Results filed under: “policy”

@ August 31, 2009

During my series outlining some of the goals regarding the development of smart grid technology last month, I think, in retrospect, that may have misrepresented the role net metering plays in today's energy markets. In part two, where I discussed the role that the smart grid will play in opening up renewable markets, I touched on the concept:

Instead of a two-way meter, utility companies have the option of giving the solar panels get a separate meter. At the end of the month, you get a bill for the electricity you purchased, and you get a check for the electricity you made. But guess what? The retail electric providers are under no obligation to purchase this power at fair market price. They can pay you half, or a quarter, or nothing. They can pay you whatever they feel like. In fact, some providers (for example, TXU) are looking to charge customers who have grid-tied systems an extra fee for the trouble!
Here's what I need to clarify. You should not get the same financial benefit for electricity you export as you do for electricity you offset. An explanation of the difference, and the reasons, are after the jump.

@ April 20, 2009

I know lots of you out there don't like Family Guy, because, well, you are allergic to jokes or something. Whatever. But if you don't think that this is awesome, then I don't know if we can be friends anymore, internet.

For the record: I do not smoke marijuana. I'm not just saying that in case a prospective employer someday finds this site - I'm paranoid enough without the stuff, thank you very much.  But I am pro-legalization. I think anybody who has thought about it beyond "drugs are bad, if you do drugs, you are bad" would likely be pro-legalization. 

@ April 6, 2009

Then this is article by Simon Johnson required reading.

Because I know some of you don't like reading anything that can't fit into a Twitter post, I'll try to give you the Cliff's Notes version.

If you described the nature of the economic problems in the US to economic experts but hid the name of the country, the unanimous answer would be that we should nationalize the banking system.
Bailouts are not, and will never be, enough to solve the problems these banks are facing. Bailouts do not make the banks healthy, but give them enough cash to limp along a little further, delaying the inevitable.

Cleanup of the banking sector will be incredibly expensive, but it only becomes more expensive with each day that passes without the proper action being taken.

If a bank is considered too big to fail, then it must be nationalized and sold off in smaller pieces. Regulations must be put into place to prevent any financial institution from achieving "too big to fail" status again. In Johnson's words: "Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist."

I will quote verbatim my favorite paragraph, in which Johnson discusses the merits of limiting compensation:

[O]utright pay caps are clumsy, especially in the long run. And most money is now made in largely unregulated private hedge funds and private-equity firms, so lowering pay would be complicated. Regulation and taxation should be part of the solution. Over time, though, the largest part may involve more transparency and competition, which would bring financial-industry fees down. To those who say this would drive financial activities to other countries, we can now safely say: fine.

@ April 1, 2009


Today, the House Republicans released their budget.  You may be thinking, hey, didn't they release one last week?  Well that one they made the completely understandable mistake of forgetting to include numbers.  Any at all.  But they did have a sweet graph that's just as good: gopplan.png

The underpants gnome comparison is totally played out, don't go there. Well after much hand wringing and raucous laughter from Republicans and everyone else, respectively, they decided that that was just a practice run, and the real budget was coming. And now it's out, and it's even better! Can you guess what the big idea is? If you said 'tax cuts for corporations and the rich' you win! But it also claims to cut the deficit. How does it do both of these, you ask? Well for once they don't just smear the words 'Laffer curve' with their own poo on a sheet of paper, so I guess there's some credit for that, but here are the highlights:

  • Eliminate Medicare for everyone not in it already
  • Thinking big, I like that! Instead, they'll give everyone vouchers worth roughly what the per person cost of Medicare is. Which would be bad since you can buy a lot less coverage alone without the bargaining power of the whole bloc, but not apocalyptically awful except for the fact that the vouchers are tied to inflation, not health care costs, which rise much faster. So you start out getting just a little less, but every year the vouchers cover less and less and you have to spend more and more out of pocket to maintain coverage.
  • Give people the choice of two tax plans, then assume they'll voluntarily pay the higher one
  • This is also great. So instead of just cutting the top tax bracket from 35% to 25%, they give taxpayers the choice of paying either their current amount or a new scheme where the top tax bracket is lowered to $50,000 a year per person or $100,000 per family, but the rate is lowered to 25%. So the super wealthy (500k+) see their tax bill cut by nearly a third, while everyone else stays the same or pays more. Which is apparently why you get the option to stay in the old system. But that's not the real reason. The deficit assumptions they use assume that everyone will choose whichever tax scheme IS WORSE FOR THEM. No rationale is given for this at all.
  • Five year spending freeze on everything except the military
  • Basically every program the government spends on, including schools, SCHIP, state aid, law enforcement, unemployment, and everything else will get a spending freeze with the effect of cuts the size of inflation Interestingly, it's done without regard whatsoever to merit of the programs. Corn subsidies and schools get cut equally. But don't worry, we can spend as much as we want on bombs and guns!

Several people I've read call cutting government spending during a recession 'Neo-Hoover' economics, but that's really unfair to Hoover. He was dealing with a basically unprecedented situation, without Keynes or the rest of modern economic thought, much of which came about directly due to watching his mistakes and learning from them. Deliberately going back to policies known to fail, contra to all logic and economics, deserves a much worse title.

But then again, none of this is going to happen. The truly scary part is that this is the very best the opposition party can come up with. In the Senate, lest we forget, 36 out of 41 Republican senators voted to replace the Obama stimulus plan entirely with $3 trillion in tax cuts. And it only takes 40 votes to stop legislation. Change, for the moment, requires two Republican votes. And this is the course of action they want to take.

To steal a line from the prescient John Cole : "Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years."

@ January 23, 2009

As far as I know, the clip I need does not exist on the Internet.  So, you will have to do with a description instead.  In an episode that begins with a bear roaming the streets of Springfield, the townspeople demand that the mayor institute a wide-reaching bear patrol that includes vans and helicopters. 

Homer: Not a bear in sight.  The Bear Patrol must be working like a 
Lisa: That's specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn't work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks about it, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
Now imagine that Homer was later mauled by a tiger.  Would this be proof that the rock did not work, or proof that the rock was in fact more vital than ever? And what the hell am I bringing up a 10-year-old Simpson episode for?

Replace "rock" with "Guantanamo Bay" and "tiger" with "terrorists" and you pretty much have this story.

"The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year."
Despite all the torture and various and sundry shady activities of the last 8 years, we managed to capture and release this guy.  So instead of meaning that the anti-terror policies of the Bush administration were failures, it means we actually need to continue them?

 Lisa: That's specious reasoning, Dad.

My thought exactly.
(Tip via Joe)

@ December 12, 2008


Seriously.  Via CalculatedRisk:

"Although the Census Bureau reported that nominal retail sales decreased 8.4% year-over-year (retail and food services decreased 7.4%), real retail sales declined by 10.1% (on a YoY[kevin: Year over Year] basis). This is the largest YoY decline since the Census Bureau started keeping data.

Retail sales are a key portion of consumer spending and real retail sales have fallen off a cliff."

Don't worry though, lame-duck Senate Republicans filibustered the Big 3 bridge loan last night, ensuring that the automakers will fail at the worst possible time, increasing unemployment 1-2%!  The economy is totally strong enough to handle that, not to mention the human misery that comes from hundreds of thousands of people being laid off in one location at once. 

And let's not pretend it's about 'fiscal conservatism', the money is not just trivial in comparison to the financial bailout, but it's roughly the cost of a week in Iraq.  Even George Bush realizes that this would be a disaster, there's a reason he's on board.

@ December 12, 2008

After spending over $300 billion dollars to bail out banks with absolutely nothing to show for it, the US government, specifically the Senate, has decided that we do not have $15 billion to loan to the American auto companies to keep them from failing.  Talks failed last night when the United Auto Workers union would not agree to an immediate reduction in union wages.  Republican Senators wanted union workers to accept wages commensurate with those paid to non-union workers in other US auto plants, which would amount to a reduction of approximately $10 per hour (inclusive of benefits).  UAW and Democrats countered that the auto companies should honor the current contracts, but they would accept the proposed wage reduction when those contracts ended in 2011.

This proved to be a deal breaker.

For some perspective, consider: despite the hand-wringing about the cost of high wages and benefits to current and retired workers, labor costs account for approximately 10% of the cost of a union built car.  In other words: UAW members could volunteer to work on the assembly lines for free, and the car companies would still need the bailout.

What we have here, then, is some good old-fashioned union busting.  And, I have to admit, Republicans have the UAW by the balls: either tear up your current contract right now, and along with it any ability you have to ever enforce a contract with your employers again, or your employers will likely end up out of business. 

$300 billion to the companies that made the bad investments and caused the problem to begin with.  These companies did not have to give any meaningful concessions.  But the auto companies, who employ people who actually make a product and helped build the middle class in America, get nothing unless the union completely forfeits all its contractual rights.

Does this make anyone else kind of mad?

@ November 18, 2008


The upcoming fight over comprehensive health care reform is liable to be one of the most explosive political fights since, well, Hillarycare.  And this time, it's got a bigger cast with bigger egos and even higher stakes.  Who are these titans of legislation, these gatekeepers of treatment?  Let's find out...


@ November 14, 2008


or: Stimulus Here, Stimulus Now!

This post is going to have a ton of charts, so it'll mostly be after the jump, but here's the gist:

1. The overall economy (not just the financial sector) is worse than it looks, and it looks really bad.

2. Given the particulars of how this rec/depression is likely to play out, the federal government is the only actor who has the ability to reverse the spiral of low employment->low retail sales->lower employment->lower sales.

3. Stimulus is the right thing to do, but all stimulus is not created equal.   

@ August 29, 2008

Before watching Obama's speech last night, I was on the phone with my mom.  My mom does not like Barack.  She is not a Barack supporter.  She is one of those Hillary supporter's you hear about that don't want to vote for Barack for some crazy reason or another.  "He's an empty suit," she says.  "Change? What does that mean? It's all empty rhetoric," she says. "No, it's not because I'm a bitter, bitter woman," she says.

I think Obama might have overheard our conversation, because about halfway through his speech, he said this: "So let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am President."

He then proceeded to run down a laundry list of specific policy positions that embody his idea of "Change." Because I am an obsessive one-issue voter, I zoned in on this part of the speech:

"[I]n ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East."  

More empty rhetoric, or actually possible?

Let's look carefully at what he said.  He is not promising to eliminate our dependence on oil, or even our dependence on foreign oil.  He is specifically pledging to eliminate oil imports from the Middle East.

(Quick aside: I suspect in the next day or so we'll see a clarification that says he wants to eliminate oil consumption equal to that of current Middle East import levels, as opposed to any type of import embargo from these countries.  Stay tuned.)

Here is a helpful quote from the AP on this issue:

"Last year, the United States imported about 10 million barrels of oil a day, of which about 20 percent came from the Persian Gulf states."
To eliminate Middle East oil imports, we would need to reduce imports by 2 million barrels of oil every day.  Guess what?  We don't need any new untested technology, or to all buy electric cars, or to start bike commuting.  This is completely achievable through increased fuel efficiency standards alone.

The average American uses 500 gallons of gas every year to travel 12000 miles, or an average of 24 miles per gallon.  A reduction of 2 million barrels a day, at 42 gallons per barrel, translates into a per-American reduction of about 110 gallons.  390 gallons to travel those same 12000 miles yields a fuel efficiency of 31 miles per gallon.

Obama could have said, "In 10 years, we will end our dependence on oil." Period.  Al Gore said something similar recently (he actually called for an end to dependence on all fossil fuels, not just oil).  That is an honorable goal, and a desirable goal, but in the real world, it does not appear to be an achievable goal. 

In fact, here is someone saying that he set the bar too low.  Here's another that says he set the bar too high.  That makes me think he got it just right.

@ August 6, 2008

You knew this was coming.

Obama sez: Drilling = fail, keeps ur tires inflated for gas savings bonanza!
McCain sez: LOL, what a joke, drilling FTW!

So, is Obama out of his mind? Can proper tire inflation really save as much oil as we could get from all the proposed offshore drilling?

Recall from the previous Word Problems article you most likely didn't read that, at peak production (which would be anywhere from 10-20 years from now under any reasonable scenario), drilling from both the offshore sites and ANWR would pump about 2 million barrels of oil into the market every day against the 20 million barrels we use.

Now we have our benchmark, time for the hard part: how much oil could we really save with proper tire inflation and regular tune-ups?

This isn't research I'm prepared to do.  Thankfully, the good folks over at the Department of Energy have done it for us on this website:

Properly inflating your tires is good for an additional 3% on your vehicle's fuel efficiency.  A properly tuned engine is good for another 4%.  A clogged air filter could be a 10% hit.  And even the wrong motor oil can give you a 2% improvement.

Taken together, these car maintenance conservation techniques could save a worst-case driver 15%.  Here, I'll throw a dart at a dartboard and call it at 5% improvement for the average driver

The savings from tire gauges and car maintenance is slightly smaller than the 10% increase in available oil from the potential drilling, with one little caveat. Inflate your tires now, and you get the savings now.  Start drilling right here, right now, and the savings don't start for a decade

(Can we pause here so I can laugh at the spectacle of politicians insisting that Congress return from vacation to vote on drilling? Yeah, that 5 weeks is really going to make a difference moving forward with an energy plan that has a 10-20 year lead time.  Does this bullshit really fool people?)

Unfortunately, it looks like this oil drilling talk is starting to take hold.  According to recent surveys, 70% of Americans are in favor of more drilling.  While I don't think it will solve any problems, and may result in an environmental disaster in the Gulf  and/or the Alaskan wildlife refuge, that really is an environmental question, not an energy question.

Looking at it through the prism of achieving energy sustainability, and putting aside any environmental concerns: I say let 'em drill.  Drill to your hearts content, motherfuckers.  Drill in the Gulf, drill in ANWR, drill for oil in Teddy Roosevelt's head if you think it's there. Because, eventually, there won't be anymore places to drill for oil in, no more magic beans that would solve everything if mean old Nancy Pelosi would just let the American people have them.  The excuses will run out, and the price of gas will be as high as ever.  And then maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to make some progress, instead of this childish horseshit.
tire gauge.jpg

@ July 21, 2008

Back in April, I (and anyone else who could count) just about dropped a brick when Hillary Clinton and John McCain both suggested that the pain of high gas prices could be alleviated if we just stopped taxing the stuff for a little while. It is obvious in retrospect that Hillary was experiencing the death-throes of a presidential campaign, and John McCain... well, I think I've made myself clear on this subject.

Fortunately, even the most math-challenged among us were able to see that the promise of an extra $30 bucks was not worth the $10 billion shortfall in the fund that finances highway maintenance and repairs. 

As it turns out, not only was a gas-tax holiday completely insane, but the gas-tax may actually have to go up:

"As motorists cut back on their driving and buy more fuel-efficient cars, the government is taking in less money from the federal gasoline tax.

The result: The principal source of funding for highway projects will soon hit a big financial pothole. The federal highway trust fund could be in the red by $3.2 billion or more next year."
I'll be the first to admit that any major change in the status quo was bound to have some growing pains, and this looks like a doozy.  The federal gasoline tax, as you may recall, is 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents on diesel fuel).  So, as we start driving less or switching to more fuel efficient vehicles, the number of gallons consumed goes down, even though the total amount being spent on gas compared to recent years may remain steady or even continue to climb.  Because the tax is per gallon, fewer gallons means less taxes, regardless of the total amount spent.

So what are we to do? We're definitely in a tight spot.  As a result of decades of car culture, the United States has a vast concrete infrastructure to get those vehicles around.  Short term, I don't see anyway around it: bills have got to be paid. 

Here's the problem: Should the gas tax be raised? And if so, by how much? Let's break it down.

How much less is everyone driving?

Back in April, we assumed the average American was consuming 500 gallons per year.  Obviously, that number has gone down, since, well, that's the whole goddamn problem. 

Ignoring the whole diesel thing for simplicity's sake, the gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon.  If we're $3 billion short, that translates into roughly 16 billion gallons, or about 45 gallons per person.  Obviously, some large portion of this money is coming from commercial use.  If we assume half, cause I'm too lazy to try to look it up, we'll say every person is using 25 gallons less in the next year.  That would translate into a 5% reduction in gasoline consumption.  If it's true, that is pretty fantastic.   

How much would the tax need to be increased to make up the difference?

While I'm all about facing reality, it also seems clear that the only politicians to suggest raising the gas tax at a time when people are absolutely losing their minds every time they fill up are the ones that don't want to be re-elected.  Fortunately, I have declared myself ObscureCraft President-For-Life, so I'm free to explore this possibility.

If we assume our 25 gallon per person reduction annually is roughly correct, then we need each person to pay the same on 475 gallons as they would have on 500 gallons at 18.4 cents.  This comes out to... 19.4 cents.

Yup, we need to increase the gasoline tax by about a penny to make up the difference.  Let's assume a margin of error and that gasoline costs will continue to grow down, and make it 3 cents. 

Holy shit, does nobody have the cajones to suggest raising the tax by 3 cents? Or am I just such a tax-and-spend liberal that I can't see the forest for the trees? Somebody please help me out here.

If not the gas tax, then what?

I honestly can't get over the fact we're spending $1 billion a month to fuck up Iraq while we search through the couch cushion for the loose change to keep our country intact.

Irony aside, the money is going to come from somewhere.  We're either going to raise the gas-tax, invent a new tax and call it something else, or go into debt to pay for it.  Highways don't grow on trees - although they do sometimes collapse onto them.

@ July 14, 2008

Or, put it another way: "Bush to lift executive ban on offshore oil drilling"

It occurs to me that the "Word Problems" feature may seem as a way for me to apply my lefty-leaning politics to current issues under the guise of objectiveness, Sophie cheating at battleship notwithstanding.  If it appears that way to you, might I suggest: my choice of topic certainly comes out of my tree-hugging commie bias, but numbers be what they be, motherfucker.

So: should we get drillin'?

Guidance from our politicians on this issue is shaky at best.  Bush has been pro-drilling for about as long as he's been the son of an oil-millionaire - difficult to accept his opinion on face value, even if he wasn't, you know... stupid.

(Quick aside: I don't think Frank Caliendo is funny, but isn't it amazing that DirecTV is actually using his impression of the president as a fool who is astonished by the functioning of a television remote as a way of promoting their product? Has anything ever happened like that before with a sitting president?)

(Jesus Christ.  2 terms, people.  Anyway, where was I...)

So instead of looking to the current pres for guidance, let's look at the stances of the two politicians looking to replace him.  John McCain was long an opponent of offshore drilling, but has recently changed his stance to pro-drilling.  However, as you heard here first, McCain has recently been dried and hollowed out so that George Bush can crawl inside and control his actions like the alien in the first Men In Black movie.  So, we can't trust him.

Obama is anti-drilling, but, as a secret Muslim, he would obviously take that stance since increased oil production stateside would interfere with the operations of his Arab overlords.  Can't trust him, either.

No choice - we have to go to the numbers. (Note: if you don't actually want to see the numbers, just skip to the end.  Srs bizness!!)

Unless you are an oil company executive, your decision on a pro/anti drilling stance should be made on whether or not you think taking these actions will help bring down the price at the pump.  Let's break it down: the question of "should we drill offshore and in the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR)" becomes "how much more oil will we get, how much will that bring down the cost of oil, and how much does the price of oil affect the price of gasoline?"

How much more oil will we get?

In the ANWR, about 10.5 billion barrels. Peak oil production would be 800,000-900,000 barrels a day... sometime after 2020.

Offshore, about 16 billion barrels would be opened up. Peak production would be on a similar scale and timeframe.

How much will that bring down the cost of oil?

I'm not an economist, and I don't feel like building a supply-demand curve to figure this out the right way.  So, I'm going to fudge a little bit.

The US currently consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day, give or take. Let's give the ANWR and offshore fields the benefit of the doubt, and say we'll get a total of 2 million barrels of oil every day, once they hit peak production - this will happen many years from now, but, again, I'm going to make this simple, so let's assume it happened right now, today.  Oil costs $140 per barrel.  If there was an extra 2 million barrels on the market, let's say this drops the price of oil by 10%. 

How much does the price of oil affect the price of gasoline?

Why, that is an excellent question.  Thank you for bringing it up!

To determine this, we will explore some historical prices.  Let's look at the national average price of both oil and gasoline today, 5 years ago, and 10 years ago. (Costs are per barrel/per gallon)

2008:  $140/$4.12
2003:  $28/$1.78
1998:  $12/$1.17

From 98-03, oil went up by a factor of 2.3, while gas prices went up by a factor of 1.5.  From 98-08, oil went up by a factor of 11.7, while gas only went up by a factor of 3.5. 

On other words: the price of oil goes up much faster than the price of gasoline.  Whaaa? That's right: there are other factors in the price of gasoline other than how much the oil costs.  A 10% reduction in oil cost does NOT translate into a 10% reduction in gasoline costs.  Refinery costs and capacity make up a very large part of the cost of a gallon of gasoline (that is why after Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices spiked dramatically - refining capacity nationwide was hit hard by the storm, in addition to some black people.) 

From a typical barrel of oil, depending on the refining process used, you get 20 gallons of gasoline (the rest of the oil goes to make jet fuel, heating oil, and the salve Dick Cheney soaks in every night to stay alive).  At $140 per 42-gallon barrel, oil costs $3.33 per gallon.  Reducing the cost of oil by 10% would result in a per gallon of oil savings of about 33 cents per gallon.


If the ANWR and the Gulf Coast fields were at full capacity today, we'd save something like 30-40 cents on every gallon of gasoline.  Of course, full capacity won't be reached for 10 years at the earliest - who knows how high the price of gasoline will be by then.  30-40 cents will be a drop in the bucket against $6-7 per gallon. 

At $140 per barrel, though, there is money to be made.  Offshore drilling becomes profitable at about $60 per barrel.  With a profit of $80 per barrel, the oil in the Gulf alone is worth $1.2 trillion dollars.

Like I said, the choice of whether to drill is up to you.  Just know what you are getting out of it (30-40 cents off a gallon of gasoline), and what the cost might be.

@ June 11, 2008

Loved reading this article on the proposed carbon tax.  Quick primer: a carbon tax is a proposed method of controlling carbon emissions by taxing individuals and corporations for every pound of carbon they emit.  A cap-and-trade system institutes caps on how much carbon can be emitted, and people who wish to go over their limits can purchase additional carbon emissions from those who are not using up to their cap.  Got it? No? Whatever, you don't need to get it to enjoy the hysterical reaction from this conservative author.  Instead of making you read the whole thing, I will instead offer some wonderful quotes:

"The sheer chutzpah it takes to even offer such a thing is breathtaking, matched only by how frightened we all should be by the sheer economic destruction it would inevitably cause and the loss of freedom to which it would directly lead."

"This is simply a direct frontal assault on freedom, standards of living and America as we have known it. For, you see, this is cloaked in the cover of "being green," which is the most dangerous movement in politics today. Why is it the most dangerous? Primarily because it has no opposition whatsoever, so gutless and cowardly are all politicians in the face of the Sierra Club and their fellow enviro-wackos."

No one has the guts to tell these tree-hugging lunatics where to shove their CF light bulb mandates, their all-consuming hatred of the car and, most of all, their cult-like blind belief in non-existent global warming as the universal justification for this blatant government thuggery."

When the Cold War had a lull starting in 1989 - let's disabuse ourselves of the naïve notion that it ever ended - the remaining believers in Marxism found a home in the far-left environmental crowd. ... Fast forward to 2008, and Big Green (or Big Red, if you prefer) is now the monster ready to swallow the U.S. economy and radically remake society in their totalitarian and anti-human image."
I don't intend to offer a point by point counterargument to every ridiculous thing he said, since that would be a waste of my precious time. Instead, please enjoy this clip from The Producers - imagine that Zero Mostel is playing the role of environmentalists, and Gene Wilder that of the author.

@ May 20, 2008

I'm not usually a big magazine reader, but sometimes you are in an airport for 12 hours and finish the book you brought and are tired of listening to your iPod and your wife has your laptop so she can look endlessly at real estate listings in Texas.  Sometimes these things happen.  Unsurprisingly, this cover caught my eye.

wired-cover.jpgMy immediate thought was: false premise.  The two places I see false premises the most are in advice columns and magazine articles.  In an advice column, an example of a false-premise question would be: "How much should I tell people to spend on wedding gifts for me in the invitations I send out?" The false premise, of course, is that you should be telling people to spend any amount of money on you at all.  (Sidenote: if I wrote an advice column, I would spend half my time screaming at the selfish, selfish people planning their weddings.)  In a magazine article, a false premise reads like this: "If you're serious about global warming, only one thing matters: Cutting carbon."  

The appropriate phrase that comes to mind is "missing the forest for the trees".  Global warming is an important topic, but it is only part of a larger issue: sustainability.

When you go camping, you'll often find signs that say "leave the campsite cleaner than you found it."  That is the basic concept of sustainability, except the campsite is, uh, the entire world.   If there is to be enough energy, food, water, and raw materials for a growing global population, then you must generate your energy, food, water, and raw materials in such a way that there is as much (or more) of these things left when you are done as when you arrived.  How is this possible? By using renewable resources in a renewable way. Overfishing would be an example of using a renewable resource in a non-renewable way: fish are a renewable food resource until you eat them all. 

Let's look at some of the assertions that Wired makes, and see how these change when you look through the prism of sustainability instead of just reducing carbon.



What Wired says: The US uses more energy on heating than it does on cooling every year.  Additionally, air conditioning cycles are more efficient than heating cycles; that is, it takes less energy to cool a given volume of air by one degree than it does to heat that same given volume of air by one degree.  

All these things are true.  My rebuttal: so what? What, exactly, does this do to help anyone understand global warming or shape public policy? Some people live in hot areas, and some people live in cold areas.  The carbon-based arguments for living in cold New England vs. hot Arizona are much more complex than heating vs. air conditioning.  How much energy is spent delivering food and water and air conditioners to the desert? I don't know, but this is an example of the poorly thought out arguments used by Wired to make controversial statements to sell magazines rather than contribute to the readers understanding of sustainability.  Sustainability demands that we reduce the non-renewable energy required for both heating and cooling through use of renewable energy and building efficiency (i.e. better insulation, reduced building heat gain, and maybe wearing a sweater indoors).


What Wired says: The production of a hybrid car releases so much carbon that it is better to continue driving your old SUV.

Nobody should be making decisions about what car to buy based on carbon emissions.  Instead, you should look for the mode of transportation with the highest level of sustainability.  The vehicle that uses the least fossil fuel is the one that you should drive.  Life cycle analysis of carbon only matters because hybrid vehicles are new enough that there are no used ones available.  The sooner we get old gas guzzlers off the road, the better.  If you buy a used vehicle now, or buy a new hybrid now and then sell it used down the road, I fail to see the difference in the long view.

The short-term minded approach to reducing carbon output ultimately results in a higher consumption rate of fossil fuels.  Instead, you should look to acquire the vehicle that has the most sustainable energy consumption.  If you take care of fuel consumption, the rest takes care of itself.


What Wired says: Nuclear power emits no carbon.

Again, missing the point of sustainability versus carbon reduction.  Until there is a solution of what to do with the nuclear waste, this is not a sustainable option - plain and simple.  And as of right now, there is no solution.  

The effort and expense that would go into building new power plants could instead be put into the development and production of truly renewable resources, like solar, wind, and wave power.  Plus, last I heard, a wind farm never took out an entire region's population when it malfunctioned.  I'm just saying.


I don't disagree with every assertion made by Wired.  For example, I think intelligent use of forests, genetically engineering food supplies, and living in cities are all important steps towards a sustainable society (even though they got to these conclusions ass backwards).  However, if Wired wasn't trying so hard to throw carbon reduction in the face of environmentalists to make a controversial magazine cover, they also would have made the point that riding a bike, buying used everything (not just cars), and being a vegetarian are also ways of reducing carbon out AND building a sustainable society.  

But maybe the biggest step we can take as a society towards sustainability, carbon reduction, and reduced natural resource consumption?

Stop publishing "green" magazine issues.

@ April 30, 2008

Today we get follow-ups to two stories that ObscureCraft has been tracking.  First, I'm sure you remember reading the first sentence of my "Word Problems" feature on the gas-tax holiday before getting bored, so I'll give you the short version: John McCain wants to suspend the national gas tax for the summer, because he is a stupid old man who can't do math.  It turns out that the state of New York is also governed by stupid old men who can't do math.  

State senators Andrew Lanza, Charles Fuschillo, and Joe Robach, sponsored a bill to suspend the 32.5 cent per gallon gas between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  As a result, I am taking up a collection: if I get $60 in pledges, I will send each of these senators a copy of this book with the following note.

Dear Senator: 

It has come to my attention, based on your recent legislation to suspend the gasoline tax for the summer season, that you are poor at math.  Because I feel it is important that our elected officials be able to solve basic math problems, I have sent you the enclosed book.  Take the time you would spend today writing horrible legislation and work through this book, and I guarantee that your math skills will greatly improve.  Only 20 minutes a day to success!  After you are done, your homework is to write a paragraph on why a gas tax holiday is a retarded idea.
I will start the pot with $10.  And I don't even have a job!  Anybody else in?


And finally:  Monday, I brought you up to speed on the Miley Cyrus photo scandal.  Well, today, I found this on the internets. That is what I call a photo scandal. 

Just click it.  Don't make me explain the disturbing, disturbing image found inside.  Miley Cyrus may not owe me an apology, but whoever created this Disney-related advertisement does.  Because I am upset.  I'm going to go take another shower now.

@ April 23, 2008

Previously, on ObscureBlog:

Ethanol sucks.  To be more specific, let's explore the effectiveness of ethanol as a renewable resource. 

Fundamentally, all energy, except for nuclear energy, comes from the sun (the great nuclear reactor in the sky).  Fossil fuels are a means of extracting solar energy that fell on the earth millions of years ago.  However, this solar energy reserve is running out.  We need to come up with ways of converting the solar energy that is falling onto the earth today into energy we can use without waiting the millions of years it takes for the generation of oil, coal, and natural gas beneath the earth.  Here are some numbers to start:

The intensity of solar radiation is 1 kW/m^2.  That means, if you had a 100% efficient solar converter, for every square meter of land it covered, you would get one kilowatt of power.   If that sunlight was collected for an hour, you would have one kilowatt-hour of energy.  Power is a measure of rate - how fast you've gone - and energy is a measure of quantity - how far you've gone.  With me so far?

However! This solar radiation is on a surface perpendicular to the sun.  If you have your collector on a flat surface at all times, you must correct for the incoming angle of the radiation.  This is why you are cold in the winter, when the sun angle is low, and warm in the summer, when the sun angle is high.  Science!

In addition to the effect of the angle of the incoming solar rays (called the "cosine effect"), you must also consider the length of each day and the typical amount of cloud cover in the area where your collector is located.  Fortunately, there is a government agency whose job it is to determine these things for us - the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  Your tax dollars at work.

So, we can get all the information we need to calculate how much solar energy falls on the corn.  Now we need to know some things about corn.  Specifically:

When is it planted, and how long does it take to grow?
It depends on the area.  We are going to use Iowa as our test region, so we will say planting day is roughly on April 1st.  The time it takes to grow depends on the variety.  We will use 80 days as an estimate.

How much land is required to get us a single bushel?
In 2007, Iowa farmers harvested 2.5 billion bushels on 13.9 million acres, for a land-usage average of 180 bushels per acre.  Doing some math gets us to 1 bushel per 22.5 square meters.

How much ethanol do we get from a single bushel?
2.7 gallons per bushel, per the Department of Agriculture.
How much energy is in that amount of ethanol?
76,000 BTU per gallon, or roughly 60 kWh per bushel.


Let me pause here to make an observation.  Many people reading this by now will be completely confused; if they aren't confused yet, they will be by the end.  That is because energy is complicated unnecessarily.  Let's take a quick look at some of the power and energy units we encounter in our daily lives.

* Kilowatt hours (kWh) - this is how you are charged for electricity energy on your utility bill
* Therms - this is how you are charged for natural gas energy on your utility bill
* British Thermal Units (BTUs) - commonly used as a power rating for air conditioners
* Gallons of gasoline - energy you put into your car
* Barrels of oil - energy put into gasoline to put into your car
* Joules - standard metric unit for energy
* Erg - energy unit commonly found in crossword puzzles
* Horsepower - a unit of power used to rate car engines
* Calorie - energy unit used in food

If you want to be an educated consumer of energy, you should know what these (and other) units mean, and how they compare... I smell another Word Problem. Anyway, moving on.

We will use Des Moines, Iowa as our example location, since we used to only hear about ethanol subsidies at the beginning of each election cycle for the Iowa caucuses.  According to data from the Renewable Resource Data Center (a part of NREL), Des Moines, Iowa, typically sees 257.5 kWh per square meter for the 80-day period that starts on April 1st. 

All the hard work is done, so let's see what we get:

1 bushel requires 22.5 square meters.  If each square meter receives 257.5 kWh worth of solar energy, 1 bushel receives 5800 kWh.  From each bushel that is converted into ethanol, we get 60 kWh worth of energy.  This is a conversion efficiency of just over 1%. For comparison's sake, the worst solar panels - you know, the ones you refuse to put on your house because they are ugly - get 10%.  Corn is 10 times worse at converting sunlight into energy as the worst photovoltaics. 


@ April 22, 2008

Today's question: "Should we be using ethanol as a replacement fuel for oil?"

As it turns out, the "Word Problems column is becoming "Hippie Jesse and his Groovetactular Enviro-Mania".  Don't worry, I'm sure we'll fix the environment soon and I can move on to another topic to obsess over.  As for the question at hand: the answer is yes if you are a corn grower or oil company, no if you enjoy eating food.

The price of food is on the rise, and one of the causes could be biofuels, according to a UN expert and an Asian development bank.

Wait, wait, wait.  You are saying that if we stop using corn for food, and start using it to drive our trucks around, we're going to run out of corn to eat?

Uh, no shit.

This is where I would usually spend some space doing the math, but a little searching revealed that somebody had already done the work for me - last summer.  This excellent Slate article from last June, titled "The Great Corn Con," details everything that is wrong with trying use ethanol to replace oil as a transportation fuel.  Here are a few choice details:

"[Last June], the Senate passed an energy bill mandating the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2022--a sevenfold increase over current levels."

"According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, distillers can produce about 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. In 2006, U.S. farmers produced about 10.5 billion bushels of the grain. So, even if Congress mandated that all of America's corn be turned into ethanol, it would yield only about 28.3 billion gallons, far less than the mandated volume."
I'm going to briefly pause here to re-iterate the author's point: all the corn in the United States cannot generate enough ethanol to meet the Congressional mandate in the last energy bill.  All the corn. ALL OF IT. WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE DOING, EVERYBODY.  Continuing:

"Thirty-six billion gallons of ethanol a year sounds like a lot, but it's only 2.34 million barrels per day. And given ethanol's lower heat content--about two-thirds that of gasoline--the effective production would be equivalent to 1.54 million barrels of oil per day. The United States uses nearly 21 million barrels of oil per day, of which 12.54 million barrels are imported. Thus, even if American ethanol producers can miraculously achieve the Senate's goal of 36 billion gallons per year by 2022, they will be producing the equivalent of just 7.4 percent of America's total current oil needs and just 12.2 percent of its imports. That quantity of ethanol will not take America very far toward the oft-repeated goal of energy independence."
I will repeat again: even IF we took ALL of the goddamn corn and made it into ethanol, we'd still only be displacing 12% of the oil that we import every year.  Sometimes I think Congress passes legislation just to fuck with me. 

So why does anyone even bother in the first place? What exactly is going on? If you ask me, it looks like a way for politicians to look like they are doing something for the environment without actually risking the status quo.  But what do I know, just because I can do basic arithmetic.  Let's move on, because there is another important reason that ethanol sucks more balls than the machine at the batting cages.

Oil, as you should know, is a fossil fuel.  There is only a certain amount in the earth, and once it is gone, it is gone forever.  However, ethanol is a renewable resource.  We can keep growing that corn.  But where does the energy in the corn come from? Like all (non-nuclear) energy, it comes from the sun.  So when you grow corn and turn it into ethanol, you are turning your field into a large solar collector and converting solar energy into stored energy.  But how efficient is it?

Tune in tomorrow to find out!

@ April 19, 2008

Remember in school when you would get questions like this:

A train leaves Chicago at 6:45 going 50 miles per hour.  Another train leaves Detroit at 5:15 going 70 miles per hour.  If its 400 miles between the two cities, where do the trains meet? (Answer: Fuck you teacher!!!)

Well, turns out, you were right when you said you would never need to know how to do that.  Turns out word problems are much harder than that.  Things are not so simplified; you are not given all the information; and, most of the time, you don't even know the question being asked of you is a math problem.  This recurring feature will aim to highlight when a topic in the news is actually a word problem, and then I will try to solve it.

Today's question:  Should I be in favor of John McCain's proposed "gas-tax" holiday?

The answer actually depends on who you are.  I will attempt to answer it from several points of view.  Here are some facts that should be considered with each answer.

The current gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel).
Estimates peg the value of this tax to the US government at $10 billion.
As of this writing, the national average cost of gasoline is $3.39.
As of this writing, oil costs $113 per barrel.

Here is the answer if you are bad at math:

$3.39 - $0.18 = $3.21, therefore, cheaper gas! Hooray!

Here is the answer if you are good at math:

I'm an average American.  I consume 500 gallons of gas per year.  During the summer months, I'll consume roughly 30% of this gasoline, or 150 gallons.  Therefore, this tax reduction will personally save me about $27 this year.  Uh, that's pretty good, I guess.  Hope the government didn't need that $10 billion dollars for anything.

minnesota-bridge-collapse.jpgHere is the answer if you are an economist:

The average driver reduces consumption in response to rising prices once prices cross approximately $2.50 per gallon.  Decreasing the price per gallon should result in higher consumption.  Per gallon spending drops, but overall spending on fuel will remain roughly constant.  Therefore, the effect of this tax will be to remove $10 billion from the federal budget, and transfer those funds to the gasoline and oil industry.

Here is the answer if you are the gasoline industry:

Sweet, we're going to make another $10 billion dollars this summer.


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