moldybluecheesecurds 2

Monday, April 30, 2007

Money in politics: growing until it's obsolete?

An interesting essay in the NYTimes Magazine examines the roll of cash in national campaigns, particularly in buying ad time. $1.1 billion was spent on TV ads during the 2006 Congressional elections in the United States, and yet one homebrew ad made for free by an Obama supporter - and posted to YouTube - reached millions of Democratic voters (and has been viewed 3.2 million times).

As long as early campaign reporting involves constant scrutiny of fundraising goals, targets, and success, the media will continue to use money as a measure of political viability. But how much does it really matter when folks can TiVo your $50 million traditional attack ad but willingly seek out the homebrew one on YouTube?

The battle of the bulbs

The Washington Post has an interesting video story (and print story) on one of the main challenges to the spread of compact fluorescent bulbs in the United States: the "wife test." Energy-savvy husbands purchase efficient CFLs for the home, forgetting to clear the lighting change with their partner or sometimes surreptitiously replacing incandescent bulbs without warning. And the wife is not always pleased.

Despite (or because of?) the occasional marital discord sparked by bulb replacements, the United States clearly lags behind the developed world in adopting more efficient lighting. Japan's lights are 80% CFL, Germany's 50%, and even the UK has 20% of its lights replaced by CFLs. The United States has only switched 6%. This interesting tidbit suggests that female shoppers are less enthused about the bulbs whose history involved humming, flickers, long warm-ups, and steep bulb prices:
In groceries and drugstores, where 70 percent to 90 percent of light bulbs historically have been sold and where women usually have been the ones doing the buying, CFLs have not taken off nearly as fast as they have in home-improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, where men do much of the shopping.
I'd really like to see a scientific study on whether women are more likely than men to discern the difference in light cast by the two types of bulbs or if women have greater sensitivity to light color and quality. Because with over 100 billion kilowatt-hours (kW-hrs) used for lighting each year (and CFLs using a quarter of an incandescent) that's a lot of potential energy savings.

Friday, April 27, 2007

What kind of game cheater are you?

Wired has an interesting look at the different styles of playing video games and how an individual gamer evolves over time. Gaming styles could probably be summed up as:
  1. I'm a god and that's why there's a special mode for me on the Game Genie.
  2. This game could be challenging, if the strategy guide wasn't right here.
  3. I check out GameFAQs when I'm in a bind, but I try to figure things out myself.
  4. You gotta play it natural, no cheats or hints
  5. I only play games one-handed, blindfolded, in the nude...
The article looks at how people often move up the list as they age and how the immersive, all-encompassing gaming experience doesn't mesh with other life pursuits.

Update 4/30: The BBC has a news story on "gold farming" in World of Warcraft, where Western gamers pay for virtual gold earned by Chinese workers with real cash. My favorite is where they use a green screen to put the reporter in the game.

Genetically modified crops don't stay put

Oral arguments will be heard in federal court next week on whether food and safety regulations sufficiently separate genetically modified (GM) alfalfa from the non-GM stuff. As it has done with several other crops, Monsanto has developed a GM-strain of alfalfa that's resistant to its herbicide, allowing farmers to kill all plant life except the crop they're planting.

The court case addresses the issue of "genetic drift." Once planted, there's nothing to stop the genes from this alfalfa from being spread to nearby unmodified alfalfa, since the process of pollination is part and parcel of plant evolution. The spread of GM crops raises several concerns:
  1. Do the GM crops introduce any novel harm to human health? There have been few tests done on the long-term effects of human consumption of GM crops, because the FDA considers them to be "substantially equivalent" to existing foods products.
  2. Do farmers with their own strains of alfalfa have a right to grow crops without human-modified genes?
  3. Can Monsanto claim ownership over alfalfa pollinated with their patented genes? In Canada, one farmer lost his entire store of canola seed after the high court ruled that Monsanto owns its genes wherever they spread.
  4. What is the impact of these novel genes being spread in the wild? One article from Wired looks at the rise of Roundup Ready coca plants in Central America. If the GM-coca plant spreads, it turns U.S. anti-drug efforts into a public service for drug lords. A "super grass" in Oregon has spread beyond its test plot.
Learn more about the issues involved, from regulation to health and safety, here. And take a little time to think about what's on your plate.

Update 2: Colony Collapse Disorder a parasite?

A scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, has isolated a parasite that may be responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder. In a few preliminary tests of local hives, he found that the presence of the parasite - Nosema ceranae - was strongly linked to diseased or dead bees. This is mixed news, since the parasite is known to cause colony collapse in as little as a week, but may also be controlled by an existing antibiotic.

As with most things science, however, the tests only validate the hypothesis - they don't prove the cause. Dr. DeRisi believes more study is necessary before concluding this parasite is responsible:
The results are "highly preliminary" and are from only a few hives from Le Grand in Merced County, UCSF biochemist Joe DeRisi said. "We don't want to give anybody the impression that this thing has been solved."
Other scientists have also found the parasite in bee hives, but among several other potential pathogens. One scientist felt it was going too far to label Nosema ceranae THE cause:
N. ceranae is "one of many pathogens" in the bees, said entomologist Diana Cox-Foster of Pennsylvania State University. "By itself, it is probably not the culprit … but it may be one of the key players."
Let's hope they find the solution soon, as more than a quarter of U.S. bee colonies have already suffered collapse.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

David Walker talks $50 trillion with Colbert

I mentioned seeing David Walker, US Comptroller General, last week and that he'd be appearing on the Colbert Report to discuss America's $50 trillion problem.

Here's the video:

Get your Daily Apple

Someone out in the web-verse thought my account of the new recommendations for school nutrition was less lousy than others, and the good man at Mark's Daily Apple was nice enough to direct a few people to the Moldy.

I make it a practice to review sites that link here, and I'm pleased once again to say that it'd be worth your time to trackback. The Daily Apple is a site devoted to "taking the boredom out of health" and has insightful and candid commentary on the latest fad diets, health-related public policy, and alternative treatments for common ills such as migranes. Mark has 10 Daily Apple commandments and I think the first one is the best sense you'll get of the site:
1- Eat your daily apple. We prefer Red Delicious. But we’re not opposed to the others. Granny Smith has a satisfying pucker. And we love the Fuji!
So check out his site, or at the very least, post your favorite daily apple in the comments (I'll go with Gala).

Don Imus is a racist

I didn't want to wade in to this mess, since it's another example of media hounds smelling blood (like OJ or Britney or Michael Jackson) when there's a war on, a budget crisis, and global warming to face down. But I rediscovered Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist who spoke at my undergraduate institution several times, and his essay on the Imus affair shines light in the dark corners of social indifference to one racist shock jock.

Wise has 3 points on the immediate issue of Imus:
  1. Wise dismisses the "free speech" argument, noting that the 1st Amendment shields you from government oppression and does not give one the right to a network radio show.
  2. He also notes that a racial slur isn't just one insult, when flung against the backdrop of institutional racism.
    That backdrop--of housing and job discrimination, racial profiling, unequal health care access, and a media that regularly presents blacks in the worst possible light (think the persistent and inaccurate reports of murder and rape by African Americans in New Orleans during the Katrina tragedy)--makes verbal slights, even if relatively minor, take on a magnitude well beyond the moment of their issuance.
  3. Finally, Imus is no fallen angel:
    In the past he's referred to black journalist Gwen Ifill as "the cleaning lady," a Jewish reporter as, a "boner-nosed, beanie-wearing Jewboy," and Arabs as "ragheads." Furthermore, he handpicked a sidekick who called Palestinians "animals" on the air, and suggested that Venus and Serena Williams would make fine centerfold models for National Geographic. Imus is a serial offender, and his contrition now, while perhaps genuine, has been long overdue.
Wise is not content with just pointing out Imus' failings, since it's merely one incident on that "backdrop" of institutionalized racism.

One thing has been made clear by the Imus incident: namely, white folks are incapable of blaming other whites for white racism and racist behavior. Despite all the demands by whites that blacks take "personal responsibility" for their lives, their behaviors, and the problems that often beset their communities--and especially that they stop blaming whites for their station in life--the fact is, we can't wait to blame someone else when we, or one of ours, screws up. So please note, from virtually every corner of the white media (and from black conservatives who are quick to let whites off the hook no matter what we do), the conversation has shifted from Imus's racism to a full-scale assault on rap music and hip-hop. In other words, it's those black people's fault when one of ours calls them a name. After all, they do it themselves, and Imus can't be expected not to say "ho" if Ice Cube has done it. At this point, I'm halfway expecting to hear Bill O'Reilly say that white folks wouldn't have even heard words like nigger if it weren't for 50 Cent. (emphasis mine)

But this kind of argument is not only absurd on the face of it, even more to the point, it's a complete affront to the concept of "personal responsibility." It ranks right up there with telling your mom that "Billy did it too," back when you were ten, and playing ball outside, and broke your neighbor's window. As I recall, mom didn't really give a rat's ass, and responded by saying something about Billy, a bridge, and whether his desire to jump off like a damned fool would inspire similar stupidity on your part.

If you want to see the rest of Wise's essay, read it here. And be glad that at least one bigot is off the air.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ready for $4 a gallon? This summer?

A daily read for the energy-interested, the R-squared Energy Blog has something for everyone today: your gas prices are likely to jump - a lot.

Analyzing the weekly petroleum report from the Energy Information Administration, Mr Rapier notes that in 99.2% of weeks going back to 1991, we've had larger gasoline inventories (as measured by # of days supply). Typically, refineries kick up production to prepare, producing more gasoline to help meet peak demand season (summer). This spring, they haven't been able to keep pace, and gasoline inventories missed all expectations by falling this week, by several million gallons.

Demand steady, supply down. Get ready.

Junk food could be out at public schools

Asked by Congress to develop nutritional standards for all food in schools, the Institute of Medicine rolled out its two-tier nutrition recommendations today. Tier 1 applies elementary and middle-school children for the entire day, and to high school kids during school hours. Tier 2 standards are somewhat looser and apply only to high school kids after school hours.

The major items?
  1. School lunch - with all its dietary guidelines - should be the primary source of nutrition for school children. (This GAO report on school lunch reveals its shortcomings).
  2. Competing foods to school lunch should be limited
  3. When available, competing foods should *gasp* meet the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Here's what the guidelines are for Tier 1 (you won't find Twinkies in here):
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and related combination products* and nonfat and low-fat dairy that are limited to 200 calories or less per portion as packaged.

Beverages include:
  • Water without flavoring, additives, or carbonation.
  • Low-fat (1%) and nonfat milk:
    • Lactose-free and soy beverages are included
  • flavored milk with no more than 22g of total sugars per 8-oz. serving
  • 100-percent fruit juice in 4-oz. portion as packaged for elementary/middle school and 8 oz. (two portions) for high school.
  • Caffeine-free, with the exception of trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine substances.
These restrictions would apply anywhere on the school campus including vending machines and the "a la carte" lines. Remember when you could still get a burger and fries at school? That's over, because all items sold will have to meet the National School Lunch standards for fat, sodium, and sugar.

Tier 2 foods don't have to be quite so healthy - no mention of fruits or veggies - but you won't likely find a Twinkie here either. Diet soda pop clears the 5-calorie hurdle, but only if it lacks caffeine:
Tier 2 snack foods are those that do not exceed 200 calories per portion as packaged and:
  • No more than 35 percent of total calories from fat
  • Less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fats
  • Zero Trans fat (≤ 0.5 g per portion)
  • 35 percent or less of calories from total sugars
  • Sodium content of 200 mg or less per portion as packaged.
Tier 2 beverages are:
  • Non-caffeinated, non-fortified beverages with less than 5 calories per portion as packaged (with or without nonnutritive sweeteners, carbonation, or flavoring).
Despite the fact that these items are recommendations to Congress (not even close to actual standards for schools), the food and beverage lobby is already coming out swinging:
The Center for Consumer Freedom worried that the report could lead to a government "no child with a fat behind" program.

The growing rate of obesity is caused by lack of physical activity rather than overeating, according to the group, which describes itself as representing restaurants, food companies and individuals.
Folks, we could only hope for an America that has "no child with a fat behind."

For all the gritty details of the Institute's recommendations, check out their fact sheet. For more on efforts to improve nutrition in schools, check out former President Clinton's success with a voluntary restriction on soda pop in school vending machines.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Chocolate: What's in a name?

From the "what does the FDA do again?" category comes news of the FDA considering changing the definition of chocolate. Unbeknownst to me - but perhaps knownst to you - chocolate is defined by a combination of very specific ingredients. Many pseudo chocolates ("chocolate" bunnies at Easter, apparently) don't make the grade.

The FDA is entertaining a "citizen's petition" to allow these not-quite-chocolates to be labeled as "chocolate," instead of "chocolatey" or "chocolate-flavored." On the other side, some purists are telling the FDA to get its "Hands off my chocolate!" Here's a few excerpts from the opponent's LA Times opinion piece, starting with the definition of real chocolate:
It's all basically made the same way: cacao pods are fermented and then roasted and ground into a fine paste that can be separated into two components: cacao solids (commonly called cocoa powder) and cocoa butter. Each chocolatier uses different proportions but generally blends sugar, cocoa solids and cocoa butter plus the optional ingredients — emulsifiers, flavors (typically vanilla) and milk solids (to make milk chocolate) — and molds that into a chocolate bar.
So what will change?
The FDA is entertaining a "citizen's petition" to allow manufacturers to substitute vegetable fats and oils for cocoa butter [most likely because vegetable oil costs one-third the cocoa butter price]...
...It may be cocoa powder that gives chocolate its taste, but it is the cocoa butter that gives it that inimitable texture. It is one of the rare, naturally occurring vegetable fats that is solid at room temperature and melts as it hits body temperature — that is to say, it melts in your mouth. Cocoa butter also protects the antioxidant properties of the cocoa solids and gives well-made chocolate its excellent shelf life. (emphasis mine)
The Chocolate Defender sums up the reason for preserving the pure definition:
I'd say we've already demonstrated our preference for true chocolate. That's why real chocolate outsells fake chocolate. Nine of the 10 bestselling U.S. chocolate candies are made with the real stuff. M&Ms, Hershey Bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups — all real chocolate. Butterfinger is the outlier. (emphasis mine)
Here's my question. Did people knowingly select these items because they are made with real chocolate, or did they simply prefer the taste/texture experience? In other words, who shops for chocolate by looking for real "chocolate"?

You can get full coverage of the unwrapping* chocolate saga via the Candy Blog.

*Sorry, I love puns.

Dangerous distraction: 5 Minute Voyager

The danger in reading nerd-related news is that they provide links to nerdy websites. Such is 5-Minute Voyager, a website where a couple guys write 5-minute dialogue for movies, video games, TV shows, and other pop culture schlock.

It shouldn't be, but it's definitely worth 5 minutes. I highly recommend the Fellowship of the Ring summary, as well as reading the Doom videogame dialogue (after skimming at least one other videogame post).

Note: This is unrelated to, but similar to, the Very Secret Diaries of the fellowship of the ring. Highly recommended.

Update on Colony Collapse Disorder

The New York Times has an update on the scientific pursuit of an explanation for Colony Collapse Disorder. There's no mention of the recent experiment in the UK linking cell phones to bee disappearances, but the story includes a graphic of the affected states as well as discussion of the possible causes.

Scientists seem to be dismissing genetically modified crops as a potential cause, but are concerned about the types of food given to bees, such as corn syrup, that may come from genetically modified corn. Other potential causes include some sort of bee pathogen (such as a virus or bacteria) or pesticides in the neonicotinoids family. The French government banned a pesticide, called imidacloprid, after scientists linked it with the so-called "mad bee disease" that struck France in the 1990s:

The chemical, while not killing the bees outright, was causing them to be disoriented and stay away from their hives, leading them to die of exposure to the cold, French researchers later found. The beekeepers labeled the syndrome “mad bee disease.”

The French government banned the pesticide in 1999 for use on sunflowers, and later for corn...

...Among the pesticides being tested in the American bee investigation, the neonicotinoids group “is the number-one suspect,” Dr. Mullin said. He hoped results of the toxicology screening will be ready within a month.

For more information on the progress in diagnosing CCD, check out the CCD Working Group and their preliminary report on the disease from January.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Oil companies: Can they (and should they) go green?

With many fossil fuel corporations touting their green side, it's noteworthy that Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company has little to say on alternative energy. In fact, they are better known for funding global warming deniers than warming up to biofuels or wind turbines.

A CNN Money article notes that this may make a lot of financial sense, especially for a company known for outstripping all its competitors on return on the dollar. Exxon specializes in oil and they're the best in the game.

It may be good from another perspective, as well. I just borrowed Who Killed The Electric Car from my dad and he mentioned that some of the most promising battery technologies developed 20 years ago were bought up by oil companies and essentially buried (I haven't watched the film yet).

Are we better off when fossil fuel companies change their paradigm to invest in alternative energy, or is it wiser to keep their carbon mitts off of any promising technological fixes for a society addicted to oil?

Fitness: someone needs to sync the American brain

From my fellow commentator at 28th Avenue, this short but sweet analysis:

We’re idiots

From a Treehugger post:

Articles in Auto sections of newspapers are usually rah-rah reviews of the latest pickup, spacers between the ads. Not the earth day edition of the Toronto Star, which had article after article saying things like “I watch people drive their children to every sport imaginable to make sure they’re getting enough exercise. We’re idiots.”


Why a roundabout could save you gas

My favorite green engineer is at it again, this time evaluating the energy efficiency of driving. Today, part II in the series examines the energy of accelerating and also discusses the benefits of roundabouts versus stop signs.

What's a roundabout? Get your answer in the image below:

Car dent repair without the body shop

Without any special knowledge of cars and car repair, I figured minor dent removal on my car was going to wait until I found "a friend" who worked at a body shop. That was before I saw this website and learned that you can remove car dents with a hair dryer and a can of compressed air. Check out the video!

Friday, April 20, 2007

When moralists forget economics

Energy Roundup's been doing a lot on companies "going green," and today they quoted a guy from the Ayn Rand Institute who took issue with companies becoming more environmentally sustainable:
In a debate on CNBC today, however, Peter Schwartz of the Ayn Rand Institute suggested Corporate America was only hurting itself, saying it was bending to the demands of environmentalists. “Businesses should be ashamed of themselves for doing it,” he said. “They shouldn’t appease enviromentalists any more than we should appease Islamists by making women wear veils.” (emphasis original)
I criticized Yahoo yesterday for its green plan, but that's because it was planning to spend money on carbon offsets. As noted in the Energy Roundup, Coca-Cola plans to reduce carbon emissions by becoming more energy efficient. For the amateur economists out there, that means they will save money. As I recall from my read of Atlas Shrugged, making money was pretty much the only thing a person should concern themselves with.

If Coca-Cola should be ashamed of improving energy efficiency, call me a socialist.

Is it "low cal" or does low saturated fat really get you going?

Ever wonder what nutritional information most appeals to American consumers? From a report to the United Soybean Board on vegetable oil markets, this chart illuminates the pervasiveness of Nutritionism, the American fascination with breaking down food into "goods" and "bads" at the nutrient level.

A 50 trillion debt? In dollars?

David Walker may have the un-sexy title of Comptroller General of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), but he knows budgets. I heard him speak on the fiscal fortunes of America this week and his 10-minute speech showed the power of high-content, compelling arguments. Walker argued that there are 4 deficits that government must address: budget, balance of trade, savings, and leadership (I'll discuss two).

The United States may have deficits of $400 billion and a debt of eight trillion, but right now it has unfunded liabilities of $50,000,000,000,000 - 50 trillion dollars. That's $440,000 for every household in the United States (and unlike your mortgage, there's no house to back it up).

What are unfunded liabilities? Money promised to Americans through Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security (entitlement programs) that the government has insufficient resources to pay for. That's $32 trillion in Medicare (parts A-C), $6.4 trillion in Social Security, and $8 trillion to the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

For two years running, Americans have spent more money than they earned. The last time this happened was in 1933-34. As Walker noted, these were not good years for the U.S. economy.

Why is this a problem?
  • It's a lack of stewardship. The baby boom generation is at risk of being the first generation to leave their children in worse shape than their predecessors.
  • It's unsustainable. You simply cannot spend more than you earn every year. Eventually you run out of money.
  • Increasing amounts of U.S. debt are held by foreign countries. If you don't understand how that could be a problem, see this excerpt from Wikipedia on the Suez Canal Crisis:
Part of the pressure that the United States used against Britain was financial, as President Eisenhower threatened to sell the United States reserves of the British pound and thereby precipitate a collapse of the British currency.
What can be done?
  1. Reform the base Social Security program, preserving its use as basic social insurance (and probably raising the retirement age)
  2. Add supplemental savings accounts on top, with an additional 2% payroll tax.
  3. Adjust Medicare premiums so that recipients, particularly wealthier ones, have to put in more than the current 25% of expenses covered by premiums.
If you want to hear more on this topic, Walker will be appearing on the Colbert Report on Wednesday, April 25th.

Update 4/26: Here is the Colbert Report video

Social investing makes immorality cheaper

If you invest in socially responsible companies and shun those who are not (such as tobacco manufacturers and sellers, big oil), you're losing out on great deals, says a new paper out of academia. This paper comes out at a time when "green" companies also seem to be enjoying a premium.

Let's follow this train of thought:
  1. Investor desires to support socially responsible companies and shun ones they consider to be irresponsible.
  2. They put their money into socially responsible companies, not because they maximize financial returns, but because they also have a non-monetary interest in social good.
  3. Companies that are socially responsible are now valued higher, because of the social premium. Socially irresponsible companies have a lower price compared to their spreadsheet value.
  4. Academics suggest that people should invest in socially irresponsible companies because now they are fiscally a great deal.
Mr. Academic, I think your boat just went by...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Carbon neutral - indulgences for the American "environmentalist"

From several sources, Yahoo! has announced that it's "going carbon neutral." A lot of companies are hopping on the green bandwagon lately, and this is the latest large company to say that it will offset its carbon emissions. That word - offset - is a crucial one.

Offsets are a lot like Catholics in the Middle Ages buying indulgences to sin. When Yahoo! "offsets" its carbon emissions, it will not have to improve server energy efficiency, switch to energy efficient lighting, or even put out a single ounce less of carbon. Instead, they'll go to a place like, which will sell them offsets for $5.50 per ton of carbon (a tenth of what studies show is the real cost of solving climate change). Carbonfund will then invest that money in alternative energy projects (like wind), energy efficiency projects, and reforestation. In theory, the money will work to reduce carbon emissions (or increase carbon sinks) somewhere in the world where it can be done cheapest. It's outsourcing for Kyoto and it has several drawbacks.

To be truly carbon neutral, Yahoo! would have to get all of its electricity from a carbon neutral source (such as wind power), would have to buy servers that were constructed in a carbon neutral fashion, and ensure that its employees came to work in a carbon neutral way.

Yahoo's "carbon neutral" commitment is sadly in harmony with attitudes of the American public about global warming. A new poll reveals that 60% now believe that global warming is a problem requiring action. But when it comes to making a personal commitment to solving it?
Most people are wary of any government effort to protect the environment by imposing restrictions on how they live, work or get around. A majority of those surveyed in the poll, conducted March 23-25, said they wouldn't want a surcharge added to their utility bill if their homes exceeded certain energy-use levels. And most Americans would oppose any laws requiring cars sold in the USA to dramatically improve their gas mileage or restrictions on development to try to limit suburban sprawl.
Because the carbon problem is so vast, it's silly to try to target policies to individual aspects of society such as utility bills or gas mileage, or providing "carbon offsets." Instead, the United States could implement a universal carbon tax. It would send a clear market-based price signal to all Americans that your lifestyle has costs and you will actually have to pay them. And a carbon tax cuts out the middleman. Do we really need a Carbonfund to manage climate change if we're all paying a fair price?

While effective carbon mitigation really requires national policy, if you want to start offsetting your carbon use (personally), get some tips here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Global warming can stop hurricanes?

In the spirit of respecting the science around global warming, here's a forthcoming scientific study that suggests that global warming may actually reduce hurricane activity in the Atlantic. The study reports that due to a predicted increase in wind shear, hurricane activity in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific may actually decrease as temperatures rise. However, the study noted that global warming may decrease wind shear in the Western Pacfic (in addition to warming the ocean), creating a hotspot for greater tropical cyclones there.

Oh that science, always so nuanced...

Where's Waldo and What Illness Hath Stricken Him?

Now you can find out via the Google Maps mashup WhoIsSick. Allowing people to anonymously report illness and symptoms, this real-time report provides an interesting lesson in what kind of information people are willing to share anonymously (bloody stool in one respondent's note).

On a more serious note, I'm curious if this website might be good for disease tracking, such as when the CDC needs to identify trends in illnesses or public health folks look for the start of the flu season.

Without big money, your roof won't be going solar soon

Clean Break has a well-written but downhearted look at the cost picture for residential renewable energy. The problem? Government incentives don't come close to covering the initial expense - even in Canada - and the high demand for renewables has pushed up prices as suppliers fail to keep pace.

How bad is the cost outlook? Here's Tyler's look at installing solar on his roof compared to re-roofing with regular shingles:
The retail cost of each [solar power] shingle, however, is $198. So a 3 kilowatt system would cost about $35,000, while the 2 kilowatt system would be $23,000. Now, let's keep in mind that this excludes installation costs and the cost of power electronics that would be required to be grid-connected. Given I could re-roof my home with regular shingles for about $6,000 to $8,000, going with BIPV is still cost prohibitive -- even with the standard offer incentive.
He also looked into a geothermal heat exchanger, an underground piping system that takes advantage of ground temperatures being close to 50 degrees F year-round.
Okay, so what about a geo-exchange system? Certainly much more affordable, but costs can range anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 depending on the installer. Plus, there's a huge wait time for getting someone to drill in your yard -- particularly if you live in an urban area.
I've looked into some of these ideas for renewable energy for my house and have found similar problems. High upfront costs and long payback periods (10 years or more). Maybe I'll just turn the thermostat down a couple degrees instead...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Poetic Teacher Ass-Kicking, Metaphorically Speaking

So you're a teacher. Hmm, and what do you make?

Are energy monitors the key to conservation?

From sph, a story on a proposal in the United Kingdom to distribute energy monitors to most households. These monitors would display current energy use, apparently broken down by individual appliance (though the story doesn't explain the mechanics of that). Monitors are not the same as smart meters, which I discussed previously.

Energy consumption is very nebulous thing to most people and getting hard data like this is essential to helping people understand what activities use the most energy. It's the first step in helping people connect that 3 TVs and 2 computers running all night actually uses a lot of electricity.

However, the one way to improve the meter would be to have it display price information. I'd love to see the meter say, "Your energy use is costing $XX per hour." Of course, since a typical American residential electric rate is around 11 cents/kWh, and Americans use an average of 1.2 kW per hour, it might not phase folks much to see that they're spending 13.2 cents an hour on electricity.

While the impact might be small, another hope for increasing consumer knowledge of electricity use is to create demand shifting. Electric use in most places peaks in late afternoon in summer, when air conditioners are cranked up as people arrive home from work. One of the big keys to reducing emissions from power generation is time-shifting demand so that power consumption is more level. A large proportion of electric generation (as much as 25%) is invested in so-called "peaking plants" that are only turned on a couple times a year during peak demand. If power consumption was more level, these plants would a) not be used and b) may not be built at all.

It's a lot to ask from an energy monitor, but it's a good first step.

President Bush opens his mouth about Iraq spending

I wanted to write on the inanity of President Bush's comments against the war funding bill headed for his desk, but I couldn't get it together yesterday. Fortunately, the folks at DailyKos did. Here's a teaser, before you head to DailyKos for the punchline:
Yes, George Bush hates the thought of the troops being caught in the middle of the showdown between the White House and Congress over the supplemental spending bill for Iraq...

Nature cares little for your rights

As overfishing is bringing more and more fishing areas to collapse, a few foresighted countries have acted to preserve their fish populations and their way of life. Several island nations in the Pacific, particularly Palau, have set aside up to 30 percent of coastal waters as no-fishing zones to help sustain fish populations. So far, the efforts have shown great success, with fish populations rebounding so much that fishing has improved in adjacent fishing-allowed areas.

The United States hasn't caught on to the Micronesian leadership, and sets aside less than 1% of near-coast waters. In fact, activity in the Hawaiian legislature suggests that fishing advocates don't really understand the implications of overfishing:
In Hawaii, where the reefs are largely depleted of fish, a “right to fish” bill recently approved by the state house of representatives would make it almost impossible to create any protected areas by requiring unattainable scientific data. (emphasis mine)
Unfortunately for the fishermen, a collapsing fish population doesn't have to respect your "right" to fish.

For more on oversfishing, check out this Scientific American piece discussing how worldwide fish catches peaked in 1994 and have declined every year since.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Muslim cab drivers II

The Metropolitan Airports Commission moved one step closer to punishing cab drivers who refuse service to passengers this morning as their committee recommended the change to the full Commission. The full MAC will hear the proposal this afternoon.

The story on the committee vote had a bit more context on the issue as it's being discussed in the Commission. For one, it details the proposed punishment for the cabbies:
The proposed change would suspend for 30 days licenses of drivers who refuse to carry alcohol. A second offense would result in license revocation for two years...
MAC's perspective was offered by the lead hearing officer:

"But personally I think it is reasonable to ask them to accept alcohol if they want to drive at MSP [airport]," [hearing officer Molly Sigel] said. "If we're going to err, I think we should err on the side of customers. I think this is a practical, reasonable solution."
And the cab drivers weighed in as well, along with their lawyer. The cab driver's comment on the very few folks refused service is interesting, though I'm sure the court cares little whether it's 27 or 2700, since it seems to be more of a civil rights issue.
Abdinoor Ahmed Dolal, a taxi driver at the meeting, noted MAC statistics showing 27 alcohol-related refusals out of 120,000 passengers for two months starting in mid-November, one of the airport's busiest times. "This is a religious issue, not a customer service issue," he said.

Jeffrey Hassan, a lawyer for the Muslim drivers, told hearing officers about a 1990 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that allowed Amish people to forego displaying bright orange triangles on their buggies for religious reasons.
I thought the latter's comparison to the Amish and buggies a very interesting precedent. And as an amateur legal pundit, I'd say that it all depends on whether the courts will consider this an issue of religious freedom or civil rights.

Congress: fiscal responsibility returns with the Democrats

With Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress, their Budget Committee chairman have both reinstated PAYGO rules, requiring any spending increases or tax cuts to be offset with increased revenue. The rules were originally enacted in the early 1990s but allowed to lapse by the Republican Congress in 2001.

There's a lot that can be said about the benefits of pay-as-you-go, but few words could be as valuable as this image:

Muslim cab drivers: Serve or be served

The Minneapolis Star Tribune writes that the Metropolitan Airports Commission will vote today on penalties for cab drivers who refuse service to any passenger, for any reason. The is the latest development in the dispute between Muslim cab drivers and the airports commission after Muslim cabbies had refused service to people with guide dogs or who had alcohol in their carry-ons (both dogs and alcohol are verboten to strict-practicing Muslims).

Previously, the airports commission had ruled that cab drivers refusing service would have to go to the beginning of the cab queue (a three-hour wait).

Conservative columnist Katherine Kersten also wrote on the issue of accommodating religious beliefs of Muslims today in a "slippery slope" column. She discusses the Muslims Accommodations Task Force (link provided, but the server was down at the time of posting):
The task force's eventual objectives on American campuses include the following, according to the website: permanent Muslim prayer spaces, ritual washing facilities, separate food and housing for Muslim students, separate hours at athletic facilities for Muslim women, paid imams or religious counselors, and campus observance of Muslim holidays.
I think the organization's goals reflect two big ideas: 1) that Muslims would like to feel free to practice their religion in their daily life and 2) that this organization has a poor understanding of why Americans have fought against "separate but equal" for 60 years.

Accommodations are important means to respecting each other's beliefs. Separate facilities are a gateway to deliberate discrimination and misunderstanding. In the same fashion, the Airports Commission is right to draw the accommodations line at where other people's rights are trampled on.

Note: on that topic, Skemono has an interesting look at how civil unions have promised the equivalence of marriage for gays, but how in practice it's more like providing a "colored" restroom.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Colony Collapse Disorder update: Are we dialing the bees down?

The UK newspaper The Independent has a story about a "limited" study of the effect of mobile phones on bees. Scientists tried placing mobile handsets near beehives and found that bees will not return to a hive with a handset nearby. The study's results are anecdotal at this time, but the lead scientist says this is a tantalizing "hint" of what may be causing the colony collapse.

These results should be taken with a grain of salt, however. Since European countries are more compact, their mobile phone networks tend to be more pervasive than in the United States, which makes me wonder why - as the article states - CCD has not affected the UK yet. It would, however, explain why CCD has primarily affected the Eastern United States.

Update 5/2: This intriguing hypothesis is apparently complete bubkus. My apologies!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Creationism is to Science Education as ______ is to Sex Education

If you guessed "Abstinence," give yourself a point and pat yourself on the back; you now understand sex education better than Congress.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports today that abstinence programs had literally no effect on the number of sexual partners or the age of first sexual experience of teens in the programs versus those taking conventional sex education courses. This report is far from the first evidence; there are numerous studies showing the ineffectiveness of abstinence education. In fact, some abstinence programs not only fail to restrain sexual activity, but cause youth to be less likely to use contraception.

And yet, here's what the original newspaper story had to say about the funding for these ineffective programs:
Congress will consider renewing funding for abstinence education.
Hopefully that means Congress will consider more abstinence education funding like President Bush considers becoming pro-choice.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Hope and despair in eliminating racism

For those thinking that racism is dead, two tidbits I came across today highlight a) how long the road to equality and b) how far we've yet to travel.

Item A: Turner County High in Georgia will be hosting an integrated prom for the first time ever this year. Until now, whites and blacks at this 55% African American school have held segregated events. FYI, the Supreme Court decision eliminating racial segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education, was decided (unanimously) 53 years ago, in 1954.

Item B: All other things being equal, a white man would have to earn $220,000 more than a black man to be considered an equivalent romantic interest to the average African American woman. John Tierney explores the persistence of racial preference among women (of all races) in this blog post. The conclusion? If you are a man open to dating interacially, good luck. Men, as it turns out, do not have a statistically significant racial preference (bosom size was not discussed).

Running red lights - an off-duty police privilege?

From Slashdot, an interesting look at whether Dallas police officers should be able to run red lights even when not on emergency calls.

As with many other jurisdictions across the country, Dallas employs red light cameras to help reduce traffic accidents across the city. It's a decent idea, given than as many as 22 percent of all accidents are caused by drivers running red lights (see Howstuffworks article). Emergency vehicles are obviously exempt from both the cameras and from red light when on emergency calls, but what about when police officers are simply on patrol?

The Dallas Morning News reports that the Dallas Police Department will require officers to pay the $75 fee if they run red lights in non-emergency situations. Many of the officers have bridled at this policy change, arguing that citizens want them to be able to arrive at any site as rapidly as possible.

Should officers always be exempt from red lights when on duty? In marked or unmarked cars?

I've seen police officers in my city flick on the emergency lights to simply avoid long light cycles at a left turn signal. Perhaps I'm just bitter at being left behind at the light, but I feel like exemptions from traffic law are for on-the-job duties, not just a fringe benefit. Then again, maybe they were on a call. But then, why not keep the lights on? Thoughts?

Note: see some comments here - some thoughtful, others inane.

Maple Syrup: the new plastic?

From the nifty biotech desk: when is a surplus of maple syrup a boon to the plastics industry? When scientists discover that a special bacteria can turn maple syrup sugars into biodegradable polymers.
[National Research Council Canada] researchers found that the bacteria not only thrive when added to maple syrup, but also transform the sugars in the sap into a family of natural polymers that can be used to make plastic-like materials that are biodegradable – everything from "green" food packaging to drug-delivery films that dissolve harmlessly in the body.
In addition to taking advantage of declining demand for maple syrup, the development of plastic polymers from syrup and sap could be significantly less expensive (and environmentally intensive) than making polymers from other biomass or petroleum products.
In a research paper to be published later this year in the peer-reviewed journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, they argue that producing biopolymers from maple sap and syrup is potentially much cheaper than existing methods that rely on U.S. corn, Brazilian sugarcane and European sugar beets.
The one potential hangup is that global warming could significantly alter the maple syrup industry, potentially reducing production in the New England area of the United States and pushing it further into Canada.

I'll do my bit, accepting the artificial syrup for my waffles. For the sake of science...

(Tip to Tyler's Clean Break blog for the original source)

Energy efficient appliances not the lowest energy users

When is energy efficiency not equivalent to energy savings? When Americans keep believing that "bigger is better." In the same way that a hybrid Lexus can't compare in fuel efficiency to a conventional Honda Civic, Heather Rae at the Cleantech blog notes that shopping for energy efficient appliances isn't the same as looking for energy sipping ones.

Armed with the latest Energy Star data on refrigerators, she shopped around to find the best deal on an energy efficient appliance. Her discovery?
I opened the doors of every refrigerator in every one of those stores and read the average annual kWh consumption printed on their yellow Energy Guide tags. I consoled myself that I could not even consider purchasing a high-end refrigerator -- basically anything with side-by-side doors and a through-the-door water/ice dispenser, because, comparatively speaking, they consume too much electricity. That was my rationale, anyway. As with most everything in fixing up this house, the refrigerator would be a compromise of desire, quality and price...

...On outings to appliance stores, I carried a list of EPA's Energy Star-rated refrigerators...

...If I were to buy a refrigerator on the low end of the price spectrum (a top freezer model) it would more than likely be more energy efficient than all of the high-end Energy Star-rated side-by-sides and some of the bottom freezer models -- even if it did not carry the Energy Star label.... (emphasis mine)

Wal-Mart finds that "low prices" and organic don't mix

On April Fools Day, environmental blog Gristmill had satirically reported that Wal-Mart was abandoning all of its green initiatives, fake quoting the CEO Lee Scott:
In the end, our customers value low prices more than sustainability, and at Wal-Mart, we listen to our customers.
This satirical story evidently had a kernel of truth. From the Energy Roundup today comes a report that Wal-Mart is backing off its earlier commitment to organic foods. In an interview with organic food suppliers, Business Week found that the Gristmill folks had inadvertently hit the nail on the head:
Chief Executive Lee Scott concedes that the company has struggled to persuade customers that Wal-Mart can mean high-quality, rather than simply low price...

..."The Whole Foods customer is walking in there to buy organic and is more concerned about how the fruit was farmed," says apple farmer Ricker, "but the Wal-Mart customer is used to shopping with a calculator..."

..."Is organic really compatible with the Wal-Mart approach? We're finding out that it's not," says Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator and guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota.

Consider the case of Organic Valley Family of Farms in La Farge, Wis., one of the country's largest cooperatives of organic farmers. When demand for organic milk soared two years ago, rival Horizon Organic Dairy offered to sell to Wal-Mart for 15% below Organic Valley's price. Wal-Mart expected a similar reduction from Organic Valley, but instead the cooperative pulled out. "Looking for ever-lower costs comes at a real cost to sustainability," says George Siemon, Organic Valley's chief executive.

In other words, there's a limit to "low prices, always." You can't live sustainably at any price.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Evidence on the Iraq surge

The surge of troops to Baghdad in Iraq is two months old and it's clear that it will take a higher level of commitment from U.S. troops to see it through. However, is the strategy paying off? Can it end the cycle of violence perpetuated by the problem of "too few fingers in the dike"?

In Baghdad, the surge seems to be working to reduce militia-style killings.
Maj. Gen. William Campbell, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said Wednesday militia-related murders in Baghdad had dropped by 26 percent in March compared with the record highs of February.

And as Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted in a new study published Tuesday, "February and March saw a 50 percent decrease in sectarian execution-style killings" in the Iraqi capital of 6 million people.
The Christian Science Monitor has a more anecdotal assessment, noting that despite the quantitative reduction in deaths, insurgents have managed to strike deep in the Green Zone as well as recently destroying a major bridge in Baghdad.

The first article also highlights the shift in insurgent strategy:
At the same time that the numbers and rate of militia-type killings in Baghdad have started falling dramatically, another violence benchmark figure has been rising fast.

"Iraq deaths (from car bombs) increased 15 percent from February to March," Cordesman wrote in his CSIS study, entitled "Iraq's Sectarian and Ethnic Violence: Developments Through Spring 2007."
An excellent NPR interview with retired Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the Army, covered much the same territory. The general noted that the surged troops are enabling U.S. soldiers to actually occupy large swaths of Baghdad, instead of operating from large bases, as they've done in the past. His conclusion: "it's much to early to be predictive about [the surge]."

I'll make this prediction: if we're not willing to keep those boots on the ground in those neighborhoods, they'll revert to insurgency. But that's a long-term occupation, which Americans certainly don't have the stomach for after four years of - as the general called it - failed strategy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Iraq War: is this a surge or an escalation?

Today Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he was extending tours of duty in Iraq for troops deploying soon and for troops already there, from 12 months to 15 months. The policy is intended to guarantee 12 month stays at home between deployments, a necessary step with the recent addition of more than 20,000 troops to Baghdad in hopes of securing the city.

So is this really an escalation of the war?
The troop "surge," which some soldiers opposed, was suggested as a short-term solution to the rising violence in Baghdad. However, extending deployments in order to maintain troop levels suggests that this surge is longer-lasting. That's an escalation.

Other Iraq questions roundup:
  1. Is there any reason why, coming in to the fifth year of the Iraq War, we are still funding this through "emergency appropriations"? This analysis from the Republican staff on the Senate Budget Committee looks at the complex definition of emergency and the overuse of the term for many spending items. One excerpt:
Labeling war costs as an emergency is not consistent with the President’s proposed statutory definition: while the 2007 and 2008 costs of the war may be necessary and ultimately not permanent, they are not sudden, urgent, and unforeseen, since the war in Afghanistan commenced in November 2001 and the war in Iraq commenced February 2003.
  1. Just when does President Bush have to start answering the "do you support the troops?" question? The President has threatened to veto the Iraq spending bill (bill summary - pdf) that Democrats have ushered through Congress because he doesn't want deadlines. Is he failing the troops by vetoing the money they need to keep fighting? Let's say the Democrats send a second bill with deadlines to the President later this spring when the Pentagon is much closer to running out of money for the war (July, by the way). President Bush can still support the troops and get them the money he needs, he just has to compromise. Of course, there's also the theory that "you can't hurt a troop by defunding a war." So really, Bush can support the troops by signing or vetoing the appropriations bill.

A break from reality: cute kitten picture

Our cat, Nora, is about a year old now and I was sorting pictures in Picasa when I came across this picture of her as a kitten.

I think I need to sell this to Successories; caption: Persistence.

iPod for insulin?

(via Digg) A prominent blogger on diabetes has issued a special request to Apple - please help developers of insulin pumps make user friendly devices. Frustrated with glucose monitors and pumps that have fixed alarm sounds and volumes, are difficult to use, and come in "institutional colors," Amy Tenderich is hoping Apple designers could bring sheik to medical devices.

In addition to this blog coverage of Amy's open letter, you can listen to an interview of Amy (mp3 - 4 mins) on MPR's Future Tense.

The "iRack" War

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

No buzz, no buds: bee colony collapse could jeopardize many foods

You've probably not given much thought to the role honeybees play in bringing foods to your plate (other than honey), so you may be surprised to hear that "every third bite" of food you take has likely come from a food pollinated by bees. With that in mind, the colony collapse disorder striking bees across the United States and now Europe (destroying 70% of bees) could precipitate an agricultural disaster.

The issue is significant enough to have the federal government involved, with the Senate Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture holding hearings last week to gather more information about the phenomenon. The environmental blog Celsias has an excellent account of the news to-date, with some of the theories about the cause. Potential culprits range from a insect neurotoxin used as a pesticide, genetically modified crops (such as Bt corn), poor bee nutrition, an unknown bee pathogen, limited genetic diversity of bees, parasites or mites. The Congressional Research Service has already put together an excellent brief on the Colony Collapse Disorder, including theories on the cause and the immense agricultural value at stake.

It's worth noting that folks with an agenda are quick to take advantage of the issue. The Organic Consumers Association focused on pesticides as the potential cause, not a surprise for an organization working to advance organic agriculture (disclosure: I heartily support organic agriculture, but it's interesting nonetheless).

Anyway, let's hope the scientists can figure this out fast, since there's more than $1 billion in agricultural products (food) at stake.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Freezing freedom of speech

Last year, a law professor emeritus from Princeton gave a speech on the legal overreach of the Bush administration, from signing statements to foreign policy to warrantless wiretapping. This year, Professor Walter F. Murphy is on the Transportation Security Administration's terrorist watch list. From the blog post detailing the experience, he describes his discussion with the American Airlines clerk:
One of the two people to whom I talked asked a question and offered a frightening comment: "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that." I explained that I had not so marched but had, in September, 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the Constitution. "That'll do it," the man said. (emphasis mine)
Over the line, Smokey! notes that Professor Murphy is not exactly a flaming liberal, either.

A video of Professor Murphy's "terrorist" speech can be found at the Princeton University Web Archives, or by using the following links: Player Icon 56K 350K Player Icon 56K 350K

Carbon taxes cut out the middleman (and they work)

The most popular proposal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is the "cap-and-trade" plan which would set a national limit on emissions and allow companies and individuals to buy additional credits to emit. (I cover some of the drawbacks of this in my look at carbon offsets). However, Europe has tried this scheme and found it fairly ineffective (from the WSJ Energy Roundup):
The Guardian reported last week that Europe’s cap-and-trade system is “manifestly not working as planned.” Today, the Washington Post was somewhat kinder, but still said the system had produced “a bureaucratic morass with a host of unexpected and costly side effects and a much smaller effect on carbon emissions than planned.”
The alternative plan is the carbon tax, a straightforward way to reduce carbon emissions by making them more expensive. CNN Money noted today that Europe's success on fuel efficiency - another issue Americans struggle with - is largely due to high fuel taxes, making consumers choose cars based on gasoline usage. A carbon tax would work in the same fashion, and has been endorsed by a wide range of politicians and economists who generally support so-called Pigovian taxes.

The advantage to a carbon tax is twofold: 1) it cuts out the middleman, because we don't need a trading system (with trading experts, and companies who exist just to trade carbon around) and 2) it raises revenue for a federal government that has a lot on its plate, such as the pending shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare.

Let's get taxing!

Europe goes lighting efficient

As I continue to catch up on news I missed while on vacation last week, I found a story on Europe's plan to effectively phase out incandescent light bulbs by 2009. By using an energy efficiency requirement for bulbs, the new laws will not a priori ban the incandescent, but it will quickly go the way of the Dodo without substantial energy improvements. The writer notes that the de facto replacement - the compact fluorescent - contains traces of mercury, a toxic metal.

Two thoughts:
  1. It's great that the law focuses on energy efficiency instead of a particular bulb technology. The problem of "government picking winners" is thus avoided.
  2. Compact fluorescents are a major improvement over the incandescent, but I think it's a little naive to dismiss the mercury problem. Over its lifetime, a CFL will displace more mercury than it contains, assuming that a significant portion of its electricity comes from coal. However, with a strong push toward renewable and environmentally-friendlier energy coming along, it's silly to assume that's always going to be true. Conclusion: don't hesitate to buy a CFL rather than an incandescent, but don't stop looking for something better.

Daylight Saving Time: saving time, but not energy

The earlier shift to Daylight Saving Time (DST) in the United States this year was initially heralded as an energy saving move, but recent research had raised questions about the actual energy savings. Well, the evidence has started to roll in and the conclusion will make the cynics smile: no significant energy savings.

Of course, I just like my extra daylight hour in the evening.

Plug-in hybrids can reduce pollution, too

The tireless folks at Energista have struck energy information gold again, reviewing two new reports at the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The more interesting (to me) is the report analyzing the air pollution impact of converting Minnesota's vehicle fleet to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).

PHEVs are an existing-technology route to gaining oil independence by shifting fuel use to electricity. When combined with a flexible fuel engine capable of using E85 or biodiesel, a car could get over 100 miles per gallon of fuel and more than 500 miles per gallon of gasoline.

I examined this technology in a past post and concluded that for $170 billion, the United States could achieve oil independence in two years, assuming a price premium of $5000 for a hybrid engine and $100 to make it flex-fuel compatible.

The Minnesota report shows that for almost all criteria air pollutants, a fleet of PHEVs would reduce pollution compared to regular cars (the exception being sulfur dioxide, due to most Minnesota electricity coming from coal). However, with Minnesota already committed to 25% renewable electricity by 2025, these figures can only improve.

Bank error in their favor - oil and gas companies get a $10 billion windfall?

If the United States is ever to successfully wean itself from foreign oil and promote the development of alternative energy, then giving the oil and gas industry bonus subsidies is probably the wrong idea.

This Washington Post story notes that a major omission in oil and gas leases negotiated in 1998-99 left out a price cap on royalty exemptions, allowing companies to avoid royalty payments as prices have spiked significantly in recent years. The royalty exemption helps promote domestic energy development by giving a subsidy (in the form of a royalty exemption) when energy prices are low. In theory, this helps companies continue exploration and development on U.S.-leased land as prices fall.

So far, the omission of a price cap from the leases has cost the government over $1 billion, with a projected cost of $10 billion over the life of the leases.

So what can be done? One House proposal seeks to force companies to renegotiate leases or pay conservation fees. The Bush administration would give the companies 5 to 10-year, no-bid lease extensions for companies that come to the negotiating table. Two prominent Democratic Senators, Feistein (CA) and Bingaman (NM) are supporting a similar incentive process.

I lead toward the first option, since it aims to "fix the glitch." However, since I'm not a contract lawyer, I have no idea if it would be a bad faith move for the government to force companies to renegotiate the leases, since the contracts were signed as is.

Any lawyers out there want to take a stab?

Supreme Court: The EPA must regulate carbon

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court decided last week that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that should be regulated by the EPA. In addition to raising the possibility of federal policy on greenhouse gases, the ruling may also empower states such as California, which has moved on its own to regulate carbon dioxide.

Ultimately, the slow march toward carbon caps and climate gas regulation in the United States is likely to run headlong into American energy habits, particularly where cars are concerned. The Wall Street Journal has an April 5 article entitled "Horsepower Nation," noting that Americans still like a lot of power in their cars, despite the rising cost of gas and greater emissions:
Car makers are getting better at using technology to squeeze out more power without decreasing fuel efficiency. But environmentalists and government regulators criticize the industry for using technology -- such as more sophisticated fuel control systems -- to boost power instead of mileage...

...Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation Inc., the nation's largest publicly traded dealership chain, says fuel efficiency has consistently ranked behind cup holders and sound systems in consumer desires over the past 20 years.
A couple thoughts come to mind at this:
  1. Americans still don't grasp the full extent of the threat of global warming.
  2. Public policy has to lead the market, since customers simply do not select for climate impact at the point of sale.
Update 2:38pm: the WSJ Energy Roundup has a nice summary of reactions to the Supreme Court decision.

You can't hurt a troop by defunding a war

In this essay, David Swanson examines the meaning of "support our troops" and the inconsistency in such a phrase when escalating a war or letting it rage on interminably. His conclusion?
If Bush vetoes a war funding bill, he will be doing so because it asks him to end the war someday and he never wants to end the war. He will NOT be cutting off money for troops. And neither will Congress if it does its Constitutional duty and slams the vault shut and ends the occupation of Iraq.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Related reading: try the Dead Racists Weekly

This "week's" featured blog is called Dead Racists Weekly. Hosted over at Live Journal, this lively author posts on the politics of race, religion and science, with a generous nod to some of the more idiotic maneuvers in public policy (a big fav of yours truly). The posts aren't just random ravings, but include some interesting quotes and show a good commitment to backing things up (e.g. with facts, unlike some of the politicians frequently mentioned here).

A product of skemono, DRW first came to my attention via his/her link to my embedded Youtube video showing Senator Boxer verbally skewering Senator Inhofe. This suggests to me that mirroring Youtube videos is going to be the key to my blogging success...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Florida opts to restore voting rights

One of three states that constitutionally require felons to permanently forfeit their voting rights - and requiring a lengthy process to regain them - Florida is changing its policy to allow most nonviolent offenders to automatically regain their voting rights.

The question surrounding the changed policy is this: how do voting rights relate to committing a crime? I'm curious what readers think. Should a convicted criminal forfeit their voting rights? While in prison? Forever? At all? Read up a bit more on felony voting rights at MSNBC and The Straight Dope.

The question on my mind is what purpose the former policy served. Are the loss of voting rights a deterrent to crime? (I believe this is a rhetorical questions). Is losing the right to vote while serving a sentence a significant addition to punishment? Should there be lifetime punishments for certain crimes?

Obviously, the issue of voting rights for felons taps a much deeper issue of the appropriate social response to crime. If one views the role of society to be to prevent crime, then some of the latest research suggests that punishment is a poor practice (pdf). In the United States, half of all criminals released in a 15-state study were reconvicted of a crime within three years. Is that the success of punishment?

Do corporations have more right to a patent than universities?

Slashdot asks if universities should be able to hold patents and intellectual property if they get grants and donations (and taxpayer funds) as an educational institution.

I have another perspective? Why not?

If taxpayers funded the studies through an educational institution, shouldn't it be able to reap some of the benefits? In some cases, corporations can sponsor university research and obtain the intellectual property rights. Shouldn't a taxpayer-funded institution have the same rights?

If the concern is letting universities profit from research funded by third parties, then call me confused. Most universities have a wide range of funding sources for their research, from public money (state and federal), alumni donations, and corporate sponsorships. Is the variety of funding sources somehow more repugnant than a corporation who receives money from consumers?

If the concern is freedom of information, then it seems that patent law generally would be the source for concern. Are patents too broad in scope? Too long? Should certain things not be patented? The constitutional source of patents (Article I, Section 8) is a good start:
The Congress shall have power to...promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Wife, Heineken, and Washington DC

After traveling cross-country to visit a few friends and family along the way, we arrived in Washington DC this evening. We're residing at the lovely Lake Fairfax Park campground and will hit the town for our first full day tomorrow.

Tonight, however, it's a beer with the wife at Harry's on 12th and E Streets, wirelessly tapping into someone's free connection (and studiously avoiding the "FreeWifi" Computer-to-Computer network offered).