Battlepanda: August 2005


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Dude, I just said that!

Weird. I write a post about the problems with the NPT, Matthew Yglesias writes a post about the problems with the NPT.

Now, if only I could figure out how to get his sitemeter numbers...

Bright & Breezy

(Posted by John.)

Before we begin with the renewables, we should ask ourselves a question: Seeing as we have to rebuild our energy infrastructure almost whole, what should our criteria for new energy sources be?

I think a fair list of criteria would have to include the following:

1) The proposed energy source should be abundant. It doesn't do us any good if we invest trillions in new infrastructure costs, only to have a limited supply run out on us. “Abundant” should mean that a new source of energy can both meet current demand, and allow for substantial growth among developing nations, without expiring.

2) It should be as clean as possible. As a baseline, as clean or cleaner than oil should be our minimum standard. Our current energy mix is already killing thousands of people a year in pollution. It doesn't make any sense to go backwards.

3) It should be as safe as possible. Safe and Clean do not always mean the same thing. Modern coal plants (and the more advanced coal mines) are extremely safe in the immediate sense, but contribute massively to pollution. Nuclear is clean, but poses a non-trivial security problem.

4) It should be affordable. We could mine oil shale from the asteroids if we wanted – it wouldn't exactly make sense to.

A final criteria that isn't a deal-breaker, but is desirable is this:

5) If possible, a new source of energy should be well-distributed around the world. We've seen what geographic concentrations of energy resources has done to the world – the US is essentially playing gas station manager to the world by protecting some rather unsavory oil regimes, Saudi Arabia being first among them. It should be said that the world benefits from the US playing this role, so we shouldn't wag our fingers too much. If possible, it would be best if new energy sources were available to all countries, not concentrated in the hands of a select few.

If you have problems with these criteria, I'd like to hear criticisms. I don't want to be accused of stacking the deck, after all.

But looking at these criteria, we can see that all fossil fuels are essentially out of consideration. With oil and natural gas already running low, we can make up some of our demand with coal – but coal simply cannot meet the needs of a growing global economy.

Now, nuclear is another story. Properly used, nuclear could conceivably provide all of our energy for us for millenia. So check on abundance. Similarly, it's one of the cleanest sources of electricity we have using current technology. So check on clean, too. But safety, affordability, and distribution are serious problems. Nuclear waste and proliferation are essentially insoluble problems, no matter how good your plants are. As for affordability, a proper nuclear plant is always going to be a major expense – they are large, complicated buildings that require constant attention, if not supervision. Finally, distribution of Uranium around the world is almost as uneven as distribution of oil and coal. Does it make sense to give up one simple form of imported energy for a more expensive, complicated form of imported energy? Not really.

Meanwhile, when we look at the renewable options on the table, things suddenly look brighter. Solar and Wind energy are abundant – the US could run it's entire economy off of either of these options, much less both. Sunlight in particular is a simply staggering supply of energy – something like 6,000 times our daily energy consumption reaches the Earth's surface every day. So there's plenty of room for growth. More importantly, some of the sunniest places on Earth are also still very poor. Solar energy gives Africa and South America a chance for real development.

Wind power is currently the cheapest of renewable energies, and continues to expand by leaps and bounds. Spain installed more than 2 gigawatts of wind capacity last year alone- a 30% increase in one year! Germany still leads the way in overall capacity, with Denmark leading in % of total consumption. There's plenty of wind, too – something like 5 times current world energy demand. Just about enough to meet the needs of 9 billion well-off consumers by 2050.

Now it's not all rosy. The biggest problem with wind and solar is their intermittency – that is, what happens when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. Given the generally poor shape of the electric grid in North America, it could cause serious problems to have a high percentage of our electrical production constantly turning off and on all the time.

There's some additional concerns about wind, namely a) that it kills birds, and b) that it's well, ugly. The bird concern, while real, is vastly overstated, especially compared to other aspects of modern life that are avian-hostile. At the absolute worst, wind power would kill a small fraction of the fowl that our pet cats do, or our glass buildings.

The ugliness problem is somehow the bigger problem in getting major new wind farms approved in the US. The most famous case is that of Cape Wind, the effort to build a wind farm off of Cape Cod. I was saddened to see RFK Jr. leading the opposition to this recently, proclaiming that “some views are too good to ruin”. Frankly, I find wind turbines very appealing, so this whole issue is a bit confusing to me. Certainly, the implications of a wind turbine are less nasty than a coal plant.

But the problem of volume still applies – we need lots of energy, fast, if we're going to avert a major calamity. Can we build wind and solar power quickly enough to meet demand? Despite my general optimism, I don't think so. The amounts needed are simply too large. Renewables are growing incredibly fast – solar grew more than 60% in 2004! - but they still make such a small overall percentage. And solar and wind still don't directly address the problem of liquid fuels, which is after all the critical problem of peak oil.

The only way we're going to escape this problem is by thinking different about how we use energy.

More on Nuclear

(Posted by John.)

An additional point about nuclear energy that I neglected to make yesterday.

Any future is which nuclear energy plays a large role is going to be more dangerous than a future in which nuclear is slowly fazed out. This is because of a very simple reason - the line between acceptable civilian uses of nuclear power and unacceptable uses is very small, and a lot greyer than you might imagine. The founding mission of the IAEA was originally to spread civilian nuclear technologies. Later, with the non-proliferation treaty, the IAEA was also given the duty of restricting nuclear weapons technology. That these goals are contradictory is not often stated, but they really are.

The problem with our current non-proliferation regime is not countries like North Korea, Pakistan, or even Iran. The problem with our policies is countries like Japan. Japan is a signatory to the NPT, is vocally in favour of nuclear disarmament, and despite living next to three nuclear-armed states with a history of hostilities, Japan hasn't yet succumbed and devised it's own nuclear deterrent. But if they wanted to, Japan could have nuclear weapons within a year.

This is precisely because of our nuclear regime, not in spite of it.

Now, I'm not saying Japan is going to go nuts and start threatening the US with nuclear hellfire. But the point is, so long as we accept a legitimate role for nuclear power, a country can get 90-95% of the way towards a weapons program within existing treaties. Iran, despite the US's claims, has not yet violated the NPT. Indeed, when Iran was run by the Shah, the US was enthusiastically in support of it's developing nuclear power. One wonders what the US would think of Saudi Arabia developing nuclear power today. How dangerous a world would we live in if Saudi Arabia were - possibly with US assistance - to develop 90% of the infrastructure necessary for a nuclear weapons program, only to have a coup place hardcore bin Ladenites in power? Seeing as Pakistan is already tottering on the edge, this is something we need to be serious about.

Any future in which nuclear plays a role will encourage proliferation. It's that simple.

Seriously, Though

(Posted by John.)

New Orleans deserves more than a snarky slap at Bush. We're now looking at 100+ dead. We're also seeing what I hope should be the disintegration of the Bush Mystique.

Since 9/11, the American people have been lulled in to believing that Bush was a leader. This illusion never had much credibility to it - what, he went to New York? Hugged a fire fighter? Please.

In reality, everything Bush has done post- 9/11 has been just as rudderless as the Administration was pre-9/11. Sure, they went to war in Afghanistan - but so poorly that the Taliban was able to beat the US Army in combat at the Shah i Kot valley. Iraq was already the goal, and they focused on it like a laser - to the detriment of actually preparing for the victory. Any half-baked rationale that could buy Bush the approval rating he needed for war was used, often several contradictory ones. This administration is excellent at setting goals - as Atrios puts it: Mars, Bitches! - but has never, ever had the ability to actually achieve on them.

Why? Because leadership is more than setting goals for your subordinates. Leadership requires constant attention, wisdom, and guidance. Bush has said that his favourite political philosopher is Christ. Assuming that's sincere, and not just red meat for the fundies, Bush should know about leadership. Christ called himself the Good Shepherd. Because of it's context, the Bible uses a lot of images from animal herding - the most famous is probably "spare the rod, spoil the child." "The rod" has often been misread as a stick with which to beat your children - the bible would therefore be condoning child abuse. There's a more humane reading, however.

The Rod is a symbol not of authority or domination, but of experience. A Shepherd doesn't beat his animals, he guides them. A good Shepherd doesn't simply set a goal, yell at the herd, and blame someone else when the sheep don't move. A Good Shepherd puts more work in to the process than the goal. The Shepherd, exhausted from his work, never complains "being a shepherd is hard work!" The Shepherd, lost on a hillside, never says "We got bad intelligence." The Shepherd, his flock attacked by wolves, doesn't yell "Bring it on!"

Bush was never a leader - not once, and not even by his own standards. Admittedly, Jesus sets a pretty high bar. But Bush knew that before he signed up.

I'm Just Saying

(Posted by John)

For the Chinese, a major city being destroyed by a flood would have been a sure sign that the Emperor had lost the mandate of heaven.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Glowing Hot

(Posted by John)

Forget about nuclear winter; these days it feels like nuclear spring. Early signs point to a global renaissance in fission power. Twenty-four nuclear power plants are being built abroad. Well-organized U.S. utilities are identifying sites at existing nuclear power plants where new reactors might be built and asking the U.S. Congress to provide generous subsidies to help. And all of this is happening without the kind of groundswell of public opposition to nuclear power witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yes, it's a boom time for opinions about nuclear power. I didn't invest in tech stocks, so I might as well throw in with this bubble while I can.

Nuclear makes up 17% of electrical generation worldwide. But the new nuclear boosters would have you believe that's going to change, and soon. A recent Wired article is probably the best example of nuclear optimism.
That's not nearly enough. We should be shooting to match France, which gets 77 percent of its electricity from nukes. It's past time for a decisive leap out of the hydrocarbon era, time to send King Coal and, soon after, Big Oil shambling off to their well-deserved final resting places - maybe on a nostalgic old steam locomotive.

Besides, wouldn't it be a blast to barrel down the freeway in a hydrogen Hummer with a clean conscience as your copilot? Or not to feel like a planet killer every time you flick on the A/C? That's how the future could be, if only we would get over our fear of the nuclear bogeyman and forge ahead - for real this time - into the atomic age.(emphasis added)
That's the key passage, isn't it? How great would it be if we could do whatever we want without consequence? Of course, given the fatality rates for accidents with hummers it's hard to believe that's even possible.

But let's remember the basics about nuclear. Nuclear fission boils water, turns turbines, and makes electricity. In the process, it makes no CO2 (hooray!) but does produce nuclear waste (boo!) How much waste it makes depends on whether or not the fuel is reprocessed. The US stopped reprocessing it's fuel in the 1970s. France reprocesses all of it's fuel, and has much smaller needs for waste disposal.

France is basically the poster child for the nuclear industry these days - almost 80% of France's electricity comes from nuclear, and France's industry is renowned for it's safety and reliability. France exports a large amout of it's nuclear electricity to Germany, making a mockery of Germany's Greens to reduce their nuclear usage.

Of course, France is just about the only country that we can point to with such a positive record. Japan had ambitions similar to France's in the 1980s, until a number of scandals in that country's nuclear industry halted construction. There were fires, worker incompetence, and a number of other problems. The US, Canada, and Russia have all had a long history of problems. For every Chernobyl, there's a less-dramatic Three Mile Island. For every Three Mile Island, there's dozens of near-misses. While France is the exception, the rule of nuclear generation has been a pretty uncertain story.

But with new "Fourth Generation" reactors, there's hope to change all that. New passively safe designs, the nuclear industry hopes to make plants that are safe, cheap, and clean. However, there are some problems here, too. One of the most well-known proposals is the Pebble Bed reactor. It's a promising technology, but it's advocates have to answer a few questions. First off, the "pebbles" in the name are spheres of Uranium encased in graphite. Graphite is flammable, and is indeed the element which burned in the Chernobyl fire. Most PBR proposals involve using helium or another inert gas as an operating gas, so this shouldn't be a problem in normal operation. But nuclear reactors need to be designed for the abnormal times, too. And despite PBR's advocates' claims, PBR is not accident proof. Germany's PBR program was shut down after a 1986 accident caused by a jammed pebble. In any case, PBR reactors will produce more waste, albeit less hazardous waste.

There are other proposed designs, but it's hard to believe that they won't face serious challenges too. And we need to keep in mind that nuclear plants can take years - up to a decade - to build. Given that the energy problems we face are short term, nuclear might not be able to make up the demand we need. All this said, if nuclear were our only option, I'd be in favour of it. Nuclear is CO2-free, and could at the very least be made safe and affordable - though affordable might still mean more expensive than we think. But at the end of the day, even the best nuclear energy is going to produce a waste legacy that will last at least centuries, if not millenia.

Meanwhile, wind power is already cheaper than nuclear. Say that to yourself, again. Wind power is already cheaper than nuclear. Solar power is coming down quickly in price, and companies are already selling modules that are cheaper than nuclear. Another few years - shorter than we can build a single reactor - and rooftop solar panels will be cheaper than nuclear. And there's at least the possibility (if the guys at nanosolar can work their voodoo) that solar can outcompete even nasty old coal.

But both wind and solar have their problems too, which we'll deal with in the next post.

By The Way...

(Posted by John)

Just in case you thought Peak Oil was the only problem we faced, this profile of Bill McDonough would like to correct you:
McDonough noted that in California, the $2.99 bath toy comes with a warning. Toxic chemicals in that sweet, squishy body have been known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

"What kind of society would make something like this to put in the mouths of children?" McDonough demanded. "Design is the first signal of human intention. What is your intention?"

No designer rose to defend the duck.

McDonough moved on to the usual suspects: belching smokestacks, chemical fumes in carpets, hazardous high-tech garbage. IQs are declining in industrial Ohio. A graveyard of plastics is growing in the Pacific Ocean. Acidification is turning coral, the bottom of the food chain, to jelly....

How much time before we self-destruct?

"Twenty years," McDonough guessed. "We have 20 years to figure this out. We have to work quickly, we have to work systematically, we have to integrate this into everything we do."
So many problems, so little time...

Peak Oil: What We Can Do

(Posted by John)

If the optimists are right and Peak Oil is two decades or more away, we're in a really good position. We've got time to turn our motor fleet off of oil, and begin working hard on squeezing the carbon out of our energy diet. But there's something that needs to be said - even if Peak Oil doesn't come until 2030, we need to start now if we want to avoid severe economic problems. This is confirmed by a Department of Energy report (warning - large PDF) which states very clearly that, unless we get our economies off of oil, we face very serious problems - possibly worse than the Great Depression. The simple reason for this is that replacing two hundred million motor vehicles (the US fleet) takes time. If we're caught without adequate substitutes, we're looking at a decade or more of fuel shortages.

So what are the options? There are three usual answers: Better oil recovery, alternative sources of oil, or non-oil substitutes. But the first two answers are problematic.

Better oil recovery in particular is unlikely to save us. The example of the United States is instructive. After peaking in 1971, US production never, ever reached that point again. The US hasn't managed to even halt the decline in it's production. This is in the richest, most advanced oil-producing nation in the world. It should be said, however, that this has been in a world with cheap oil production overseas - it's at least theoretically possible that once the oil industry realizes that the party's over they'll put more money towards better recovery. At the same time, it's not like oil companies have been short of funds lately - if there were ways of getting more oil out of old fields, it's hard to believe they wouldn't have found them already. Still, it's something to keep in mind.

The second usual answer is unconventional oil. This includes most famously the Alberta Tar Sands, but basically any oil that isn't crude. Here there are other problems. The Tar Sands have been written about quite a lot, with the Premier of Alberta in particular trying to secure more investment for his province with some lofty predictions about Alberta being the new Saudi Arabia. The problem with Tar Sands is that as much oil as there is, it isn't a way of producing oil in large volumes - Alberta currently produces about 600,000 barrels of synthetic crude per day from the tar sands, or 1/170th of world production. This is after several billion dollars worth of investment.

The other problem with the Tar Sands is that it currently takes more energy to make Tar Sands oil then the oil actually produces - and the currently "profitable" prices for synthetic crude were entirely dependent on cheap natural gas - cheap natural gas that no longer exists in North America. It is seriously questionable whether we will ever get more oil out of the tar sands then we do now. Tar Sands optimists need to show either a) where the new natural gas is coming from, or b) what new processes will be used to make the synthetic crude. Even with these challenges, oil optimists predict that Alberta will make roughly 3 million barrels of synthetic crude by 2020. Hardly enough to stave off disaster.

Another potential source of oil is coal. Using chemistry that dates back to the interwar period, it is possible to convert coal (as well as natural gas) to synthetic crude. This chemistry, known as the Fisher-Tropsch process, has a long history and is well-understood. But there's two points to make here. First, F-T chemistry has historically only been used by regimes that had no other choice - Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa being most notable. The fact that it's being talked about seriously is a sign of desperation, not progress. Secondly, while coal reserves are big, they're not nearly big enough - as we saw earlier, if coal has to support both oil and natural gas consumption, it won't last more than three decades.

So that's it, really - there's no way that oil is going to outlast the next three decades, at least not at close to the current level of production. So we need to look at non-oil substitutes. How do we kick the habit?

Well, the hardest thing to say is that, in all likelihood, the market will take care of the problem for us - but not the way the optimists usually predict. Rather, we're going to see a lot of "demand destruction" in the next few decades - code words for recessions. People who can't afford to drive, won't. Currently, American consumers are putting more and more of their gas purchases on credit cards - a really bad sign. In the next few years, we're going to see a lot of people either give up their cars or give up on other purchases to maintain those cars. Look for declining consumer spending as gas prices head up.

After recession, the only thing that can make a serious dent in our oil consumption quickly is getting people out of cars. This may very well mean forcing people out of cars, and in to mass transit. And I do mean force. The reason for something so seemingly draconian is simple - light vehicles (cars, minivans and SUVs) make up half of US oil demand. So the largest gains are in getting people out of their cars - and conversely, attacking other uses of oil while ignoring light vehicles is really just nibbling at the edges. Unfortunately, increased fuel efficiency simply can't reduce demand quickly enough to deal with peak oil. Any number of studies have shown that, even with the most optimistic predictions, increased efficiency at best holds US consumption level. This is insufficient in a world where oil supplies are contracting. We need to get people off out of their cars entirely. They might even thank us for it - they'd have more money in their pockets, after all was said and done.

Aside from transportation, the other sector that is most vulnerable to oil prices is agriculture. Here, the solution is relatively simple - go organic. Given that organic farming is already spreading at double-digit rates and can now deliver yields within 10% of conventional farming - albeit at higher prices - this is something that almost makes too much sense to ignore. As oil prices climb, we'll see conventionally-farmed food become less competitive with organic food, simply because organic food doesn't require the assorted oil-based fertilizers, pesticides, other inputs. Organic food will obviously still have to be brought to your local store, so I wouldn't bet on Canadians seeing a lot of fresh Mexican fruit in the winter for a while - it will simply be too expensive.

I've focused on these two sectors because a) they're the most immediately affected by oil prices, and b) they're the ones closest to consumers. But peak oil will send shockwaves throughout the economy. Going organic and getting on the bus is a beginning, but we need a long-term plan to get off of oil entirely. For that, we need to deal with the other stores at our intersection - Glowing Hot, Bright & Breezy, and the herbal remedy coop. We need to figure out what won't work, what will, and start building towards what will, now. Predicting the future is dangerous business, but in the next few posts I want to try and show why nuclear and hydrogen are dangerous diversions, and why the future will likely be either biofueled or electric.

Pat Buchanan: Still A Nut

(Posted by John)

For a while, a bunch of leftists were really enjoying what came out of Pat's mouth. I don't imagine we'll be seeing that again soon.
Pat Buchanan, a leading conservative pundit and former presidential adviser, quietly suggested House Republicans mull impeaching President Bush -- though not for the liberals' cause celebre, Iraq -- but rather for what he sees as Bush's 'criminal' failure to stem the tide of illegal immigrants, RAW STORY has discovered.

"We are being invaded," the reactionary Republican declared in his column Monday, "and the president of the United States is not doing his duty to protect the states against that invasion."
Say it with me people: Culture war!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Ah, Weddings

(Posted by John)

Vicki and I went to our third wedding this summer last saturday, and our second Chinese wedding this month. (My third overall.) Some thoughts:

1) Chinese food isn't weirder than western food, just more honest. If you can't handle the fact that chickens and fish have faces, then join a PETA rally, pinko.

2) I think I'm becoming an honorary Chinese person - picky eaters are really starting to offend my sensibilities.

3) We need an international treaty time-limiting thank you speeches. Desperately.

4) Until this summer, I'd managed to go without learning how to properly tie a necktie. Damn you, repeated weddings! Make me learn a new skill!

5) I think it's in fact impossible for new brides to look anything other than good, but if people have contrary evidence I'd love to hear it.

Finally, Peak Oil

(Posted by John)

(Part of a series. Earlier posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4.

If you're watching the news today, you'll notice that New Orleans is facing the punishment of God for it's sinful ways. (You know that's what Pat Robertson is thinking.) As bad is this is for the people who live in New Orleans (and I do hope we don't see any more deaths) there's some things we should consider for oil prices. Katrina hit land sometime this morning, and when it did something like a quarter or third of US oil imports were hit with an incredibly powerful force of nature. This is why oil just hit $70 tonight in Asian trading.

Why did this happen? After all, this is hardly the first time a hurricane has hit the Gulf of Mexico - even if this is unusually strong. The root cause is that at this moment, there is zero slack in the oil market. Demand is actually exceeding supply slightly, so when something like this act of God hits, the entire market is thrown in to chaos. Why is there zero slack? Well, this is where we get in to the subject of Peak Oil, or Hubbert's Peak.

When we looked at reserve/consumption ratios, I said this is the wrong way to look at fossil fuel usage. The important number, when we're talking about oil, is not how much oil is left in the ground but how much oil we can actually pump out of the ground on any given day. Currently, we use 85 million barrels of oil globally every day. We pump slightly less out of the ground every day, meaning we're currently depleting existing stocks. (This is a bad thing on it's own - winter's coming, and normally we'd be trying to build up stocks for heating homes in the US northeast.) There are serious questions being asked about how we're going to meet oil demand in the 4th quarter of 2005. So why can't we just ramp up production? Well, because unlike previous shortages, there's no new capacity to build. Time was, back when the price of oil got too high, the Saudis would open up some more supply. Everyone is currently producing flat out, and has been for most of the last 2 years. There's no extra tap we can turn on this time.

When an oilfield is first discovered and pumping begins, oil output begins climbing very quickly. In the largest, most easily exploited fields, the oil is literally bursting from the ground. After a time, production levels off, and you get a long period of stable high output. But then something happens, usually when you've half-emptied the oilfield. Underground pressure begins to drop, and suddenly the oil output falls off dramatically. You can start injecting gas or water in to the field to keep the pressure high, thus prolonging the life of the oilfield, but this doesn't last long. Eventually, the oilfield has to be abandoned because you're either a) spending more money pumping oil out then you're likely to get from it, or b) the oil simply stops coming up altogether. When you graph the production of a single well, it looks like a truncated pyramid - a sharp climb, a long flat plateau, and a sharp decline.

If you combine the output of multiple fields in your analysis (say, if you're looking at national domestic production) then the graph looks very different. The aggregate of multiple fields isn't a truncated pyramid, but rather a curve which climbs, peaks, and begins declining. The Peak is the most oil that nation will ever produce in a single day, and every day after is going to mean less and less oil from that country.

It should be stated explicitly that this isn't a theory. Nation after nation has watched it's production climb, peak, then decline. In the US, the peak happened in 1971. In China, it was earlier. In Russia, oil production peaked in 1987. Canada's conventional oils peaked in the 1970s as well. Some optimists have called Peak Oil a theory. This just isn't the case. We can argue over when the peak will come, what form it will take, how severe the decline will be, but not over the facts. Indonesia's oil production peaked in 1998, and Indonesia now imports more oil than it exports - as a member of OPEC! So clearly, The Peak is going to occur.

So The Big Question is when will The Peak arrive, with the secondary question being How Bad Will It Be? Let's take these questions in order. The two most important official bodies for estimating this kind of thing - the Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency - both have estimated oil will peak sometime in the 2020s or later. However, the DOE study was ridiculously biased, and few people take it very seriously - it assumes a 5% chance of a Saudi-sized oil field in Greenland, and bases it's projections on that.

On the other end are predictions from various geologists and petroleum engineers that we have already passed the Peak of production, or that it will occur later this year. So the extremes in this debate are either "Now" or "2030". Most of the more moderate voices I've read predict a peak in or before 2010. My personal belief is that we're almost certain to see a peak before 2010, and I'm leaning toward 2007-8. But that based only on some reading, and I'm not an engineer.

What happens then? Well, as with national production, daily oil production begins to decline. If 85 million barrels per day is our peak production, we'd see the next year decline by a certain amount, say to 84 million barrels. The year after that, we'd see 83, etc etc. (This isn't a prediction, just an example.) Now at the moment, prices are heading skyward just because supply and demand are just about equal. Imagine what happens when demand is actually substantially more than supply. Goldman Sachs has said that, with the market as tight as it is, we could face $105/barrel oil.

This brings us to the second question about Peak Oil, How Bad Will It Be? To put it another way, how severe will the decline be once it begins? This is one I'm not competent to actually predict, but let's take the extremes again. The worst case scenario is that global production begins dropping severely, in the range of 5-10% per year. Even in the low end of that range, this would mean dramatically less oil over a few years. If we lose 5% of world production, that's close to 5 million barrels of oil we lose in one year. It's difficult to see how the global economy - or any national economies - could sustain those kind of losses without collapsing.

The more optimistic scenario is a gentler decline - less than 1% per year. This is close to what the US has historically experienced (roughly 30% decline since 1971) and is obviously a lot less of a shock for the global economy. This scenario relies on high oil prices spurring much better technology to extract the remaining oil, keeping the decline much shallower than it would otherwise be.

But, even in this "optimistic" scenario, oil production declines and never, ever reaches it's pre-Peak levels. For a civilization based on growing oil production, this is a huge change. In the next post, I'm going to talk about what we can do about oil peaking. However, today my girlfriend and I are celebrating our fifth anniversary (though it's actually tomorrow) so the next post will be later tonight at least.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


(Posted by John)

(Part of a series. Previous posts: 1,2,3.)

A post about peak oil is coming up, but I'd like to explain why I wrote about the reserve/consumption figures so much. As is rightly pointed out by QuietStorm in comments, actual consumption is obviously going to be quite different from those numbers. So why bother? Only to show exactly how unsustainable the status quo is.

This is important, because a number of oil optimists (Michael Lynch and Daniel Yergin, to name two) have recently written very optimistic columns about the future of the oil economy. Yergin is perhaps more famous, but Lynch is more delusional - he refuses to even acknowledge the reality of peak production.

I'd like, if I may, to throw just a few more numbers at you to show how unsustainable the oil age is. Let's look at annual per person oil consumption for some of the larger economies out there.

United States: 7.1 Billion barrels per year/295 million people = 24.3 barrels per person per year.
EU: 5.3 Billion barrels per year/457 million people = 11.6 barrels per person per year.
Japan: 1.93 Billion barrels per year/127 million people = 15.2 barrels per person per year.

Now, Japan's per capita GDP is $29,500, whereas the EU's is $26,900, so we can actually say that on average the EU's oil-per-GDP is actually slightly better than Japan's, but I would say this is one of those areas where it's premature to start talking about the EU as a single entity - the variance from the mean in individual economies is likely to be too large to be useful. So here we have Japan which uses a bit more than 60% of the oil the US does per person, while getting about 75% of the GDP. (GDP could be the wrong measure to use - most of Japan's quality of life indicators are substantially better than the US.) Japan may very well be the most oil-efficient economy in the developed world.

But what if we have to allow for growth? What if China wants a standard of living equal to Japans - which they manifestly do? Well, we'd need to find an extra 20 billion barrels of oil per year. If India wants in, we need another 20. If we could bring every person on the planet to the level of Japan - including bringing the EU slightly up, and the US way down - we'd need almost 100 billion barrels of oil per year, or a production of 270 million barrels per day. This is more than triple what we currently consume.

There is simply no way - no physical way whatsoever - that the human race will ever make even half that much oil per year. If we could, it would deplete global reserves in 10 years, or 20 if we take the absurdly optimistic projection of 2 trillion recoverable barrels.

Oil is not, and cannot be, the basis for a growing global economy in the 21st century. Now, it gets even worse when we start talking about Peak Oil. And I swear that's actually coming next. But I've got a wedding to go to, so you'll all have to wait.

Phone Rage

Angelica here. Just thought I'd drop in to give you folks a glimpse of the nightmare that was yesterday. To cut a long story short, don't EVER purchase paper ticket on-line and then neglect to mention that your current address is all the way down the eastern seaboard from your billing address. The below is mostly written to vent my anguish at the whole de-humanizing process of rectifying that one stupid mistake. It's the best I can do in lieu of finding whoever invented the whole automated-voice-system/hive o' customer reps paradigm and beating them savagely. And damn you, damn you Aer Lingus, for not issuing e-tickets.
[Angelica, upon realizing with horror that her non-refundable paper tickets are in a FedEx office in West Hatfield, MA rather than on its way to her in North Carolina. She calls Orbitz. The automated phone system asked her for her home number, then proceeded to read her her itinerary slowly, stop by stop with all her flight details. Each time she attempted to reach a live person by punching in zero, the system rebuffed her manouvres by reading her itinerary again...from the top. Resisting the urge to smash the cordless handset, Angelica holds on until she is finally connected to a rep.]

First Customer Rep: How can I help you?

Angelica: [explains situation with misdirected tickets] I know it was stupid of me. But what do I do now?

First Customer Rep: I would suggest that you call FedEx and get it sorted out from their end.

[Angelica calls FedEx]

FedEx Rep: Silly Angelica. You don't have the power to re-route the package. You're the recipient. Call Orbitz and get them to do it.

[Angelica calls Orbitz again]

Second sales rep: Sure...we can do that for you...hold please [Angelica placed on hold for 15 minutes]...There's a charge associated with overnighting the package to a different location.

Angelica: I'll pay it. Whatever it is. [Angelica is placed on hold for another 5 minutes]

Second sales rep: Actually, it turns out we can't do that for you after all. FedEx won't accept a second source of payment on the same package.

Angelica: Why can't you charge the extra to the Orbitz account and have me pay you? You have my credit card on file.

Second sales rep: We can't do that.

Angelica: That's what the FedEx people said I should do.

Second sales rep: Well, they don't know our computer system. We can't do that.

Angelica: So, what should I do?

Second sales rep: We will re-route it through our internal re-routing system at no charge to you. But that's slower so we can't guarentee that the tickets get there by Monday.

Angelica: What if it doesn't?

Second sales rep: You need to go to the Aer Lingus counter and fill out a lost ticket application.

Angelica: But there is no Aer Lingus counter until I get to Boston. What do I do about the first leg of my journey?

Second sales rep: Erm...

Angelica: How about if I drive to Boston ahead of time?

Second sales rep: You can't do that. If you're not there for the first leg of your journey, they can cancel your whole itinerary.

Angelica: So what am I supposed to do?

Second sales rep: Well, you can buy another one-way ticket from Raleigh to Boston on the same flight to prevent them from cancelling the rest of your itinerary. It's the only way.

Angelica: That's *&^%*&! [rant ensues]

[Later, Angelica is on the phone with a third Orbitz sales rep.]

Third sales rep: If you want to forfeit the first leg of your journey, just let them know ahead of time and it should be no problem

Angelica: Oh.

Third sales rep: Or you can just get U.S. air to issue e-tickets for you instead. That way you can fly to Boston on your day of travel and file your lost ticket application there.

Angelica: Why didn't you tell me that in the first place?
Of course, he couldn't have told me that in the first place because I was talking with another rep who told me something completely different. But by this point in time I'm really not thinking logically anymore. Despite (or perhaps because of) how I totally lost it with the second rep (the one who told me I had to buy another ticket on the same flight I've already got a ticket for), she actually came through for me and ended up assuring (but not promising) me that they arranged it with FedEx to get my ticket to me by 10:30a.m. Monday, in time for my 5:00p.m. flight. Let's hope this is the end of it.

Meanwhile, I just want to thank John for doing such a great job guest-blogging while I'm away. Hopefully the next time y'all hear from me, I'll be posting from England.

UPDATE: I've been tracking my tickets on FedEx. They will be here in time, thank goodness.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Please Yes Do It Now Good

(Posted by John.)

Robert Cringely on Apple's next step:
Here's where I go out on a limb, but I think Microsoft's clearest threat still comes from Apple, though not the way most people expect. Yes, Apple is about to take Microsoft to the woodshed when it comes to Internet movie distribution. Yes, Apple already super-dominates the music player market where Microsoft doesn't even really exist. But the real jewel is one Microsoft has to lose, not gain -- the PC platform, itself.

What could Apple do to take down Windows, with or without the help of Intel?...

Here are the clues. Microsoft is woefully late with its next Windows upgrade, while Apple is far ahead with even the current version of OS X. Apple is moving to Intel processors and hackers have already shown that OS X can run fine on non-Apple hardware....

Every one of those iPods is a bootable drive. What if Apple introduces OS 10.5, its next super-duper operating system release, and at the same time starts loading FOR FREE the current operating system version -- OS 10.4 -- on every new iPod in a version that runs on generic Intel boxes? What if they also make 10.4 a free download through the iTunes Music Store?

It wouldn't kill Microsoft, but it would hurt the company, both emotionally and materially. And it wouldn't hurt Apple at all. Apple hardware sales would be driven by OS 10.5 and all giving away 10.4 would do is help sell more iPods and attract more customers to Apple's store.
There's also an interesting speculation on what Google's doing these days.

But I think this could hurt Microsoft more than even Cringely thinks. I've started using a version of Linux because of my frustrations with Windows, but I don't yet have the money to pay the Apple hardware premium. I'm not the only one - there must be millions of potential users who would die for a free alternative to Windows, but want the brand reliability of an established computer company AND can't afford to replace their hardware. Releasing an Intel-compatible OS X free of charge could turn MSFT's market dominance in to a smoking crater sooner than you might think.

Talking 'Bout Depletion

(Posted by John)

(Previous posts here: 1, 2.)

Okay, so fossil fuels make up 2/3 of the Earth's energy. Oil alone makes up more than 40% of our total energy use. So it would be nice if we could be assured that all three fossil fuel sources had a long lifespan ahead of them. But they don't.

The first analysis we'll look at is the wrong one. Let's take a simple look at consumption vs. reserves. This should, at the very least, give us an idea of the lifespans of existing resources. But like I said - this analysis is the wrong way to look at things.

Start with oil. Those revolutionaries at the CIA estimate that remaining global oil reserves are just a bit over 1 trillion barrels. This is more or less the consensus figure for remaining reserves, but there are optimists out there who think the number might be as high as 2 trillion. But nobody seriously entertains the notion that there is more than that.

So that's supply. Demand, however, is busting the seams at 85 million barrels per day. Show your work everybody:

85mb/d * 365 = 31.025 billion barrels of oil a year.
1,025 billion barrels / 31.025 billion barrels per year = 33 years.

So at current usage rates, using a reasonable estimate of existing reserves, current oil demand would exhaust global supply before I'm ready to start drawing a pension. Crap.

This isn't terribly difficult math. Even some oil companies are starting to accept that the status quo is unsustainable. But let's put this very clearly: current oil reserves cannot meet current demand, much less the needs of a growing economy, for much more than a single human generation. And suddenly we have to replace or do without 40% of our current energy needs.

So let's look at the prime candidate for substitution, natural gas. NG can be used in a number of the same functions that we use oil for, including cars. It's cleaner, and more efficient. But the same math applies. Current consumption/global reserves gives us a larger number - 62 years instead of oil's 33. And this is current consumption - again, making no allowances for increased demand.

But there's an additional wrinkle for natural gas - it doesn't travel well. To be moved around, NG needs either pipelines or tankers capable of holding it at extremely low temperatures and under pressure - liquefied natural gas (LNG.) While America does get some of it's NG from overseas (12-15%), the majority of North American NG supply comes from within the continent. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the flows, either - Canada and Mexico export huge amounts of NG to the US.

The problem, however, comes from the fact - fact, not theory - that North American natural gas production has peaked. It will eventually begin to decline, meaning that shortfalls will have to be made up from increased LNG shipments. This fact has been confirmed by such anti-American radicals as Lee Raymond, former CEO of ExxonMobil. To make up the domestic shortfall, we're going to need to dramatically expand LNG infrastructure.

A further wrinkle, as if we needed one, comes from the fact that most of the world's natural gas is located in Asia. Indian and Chinese demand for NG is climbing as high or higher than their demand for oil - including recent competition over Central Asian oilfields. While the US currently imports it's largest share of LNG from that energy titan, Trinidad and Tobago, it will eventually come in to competition with the new Asian giants. Further, the US will be sending billions of dollars to places like Putin's Russia and Iran.

Finally, let's take a look at coal. Interestingly, coal consumption is the only of the three fossil fuels whose global use has actually declined over the last few decades - this despite surging Chinese demand. After peaking in the late 1980s, coal consumption is down by almost half. This doesn't seem to be a case of resource depletion - the price simply collapsed in the late 1980s, as the market embraced natural gas for new electrical production. The US is an exception to this trend, where coal production and consumption continues to grow.

How much coal is there? The US Department of Energy says roughly 1 trillion tons of coal, at a global consumption of 5.2 billion tons per year. So we've got roughly two hundred years of coal at current consumption rates. Moreover, North America is the Persian Gulf of coal, with over 25% of global reserves in the continent. This is obviously a much better scenario than oil or natural gas. Further, there is a long history of coal being used to produce liquid fuels - albeit by rather unsavoury regimes, like the Nazis or Apartheid-era South Africa. So it's possible that coal could play a much larger role in energy production - with a few catches.

First off, if coal were to take over the roles played by NG and oil, our consumption would increase by more than eight times. This turns our two centuries' of reserves in to a quarter-century, or less time than oil. This doesn't take in to account any economic growth - just substituting coal for oil and NG. It also doesn't assume any losses for the conversion of coal to liquid fuels, which there would certainly be. While a lot of people assume coal is abundant, the reality is somewhat different. Coal is abundant, but only so long as we use it at the relatively small rates we currently do. So... if we use it less, it lasts longer. Hardly enlightening.

The other big problem with coal, as mentioned before, is the problem of climate change. Coal is, pound for pound, the most CO2-producing fuel there is. (Oil use is actually responsible for more CO2 emissions overall, because of it's much higher use.) A scenario in which the world makes a large switch over to coal is a scenario in which we choose environmental calamity.

So what does this all mean? The first point is that unless we find some huge deposits of oil somewhere, oil will runout before mid-century. Natural gas will follow it shortly, especially if we factor in substitution and economic growth. We could replace these fuels with coal, but only for a few years and at tremendous environmental cost.

And all this doesn't even factor in Hubbert's Peak - the fact that the production of oil and natural gas globally will follow the trend of oil and natural gas in North America: It will peak long before it in fact runs out, and then production will begin to decline, leaving us with daily shorfalls of energy.

That's for the next post.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

On Carbon Joe

(Posted by John)

Getting back to energy issues.

Our little parable was not just an exercise in bad writing. Rather, I hope to use it as a way of organizing my thoughts on energy and the problems we face in the 21st century.

The first coffee shop we looked at was Carbon Joe's, and with good reason. Fossil-fuel sources of energy (Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas) made up 2/3 of the world's energy consumption in 2002, according to the International Energy Agency. It isn't a stretch to say that, if you live in a western economy, you shop at Carbon Joe's. However, these resources are all used for very different purposes. Energy, as you'll remember from high school, is simply the ability to do work. The three forms of fossil fuel all do very different forms of work. While I've grouped them all in to one family, this is a writer's trick and not an accurate presentation. Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas - while all made up of long-dead plants and animals - are very different in their composition and uses.

Coal is one of our largest and oldest sources of fossil-fuel energy. It currently generates 39% of the Earth's electricity, makes up more than half of US generation, and 75% of China's. Moreover, unlike the situation with our other sources of fossil fuels, coal is relatively abundant - a century or more at current usages. However, the drawbacks of coal are well known. It's very dirty, as fuel sources go, it's very inefficient, and it makes more CO2 for every watt generated than any other source of energy. In the US, old coal generators aren't covered by the Clean Air Act, and are thus capable of being as polluting as they like.

There's been some talk lately of new "Clean Coal" technologies that would magically make the US energy independent without further hurting the environment. While many of these technologies are much, much better than old coal generators, there is literally no way to prevent coal combustion from producing CO2 in large quantities. The best that could theoretically happen is finding a way to bury ("sequester") the CO2 underground, but this is a) difficult and b) likely to be more expensive than utilities would want to pay for without government twisting their arms.

Natural gas is a much cleaner, and efficient form of energy than coal. It's also been cheaper to use for the last few decades, though this is changing. Because of it's virtues, natural gas now makes up more than double the total energy consumption of coal. This contrasts with the situation thirty years ago, when coal and natural gas were roughly equal. (Note that this is energy, not electricity. Natural gas provides just a bit more than one third of coal's electricity production.) Natural gas is familiar to about 1/3 of the homes in the US, where it provides heating and cooking fuel. It has also become a useful fuel for electricity generation in recent decades, both because of it's efficiency and the small sizes NG plants can be built. Their modest sizes and agility makes NG plants perfect for producing electricity during peak hours.

Of course, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, which means it releases CO2 in smaller amounts when it's burned. Furthermore, Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas in and of itself, so much so that if even 5% of consumed natural gas escapes without being burned, the effect is actual worse for the climate. Since the dawn of the industrial age, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere has about doubled. On the plus side, methane does seem to have a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere (it reacts with oxygen, unlike CO2) so if we stopped emitting methane it would return to pre-industrial levels in a few decades.

Finally, there's the big papa - oil. For total energy use, oil is the 800-lb gorilla. Oil alone makes up 43% of world total energy consumption. Overwhelmingly, oil is used for transportation fuel - 60% of oil's end use is simply moving stuff around. These are global numbers - in the US, that figure is 70%. In some countries (primarily oil exporters) oil is used to generate electricity, but this largely came to an end in the west with the oil shocks of the 1970s. In the US today, less than 1% of electricity is generated from oil. Oil combustion is a cleaner form of energy than coal, but dirtier than natural gas.

Oil's real virtue comes from it's ease of use. Within a few years of it's first discovery in the US, many of the early techniques for refining oil had already been developed. It's high energy content and ability to be stored easily as a liquid make oil a very appealing fuel. Interestingly, gasoline was largely ignored as a motor fuel early on in favour of diesel, steam, and electricity. However, the Model T changed all that. By the 1930s gasoline was the dominant motor fuel in America. Today, diesel cars make up a small fraction of the US light-duty fleet (cars, minivans and SUVs.) This number is higher elsewhere in the world, where fuel prices are higher. Diesel is dominant in US trucking and heavy vehicles.

There is literally no substitute on the market which combines the energy content of oil with the ease of use. Natural gas is comparable in energy, but is harder to store and move. Electricity is easier to move, but harder to store (and so far impossible to store in comparable energy.) Coal is both harder to move and store, is dirtier, and doesn't hold nearly as much energy.

It's important to have a grasp of these facts before we move on to questions of resource depletion. As we'll see, none of these resources is guaranteed to last as long as we might think. For reasons that I'll get in to in the next post in this series, we will need to replace the energy we get from these fuels, and sooner than we think.

You Should Read Timothy Garton Ash

(Posted by John)

In the British case, the angst was a result of the unexpectedly protracted, bloody and costly Boer war, in which a small group of foreign insurgents defied the mightiest military the world had seen; concern about the rising economic power of Germany and the United States; and a combination of imperial overstretch with socio-economic problems at home. In the American case, it's a result of the unexpectedly protracted, bloody and costly Iraq war, in which a small group of foreign insurgents defies the mightiest military the world has seen; concern about the rising economic power of China and India; and a combination of imperial overstretch with socio-economic problems at home.

Iraq is America's Boer war. Remember that after the British had declared the end of major combat operations in the summer of 1900, the Boers launched a campaign of guerrilla warfare that kept British troops on the run for another two years. The British won only by a ruthlessness of which, I'm glad to say, the democratic, squeamish and still basically anti-colonialist United States appears incapable. In the end, the British had 450,000 British and colonial troops there (compared with some 150,000 US troops in Iraq), and herded roughly a quarter of the Boer population into concentration camps, where many died.

Ash goes on to say that we should lament, not celebrate the end of the American empire. I can't say I'm ready to weep. Ash's main point seems to be that autocratic China will replace the United States, and this is a bad thing. I disagree on two points:

First, despite the recent hype about China, there's no reason to believe that it will replace the US anytime soon as global hegemon. For the next few decades at least, China will still be a poor country in both relative and absolute terms. (In absolute terms, China's economy is just a bit bigger than Canada's.)Meanwhile, what happens inside China will be far more important to the course of the planet. I've previously written that I don't believe the Communist Party of China will survive another decade, due to increasing unrest within China. Assuming China is able to make the transition from autocratic to democratic, why should any of us fear Chinese hegemony?

Secondly, the benefits of American democracy are pretty hard to point to in the international arena. Has America's democracy forgiven African debt? Helped provide cheap AIDS drugs? Lowered tarriffs for developing countries? No, on all counts. America has been just as ruthless in pursuing it's own interests as China has been. Criticize China for buying Sudanese oil, sure. But pretending that the US has a great record in opposing tyranny post-1945 is delusional.


(Posted by John)

Gee, ya think?
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 23 - With the last of the summer blockbusters fading from the multiplex, Hollywood's box office slump has hardened into a reality that is setting the movie industry on edge. The drop in ticket sales from last summer to this summer, the most important moviegoing season, is projected to be 9 percent by Labor Day, and the drop in attendance is expected to be even deeper, 11.5 percent, according to Exhibitor Relations, which tracks the box office.

Multiples theories for the decline abound: a failure of studio marketing, the rising price of gas, the lure of alternate entertainment, even the prevalence of commercials and pesky cellphones inside once-sacrosanct theaters. But many movie executives and industry experts are beginning to conclude that something more fundamental is at work: Too many Hollywood movies these days, they say, just are not good enough.
You mean people don't want to pay $20 to see Jamie Foxx fight the robot plane? Color me surprised.

This is one of my recurring questions for theatre-owners: How do you expect to convince people of the following: 1) Paying high prices is necessary. 2) Watching 30 minutes of advertising is not annoying. 3) You should prefer to see movies in the theatre, despite the excellent (and improving) quality of home entertainment systems.

Forget the quality of films for a moment - though I think that's important. Anyone with Bittorrent can download their favourite TV shows without commercials. People who buy DVDs are used to skipping ads and previews. People with Tivos have all sorts of neat goodies. Meanwhile, the theatres are getting more hostile to their customers, not less.

The movie industry has a choice, which it is currently debating: Either continue to support money-losing movie theatre releases, or make theatre and DVD releases simultaneous. Making DVD releases simultaneous is being called a "death threat" by theatre owners, but fundamentally this isn't in their hands anymore. I would bet on studios abandoning theatre owners before the decade is out.

Four Corners

(Posted by John)

Before we get in to the details and the scope of the energy problems we face, I'd like to start off with a parable, and apologies to Neal Stephenson, from whom I steal this literary device.

Imagine yourself at an intersection in a busy city. Every morning, people come through this intersection looking to wake themselves up.

On the first corner is Carbon Joe's Coffee. Carbon Joe has provided the city with cheap, highly-caffeinated coffee for generations. However, it also has the unfortunate side effect of making Joe's customers extremely gassy. It's gotten so bad that on some days you have to hold your breath to stand in line. Also, the once-cheap coffee has recently gotten more expensive, because of increasing consumption and turmoil in Colombia. Finally, there's the problem of litter - Joe's paper cups are showing up everywhere in the city, making the parks and steets increasingly unusable. Carbon Joe's management deny any involvement in the increasing litter problem, and a number of suspiciously well-funded think tanks have argued that there is no litter problem, or that increasing litter is a natural phenomena having to do with the cycle of the sun.

Fed up with the line-ups, litter and gas at Carbon Joe's, a few people have crossed the street to Glowing Hot Coffee. The original owner of Glowing Hot thought he had a great plan: Take a recipe originally developed by the US taxpayer for the military, and turn it to civilian uses. The first Glowing Hot franchise opened in Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957. For a while, it looked like it might even work - one government official said Glowing Hot could make coffee "too cheap to meter." Then the problems started. A coffee machine in another Pennsylvania franchise nearly exploded. Always dependent on government aid, Glowing Hot has been unable to get any private franchises built since then.

On the other side of Main Street are stores of a different type. Instead of coffee, Bright & Breezy sells organic teas. But the business model is kind of funny - rather than charge you for each cup of tea, you make a one-time payment and get months worth of tea free after that. Of course, you can only get so much tea, and sometimes the shop closes without warning. Still, the one-time payments keep getting lower and lower, and Bright & Breezy has been growing quickly for the last decade.

On our last corner is a small herbal remedy cooperative. They don't want to sell you any tea, coffee, or any drink at all. Rather, among the sounds of the Dixie Chicks and the smell of incense, this shop wants to help you sleep better so you don't need caffeine at all. Most of their products are cheap - some are free. But before you can buy anything, they ask you a single simple question: "What do you want coffee for, anyway?"

Day after day, week after week, year after year, governments and markets shovel money at Carbon Joe's and Glowing Hot. 90% of people completely ignore the tea shops and the herbal remedy store. And all "reasonable" commentary on the national caffeine policy believes that "caffeine independence" can only be achieved by some combination of A) more intensive coffee growing, and B) massive building of new Glowing Hot franchises.

Meanwhile, the litter problem gets worse and worse. The price of coffee keeps getting more and more expensive. And families who have lived next to Glowing Hot stores for a few years are seeing a higher incidence of cancer and birth defects.

People begin to wonder: Is there another way? And then they remember those little shops across the street...


(Posted by John)

Hi all. Angelica's asked me to step in and blog while she's, in her words, running around like a headless chicken.

On my blog, Dymaxion World, I usually write a great deal about energy issues. Particularly, I try and provide a sort-of-optimistic view about Peak Oil and renewable energy. I also try to write intelligently about Asian politics, and the growing importance of China and India to world affairs. Whether I succeed at doing any of this is up to you.

I'll be kicking around here until the end of the month, or until Angelica kicks my ass to the curb. Hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Everybody together now: Freud is Horseshit

(Via Majikthise)

Say it everyone...alltogether now..."Freud is Horseshit". Actually, you probably knew that already. But it bears repeating. To think our popular imagination was (and still is, to some extent) held captive by such a batshit theory boggles the mind. Here is Albert Ellis, founder of cognitive behavioral therapy, ripping into Freud in the Village voice:

When did you decide that Freudian analysis was a waste of time? Freud was full of horseshit. He invented people's problems and what to do about them. Tell me one thing about the past. I'll prove it's not what upset you. It's how you philosophized about it that made you disturbed.

If Freud is horseshit, why are so many people still spending hours on the couch, talking about their dreams? Because people are crazy and stupid! And especially psychologists and therapists are stupid! That's the main reason.

Many of your books include charts, questionnaires and equations, which show readers how to more efficiently deal with their unhappiness. Are there dangers in seeing deep mental processes as a formula? It's not a formula. It's several different formulas. I encourage USA, Unconditional Self Acceptance. I accept me, myself, my personality, whether or not I do well. I prefer to do well, but I don't put my worth on the line. And I accept you—with your [cough attack] stupidity and failings—whether or not you do well. And I accept life, which is bad, without demanding that it be exactly the way I want it to be. I avoid the words "should," "ought" and "must."
So Freud is horseshit. But is cognitive behavioral therapy any better? Can depressed people be hectored an haranged into feeling better? I know too many depressed people who feel otherwise to think that.

Guest Blogger ahead

Those of you who reads this blog often knows how highly I think of John over at Dymaxion world. Well, while I run around like a headless chicken packing and travelling until the end of the month, he's going to be guest blogging, and from what I can gather, giving us a good edumacatin' on energy and peak oil issues. I'll chime in now and then when I can.

Give him a big welcome, folks.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Hello Dolly

I've always been a fan, so I'm glad to see that she's providing an unimpeachably authentic southern voice against the war.

About an hour into the show, [Dolly] Parton picked up a guitar that looked like it had lost a fierce battle with a Bedazzler and began to talk in earnest about that old-time activism. "I didn't necessarily agree with all the politics of that time," she said, "but I think a lot of the things they were talking about -- like peace and freedom -- are about as American as apple pie." She then performed the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn."

And she wasn't done. Barely pausing for breath, she moved to Dylan, talking about how important it was that he had sung songs that had mattered to the country. She'd recently been listening to his antiwar classic "Blowin' in the Wind," she said, and had thought, "Well this song is about what's going on right now! I've got to record this."

Parton's live cover of "Blowin' in the Wind" should probably have been cringe-inducing, but it wasn't. Stripped down to Parton's powerful pipes and a guitar, it worked. And she definitely enunciated particular verses, especially the questions "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? And how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?" Parton, who had perfect silence for the first half of the song, finished it to a massive standing ovation from the New York crowd. And however unlikely the messenger, it was almost impossible to imagine the lyrics being about anything other than a direct message to George W. Bush.

Regime change a la Robertson

[PAT] ROBERTSON: You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if [Hugo Chavez] thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger and the United ... This is in our sphere of influence, so we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.

Now that's old school.

Stephen Sailer just blew my mind

(Via Lawyers Guns and Money )

Not only has Stephen Sailer assembled the most jaw-droppingly facile and just plain ridiculous stereotypes about gays and lesbians, he has done so in a handy-dandy table!

Did you know that the distinctive trait of gays is "gay", while the distinctive trait of lesbians is "resentful"? He couldn't even bother to find the proper noun forms of the traits he assigns in such a cavalier fashion. In the same column of his table he informs us that lesbians "seldom serve men" and "dislike working w/men" and, two lines later, that lesbians tend to work "machine-oriented jobs" and have "great interest in military". I wasn't aware that America was chock full of all-women machine shops and that our military boasts female-only battalions.

UPDATE: I see that the article is old (and published in the National Review). It was bought back into the sun because of Assrocket's stamp of approval. Always a sign of quality wingnuttery.

Stampede of the Grown-up Republicans

Stephen Bainbridge: "...the fly paper strategy seems to be radicalizing our foes even more. For every fly that gets caught, it seems as though 10 more spring up. This should hardly come as a surprise to anybody who has watched Israel pursue military solutions to its terrorist problems, after all. Does anybody really think Israel's military actions have left Hezbollah or Hamas with fewer foot soldiers?"

John Cole: "Once again, we have hosed the Kurds and appear to be tactily endorsing enshrining Sharia in the Constitution[.]"

The Cunning Realist
: "Bush states that "vast oceans and friendly neighbors no longer protect us from those who wish to harm our people." And I agree with him. Yet at the same time, he posits that "if we do not confront these evil men abroad, we will have to face them one day in our own cities and streets." Thus an essential element of the flypaper thesis is geographical distance; it assumes that those "vast oceans" must in some way protect us, or expending massive amounts of blood and treasure "fighting them over there" would make no sense since "over there" essentially would be "here." Of course, London---as well as Madrid, Istanbul, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, and Bali---showed flypaper to be both specious as an argument and ineffective as a strategy."

Greg Djerejian
: "I'm all for delegating so as not to have an LBJ redux of POTUS and aides up and about at 2 A.M. picking what bridges near Hue to bomb--but, er, who is minding the bloody store--who is really excercising a real duty of care standard here?"

Andy McCarthy
: "For what it’s worth, this is where I get off the bus."

Facile observations about the South

My work visa came down much sooner than I expected. This means that I'll probably be leaving for London on the next reasonably-priced flight. As my time in Mt. Airy come to an end, I'd just like to end with a few random thoughts about the South from my personal experience:

1) Barbeque is the crowning achievement of American cuisine. Bucking the national trend towards homogeneity, barbeque is fiercely regional, with an obsessive attention to authenticity and craft that I find very moving. People are very partisan about their local barbeque. North Carolinians think their slow-cooked fork-tender chopped barbeque drenched with vinegar with just a hint of hickory smoke is king. Alabamans call it "dog food". We are blessed in Mt. Airy because we can ride north to Galax to experience the sublime Virginia-style ribs and brisket topped with a sweet and piquant sauce at the Galax smokehouse, or go south to Lexington ("the barbeque capital of North Carolina") for our fix of authentic NC barbeque.

2) Don't ever pass up a chance to hear bluegrass live. Even, or perhaps I should say especially, if it is just a small informal gathering of amateur musicians. Those picking sessions really allows one to get a great sense of the music as you get to observe the players up close and see how their fingers move like lightning. If you're really lucky some Grandpa or Grandma would get up and do some flatfoot dancing.

3) People are incredibly nice and neighborly here. Ever since my boyfriend's family moved in, people up and down the street have been dropping by with baked goods, garden tomatoes, or an invitation to one the 50 bajillion Baptist Churches they have around here. When store clerks say "have a nice day", they actually mean it. Unfortunately, the downside to this legendary friendliness is that the stereotype of the slow-moving south is also true. Clerks chatting to customers will finish their conversation, take a pause, and start another while the next customer is waiting.

Sometimes when I'm talking to people I do find it hard to stop this little stream-of-consciousness paranoia running through my mind "dum de dum...I wonder what they'd think of me if they know where I stand on abortion/God/Dubya/gays/evolution...dum de about the weather...dum de dum." Luckily, there are always much more pleasant topics to talk about than politics.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Welcome to Amerika

So, everybody knows what "Santorum" has come to mean, right? Well, Santorum (the man, not the substance) was in a Pennsylvania bookshop doing a signing when a woman and her friends tried to get him to sign a copy of Dan Savage's "The Kid" as a joke (for those not in the know, Dan Savage is the sex columnist that popularized the second meaning of "Santorum"). Minutes later, a state trooper turns up in full uniform, hat and gun, and asked them to leave.
“Your business is not wanted here. They don’t want you here anymore. If you don’t leave, you’re going to be arrested. If you can’t post bail, you’ll go to prison. Those of you who are under 18 will go to Ferris [the juvenile detention center]. And those of you over 18 will go either to Gander Hill Prison or the woman’s correctional facility. Any questions?”
Yeah, just one, trooper. Since when did the Land of the Free become the Land where you remain free by assuming the appropriate prostrate position around our Republican overlords at all times?

(Via the Republic of T)

Friday, August 19, 2005

Tasty Snacks

It's a good thing Elise is pinch-hitting for Bitch phD, because otherwise I won't have discovered her cool blog, After School Snacks. It was also a reminder that her co-guest-blogger Twisty Faster is funny, and very much blogroll worthy.

Here's a few interesting tid-bits from the snack bar:
-- According to a recent study, straight men are turned on by lesbian and straight porn (no surprise here). Gay men are only turned on by gay porn. Bisexual men show similar arousal patterns to gay men . Women, regardless of the sexuality they profess, are turned on by every combination.
-- 40 things that only happen in movies. "#33: All beds have special L-shaped sheets that reach to armpit level on a woman but only up to the waist of the man lying beside her."

Eat Crow, Woman

When you are wrong, egregiously, horribly wrong, have the spine to admit it.

Don't accuse you critics of not being able to read. Don't try to spin what you said into something more innocuous with updates. Even before we knew that the police in London lied about the details of how they came to shoot Charles de Menedez, there was no excuse for this:
Is it not true that yesterday's sad mistake has already solved the problem it represents? In fact, a further good has been created: as ordinary persons change their behavior and drop the bulky clothing and unnecessary running, the real terrorists will stand out more. Indeed, if anyone ever behaves like Jean Charles de Menezes again, the presumption that he is a terrorist will be so overwhelmingly strong that the police really must kill him.

Fine Finnish

Why can't the America give its citizens a good education, free healthcare and a safety net that's not full of holes? Because we're not Finns, apparently. Too bad.

In other Finnish news, I recently got linked to a Finnish blog, Lovelacen Testi. Of course, I can't read it, since I haven't been brushing up on my Finnish recently (Joking: I didn't even know it was in Finnish until I checked my sitemeter). But it seems like this person mostly reads and comments on American blogs. And here's another blog (this time from the Netherlands) that also focus on American politics and current affairs. I found it by accident because the web address of our blogs share a few initial letters. Those guys don't just know English well enough to read and comment on American blogs. They probably know more about what's going on in our country than most Americans.

Friday Baby Blogging

It's Lily, Gene's adorable niece. And me.
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Maybe next week I'll have more schnauzer for you.

Beware of libertarians bearing charts

Alex Taborrok reported that Henrico County, VA, sold off their used apple laptops at giveaway prices, resulting in some sort of crazed melee as people hustled to get one of the limited number of computers. Now, if Alex made it a "government actions have unintended consequences" post, I would have been fine with it. But no. He had to haul out his chart-making software and draw a graph showing that all the extra consumer surplus generated by offering the computers at a lower than market price is precisely eroded by the doller value of the time people spent queuing for the computers.

You see, the market, it's destiny. The price/quantity horizon is inviolable. You see, people are always completely rational when it comes to how they spend their time. That is why people line up around the block to save a few pennies on gas. In fact, people are always rational when it comes to money, which is why they buy lottery tickets. Give me some time and I'll come up with a graph where I demonstrate how the lower yield of the lottery tickets is precisely made up by the psychic satisfaction generated by purchasing said ticket and scratching off the foil.

As long as I'm in a libertarian-bashing mood, I'm going to link to this post by John at Dymaxion world, in which he calls out Wired magazine for the kind of smug and facile free-market cheerleading that has put me off the magazine.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Authoritarian Capitalist Paradise

Via, Ezra...

More evidence that an open market does not inevitably lead to Western-style democracy. A while ago, a Tyler Cowen post about Singapore lead me to ponder this point. Singapore is a living, breathing example of a thriving Authoritarian Capitalist Paradise. Now, Singapore is cute because it is small, prosperous and ridiculously well-run. You don't get to chew gum and the state reserves the right to cane you if you done bad, but on the other hand the streets are clean and there are lots of malls. But the idea of a China in which the CCP figures out how to perpetuate itself indefinitely by keeping the economy humming even as it keeps 1,306,313,812 people under their thumb is too horrible.


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All things considered, I think the Israeli pullout of Gaza have gone more smoothly and provided more hope than I expected. There were the diehards who inevitably put up a struggle, but given the nature of the settlements that is only to be expected.

On Fox, I saw an woman in typical settler attire -- a tight kerchief covering the head and simple cloths. She was angry and heartbroken and protesting being removed from her home by fellow Jews in perfect American English. Where did she come from? Maybe California? I'm no good at discerning accents. I imagined the same anguish and the same protests issuing from a Palestinian woman who originally occupied this land as she was wretched from her home, decades ago. Perhaps 'ironic' isn't the word I'm looking for -- something sadder and more poignant, perhaps, is required.

The importance of software

How much of the basic numeric ability we take for granted like counting is hardwired? A new study of an Amazonian language with no word for numbers above three suggest "not a heck of a lot".
Language moulds our thoughts so much that we cannot conceptualise ideas for which we do not have words, according to an American researcher.

Dr Peter Gordon of Columbia University, New York, studied an Amazonian tribe whose language has no word for numbers beyond two. His research on the Piraha, a tribe of hunter-gatherers, sheds light on mathematical thought.

Dr Gordon's work, reported in the journal Science, shows that the ability of tribal adults to conceptualise numbers is no better than that of infants or even some animals.

The tribe has words for "one" and "two" - and "one" can also mean "roughly one" - but anything more than that is not quantified but merely lumped together as "many". The research suggests that without words for specific numbers, numeration cannot develop.
Basically, having the right name to describe things is essential to conceptualizing them properly. This makes me think of all the words in Chinese without counterparts in English and vice versa. Can speaking a different language make people think differently too? Or is the Piraha language unusally poor in concepts and vocabulary?

Definitely unlucky

Jean Charles de Menezes died after being shot on a tube train at Stockwell station in south London on July 22, the morning after the failed bomb attacks in London.

But the evidence given to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) by police officers and eyewitnesses and leaked to ITV News shows that far from leaping a ticket barrier and fleeing from police, as was initially reported, he was filmed on CCTV calmly entering the station and picking up a free newspaper before boarding the train.

It has now emerged that Mr de Menezes:

· was never properly identified because a police officer was relieving himself at the very moment he was leaving his home;

· was unaware he was being followed;

· was not wearing a heavy padded jacket or belt as reports at the time suggested;

· never ran from the police;

· and did not jump the ticket barrier.

But the revelation that will prove most uncomfortable for Scotland Yard was that the 27-year-old electrician had already been restrained by a surveillance officer before being shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder.
At the time I wondered whether de Menedez was stupid or merely unlucky. If the sources the Guardian is citing holds up, the answer is pretty clear now.

At the Drive-in

Yesterday was my very first drive-in movie experience. We went to the Brightleaf Drive-in for a double-feature. I enjoyed it so much I really question whether I'd ever watch movies any other way if I had the choice. The screen was huge, and set well back so that nobody had to crane their necks. We we comfortable and had privacy in our own car, yet it feels more like an event than plopping in front of the TV set.

The movies themselves were quite mediocre. The Dukes of Hazzard was amusing enough to join the (very) limited selection of dumb, jock-ey comedy I have a soft spot for. The Skeleton Key was as predictable and derivative as all gets out ("So that's why they made her best friend black, so the best friend can tell the heroine all about 'hoodoo'.") But that's OK. The experience transcends the actual films. All for $5 a person.

Sad that there are not many drive-in cinemas around anymore.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Is this a hoax?

Too funny...
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Via Julian Sanchez, who assures us this is a real ad campaign. There's even a Washington Times article to back it up, but I still can't quite believe it. The picture is too small for this to be legible, but this poster is rated R for "restricted to those radically in love with Jesus Christ." Running time is "all eternity".

The gorilla of Pilot Mountain

Do you see him?
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By the way, if you're ever in the Triad area of North Carolina, Pilot Mountain is a must-see site.

What is the flavor of Cascade Crash?

Now we have a study that confirms what marketers have known for decades -- giving your product an evocatively ambiguous name is more likely to attract consumers than a quotidien description:
They were told that each container held a different flavor of jelly bean. Half the students saw containers labeled with ambiguous names ("white Ireland," "moody blue"), while the other half saw those same containers with more specific descriptive names ("marshmallow white," "blueberry blue"). As the researchers had hypothesized, students took nearly three times as many jelly beans on average from a container that bore a vague name as from one that carried a specific name. [snip]
Why does ambiguity seem to sell? Miller and Kahn theorize that, without real information, consumers try to understand why the product has such a jazzy name and fill in the blanks with imagined desirable qualities.
The company that has taken this approach to its extreme is Gatorade. Not only are the names of many of their flavors ambiguous and non-food related ("Cascade Crash", "Riptide Rush" and "Glacier Freeze"), the very flavor-profile themselves are completely abstract. I've always thought that this was the logical next-step for food flavorings -- after all, we no longer have any actual fruit in most of our fruit flavor products. Why be tied to what Mother Nature flavor palette when it comes to jazzing up our sugar delivery vehicles?

By the way, my favorite Gatorade was Riptide Rush. The only "natural" flavor I can discern in it is grape (very weakly) and a hint of anise. I have no idea how to describe its taste beyond that. Clearly it has broken beyond the orange-lemon-grape soda paradigm. Lately all those commmercials trying to impress upon me how Gatorade is for extreme atheletes have shamed me into not drinking it anymore. I will miss its stunning modernity.

(Via Marginal Revolution)

Monday, August 15, 2005

George and Paris explained

I can't believe how this Bell Curve nonsense continues to creep back up on us despite the best efforts of sensible people everywhere to beat it down wherever it rears its ugly head.

The latest incarnation comes from Michael Barrone's column, in which he claims that economic mobility is down because society is increasingly stratified by cognitive ability. And what evidence does he give to back up his claim that we now live in an intellectual meritocracy? Well, economic mobility is down. The guys who wrote the Bell Curve predicted it. And besides. Who really wants the stress of being a CEO when " all you need to do to avoid poverty in this country is to graduate from high school, get and stay married, and take any job. "

Brad DeLong does a more thorough job of taking out the intellectual garbage...with an assist from Mark Thoma.

"Decency is not in them"

The Cunning Realist is completely right on the smearing of Cindy Sheehan:
If one needed any further proof that this incarnation of "Republicans" and alleged conservatives includes a faction that has gone completely and tragically over the edge, the smear campaign against Cindy Sheehan is it. For those who might not be familiar with the details of this and are looking for an accurate, factual account, a good summary appears here.

The essence of the right-wing smear machine's "outing" of Cindy Sheehan is her supposed flip-flop from supporting President Bush in 2004 to disapproving of him in 2005. As details of this have become clearer, it's obvious the flip-flop is nothing more than a canard. But setting aside the Sheehan story for a moment, have any of the shameless smearsters seen the public opinion polls recently? Here's some breaking news for them: a whole lot of Americans who supported Bush a year ago---including an increasingly large part of his "base"---have turned against him. And that includes many millions of people who haven't lost a parent, child, or sibling in Iraq.
That's the best Daily Show segment never made -- Right Wing Pundits accuses American People of Flip-Flopping. I'd love to put Steven Colbert on the case for that one.

UPDATE: I found this gem from the Ignorant Investor in the comments to the Cunning Realist post I quoted above. His blog is cool too. I'd read it if I ever become an investor.
For all their talk of disliking lawyers, the republicans seems to operate like them. Whatever issue arises in politics, the tactics are the same as in litigation: deny even the undeniable, brazenly create alternative versions of history, and attack the character and motives of any witness against you.

Malkin vs. Malkin

(Via Dadahead)
In the end, there can be only one...

Hey hey, ho ho

I went to an antiwar protest once. It felt great. I rode down to Boston with a bus full of students. We poured throught the streets. We were pumped up and found strength in one another. Some chanted. Others simply marched. We all hoped against hope that even on the eve of war, we can avert our country from a disasterous course.

Of couse, if the people we're really trying to get through to saw our march at all, it would be a fifteen-second clip on TV of a dark morass of people waving "No war for oil" signs carefully edited to look as menacing and unruly as possible. That's the stock media narrative for protests, and protesters can't beat it. That is, until Cindy Sheehan came along.

Her vigil in Crawford is the kind of compelling, slowly unfolding drama that news networks find irresistable. In other words, she's newsbait. Because her protest is focused on an individual who is so obviously ordinary and her predicament is so heartwrenching, the networks dropped the "scary leftist" storyline. Instead, Cindy Sheehan is filed under "human interest" and coverage of her reflects this.

This is why Cindy Sheehan sticks so in the craw of the wingers. They have tried to bury her with disporportionate force because they know how dangerous her campaign can be. They know she is more dangerous than antiwar marches all over the country or thousands of pacifists fingerpainting for peace. She's somebody the silent majorities identifies as one of them. She's getting mainstream media coverage usually reserved for missing teenagers in Aruba. And she's asking president Bush: "What is the noble cause my son died for?"