Battlepanda: April 2006


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

Sunday, April 30, 2006


(Posted by John.)

John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the greats, is dead:
John Kenneth Galbraith, 97, an economist, author, professor, presidential counselor and U.S. ambassador to India, who used caustic wit and an iconoclastic temperament to help set the foundation of modern economic thinking, died April 29 at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. The exact cause of death was not reported.

Dr. Galbraith spent more than 25 years on the Harvard University faculty and also advised Democratic presidents and candidates from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Socially, he may have been without peer in his field; he was said to have been one of the few, if not the only, economists invited to Truman Capote's 1966 Black and White Ball in New York....

On national political commentary and journalistic punditry, Dr. Galbraith observed: "Nearly all of our political comment originates in Washington. Washington politicians, after talking things over with each other, relay misinformation to Washington journalists who, after further intramural discussion, print it where it is thoughtfully read by the same politicians. It is the only completely closed system for the recycling of garbage that has yet been devised."
One of Canada's better exports.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

Stupid Life. Interfering with Blogging.

(Posted by John.)

In case any of you were curious as to where I've been, the answer is frantically packing for my move down to Toronto. Unfortunately, the move has been postponed until Monday, meaning I probably won't be able to post until Tuesday at the earliest.

I'm pretty much set, but Uhaul is so swamped with people moving that they begged me to move my reservation until monday, sweetening the deal by offering my half off my price. That will basically cover gasoline, so I agreed, though unhappily.

I've also be less-frantically saying goodbye to a number of friends in Ottawa who I'm unlikely to see with any frequency from here on out. Needless to say, this takes priority over making cracks about George Bush or writing lucid posts about energy issues.

Oh, and because my time wasn't cramped enough, my stomach was mysteriously fed (I suspect) an undercooked chicken wing, causing my to be violently ill throughout Friday. Thanks, stupid fry cook.

I'm at school at the moment, using their computers (mine is in a box.) I might have time to do a few posts before I see my mother for one last dinner.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Legalize LA

Garment factory owner and immigrant (from Canada) Dov Charney will close his factory on May 1 for the national boycott for immigrant rights.

Charney plans to use his clout to make a political statement -- on May 1, the factory will close so that he and his workers will take part in the national boycott for immigrant rights. He says he is in favor of liberal immigration policies, including open borders and an amnesty for immigrant workers -- and he's tired of hearing critics blame immigrants for all the problems facing America.

"Immigrants are the engine of our economy, whether we want to admit it or not," he says. "They're here, legal or illegal -- [a] fundamental part of the economy is these workers."

American Apparel owner Dov Charney isn't afraid to show his political side -- the sign on his downtown Los Angeles factory signals his opinion about the ongoing debate over proposed changes to America's immigration policies.(NPR's caption)

Friday, April 28, 2006

When at a loss for blog fodder, take a quiz!

(Via my ex-coblogger Karen.)

You Are a Seeker Soul

You are on a quest for knowledge and life challenges.

You love to be curious and ask a ton of questions.

Since you know so much, you make for an interesting conversationalist.

Mentally alert, you can outwit almost anyone (and have fun doing it!).

Very introspective, you can be silently critical of others.

And your quiet nature makes it difficult for people to get to know you.

You see yourself as a philosopher, and you take everything philosophically.

Your main talent is expressing and communicating ideas.

Souls you are most compatible with: Hunter Soul and Visionary Soul

Friday catblogging

Monkey spends a lot of time lounging on my wife Janet's desk. If you rest your hand or arm on the desk, she'll use it as a pillow.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Quarter-Century Rule

(Posted by John.)

via Matthew Yglesias, Tim Lee on Intellectual Property:
...copyright and copyleft products can perfectly well co-exist side-by-side. Bad legislation like the DMCA aside, there’s no reason a well-designed copyright system should in any way impede the creation and distribution of non-commercial creative works...

If, 20 years from now, we’re all running Linux, going to movies produced by volunteers in their free time, and taking drugs produced at low cost by Universities, then we can by all means abolish intellectual property then. But right now, intellectual property seems to be doing a pretty good job of stimulating the production of creative works, and I’m not inclined to upset the apple cart without a good reason.
First of all, this is an entire argument made out of straw - aside from the one guy Lee is actually talking about, I know of no one who advocates the dismantling of all IP law, especially people who work in the "copyleft" movement like Lawrence Lessig. Lessig has stated on a number of occasions that Creative Commons and other alternate IP forms rely on the protections of IP law as much as any other work.

Just to be clear, Lee is responding to some doofus who actually does advocate a maximalist position - dismantling all IP law - so Lee isn't being dishonest. He's just wasting his time on someone who shouldn't be taken seriously.

More broadly, we need to remember that there's a number of different areas of IP law, and some can reasonably coexist with pre-existing copyright law while others almost certainly can't. For example, law that restricts the creation of "derivative works" is pretty noxious, all things considered. While artists can reasonably expect to control whether or not their works are used to, for example, make blockbuster films or not, the whole area of "derivative works" has been abused pretty nastily.

There's also the increasing move to "legalize" DRM technologies in both the US and Canada, which makes otherwise non-criminal acts criminal. For example, circumventing the DRM on any one of the many (legally-purchased) DVDs I own is illegal. This is doubly so if I want to do something as obviously criminal as watch a copy of my DVD on my computer, so I can put the disc in storage somewhere. Normally, this would qualify as fair use. Under the DMCA in the US, this is illegal. (Canadian copyright law I'm not so sure about. A quick search of the text of the Copyright Act didn't find anything.)

In an extreme case, a publisher could put DRM technology on a work in the public domain, and if I circumvented it I could be prosecuted.

There's also the fact that copyright terms extend way, way beyond any reasonable philosophy could justify. Remember, the reason for copyright - indeed, all IP protection - is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" as the US Constitution phrases it. The law is creating an incentive (by granting monopoly profits to creators) for people who make new ideas and things.

So what should our goal be - the minimum protection, or the maximum? It's interesting to look at the difference between the obscenely profitable pharmaceutical industry, which does just fine with 20-year patents, and the obscenely profitable movie and music industry, where copyright extends for 75 years after the creator's death. This is the minimum allowed under international law (TRIPS.) In some locations, it is even more.

The Statute of Anne - the western world's first copyright law - guaranteed a 14-year term of copyright, with a possible extension for another 21 years 7 years, for a total maximum of 21 years. To date (including four years of studying this stuff pretty thoroughly) I have seen no evidence by serious economists to justify any IP term longer than this. I am not a maximalist about copyright - while I think the cultural industries are dominated by evil corporations, I believe artists deserve compensation for their works. The question is where the balance sits between compensation and rent-seeking.

And yes, the music labels (especially) and the movie studios are evil. There's no other word for an industry that has a century's worth of history of abusing talent, collusion to fix prices, monopoly control over distribution and production, and government support to suppress foreign cultures. (Look at the practice of the US Government's support for Hollywood exports during the Cold War, and continuing today.)

The whole point for copyright is to encourage talent, not protect large corporations. Anything that does the former is beneficial. Anything that does the latter needs to be abandoned, quickly.

If You Won't Listen to Me...

(Posted by John.)

Listen to the one leader who's actually had to deal with a nuclear disaster. Mikhail, the mike is yours:
President Gorbachev said recently “You don’t actually solve problems by finding solutions that create more problems down the track. It doesn’t add up economically, environmentally or socially. Of all the energy options, nuclear is the most capital intensive to establish, decommissioning is prohibitively expensive and the financial burden continues long after the plant is closed. In the U.S., for example, direct subsidies to nuclear energy amounted to $115 billion between 1947 and 1999 with a further $145 billion in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar combined during the same period totaled only $5.5 billion.”
Oh, you sweet-talking Communist. You had me at "Glasnost".

Coal-fired everything

(Posted by John.)

Ugh. First "clean coal", then coal-to-liquids, now it looks like we're going back to coal-derived gas for our pipelines. Is it just me, or does this sound like we're looking more and more like Victorian England?

I refuse to wear a top hat.
Because domestic natural gas has passed peak production rates, the US has the world's largest coal reserves and because natural gas is the fuel of choice for many uses; given a low cost source of gas, the company believes there is a huge potential market for their gas.
Basically, this is a "just add water" process where the coal's carbon is added to waters hydrogen to make CH4, or methane. It's clean enough, considering. But it's still fossil carbon, and it still belongs where we found it - underground.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Great Canadians, Every One

(Posted by John.)

So there's been a bit of a shakeup in Canadian music lately. The CRIA (Canada's answer to the RIAA) recently underwent a major crack-up as most of the actual Canadian labels (as opposed to foreign multinational labels) left the association in protest over the CRIA's support for suing customers and breaking their shit. This was insult to injury - injury being the research (commissioned by the CRIA itself) showing that file sharing is not harming the music industry.

In response to this falling out, a group of Canadian musicians has founded the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, and I love them all for it. From the CMCC's website:
1. Suing Our Fans is Destructive and Hypocritical

Artists do not want to sue music fans. The labels have been suing our fans against our will, and laws enabling these suits cannot be justified in our names. We oppose any copyright reforms that would make it easier for record companies to do this. The government should repeal provisions of the Copyright Act that allow labels to unfairly punish fans who share music for non-commercial purposes with statutory damages of $500 to $20,000 per song.

2. Digital Locks are Risky and Counterproductive

Artists do not support using digital locks to increase the labels’ control over the distribution, use and enjoyment of music or laws that prohibit circumvention of such technological measures. The government should not blindly implement decade-old treaties designed to give control to major labels and take choices away from artists and consumers. Laws should protect artists and consumers, not restrictive technologies. Consumers should be able to transfer the music they buy to other formats under a right of fair use, without having to pay twice.
The artists who have so far signed on to this coalition are:

Barenaked Ladies
Avril Lavigne
Sarah McLachlan
Chantal Kreviazuk
Sum 41
Raine Maida (Our Lady Peace)
Dave Bidini (Rheostatics)
Billy Talent
John K. Samson (Weakerthans)
Broken Social Scene
Andrew Cash and Bob Wiseman (Co-founder Blue Rodeo)

So if y'all wanted to go buy some music, this is your shopping list. As I've said before - the latest Stars CD (Set Yourself on Fire) is fantastic.

(Just to be clear, Sarah McLachlan was already a Great Canadian, and not for her over-representation on Buffy the Vampire Slayer Soundtracks. For this.)

What concerns me about this move by the artists is the potential for this to become a blacklist for the major labels - any one who signs up with these guys is liable to be persona non grata at Sony.

On the same topic, has any band in history sucked worse than Metallica?

Short Answer: Yes

(Posted by John.)

The short answer to your question, Angelica, is yes, underwater, current-driven turbines are possible. What I can't tell you at the moment is the potential scale of this energy. If your civil engineer was using the word "we" in the sense of "Taiwan", then I'd imagine the potential is pretty considerable. If "we" meant "humanity", then we might need to be a bit more modest. Not all of us are island nations, after all.

Frankly, in Taiwan's case I think the real limiting factor on the potential of Taiwan's ocean resources is less technical and more political.

And yes, I ALWAYS want to hyperlink in so-called "real-world" conversations. It's less of a problem, though, since most of the people I talk to read my blog semi-regularly.

Oh, and don't knock those of us with the "giant underwater construction" bug. We're protective of our own.

Why Network Partiality is Wrong

(Posted by John.)

I know if I do one more post on Net Neutrality my readers are going to kill me, but this is simply too good to not pass along. At MyDD, the testimony of Tim Wu on why neutrality is so important for the net, and for the economy broadly:
....whatever AT&T and others may claim as motives, the potential for abuse of market power is obvious to everyone. Ninety-four percent of Americans have either zero, one, or two choices for broadband access. Many of us wish things were otherwise, but they are not.

...It is inevitable that a discriminatory infrastructure will affect competition and innovation in the markets that depend on it. Imagine, for a moment, that private American highway companies reserved a lane for Ford cars. That would be good for Ford, but obviously would affect competition as between Ford and General Motors. It would also slow innovation--for it would no longer be the best car than wins, but the one that signs the best deals and slows down their competitors. The race is no longer to build a better car, but to fight for a better deal with the highway company.
I'd like to stay with that highway metaphor for a moment. After all, it's not just that AT&T wants to reserve any old lane for Ford - they're walling off the fast lane.

What does this mean? Well first, it means people who drive a Honda, Kia, or Hyundai are stuck doing 55mph forever. When they get sick of that, they may decide to buy a Ford, but guess what? The price for a Focus has gone up by 30%. And people don't have a choice, unless they mind being stuck in the slow lane forever.

This is what they want the Internet to be. And for no good reason at all, except avarice.

Matt Yglesias writes:
Besides which, all this takes place in a distinctly sub-optimal environment -- we really ought to have a much faster public sector broadband infrastructure in place that would make all this irrelevant.
Well yeah, that'd be nice. But which Republican-held house of Congress is going to allocate money for socialized fiber optic lines?

It's worth pointing out that, were it possible, the best way for us all to get service would in fact be for the government to nationalize the lines - copper, fiber, whatever. More than one economist has noted that telecom is a natural monopoly, and natural monopolies are generally best controlled by some public entity.

An energy bleg

I've been leaning rather hard on the excellent John from Dymaxion World lately. He's also been picked up as a guest-blogger with Ezra. As he said in an email "...all of a sudden I feel like the hot girl everyone wants to take to the prom or something." You are that hot girl, John. Metaphorically speaking, of course. With oil prices at $75 a barrel (light sweet crude on the New York Merchantile Exchange, that is) , energy issue is on everybody's minds, and as far as I'm concerned John is the go-to blogger if you want to cut to the chase on energy issues.

Now, one of the owners at the Tapas bar I'm working at is a civil engineer. His solution to the energy problem is one I've not heard before, and I'd like to hear John's take on it, busy though he is with the big move: Giant underwater turbines that are driven by the ocean currents. "If we can build oil rigs, we can build those turbines, and they'll produce much more energy more reliably than wind." Makes a lot of sense on the face of it. Then again, he also thinks that the practical thing to do with Taiwan's garbage problem is a giant underwater garbage trench. Maybe he's one of those guys who just have one idee fixe -- giant underwater everything. He also thinks that we can just burn coal provided we use carbon dioxide removers in conjunction. "It will cost twice as much as the coal itself to remove the carbon dioxide, but it can be done." Ah, but we don't need to go through all that trouble because we're looking massively efficient solar cells being made out of plastic that are coming along, I countered. He didn't believe me. Just flat out said "you can't make solar cells out of plastic. It must be made out of silicon." Sigh. Have you ever wished that you could hyperlink in a real-life conversation?

Ugh. You First.

(Posted by John.)

Just got this in my email. I appreciate the sentiment, but who will bell the cat?

Life Intrudes

(Posted by John.)

Sorry folks, but blogging is going to be spotty for the next few days. I've got to move to Toronto on Sunday, and while I'm pretty much ready, there's also my job and family obligations - when you move away, all of the sudden your mother thinks she's never gonna see you again. Can't promise lots of high-quality blogging.

In lieu of that, some quick hits:

-Abe Lincoln's preferred weapon: Broadswords. Seriously. (Via August Pollak.)

-Holographic solar concentrators? Whatever works!

-Jane Jacobs, RIP.

-The mid-terms are looking good. November, here we come!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Youtube has paid for itself

(Posted by John.)

This may be the most subversive use of the Internet yet. Honest. Watch it.

You call that a think tank?

(Posted by John.)

Think-tank personnel are sometimes mind-bogglingly dumb. Today's example is Frederick Cedoz, who writes in the Journal of International Security Affairs that OPEC is irrelevant, that the US should pursue a "hemispheric" energy strategy, and that there's abundant energy in coal, oil sands, shale, etc. Cedoz gets one thing right in this whole article, and a large number of other things wrong.

The thing that Cedoz gets right - and it's an important thing - is this:
Today, however, the situation is quite different. Despite the cartel’s best efforts, mounting evidence points to the fact that OPEC has become increasingly ineffective in reining in high oil prices. And with the disappearance of the preferred “price band” for OPEC crude ($28-$32 per barrel), some wonder whether the cartel still has any interest at all in bringing prices down.

This impotence derives from a confluence of factors. With estimates for crude oil demand steadily being revised upward, market fundamentals are working against the cartel. And with most of the additional supply to meet this demand projected to come from non-OPEC producers, the cartel is facing a dramatic diminution in influence. At the same time, political instability in OPEC’s primary region, the Persian Gulf, is working against investor confidence.
So basically, OPEC's ability to influence the price of oil has evaporated because demand exceeds supply - OPEC was only able to control prices when supply exceeded demand. This is an important point, because the implication - if you follow it logically, and are intellectually honest - is that supply-side solutions are not going to work. Rather, we need to work on reducing demand domestically and internationally for oil if we want to bring prices down. Cedoz is either illogical or dishonest, because this is not the argument he makes. But more on that later.

One of the biggest errors Cedoz makes is saying that most new production will come from non-OPEC sources, and this will diminish the importance of OPEC countries. While most new production may indeed come from non-OPEC sources, there's no way it will equal or surpass OPEC sources. It simply won't happen. Take this example from the Department of Energy's oil forecast for the next 20 years (PDF):

Basically, the balance shifts slightly, but OPEC is still the dominant player. Indeed, 2/3 of the world's oil reserves are in the Arab states, so it's silly to predict anything else. If anything, OPEC is liable to be more important in the future, as US, North Sea, and Russian production continue to wane.

As for Cedoz' proposed remedy, a "hemispheric" energy strategy is not going to weaken OPEC, for the very simple reason the 2 of the 3 largest energy producers in the hemisphere (Venezuela and Mexico) are members of OPEC. Hell, Venezuela was the driving force behind the creation of OPEC!

Ah, and this is where Cedoz' third sin is committed. Cedoz wastes a lot of ink on the potential of coal, tar sands, and shale. Coal is probably doable as things go, but it would be horrible. But let me go out and say something with an attempt at finality:
The United States will never, ever fuel more than a small portion of its oil needs from tar sands or shale.
The reasons for this are simple. First of all, both shale and oil sands are almost net-energy losers. (Shale especially.) They've only been relatively affordable when natural gas was cheap, and it's a good question as to whether oil prices can rise fast enough to keep oil sand production profitable with natural gas prices where they're heading. That's assuming that natural gas production can even stay level, much less expand to the levels needed to quadruple production by 2020, like Cedoz predicts.

You can get a good feel for how illiterate Cedoz is on these issues when he writes:
Canadians have proven that, with patience, the brightest minds and a little bit of money can tackle the toughest energy challenges.
Excuse me? A little money? Cedoz is apparently unaware of the billions - with a b - of dollars that oil sands production has gotten from every level of government, except possibly school boards. I'm not even sure oil sands production counts as "the brightest minds" working, considering the process hasn't really evolved beyond "Ug. Me dig hole. Put dirt in pot. Cook. Drive Hummer fast."

More broadly, this article shows the schizophrenia that American thinkers must be going through. Even the densest need to admit that energy insecurity is being caused by high demand and not enough supply. Nevertheless, they can't seem to break the habit of advocating supply-side solutions - in this case, massive increases in oil sands and Nigerian imports. Only the desperate would believe that this could work, as if the solution to alcoholism is to buy your hooch at Costco.

Of course, in a sense that is a solution, too.

Bananas prove the existence of the FSM

(Via Crooks and Liars, and featuring Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron!)

"Behold, the atheist's nightmare!" A banana. "The banana and the hand are perfectly made, one for the other." (Watch from about 3:30 to 4:36.)

With evidence like that, how could anyone doubt the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Just watching this video, I can feel the touch of His noodly appendage.

Net Neutrality revisited

(Posted by John.)

I mentioned earlier that I have a hard time explaining why the issue of net neutrality is important, and why people should be passionate about it. This video does a much better job than I could. Check it out.

(link via Atrios.)

Bush at 32%

(Posted by John.)

Oh my. This makes me ever so happy:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's approval ratings have sunk to a personal low, with only a third of Americans saying they approve of the way he is handling his job, a national poll released Monday said.

In the telephone poll of 1,012 adult Americans carried out Friday through Sunday by Opinion Research Corporation for CNN, 32 percent of respondents said they approve of Bush's performance, 60 percent said they disapprove and 8 percent said they do not know.
You know, I personally wish CNN had used the more mathematically correct description: Less than one third of Americans approve. But given what the numbers actually are, I'll spot CNN the 1.333%.

There's actually something much more interesting in the bottom of that poll (PDF), however:
6. How worried would you be if the price of gas were twice as high as it is now but you had no difficulty finding gas to purchase -- very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried or not worried at all?

Very worried 70%
Somewhat worried 21%
Not too worried 5%
Not worried at all 4%
No opinion 1%

7. How worried would you be if gas prices did not rise but you had to wait in long lines to buy gasoline or if there were restrictions on when you could buy gasoline or how much you could buy -- very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried or not worried at all?

Very worried 47%
Somewhat worried 35%
Not too worried 9%
Not worried at all 8%
No opinion 1%
So people are saying that they would prefer some difficulty in actually getting gas, to higher prices in a market they could still get gasoline in. It would seem that we can infer a number of conclusions from these results:

1) People are not inimically opposed to the idea of rationing, or fuel lotteries, or any number of restrictive policies the likes of which Nixon and Carter used. Indeed, they might prefer them to the alternative.

2) 91% of respondents say they're somewhat or very worried about a further doubling of fuel prices. I don't think there's much more room for the price of oil to go before the US sees a major recession. I expect it's actually a lot less than a doubling - $150/barrel sound like time to start hoarding dry goods to me.

Seems to me there's a real opportunity for Democrats in the US and Liberals or NDP here in Canada. As gas prices climb, people will demand that the government do something. Now, I haven't seen a price cap that I thought would actually help matters, but that's not to say some restrictions on demand might not work, especially if they were coupled with major investments in mass transit.

Expect some proposal like this to be made, and to be immediately attacked as the next worst thing since the Gulag Archipelago.

No, YOU'RE Hitler

(Posted by John.)

Jon Schwarz uncovers the secret truth: We - all of us - are Hitler.

Not quite the ending to Spartacus, is it?


(Posted by John.)

Matthew Yglesias writes:
During a appearance with Robert Wright, Fukuyama says of Bill Kristol and his circle at The Weekly Standard that during the 1990s "There was actually a deliberate search for an enemy because they felt that the Republican Party didn't do as well" when foreign policy wasn't on the issue agenda. The obvious candidates were either China or something relating to Islamic fundamentalism and, as Fukuyama notes, what they came up with was China. Then 9/11 changed things around, at least for a few years.
Matt says this is telling of the Bush mentality, and it is. But I can't help but think of that Onion headline - "Madonna shocks 7." (If you know the article, this makes sense. If not, go buy Our Dumb Century.)

Basically, my reaction is: "This is news?" I mean, it's nice to have it stated so baldly, but really, didn't we all kind of believe this anyway? Certainly, the rhetoric around Saddam Hussein in the runup to the war suggested to me that what was important was that he serve as a bogeyman, not that any words were actually true.

What words like this should do is make any swing voter who pulled a lever for Bush because "The GOP is more serious about national security" in to an ardent Michael Moore fan. Of course, those people will never believe this stuff, even when a conspirators (like Fukuyama) confess.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Gore 2008

(Posted by John.)

via Pandagon, it's nice to see an American pol using language like this:
Any force that tries to make you feel shame for being who you are, and loving who you love, is a form of tyranny over your mind. And it must be rejected, resisted, and defeated.
Gore keeps saying that he won't run in 2008. Stuff like this makes that a shame.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why are oil prices so high?

(Posted by John.)

Anyone who's paid attention in the last few years has heard all the stock answers for the price of oil - China, India, Katrina, etc. Others offer Peak Oil has the explanation (we're pumping out as much oil in a given day as we ever will) and that's why prices are going through the roof - $75/barrel yesterday.

There's another element to pay attention to: James Fraser points out that production of light sweet crude has been in decline now for a few years. (Chris Vernon mentioned this last August.) This has a number of implications for the industry.

The first problem is simply communications. When the media report "oil prices", they're really reporting the price of a delivery contract - delivery of a particular blend of light sweet crude (West Texas Intermediate, or WTI) on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The news doesn't often report the average price of a variety of blends, or the price in various countries. These aren't unimportant details. When you hear "oil prices are up" what you're really being told is "the price for a delivery contract of WTI blend on the NYMEX is up."

Light sweet crude (oil that flows more easily, and has a lower sulphur content) is the preferred food for refineries. Most American refineries can handle higher amounts of sulphur, but it makes refining more difficult - sulphur levels are tightly regulated in transport fuels - thus increasing gasoline costs further down the road. Which is why refineries usually pay a premium for light sweet crude: it lowers their operating costs and increases their profits.

There is, however, a finite amount of light sweet on the market, and that amount is shrinking. The rest of global demand needs to be made up with heavy sour crude. This means that the premium refiners pay for a blend like WTI has shot up. James Fraser in the link above estimates that in some cases the margin between light sweet crude and heavy sour is as much as $16 per barrel.

I haven't seen any analysis on whether the recent decline in light sweet crude production is a short- or long-term problem, but my money's on the latter. Yes, I do side with those who believe we are right about on top of Peak Oil - I find it very difficult to believe we'll ever get much more then the current 85 million barrels per day of oil we get today. Certainly, the projections that call for 100+ mbpd are really a form of fantasy, and nothing more.

That said, the current run-up in prices for light sweet crude gives us a small picture of what Peak Oil will look like when it arrives. Even as demand stays relatively constant (China has recently slowed it's oil consumption growth) the price will increase pretty steadily, and occasionally skyrocket when something upsets the delicate balance - say, an Iranian President threatening to wipe Israel off the map.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Now this is funny

(Posted by John.)

Former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney - who left office with a Bush-envying approval rating in the mid-teens - may actually embarass our newest Conservative PM.

Canadians will appreciate that enough for me to repeat it:

Mulroney may actually embarass Harper.
Mr. Mulroney plans to hold Prime Minister Stephen Harper's feet to the fire, urging him not only to put environmental issues on his government's list of five priorities, but to put them at the top of that list. His message: leadership trumps process when it comes to saving the planet.

Although Mr. Harper's commitment to the Kyoto Accord has, thus far, been vague, Mr. Mulroney intends to sound the alarm on the subject of global warming and the issues -- including the threats to Arctic sovereignty -- from the melting of the polar ice cap.
You've got to love journalistic convention - Harper's "vague" committment to Kyoto has been crystal clear to anyone with half a brain. He is thoroughly committed to abandoning Kyoto, duh.

One of my early political memories is of an ex-Marine friend of my mother who had come up from the US and lived here for about a year or so after Gulf War I. I remember very clearly his words, after drinking deep of the profoundly anti-Mulroney sentiment of the time:

"Sweet Jesus, I thought we Americans hated Bush. But you Canadians - I'm worried you're gonna fucking kill Mulroney!"

This made a profound impression on me, at the tender age of 10. That said, the one thing nobody will ever be able to take away from Mulroney is that he is genuinely one of the best environmental leaders this country has had. This is not actually anything I expect him to crow about. The fact that his predecessors and successors were miserably worse than him doesn't actually win him any points in my book.

What does win him points, in my book, is that he was such a collossal douchebag that we got more than a decade without even a serious threat of Conservatives in power. It's almost worth the GST, for that.

Quote of the Day

(Posted by John.)

Matthew Yglesias:
To me, though, the last best chance to avoid war with Iran would be to not start a war with Iran. This thing about responding to Iranian peace overtures would be nice, but I think it's impossible to overstate the role that not starting a war with Iran plays in the Yglesias War-Avoidance Plan. Basically, if we don't start a war with Iran there . . . won't be a war with Iran.
Same guy, earlier:
"...Timothy Garton Ash's chilling tale of Iranian retaliation after a hypothetical US/UK military strike on Iran ends on a puzzling note: "But Dr Patrick Smith of the Washington-based Committee for a Better World, which had long advocated bombing Iran, demanded of the critics: 'What was your alternative?'"

My alternative would be, you know, not bombing Iran.
While I think this is an excellent argument, it presumes that American leadership is capable of backing down from a war. I've seen no evidence of this. Even hawkish Democrats seem to accept the idea that it's a sign of weakness not to at least threaten a (thus far) nuclear-unarmed country with nuclear warfare.

Far too many American leaders (sadly, of both parties) have misdiagnosed the symptoms of American power. America's preponderance of military power has led them to believe that might in fact makes right, and that defiance of Washington's demands is by definition suspicious activity. For the Liebermans and Bidens of the world, this means that America gets to act as policeman. This is so, even when those demands and the rights of nations under international law conflict.

Of course, Weber's classical definition of the state was that it had the monopoly on legitimate violence. This is something that no nation-state has. Especially when a nation attacks another nation that has not, as yet, violated the non-proliferation treaty.

(Yes, the NPT has a number of problems, some of which I mentioned here. Whatever else they do, Iran hasn't breached it yet.)

Nobody denies the obvious: America's strength gives it the ability to deal out punishment. However, America does not have the moral authority that real police have. Their authority comes from the state. When America acts without the international community, American authority (lacking an international state to give it legitimacy) comes from simply being the fastest draw in the west. This doesn't make the US the world's policeman, or even the world's sheriff. At best, it makes the US military the worlds vigilante. At worst, the world's outlaw.

More good news about Biodiesel

(Posted by John.)

I'm a newcomer to the whole algae biodiesel party. I had heard vaguely about it on and off, but by and large discounted it because relatively few people drive diesel cars or trucks in North America. (In Europe, it's something like 1/3, owing to diesel's higher fuel efficiency, and high fuel costs.) However, the good news keep on coming. A few months ago, Veridium announced an algae biodiesel concept that is fed CO2 from ethanol production, with very high efficiencies - orders of magnitude higher than the most efficient (but environmentally destructive) Palm biodiesel plantations springing up across the Pacific.

Wired News has a piece on a new form of biodiesel refinery - a smaller and far more efficient device than previously available.
The device -- about the size of a credit card -- pumps vegetable oil and alcohol through tiny parallel channels, each smaller than a human hair, to convert the oil into biodiesel almost instantly.

By comparison, it takes more than a day to produce biodiesel with current technology.


The microreactor under development by the university and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute eliminates the mixing, the standing time and maybe even the need for a catalyst.
This is potentially very good news. Algae-based biodiesel promises much higher yields, while not competing for farmland with food production. It does require a regular supply of CO2 that is much higher than atmospheric concentrations, but this can be secured a number of ways - burning biomass, for example. Aside from that, the algae only need moderate sunlight and water - with certain breeds, saltwater will do.

According to a survey by the DOE (PDF):
The high cost of algae production remains an obstacle. [...] The factors that most influence cost are biological, and not engineering-related... Even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs.
That study was published in July, 1998. At the end of July, 1998, the retail price of diesel (excluding taxes) was $0.58/gallon. (Warning - Excel spreadsheet.) With taxes, it was $1.02. So double that price would be somewhere between $1.16-2.02/gallon.

The average US price of petrodiesel last week, after taxes, was $2.77/gallon. (Parenthetical: In eight years, the cost of diesel fuel has almost quintupled. Think about that for a moment.) And it's still headed up.

With new, efficient car designs and diesel-hybrid trucks, there's an obvious potential here - a renewable supply of biodiesel combined with much more efficient designs could potentially provide a much lower cost-per-mile than gasoline or diesel currently do. Just for some nerd fun, take the example of the VW Golf, which gets 46 MPG of diesel (highway.) At $3.00/gallon (a guess at near-term algae biodiesel prices) the cost per mile is about $0.07. If we can push that to 100mpg in a hybrid design, the cost goes down to $0.03. And if we get it to 157 mpg like one carmakers has (without a hybrid drivetrain) the price falls to $0.02 per mile, roughly what the Golf cost when diesel was $0.92/gallon.

I maintain, however, that the objective should be to replace liquid fuels to the extent possible with electric drivetrains. That means plug-in hybrids, as usual.

Further Things I Did Not Know

(Posted by John.)

While I was aware there was a strong, vocal opposition to the US Constitution at the time of its drafting, I was unaware that there was a collection of "anti-Federalist Papers" made in response to the Federalist papers. You can, if you're interested, find the full text here.

I went looking for that in response to Jon Schwarz's response to John "Torture is Dandy" Yoo:
But John Yoo has some surprising news: the anti-federalists were right! The Constitution does give the president, particularly in matters of war and peace, exactly the same powers of the British king circa 1787! The only difference is, Yoo thinks this is a good thing.
What's scary is not just that Yoo thinks this is a good thing, but I suspect many - God willing, not most - Americans think this is a good thing, too. How else to explain the collective yawns that have followed the uncountable scandals since 9/11?

Something else to worry about

(Posted by John.)

Via Antonia Zerbisias, William Rivers Pitt is scaring me, too:
I told my boss that I couldn't believe it was possible the Bush administration would do this. I ran through all the reasons why an attack on Iran, especially with any kind of nuclear weaponry, would be the height of folly.

Iran, unlike Iraq, has a formidable military. They own the high ground over the Persian Gulf and have deployed missile batteries all throughout the mountains along the shore. Those missile batteries, I told him, include the Sunburn missile, which can travel in excess of Mach 2 and can spoof Aegis radar systems. Every American warship in the Gulf, including the carrier group currently deployed there, would be ducks on the pond.
I've also heard that Iran has the Exocet, though how they'd have gotten them is a mystery to me (as far as I know, France hasn't been selling them to Iran.) Some people may be confusing the Exocet and the Silkworm, which Iran apparently has in abundance.

The Sunburn missile is a truly terrifying piece of work. I'm skeptical, however, that the potential for disaster in the Gulf is as great as Pitt makes it sound. This is only because I haven't yet found authoritative sources confirming that Iran does in fact have the Sunburn. Most of the sources I can see that don't amount to "some guy with a website and a theory" say that Iran was interested in purchasing the Sunburn from Russia (the Russians call it the Moskit) and that China definitely has some, but so far I can't find anyone confirming that Iran has them.

Even if the Sunburn rumours turn out to be false, the Silkworm alone might pose a challenge for the US Navy. I don't know how the Silkworm and Exocet compare, exactly, but it's worth remembering that Argentina gave the UK a really hard time with a half-dozen Exocets during their little war. Not to mention the USS Stark, which was fired on by Iraqi forces during the "tanker wars" between Iran and Iraq.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Can't the press get anything right?

(Posted by John.)

Maybe I'm just in a bad mood, but this is just idiotic:
MIDDLETOWN, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Four giant cooling towers loom over the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, reminders of the fears and hopes surrounding an industry that may help cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
For God's sake. Reuters doesn't even manage to get out of the first sentence before getting the entire story wrong.

Look, the US gets less electricity from oil than it does from burning landfill gas. Oil has basically nothing to do with electrical generation, and electricity has almost nothing to do with transport fuels. Oil and nuclear have about as much in common as fish and fowl. They're two entirely different industries, and it's like saying that the improvement in personal computers is going to lower gasoline costs - there's that little relationship.

There's a tendency to view "energy" issues as a collective whole, and it's just wrong. It's like when Republicans want to talk about the problems funding "Socialsecurityandmedicare" as if the two programs share similar problems. Viewing oil and electricity the same way is similarly dishonest, and it's being used to push bad policy and bad energy choices.

Someone Pinch Me

(Posted By John.)

The Moustache of Understanding gets one right, for a change:
If these are our only choices, which would you rather have: a nuclear-armed Iran or an attack on Iran's nuclear sites that is carried out and sold to the world by the Bush national security team, with Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon's helm?

I'd rather live with a nuclear Iran. [...]

It may be that learning to live with a nuclear Iran is the wisest thing under any circumstances. But it would be nice to have a choice. It would be nice to have the option of a diplomatic deal to end Iran's nuclear program -- but that will come only with a credible threat of force. Yet we will not have the support at home or abroad for that threat as long as Don Rumsfeld leads the Pentagon. No one in their right mind would follow this man into another confrontation -- and that is a real strategic liability.
The whole thing is behind the NYT paywall, unfortunately. But if you can get a copy, check it out.

Sigh of Despair

(Posted by John. In case you missed it, I live in Ontario.)

Well, this is depressing.
TORONTO (CP) - Nuclear power may be the best option to fulfil Ontario's future electricity needs, despite its obvious downsides - including Chornobyl-type accidents and radioactive waste, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Wednesday.

Natural gas is too expensive, wind power is unreliable, coal plants pollute the air and Ontario's hydroelectric potential has largely been maxed out - leaving nuclear power expansions "on the table" for the province, McGuinty said.
Regulars will know that I think this is the wrong call. I don't know what more I can say that I haven't said before, ad nauseam.

Remember Who Bush Is

(Posted by John.)

On September 10th, 2001, he held among the lowest ratings of any modern president for that point in a first term. (Only Gerald Ford, his popularity reeling after his pardon of Nixon, had comparable numbers.)
Consider what that means for a moment. On Sept. 10, Bush was one of the least popular presidents ever in the 20th century. On Sept. 12, he was one of the most popular presidents ever - for failing miserably at his job.

I know they say people get the government they deserve, but this is ridiculous.

That quote above is taken from this month's Rolling Stone, which has an excellent article on Bush, and how he will (hopefully) go down as one of the worst Presidents ever in the history of the United States. There's far, far too much good stuff in there to excerpt fairly.
In a deliberate political decision, the administration stampeded the Congress and a traumatized citizenry into the Iraq invasion on the basis of what has now been demonstrated to be tendentious and perhaps fabricated evidence of an imminent Iraqi threat to American security, one that the White House suggested included nuclear weapons. ... The president did so with premises founded, in the case of Iraq, on wishful thinking. He did so while proclaiming an expansive Wilsonian rhetoric of making the world safe for democracy -- yet discarding the multilateralism and systems of international law (including the Geneva Conventions) that emanated from Wilson's idealism.
And, the "oh, snap!" award goes to this passage:
Karl Rove has sometimes likened Bush to the imposing, no-nonsense President Andrew Jackson. Yet Jackson took measures to prevent those he called "the rich and powerful" from bending "the acts of government to their selfish purposes." Jackson also gained eternal renown by saving New Orleans from British invasion against terrible odds. Generations of Americans sang of Jackson's famous victory. In 1959, Johnny Horton's version of "The Battle of New Orleans" won the Grammy for best country & western performance. If anyone sings about George W. Bush and New Orleans, it will be a blues number.
Sung by Kanye West, God willing.


Horribly Inappropriate Metaphor Watch

(Posted by John.)

From the Canadian Press:
HALIFAX -- The Canadian military is trying to plan for a range of security threats to offshore oil and gas platforms to avoid what one senior official describes as a potential Maritime version of 9/11....

Only one of the six natural gas platforms off Nova Scotia is manned, and has a workforce of less than 100 people.

There are three manned oil platforms off Newfoundland.
Good work CP on catching that idiocy.

You say jihaydi I say jihahdi

The Drumstir tentatively supports yet another name change for what we now know as the War on terror. A War on Jihadism, he feels, have the merit of separating moderate Islam from the extreme version in people's minds. Frankly, I think it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. The problem of conflating all of Islam with extreme fundamentalist Islam runs too deep to be ameliorated by changing (yet again) the name of this nebulous "war" we're fighting.

I don't know if I've mentioned this on the ol' blog yet, but I have gone completely crazy and decided to take a job working at a tapas bar in Taipei for a while. It's a small restaurant so I am a kind of combination bartender/sandwich maker/dishwasher/waitress. A while ago, a libertarian-conservative type came in for a few Budweisers. He thinks we're supposed to "stay the course" in Iraq even though it was a mistake, though he doesn't think we can blame Bush because "hindsight is 20/20". He is a textbook case of the incredibly naive conservative who likes to posture as a hardened realist. "Islam is an incredibly immature religion. They don't play by the rules of civilized engagement. There is no other culture that uses suicide tactics like that. It is enabled by their sick belief that there are 70 virgins waiting for them in the afterlife." I think I came this close to calling him stupid straight out. When I tried to tell him that it is the extreme version of Islam that we are trying to fight but that we are alienating moderate muslim everywhere with our little adventures in the Middle East, he look at me with a blank look that said "does not compute". He then tried the old "liberals are soft of fundamentalist Islam" bullshit which does not fly at all with me because my lefty feminist friends were fuming about the Taliban way back in the 90s.

ANGELICA: So, tell me. If we had to go into Afgahnistan and Iraq to save the Muslims from themselves and the world in the process, why is that Iraq and Afgahnistan are both currently basket-case states getting more extreme and fundamentalist by the minute?

CONSERVOLIBERTARIAN GUY, shocked: "You expect to blame Bush for that?"

Why yes. yes I do.

He's promised to come back with a book for me that will show me the error of my ways. With an apology to my Jewish friends, Oy Vey!

Solving the oil crisis the stupid and short-sighted way

Our own guest-blogger John has certainly done his part to put the last nail in the nuclear coffin. Ye Gods, it is like some kind of undead zombie that won't stay slain.

Brad Plumer also weighs in with some sensible numbers. It's amazing how some back of the envelop calculations completely undermines the conventional wisdom that nuclear energy is faster and cheaper. Basically, being pro-nuclear allows those of the center-left persuasion to feel pleasantly contrarian while being proactive on the energy issue. There is little additional merit.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


(Posted by John.)

Via POGGE, we find Andrew at Bound by Gravity soliciting opinions:
Iran has been ratcheting up the rhetoric recently, claiming to be making steps towards obtaining nuclear weapons - they have recently claimed to have successfully enriched uranium (which has been referred to as nuclear poker) - while threatening Israel with destruction. ("The Zionist regime is a dying tree, and soon its branches will be broken down.")

My question is a simple one: Do you support military action against Iran? (Why or why not?)
Actually, the question isn't a simple one, though it is phrased simply. My answer isn't a simple one either, though I can phrase it simply enough - No, because it won't help.

The first and most basic rule for the use of military force is: Does the threat warrant the use of the military? After all, nations face all kinds of threats, but relatively few of them could sensibly be responded to with the military. Traffic accidents kill more people than terrorists ever have. Nobody would argue this means we should patrol highways with Apache helicopters.

Iran fails this test, so far. Even with their most recent advances, the US intelligence community estimates that Iran is years, and possibly as much as a decade away from having a nuclear bomb. Responding to a hypothetical nuclear program with preemptive war would be massively unwise and unjust, aside from a bad case of deja vu.

But let's suppose, for a moment, that Iran were found to be less than 12 months away from having The Bomb. This is where rule #2 for the use of military force comes in: The military should be able to actually achieve the objectives set by the civilian leaders. If the military can't succeed at it's mission in the first place, then all we're doing is wasting lives.

Iran fails in this case too. There's no evidence that an airstrike would permanently cripple an Iranian nuclear capacity. Quite the opposite - it could redouble their efforts to get nuclear weapons, while strengthening the hands of the same autocratic domestic forces we're so worried about.

(You'll note that Iraq failed both of these tests, too.)

The only military option for Iran is effectively full-scale war, and that's not an option - the US already has one of those, and doesn't need another. All-out war would be the only way to permanently shut down Iranian nuclear ambition, and even then it might not work. (After all, the Iraq War was supposed to liberate that country. See how well that worked out.) This isn't to that these options are mutually exclusive. As more than one author has pointed out, an airstrike on Iran may very well precipitate a full-scale war, whether the US leadership (or the 150,000 soldiers in Iraq) like it or not.

The only path with any chance of success is negotiation, with the promise of US nuclear retaliation for Iran if they attack an American ally with nuclear weapons* - roughly the formula that kept us alive throughout the Cold War. It sucks, but it's the least terrifying or bloody option left to us.

*It should be said that Israel doesn't need our protection, at least from nuclear weapons. An Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would quite simply mean Israeli warheads falling on Iran within hours. Now, where that would lead is an ugly, terrifying place.

I am the decider!

(By Brad R. at Sadly, No!)
Down by the Pentagon, where the crickle grass grows,
Where for years the insurgents have been in their "last throes"
Old Donald Rumsfeld relaxed and kicked back
And thought of the fine job he'd done in Iraq
But despite Rummy's feelings of omnipotent might
Lots of people were dying, with no end in sight
So several old generals rose up in a rage
And their mad diatribes made it to the front page

All of them wanted poor Rummy to quit
Since 'twas under his watch that Iraq went to shit
But just as old Rummy was about to resign
Bush came along and said "You're doing just fine!"

He was tallish and oldish and grayish and chimpy
And his face looked cartoonish, like a Ren or a Stimpy
He rolled up his sleeves, slammed the floor with a "bang!"
And then bellowed out in his fake Texas twang:

"I'm the decider! I decide what is best!
And all my decisions, they come Jesus-blessed!
I don't read the views of the MSM paparazzi
I need Rummy's help stopping Muslamonazis!

"To all you old generals whose anger won't yield,
Why won't you think of the troops on the field
They want Rummy to stay, they say that they need him
What's wrong with you bastards, do y'all just hate freedom?"

And with that all the critics looked shamed and afraid
For providing al-Qaeda with comfort and aid
They wept and covered their faces with bags
And said, "We're sorry for being such traitorous fags!"

A Vision of Hope

(Posted by John.)

Nice video here. Happy thoughts are nice, but c'mon - McCain-Obama 2008? WTF?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Back to $70/barrel

(Posted by John.)

Oil surpasses its Katrina-level high, setting a new record.

Now, consider that neither the summer driving season nor hurricane season have started yet. Also, consider that bombs have not yet started falling in Iran.

Anybody want to bet against $100/barrel this summer?

Interesting paragraph:
On an inflation-adjusted basis, oil prices would have to rise above $90 to exceed the all-time highs set a quarter century ago when supplies became tight in the aftermath of a revolution in Iran and a war between Iraq and Iran. In 2005 dollars, the average price of crude in 1980 was just under $77 a barrel.
So we're maybe a year away from 1980-level prices. That's assuming a slow-steady squeeze, not a spike.

Net Neutrality Matters

(Posted by John.)

This is one of those issues that I think people should be more passionate about, but it's hard to explain why (for me, anyway.) We've seen an increasing move by large telecommunications companies in the US and Canada to control access to their broadband lines. Rogers, Telus, and Bell (which collectively control more than half the broadband internet market in Canada) have all basically endorsed the concept of a tiered Internet. In the US, AT&T and Verizon have both done the same.

Essentially, the big Telcos want to turn the Internet in to something more like TV. And not in a good way. We're talking more restrictions, more costs, less freedom. I don't know about you, but I've really enjoyed a decade of Internet. I've gotten way more out of my $40/month for cable internet than I have out of my $40/month for cable television.

This is why I support things like Hydro Toronto's municipal wi-fi network. It's a start, but it isn't enough. If we're serious about net neutrality, the only thing that makes sense is direct public provision of Internet access. This may mean that we preserve part of the radio spectrum for public use (the way we do for public television) or it might mean the government builds its own fiber network. Either way, I think the state definitely needs to step in.

As for the telcos themselves, the idea that they need to do this to recoup costs is pretty transparent bullshit. From
Gary Bachula, vice president for external affairs of Internet2, a nonprofit project by universities and corporations to build an extremely fast and large network, argues that managing online traffic just doesn't work very well. At the February Senate hearing, he testified that when Internet2 began setting up its large network, called Abilene, "our engineers started with the assumption that we should find technical ways of prioritizing certain kinds of bits, such as streaming video, or video conferencing, in order to assure that they arrive without delay. As it developed, though, all of our research and practical experience supported the conclusion that it was far more cost effective to simply provide more bandwidth. With enough bandwidth in the network, there is no congestion and video bits do not need preferential treatment."

Today, Bachula continued, "our Abilene network does not give preferential treatment to anyone's bits, but our users routinely experiment with streaming HDTV, hold thousands of high-quality two-way videoconferences simultaneously, and transfer huge files of scientific data around the globe without loss of packets."

Not only is adding intelligence to a network not very useful, Bachula pointed out, it's not very cheap. A system that splits data into various lanes of traffic requires expensive equipment, both within the network and at people's homes. Right now, broadband companies are spending a great deal on things like set-top boxes, phone routers and other equipment for their advanced services. "Simple is cheaper," Bachula said. "Complex is costly" -- a cost that may well be passed on to customers.
This isn't about recouping costs. This is about control, and who has it.

Now, THIS Nuclear is an abomination

(Posted by John.)

Via MyBlahg:
Alberta's environment minister says he was surprised to hear a company is interested in starting down the path of applying for approval to build the province's first nuclear power plant in the northern oilsands.

Guy Boutilier says there is no movement towards nuclear energy from the province's standpoint.

The company, Energy Alberta Corporation, is in preliminary talks with three energy companies about building a nuclear plant to produce steam, which is used to separate bitumen – or thick crude oil – from sand.

The approval process could begin next March, with a decision by 2009. If approved, the reactor could be in operation by 2014.
This is where the fallacy of "no alternatives" gets you. If you believe that Canada's future lies with the tar sands, then you must believe one of two things. Either:

A) We need to continue making tar sands out of carbon fuels, replacing dwindling natural gas with coal. This has been proposed by Premier Ralph Klein. (Of course Klein also said he was opposed to the use of natural gas in oil sands, showing how connected to reality he is.)

B) We need to build a nuclear plant so that we can continue desecrating cubic kilometers of Canadian soil. Progress!

Of course, neither answer is the correct one. The correct answer is:

C) Admit that the tar sands are an economic, energy, and environmental failure, and begin investing our billions in renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. Of course, this won't help the fortunes of the Conservative party, so I can't imagine it will get done in this government.

It will actually be interesting to see how Alberta reacts to the end of Canadian natural gas. This will doom the oil sands as they're currently produced, meaning Albertans will face the choice above. Coal will mean worse air quality and more dead children. Nuclear will mean, well, nuclear. And the collapse of the tar sands would mean an economic black hole in the heart of Canada.

No alternatives, indeed.

The Hydro Question

(Posted by John.)

Boy, I go away for a few hours and all of the sudden the big question is why I didn't mention hydroelectric dams. I assume many of you don't click through to the comments, so:

One question though, you don't mention large hydroelectric plants.... Is this because you consider them a worse option than nuclear / coal / gas, or just because you figure we don't need them if we build enough wind/solar/small hydro/conservation?
A lot of people (not necessarily here) treat hydro as benign, and it ain't.
Do we have suitable river basins for hydroelectric plant construction? I suppose we should, at least for the small ones. Are there hydroelectric dams currently under construction in Ontario (ignoring the new Niagara Falls turbines)?
And finally, Westacular:
I assumed you omitted it because we've already tapped all the best/most immediately available sites for large hydro plants, but I have no reason to actually assume that's the case.
As far as Hydroelectric goes generally, the fact is most of the best-placed dams in the industrialized world have inconveniently already been built. I don't consider large-scale hydroelectric dams to be worse than a similar-sized coal, nuclear, or gas plant, but that's not saying much. There's some obvious negative impacts from building large dams with the attending disruptions. And large-scale hydro suffers from the same lack of nimbleness that nuclear does - for engineering and regulatory reasons, we can't build it quick or cheap.

I suppose if I had to rank large hydro I'd put it somewhere between nuclear and wind, though closer to nuclear. Not my preferred option, certainly. Basically, large hydro is still labouring under the old paradigm of centralized generation, with huge projects to get economies of scale. But if necessary - and that's always a big if - then I suppose I'd have to say large hydro is better than the alternatives of coal, nuclear, or gas. It is inferior to wind, solar, or small hydro (see below.)

I don't know of any current projects to build hydro in Ontario. Certainly I can't think of any large projects, though LeoPetr notes that we're adding a bit of capacity to Sir Adam Beck in Niagara Falls. For those market-forces fans out there, we should note that like Nuclear, large hydro plants tend to be built by big government (see Ontario Hydro here, The TVA in the US, or many different Communist governments.)

Actually, Ontario is an interesting test case for the future of hydroelectric power. We've got three large rivers that remain untapped in the northern parts of the province, as well as a variety of other smaller sources, according to OPA's power supply mix report. (PDF) However, the vast majority of the potential waters (about 6 Gw out of 7.5 Gw potential) are either Federal or First Nations lands, or part of provincial parks and reserves. What's left amounts to just under 1.5 gw, or about as much as the proposed additions to Darlington. What's really interesting is that the report says that about 567 Mw of that is in relatively small sites, from 10-100 Mw. This is almost as much as exists in the very large (+100 Mw) sites. (p. 22 of the above link.) So we could either try and build a few large plants that we'd have to screw the First Nations to build, or we could concentrate on the small-scale hydro which is almost as plentiful.

An additional wrinkle is that large transmission lines will need to be built for any tapping of the northern hydro potential. There is, however, a chance for some double-dipping, as most of Ontario's wind potential is also in the north. If we're going to build those transmission lines, there's more than enough opportunity up north.

There are some interesting developments in small-scale hydroelectric generation, too. One of the most interesting is so-called "underwater windmills". Because water is obviously denser than wind, even a small current can deliver as much or more force to the blades of a windmill-style turbine. Alternately, in a fast-moving river the turbines can be much smaller. This kind of technology is lower-impact than a Niagara- or Three Gorges-style dam. It's also modular and scaleable in a way that dams aren't. As a bonus, it doesn't ruin the river for recreational use or wildlife, so long as boaters stay away from the turbines. I think we could post a sign on a buoy, don't you?

These underwater windmills do, of course, suffer the same problems of the air-pushed kind - they're intermittent, though less so than wind. I can only repeat what I've said before - storage! Of course, even with aggressive conservation and a theoretical deployment of storage technologies, we will need actual generation. There's every reason to believe that small-scale hydro can meet part of that, especially if we take the opportunity to build up our wind potential as well.

Is Nuclear Faster?

(Posted by John.)

LeoPetr, in comments:
Yes, but we can get nuclear up faster than we can get solar or wind. The manufacture of solar and wind plants requires a much larger use of oil than does nuclear, and thus results in a lower return on energy invested. Replacing both coal and nuclear with wind at the same time is a tremendously expensive and difficult option. Getting enough wind up so that we are able to make more wind plants using only wind power is the big hurdle. I think we should be building both for the time being.
Well, first of all I wouldn't advocate trying to replace coal and nuclear at the same time. My ideal policy would phase out coal first (for environmental reasons) then natural gas (for economical ones) then nuclear, while building up wind, solar, and small hydroelectric plants. I don't even particularly need to see nuclear plants shut down before their operational lifespans are up - most of Ontario's plants will need to be shut down by 2020, so there's no need to hurry them out the door.

(Parenthetical: While I'll be writing mostly about wind here, I should point out that any jurisdiction you could name - including Ontario - could easily conserve and "efficient" so much as to make any new generation, icluding nuclear, unncecessary for the time being.)

However, it's a mistake to say we can build nuclear plants faster or cheaper. The last nuclear plant that Ontario built was Darlington, which was literally seven times more expensive, and years later than original projections. In the end it cost almost $15 billion, for 2.4 gigawatts of electricity, or $6.25/watt. This is well above what wind costs today, and only slightly lower than solar costs. We have seen, over and over, a history of cost overruns that are second only to the Pentagon in terms of waste. People of my generation - who had no say in whether or not these monstrosities were built - will nonetheless be paying for their construction for the rest of our lives, thanks to the massive debt that was incurred.

Meanwhile, Spain and Germany are each building one Darlington's worth of wind power every year. The latest plans for Darlington include adding two more 700-megawatt reactors - something even the plans proponents concede will take at least a decade. In the same time, Spain and Germany will have each built 20 gigawatts of clean, radiation-free electricity. And this assumes that their construction rates don't accelerate further, which would defy recent history - wind and solar have been growing exponentially at double-digit rates.

The US, thanks to the recent renewal of the wind-power tax credit in Congress, is seeing a major resurgence after two years of doldrums. And before you scream "subsidies are evil!" consider that the nuclear industry (in both the US and Canada) gets the largest subsidy of all - public insurance. In Ontario, the nuclear liabilities act limits the damage to the nuclear industry to a paltry $75 million, with taxpayers picking up the rest. If anything ever goes wrong at Pickering, you can bet it'll be worse than $75 mil. (Ironically, the American government provides far broader and better insurance to the nuclear industry than it does for the health care of it's own people.)

So, in sum, nuclear isn't cheaper, isn't faster, and we shouldn't be building more of it. However, LeoPetr added:
Citing ultracapacitors as something we should bet the pot on reduces your credibility because they are not [sic] after all, I could be arguing that we have become spectacularly better at reducing pollution at nuclear plants thanks to recent advances, that we could be disposing of waste in the same mines we dug it out of, and that breeder reactors are much more fuel efficient and thus produce far less waste than conventional ones.
There are two different arguments going on here, and I'll try and address them separately:

First: Do ultracapacitors lessen the force of my argument? Fine, we don't need them. There are more than enough electrical storage technologies out there - lithium ion batteries, flow batteries, even fuel cells (though I'm not a fuel cell fan) - that we don't need to pick one technology. However, given that EEstor is going in to third-party verification this summer, I don't think it's unfair to suggest their technology is realistic in the short term.

Cheap electrical storage will revolutionize the electrical grid, however it arrives. We currently need to over-build the grid by more than half because of the need to generate peak electricity. Stored electricity could be generated overnight, lowering costs. It could be stored where it is used, meaning less strain on the grid. Even if EEstor's ultracapacitor's don't pan out, this makes too much sense for either the market or government to ignore. Storage even makes nuclear more attractive, while the plants still operate.

Secondly, advocating for the construction of breeder reactors is dangerous. I know of no breeder design that doesn't create weaponizeable by-products. They're more fuel efficient, but the increased risk of terrorism, or simple proliferation among nuclear states, far outweighs the efficiency. Consider that Japan is only about a year away from having a nuclear bomb at any time, thanks to its breeder reactors.

And - this is important - if we don't rely on breeder reactors, than the energy-efficiency argument for nuclear starts to go out the window. Unless we rely on the most fuel-efficient (albeit dangerous and proliferating) breeder designs, we start to see a shortage of fuel-grade uranium ores before the end of this century.

I literally do not know of a single good argument in favour of starting new nuclear construction. This isn't to say that I believe all existing plants should be mothballed right away, or anything so dramatic. I'll even reserve judgement (for now) on the new reactors they want to add to Darlington, because Darlington is basically half-built anyway - there's room for those reactors within the existing plant. But no government should be considering nuclear construction when cheaper, faster ways of spending taxpayer money exist.

In short: If we need electricity now, then nuclear won't do because we can't have it for ten years time. If we need it in a decade from now, than we might as well buy the wind and solar five years from now, when they'll both be cheaper than nuclear.

Taiwan Update Blogging

I'm working a lot and still trying to figure out my ADSL, folks, so excuse the sparse posting. Meanwhile, I have roped in John from Dymaxion World to guest blog to help Brock and I out.

Those of you who miss their Schnauzerblogging will be glad to know that Dodo is now out of quarentine! She's gained a little weight and become exceedingly needy, but I know they took good care of her at the quarentine. No pic yet because my digital camera is misbehaving (memory card problems).

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Spring Irises

The Perils of "No Alternatives"

(Posted by John.)

The Drumstir:
"...nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple."

This is something that I've struggled with too, but Moore's case is persuasive. There aren't any other realistic alternatives for replacing coal-fired facilities, and the issues of safety, waste, and terrorism, though genuine, are manageable.
Why do liberals feel the need to prove their credibility by embracing idiotic ideas? (Yes, this is relevant to Iran.) Let's look at the facts: Nuclear is more expensive, more dangerous, and more polluting than solar or wind. The intermittency problem is somehow seen as a deal-breaker, but the reality of nuclear waste that is lethally toxic for millenia is waved away as "manageable". No, no it's not. Atmospheric CO2, as damaging as it is, would largely be sequestered out of the atmosphere over a matter of centuries anyway. That is to say CO2 is a problem that is far more "short-term" than it's uranium oxide equivalent.

As for the problem of intermittency, ultracapacitors may very shortly solve the problem of electrical storage. In particular, EEstor of Texas may have the key technology to a) rationalize electrical grids, b) make natural gas generators obsolete, and c) finally give us all decent electric cars. I wrote about EEstor previously here.

Even if EEstor in particular doesn't pan out, ultracapacitors are already being used in some transport applications (Maxwell builds them.) And everyone acknowledges that UCs have a lot of potential.

Adding storage costs to a renewable electrical utility does add to the costs of green technology, but considering that wind is already cheaper than coal in some areas, and solar is already cheaper than natural gas, it's difficult to see how a green utility could cost more than a nuclear one, even if it needed to pay for its own storage.

As to Moore's assertion that nuclear is "the only substitute", I wonder why this rhetorical trick fools so many liberals. The Iraq war was sold as "the only alternative" (something Kevin Drum gullibly supported for most of the pre-war period), Iran will be sold as "the only alternative", and nuclear and clean coal will both be sold as "the only alternative", when there were and are plenty of alternatives for those who actually put two seconds of thought in to these issues.

Why do liberals keep getting fooled like this? It's been happening at least since Maggie Thatcher, right? Are we really this dumb?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Pissy Billionaire Catfight!

(Posted by John.)

Oh, snap! via The Oil Drum, we see that the heads of Exxon and GM are two steps away from biting and hair-pulling. First, Exxon was all like "Bitch!":
A recent Exxon advertisement reads, “”Every form of transportation–planes, trains and automobiles–now benefits from improved fuels and engine systems. So why is that despite this overall progress, the average fuel economy of American cars is unchanged in two decades?”
Then, GM is all like "Slut!":
“Despite a documented history of blowing their exorbitant profits on outlandish executive salaries and stock buybacks, and hoarding their bounty by avoiding technologies, policies and legislation that would protect the population and environment and lower fuel costs, Big Oil insists on transferring all of that responsibility on the auto companies,”
Somebody go put some popcorn in the microwave, and get comfortable. I'm waiting for Jerry Springer's security to break it up.

Oh, and the idea of the auto industry - which predicted armageddon because of mandatory seatbelts - accusing the oil industry of failing to support legislation that would protect the population is just damn funny.

Some Random Energy Links

(posted by John)

  • Increasing efficiency of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) could eventually replace the lightbulb with 100% efficient light sources, as opposed to the current 5-10% efficiency of conventional incandescents.

  • Scientists find more efficient two-step process for synthesizing liquid fuels from the Fischer-Tropsch process. The emphasis in most articles has been on coal-to-liquids processing, but the process could just as soon work with biomass or municipal waste.

  • Residents of upstate New York who once opposed wind power are turning around, due largely to the promise of hard cash.

  • The 2008 Prius will get more than 100 miles to the gallon, using lithium-ion batteries.

Unannounced Guest

(Posted by Dymaxion World John)

Hello all. Angelica's asked me to stop by and guest-blog until she gets her broadband hooked up. I can't even remember what it was like to use the Internet back in the days of dialup, so I sympathize.

Of course, it is Easter, so I might not be posting that much myself until the beginning of the week.

There she goes...Miss Iraq

AMMAN, Jordan -- Iraq's newly crowned beauty queen has gone into hiding, fearing she will be targeted by Islamic militants who reportedly threatened to kill other women who participated in a Baghdad pageant last week.

Silva Shahakian, an Iraqi Christian, received the title of Miss Iraq when the initial winner stepped down after receiving death threats and two other runners-up also bowed out, a person familiar with the event said Wednesday.

Since receiving the crown, Shahakian has been lying low, fearing she will be targeted, he said. The pageant was held April 9 in a Baghdad social club and the initial winner, Tamar Goregian, gave back the crown four days later, he said.

I guess the problem with Iraq is we're not reporting the good news...and perhaps they need more beauty queens who won't cut-and-run.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Card Slaves

I had not realized this before, but credit card debts have become an even bigger problem in Taiwan than it is in the States. With the loosening of lending standards, people started treating credit cards as irresistable magical ATMs as their spending habits outstrips their earning powers by a whole order of magnitude, with tragic results. They are called "card slaves". It's become a major social problem here, as it had in Hong Kong and Korea previously.

A grandmother ridden with debt and the burden of caring for her two young grandsons ended up killing them both and attempting suicide. They were buried today. A man murdered his "card slave" wife who have racked up nearly ten million NT (about 300,000 USD) on various cards before, again, attempting suicide. Another man is suspected of committing suicide because of heavy credit card debts. (Links are all in Chinese, of course).

There are attempts at ameliorating the problem now, with more emphasis on public education and structured negotiation. However, I have a feeling that this is not going to be a problem that is going to go away until lending standards are seriously tightened.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Lemonthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

Steve at The Sneeze is auctioning this Demon Lemon from Hell on Ebay.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

We elected a madman

Seymour Hersh reports in the New Yorker that the Bush administration is considering a nuclear strike on Iran.
One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. One target is Iran’s main centrifuge plant, at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran.
Will the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in war use one a third time?

Thought for the day

The question:
In times of emergency we are often told that a state must balance the need to ensure national security against the need to preserve indivdual liberty and rights. How do we reconcile these often competing interests?
The answer, in part:

We have made a trade-off that deprives us of knowledge of what we have traded off in terms of individual rights and liberties. The photographs from Abu Ghraib give us some inkling, to be sure. But the government may well succeed in blocking further photographs even while the torture gets worse. And what incentive does it have to bear the embarrassment of releasing innocent prisoners bearing the marks and traumas of years of abuse when the world does not know that it ever detained these people? It is likely that thousands of detainees will never resurface because they are innocent.

In conclusion, we have given away, or lost, so much by way of our basic democratic rights and liberties that we are in no position to assess the balancing you query.
Go read the whole thing at AskPhilosophers.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Happy blog-anniversary to meeee!

Well, it was just about a year ago when I fired up this incarnation of the Battlepanda blog. This doom-and-gloomy post about the housing bubble was my first serious post. That's a blast and the past, eh? I thought about doing a revisit of the housing bubble issue, but realized that I really don't know what's been happening to this issue nowdays.

Well, there's this...

My (belate) two cents on the French Riots

Yes, yes. Late to the party again I know. But here it goes anyhow: I think the French labor laws restricting the employer's right to fire workers at will are absolutely senseless and a stupid way to go about achieving greater welfare among its citizens.

The Drumstir
and Brad P. argues that restrictive labor laws does not have much overall effect on the overall unemployment figures. Now they might or might not be right. They certainly point to persuasive evidence that undermine the conventional wisdom on this matter. However, even if they are dead right and unemployment levels are completely unaffected by the French firing policies, are they still a good thing?

Of course not. Even if the overall level of employment remains the same, the lower level of turnover naturally makes it harder to find a job if you decide to leave yours. And the more difficult it is to get a job elsewhere, the more unlikely it is that an employee would give up theirs, even if they are unhappy in their positions. Which in turn drives the level of employment opportunities even lower. And this is just looking at this situation strictly from the employee's point of view. I assume that the headaches imposed on the employer by such legislation is too obvious to require explanation.

Forget about job security. The government should just focus on giving people some measure of financial security. I am all in favor of more generous unemployment insurance to make sure people are not driven to penury if they lose their jobs. I'm also in favor of universal health insurance and adequate spending on schools so that the health and education of families are not compromised. But beyond that, I think it is an undue restriction of the freedom of employers as well as the interest of job-seekers to curtail the ability of employers to fire workers at will (with notice).

In a way, my approach on this issue is similar to Josh Bivens on immigration. When we are faced with something that increases welfare in general but hurts a particular group disproportionally, it is much better to compensate the group that is hurt directly than to curtail the behavior completely.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Friday catblogging

Monkey decided to curl up in an overturned laundry basket this afternoon.