Archive for August 2012

The Real Culprit Behind High Food Prices

Here is an amazing bit of data on where the US corn crop goes:


The Department of Agriculture says the corn crop in the US will be down 13% due to the drought.  But corn available for food uses is down 40% due to the ethanol mandate.  You do the math.  Wait, I don't trust your math.  I will do it for you:

PS-  It's kind of amazing the supposed worst drought ever has dropped corn yields by just 13%.  Hurray for modern agriculture.   This year we will still produce about the same amount of corn we did in 2006.

Savage Austerity

It seems very popular to publicly declare, even continually reiterate, that there is a trend without actually, you know, showing the trend data.  I won't declare this to be a media trend, but this summer we were plagued with news reports about the drought "trend" when in fact no such trend exists in the US data  (NOAA data from this article). Something similar holds for the supposed British austerity.  Here is British government spending in real dollars (via here)

Everyone's Snout is in the Trough

Economists advocate for Federal funding of economists.  Because if there is anything economics has taught us, its that the Feds do such a good job at allocating resources.

Via the Unbroken Window  (arguing against personal interest, I suppose, since the author is a professor of economics)

Proof We Live In a World With Statist Assumptions

Only a mostly-statist world would consider Paul Ryan a libertarian.

Also, here is my growing Romney fear -- that this guy shares many of the same assumptions as President Obama about the government's role in top-down management of the economy.  So far, his rhetoric has the feel not of seeking freedom from state authority but instead that, in the context of top-down state authority, he will be the better, smarter manager.  In other words, we are doomed.  Which is about the way I sum up every Presidential election.

Working on Security

I am working on site security, so if you get locked out for some reason, let me know by hitting the email here, or if you can't get in here, over at  I thought I had this process pretty well practiced as I did everything I wanted first at two other blogs, but this morning I managed to lock myself out of the site.  Oops.  So screw-ups are definitely possible.

The Real Issue in Climate

I know I hammer this home constantly, but it is often worth a reminder.  The issue in the scientific debate over catastrophic man-made global warming theory is not whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas, or even the approximate magnitude of warming from CO2 directly, but around feedbacks.   Patrick Moore, Greenpeace founder, said it very well:

What most people don't realize, partly because the media never explains it, is that there is no dispute over whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and all else being equal would result in a warming of the climate. The fundamental dispute is about water in the atmosphere, either in the form of water vapour (a gas) or clouds (water in liquid form). It is generally accepted that a warmer climate will result in more water evaporating from the land and sea and therefore resulting in a higher level of water in the atmosphere, partly because the warmer the air is the more water it can hold. All of the models used by the IPCC assume that this increase in water vapour will result in a positive feedback in the order of 3-4 times the increase in temperature that would be caused by the increase in CO2 alone.

Many scientists do not agree with this, or do not agree that we know enough about the impact of increased water to predict the outcome. Some scientists believe increased water will have a negative feedback instead, due to increased cloud cover. It all depends on how much, and a t what altitudes, latitudes and times of day that water is in the form of a gas (vapour) or a liquid (clouds). So if  a certain increase in CO2 would theoretically cause a 1.0C increase in temperature, then if water caused a 3-4 times positive feedback the temperature would actually increase by 3-4C. This is why the warming predicted by the models is so large. Whereas if there was a negative feedback of 0.5 times then the temperature would only rise 0.5C.

My slightly lengthier discussions of this same issue are here and here.

Sidetracked for a Day: Making Planets

I guess I am easily distracted by geeky stuff.  Yesterday I needed a fake / fantasy planet for a piece of art I am working on.  So I thought I would just go find something open-source-ish someone else has done.  That would have been the obvious 60-second solution.

But then I saw this site, which apparently is one for enthusiasts of - you guessed it - making planet and space art.  So I thought I would play around with it.  About 6 hours on the computer later, I have a planet and a lot of tools to make more, and actually had a surprising amount of fun doing it.  First, the planet, click to enlarge:

The image you get when you click on it is only about a quarter of the full resolution of 5000x5000 of the original.

This is all done in Photoshop, faking the 3D and lighting effects, though there are tutorials and that same site discussing how to do this even better using 3D rendering.  To make this, I started with a planet map using this tutorial.  The land image I used as a texture seed is here.  The final map looks like this (again I had to cut the resolution by 75% from the original 8000x4000).

The above was a bit dark so I ended up stacking two on top of each other with the top set to blend mode "screen" and this really made it pop.  The cloud map I used a portion of is apparently a favorite among planet illustrators -- you can find it here.  Again, here it is but reduced in size:

From these last two we select a large circle (of the same size from each) and spherize them in Photoshop.

Here it is before the atmosphere and shadow effects, which are layered on and can be adjusted after the fact

Then, follow the second half of this tutorial when he talks about atmosphere and shadows to get the final result.

And the shadow can go the other way as well:

If anyone is really interested, I can send you the photoshop file with all the layers so you can see how it works.  Update:  The files are huge, about 500MB each, in part because I leave copies of all the resources I use in hidden layers.  But here they are, one for the flat map and one for the planet: test.psd  and here:

Every. Single. Time.

Every single time that wind power installations are evaluated based on their actual performance, they turn out to make no economic sense.  Consumer Reports comes to the same conclusion for their wind power trial (and this does not even include the issues of standby power that make even small wind power savings irrelevant to CO2 production).

But if you're considering a wind turbine to supplement your home's power, consider our experience with one product, the Honeywell WT6500 Wind Turbine, a cautionary tale....

A tool on Windtronics' website had calculated we'd get 1,155 kWh per year at the 12-mph average it predicted for our area of Yonkers, New York. And the authorized installer, during his initial visit, didn't say the roof of our headquarters might generate any less, but that rating is at a height of 164 feet, not the 33 feet WindTronics requires for rooftop installations.

In the 15 months since the turbine was installed, though, it has delivered less than 4 kWh—enough only to power a 12,000 btu window air conditioner for one afternoon. A company representative in charge of installations worldwide recently visited our offices and confirmed that our test model was correctly installed. What's more, he told us that while the WT6500 should start generating power at about 3 mph, the initial juice goes just to power the system's inverter, which must be running before it supplies any AC power elsewhere. The true wind speed needed to start producing AC while the inverter is on is 6 mph, not far from the 7.5 mph needed by a traditional gearbox wind turbine....

At the rate the WT6500 is delivering power at our test site, it would take several millennia for the product to pay for itself in savings—not the 56 years it would take even with the 1,155 kWh quote we received.

Using the the Criminal Activity that Results from Prohibition to Justify Prohibition

Apparently, Los Angeles has tough anti-ticket scalping laws.  This means that one is able to resell virtually any item one owns but no longer has a use for except tickets.  In this case, government officials yet again don't like someone who places little value on an item selling it to someone who places more value on that item (a concept that is otherwise the basis for our entire economy).  We can see the effect of such laws in London, where stadiums full of empty seats are juxtaposed against thousands who want to attend but can't get tickets, all because for some reason we have decided we don't like the secondary market for tickets.

A great example is embedded in this line in today's LA Times about crackdowns on scalping:

Jose Eskenazi, an associate athletic director at USC, said the university distributed football and basketball tickets free to several children's community groups but that scalpers obtained those tickets and sold them "at enormous profits."

I like the coy use of "obtained" in this sentence.  Absent a more direct accusation, I have to assume that this means that scalpers bought the tickets from the community groups.  Which likely means that strapped for cash to maintain their operations, these groups valued cash from the tickets more that the ability to send kids to a USC football game  (in fact, taking them to a USC football game would involve extra costs to the community group of transportation, security, and feeding the kids at inflated stadium prices).  It was probably entirely rational for the community groups to sell the tickets -- this is in fact a positive story.  Selling the tickets likely got them out of an expensive obligation they could not afford and generated resources for the agency.  Sure, USC was deprived of the PR boost, but if they really want the kids to come to the game, they can do it a different way (e.g. by organizing the entire trip).  This is not a reason for curtailing my right to sell my tickets for a profit.

Anyway, I have ranted about this before.  Sports team owners and music promoters have out-sized political influence (particularly in LA) and have enlisted governments to clamp down on the secondary markets for their products.

What I thought was new and interesting in this LA Times story was the evolving justification for banning ticket scalpers.  Those who have followed the war on drugs or prostitution will recognize the argument immediately:

Lee Zeidman, general manager of Staples Center/Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live, said in a separate declaration that scalpers "frequently adopt aggressive and oftentimes intimidating tactics.... To the extent that ticket scalpers are allowed to create an environment that makes guests of ours feel uncomfortable, harassed or threatened, that jeopardizes our ability to attract those guests to our property."

In court papers, prosecutors accuse scalpers of endangering citizens, creating traffic hazards and diverting scarce police resources.

"Defendants personally act as magnets for theft, robbery, and crimes of violence," the filing states. "Areas with high levels of illegal ticket sales have disproportionately high levels of theft, robbery, crimes of violence and narcotics sales and use."

Wow, you mean that if we criminalize a routine type of transaction, then criminals will tend to dominate those who engage in this transaction?  Who would have thought?  If this were true, we might expect activities that normally are run by normal, honest participants -- say, for example, alcohol distribution -- to be replaced with gangs and violent criminals if the activity is prohibited.

It's amazing to me that people can still use the the criminal activity that results from prohibition to justify prohibition.

Update:  John Stossel has an article on the London ticket scalping ban

State Stereotypes

This is pretty awesome.  Using Google's auto-suggest which is based on their most frequent searches, Renee DiResta created a rollover map of state stereotypes.  Here is Arizona's, the rest are here.  Via Flowing Data

Web Site Fixes

I had a surprisingly angry email about some web site issues here, but it did get me off my butt to fix things.

1.  The email address was broken yet again at the link.  I fixed that.

2.  When I bring in blocks of quotes text from other sites, the smart quotes break and end up with things like â€™ instead of a single quote.  This obviously makes the text astronomically hard to read, so I have fixed it in all the archives and will work to make sure it is turned off in the future, though that is a surprisingly rich tech support discussion area on WordPress.

LA Traffic Bleg

OK, I have to drive on Thursday from San Diego to make a meeting around 10AM just north of LA off I-5.  I am willing to believe that there is no good way across town this time of day, and the only reasonable approach is to leave early and bring emergency rations.  However, if anyone has any advice as to the best way to thread my way south to north through LA during morning rush hour, leave a comment.

Update:  Thanks everyone.  I actually have to be in Ventura County via Santa Clarita so I will probably take the 15 and go around.  I also decided to take my (teenage) kids along to get the carpool lane.  Going to ditch them at Magic Mountain (not a bad fate) as I pass by.  I have my iPad charged with traffic, and will just get up early.


I will give a rare kudo to a government agency.  I am sure it cost way too much, but I must say the Curiosity landing and the way it was done is extraordinarily cool.  These concept images help bring it to life.

Amazon Dot Spam

I have been using Amazon AWS servers for years to host large videos and to store backup files in their S3 service.  But apparently their servers have also become the home of a lot of spammers and bots.   I have been in the process of locking down the security of my climate blog, testing changes that I will then migrate here (Incapsula front end, Disqus comments, a package of improved wordpress security changes, and ZB Block to catch what still makes it through.  I am not naive enough to think that I am safe from hackers, but I can at least be safe from stupid, lazy, or automated ones.

Anyway, I probably don't see a lot of the bots any more because they hit either Disqus or Incapsula.  But a great number still get through, and if they are persistent they get banned.  What amazed me was that of the first 22 IP's banned, 9 were on the Amazon AWS servers.

My sense is that this is one of those classic tragedy of the commons issues, which happens when valuable resources are essentially free.  I had an idea years ago, that I still like, that charging a tenth of a cent to pass each sent email would shut spam down.   You and I might spend five cents a day, but spammers would be hit with a $10,000 charge to email their 10 million name lists, which would kill their margins.  Don't know if there is a similar approach one could take for bots.

Does All DSL Suck, or Just the DSL in this Rental House?

This rental house has AT&T DSL.  Never had DSL before, always use cable for broadband, but I am amazed at the problems it has caused.  After a lot of investigations, it seems to shift my IP address frequently and near randomly, which tends to cause a frequent need to reboot the browser and drives services that try to increase security by tying one to an IP address absolutely bonkers.

Cute Animal Pictures

I am just about to enter my ninth year on this blog and I realize that I have not participated much in the primary purpose of the Internet -- posting cute animal pictures.  So here is some catch-up, via a recent trip to the San Diego zoo.


We Don't Trust Ourselves

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I Like to Hear This

In the past I have been critical of First Solar, like I have most solar companies, for having business models that were almost entirely dependent on huge government subsidies, particularly in Europe.  When these go away, the businesses start to crash.

I have not had time to dig into their financials to look for shenanigans, and to parse out how much is still dependent in some way on either direct subsidies of solar projects or incentives that cause utilities to buy solar electricity at above market rates, but First Solar reversed their large losses to a profit in the last quarter.  I am not sure if this is BS or not, but I like this attitude if true:

The company's cost per watt is the lowest in the industry, but it increased slightly during the quarter, to 72 cents per watt, because of the under utilization of its factories. If the factories had run more, the cost would have gone down, officials said.

Hughes said First Solar is making headway on its plan to target regions of the world with ample sunshine and a need for electricity, where solar power can compete without subsidies that make it cost-effective when compared with traditional energy sources.

Those places include Australia, India, the Middle East and other regions, he said.

That would be terrific.  I would love to see a solar boom driven by real economics and not taxpayer largess.

Olympic Whining

I have roughly the same reactions as Kevin Drum to all the Olympic whining (about tape-delaying events)

  1. NBC paid an absurd amount of money for the games.  Of course they are going to show the best stuff in prime time
  2. Lots of people have jobs where they can't watch all day.  They value the tape delay
  3. If you want to watch it, it's all streaming over the Internet.  Every damn match.  I have had fun sampling stuff I am not exposed to much, from team handball to skeet shooting to archery to cross country equestrian.  The kayaking was a favorite of mine, in particular (though the purpose built kayaking stadium seems a government boondoggle of epic proportions).  And all of it (with the exception of the sailing, can't figure out what the hell is going on) works great without commentaries, frequent commercials, or relentless human interest stories.

I have heard tell that NBC put spoilers in their evening news coverage.  This seems to be a mistake -- if you are going to tape delay, then as a network you need to be consistent with this policy.  But since I don't watch the network evening news, I am safe.

Best broadcast TV moment of the games:  The first commercial after Phelps lost the 200m butterfly by hundreths of a second in an uncharacteristic finishing mistake, we get the Morgan Freeman-narrated commercial about Michael Phelps winning by a hundreth of a second last Olympics and wondering how great it would be if it happened again.  Priceless.


Is a Government-Enforced Private Monopoly with Lots of Crony Feedback Loops Really Privatization?

That is the subject of my post this week at the Privatization Blog

Why Do I Think This Penalty Would Have Been Waived on GE or Dreamworks?

Politicians certainly live in their own world:

The Environmental Protection Agency has slapped a $6.8 million penalty on oil refiners for not blending cellulosic ethanol into gasoline, jet fuel and other products. These dastardly petroleum mongers are being so intransigent because cellulosic ethanol does not exist. It remains a fantasy fuel. The EPA might as well mandate that Exxon hire Leprechauns.

As a screen shot of EPA’s renewable fuels website confirms, so far this year - just as in 2011 - the supply of cellulosic biofuel in gallons totals zero.

“EPA’s decision is arbitrary and capricious. We fail to understand how EPA can maintain a requirement to purchase a type of fuel that simply doesn’t exist,” stated Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the Washington-based trade association that represents the oil refining and petrochemicals industries.

I will remind Republicans thought that ethanol is a bipartisan turd, this particular requirement having been signed into law by President Bush.

Cap and Trade and the Corporate State

For years, one of the problems I have had with the way CO2 cap and trade systems were structured was a fear that these systems would devolve into cronyism, with the companies best able to lobby the government getting allocations while less connected companies had to pay.  It seems this is already occuring in California:

 The California Air Resources Board (ARB), the regulator of the forthcoming program, held a workshop in Sacramento on Monday where it discussed plans to give away more free permits to prevent leakage in “trade-exposed” industries like cement production, oil refining and food processing.

Over the first three allowance auctions, which begin in November, the state will sell 48.9 million allowances and give away 53.8 million allowances, according to ARB.

Any company deemed to have either a high, medium or low risk of leaving the state will receive all the allowances they need to comply with the program during the first two-year compliance period, from 2013-2014, rather than have to buy the permits at regular auctions.

But those in the low and medium risk groups are currently scheduled to see their allotment of free allowances start to decline in 2015 by as much as half.

ARB officials on Monday said they are conducting studies examining the leakage risk of companies based on their historical energy costs and trade flows.

Don't be fooled by the quasi-scientific-sounding language here about categories of "trade exposure."  The reality will be that companies with political clout will get the permits, and companies without such clout will not.  This is a system that will favor large manufacturers over smaller companies.  It will also, oddly, apparently shift the burden of compliance from large manufacturers to service companies  (since service companies are the least likely to be "trade exposed.")  Of course, any manufacturer still operating plants in California is crazy anyway.