Friday, May 30, 2008

obvious internets idea

somebody should make an online "tipping" application

the idea is that there are lots of small things that people want to spend small amounts of cash online on, but nobody wants to go through the process of opening another account, putting sensitive information into the pipes, etc

it'd be like paypal crossed with nexus cash - but you could never have more than about $20 in it. you can charge it with either a credit card or by buying a charge card at your local drug store.

basically paypal, but functional and secure via account limits and variety of secure ways to put money into your account.

if you've tried to use paypal in the last year or so, you understand why this is needed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

hey look, markets work. even for oil

in the US, people are driving 4.3% less than they did this time last year.

combine this with the trend toward more efficient vehicles and you have declining domestic consumption of fuel.

imagine how much better prepared we would have been for fuel price problems if we had implemented a real fuel tax a decade or two ago. people would already have efficient cars instead of silly trucks, so we wouldn't be going through transitional problems right now.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Prius still unreasonable (and absolute rubbish)

i'll make no effort to hide the fact that i hate the toyota prius. i've posted about it before, but my work vehicle is a prius and being forced to use it today reminded me of all of the horrible things about it.

the interior is too small. i cannot comfortably fit in the front. strangely, if i had a chauffeur, i'd be fine. the back seats are quite spacious.

it is expensive but made out of rubbish materials. compare the interior of a prius to a bottom-of-the-line econobox yaris that sells for less than half as much. the yaris actually looks better.

it is dangerously unresponsive. the whole "stop the engine whenever it isn't being used thing" sucks when you're trying to make a left turn through traffic.

but this post isn't about how horrifically awful a mode of transport the prius is (i'm not sure it fully qualifies to be called a car). it is about how unreasonable a choice they are, both economically and environmentally, even with gas prices at an all-time high.

simply put, compared to their closest non-hybrid competitor, the prius is more expensive. the closest competitor is the toyota matrix. they have the same interior space (though, the Matrix's is more usable, comfortable, stylish, and finished with nicer materials). when the Matrix is equipped with the base 1.8L engine, they have the same straight-line performance (slow). they are made by the same manufacturer. in most ways (interior noise, drivability, usability of controls, etc) the Matrix is superior, but we'll pretend that they are a close enough match.

according to, even with fuel prices at $4/gallon and assuming that 15,000 miles are put on the car each year, the 5 year cost of ownership for a 2007 prius is still $1100 more than for a 2007 Matrix.

according to, you can buy enough carbon offsets for 4 matrix-sized cars for those five years of ownership for $1100.

so, in the best case scenario, the prius is an absolutely painfully horrifc way to get around and only costs $1100 more to own and operate than it's superior sibling and offers no environmental advantage that can't be cheaply paid off.

if gas hits $5/gal without the price of a prius increasing, there may come a day when the prius is a slightly less expensive to get around for some people. given the current slowing of the worldwide economy, it seems to me that we will see $3/gal before we see $5.

Friday, May 16, 2008

3% down house loans available again, markets ready to fall

i'm gonna post about this story later, because i think it is an insane decision that increases the chances that Fannie Mae will either go bankrupt or be bailed out by taxpayers.

also, i think the next big wave of financial problems is on its way and the losses will be real this time, not just changes in modeling. the 10% rally over the last 60 days or so may be approaching its peak.

later, the next day:

Fannie Mae was created during the Great Depression (funny thing, there was a time when World War One was known as the Great War) to add liquidity to the national mortgage market because dropping real estate values had scared banks away from lending at reasonable rates. on the face of it, then, Fannie Mae should be doing what they can to continue to fulfill this mission.

the thing is, though, there is no shortage of banks willing to lend money at historically low rates to people who can actually afford to pay the loans back. people who should be buying houses - people with a 20% down payment, a verifiably sufficient income, and a decent credit rating - have lenders tripping over each other to serve them. there is no liquidity problem in the traditionally qualified buyer lending market.

the question, then, is whether a government sponsored entity like Fannie Mae should be making loans available to people who are not qualified to buy houses.

the other question is whether the economy-wide pain of not doing so will be more or less than the pain of not doing it. maybe a bailout of Fannie Mae is the cheapest way to stabilize the financial industry.

as for the markets in general, it has been a pleasant rally, but fear is in the air and rightfully so. even if financial stress so far were fully done and digested (which it isn't. not even close. less than half of the loan losses have been revealed so far because of insane accounting rules that allow banks to move distressed assets into the imaginary column on their balance sheets), this kind of stress in the financial sector means that everyone is going to have a harder time borrowing money, which means every company is going to grow a bit slower, which means less jobs created, more disappointing quarterly reports, etc.

but the markets are moved almost exclusively by sentiment and i have virtually no exposure to popular media, so i have no idea what the market sentiment looks like right now or what it would take for people who were down 20% from peak and stuck with it for this 10% rally to become fearful enough to pull out now.

if somebody completely outside the financial or real estate industries, some seemingly strong company, a household name, failed because of financial problems. i think that'd do it.

how's it going over there, Chrysler?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

CO2 reforestation analysis, finally

i support reforestation. strongly. it is a good way to capture CO2, increase cloud cover, increase surface reflectivity, produce fresh water, give our wildlife a chance, reduce erosion, and generally pretty up the place. if managed properly, they can also be economically productive as places to grow mushrooms, hunt deer, watch birds, grow coffee, host ecotourists, and who knows what else.

yet, in CO2 policy and climate change circles, reforestation seems to receive comparatively little discussion. with the focus instead being on all kinds of idiotic carbon capture and sequestration technologies that don't presently have a chance of working and probably never will. these projects are quite nearly openly ridiculed in the energy industry publications. if the DOE didn't have billions of dollars to throw away on these boondoggles, they'd never get off the drawing board.

given this as my unabashedly biased perspective on things, you can imagine how happy i was to see that i'm not the only one talking (to myself) about reforestation. according to the study, if we returned the earth's forest cover to the level it was at in 1900 and managed the forests for optimal carbon capture, humanity's net carbon output would be zero. forever. they estimate that an extra tax of about .5 cents per kWh worldwide would be enough to finance the project. imagine if we returned forest cover to pre-industrial revolution levels.

by "managed for optimal carbon capture" is meant that the trees have to be cut down periodically and removed from the carbon cycle. they suggest that the only way to accomplish this is by burying the trees. considering how long it takes products left in a landfill to decompose, i doubt that burying them would be necessary. converting them to furniture, houses, paper or just about anything other than fuel should slow the carbon's return to the atmosphere enough to be effective. seems to me.

for more of my thoughts on the matter, see the below links. the first and last are the most relevant.

how much is deforestation causing climate change?

bacteria (from forests) induce rain

quick analysis of a forest-based biofuel

trees help clean superfund sites

CO2 credits and agroforestry

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

moonshine machine

have you ever wanted to produce large amounts of grain alcohol in your garage? we're talking about up to 5 gallons of 200 proof per day.

then maybe you should look into getting an EFUEL100.

it is being sold as a way to produce your own bioethanol (E100) for fueling your car, but really it is just an alcohol fermentation chamber plus a distiller in a box, because ethanol is grain alcohol.

at 14 pounds of sugar (plus some yeast, electricity and water) to produce 1 gallon of 200 proof liquor, it is a cheap (and probably not very tasty) way to die from alcohol poisoning or an expensive way to get around town. your choice. if you're a raging alcoholic who works at a sugar refinery and drives an SUV, this device could change your life forever.

separately, it might make people wonder why they can buy grain alcohol at a gas station for a few bucks a gallon, but buying the same stuff in a liquor store costs so much more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

power electronics continue their path to free

one of my assumptions when thinking about what electrical power systems will look like in the future is that power electronics will eventually be essentially free. i don't know what magic of chemistry will make it possible, but i am confident that it will happen.

recently, a doctoral student's work has reinforced the likely validity of this assumption by announcing significant advances in the development of a power electronic device using a fundamentally different chemistry from the devices currently in use.

essentially, what this means is that high power electronic devices (such as hybrid cars, dc-ac inverters, ac-dc rectifiers, power supplies, etc) will become lower cost and higher performance. eventually, i expect we'll see power electronic devices used even in the utility industry. maybe we'll use ac-dc-ac converters on poles instead of transformers because of their ability to provide perfect voltage and frequency output even when the high voltage side is experiencing problems. maybe we'll even see the huge high voltage substation transformers replaced with their electronic equivalent capable of virtually eliminating the common causes of large outages. it is also probably just a matter of time before even large high voltage breakers are replaced with solid state devices.

back in the real world, though, higher performance hybrid cars and cheaper power supplies should be the first benefits if this tech works out.

now if someone can just come up with a 300 mile battery pack that can recharge in about 5 minutes and be produced for under $5k.

Monday, May 12, 2008

news fail

apparently, Lebanon is experiencing some domestic civil unrest because the government wants to take some radio communication equipment away from the terrorists because they may be using it to coordinate attacks against the government. the spark for the unrest is that the terrorists have popular support.

how could terrorists so dangerous to the domestic government be popular? because they "defend the country against Israeli attacks."

CNN and i use the phrase "defend the country against Israeli attacks" here to mean "instigate Israel to attack."

all of that is just context for CNN's failure as a news source as follows:

"The violence is the worst to hit Lebanon since the end of its civil war in 1991."

i'm sure it is an unpleasant situation and all, but how is it exactly that local rioting mit sticks and stones (and a few Russian machine guns, i'm sure) is more violent than 33 days of 24 hour bombing raids from a modern military power?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

energy efficiency improvement for renters

some of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce energy consumption are modifications to your residence. for people who own their place, this is fine. they can replace their appliances and water heaters with more efficient versions as the old ones fail or become cost-inefficient to continue using. many cities even have incentive programs to help pay for the cost of improvements. for anyone who rents, though, there seems to be little we can do.

it seems to me that most rental units are maintained on a least-cost basis. the old, inefficient water heater won't be replaced until the cost of maintenance is greater than the cost of replacement. generally, the renter pays for the electricity (or natural gas) to run the heater and few renter ask about what type of water heater an apartment has before signing a lease so the owner has little financial incentive to replace the unit with a more efficient one.

even though renters cannot replace the main electric water heater, there may be an alternative: ask the landlord to turn it off and install simple point of use tankless water heaters instead.

old style water heaters are inefficient because they keep a large volume of water hot all of the time. this large volume of water is kept in an insulated metal cylinder. the energy efficiency rating of a water heater is largely determined by the quality of the insulation. no matter how good the insulation is, some amount of heat will always leak out either through the tank's insulation or the insulation on the pipes from the water heater to the residence's various outlets. this wasted heat is wasted energy, which means extra greenhouse gas pointlessly being produced and money being thrown away.

tankless point of use water heaters eliminate these storage and transmission heat losses by heating the water only when it is needed and in a location directly adjacent to where it will be used. they can be no more difficult to install (or uninstall) than a brita faucet-mount water filter, plug into a normal electric socket, and leave no marks on the property (so the landlord shouldn't care). the hardest part would be convincing your landlord to turn the old water heater off.

if you assume the apartment has the oldest, most inefficient water heater the landlord can keep running (a pretty safe assumption from what i've seen), you could reduce your energy consumed to heat water by 25%. according to one estimate, you could save $125 per year. considering that the devices only cost about $100 per faucet, they'd pay for themselves pretty quickly. plus, there are the added benefits that the water is immediately hot (so less water is wasted waiting for the cold water to flush from the pipes), there is as much hot water as you want, and the water temperature won't fluctuate when somebody flushes a toilet. this is a simple way for renters to reduce their household carbon consumption.

for the sake of being boring, i'd like to mention also that electric utilities are going to hate these things if they ever become popular. they will take a nice, simple to model base load device that operates 24 hours a day and turn it into a peak load that goes from 0 to 2kW instantly when people shower or use their sink. so, less energy will be consumed (which means less income for the utility) and the peak power consumption will increase (which means higher infrastructure cost for the utility). best of all, many states have energy efficiency promotion requirements that force utilities to help subsidize this sort of energy efficiency improvement. so the utilities are forced to encourage people to pay the utility less while costing the utility more. what could be funnier?

also worth noting: where i live, electricity is basically free (it takes serious effort to spend more than $80/month on electricity), so these things would never pay off unless the residence uses a natural gas water heater.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

about flipping time

the dehumanization of the medical industry is quickly moving towards its logical end, as an increasing proportion of unscheduled pediatric care is pushed out of the medical center and onto the web-o-sphere.

the idea is that for boring things, like sore throats and ear infections, the the hours spent (my estimate) going to and from the office, waiting twice (once to get into a room, once to actually see a doc), and actually talking with a doc for about 5 minutes are mostly time and energy wasted.

so, why not set up a video chat with the doc instead? for simple things, you save a lot of time and hassle and exposure to a waiting room full of sick people. if it turns out to be something more complicated, you'll have to go in to talk to somebody. but, for basic things, they can issue their decrees (and prescriptions) with the minimum hassle for everyone involved.