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.