and people face the possibility of not being able to move around the planet economically or putting some extra carbon in the atmosphere by using jet fuel made via a coal-to-liquids process, the vast majority of people will choose to fly.

3) yes, fine. there is one amount of oil in the planet and it is a finite number. but the number that most environmentalists use for soothsaying isn't that very large finite number. they use the much smaller "economically viable oil deposits" number, which is virtually worthless. as technology progresses, the costs of extracting "uneconomical" oil deposits come down and as prices rise, deposits move from the uneconomical column to the economical one. so, the actual amount of oil that humanity will eventually extract from the earth could be many many times larger than the "total deposits" number that environmentalists use.

economists have ignored environmentalists for decades, bringing us beef production processes that use 15,500 liters per kilo* of beef among other things. maybe environmentalists are just trying to return the favor.

* at this rate of water consumption, agricultural water has been determined by the economic system to be nearly absolutely worthless. even if the entire retail price of beef went only to pay for the water used in the production of the beef (at $20/kilo for a decent cut of beef), you'd only pay $.0013 per liter of water. just over a tenth of a cent. the real price paid is probably closer to 5-10% of that. anyone want to make a guess why we talk about water shortages and what could possibly be done to reduce the risk of having one? giving clean water an economic value greater than 0 would be a good place to start.

Friday, August 15, 2008

what is the opposite of a colony?

in the day of empires, rich & powerful countries would invade less powerful ones in order to force their population in servitude and slowly strip the country of resources.

so what do you call it when a rich & powerful country invades another country, then pays to upgrade the infrastructure there while the newly established puppet government sits on its assets and watches?

this is apparently the situation in Iraq and it is not a good deal for anyone involved.

the US has big budget deficit, economic, and infrastructure problems that could be improved by big spending big on improvement projects at home (much like the New Deal projects that helped end the great depression).

Iraq has massive unemployment and skilled labor shortage problems that could be improved by the Iraqi government putting its assets to use building their own infrastructure. How will the people of Iraq ever learn to run a modern economy if the US just builds it for them using contract laborers from the US?

add in the fact that employed people are far less likely to become terrorists, and the facts that the Iraqi government needs to get its act together and the US needs to get out of the way becomes a security issue.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

change in sentiment re:housing

houses are beginning to be seen as liabilities, not assets.

they went straight from being the centerpieces of get-rich-quick schemes to being a huge burden to be avoided because they constrain lifestyle choices and reduce mobility.

it is just one article, but it is a sign of the times. and this sign is pointing to the increasing possibility that housing prices will over-correct before returning to their historical (inflation-adjusted) price range.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

hydraulic transmission to simplify wind power?

i'm a bit out of my depth here, but thoroughly interested.

the idea, briefly mentioned here as an aside, is that a new high-efficiency hydraulic pump will allow a simplification of wind turbine design by allowing the big lump of electric generator to be relocated from the nacelle to the ground. this is advantageous because the generator is big and heavy and occasionally requires maintenance. moving a big, heavy thing that requires maintenance from the top of a 250 foot pole to the ground provides obvious advantages. the reason it isn't already a common practice is because the mechanical transmission options available have been too expensive (like a 250ft long crankshaft) or too inefficient (like the commercially available hydraulic pumps).

sounds pretty cool, no? it could reduce wind energy costs by making the turbines less expensive and easier to maintain. the unpopular knowledge is that wind turbine transmissions have long been a weak point.

my extrapolation questions based on a pretty weak hydraulic fluid background:
1) can you take the hydraulic outputs from several wind turbines to power one generator and further reduce costs? a single 100 MW hydraulic-powered generator should demonstrate significant costs savings compared to 100 1 MW generators.
2) can you economically store energy using hydraulic pressure? enough to level the power output from wind sources on a 10 minute scale? 1 hr scale? more? this would increase the value of wind power by decreasing the cost of integrating it into the power system

edit: this paper by Artemis IP in Scotland demonstrating a hydraulic transmission for wind generation suggests that moving the electric generator from the nacelle isn't terribly interesting and implies that only a very small amount of energy storage for sub-second smoothing purposes is worthwhile. the study was done for wind turbines at the 800 kW scale. maybe the results will be different at the 3-5 MW scale.

joggers and drunkards: get a room

i see little difference between them, yet one is publicly acceptable - nearly unavoidable, really - while the other is a ticketable offense.

both joggers and drunkards:
1) bring inappropriate bodily fluids to the streets
2) make excessive noise when in groups
3) frequently ignore traffic conventions

i don't really mind people exercising any more than i mind people drinking. i just don't see any reason why my experience in public spaces should suffer so that they can parade their addictions.

that is what dedicated spaces (bars and gyms) are for.

joggers (and drunkards) really don't normally bother me. only when there are dozens of them on my way somewhere are they annoying - as there were this morning on my 3 block 6:15 am walk to my bus stop. it makes me look forward to rainy winter mornings that will break the spirit of most of this self-righteous anti-decorus* crowd. or, at least encourage them to get up late enough that i won't see them.

*adjectival form of decorum that i just made up

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

halfhearted kangaroo study

apparently, switching from cows + sheep to kangaroo as a source of red meat could reduce Australia's total carbon output by 3%, mainly because kangaroos produce less methane.

the study also mentions a few other small issues, such as reduced erosion from padded feet versus hooves. glaringly absent is a look at Australia's most constrained resource: water. drought is the normal state of affairs in Australia recently and i've mentioned before how much more effective their water restriction policies could be if they included dietary considerations.

presumably, kangaroo production is less water intensive than beef production, since kangaroos are more natural animals raised in more natural ways and native to the region. if so, then it'd be a comparatively simple matter of setting policy to encourage kangaroo consumption as a nationalistic and environmentally friendly alternative. to drive the point home, it may even be worthwhile to look at including an "excess water use and erosion" tax on beef.

for reference, kangaroo meat is already sold in normal grocery stores in Australia, so for the generality of the population to switch to this alternative would not be as odd as it would be for Americans to switch to deer, which is rarely found in grocery stores here. psychologically, i think it'd be more like Americans switching from beef to sheep.

Monday, August 11, 2008

kinky loan history

the best explanation i've read about what exactly subprime and alt-a loans are, why they exist, and what they mean for where we are today from my favorite blogger on the subject.

"Think of it this way: subprime borrowers had proven that they couldn't carry 50 pounds, so the subprime lenders found a way to restructure their debts so that they were only carrying 40. Alt-A lenders took a lot of people who had proven they could carry 50 pounds and used that fact to justify adding another 50 pounds to the burden."

this is why alt-a is more dangerous than subprime. far greater losses can be expected - and in more expensive neighborhoods. alt-a loans are everywhere. anyone capable of paying their credit card debt on a monthly basis could qualify for a loan on a house that the lender knew they had no chance of ever being able to afford.

as for the end game of how we get out of this current situation:

One of the main reasons we are in a mortgage credit crunch is that two possible models of "recovery" lending--subprime and Alt-A--got used up blowing the bubble. I think it will be a long time before lending standards ease significantly, and I think subprime will come back first. But I do suspect we've seen the last of Alt-A for a much longer time."

thoroughly worth reading.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

my next car

as i mentioned this morning, i'm not really into trucks or SUVs.

this is more my style:

engine: 47kW electric motor
top speed: 80mph
range: 100 mi
availability: not commercially available, maybe in 5 yrs or so. in demonstration today.

i'm happy with the car i have today (a 1st gen pontiac vibe aka toyota matrix aka slightly taller toyota corolla hatchback) and can think of no car that would better suit my needs, but electric is just plain cool.

and i'm convinced that the best way to meet the regulatory requirements for huge amounts renewable energy is through the intelligent integration electric cars into the system.

in 5 or 7 years when i want to replace my ride, hopefully this kind of thing will be available at a price point i will be able to tolerate.

best time to buy that truck or SUV


i don't like big trucks or SUVs, but if i did, i'd be visiting dealer lots today.

with sales volume of all vehicles more than 20% off compared to last year and sales of large trucks and SUVs down even more, every dealership is desperate to get large trucks off of their lots.

what about high gas prices, you say?

yeah, what about them? firstly, the fuel is the cheapest part of a new car, even SUVs. depreciation is far more expensive.

secondly, gas prices are falling and are likely to continue to do so for a good long while. if oil prices were pushed up by speculation, then the 17% fall in prices since this time last month should scare the speculators out and help force prices down further. if prices were forced up by rising demand - mostly from China & India, then the recent economic contractions in those countries should also help reduce prices.

and if the war in Iraq ever ends and they start exporting oil on a large scale, gas will basically be free again.

the other big factors killing sales are low consumer sentiment and trouble financing.

so, if you're optimistic and have real cash in hand, you're golden. you can basically name your price.

just don't by a Dodge or Chrysler. i've heard rumors that they are going under. and a bankrupt brand is bad for resale value.

Monday, August 4, 2008

one more nail in the Chrysler coffin

Chrysler Death Watch continues as Chrysler fails to raise $6B out of $30B it needed, even at 2.25% above LIBOR.

2.25% above libor (currently at 2.4%) is getting pretty close to what you and i pay to borrow money. for a corporate giant to not be able to borrow money at this rate indicates a good bit of fear that Chrysler may not be able to pay it back.

this is what happens when you build inefficient unreliable trash (except for the magnum and 300c, both beautiful, and both are rebodied Mercedes e-classes) that nobody wants for 30 years then lend money to people who have no chance of paying you back.

another biofuel feedstock that competes less with food

i don't understand the fixation on ethanol. that's not true: people study ethanol because ethanol studies are funded, other biofuel studies are not. i prefer biobutanol b/c it is more similar to gasoline and therefore cheaper to integrate. why politically support ethanol, which is more different?

to the point of the post, major field trials growing a more productive biofuel feedstock have started in Illinois. apparently, this unimproved version of the crop is a perennial (you plant it once and it keeps coming back), is tolerant of poor soil (so it competes less with food sources), and is very productive (the authors claim that 20% of our fuel needs could be served by 10% of our cropland).

now if we can just go in and modify the idiotic ethanol policy to be a technology-neutral biofuel policy, we might actually have a chance to succeed in accomplishing something useful.

Friday, August 1, 2008

1 minor renewable energy miracle achieved

several miracles will be necessary before renewable energy (RE) is practical on a large scale (of, say, more than about 20% of electrical load) as i mentioned in my recent post about Gore's silly 100% RE claims.

one of the miracles i mentioned was that a cheap, efficient way of storing energy at a large scale would be needed.

well, one small step in that direction has been announced by a research team at MIT. one way of storing energy from RE is to break water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis and later convert it back into water and recover the energy. they came up with a more efficient electrode for doing this.

the energy storage problem is still far from solved, though. being able to more cheaply produce hydrogen is nice and all, but you still have to store the hydrogen somewhere, and then cheaply convert it back into electricity at some point. and when you start talking about doing this at the large scale energy level, it quickly becomes obvious that we aren't there yet. not by a long shot.

Friday, July 25, 2008

chrysler one step closer to BK

no, not burger king. the BK. bankruptcy. also known by me as their inevitable bankruptcy.

they stopped issuing their own leases because their borrowing costs are too high.

ever since they lost their one source of funding and decent car models (Mercedes, provider of the old E-class frame on which the Chrysler 300C and Dodge Magnum were built, sold them) and got bought by a company chin deep in subprime credit problems (Cerberus), they've been trending towards toast status.

i think the BK of Chrysler will come sooner than later and signal the bottoming of sentiment. i have no idea how their inevitable pleas for a bailout will be answered.

maybe Nissan, already planning on buying their next gen titans from Chrysler, will just buy the whole company instead.

when did Al Gore go insane?

Al Gore recently claimed that the US can and should pursue 100% renewable power within 10 yrs.

i doubt there is a person in the world willing to disagree that this would be nice, if it were possible.

but, it is just so laughably impossible for so many reasons, technical, legal, economic, & political/environmental.

technical: there are too many technical problems to go into. technically, nothing is impossible. but there are a lot of hurdles. we'd need a new transmission system, new ways to monitor and control power flows, new ways to manage how much energy is consumed on a real-time basis, and all sorts of other incredibly complicated and expensive systems to take a collection of highly unpredictable power sources and transform them into the high quality power that customers are used to. to compare this to going to space is silly. they had one control room monitoring 2 men in a sealed capsule the size of a VW beetle for a few days. the energy system has thousands of control rooms spread over the country, monitoring tens of thousands of power sources exposed to the world and all of its randomness, being asked to perform flawlessly 24/7 for decades.

legal: again, too many issues to cover, but i'll mention one. the energy sector is still highly regulated in most of the country. generating companies go through a big expensive licensing process to get permission to build generation plants. as a return for their investment, they expect to be able to use these plants to produce power that they can sell to recover their investments. new coal plants are still being licensed for construction today. from the beginning of licensing to the completion of construction is often more than 10 years. after that, utilities expect to be able to run their plants for at least 30 years. telling utilities that they can't use their brand new plants is breaking a pledge. this isn't a free market. it is a heavily regulated one.

economic: everything about renewable power is expensive. the only way that anyone in the US can economically build wind power (by far the cheapest renewable power source today) is by using tax credits. even with the tax credits, most utilities can't economically justify wind power because of all of the extra costs that come along with unscheduleable and highly variable power supply. this is why renewable production mandates were created in many states - to force utilities to buy renewable power even though it isn't economical.

political/environmental: most energy projects face NIMBY problems. renewable energy projects face NIMBY problems on crack. anything involving water (wave, tidal, hydro, run of the river hydro) faces dozens of stakeholders, many of which are seeking to protect the environment and have veto rights unless it can be unequivocally proven that the project will produce exactly zero impact. wind is only slightly easier to find a location for. solar is easy to site, but all available solar technology to date uses huge amounts of nasty chemicals mined and refined in nasty ways.

i'm sure Al Gore is aware of these things. and i don't think he is actually insane. more likely, he is just trying to grab some attention and reframe the renewable energy debate. i think his hope is that he'll change the debate from "should we have 0, 5, 10, or 15% renewable power within a decade" to "should we have 100, 80, or 60% renewable power within a decade."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

your laundry detergent may be making you sick

it certainly is doing the trick for me. they often give me headaches. it turns out that this may be a very sensible reaction, because many scented products emit toxic chemicals.

according to a study of 6 common scented products done by a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Washington:

"Results showed 58 different volatile organic compounds above a concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter, many of which were present in more than one of the six products. For instance, a plug-in air freshener contained more than 20 different volatile organic compounds. Of these, seven are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws."

how is this even legal?

if anyone hears about a class-action lawsuit, please let me know. i would be glad to sign on.

i hope this blows up into a big public scare and gets blown way out of proportion. it'd force our gov't to actually regulate the products corporations sell to us, instead of just pretending to do so.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

housing affordability continues to decline

housing prices are now ready to fall for fundamental reasons.

so far, prices have only been falling because the speculative fever came to an end. all of the get rich quick schemes quickly unwound and a lot of people who obviously never should have "bought" had to give their houses back to the bank.

but now the hard part starts. housing affordability is falling faster than housing prices because of rising interest rates and tightening lending standards. falling affordability will prevent people who would normally be buyers out of the market.

interest rates on 30yr fixed loans are the highest they've been in 5 years and are likely to continue rising because 1) the Fed reserve rate will probably be increased on inflation concerns, 2) the biggest loan buyers are losing the ability to buy more debt, 3) the losses on all types of loans recently has scared loan buyers into demanding higher interest rates to cover higher expected losses. these factors have already pushed rates from 5.25% 6 months ago to 6.50% today. that represents a 12.5% decline in affordability or a 14.5% increase in monthly payment for the same size loan.

lending standards for the buyers of most of the country's home loans are about to be increased by an act of congress. people will actually have to make a down payment. of cash. their own cash. that they can prove is their own cash and not a loan or gift from the seller. it'll still only be 3%, but that is 3% more than most people have been putting down for the last few years.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

why violent crime rates in Israel are so low

from the CNN coverage of a recent tractor-based terrorist attack:

"The construction vehicle struck several other vehicles, including a No. 13 city bus, before an Israeli border policeman and a civilian shot and killed the driver, an Israeli government statement said."

everyone in Israel goes through mandatory military training for 2-3 years after high school and many of them choose to continue to carry guns everywhere for the rest of their lives.

that being said, i don't think it makes sense for crowds of untrained fools and crims to carry guns the way they do in the US. that seems to be the opposite of a good idea and a great way to increase senseless death rates. here, the only civilians who carry handguns on a day-to-day basis seem to be the ones who really shouldn't.

but, to carry guns for the maintenance of a "well regulated militia" makes a lot of sense.

Friday, July 18, 2008

algae biodiesel for $80/barrel or coal alternative?

biodiesel is a superior alternative to bioethanol. it is simpler to produce, transport, and store. and it can be made from all sorts of crazy materials.

and, according to one expert in the field, it will be possible to make it using algae grown in saltwater tanks for about $80/barrel. for comparison, light sweet crude oil has been selling for $130-150/barrel recently.

the only difficult part of the process left to figure out: how to separate the algae from the water cost-effectively without damaging the lipids.

considering that the study is being done in New Mexico (which, as everybody knows, gets most of its electricity from coal plants), i wonder if it wouldn't be more effective to just make sun-dried algae bricks instead and co-fire them in the coal power plants. this would help them meet the new NM Renewable Production Standard of 2% of energy coming from biomass sources by 2011.

so that's what i'd look into: use ozone to kill the algae and reduce their hydrophilia, collect the sludge, and sun dry it into whatever form is convenient for coal plants.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

stress-sickness mechanism pinpointed

the mechanism for a decline in health as a result of stress has been identified.

i wonder if this will open the door for a class-action lawsuit against the cable news networks.

they are in the business of increasing our stress level, which leads to a decline in our health, which increases our medical costs and decreases our standard of living.

traffic and jobs are apparently also major contributors. along with the rest of the WASP way of life.

maybe we should sue the estate of Martin Luther.

on an entirely different note, i wonder if this is the real key to the healthiness of olive oil. olive oil is traditionally consumed by communities with low stress levels. low stress levels lead to better health. maybe researchers observed olive oil consumption and better health and made a correlation/causation error.

further, replacing Italian's olive oil with corn oil would increase their stress levels, leading to worse health. researchers would take this as proof of the wrong conclusion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

BMW hybrid drive will come from F1

yep, that F1.

the ultimate car racing series rules have been modified to allow the use of hybrid electric components starting next year and BMW intends to develop a high-power hybrid electric technology drive through the racing series.

shortly after, systems inspired by the technology will be found at your local ultimate driving machine dealership.

i wonder if we should tell BMW that Lexus already did this with the GS450h?

it is good to see that Toyota (the world's largest auto manufacturer and owner of Lexus, Toyota, Scion, & Daihatsu brands) is eating everyone's lunch, not just the american manufacturers'.

Monday, July 14, 2008

can't drive 55?

the days of the nationwide speed limit may be returning, if one Senator's proposal goes through.

it isn't such a bad idea, really.

i haven't gone over 55 mph since my last visit to the airport.

a more straightforward approach to reducing fuel consumption, though, would be to stop whining about high prices and just accept them as being permanent. this will continue to push people into more efficient vehicles, independent of what the gov't wants.

the only thing the gov't should do is make the mpg ratings on cars meaningful. the current ones are rubbish.

doing it right would be simple:

when a car is new model, use an estimate for the first year

after the first year, the only data used is the actual data measured by the onboard devices that every car has. the dealer would record the mileage data and pass it to an independent organization, which would publish real life average fuel consumption

and viola - people can have real data based on reality instead of wildly inaccurate guesses based on silly models. and cello - there would be rejoicing.

Friday, July 11, 2008

physicists and poetry critics

these are basically the only classes of experts that can be trusted to be both reasonably accurate in the analysis and honest about it. the only ones that i can think of anyway.

every other field of expertise is either too complicated for anyone to be able to reliably come up with accurate analysis (psychoanalysis comes to mind) or too influenced by money for any expert's stated opinion to be trusted to be their honest opinion (the unfailingly rosy predictions of california real estate professionals over the past 18 months as prices have continuously and rapidly dropped come to mind as a topical example).

so, for me to trust a field of experts, i have to believe that they are likely to have a solid understanding of what they're talking about and not have money pushing them one way or the other.

physicists qualify because everyone in the field is in it long term and being wildly wrong could cost them their careers and there just isn't that much money in the field.

poetry critics qualify because there is no such thing as right or wrong, but they will always say what they actually think because there is no economic incentive whatsoever to say anything else.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

are your addicted to baby smile?

according to a recent study, mum's brain responds to pictures of her smiling baby by producing dopamine.

the response is similar, but far weaker, when looking at pictures of other people's smiling babies.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Toyota makes houses!

were you aware?

i want one.

they are steel frame and almost exclusively in Japan. they built ~50 in Texas and claim to have no plans to build any more in the US ever again.

i really do want one. also, a yurt in the mtns.

ethanol is dead. long live biofuels

ethanol, the first biofuel widely available in the US, is dead. or soon will be. the future for biofuels is brighter than ever.

it has been blamed for increased fuel prices, increased crop prices, increased environmental issues, and is frankly an idiotic technology that has only stuck around as long as it has because of corrupt shortsighted policymakers.

why would anybody ever want to convert food into automotive fuel?

if you were silly enough to want to convert food into fuel, why would you choose to convert it into a fuel that is incompatible with your fuel distribution network and most of the cars in the country (at great than 10% concentration)?

why would anybody ever make a fuel that takes more energy to produce than you get out of it when you use it?

ethanol production to date has been a demonstration of how to transfer money from taxpayers into the pockets of chemical companies while producing negative societal and environmental impact and conveying the image of being pro-America, pro-Farmer.

these factors together are slowly seeping into the general consciousness of the nation and will ensure that the future of biofuels won't include ethanol. all of these problems will be linked with the word ethanol. people will rally against ethanol. any politician trying to support ethanol will be booted out.

but the national consciousness has a very simplistic understanding of technical issues, so future biofuels will suffer from no related image problems. the promoters of the next generation of biofuels will just have to make sure that the name that their technology comes to be known by sounds nothing like ethanol.

so, biobutanol could have image problems, but the branded bioadditives that will be distributed by fuel companies will do just fine.

given today's high fuel prices, any biofuel that doesn't rely on food or fuel for its production can't help but succeed.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

worst dollar policy evah

since 2000, the dollar has been increasingly worth less.

this is primarily because of the ridiculously low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve Bank and kept too low for too long.

the most stunning way to visualize this is by looking at how the stock market has performed relative to ounces of gold. priced in gold, the US Dow Jones Industrial (a good proxy for the US market in general) is down about 75% since 2000.

Down 75% in 8 years.

this doesn't mean that the USD is down 75% in 8 years. it means that if you sold 100 oz gold to buy shares of a mix of the largest companies in the US 8 years ago, you could only buy 25 oz worth of gold by selling those same shares to somebody else today. it effectively means that US industries are down 75% versus gold over the last 8 years.

this is the opposite of a strong dollar policy (which our Pres and other people of importance falsely claim to be pursuing). this is the US slowly following Zimbabwe's lead towards a worthless currency.