moldybluecheesecurds 2

Friday, February 27, 2009

Soft on your bum or light on the planet

Toilet paper is an obvious end to the recycling chain, so why are so few toilet paper varieties made from recycled paper?  At least with today's recycled paper, re-used fibers mean rougher stuff and Americans are fans of softness for their undersides.

Just how bad do Americans need to wipe with a virgin tissue?  Up to 20 percent of toilet paper in Latin America and Europe is recycled.  In the U.S., it's 2 percent.

It's not just the trees that suffer, but less waste is generated and fewer chemicals used in the processing of recycled tissue. 

It's the Environment v. the American bum. 

A better looking bank bailout: hire women

From Nicholas Kristof:
Wall Street is one of the most male-dominated bastions in the business world; senior staff meetings resemble a urologist’s waiting room. Aside from issues of fairness, there’s evidence that the result is second-rate decision-making...

One of the shortcomings of any system of men sitting in front of screens making financial bets was reported last year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, in case you missed your copy. That study found that men are particularly likely to make high-risk bets when under financial pressure and surrounded by other males of similar status.

As for women, their risk-taking was unaffected by this kind of peer pressure...

I’m skeptical of any effort to force banks to accept more women (one woman on the board for every $100 million handout?). But looking at the evidence of how homogeneous groups go astray, let’s all hope that banks seek a little more diversity on their own — just as desperately as they’re seeking bailouts.

Heard of stem rust? You should

It's not just superbugs (bacteria) resisting antibiotics that can threated the health and welfare of humanity, it's previously defeated scourges of agriculture.  Stem rust is one of the most virulent killers of wheat - a staple of human existinence.  Wheat was bred to resist the worst stem rusts in the 1950s, an effort that won the lead researcher, Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize. 

Unfortunately, stem rust is resurgent and the re-engineeerd variety of wheat is no longer resistant.  The rust has serious implications, with a potential to reduce world wheat harvests by 10 percent.
The looming catastrophe can be avoided if the world’s wheat scientists pull together to develop a new generation of stem-rust-resistant varieties of wheat. But scientists must quickly turn their attention to replacing almost all of the commercial wheat grown in the world today.

This is similar to the threat to bananas, where the only variety shipped around the world could be ruined by a leaf fungus.

Good bye banana?

You may not realize it, but nearly every banana you've ever eaten is genetically identical.  Born and bred to be tasty, ship internationally, and to be resistant to a leaf fungus that almost completely destroyed international banana trade in the 1950s.  This banana is called the Cavendish, and it's now threatened by the same kind of fungus that did in its predecessor, the Gros Michel (which apparently was bigger and tastier).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What's my peak electric load?

Google simplified web searches and now they're hoping to demystify electricity use in the home.  They are currently piloting a program called Power Meter that will give people a real-time assessment of their electricity use. 

Hat tip to Triple Pundit for their coverage and the nice chart.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Economy needs a bigger stimulus

The leading economists have noted that the U.S. economic trajectory looks an awful lot like Japan in the 1990s, a time called "The Lost Decade."  Poor economic performance created a spiral of deflation and recession.  The Japanese stock index is still 67% off its 1989 high.

Nicholas Kristof notes that part of the problem is the attitude:
Japan also underscored that you can’t resolve a crisis when the public is more interested in punishing banks than rescuing them. That’s why I suggested tarring and feathering a group of prominent bankers. Populist rage then would be satisfied, and we could get on with reviving the banks.

He's kidding (I think), but he offers these thoughts:

Tom Peters, a management expert, suggests capping the pay of C.E.O.’s receiving bailouts at that of a four-star general. As for the concern that the executives would quit, who cares? Mr. Peters writes that if all the top executives of the Fortune 500 companies were exiled to Elba, “performance of their companies would not on average deteriorate.”

As Representative Barney Frank asked the bankers testifying on the Capitol Hill dunk-tank on Wednesday about their bonuses: “Why do you need to be bribed to have your interests aligned with the people who are paying your salary?”
More to the point, Kristof notes that we give away $20 billion in tax breaks to corporations, subsidizing inflated executive paychecks.  That's dumb - no wonder Americans don't care much for a bailout.

The evidence suggests that the best way to clean house is nationalize the banks.  Sound socialist?  In a good economy, a healthy bank will buy a failing one, take ownership, and clean house.  Problem is, there are no healthy banks, at least not of the size to save the four biggest U.S. banks, in need of $450 billion.

It's time for some market action, led by government.  Citizens become the shareholders, we clean house, and then sell the shares when the bank recovers (likely recovering most of the government's investment).  Why is this so bad?

In case you've heard of global cooling

There are some nutters out there who not only want to deny global warming, but claim that there was some sort of scientific consensus on the subject back in the 1970s.

If you've heard of global cooling or particularly that claim, you need to read why global cooling is a farce, and there's a scientific consensus on global warming.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thanks a thousand

I saw the movie Bucket List tonight and highly recommend it.  The highlight for me was a terminally ill Jack Nicholson relaying this advice about age to Morgan Freeman:
Here's something to remember when you're older Thomas - never pass up a bathroom, never waste a hard-on, and never trust a fart.
On that note, this is my 1000th blog post.  This blog started nearly four years ago, almost four years to the day before the due date of my first child (it's a boy).  We'll see how much longer it lasts after that...

In the spirit of the thousandth post, here's a few highlights from history for the more recent reader:
Anyway, thanks for continuing to read. 


Friday, February 13, 2009

Wishful thinking

(phrase) Hoping for a socially good outcome when evidence suggests otherwise.


The United States has enough land, water and transport capability to make cellulosic ethanol that could displace one-third of its gasoline needs in 2030, according to a study by a government laboratory, in partnership with General Motors.

But the study does not say how to actually make the fuel.
  [end trite transmission]

I work in the renewable energy field and have a fair amount of experience with technology adoption and policy strategies.  Cellulosic ethanol (ethanol from grasses, trees, waste instead of corn) is hailed as the solution to getting off foreign oil, using cleaner fuel, and avoided the (specious) food v. fuel debate.*

The problem is that nobody knows exactly how to do it.  We have options:

a) break down the biomass with acid and enzymes to release the complex sugars, and then ferment sugars to make ethanol.  Problems: you need very uniform feedstock because it's difficult to engineer an enzyme that works with many different kinds. 

b) gasification.  We can gasify biomass and create various compounds that can be cracked (a la refineries) into various products.  Ethanol is not really the first thing you get, but it can be made from the gaseous products.  This system has a higher capital cost than (a), which is already at least five times higher than corn ethanol.  Plus, it may actually be easier to turn biomass into diesel than ethanol - although this makes integration into our fuel mix easier, it does not make our fuel any cleaner.

In short, we are hinging our hopes for fuel independence on a technology that is very complex, has yet to reach commercialization, and for which we have no readily available production and distribution network.  Corn ethanol, anyone?

*Note: ethanol from corn can contribute to an increased price for feed corn, which can in turn increase the price of meat and processed food, including such goodies as high fructose corn syrup.  If you combine the American obesity epidemic with Economics 101, this is a Good Thing.

*Other note: the major problem with corn ethanol is that growing corn is a fossil fuel intense activity.  The energy return on energy invested is positive, but not by much.  Research suggests we get - at best - 2 units of energy back for every 1 we put into corn ethanol.  Oil returns 10-to-1, so modern civilization is going to slow down a lot if we have to rely on corn ethanol for transportation.

Redlining hasn't left

In the "good old days," whites kept minorities out of their neighborhoods by deliberate discrimination, with banks refusing to lend to blacks who wanted to buy homes in predominantly white areas.  While civil rights laws have prohibited that particular practice, financial institutions have continued to redline.

The ratio of rejection for African American is 3, even 4-to-1 compared to whites. 
At the highest income level measured - $157,000 - for every four African American home loan purchase applications rejected only one white applicant was rejected. 
By contrast African Americans and other minorities are much more likely to get costly subprime deals. Again at the highest income level the ratio of African Americans with subprime home purchase loans is 6-to-1 compared to whites. 
And of the 25 largest metropolitan areas, which might you expect to have the worst racial record?  New Orleans?  Atlanta?  No.
Minneapolis.  Way to go, Minnesota Nice.

Coal: an increasingly clean energy source

In the case of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, the waste had been accumulating for half a century. The mountain of sludge covered more than 100 acres and rose 65 feet into the air before an earthen dam burst, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that fouled homes and about 300 acres, as well as a river...

"The prevailing myth is that it's safe," Schaeffer says. "We have EPA buying into that for years and really refusing to regulate this material for what it is, which is highly toxic ash that leashes metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury into drinking water and rivers and creeks."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lemon socialism

When the federal government considers a bold action into the market, there's an oft-heard complaint of "socialism."  Here's something worse: when government intervenes in a market such that the taxpayers get the risk and the capitalists get the benefits. 

Sound like a bum deal? 

Paul Krugman thinks he's hearing a lot of "lemon socialist" commentary from the Obama administration. 

Question: what happens if you lose vast amounts of other people’s money? Answer: you get a big gift from the federal government — but the president says some very harsh things about you before forking over the cash.

C'mon, I voted for change!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The paradox of thrift

NY Times economist Paul Krugman notes that the personal savings rate is rising - Americans are starting to save money again - but that incomes are falling faster, creating the thrift paradox:

Consumers are pulling back because they’ve realized that they’re too far in debt. The economy is shrinking in large part because consumers are pulling back. And the result, almost surely, is to leave household balance sheets worse than ever.

In other words, the debt to income ratio actually grows, because incomes are falling faster than spending.  What has to happen to improve the balance sheet (in the aggregate), is for incomes to rise and for people to sock away their excess earnings or pay down debt. 

Disclaimer: this is a macroeconomic problem and not an individual one.  Obviously if a household has had stable income and then cuts spending, they will save money.  What's happening is that layoffs and pay cuts are reducing income - overall - faster than Americans have reduced debt.