Archive for July 2008

Advice to Climate Alarmists

If you are going to lecture skeptics on science, it is probably a good practice not to begin with an analogy that gets the most basic physics incorrect (hint:  the fact that falling objects of different masses fall at the same rate has been "settled science" since the late 1500s).  Also, using the children's book "If you give a mouse a cookie..." as proof of the existence of positive feedback loops will not be very persuasive to practitioners of big-boy physical sciences and other non-post-modernist researchers.

Culture Change Benchmark

It is unbelievable that this was an actual advertisement in my lifetime.  And don't get me started on my kids reaction.  Via Hit and Run.

So Am I A Stealth Parent?

Via Disloyal Opposition

"Helicopter parents"
-- overinvolved, overbearing, moms and dads who just won't let their
offspring venture into the world without a protective, hovering
presence -- have made the news repeatedly over the past few years. This
being summer, a new crop of articles detailing the woes sleep-away camp
administrators are facing with clingy parents is making the rounds.

I am proud to say that we put our kids on an airplane and sent them off to camp for six weeks.  Other than a few brief letters back and forth (the only way we got our son to send a letter was to make up a fill-in-the-blank madlibs-type form for him to fill in) we had no contact with them.  And while we missed them, the kids had a blast and mom and dad had a trip without the kids for the first time in years.  The camp we send the kids to does not allow any contact whatsoever with parents in the first week, and only brief 3-minute phone calls in a 1-hour window each evening.

Solar Concentrating Plants

For a while, I have been writing that traditional silicon/germanium based solar-electric panels are not yet economic as an electricity source.

I have hopes for other technologies eventually making direct solar conversion to electricity.  However, there seems to be some activity in solar concentrating plants, where solar energy is reflected onto tubes to boil water and drive traditional steam turbines to generate electricity.  Fortune has an article on one such plant opening recently:

The completed solar arrays will be trucked to California where Ausra
is building a 177-megawatt solar power station for utility PG&E (PCG)  on 640 acres of agricultural land in San Luis Obispo County. (To see a video of the robots in action, click here.)
The arrays focus sunlight on water-filled tubes to create steam to
drive a turbine. Ausra manufacturing exec David McKay points to where
standard-issue boiler pipe will be fed into a machine and treated with
a proprietary coating that transforms it into a solar receiver.

I would love for this to work, but the article goes on to say that this approach still requires federal tax subsidies to compete with other electricity sources.  I am not very familiar with the economics of such plants.  Does anyone have a link or source that delves into the economics.  I am increasingly frustrated of late with alternate energy articles that fail to give any of the relevent economic info.  For example, I read an article in the Arizona Republic (sorry, lost the link) about Arizona's first wind project, but I could not get a sense from the article if the power was being purchased at market rates or some special inflated rate.

So Lawrence Summers Was Fired For Being Correct?

So, apparently Lawrence Summers was correct:

Wall Street Journal -- Girls
and boys have roughly the same average scores on state math tests, but
boys more often excelled or failed, researchers reported. The fresh
research adds to the debate about gender difference in aptitude for
mathematics, including efforts to explain the relative scarcity of
women among professors of science, math and engineering.

The
latest study, in this week's journal Science, examined scores from
seven million students who took statewide mathematics tests from grades
two through 11 in 10 states between 2005 and 2007.
The
researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and the University of
California, Berkeley, didn't find a significant overall difference
between girls' and boys' scores. But the study also found that boys'
scores were more variable than those of girls. More boys scored
extremely well -- or extremely poorly -- than girls, who were more
likely to earn scores closer to the average for all students. The study found that boys are consistently more variable than girls, in every grade and in every state studied
(see crude diagram above - showing distributions where mean
intelligence is the same, but the standard deviation of male
intelligence is greater than female intelligence).

In Minnesota, for example, 1.85% of white boys in the 11th grade hit the 99th percentile, compared with 0.9% of girls -- meaning there were more than twice as many boys among the top scorers than girls.

Of course, Summers did not get in trouble for being incorrect.  He got in trouble for saying something he was not supposed to say.  And it seems that the media are trying to avoid the same mistake, reporting what they want to believe, and not what the study actually says.

As I write in a post at Climate Skeptic, this is part and parcel of a new post-modernist science, where (as MaxedOutMamma writes) "If a
research finding could harm a class of persons, the theory is that
scientists should change the way they talk about that finding".

I won!

There is a study out of the most and lest politically correct professions, as measured by the survey responses of faculty of those departments in universities.  Mechanical Engineering:  Zero politically correct responses.  Woohoo.

Learning to Love the Fifth Ammendment

I thought this was a pretty good video -- why even the innocent should not talk to the police.  Learn to love your fifth amendment rights.  He demonstrates that even the innocent can make statements that can be used to wrongly convict them.

The Aid Conundrum

I think there are a lot of us who scratch our heads over foreign aid.  While open to helping starving kids, its not always clear how to do so without simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening despotic regimes and dysfunctional cultures that caused the problems in the first place.  At least not without sending in the US military along with a trillion dollars or so for a decade or more.

This question could lead to a fairly interesting discourse, but in reality it does not.  Expressing the above quandary merely gets one labeled as unfeeling and insensitive.  One of the problems with having a reasonable debate is that the people and groups in the West who most support aid also are philosophical supporters of many of the failed leftish regimes that caused the aid to be needed in the first place, or else they are strong advocates for cultural relativism that feel that it is wrong to criticize any non-western culture for any reason.

While he does not offer any answers to this question, it is nice to see Kevin Myers at least try to raise these complexities, especially at a time when Barack Obama is trying to make all these questions seem easy:

I am not innocent in all this. The people of Ireland remained in
ignorance of the reality of Africa because of cowardly journalists like
me. When I went to Ethiopia just over 20 years ago, I saw many things I
never reported -- such as the menacing effect of gangs of young men
with Kalashnikovs everywhere, while women did all the work. In the very
middle of starvation and death, men spent their time drinking the local
hooch in the boonabate shebeens. Alongside the boonabates were
shanty-brothels, to which drinkers would casually repair, to briefly
relieve themselves in the scarred orifice of some wretched prostitute
(whom God preserve and protect). I saw all this and did not report it,
nor the anger of the Irish aid workers at the sexual incontinence and
fecklessness of Ethiopian men. Why? Because I wanted to write
much-acclaimed, tear-jerkingly purple prose about wide-eyed,
fly-infested children -- not cold, unpopular and even "racist"
accusations about African male culpability.

Am I able to rebut good and honourable people like John O'Shea,
who are now warning us that once again, we must feed the starving
Ethiopian children? No, of course I'm not. But I am lost in awe at the
dreadful options open to us. This is the greatest moral quandary facing
the world. We cannot allow the starving children of Ethiopia to die.

Yet
the wide-eyed children of 1984-86, who were saved by western medicines
and foodstuffs, helped begin the greatest population explosion in human
history, which will bring Ethiopia's population to 170 million by 2050.
By that time, Nigeria's population will be 340 million, (up from just 19 million in 1930). The same is true over much of Africa.

Thus
we are heading towards a demographic holocaust, with a potential
premature loss of life far exceeding that of all the wars of the 20th
Century. This terrible truth cannot be ignored.

But back in
Ireland, there are sanctimonious ginger-groups, which yearn to prevent
discussion, and even to imprison those of us who try, however
imperfectly, to expose the truth about Africa. And of that saccharine,
sickly shower, more tomorrow.

via Maggies Farm.

By the way, does it seem odd to anyone else that we in America get accused of having "unsustainable" lifestyles and we are urged to return to simpler, less technological, less energy-intensive lives like those in Africa?  I would have argued that "sustainable" means to be able to support your own people with their own effort.  By this definition, the US is the most sustainable country in the world.  Our prospective efforts not only sustain us so well that even our poorest 20% live better than the upper middle class in African nations, but we also help sustain the rest of the world.  We create so much wealth that we are able to consistently import more than we export, creating jobs around the world.  And we send more aid to other countries than most of the rest of the world combined.

Pride

I am blogging from my mom's MacIntosh.  Apple has done a lot of good things with its electronics of late, but their absolute refusal to adopt the two button mouse is just absurd.  Sorry, but cntl-click is just not the same. 

By the way, I think the iPod may be one of the best bits of industrial design in decades, but I am not about to join the Apple worship.  Microsoft gets dinged all the time for silly instances of proprietary over-control, but to my mind Apple is often worse.  However, I may not be entirely unbiased in this judgment, as I spent an hour the other day waiting in some zoo of an Apple store line just to buy a new video cable for my iPod Touch, since Apple added a chip in their latest iPods to cause third party cables to no longer function.

Duh

From the Interagency Task Force on Commodity Markets, via Mark Perry:

The Task
Force's preliminary assessment is that current oil prices and the
increase in oil prices between January 2003 and June 2008 are largely
due to fundamental supply and demand factors. During this same period,
activity on the crude oil futures market "“ as measured by the number of
contracts outstanding, trading activity, and the number of traders "“
has increased significantly. While these increases broadly coincided
with the run-up in crude oil prices, the Task Force's preliminary
analysis to date does not support the proposition that speculative
activity has systematically driven changes in oil prices.

The
world economy has expanded at its fastest pace in decades, and that
strong growth has translated into substantial increases in the demand
for oil, particularly from emerging market countries. On the supply
side, the production of oil has responded sluggishly, compounded by
production shortfalls associated with geopolitical unrest in countries
with large oil reserves. As it is very difficult to rely on substitutes
for oil in the short term, very large price increases have occurred as
the market balances supply and demand (see top two charts above).

If
a group of market participants has systematically driven prices,
detailed daily position data should show that that group's position
changes preceded price changes. The Task Force's preliminary analysis,
based on the evidence available to date, suggests that changes in
futures market participation by speculators have not systematically
preceded price changes. On the contrary, most speculative traders
typically alter their positions following price changes, suggesting
that they are responding to new information "“ just as one would expect
in an efficiently operating market.

Congress and other agencies have commissioned studies of this type on oil markets and prices approximately every 90 days or so for the last 35 years, and every one of them have come to the same conclusion:  Oil markets move based on the participant's best guesses about trends in supply and demand.  Duh.  As I wrote previously, the last hydrocarbon price manipulation case I have seen in court was aimed at a group that allegedly manipulated prices for 30 seconds at the end of a trading day whose closing price affected certain contracts.  And it is not clear that they were successful. 

Just Reward

John McCain put his name to the campaign finance bill that, in effect, allows only the media, not other private citizens, unlimited free speech in the run-up to the election.  So I think it is hilarious that the media seems to be lined up against McCain in the next election. 

There is nothing in any law book that says the media has to be unbiased.  In fact, today's notion of an unbiased media is a relatively new concept.  Most newspapers of the 19thy century had a clear political orientation, something that is still the case to some extent in Britain today.  It was absurd to give such a limited group a monopoly on political speech close to an election.  I have opposed this law from day 1, but I do find it funny that McCain himself maybe its first victim. 

I Would LOve to See This Happen

San Francisco has a ballot initiative this November to seize all PG&E transmission lines and assets in the city such that all city power comes from a new government owned utility.  Further, the initiative would require that this new entity get 100% of its power from renewables, particularly wind and solar, by 2040.  It is similar to a 2001 initiative.

All due respect to PG&E's private property, but I would love to see this happen.  If I were governor, I would be seriously tempted to encourage them to proceed, with the only proviso that no one else in California be allowed to sell electricity to San Francisco on the hugely unlikely possibility that there might be a day without sunshine in San Francisco.   (I find it hilarious that San Francisco's solar future is trumpeted in the "fog city journal.")  This might actually be a big enough disaster that even the media would have trouble ignoring its spectacular failure.  It would also do wonders for the Arizona and Nevada economy, as major industries would move our way.

I am sure San Francisco is well on their way to success.  After all, the city just completed its largest ever solar project

            The solar system is expected to generate 370,000 kilowatt hours of
electricity annually, enough to power 80 San Francisco homes.

Wow.  It can power 80 whole homes, as long as its not night time or winter (when it is seldom sunny in SF).

Why Its OK If GM Fails

This is a reprise of a much older post, but since I have limited time for blogging, I thought it might be timely to reprise it:

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe
as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it
this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing
superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that
allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of
intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though
we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government
would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it
had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA
has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value
of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a
company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the
consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for
having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial
companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's
management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and
paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier
effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown
rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one...
for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping
climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing
comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or
some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.
When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA
is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation
is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a
bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of
brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and
modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants,
at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).
A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large
corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to
fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In
conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting
corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human
and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than
one. 

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
**
Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at
the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went
if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the
store went bust a while back.

The Fruits of Over-Zealous Prosecution

Radley Balko has a roundup of stories of overdue freedom for the improperly incarcerated.  Its good to see this happening, though I must say I still have some mixed feelings about the Innocence Project after their staggeringly bad judgment of putting Janet Reno, Queen of Abusive Prosecution, on their board.

Just When Yout Thought Air Travel Could Not Get Worse...

US Airways has chosen to try to cover rising fuel prices by unbundling their ticket price and charging for services that were here-to-fore free, or built into the base ticket price.  They now charge $15 for the first piece of checked baggage ($25 for the second), and charge for most in-cabin services, including for soft drinks.

I'm not going to argue with them about this.  Airline pricing is a wickedly complex topic, and folks who know more than I do think this is the best way to get incremental revenue.  Really, these charges don't affect me (I almost never check bags, except when on vacation with my family).  In fact, as I write this, it strikes me that the baggage charge is really a price hike mostly on non-business travelers, which is interesting as it bucks the trend of having increasing price spreads over the years between business/last-minute and tourist pricing.

Anyway, the net effect has been to absolutely jam the security screening station this morning.  Every passenger seems to be carrying every bag he or she can on board to avoid the $15 charge.  What a mess.  I can't wait to see what the boarding process is going to be like.  Glad I don't have any bags today.

By the way, a few weeks ago I shipped a 60 pound trunk to my kids' camp for about $16 via UPS.  If these airline bag charges stick, it might be time for UPS to start soliciting the send-your-luggage-ahead business in earnest.  Next time we go skiing or some such place, I am going to seriously consider sending a couple of duffle bags ahead by UPS.

Update: The luggage bins were completely full before the fourth group out of six were called.  There was a fairly long line down the jetway of people gate-checking their bags.  Apparently, the airline is not set up to charge the $15 when they gate-check the bags, so everyone is hauling all of their bags to the gate and either bringing them on the plane or checking them at the gate for free.

Off To Wyoming

I am headed off to Wyoming and my family's ranch for a while:
100_1126

Dsc_0251

Since data rates go down substantially when the cows are chewing on the phone line (really- the phone line is draped for miles on a fence) I am not sure how much I will blog.

In case I am offline for a while, I would like to offer this serious thought for world improvement.  We don't need more progressive taxes, or larger government, or more wiretapping, or more government control of mortgages, or mandatory service.   All we really need is ... more cowbell.

Scam Alert: Board of Business Compliance

This may not be of much interest to regular readers, but is being posted so future recipients of this letter may find this article when searching in Google. 

I got this in the mail the other day (click to enlarge)
Board_of_business_compliance_scam

It is laid out to mirror the typical format of a state annual report or business license renewal form.  It purports to be from a government-sounding "Board of Business Compliance."  The layout and wording is very similar to the California State required annual report form, as is the $125 fee the letter claims is "now due."  Only in the really fine print near the bottom right does it admit to being a business solicitation. 

Beware.  Despite all their efforts to fool you, filling out this form and filing this $125 fee is not required by any government agency.   I am not sure if you pay money to this group whether you will actually receive any services (I did not pay).  But I will observe that there is absolutely no way that a third party could create a legally meaningful set of minutes for your company based on the information in this form.  Remember, though, that it is important for small corporations to keep their minutes in order -- but I am pretty sure this is not the best way to do it.

Business that must be obtained this way is not worth having, at least in my book. 

Postscript:  One might ask, how can anyone fall for this?  The biggest problem is the government itself.  Doing business in 12 states, 20 counties, and a number of large municipalities, I get literally a hundred "legitimate" forms like this requiring a $50-$150 filing fee from government institutions all the time.  This form, at first, looks more legitimate than say, the application for egg license I get from two states (which are in fact real government requirements). 

PPS:  Don't even get me started on yellow page vendors, directory listing providers, and companies claiming your URL registration is expiring.

UPDATE: Apparently one of the commenters included contact information at the California AG.  The AG's office has written me asking to have comments and concerns about this issue routed to a different address.  I think poor Mr. Wayne was deluged with a bunch of complaints.  Here is what they sent me as their preferred alternative contact information:

 

Complaints may be filed with the California Attorney General's Office by mail, telephone, fax, the Internet, or email:
 
MAILING ADDRESS:
 
Attorney General's Office
California Department of Justice
Attn: Public Inquiry Unit
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550

TELEPHONE:   1-800-952-5225 (Toll-free in CA) or (916) 322-3360

 
FAX:   (916) 323-5341

WEBSITE:   http://ag.ca.gov/consumers

 
EMAIL:   piu@doj.ca.gov

The Fannie and Freddie Fiasco

Sloppy thinkers often confuse support for free-market capitalism with "doing what big business wants."  In fact, the two are often entirely different, as large well-connected companies often thrive through the very fact of government regulation, using the government to step on competitors and create rent-seeking opportunities, while in turn rewarding politicians out of their profits with electoral support.

The Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac fiasco is turning out to be a prime example of such crony capitalism in operation.  These two quasi-private companies enjoyed many special perks (from huge tax breaks to an implicit government guarantee), enriching both themselves and a circle of Wall Street banks while protecting themselves from criticism by waving the "we're helping the little guy" banner.  Leftish Congressmen ranged from platitude spouting dupes to willing participants in the fraud, and helped enable the whole mess.

Paul Gigot, a long-time critic and whistle-blower of Fannie and Freddie has a great, long editorial on these companies and their Congressional enablers.  If the WSJ article is gated, Volokh has a long excerpt.

Massive Campaign to Bring Back Indentured Servitude

On several occasions I have have lamented the declining standard of activism:

Activist:  A person who believes so strongly that a
problem needs to be remedied that she dedicates substantial time to ...
getting other people to fix the problem.   It used to be that activists
sought voluntary help for their pet problem, and thus retained some
semblance of honor.  However, our self-styled elite became frustrated
at some point in the past that despite their Ivy League masters degrees
in sociology, other people did not seem to respect their ideas nor were
they particularly interested in the activist's pet issues.  So
activists sought out the double shortcut of spending their time not
solving the problem themselves, and not convincing other people to
help, but convincing the government it should compel others to fix the
supposed problem.  This fascism of good intentions usually consists of
government taking money from the populace to throw at the activist's
issue, but can also take the form of government-compelled labor and/or
government limitations on choice.

It seems that there is a surprisingly large coalition ready to take this to its logical extreme:  A group called Service Nation is set to spend a ton of money lobbying the government to create a program to force every young person into servitude by 2020.

Not satisfied with taking 20-40% of our income to spend as they see fit, the government hopes also to be able to order around the labor of millions of young adults.   I feel like I am reading some bizarre historical re-enactment of the Soviet or Chinese youth programs.  This whole program, which I am tentatively going to label "happy face fascism," makes me so sick I can't even address it further tonight.  More later.

PS:  This is, not coincidentally, exactly the idea Obama has been pushing (here and here).  I say not coincidentally, because this is how one skirts stupid campaign finance laws - you get your supporters to take your top campaign planks and run with them as "independent" efforts that are not subject to campaign finance restrictions.

PPS: Just to head off an argument that came up last time in the comments, I have been a consistent opponent of the military draft as well.

Update:  I know the allusion is over-used, but we are in 1984-land when people keep using the term "voluntary universal national service" as do the leaders of this effort.  By universal, they mean that everyone has to do it.  So they are calling for "national service that everyone is required by law to perform but is voluntary." I do not think that word means what you think it means.

The solution is to develop a system of voluntary universal national
service for our country and for the world. To call upon all young
adults to take at least one year to learn the hard and rugged skills of
practicing idealism.

Yes, lets teach them the "hard and rugged skills" of being forced to do labor that no one is willing to pay for voluntarily, so must be performed by slaves instead.

Another thought:  TJIC made a relevant observation to this the other day:

I'm seeing more and more grudging praise for the efficiency of the Chinese dictatorship these days.

It tends to go something like this:

Sure, sure, they're horrible, and democracy is better, but if they
decide that they need to put in { more mass transit | a factory | a new
canal | an Olympic village }, they just tell everyone in the village
"move!", and the job gets done.

I get the same impression.  Service Nation is the end result of such thinking.

Clarification:  Service Nation denies they support mandatory service, and have removed the word "universal" from their site.  However, it should be noted that many of the prominent supporters and board members of Service Nation have individually advocated for mandatory service.  Also, no denial that they are seeking to create a new, massive government beauracracy.

Politicians are freaking Schizophrenic

I remember it was not that long ago that the main issues for many urban politicians vis a vis the poorer parts of their city were

  • to encourage more and free-er mortgage lending
  • to encourage more retail businesses that would, through competition, help eliminate the retail price premium charged in many poorer areas

When I say I remember back to these things, I am not talking about 2 generations ago, for God sakes, I am talking about the 1990's.  Just one presidency ago.

Now, politicians are looking to punish bankers who provided easy mortgages for poorer borrowers, and are seeking to shut down payday loan companies, the last resort for ready cash before once goes to Tony Soprano.  Now, the LA city council wants to ban certain new retail establishments in South LA merely because they are too low cost and easy to use.

More on Wind Capacity

The other day I wrote to beware of rated capacity for wind and solar, because such plants tend to run way below their rated capacity on a 24-hour average.  MaxedOutMamma reads the wind report of the largest utility in Germany, which is as a country is among the largest adopters of wind power.  She finds this interesting bit:

As
wind power capacity rises, the lower availability of the wind farms
determines the reliability of the system as a whole to an ever
increasing extent. Consequently the greater reliability of traditional
power stations becomes increasingly eclipsed.

As
a result, the relative contribution of wind power to the guaranteed
capacity of our supply system up to the year 2020 will fall
continuously to around 4% (FIGURE 7). In concrete terms, this means
that in 2020, with a forecast wind power capacity of over 48,000MW
(Source: dena grid study), 2,000MW of traditional power production can
be replaced by these wind farms.

This is an even lower substitution factor than I mentioned previously, and is so because this report looks not just at the percent of time wind is blowing at full speed, but also at the peak load conventional power plants that must be kept running on standby due to the unreliability of wind.  At this 24:1 substitution ratio, folks like Al Gore and Boone Pickens will bankrupt us.  But of course, their investment portfolios, laden with alt-energy investments, will be paying off.


More on Those Tax Cuts For the Rich

As we previewed last week, the IRS came out with its numbers on 2006 taxes, and it turns out that the top 1% richest taxpayers earned 22% of the taxable income and paid 40% of the income taxes.  According to candidate Obama, this represents an unfair free ride for the rich.  These numbers increased from 21% and 37% in the last year of the Clinton administration.

I guess my question is, what's enough?  Already, half the country only pays less than 3% of the income taxes.  Do we really want a country where 50.1% of the people vote to live off the other 49.9%?

Postscript:  Yes, I know payroll taxes work differently and hit lower income folks pretty hard.  But then again, the Social Security program is supposed to be an insurance and retirement plan, not a transfer program. The left goes bananas when you suggest Social Security is welfare and not an honorable paid participation program.  So, like any other insurance, the premiums are flat rather than progressive.  You can't have it both way.

Twisted Into Pretzels

A few weeks ago, Kevin Drum had a post on shale oil development, quoting from a speech by Congressman Ken Salazar.  It is hard to really excerpt the piece well, but my take on their argument against shale oil leasing is:

  • Shale oil technology is unproven
  • The government is leasing the shale oil rights too cheap
  • There is already plenty of shale oil land for development, so new leases won't increase development
  • This is just being done by the Bush Administration to enrich the oil companies
  • The administration is rushing so fast that Congress has not had the chance to put a regulatory regime in place

In many ways, the arguments are surprisingly similar to those against new offshore and Alaskan oil leasing.  Through it all, there is this sort of cognitive dissonance where half the arguments are that the oil won't be developed, and the other half seem to be based on an assumption that a lot of oil will be developed.  For example, how can the leases be "a fire sale" if shale oil technology is unproven and development is not likely to occur?  I would say that if these assumptions were true, then any money the government gets for a worthless lease is found money. 

Similarly, how are oil companies going to enrich themselves by paying for leases if the technology is not going to work and no development is going to occur?  This same bizarre argument became Nancy Pelosi's talking point on offshore oil leasing, by saying that oil companies were somehow already cheating us by not drilling in leases they already have.  Only the most twisted of logic could somehow come to the conclusion that oil companies were enriching themselves by paying for leases were they found no developable oil.

From the standpoint of Democratic Party goals, there is absolutely nothing bad that happens if the government leases land for oil shale or oil drilling and oil companies are unable to develop these leases  (there is some small danger of royalty loss if leases are not developed when they could be economically, but most private royalty agreements are written with sunset periods giving the lease-holder a fixed amount of time to develop the lease or lose it -- I don't know how the government does it).  The net result of "no drilling" or "oil shale technology turns out not to work" is that the government gets money for nothing. 

Here is the problem that smart Democrats like Drum face, and the reason behind this confusing logic:  They have adopted environmental goals, particularly the drastic reduction of CO2 in relatively short time frames, that they KNOW, like they know the sun rises in the east, will require fuel and energy prices substantially higher than they are today.  They know these goals require substantially increased pain and lifestyle dislocation from consumers who are already fed up with fuel-cost-related pain.  This is not because the Democrats are necessarily cruel, but because they are making the [faulty] assumption that the pain and dislocation some day from CO2-driven global warming outweighs the pain from higher priced, scarcer energy.

So, knowing that their policy goal is to have less oil at higher prices, and knowing that the average consumer would castrate them for espousing such a goal, smart Democrats like Drum find themselves twisted into pretzels when they oppose oil development.  They end up opposing oil development projects because in their hearts they want less oil around at higher prices, but (at least until their guy gets elected in November) they justify it with this bizarre logic that they oppose the plan because it would not get us oil fast enough.  The same folks who have criticized capitalism for years for being too short-term focused are now opposing plans that don't have a payoff for a decade or so.

At the end of the day, most Democrats do not want more oil developed, and they know that much higher prices will be necessary to meet their climate goals.  It sure would be refreshing to hear someone just say this. As I wrote at Climate Skeptic, the honest Democrat would say:

Yeah, I know that $4 gas is painful.  But do you know what?  Gas
prices are going to have to go a LOT higher for us to achieve the CO2
abatement targets I am proposing, so suck it up.  Just to give you a
sense of scale, the Europeans pay nearly twice as much as we do for
gas, and even at those levels, they are orders of magnitude short of
the CO2 abatement I have committed us to achieve.  Since late 2006, gas
prices in this country have doubled, and demand has fallen by perhaps
5%.  That will probably improve over time as people buy new cars and
change behaviors, but it may well require gasoline prices north of $20
a gallon before we meet the CO2 goal I have adopted.  So get ready.

Postscript:  By the way, oil companies have been trying to develop shale oil since the 1970s.  Their plans went on hold for several decades, with sustained lower oil prices, but the call by the industry to the government for a clarified regulatory regime has been there for thirty years.  The brief allusion in Salazar's speech to water availability is a valid one.  I saw some studies at Exxon 20+ years ago for their Labarge development that saw water availability as the #1 issue in making shale oil work.

PPS:  I mention above that the pain of fuel prices not only hits the wallet, but hits in term of painful lifestyle changes.  One of the things the media crows about as "good news" is the switch to mass transit from driving by a number of people due to higher oil prices.  This is kind of funny, since I would venture to guess that about zero of those people who actually switched and gave up their car for the bus consider it good news from their own personal life-perspective.  Further, most of the reduction in driving has been the elimination of trips altogether, and not via a switch to mass transit.  Yes, transit trips are up, but on a small base.  95%+ of reduced driving trips are just an elimination of the trip.  Which is another form of lifestyle pain, as presumably there was some good reason to make the trip before.

Update: Updated on Canadian Oil Sands production here.  Funny quote:

Fourth, and potentially most important, the U.S. "green" lobby is
pushing legislation that could limit purchases of oil sands products by
U.S. government agencies based on its GHG footprint.  It would be well
beyond stupid for Congress to prohibit our buying oil from Canada while
we increase buying it from countries that threaten our security.  But
just because something is stupid certainly does not mean Congress may
not do it.

Rated Capacity

One needs to be a careful consumer of information when reading about the "rated capacity" of certain alternative energy plants. 

Take a 1MW nuclear plant, run it for 24 hours, and you get 24 MW-hours, or something fairly close to that, of electricity.

Leave 1MW worth of solar panels out in the sun for 24 hours, you get much less total electricity, depending on where you put it.  On an average day in New York City, you will get about 4 MW-hours.  In one of the best solar sites in the word, my home of Phoenix, you get about 6.5 MW-hours per day.  The key metric is peak sun-hours per day, and some example figures are here.  So, even in the best solar sites in the world, solar panels run at only about 25-30% of capacity.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that the same relationship holds for wind.

It's not like it's a secret that wind turbines are an unreliable source of electrical power. Bryce points out that, "In
July 2006, for example, wind turbines in California produced power at
only about 10 percent of their capacity; in Texas, one of the most
promising states for wind energy, the windmills produced electricity at
about 17 percent of their rated capacity."

That means
that there has to be nuclear, coal-fired or natural gas power plants
functioning fulltime as a backup to the pathetically unreliable and
inefficient wind farms. Moreover, what electricity they do generate
is lost to some degree in the process of transmitting it over long
distances to distribution facilities.

Now, this should not outright dissuade us from these technologies, but since no one has really licked the night-time / not-windy storage proble, it's certainly an issue.   I have looked at solar for my house a number of times, and the numbers just are not there (even with up to 50% government subsidies!) without a 2-5x decrease in panel costs.  Low yields can potentially be tolerated, but capital costs are going to have to be a lot lower before they make a ton of sense.

A Couple of Free SF Short Stories

Tor.com recently went online, and apparently has a new John Scalzi short story from the Old Man's War universe and a new Charles Stross from his very enjoyable "Laundry" series (I have not mentioned the latter series very much, but it is sort of HP Lovecraft meets Men in Black crossed with Office Space.  Really.)