moldybluecheesecurds 2

Friday, March 30, 2007

See you after Easter!

My wife and I are taking a road trip to the nation's capital, with several stops to visit good friends and family along the way. Although there's doubtless an internet connection available in at least a few places, I just may prefer to socialize with folks I don't see as often. So, I won't be blogging much until after Easter.

In other words, read someone else's blog for a bit, or even better, go outside!

Check out these pipes!

If you're hip to RSS and, in particular, have a lot of feeds coming to your reader, then you might be interested in Yahoo Pipes. This free service allows you to customize RSS feeds however you want, including my new favorite - keyword filtering.

Say you like getting National news from the NY Times to your RSS reader, but you are tired of stories about Anna Nicole Smith. Load up the feed in Pipes, filter the keyword "tart" and you're good to go!

This screenshot shows how I filtered my Lifehacker RSS feed to remove entries relating to Windows Vista, an operating system to avoid at all costs. In the first box I entered the RSS URL, in the second box I chose to block feed items with the word "Vista" in the title. In the output below, you can see the edited feed, with no Windows Vista items!

The GAO asks: are you ready for peak oil?

Robert at R-Squared Energy Blog analyzed the Government Accountability Office's new Peak Oil analysis and he has three major points:
  1. Peak oil is coming soon, but it's not in the past and it's not imminent.
  2. As far as energy prices go, it doesn't matter because supply isn't going to be able to get ahead of surging demand in developing countries like India and China.
  3. The United States better take the GAO report seriously, because our economy is heavily dependent on oil.
Some excerpts of the report from the Energy Bulletin highlight the challenges ahead for the U.S.:
Key alternative technologies currently supply the equivalent of only about 1 percent of U.S. consumption of petroleum products, and DOE projects that even under optimistic scenarios, by 2015 these technologies could displace only the equivalent of 4 percent of projected U.S. annual consumption...

...Under these circumstances, an imminent peak and sharp decline in oil production could have severe consequences, including a worldwide recession...

...While the consequences of a peak would be felt globally, the United States, as the largest consumer of oil and one of the nations most heavily dependent on oil for transportation, may be particularly vulnerable...
The GAO has the full report online and the Energy Bulletin also has a lot of great charts from the report.

The stag is back

Marketwatch is talking about stagflation - high inflation and low economic growth - due to a strong increase in "core inflation" in February. The main concern with stagflation is that inflation - typically fought with higher interest rates - is combined with slow economic growth - typically fought with lower interest rates - leaving the Federal Reserve in a bind.

As I discussed in July, the situation now isn't quite the 1970s. Inflation (2.4% annual rate) is not even half the inflation rates in the 1970s - 7% per year - nor is the current GDP growth (2.4%, adjusted for inflation) as low - 1% per year in the 1970s. However, there's an interesting piece of economic theory that suggests caution instead of optimism.

The phenomenon of stagflation is an aberration of the Phillips Curve, an economic theory that suggested that inflation and unemployment move in opposite directions. In other words, as unemployment falls, workers get higher wages which drives up inflation. In reverse, unemployment solves inflation when laid off workers bid each other's wages down.

The Economist (subscription required) notes that this theory only works when central banks - like the Federal Reserve - are in harmony with the public about inflation (e.g. that both believe that the bank will help regulate inflation instead of the public going out and demanding higher wages). If the public sees high gas prices and feels they need a bigger paycheck, then these demands will push inflation even higher. The result is that when the bank has to tighten the interest rate screws, the resulting recession will be even worse.

Conclusion? Stagflation '07 has nothing on the 1970s, but the continual pressure of high energy prices and the slowing economy doesn't bode well.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Iraq War Deadline?

The NY Times reports that the U.S. Senate has successfully passed legislation that attaches a deadline to the Iraq War. However, closer analysis of the bill suggests that it may not be as ironclad as it appears. In fact, the legislation leaves a lot of leeway for keeping combat troops in Iraq. The legislation would...
...require President Bush to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 120 days of the enactment of the resolution. It would set a goal (not binding) of redeploying all troops by March 31, 2008. After this date, remaining troops could remain in the country for the following:
  • Protecting United States and coalition personnel and infrastructure.
  • Training and equipping Iraqi forces.
  • Conducting targeted counter-terrorism operations. (emphasis mine)
Maybe I'm just a cynic, but President Bush has already talked about Iraq as a major front in the war on terror. That third bullet point looks a lot like a blank check. Regardless, it represents the first time that Democrats have successfully exercised any Congressional authority in the Iraq conflict.

Despite the loopholes in the deadline, every Senate Republican except Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) opposed the legislation.
"Wars cannot be run from these hallowed and comfortable and sanctified chambers 10,000 miles away from the war zone," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.
Good point, Senator Bond. Speaking of the Oval Office, perhaps they shouldn't be started from there either.

The Senate bill will head to conference committee for reconciliation with the House bill, which has stronger language about the deadline, calling for most troops to be out by Sept. 1, 2008.

The "Cost" of Combatting Climate Change

The WSJ Energy Roundup has a brief summary of a study by the McKinsey group (subscription required) on the most cost-effective ways to combat global warming. The quick read: efficiency.

Better insulation, lighting, and agricultural practices in both the developed and the developing world could help the world reduce carbon emissions by 26 Gigatons per year by 2030, at a cost of less than $52/ton of carbon. This carbon reduction is predicted to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius on average.

The total bill isn't cheap, but it's manageable. If each carbon mitigation step were selected in order of least cost, the whole thing could be done for less than $665 billion (over 23 years). Even the more expensive version runs $1.46 trillion (about the same as the Iraq war, which has been spent in 4 years).

Numbers Review
The criticism I have with the WSJ post is their calculation of the portion of European GDP this will cost. They tally up the total in Euros ($1.1 trillion) and divide that over 14 (?) years (2030 - 2007 = 23 in my calculator). Then they note that this will amount to 0.7% of GDP, a not unsubstantial portion of the 2.8% growth last year.

First, doing the math over 23 years reduces the impact to about .035% of GDP.

Second, at least one study estimates the cost of climate change inaction at 20% of U.S. GDP. So, inaction costs a bit more than action.

Third, a lot of the carbon mitigation activity - buying new insulation, new lighting, etc - requires spending money. This money, when spent, increases GDP. So why are they saying this?
an anti-global-warming bill of the sort McKinsey is talking about would mean an appreciable drag on growth.
It might, if all the money was spent by the government. But even then, the spending would be stimulating domestic production of energy efficient materials. And most of all, spending to mitigate climate change offsets spending to deal with it.

In other words, there's as good a chance that saving the world will be good for the economy as not.

CFLs: higher efficiency, but a little Hg

Compact fluorescents are the new sliced bread of energy efficiency, with Wal-Mart committed to selling 100 million in the next year. But as I mentioned in that post on Wal-Mart, the Wall Street Journal Energy Roundup discusses the one drawback in mass producing CFLs - they contain mercury.

Mercury is toxic, which means that CFLs should not be discarded and landfilled (or incinerated) but should be recycled. But that's a big change for a population used to discarding burnt out bulbs.

The good news is that the CFL tends to reduce overall mercury emissions into the environment because reducing electricity use tends to reduce coal burning, which also releases mercury. But we still shouldn't be trading one mercury emission for another.

Update 10:23: For Anagram, who likes his solutions on a silver platter, some possible ways to deal with the mercury in CFLs:
1) Make a CFL without mercury (although one manufacturer says that's not possible)
2) Create an aggressive CFL recycling campaign
3) Your idea here, smarty pants
4) Pay for (1) - (3) with a small tax on light bulbs based on the quantity of toxic material

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Uranium prices: a short half-life?

As I mentioned in my post on Iran's energy crisis, interest in nuclear power is unlikely to save Iranians or Americans from rising fossil fuel demand and prices or global warming. The ninefold jump in uranium prices since 2002 is leading to gold-rush-like interest in uranium mining, as folks seek to lay claim to an increasingly valuable resource.

The source of the high prices is tightening supplies. For years, decommissioned nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia flooded the market with cheap uranium fuel for power plants. But as that market dried up in 2003 and demand has risen in other locales, uranium prices have jumped.

The big question is whether the speculators really have a solid market. In addition to the very large concern over nuclear waste storage and NIMBY, nuclear power plants aren't as economically competitive with fossil fuel power. Granted, a carbon tax could substantially change the economics - if it was at least $100/ton - but although climate change is on the political map, there's little indication that a step that significant is coming.

Welcome Buzzflashers!

Although I can't take much credit for the video of Senator Inhofe's comeuppance during the Senate Environment Committee hearings, it's great to have you visit. For those arriving from other locales, Buzzflash
provides headlines, news, and commentary for a geographically-diverse, politically-savvy, pro-democracy, anti-hypocrisy web community, reaching five million* people a month and growing.
Welcome! Feel free to browse stuff on the Iraq War, President Bush, or my favorite, political posturing.

John McCain gets "hacked" on MySpace

Republicans have gotten savvy to the internet and Senator John McCain is no exception. He recently set up a MySpace page to connect to the younger element. However, the staffer setting up the page used a template from another person without attribution and committed an internet faux pas (to which I have also been guilty) - he linked directly to the image on the other person's server.

In other words, every time someone went to Mr. McCain's MySpace page, that image was delivered through the other dude's server, at his expense.

Well, the dude struck back. Editing the original image on his own server, he effectively "hacked" McCain's MySpace page by changing the e-mail link image to one that indicated the Senator's support for gay marriage. Remote image linking justice dispensed!

Note: I'm going back through my own posts at this point to clean up my own image linking indiscretions.

Hello? Anyone?

I'm trying drum up some more conversation around the issues I discuss here, so I'm taking the time to improve the sidebar (with links to interesting articles and some easier navigation) and by trying to get other folks doing these topics to link back here. To that end, I've claimed my blog via Technorati - incidentally, a very good place to search blogs for news.

Technorati Profile

Houses are homes, not investments

While you're still better off building equity instead of paying rent (and deducting mortgage interest from your taxes), my friend at 28th Avenue notes that the housing market isn't the greatest right now.

The big thing: don't expect a lot of value appreciation in your home in the next couple years. 28th links to Calculated Risk, which quotes Fed Chair Bernanke:
To the downside, the correction in the housing market could turn out to be more severe than we currently expect, perhaps exacerbated by problems in the subprime sector. Moreover, we could yet see greater spillover from the weakness in housing to employment and consumer spending than has occurred thus far.
Update 4/12: Check out the comments from EKM, where he links to an amazing tool posted by the New York Times for calculating whether it's better to rent or buy in your particular area.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

One price to rule them all

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on a case with dramatic implications for consumers everywhere. At stake is a 100-year-old law that makes it illegal for manufacturers and retailers to collude in setting prices (someone should explain that to Apple), and a decision to overturn the law could mean prices everywhere start marching up.

This excellent blog post examines the legal precedent and the potential impact in a society where consumers have been empowered to comparison shop via the internet. The author also looks at the impact of overturning this law, as internet retailers like may no longer be able to undercut brick-and-mortar stores (disclosure: I love shopping at Newegg):
Importantly, this case points a dagger at the heart of the most consumer-friendly aspects of the Internet. The Internet has shifted power to the consumer in two ways. First, it allows consumers to search for and gather information in a cost-effective, efficient manner. Second, it provides a low-cost means of retailing, making it easy for discounters to offer products to the public. This combination squeezes excess profits and inefficiencies out of product prices. Retail price maintenance seeks to short circuit this extremely consumer friendly process. By setting minimum prices, manufacturers can build in excess margins for themselves and for their favored retailers—prices that consumers have no choice but to pay.
This blogger clearly has his side of the issue staked out and it's my only source so far. Can anyone tell me why this would be a good thing?

Update 4:47 - here's some post-argument analysis from SCOTUSblog

Your car's little black box

That little black box on airplanes has become part of popular lexicon and an invaluable tool for crash and accident investigators to improve the safety of air travel. But what about the little black box in your car?

The Goal - Better Crash Data
The Wall Street Journal has a story - "Will Your Automobile Become a Tattle-Tale?" - on the effort by General Motors to pioneer crash data technology in cars and to require cars to contain it in the near future. In addition to the existing OnStar technology, which can call 911 when the car's airbag deploys, GM's new crash detection system will record
"the direction of the impact, whether the car rolled over, the "delta V," or the change in speed, and other data."
GM is going to work with (and pay for) the Centers for Disease Control to determine how best to transmit that information to emergency services personnel on the scene of an accident. A high-speed side impact, for example, might suggest internal injuries that aren't immediately apparent.

The Effect - Tracking to Tailor Insurance Rates
Of course, once the car becomes a carrier of such data, other interested parties come knocking: insurers. In Europe, drivers can have a satellite tracking system installed in their cars and receive discounts for avoiding geographic areas and times of day with high accident rates. Canadian insurance companies have a similar scheme, but it also tracks vehicle speed, acceleration, and braking.

The Consequences?
And as we've learned with Social Security numbers, creating more data about people tends to lead far beyond the initial intent. So is it a good idea? Are better black boxes a boon to injured drivers? A great way to lower insurance rates? A nice piece of evidence that contradicts your alibi on the night of the 24th?

Monday, March 26, 2007

IRS agrees to not compete with tax preparation services

A legal deal between the IRS and tax filing companies such as H&R Block explains why e-filing often involves shelling out part of that refund. Lower income folks (AGI less than $52,000) can get free federal e-file, but the corresponding state's e-file always costs extra. The IRS has explicitly agreed to not provide a free e-filing option for all taxpayers (despite the cost savings to the IRS) because of this deal.

Two things are disturbing. One, that a government agency can not only decide against providing a service, but can enter into a binding agreement not to (as opposed to Congress trying to prevent competition). Two, that the lawyer for the tax preparation companies threatened to paint the IRS as "Big Brother" if it ever decided to provide the e-file service.

Last time I checked, your social security number is not a mystery to the IRS.

"Elections have consequences"

Watch Senator Inhofe (R-OK), former chair of the Senate Environment Committee, learn the consequences of elections from the current committee chair, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). This lesson includes visual aids!

Update 3/28: Thanks for visiting, Buzzflash readers!

Iran: energy policy isn't easy in an Islamist state, either

Energy policy to address global warming, technology, and higher gas prices isn't just the problem of the United States, although President Bush's meeting with the Big 3 automakers today suggests we have a long way to go (no, the proposed 4% per year increase in fuel efficiency standards was not discussed).

Iran's conflict with the United States and other Western powers also has to do with energy - primarily, the Iranians' dramatically increasing energy use. Demand for electricity and gasoline has been rising at double digit rates as government subsidies reduce any market pressure to conserve.

Image from the Wall Street Journal Story

Demand for electricity is rising along with the rest, as Iranians avail themselves of cheap imports of basic consumer goods from China - TVs, refrigerators, and air conditioning (with summer highs exceeding 110 F, I can understand why). Thus, Iran wants to develop nuclear energy since its fossil reserves clearly can't keep pace.

Ironically, Iran's energy crisis is a problem of political will. In addition to subsidizing gasoline to reduce prices to $0.40 per gallon, oil-exporter Iran has to import gasoline to meet this subsidized demand. With $7 billion spent on gasoline imports last year - Iran lacks sufficient refining capacity for its crude oil - and $9 billion projected this year, they know consumption must be curtailed. But in a country with one all-powerful Supreme Leader (See: Iranian government structure), cutting subsidies is apparently as hard as cutting Congressional pork projects in the United States.
This time, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the government is serious about cutting back consumption, though he acknowledged recently it's politically impossible to get rid of subsidies and raise pump prices the 40% to 50% that would require anytime soon. (emphasis mine)
And we thought leaders of democratic countries had it rough.

The final irony in the Iranian energy debacle is that the brinkmanship with the West might not be the economic hope they envision (although if it's nukes they want, they may not care). Uranium prices have increased ninefold since 2002 as demand for carbon-free energy has rejuvenated interest in nuclear power. In other words, there's no cheap solution to the energy crisis, whether it's more expensive nuclear power for Iran or carbon taxes in the United States.

RNC 2004: NYPD spied on dissenters

If you thought Michael Moore overdramatized the FBI spying on antiwar protesters in Fahrenheit 9/11, you should re-think. Recent news stories reveal that the NYPD spent two years prior to the Republican National Convention in 2004 spying on Americans who planned to protest or who demonstrated disagreement with the Republicans. Shadoweyes says it well:
I feel much more compelled to voice dissent to this political system that so consistently punishes dissent while bragging about being the most free country in the world.
So, once again the country's law enforcement shows little respect for free speech. But you didn't hear it from me...

Political Theater

In response to the passage through the U.S. House of an appropriations bill for Iraq that includes a deadline for withdrawal, President Bush accused Democrats of "political theater" in addition to his usual "you don't support the troops."

Of course, President Bush is no stranger to political theater, when it suits his purpose...

Image grabbed from Google Image Search

Alberto Gonzales, this song's for you

In the Sunday talk shows (the Congressional opinion forecast service), a lot of Republicans are giving a vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And although it's only been the recent scandal of firing U.S. attorneys general for political reasons, it's also worth noting our lead defender of justice's thoughts on the Geneva Conventions ("quaint") and warrantless wiretapping (it's good for us).

So, in honor of the pending ouster of Gonzales and the victory it represents for civil liberties, rule of law, and the American Way, I dedicate this song to you, Mr. Gonzales.

Update 11:15am: (ignore the video, it's the only way I could find this song)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Greeting cards gone wild

It's rather dismaying to see how the greeting card industry has tried to make just about everything a holiday or celebration. It's Valentine's Day, then Lent, then Passover, then Easter! And don't forget things like communion!

Then there are all the firsts - baby is born, baby's first word, baby's first step.

I'm waiting for the card celebrating "Baby's First Fart - Hope it was a blast!"

Friday, March 23, 2007

Can you handle 1 day without a computer?

The creators of Shutdown Day provide you with ways to use that laptop without even turning it on!

Real American Hero

The breakup of unified Republican control of government has restored the checks and balances to our democracy and few examples have illustrated it as well as this letter from a citizen who was served a National Security Letter and refused to take it sitting down.

These letters have been sent to citizens by the FBI - over 140,000 of them since 2003 - to demand certain sensitive information. The letters, authorized by the "Patriot" Act, require no judicial oversight and are accompanied by a gag order preventing the recipient from telling anyone that they've even received the letter. In other words, it's something you'd expect to hear about in a spy movie about Communist Russia, not in the United States.

This citizen refused to give up his rights. He sought legal counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was successful in getting the FBI to back off from its information request. However, the FBI refused to remove the gag order and this man is still prevented from telling his family and friends about the letter he received, its contents, or why he's been meeting with so many lawyers.

So, even after successfully defending his right to habeus corpus, the man continues the fight for civil liberties. In his anonymous letter to the Washington Post - anonymous to protect him from breaking the gag order - he argues that, among other things, the gag order violates his right to petition his representatives for changes to the Patriot Act, because he is barred from discussing his receipt of said letter.

This man, unlike the Republican-sponsored legislation, is no pretender to the term "patriot" and no stranger to the cause of liberty.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why I Was Fired: A U.S. Attorney Speaks Out

The New York Times has published the account of one of the eight U.S. Attorneys who were allegedly fired for not pursuing legal action against Democrats during the 2004 election cycle. A few excerpts:
...I received a call from Senator Domenici at my home. The senator wanted to know whether I was going to file corruption charges — the cases Ms. Wilson had been asking about — before November. When I told him that I didn’t think so, he said, “I am very sorry to hear that,” and the line went dead...

...A few weeks after those phone calls, my name was added to a list of United States attorneys who would be asked to resign — even though I had excellent office evaluations, the biggest political corruption prosecutions in New Mexico history, a record number of overall prosecutions and a 95 percent conviction rate...

...Party officials in my state have said that I should have begun a prosecution. What the critics, who don’t have any experience as prosecutors, have asserted is reprehensible — namely that I should have proceeded without having proof beyond a reasonable doubt...
I'm amused to see that various Republican pundits are decrying the corruption shakedown by noting that past Democratic presidents have acted similarly. Folks, doing something wrong twice doesn't make it right. I hope Republicans hold President Obama's feet to the fire if he tries something like this in 2011, just as Democrats have an obligation to out this corruption in 2007.

Updated moldybluefeatures!

Update 5:00pm: I've also added a "label cloud" to the sidebar, so you can see what topics I post on most often and quickly read more of them. As if you'd want to...

I tweaked the sidebar on the blog today, adding a list of "shared items" which come from my Google Reader RSS list. The list of three basically represents the three most share-worthy stories I've read recently and may include things I actually write about.

What is RSS?
For those of you who read multiple blogs or news sites and are thinking "Reader? RSS?" here's a quick tutorial on something you should definitely check out:

To get a grasp of RSS (Really Simple Syndication), think about syndicated newspaper columnists (like Thomas Friedman). He writes for one paper, the New York Times, but is picked up in dozens of papers around the country. RSS is similar. You find a syndicated feed (RSS) and you subscribe to it, basically having the article or story sent to you.

To read these story feeds, you just need to use a "feed aggregator" or "news reader," and there are plenty of free ones to download, add on to your browser, or use on the web. The reader collects all the stories as they are published and posts them (usually in chronological order) for your reading pleasure.

So, on a typical morning you could fire up your RSS reader and read new blog entries from your friends, stories from the NY Times Sports section, and the latest report on crop rotation from Iowa State. Whatever you're reading, it's a great way to have the stuff you really care to read all in one place.

Quote of the Day

Courtesy of the latest Slashdot poll:
If learning to drive were like learning [Microsoft] Office, parallel parking would be performed with the jackhammer tool and the Create New Curb wizard.

Ideology leads to inanity

There are plenty of problems with ethanol, from its relatively low energy balance to the use of corn - a high-intensity crop - to produce it. But whether or not ethanol is the dream fuel, no amount of wishing will make oil shale a better option. There are so many ways to dismantle this argument, but I'll just do one.

In the first section, Mr. Feulner of the Heritage Foundation notes that ethanol is a poor choice because of it's refining challenges:
For one thing, it's expensive to refine ethanol (emphasis mine)
But after he gushes about the availability of oil shale and its potential to supply all of US oil needs by 2020, Feulner admits:
...there's a reason the U.S. economy doesn't already run on oil shale: It's difficult to collect and refine. (emphasis mine)
So let's check the scorecard on oil shale, which the RAND Foundation says can't be developed unless oil prices top $70-95/barrel:
  • Gallons of fuel produced last year: (Ethanol - 4 billion; Oil from shale - 0)
  • Carbon reductions over gasoline: (Ethanol 5-10%; Oil from shale - 0)
  • Renewable: (Ethanol - yes; oil shale - no)
Sounds like a real winner...

Brain damage improves your moral judgment?

An interesting new study with patients suffering from damage to their prefrontal cortex found that these folks can much more quickly arrive at utilitarian moral judgments. For example, in the following scenario, the brain damaged individual would be quick to sacrifice one person to save the rest:
Quick response! What's the best thing to do on a lifeboat with one too many people on board? Should one throw a mortally injured person overboard to ensure definite survival for everyone else, or refuse to act and ensure certain death for all individuals in the boat?

The person with damage to their prefrontal cortex lacks empathy - that emotional aspect that allows us to identify with the pain or injury to others - and so they can easily decide that granny's got to go to save the rest.

So is the ability to quickly make such a rational judgment a blessing? The most moral act in that scenario is probably to volunteer to sacrifice yourself - thus you make the utilitarian decision and the most noble. Maybe next best would be expressing the opinion that it would be best for someone to go, but letting that someone volunteer. Tossing an individual overboard unwillingly feels a lot like murder, even if they were going to die soon anyway. And being the person to make that assessment isn't likely to endear you to others (although perhaps the survival instinct has already overridden their usual moral revulsion to such a suggestion).

I guess that's what makes the lifeboat situation a moral dilemma, at least until the boat founders under the weight of moral indecision.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Replacing gasoline: efficiency, alternatives or both?

Over at Energista they're examining a proposed state tax credit for alternative fuel vehicles in Minnesota, and I think Christopher's comments are worth examining. He decries a credit for alternative fuel vehicles because it can end up subsidizing the purchase of fuel inefficient cars.

The implied argument is that when it comes to developing energy independence, reducing overall fuel use is more important than alternative fuel capability. (It's also important to distinguish between a vehicle that's capable of using alternative fuels from one that is actually run on them - an E85 compatible car can also use straight gasoline)

That particular distinction is what makes this tax credit bad policy. Helping people buy an E85 car is counter-productive if they end up filling up with 100% gasoline. Furthermore, as this op-ed piece notes, tax credits tend to skew benefits toward upper incomes. Shouldn't we expect people of all income levels to help reduce gasoline use? And shouldn't we make sure that government incentives for alternative fuel use actually guarantee that use?

Instead, government could subsidize alternative fuel use - as the feds do, to the tune of 51 cents/gallon - making it more price competitive.

But what about the efficiency issue? Cheaper fuel, even alternative fuel, tends to encourage greater fuel use (although fuel demand is relatively inelastic). And alternative fuels will be able to displace more gasoline use if our overall use is lower. From that perspective, perhaps government is better off just increasing the price of gasoline with a gas tax (exempting alternative fuels like ethanol or biodiesel based on their proportion in our fuel - e.g. 10% off for 10% blend).

A gas tax with a renewable exemption can reduce overall fuel use and shift consumption to alternative fuels. To keep tax burdens equitable, the proceeds can be used to reduce taxes on the poor, who will otherwise be disproportionately burdened by increased gas taxes.

So, a tax credit that may be ineffective (and that will put a hole in the budget) or a gas tax that could be revenue-neutral? Tough choice...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Animated snow depth! v2

The big snowstorms are behind us and spring is imminent! Time to take another look at the 2-week animated snow depth, this time watching the snow fade.

I recommend setting the speed to 50.

Godwin's Law: the Nazis are coming!

During a discussion course my freshman year of college, called "Great Conversation," there would almost inevitably be a reference to Nazis at some point during the discussions or random debates. There was also general consensus that the use of such an analogy was almost always out of context or used hyperbole, rendering the original topic pretty well moot.

Today I learned (from the Wall Street Journal, of all places) that this phenomenon has been codified into a law, Godwin's Law, which states:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. (strikethrough mine)

I'm pleased to note that in a quick search of this blog, the terms "Nazi" and "Hitler" give zero hits, though admittedly this is often a "discussion" of one...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Making hay out of pork

A news story broke recently about Muslim cashiers at local Target stores refusing to ring up pork products. Many in the Islamic faith believe that pigs are unclean (true in the Jewish faith as well) and like the cab drivers before them, have asserted their religious right to ask another cashier or the customer themselves to ring up the item.

My gut reaction probably reflects some religious prejudice. As a "lapsed Catholic," I don't ask for or receive any accommodations for my religious beliefs in my workplace. As a Christian it's easy - you already get your holidays as vacation (note: in my workplace, you can exchange these holidays for the holidays of other faiths). I also am not interfacing with others in a public setting, so there are fewer opportunities for differences of faith to create friction. In other words, when I read about this at first, I had these reactions:
1) Get a job where you don't have to handle pork
2) You aren't handling pork, you are handling plastic-wrap (Target stores don't sell unpackaged meat).

I'm glad I waited to blog, because I saw this story in today's Minneapolis paper that sums up the reader reaction on their message boards. There were a few good points, such as the legal issue that employers are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for religious beliefs or face lawsuits. Some Muslim cashiers were fine with wearing plastic gloves, others were fine with handling the meat if it was packaged. In other words, it's certainly not every Muslim cashier that even requests accommodation.

But what about the customer side of things? If I was Target, serving a public that is increasingly impatient, I might want to consider trying to put folks with religious objections to ringing certain purchases somewhere other than the cash register. It's not just Muslims and pork. Conservative Christian cashiers might object to ringing up condoms. It's not conducive to sales to have clerks who intentionally or unintentionally stigmatize shoppers by refusing to ring certain items.

This issue mirrors the one of the pharmacists who expressed religious objections to dispensing the morning-after birth control pill, although buying bacon is a bit different than trying to obtain the morning after pill from the town's only pharmacist.

I guess my conclusion is this. There's a moral difference between refusing to ring up bacon and dispense drugs or serve people with guide dogs. Having to wait for another cashier or scanning your own bacon is an inconvenience, and might give you some healthy second thoughts about buying bacon in the first place. Being refused a cab ride because you use a guide dog (or carry alcohol) is unjust and perhaps illegal - cab drivers obtain a public license and have a charge to serve the public. Being refused birth control by a medical professional is unconscionable, because obtaining adequate medical care is a right and medical professionals take an oath to do no harm.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Luddite on the surplus of information

Wired Blogs has a great column by Tony Long called the Luddite, an old guy's look at modern technology. He has a nice piece this week on that ability of modern technology (like RSS feeds) to enhance the American tendency to tune out information we don't care to hear.

Update (a few minutes later): In a nice coincidence, another of Wired's bloggers is also discussing the vagaries of technology, but this time from the perspective that technology erases too many hurdles for people. An excerpt:
Did you know that it's possible to calculate a cosine even if you think "cosine" is a brand of nasal decongestant?

The bunk about the "death tax"

With Democrats in control of Congress, this issue has finally been back-burnered (in an era of record budget deficits, it should never have been on the front). However, I just saw a nice analysis of the estate tax's impact on family farms that should put to rest the concerns of so many Republicans that this tax destroys family farms.

Agricultural economist Daryll Ray summarizes a Congressional Budget Office study that found that in the year 2000, only 138 family farms lacked the liquid assets (cash) to pay off the estate taxes immediately. Ray notes that these 138 farm families don't even have to pay the tax immediately, they have 14 years to do so.

So, at the 2000 exemption level of $675,000, the estate tax puts 138 farms at risk every year. That's 0.007% of the over 2 million farms in the United States. Raise the exemption level to $1.5 million (part of the Bush tax cuts that took effect in 2005) and you reduce the number of farms without sufficient liquid assets to pay the estate tax to 27 (0.001%).

On the other hand, the estate tax is projected to capture $745 billion over the period 2011-2021. As I've mentioned previously, there are several major commitments by the federal government (Medicare, Social Security) and unfunded mandates (special education), as well as deficits that should be covered with estate tax monies.

Note: the debate on the estate tax is complicated by President Bush's tax cuts, which all sunset after 2010. In fact, the estate tax is quietly being phased out by 2010, only to return in its original form in 2011. This odd policy was developed to hide the full cost of the tax cuts and to force someone else to take responsibility for them in 2011.

All fiscal considerations aside, the estate tax is a piece of making a level playing field for achieving the American Dream. Giving everyone a fair shot at the American Dream means that even the progeny of the richest should have to earn their way up the income ladder.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

THIS is why we have modern technology. Part 3

Courtesy of

This is why we have modern technology? Part 2

You may recall the USB "drive" I blogged about 4 months ago. Well, someone decided that it was annoying to just have the little guy "working away" on the computer without any real purpose, so he added flash memory capacity and a feature to limit the, er..., actions to disk access.

Now that's what I call an "activity monitor"!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What we really need is a government subsidy for TVs

As I was contemplating the 1.2 trillion spent on Iraq, the pending shortfalls in Medicare and Social Security, and the challenges of global warming, a thought entered my head. "What America really needs is a better TV viewing experience - and someone should make a law..."

Well, they did. Thanks to extensive lobbying from high-definition TV manufacturers and other digital device peddlers, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Department of Commerce is setting aside $1,000,000,000 - a billion dollars - to help people comply with the mandatory switch to digital TV broadcasting on February 19, 2009.

What's good about it?
There is one important reason that government has stepped in: when TV goes digital-only in 2009, all of the analog broadcast spectrum currently used for TV becomes government property again. This spectrum can be used for emergency services or "advanced wireless services" such as wireless broadband internet. For the latter use, the government can auction off the spectrum and collect revenue for the use of the airwaves, which were initially given out for free.

The other side: So much for free markets
Remember when you had a great cassette tape collection and they came out with CDs? Well, the CDs seemed so much better that you bought a lot of your music again to update your collection. Pretty soon all we had were CD players. Same happened with VHS tapes. When is the last time you rented a tape at Blockbuster? And remember how the government stepped in to make sure that people bought these technological improvements?

Right, they didn't. Because what kind of TV you have is a market decision. Enough people thought CDs were better than tapes and DVDs were better than VHS.

The other side 2: Digital is not always better
I'm becoming a Neanderthal about new technology, but many people didn't realize that better picture and sound aren't given for free (try fast forwarding that FBI warning on a DVD player). With digital TV, advertisers might not let us skip ads anymore and programmers might not let us record. Not to mention there's the ugly question of where Americans are going to dispose of 33-65 million analog TV sets that rely on over-the-air signals, each of which contains 4-6 pounds of lead.

What would you buy with a billion dollars?

Moneylenders receive comeuppance

A number of news sites are reporting on the rising incidence of late mortgage payments, as increasing interest rates push monthly mortgage payments higher. You can tell the language was crafted by the Mortgage Bankers Association:
Lenders to subprime borrowers — people with blemished credit histories — have been battered. Rising interest rates and weak home prices have made it increasingly difficult for these borrowers — especially those with adjustable-rate mortgages — to keep up with their mortgage payments. Delinquencies and foreclosures in the subprime mortgage market are spiking.
Battered is a term to use for women who are victims of domestic violence, not lenders who get their comeuppance when their poorest clients can't make payments. Especially not when these lenders crafted the adjustable rate mortgage to make more interest in the first place.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Best/Worst Commercial Ever Made

From the I-needed-a-break-at-work dept...

Digg calls it the Best Commercial Ever, YouTube calls it the Worst. Only you can decide if it truly is just like a mini-mall...(sorry, I just can't embed this video on my blog. I just can't).

Warning: if you are susceptible to getting ridiculous songs stuck in your head, you will be repeating these lyrics for a week.

Taking credit for a new generation of Democrats

From today's Minneapolis Star Tribune:

"The Daily Show and now Stephen Colbert have taught a generation of college students that Republicans are ridiculous, absurd, hopelessly past it. And their work has had an effect: Today's 20-somethings are more Democratic than any equivalent cohort since World War II."

DAVID FRUM, writing at

"Sorry, David, but this seems a little over-generous to the very talented [Jon] Stewart and Colbert. It is George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who have taught a generation of college students that Republicans are ridiculous, absurd, hopelessly past it. A comedian, however talented, is only as good as his material. It's been a good few years for comedians."


Daylight savings won't save energy?

Part of the justification for extending Daylight Saving Time (DST) in the United States was a reduction in energy costs by adding more daylight in the evening hours when citizens are home watching TV and otherwise being sloth-like and inactive (sorry, a little anti-TV prejudice eeking out). The legislation foresaw energy savings as much as 1% (a large number when averaged over all households and businesses in the country).

However, a recent study by two doctoral students at the University of California Energy Institute suggests that energy savings may be at best overstated and at worst nonexistent. Examining a DST-extension that took place surrounding the Olympics in Australia, the two students found that most models of energy savings vastly overstated the actual changes in energy use.

While DST extensions might not save energy, I'm definitely enjoying my "extra" hour of daylight in the evenings. Sunset today: 7:16pm!

Why carbon "offsets" aren't the answer to global warming

David Morris of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance writes on the increasing interest in carbon offsets - essentially paying someone else to reduce carbon emissions that you generate. In examining the role of other pollution-reduction techniques and the results of some of the early carbon trading schemes, Morris concludes that:
  • Buying carbon offsets is like buying indulgences for sins - it just makes people feel good. In particular, the monitoring of offset programs is so lax there's no way to know if emissions are truly offset
  • A global carbon offset market discourages people from taking responsibility for the local impacts of their behavior. Local offsets, on the other hand, mean that polluters have to do something in their community to improve their climate impact.
  • A cap and trade market seems very capitalist and efficient, but evidence shows that good old regulation or a carbon tax could reduce climate change emissions far faster than a market mechanism. (Note: the much heralded success of the US-based sulfur dioxide cap and trade market owes much to the cost estimates of the polluters that proved to be massively inflated.)
Morris envisions a more stringent and accountable carbon reduction regime, where carbon emitters have to actually reduce their own emissions or offset them within their local community and where polluters can't simply buy a cleaner conscience on a world market.

I think a smaller-scale cap and trade (e.g. local offsets) could prove very effective, but only if the policy is set at a national scale and it sets stringent carbon reductions (no generous baselines, please).

Friday, March 09, 2007

Gun rights headed to the Supreme Court

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

For the first time, a federal appeals court has decided in favor of the individual interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. Until now, the text of the amendment has been interpreted to support the right to bear arms as part of an organized militia (read: National Guard) and not an individual citizen. However, ongoing lobbying from the National Rifle Association, other gun rights organizations, and pressure from the Bush Administration's Justice Department appears to have convinced the court to reconsider.

The decision is not likely to stand, because the rift between Appeals Courts' decisions will send this puppy right up to the Supreme Court. This is what they like to call a "landmark case."

What do you think of the court's decision?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Peak Oil: Exhibit A

The folks studying peak oil issues at The Oil Drum have a fantastic chart posted regarding Saudi Arabia's oil production. Despite record high prices during the past two years and a history of helping to soften price spikes with increased production, Saudi oil production has fallen steadily.

It may be the "smoking gun" that the Saudis have reached their oil production peak - quite a concern given that they represent 1/8th of world supply.


From the looking at the GOP 2008 Convention with humor reply to an article describing the lack of available venues as GOP planners book most area hotels and convention halls...

One empty place

Thanks for the heads-up -- we may not be able to get a beer or have dinner out while the Republican National Convention is in St. Paul ("GOP's partying may push out locals," March 7).

But one place sure to be wide open is the Science Museum.

Peak Oil is not "empty"

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson was recently interviewed on CNBC and from the summary in the Wall Street Journal's energy blog, it's clear that people still do not get what "peak oil" means.

Peak oil is when worldwide annual production of oil reaches its historical high and then declines. It means that we'll go from producing 80 billion barrels in 2009 to 79.8 billion barrels in 2010 (hypothetically), and then a little less each year thereafter.

The reason peaking production is just as problematic as if we were running out of oil is that world demand continues to grow steadily each year, and when supplies start declining the price will increase rapidly. Think of it like you would Dave Matthews Band. Before they were popular (low demand), there would have been no problem getting concert tickets (high supply). However, as their popularity grew, demand for tickets quickly outstripped even the largest concert venues (demand caught up to supply). Now imagine what would happen to the price of DMB tickets if they had to perform in a smaller venue each time they had a concert.

So that's Peak Oil. Here's what it isn't:

Peak oil is NOT "no oil." We'll continue to produce lots of oil, just a little less each year than before.

Peak oil is NOT "no new oil fields."
We'll continue to discover new oilfields as technology advances, but just never enough to replace all that we're pumping out.

Peak oil is NOT "no new technology." We'll continue to find ways to extract more oil from existing fields and oil from shale, tar sands, and other weird places. But even as these become more feasible, they will still not be enough to replace existing oil production.

This chart gives a sense of why we're hitting peak oil. Note that the "peak" is actually the sum of many peaks. U.S. oil production peaked in the 1970s, Russia did around 1991, and Europe did in 2000. The worldwide peak will happen when the countries increasing production - like OPEC - can't make up for the declining supply from the rest of us, as well as increasing demand.

Image courtesy of Romaenergia, mirrored locally.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Getting to zero on climate change

Combating global warming is an enormous and nebulous task, but a few good folks over at Energista have decided to enlighten the rest of us on how we could achieve the Kyoto targets of 1990 carbon emissions in the United States by 2025, almost entirely through the electric sector. Energy efficiency gets the largest chunk, but nuclear, cleaner coal and renewable generation also contribute a substantial portion (there's a nifty chart showing how each technology could help).

The most challenging strategy might be the use of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) - grabbing the CO2 from emissions and storing it underground - which is theoretically possible, but to date practically infeasible. The problem isn't getting the carbon, it's figuring out how and where store it (my vote is for Yucca Mountain...)

Overall, scientists suggest that a reduction in emissions of 80% is going to be required to stabilize the climate, and that might take even more action than suggested here. However, it's a good start and is achievable by 2025.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A commander who supports his troops?

There are many things that could be said about the scandalous treatment of veterans at Walter Reed army hospital and the subsequent sacking of the hospital head. In this case the Onion's three talking heads say it best.

It's disgusting to realize that our Commander in Chief's commitment to "supporting our troops" really was just a political slogan. He should take heed to Amy Lemeiux of Eagan, MN, whose letter to the editor earlier this week nailed the issue on the nose.
Donning a magnetic yellow ribbon or wearing red on Fridays to "show support for our troops" is as about as effective and supportive as spitting in the direction of a forest fire, pointing to the saliva as evidence of your support and condemning everyone who didn't spit.

Let's try supporting our troops in ways that are meaningful -- like trying diplomacy before resorting to more violence and providing medical care for them when they return.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

When the health of a hamburger trumps your own

The Washington Post has the story on cefquinome, a powerful, recently-developed antibiotic that "belongs to a class of highly potent antibiotics that are among medicine's last defenses against several serious human infections." With increasing numbers of bacteria developing antibiotic resistance, it might make sense to judiciously use this drug to treat the most serious human cases of E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and salmonella.

Or, if you're the government agency responsible for drug administration (FDA), you're on the verge of approving it for cattle. This decision notwithstanding that a) there are a number of existing, effective treatments for pneumonia in cattle and b) cefquinome represents the only drug in the medical arsenal against several highly resistant infections and c) that antibiotic use in livestock and poultry - typically done prophylactically - has consistently been linked with the transference of resistant bacteria to humans.

It will bring peace of mind the next time I have a hamburger, as the antibiotic-resistant E. coli twists my bowels, that the cow that provided it was spared pneumonia on its way to the slaughterhouse.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Animated snow depth!

For those of you who have likewise been digging out from the dual snow storms this week, get a full appreciation of the snowfall by watching this two-week snow depth animation from the National Weather Service.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Girls aren't much for commitment, either?

A Pew Research survey of women 18 to 29 finds that at least a third have no interest in a committed relationship and that "old fashioned" dating has nearly disappeared. While the story tries to overdramatize the numbers (60% of women are not in committed relationships and a majority don't want to be...), the interesting part is the attitudes toward love and relationships. The women surveyed often desire "hookups" instead of relationships and it's surprising to see how they fear the emotional attachment or the commitment a relationship will require.

I facilitate youth group with 9th graders and we discuss sexuality and relationships over the course of each year, and this is exactly what I've found. A lot of talk of hookups and very little interest in relationships.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I remember being interested in being in love and feeling emotionally connected, not just trying out something I'd seen on MTV.

If Tax Cuts Don't Boost the Economy, What Do They Do?

The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a very thorough analysis of state tax cuts during the latter half of the 1990s and the economic performance of those states since. While some of the tables and figures in the report are probably obscuring some contradictory data (note the comment about Michigan in the box on page 3), the overall analysis is startling. Tax cuts lead to slower economic growth, higher unemployment and bigger budget deficits.

A traditionally high-tax state like Minnesota should take note. A recent Minnesota Public Radio news story (I was unable to find a link) noted that Minnesota's advantage in the unemployment rate - versus the national average - is the smallest it's been in over 10 years. Is Minnesota becoming average by becoming average?


1. use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.
2. (usu. be wasted) fail to make full or good use of

By invading Iraq and failing to develop an adequate security plan, President Bush has carelessly expended American lives and failed to make good use of American military power that could have helped in Afghanistan.

When Republican John McCain (or Democrat Barack Obama) says we've "wasted lives" in Iraq, I don't think an apology is necessary.