moldybluecheesecurds 2

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Book review: Deep Economy

I recently finished reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibben and it was an excellent book. The overall theme is that Americans have come to be obsessed with more. More economic growth, more material goods, bigger! better! McKibben begins his analysis by noting that for most Americans, wealth and material goods are not related to happiness and that we need to refocus on a "deeper" economy.

First, the main point. McKibben notes that once a country's per capita income exceeds $10,000, there is not a commensurate increase in the happiness of the population. Once basic needs of food and shelter are met, little happiness (if any) is gained from additional wealth. Economists call this the diminishing marginal utility of income (pdf).

One of the other main issues McKibben addresses is the issue of agriculture, health and the environment. Modern food systems generally involve large monocultures (a single plant covering thousands of acres), massive processing and packaging, and long-distance shipping. Thus every visit to the supermarket can offer local vegetables or exotic fruits, in any season. And it also serves up a healthy dose of pesticides, herbicides, and a massive carbon footprint.

McKibben notes that both our health (in terms of nutrition) and our land's productivity suffer. First, health suffers because when modern agriculture comes to the developing world, it tends to displace sufficiency farming. The former involves large monocropping of corns or soybeans or other commodities for export, the latter a mix of vegetables and grains to serve local nutritional needs. Modern agriculture actually reduces the self-sufficiency of the developing world and increases malnutrition.

Modern science has helped combat this with discoveries such as golden rice (infused with vitamin A) that replaces the vitamin A lost when other vegetables are not longer planted alongside rice. It's ironic, though, that it is really just a fix to another solution of modern times, the green revolution.

Even more intriguing, organic small-scale farming is actually more productive per acre and per unit of energy. That's right, you get more food for your land and inputs farming in a more traditional style, where corn can be planted in the same field as beans, instead of lined up for mechanical harvesting. And that is the tradeoff, of course. This more natural style of farming is labor-intensive and more expensive in dollars per pound of food, but more productive per acre of land.

The other big issue McKibben addresses as part of his exploration of happiness is community. Americans have a society committed to maximizing individual time: houses with more bedrooms than people, cable TV instead of movie theaters, cars instead of mass transit. The tradeoff is that people feel more alone and depressed than their parents.

McKibben suggests that community is a balancing act. Too much feels repressive, like having your parents or neighbors constantly at your door or in your space. To little leaves people vulnerable to anxiety and other products of social isolation.

Overall, I thought his book an interesting look at how to re-envision the modern economy to better respect the environment and the sense of human community. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Would you envy this economy?

An article in today's New York Times suggests that the economy under President Bush would be the envy of many past presidents.

Dean Baker says, "I doubt it," defending his statement with a table of average annual GDP growth for presidential terms in the past 50 years.
Kennedy-Johnson -- 5.2%
Clinton -- 3.6%
Reagan -- 3.4%
Carter -- 3.4%
Nixon-Ford -- 2.7%
Bush II --2.6%
Bush I --1.9%
Only Bush's father would envy this economy. And because I'm a partisan, I'd like to note that 3 of the top 4 are Democratic presidential regimes. None of the bottom three are. If it's the economy, stupid, then don't vote Republican.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The next president: Newt says start with a foreign listening tour

Tip to shadoweyes for the story in Foreign Policy referenc Newt Gingrich, former leader of the Republican Contract for America and now political statesman. The former Speaker has a good thought on the first job of the next president:
As soon as the new president is elected, he or she should immediately embark on a series of pre-inauguration visits to capitals around the world: not just London, Paris, and Jerusalem, but Ankara, Amman, Beijing, and Cairo. In the span of several weeks, the president should make dozens of stops in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia. During these visits, not one moment needs to be spent trying to prove or demonstrate American power and dominance. Instead, the president-elect should simply listen. There should be no formal agenda, only questions. How do these other leaders think the United States can be most effective with its economic, military, and cultural might? And in turn, how do they propose to help achieve mutual goals during the next four years?
I was never much for Newt's domestic policy, but that's some very intelligent ideas about helping build American soft power and diffusing some of the sources of foreign terrorism.

Friday, January 25, 2008

For the record: Obama's 2002 anti-war statement

"I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

"I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."

Wiretapping update: The Senate debates FISA

I don't have time to provide much summary, but the U.S. Senate is embroiled in a debate about wiretapping and other domestic surveillance. They passed a stopgap bill that expires in February and there are two key issues:
  • Will phone companies that broke the wiretap law at the behest of the Bush administration be given immunity for their illegal activities?
  • Will Congress give Bush a de facto censure by stripping his efforts to legalize the warrantless wiretapping after the fact?
Read more on it here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The false dichotomy of privacy (or liberty) v. security

Think that we all have to give up some privacy to be safe from the 21st century threats of terrorism? You must work for the Bush Administration:
In order for cyberspace to be policed, internet activity will have to be closely monitored. Ed Giorgio, who is working with [Director of National Intelligence] McConnell on the plan, said that would mean giving the government the authority to examine the content of any e-mail, file transfer or Web search. "Google has records that could help in a cyber-investigation," he said. Giorgio warned me, "We have a saying in this business: 'Privacy and security are a zero-sum game.'"
Most accept that dichtomy, says Bruce Schneier. Problem is, it's a false one. He starts with several examples, such as stronger cockpit doors on airplanes or deadbolt locks on homes. There's no loss of privacy.

Instead, the only conflicts occur when security involves issues of identity (e.g. national ID cards). And in these cases, the government has either lied or misled the public about their effectiveness. The most effective security measures are the few immediate post-9/11 ones:
Since 9/11, two -- or maybe three -- things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and -- possibly -- sky marshals. Everything else -- all the security measures that affect privacy -- is just security theater and a waste of effort.
For more, read his entire 2-page essay.

Flushing good money after bad

With the U.S. supposedly teetering on the edge of recession, Congress is preparing an "economic stimulus" package to [help prevent recession/slow the progress toward recession/make the recession less severe]. Unfortunately, Paul Krugman (economist) notes that most of the stimulus isn't going to those who will actually spend it. Which makes it a pretty expensive ($150 billion) "not much of a stimulus" package.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Only Republicans outsource to lose money

It's tax season, judging by the W-2 forms and mailers with multiple perforations showing up in my mailbox. So here'a a thought about how those tax dollars are being spent, in one specific tax-related agency.

The IRS is outsourcing tax collections to private collections firms because of a shortage of in-house revenue officers. The collectors will help bring in billions of tax dollars that might otherwise go unpaid. For their fee, the collections agencies will keep 22-24 cents of every dollar they collect. Not a bad deal for keeping the IRS lean and mean, eh?

Except that the overhead for the IRS to do the work itself is only three cents of every dollar. That's right, government is 7-8 times more efficient at collections than the private sector. And it adds up. Over 10 years, the IRS reports that it could collect up to $87 billion in underpayments, compared to less than 2 billion from the contractors.

Note: this isn't the only way the Republican administration has hamstrung the IRS. It also prevents them from providing free tax e-filing.

Nominating a candidate: only 80% democratic

The process of selecting a party's candidate typically draws little attention, with around 10% of eligible voters participating in primary elections. And given the complex rules that govern the selection of presidential candidates, it may come as no surprise.

While around 80% of delegates to each party's convention are selected by the caucuses and primaries currently underway, the remaining delegates are sent to the convention "unpledged." For the Democrats, these unpledged folks are called "superdelegates": party elders, state party chairs, and other party leaders. For Republicans, the same folks are simply "unpledged."

The role of these special delegates is to help consider the party's best interest (or halt the rise of insurgent candidacies), and they can make a big difference. For example, in the Democratic presidential race, the pledged delegate count reads: Obama 38, Clinton 36, Edwards 15. But if you count the leanings of superdelegates (as reported by CNN), the totals shift: Clinton 202, Obama 116, Edwards 51. In other words, the party faithful are leaning toward Clinton.

You can learn more about the strangeness of superdelegates here.

Why Netflix kicks ass

Instead of driving back and forth from my local Blockbuster and paying $5.00+ per movie rental,
  • I've rented 32 movies since March 2007
  • ...Without getting in my car
  • ...Avoiding nearly 100 kg of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere
  • I've been able to both preview trailers and reviews from my couch before picking my movies
  • I've gotten excellent recommendations for movies I might like
  • I've paid only $2.65 per movie rental
  • I've upgraded and downgraded my account...multiple times...instantly...from my couch...without any customer service calls
Why do we have video stores again?

Environmentally tracking your product: The Footprint Chronicles

Patagonia, an excellent outdoor gear organization, has had a longstanding commitment to environmental sustainability. Their straightforward and honest Footprint Chronicles allow you to track the earth impact of any of their products.

Thanks to Triple Pundit for the tip.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The presidency: What value experience?

Nicholas Kristof examines the history of experience in presidential candidates and their resulting presidencies. He concludes that those who put experience first may get what they wish for. A few excerpts:
Consider another presidential candidate who was far more of a novice. He had the gall to run for president even though he had served a single undistinguished term in the House of Representatives, before being hounded back to his district.

That was Abraham Lincoln.
Kristof goes on to conclude that...
It might seem obvious that long service in Washington is the best preparation for the White House, but on the contrary, one lesson of American history is that length of experience in national politics is an extremely poor predictor of presidential success.
Then there's the kicker - what it might mean if we take experience too seriously:
To put it another way, think which politician is most experienced today in the classic sense, and thus — according to the “experience” camp — best qualified to become the next president.

That’s Dick Cheney. And I rest my case.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The savings in a smarter electric grid

Washington State has been trying a so-called "smart grid," where people have their major appliances wired to the grid to reduce electric use during peak demand times, lowering electric costs.

For example, when high demand drove prices up (as utilities have to turn on "peaking plants" to generate extra electricity), special electronics turned off the heat element in the dryer or the water heater, helping to level demand.

This system is a combination of price monitoring and time-of-use pricing, and it lowered household electricity demand at peak times by 15%. During extended periods of heavy demand, the system lowered usage by as much as 50%.

In general, the system only intervened about 1% of the time, but cut 15% off the owners' electric bill. Not bad for a one-time $1000 investment.

Tax cuts never pay for themselves

President Bush likes to lie about tax cuts, implying that they will magically boost revenues if they help the economy. Disagreeing with the economics is like disagreeing with gravity, sir, it doesn't make it true.

The irony is that if we know we're going to increase the deficit to provide economic stimulus, why not put it in the pockets of those who would provide the most? The poor.

Overall, Obama and Clinton have voted much the same

While they may try to draw sharp distinctions to help Democratic voters decide, Senators Clinton and Obama are more alike than they care to admit.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Forget Robitussin, try a sugar pill

Recent studies unearthed the truth about children's cold medicines: not only are they useless against cold symptoms, but they can cause harm to children. So is it any surprise that adult cold medicines are generally no better than placebos?

Turns out Mom was right: drink plenty of fluids and get some rest. And save your drug money for the real diseases.

Huckabee: this is not funny

He may have a great one-liner about his foreign policy experience (limited), but he's also interested in squaring the Constitution with God's law. A brief look at what that could mean.

Who's electable? Only the election can tell

A nice essay on the bane of "electability" in the campaign primary season. Ron Klain notes that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, makes voters into pundits, and costs many qualified candidates a fair race.

He also blames Nader voters for the 2000 election results, contradicting his implied assertion that people should vote for the candidate who's the best fit for them.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Water in the news

Two items on my RSS reader feed today look at the scourge of bottled water. The first repeats the debunking of the "8 glasses a day" myth and the second explores the environmental impacts of producing tons of plastic for bottled water.

You can read previous MoldyBlue coverage of bottled water, including the revelation that most of it comes from the tap and the ridiculous price markup (a few thousand percent).

Monday, January 07, 2008

The election doesn't end in NH either

Acting as a counterweight to the hype of horserace, political writer Eric Black notes the now-defunct presumption that New Hampshire is key to winning the presidential nomination. In fact, New Hampshire has been insignificant almost as often as the reverse.

So enjoy the show tomorrow, and keep in mind that your best vote is one for the best candidate.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Story of Stuff

An insightful, clever video on the cost of consumer society.

The "worth it" moment? For every pound of trash you toss, 70 pounds were created to make that product or packaging.


Cell phones may cause traffic jams

The science slowly catches up to the intuition about driving distracted.

First, a study at the University of Exeter last month noted that traffic jams are not caused by heavy traffic, but by drivers overreacting. Braking too hard or slowing below certain speeds creates a ripple effect that can put you in an area of abruptly slow traffic with no indication as to why. The key issue:
This model takes into account the time-delay in drivers’ reactions, which lead to drivers braking more heavily than would have been necessary had they identified and reacted to a problem ahead a second earlier.
Why is the time delay key? Because that's what cellphone chatting or other distracted driving does - reduce reaction time.
Motorists talking on the phone drive about two miles per hour more slowly than people who aren’t on the phone...Slower cellphone drivers may be increasing overall commuting times by 5 percent to 10 percent, he calculates, and talking on the phone may increase each daily commuter’s travel time by 20 hours a year....other studies have shown that delayed reaction time related to cellphone use is a safety hazard.
The slow driving held true regardless of use of a hands-free headset:
It’s the talking, not the cellphone, that distracts the brain.
Prediction: the findings will lead to the splendid irony of finding that many Americans phone their destination when they get stuck in traffic to report in and pass the time, perpetuating the traffic jam.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Iowa Caucus results: season with salt (a lot of salt)

One of the best political writers you will ever read, should you choose to follow the link, is Eric Black. Bringing valuable context to all things political, he offers a substantial salt appetizer to the Iowa caucus results that will dominate the news tomorrow. A few thoughts for those feeling pressed for time:
In a sense, the pundits will be making a big deal about not very much. Very few national convention delegates are at stake Thursday night (and none will actually be chosen in a binding way until June
In other words, the results being trumpeted on the news Friday morning will be the media-manufactured "momentum." In terms of getting your party's nomination, Iowa's like winning $1.50 on a $1 lotto ticket.

As meaningless as are the results, so are the polls coming out now. No one knows who will actually caucus.
Reading polls as predictions is always hazardous, and for several reasons that you may not be thinking about (details below), it's especially hazardous in the Iowa caucuses... it is harder to identify likely caucus-goers (who must spend an entire evening doing their civic duty). Various polls have "found" that, as a percentage of all the adult Iowans they interviewed, the percentage that could be classified as likely caucus participants ranged from under 10 percent in many polls, to more than 30 percent in some.
And then there's the caucus process itself.

After a few other items of business, the caucus-goers get out of their seats and gather in bunches around the room according to which presidential candidate they support. A first count is taken. In most precincts, any candidate whose gaggle of supporters represents less than 15 percent of the total is declared non-viable, which means that candidate won't be getting any delegates out of that precinct. That candidate's supporters are given a chance to join up with one of the viable candidates' gaggle (presumably reflecting their second preference). The precinct captain for each of the viable candidates gives a speech, imploring the non-viables to come on over.

According to all recent polls, only Clinton, Obama and Edwards are attracting more than 15 percent support among Iowa Democrats statewide.
But, results are based on individual precincts, so there may be caucuses where Richardson, Kucinich or Biden can garner 15 percent to remain viable. And if that wasn't enough, the number you see on TV isn't even a real number:
The percentage reported to the media is a weird statistic that Iowa Democrats call "State Delegate Equivalents." State delegate equivalents project how many delegates to the Iowa State Democratic Convention in June that candidate is likely to have. Here's the next catch. Each county has a preset number of delegates to the next level of conventions. The number does not reflect how many Iowans turned out in that county on caucus night.
Looking at the Iowa caucus for our next president is like asking NFL fans to caucus to select the Superbowl winner. It's not worth a bucket of warm spit.

Let's at least wait until the New Hampshire primary, where people just vote.

Is that front loading washer worth it?

As my wife noted, our washer celebrated the new year by giving in to gravity, dumping several soapy gallons of water on our newly-painted laundry room floor. So we're in the market for a new washer, and were told by the salesman last night that a front loading washer is better because it will save us $100 in utilities, get clothes cleaner, and do our taxes.

"Great," says I, "but this EnergyGuide tag suggests it's more like $20 a year."

"That's not counting the expense of heating the water," says Slick, "that's the real expense."

But $100? Let's do the math.

  • Two washers, one top-load and one front-load. The former uses 450 kWh per year (and 40 gallons per wash load) and the latter 150 kWh per year (and around 21 gallons per load) for operations. These are typical figures according to the federal Dept of Energy.
  • The top-load washer costs $300, the front load washer costs $600.
  • Water is heated with natural gas. It takes 706 btus or 0.007 therms of natural gas to heat 1 gallon of water from 55 Fahrenheit to 140 Fahrenheit.
  • Electricity costs 8.3 cents per kWh, the national average.
  • Natural gas costs $0.91 per therm, the rate from my local utility.
  • The water itself costs $0.003 per gallon, the municipal rate in my hometown.
So, the typical top-load wash consumes 40 gallons of water, for a cost of 11.4 cents for the water. Heating the water consumes 40*706=28,280 btus or 0.28 therms, for a cost of 25.7 cents. So, the water and heat cost 37.1 cents per load.

The front-load washer consumes 21 gallons of water, for a cost of 6.1 cents. The energy used to heat the water is 21*706=14,826 btus or 0.148 therms, for a cost of 13.5 cents. So, the front load water and heat cost 19.6 cents per load.

My wife and I average 2 loads a week (104 a year), plus a few bonus loads. Let's call it a round 120 loads.

Since the government provides the electricity use figures on the yellow tag, I'm using those even though they aren't adjusted per load. So each year, the top load washer uses 450 kWh @ 8.3 cents/kWh = $37.35. The front loader uses 150 kWh @ 8.3 cents/kWh = $12.45.

So, our total costs look like this:
Top loader: 120 loads * ($0.371 water/heat per load) + $37.35 for electricity = $81.87 annual operating cost
Front loader: 120 loads * ($0.196 water/heat per load) + $12.45 for electricity = $35.97

Front load annual savings: $45.90 (simple payback = 6.5 years)

Slick clearly doesn't understand that a couple with no kids doesn't run the washer 4 times a week.

For those curious, here's a chart showing the annual cost of each washer based on the number of loads done each week, with the dotted line showing the annual savings.

2008: Bone up for the presidential election season

You'll hear a lot of horserace stories in the news, especially starting with the Iowa Caucuses on Thursday. Are you ready to filter the crap and pick the right candidate?

Here's how to make a decision without watching the shit on TV. First, start with a candidate selector game that asks you several questions and tells you which candidate is the best match. I recommend the USA Today match game the most.
  • Candidate selectors - these tools ask a series of questions and match you to the best candidate based on your answers. You can get really stuck if there's not a good match for your specific policy preference, but it gets you close enough to read up on the candidate.
    • Selectsmart - asks questions about the Iraq War, civil liberties, and more, and includes a slider to evaluate how important each issue is. Limitations - most often there are only two or three choices on the spectrum for each issue. The civil liberties questions poses a false choice.
    • Minnesota Public Radio - a more limited field of questions, but with a choice to indicate the level of importance of your answer. Limitations - Answers on immigration and education clearly reflect the individualized statement of candidates: accurate, but almost impossible to select from.
    • USA Today Candidate Match - a pretty interface allows you to see your best matches as you take the quiz. You can mouseover each candidate's position on each issue to get the details as well as adjust the sliders to indicate which issues are most important.
Once you've narrowed the field, learn more about your top picks at the NY Times issues page - this is a nice outline of the actual candidates' statements on the most prominent issues of the campaign (as selected by the NY Times).

Finally, try not to listen to news about the campaigns. Media has a bias toward two things in a campaign: movement and numbers, neither of which will help you pick the candidate who will best represent your views. I'll illustrate:
  • Movement - Barack Obama is "gaining" or "faltering." Joe Biden is "stumbling" or "fading." Elections are not sports matches and the winner has to do a lot more than hoist a shiny trophy. Tom Brady may lead the best football team ever, but his momentum won't get us better health care.
  • Numbers - there are two numbers to report in politics, money and opinion polls.
    • Money - Some of the biggest asshats in history were rich (Rockefeller, JP Morgan), having money does not a good president make.
    • Opinion polls are pseudo-scientific when reported by the media. They are snapshots of a single instant in time, already dated by the time results are reported (polling was usually done over the past several days). Howard Dean led in every poll taken in Iowa in 2004. He didn't win. John Kerry always polled as the most electable Democrat. He lost. Get it?