Thursday, January 31, 2008

What comes with tax rebates?

By Donald Sensing

Rebate scams!

Internet traffic cut to Middle East

By Donald Sensing

Literally cut: an undersea cable carrying internet traffic to the Middle East has apparently been cut somehow.

Large swathes of Asia, the Middle East and north Africa had their high-technology services crippled Thursday following a widespread Internet failure which brought many businesses to a standstill and left others struggling to cope.

Hi-tech Dubai has been hit hard by an Internet outage apparently caused by a cut undersea cable.

One major telecommunications provider blamed the outage, which started Wednesday, on a major undersea cable failure in the Mediterranean.

India's Internet bandwidth has been sliced in half, The Associated Press reported, leaving its lucrative outsourcing industry trying to reroute traffic to satellites and other cables through Asia.

Reports say that Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain are also experiencing severe problems.

Nations that have been spared the chaos include Israel -- whose traffic uses a different route -- and Lebanon and Iraq. Many Middle East governments have backup satellite systems in case of cable failure.
We tend to think of satellites when we think of intercontinental data traffic, but the fact is that the vast majority of ocean-crossing data does so through undersea cables. The list of international cables is quite long. In fact, Google announced last September that it is interested in owning the full capacity of a trans-Pacific undersea cable that would have to be installed.
Although the four existing trans-Pacific cables provide an average 3.3 terabits per second of capacity each, cable owners have increasingly been scrambling to meet the upsurge in demand from places like Japan and China, Schoonover says.

Internet traffic along this route alone increased 41 percent between mid-2006 and mid-2007, according to TeleGeography. By contrast, eight cables currently cross the Atlantic, and demand there has not outrun capacity yet.
Why more cable rather than more satellites? Cable is a mature, proven technology and uses very high-capacity fiber optics rather than actual wire. Cable is cheaper to manufacture and install. And cable lasts longer because satellites require their own power source and are subject to orbit degradation. Say, like this one. Plus space is more crowded than the ocean because there are a limited number of orbit paths that maximize signal coverage to the earth's surface; these orbits are pretty much full already.

Too much air travel

By Donald Sensing

Ben Witherington says you know you spend too much time flying when,

You've heard stewardesses say such choice things over the plane intercom as:

a) 'welcome today to your final flight, ladies and gentleman'

b) 'in the event of an emergency landing put your head between your legs and kiss your tail goodbye'

c) 'We will be serving cocktails in the cockpit shortly, if you would like one'.

d) 'After the meal is served you may feel some turbulence in your stomach'.

e) 'Our pilot for today is Captain Neil Armstrong, and his first mate Buzz Aldrin'

f) ' We will be landing soon and you will be able to turn on your wives and call your cellphones'
There's more.

Update: Then this could happen to your flight, too!
The co-pilot of a packed Heathrow-bound plane had to be dragged screaming from his cockpit after apparently suffering a mental breakdown in mid-air.

Horrified passengers on the flight from Canada saw the man being pinned down by fellow crew members as he yelled loudly and demanded to "speak to God".

The co-pilot was shackled by his ankles and handcuffed to a seat as the jet was forced to make an emergency landing at the Republic of Ireland's Shannon Airport. ...

The incident occurred just an hour from landing at Heathrow and the captain had to take solo command of the controls.
Time to switch airlines!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

God's will

By Donald Sensing

If you're up for a theological, 55-page post about God's Will, then have at it. I have not read all of it (or even most of it), but I commend it to you. Its author is Dr. James Howell and the work will be published by Westminster/John Knox later.

Here's something you don't see every day

By Donald Sensing

It snowed four inches last night in Jerusalem:

Girls throw snowballs in front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem January 30, 2008. Jerusalem and its holy sites were covered in a blanket of snow on Wednesday.

Although snow falls from the sky in Jerusalem three or four times per winter, it is very unusual for there to be any accumulation at all, much less four inches. In fact, a winter storm encompassed most of the near Middle East, with a deep accumulations in Amman, Jordan and sub-freezing temps in Syria.



Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men build a snowman outside Jerusalem's Old City Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008.

When I was in Jerusalem last October, it was a lot warmer! News story here.

TEOLAWKI, continued

By Donald Sensing

TEOLAWKI - The End of Life as We Know It - continues to threaten.

First there was the supernova and galactic-attack scenarios.

Then the predicted return of the comet Genondahwayanung, which pretty much annihilated most life in North America when it came here the first time.

And then the massive gas cloud speeding toward a collision with the Milky Way!

And now, yet another insult: The earth's atmosphere may detonate.

It seems that about 55 million years ago, there was a massive warming of the earth (incredibly, before human beings existed!) that caused mass extinctions. Known as the Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum (LPTM), the warming period lasted about 100,000 years and ushered in the rise of mammals, leading eventually to the evolution of human beings.

Its cause? The release into the atmosphere of enormous amounts of methane.

A tremendous release of methane gas frozen beneath the sea floor heated the Earth by up to 13 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) 55 million years ago, a new NASA study confirms. NASA scientists used data from a computer simulation of the paleo-climate to better understand the role of methane in climate change. While most greenhouse gas studies focus on carbon dioxide, methane is 20 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.
Methane is solvent in ocean waters, but below 500 meters in depth the cold and pressure forces the methane to become trapped within ice crystals. Generally, this ice (which can actually be set alight if brought to the surface) is embedded on or under the sea floor.
[H]owever, that might not always have been the case. A period of global warming, called the Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum (LPTM), occurred around 55 million years ago and lasted about 100,000 years. Current theory has linked this to a vast release of frozen methane from beneath the sea floor, which led to the earth warming as a result of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The hypothetical cause of the release was the tectonic shifts of the continents, especially of the Indian subcontinent smashing (geologically speaking) into Asia breaking up the sea floor for thousands of miles and releasing trapped methane into the atmosphere.

But it gets worse! Some scientists say that with a properly large sea floor eruption, such as a massive earthquake, so much methane could be released into the air that the atmosphere itself could become literally a fuel-air explosive.
[T]here may be stagnant, oxygen-poor basins in the ocean where methane might accumulate. Even a small explosion could cause a catastrophe. Imagine what would happen if such an event occurred in the mid-Pacific. Tsunamis would be generated in continuous waves, striking Hawaii and the entire West Coast. Coastal areas would be flooded for miles inland. Methane/water clouds would auto-ignite and the massive fires could cause widespread destruction. Consequences could be global. Whatever humanity survives would be thrown into a Dark Age.
Now, there's some atmospheric warming for ya!

Edwards to quit

By Donald Sensing

So says CNN. Well, he's really only been running for the veep spot anyway, so maybe he figures he's got that sewn up whether Hillary or Obama get the nom.

Do you suffer from pagophagia?

By Donald Sensing

Here's how you can relieve the symptoms - for a little while, anyway.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Coming Iraq campaign to be "decisive" says PM

By Donald Sensing

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ordered a "decisive" push to fully defeat the last elements of al Qaeda in Iraq.

He said Iraqi soldiers and police were being sent to Mosul, where a massive blast blamed on al Qaeda killed 40 people and wounded 220 on Wednesday, and an operations room had been set up in the city, 390 km north of Baghdad.

U.S. military commanders say al Qaeda, blamed for most big bombings in Iraq, has regrouped in the northern provinces after being squeezed out of western Anbar province and from around Baghdad during security crackdowns last year.

They describe Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, as al Qaeda's last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
The prime minister was confident that Iraq's army and security forces, much improved over the last year, would be able to finish al Qaeda off.
"Now we have a real army. The days when the militants could do anything in front of our armed forces are gone," Maliki said.
Read more.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How China brought down the Berlin Wall

By Donald Sensing

Wired.com reports on the legacy left by the East German secret police:

For such an organized state, East Germany fell apart in a decidedly messy way. When the country's eastern bloc neighbors opened their borders in the summer of 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans fled to the West through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. By autumn, protests and riots had spread throughout East Germany, with the participants demanding an end to restrictions on travel and speech. In the first week of October, thousands of demonstrators in Dresden turned violent, throwing rocks at police, who broke up the crowd with dogs, truncheons, and water cannons. The government described the thousand people they arrested as "hooligans" to state-controlled media.

But on October 9, the situation escalated. In Leipzig that night, 70,000 people marched peacefully around the city's ring road — which goes right past the Stasi office. Agents asked for permission from Berlin to break up the demonstration, but this was just a few months after the Chinese government had brutally shut down pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, to international condemnation. The East German government didn't want a similar bloodbath, so the Stasi did nothing. A week later, 120,000 people marched; a week after that, the number was 300,000 — in a city with a population of only 530,000.
Interesting connection of events.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Really simple comics

By Donald Sensing

I don't know why, but this cracked me up.


Link.

Are we really all just genetic Legos?

By Donald Sensing

TimesOnline reports,"Scientists find missing link - and it’s a fish finger."

HUMANS could be closer to pond life than had been realised. Researchers have linked a raft of our anatomical and genetic features with fishy ancestors that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.

They have found that the origin of human hands and fingers could lie in the emergence of a finned fish 365m years ago. Similarly, the sophisticated joints that give us the ability to run, grip and turn may owe their existence to a sea creature known as the tiktaalik that lived in the Arctic 375m years ago.

Even our acute vision may be a legacy of an even earlier ancestor, similar to a jellyfish, whose genes have been adapted to play a crucial role in the human eye.

“An entire tree of life, from microbe to worm, to fish and mammal, is embedded inside of us. We can uncover our past by studying fossils and understanding our DNA,” said Neil Shubin, professor of anatomy at Chicago University. ...

Shubin’s findings suggest that every bone in the human body first evolved from simple marine ancestors. Our wrists, the unique dexterity of the thumb, even the shape of our skulls, can be traced to origins in primitive sea creatures.
Fossils of a very ancient fish called the tiktaalik show that the fish had "rudimentary versions of the human shoulder, elbow, forearm and wrist." "It was capable of doing push-ups," said Shubin.
The research also supports the argument that the majority of the human genome developed 500m years ago and is shared with most living creatures.
Okay, now enters the strident voice of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and a dedicated evangelist of atheism. Ever hostile to religion generally and Christianity specifically, Dawkins shouts with glee,
“This evidence is what we would expect as evolutionists, but it would be extremely embarrassing for a creationist.”
Au contraire, a creationist's argument might actually be buttressed by Dr. Shubin's statement that ends the article:
Shubin said: “Looking back through billions of years, everything innovative or apparently unique in the history of life is really just old stuff that has been recycled, recombined, repurposed or otherwise modified for new uses. This is the story of every part of us.”
So, let's recap:
  • Evolution claims that llife forms have evolved over time so that new species, and new variations within species, are formed. Contrary to what many people think, though, the theories of evolution actually do not posit how life began in the first place, only what happened to it once it did begin.
  • Creationism claims that life was created by external agency, that life did not simply happen to start but was begun by the intention of an an actor, almost always posited as God, acting supernaturally. Creationism also generally holds that either life forms did not change once created, or that the changes described by biological sciences were determined by this powerful, external agency. This latter approach has come to be known as "intelligent design."
  • By Dr. Shubin's hypothesis, the basic building blocks of all life, human life included, is up to a half-billion years old. Life forms to day are "really just old stuff that has been recycled."

This actually buttresses creationism, rather than defeats it, or at least some flavor of creationism. For if Dr. Shubin is correct, then there really have been no new life forms in the past 500 million years. There have only been rearranged forms. But in genomes, nothing is fundamentally new at all.

Separately, Shubin has found that modern-day fish carry genes allowing for the growth of wrists, hands and fingers. These are now “switched off” so the digits never develop in the fish.
Legos may be used to build structures that have no apparent relationship to one another, but they are all Legos within, no matter their appearance or function. Is it reasonable to say the same about life forms, that regardless of morphology or speciation, we are all just genetic Legos underneath? And if the genetic Legos haven't themselves changed, then isn't creationism of some kind more tenable than before?

The government has no money of its own

By Donald Sensing

The tax rebate gimmick, part 2

I posted earlier on how worls investment markets melted once the investors realized that the Bush administration's plan to stimulate the economy with one-time tax rebates was not going to work.

Decades ago, economist Miltion Friedman explained that "found money" does not alter people's spending habits significantly. A tax rebate does not make people wealthier, leading them either to pay down debt with it (which is "stimulus" neutral) or put it into savings (also neutral).

For people to spend more, Friedman explained, they have to increase their regular income. They have to make more money over time, not just once.

The central fact to remember when assessing any government monetary policy is this: The government has no money of its own. Therefore, the government has no money to stimulate the economy. All it can do is return money that it took away from the economy to begin with. The Examiner of Nashville puts it this way:

If somebody grabbed your wallet and then handed you back a $20 bill, would you be grateful? Realizing the money was yours to begin with, you would probably call the cops rather than thank the thief.

President Bush’s latest gimmick to stimulate the economy by giving back to taxpayers $800 of their own money is the Washington equivalent of the “generous” thief. The biggest fairy tale in Washington isn’t Barack Obama’s voting record on the war in Iraq, but the notion peddled by Republicans and Democrats alike that the government has a big pot of its own money that it generously gives to people by “injecting” it into the economy as a stimulus.

In fact, government has only our money or money it borrows from lenders. The problem is it costs the government a major portion of every dollar it takes from us in collecting it and paying the interest on dollars it borrows. Why not just let us keep our money in the first place?

For a real economic stimulus, look no further than the Bush 2003 tax cuts, which lowered the tax rate on capital gains and offered businesses other incentives to invest and hire more workers. Derided in the media as a “tax cut for the rich,” the 2003 tax cuts’ positive results were felt throughout the U.S. economy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The United States sneezes . . .

By Donald Sensing

... and the rest of the world catches a cold.

The thrust of the linked story is that stock markets in Asia and Europe melted today "amid investor pessimism over the U.S. government's stimulus plan to prevent a recession."

"It's another horrible day," said Francis Lun, a general manager at Fulbright Securities in Hong Kong. "Today it's because of disappointment that the U.S. stimulus (package) is too little, too late and investors feel it won't help the economy recover."
They're right, you know. One-time tax rebates were done in 2001 to bolster trhe economy after the jolt of that September's terrorist attacks. But,
Contemporaneous polls by Gallup, Bloomberg and the University of Michigan all found that the vast bulk of consumers expected to save the money or use it to pay bills. Subsequent studies confirmed these forecasts.

In short, there is virtually no empirical evidence that tax rebates are an effective response to economic slowdowns. The increased personal saving doesn't help the economy because the federal budget deficit, which can be thought of as negative saving, offsets all of it in the aggregate. The main benefit of a tax rebate would seem to be political -- giving politicians a way of appearing to be doing something about the nation's economic problems that is superficially plausible.

A new rebate ... should be called "feel good economics" because its only real effect is to make politicians feel good about themselves and buy re-election with the public purse.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the American government fundamentally works. Bribing the voters with their own money is the basic task of federal office holders. Remember the $400 billion bribe?

The Few. The Proud. The Morons.

By Donald Sensing

If you watched the football playoffs yesterday, you almost certainly saw this ad:




Gerard Van Der Leun observes:

You might recall that San Francisco refused to cooperate in the making of this film: Marines Denied Permission To Film Commercial 11/29/07.
Film Commission Executive Director Stefanie Coyote would only allow the Marine's production crew to film on California Street if there were no Marines in the picture. They wound up filming the empty street and will have to superimpose the Marines later.
Which led a commenter to remark, "San Francisco: the Few, the Proud, the Morons."

Update: According to a PDF of a letter, on letterhead, forwarded to me by reader Rolan Crighton, the report above is untrue. The letter, written by Donald Block, founder and president of Tight Films, which was contracted to shoot the USMC's ad, states that the SF film commission denied permission to shoot on Sept. 11, a weekday, but approved the same shoot for Sunday the 9th. However, the USMC's Silent Drill Team, featured in the ad, was not available for filming on the 9th. Block's letter also says that his request would have shut down 17 blocks of California St, starting at 5 a.m. and "going all day." Block concludes, "I think the film commission did everything they could to accommodate us and get us the shots that we wanted." He also states in the letter that a SFPD officer and a Tight Films employee both misrepresented the facts in their public pronouncements.

And yet . . . Note that the report cited in the post, above, is from the SF ABC affiliate. It quotes the SFPD officer, Capt. Greg Corrales, as saying that Stephanie Coyote arbitrarily said no to the Marines' request. Capt. Corrales "Corrales commands the police traffic bureau that works with crews shooting commercials, TV shows and movies in the city."
We [meaning the ABC affiliate] asked Stefanie Coyote why they're not allowing the Marines to shoot on California Street. She wouldn't answer our questions.

At today's Film Commission meeting, she said she wouldn't let the Marines film because of rush hour.

"Traffic control was the issue," explained Stefanie Coyote.

However, the Marines would have just shut down one lane of California Street for a few minutes at a time, and Captain Corrales points out the Film Commission often approves shoots for rush hour.

"If they want to get the job done, they find a way to get it done," said Captain Corrales.
It's worth noting some things:

One, this is not a manufactured controversy. A major news operation broke it and tried to get Ms. Coyote's side, but she refused, at least at first.

Two, Capt. Corrales is a USMC veteran whose son is now serving his third tour in Iraq. Did that lead him to leap to some conclusions that weren't really justified? Perhaps, maybe even probably. But we can't know. As a senior police officer of the city, specifically the unit that deals with filming in the city, we have to agree that his is professionally is a position to evaluate what traffic implications the day's shooting would have on traffic flow.

Three, Donald Block has a vested interest in keeping his company on friendly terms with the SF film commission. Did that influence his protestations in his letter? It's just as likely as the degree that Capt. Corrales might have been influenced by his and his son's USMC service.

My take is that no one is presenting the "god's eye" version of the events. However, I believe Donald Block's version of events is true in the important partculars.

Thanks to Roland for his legwork on this matter. One of the strengths of the blogosphere is its ability to fact check writers, and it was well done in this case. Had I time, I'd also contact Capt. Corrales. But I don't, so I won't, and there the matter shall rest. BTW, I tried to upload the PDF file itself, but Blogger has no protocol to upload files that are not image files.

Bolton pulls rug from under Olmert

By Donald Sensing

Via email from Israel, by Daniel Jackson

Haaretz reports of former American UN Ambassador John Bolton's visit to Israel. Bolton essentially cuts Olmert's legs out from under him. The message is incredibly blunt:

John Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Second Lebanon War, rejects Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's version of he launched [sic] a failed ground offensive during the war's final days.

"The Israeli military operation did not play a role in the talks on drafting UN Security Council Resolution 1701," which ended the war, Bolton told Haaretz Sunday. He was in Israel to attend the Herzliya Conference.

Bolton, who has warned in the past about the possibility of nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria, also said that both the United States and Israel owe their citizens a full report on what kind of facility Israel bombed in Syria last September. Media reports have identified the target as a nuclear facility.

Bolton was Washington's point man for the negotiations over 1701. He told Haaretz that on August 5, 2006, six days before the Security Council approved the resolution, he and his French colleague, who was unofficially representing Lebanon's interests, had agreed on the wording. But the Arab League objected, "so we had to make changes to obtain the Lebanese government's support and make the Arabs happy. We also understood that we had to prevent a Russian-Chinese veto in the Security Council."

However, the former ambassador said, the main reason for America's retreat from its initial position was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who "changed her mind fundamentally" after an Israeli aerial assault killed 28 civilians in Kana on July 30. "Rice exerted enormous pressure on me to reach an agreement already," he said. "Until Kana, the U.S. wasn't interested in another typical Middle Eastern cease-fire. We thought we would exploit the fighting to fundamentally change the situation, especially in Lebanon and Syria. But under the influence of her shock over Kana, the secretary of state changed her mind and only wanted an immediate end to the fire. That was the policy Rice dictated."

After the war, Olmert claimed that he launched the 11th-hour ground operation, in which 33 soldiers were killed, because the draft UN resolution that Israel received on August 11 was detrimental to its interests. The operation, he added, improved the resolution.

Bolton, however, rejected both assertions.
The Herzliya Conference, an annual political science event (several years old) over the weekend (during Shabbat, of course) is about as neocon as it gets here in Israel. It has already become a forum where US politicians come to speak to Israeli conservatives on US Israeli policy. Bolton is essentially telling Israelis that not only was Olmert totally ineffectual in executing the war, but that he really is "All-Merde," as many Israelis have nicknamed him.

The timing of this talk is not accidental, either in the larger picture or the smaller one--the Winograd Report is due at the end of the month and already the cracks are showing in the coalition. Leiberman has left the group, Shas is on the way out, and the polls, while rejecting the imput of Jews and Jewish groups outside Israel in deciding Jerusalem's fate, clearly show that no political sector here trusts Olmert at all--Peres talks of referendum, some talk about the Knesset deciding (in true Kibbutz fashion), but no one is saying, "You Go, Ehud", to either Ehud for that matter.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but it would seem to silly old me that Olmert has been cut loose, or rather set adrift.

Be that as it may, the idea that Rice would "suddenly" have a change of heart over the collateral damage in Kana when the daily rain of rockets then in the north and now over S'derot is just too outrageous for words. Where is her outrage over the homicidal acts of terrorism conducted intentionally and willfully against women, children, and the elderly that has become the hallmark of Middle Eastern warfare during the last 20 years?

Daniel Jackson, writing from Israel

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"The Problem With Boys"

By Donald Sensing

That's the title of today's must-read essay.

Friday, January 18, 2008

American Matriarchy?

By Richard Heddleson

Rev. Sensing has encouraged me to take up blogging since I began commenting at One Hand Clapping during the major combat operations in Iraq. While it is easy to enter the conversation in a comment thread, the thought of staring at a blank screen of phosphors to compose an original thought worthy asking others to take time to read has always been to me an intimidation not easily overcome. But Sense of Events seems a convivial place to offer observations on the passing scene, even as offbeat as mine. Finally the time has come to excite some phosphors and see if the readers are similarly excited, so thank you for the opportunity. My hope is that they do not adversely affect the quality of postings here.

My first rambling was stimulated by an Instapundit link to a Reason article tantalizingly titled The coming American Matriarchy.

Author Jonathan Rauch's thesis is that the growth of the ratio of females to males on college campuses to 3:2 heralds the coming of female leadership so broad it constitutes the transition of America to a matriarchy. He broadly recounts the history of collegiate education in the 20th century to the present and concludes:

The puzzle is what happened next. In the 1990s, the pattern changed again, but the surprise involved men. The wage premium for a college degree continued to rise smartly. Women responded just as economic theory predicts that rational actors would: Their college attendance rates kept climbing because the more they learned, the more they earned.

Men, however, ignored what the market was telling them: Their college attendance and completion rates barely rose. Why? "That's the big mystery," says Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. Whatever the reason, the result was a new educational gender gap, this time favoring women.
The reason is probably pretty important, not a "whatever." If one is to assume that the decision by men is not rational, there sure are a lot of men suddenly acting irrationally. That would be enough to to make one question one's faith in democracy. And why should so many males start acting irrationally regarding such an important decision? It seems much more reasonable to look for the causes underlying a rational decision.

Rauch assumes that women have been making a rational decision by attending college in ever higher numbers because, the more you learn, the more you earn. This assumption can be questioned for a number of reasons. It may not be true at the margin. Or it may not be as true for men as it is for women. Or it may no longer be true for anyone.

At the top of the educational pyramid it is unquestionably true that there are significant economic rewards for educational achievement. But there is also no sex imbalance in the make-up of the student body. Student populations at the Ivy League are maintained at a 50-50 balance. And given the oversupply of qualified applicants, the Ivies can have any ratio they want.

So somewhere down the collegiate food chain, males are starting to conclude that they are better off skipping college and starting work. And given the pay for auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians and computer technicians, they may not be wrong. Especially as these are fields where they will not have to face competition from large numbers of women or offshore outsourcing or the reductions in middle managements resulting from the flattening of organizations. Of major concern, for national security reasons, is that globalization is also making this increasingly true for engineering students who do not attend the top-flight schools.

And at these lower levels of the academic food chain, women are more and more likely to attend college because they don't have or won't accept the alternative careers open to men. Thus they are left with alternatives that are more susceptible to the forces of the IT revolution and globalization for which more and more women are competing. So they have to pursue the remaining white collar jobs aggressively.

Another issue may be that there isn't nearly as much learning going on at colleges as there used to be. I do not know the figures, but it would be interesting to know if the percentage of students at the top-flight schools going on to graduate or professional education has changed in the last 50 years. I would be willing to bet that it has increased substantially, in part to gain the cachet that formerly attached to a college degree alone. So, if one now has to go to school for seven or eight years to get that big economic boost, it had better be good, because one has now reduced the number of earning years by 20%, and the highest earning years at that. It takes a lot of salary differential to make up that opportunity cost, especially at the margin.

So it is not all clear to me that men are making an irrational decision by skipping college. There are some interesting institutional and social implications that may flow from this. But the bloviating has gone on long enough and if anyone is interested in hearing the rest of the story they can demand a sequel.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Pill and the economics of marriage

By Donald Sensing

Economics may be understood not just as the study of how money flows, but more broadly, how value is exchanged. Because value is found in things other than the coin of the realm, economic theories can be used to assess how those things work. Human relationships is one example.

Courtship and marriage are two human relationships that lend themselves to economic analysis. Obviously, money plays a large role in both, but things other than value are exchanged, too. Moreover, the wedding ceremony (in the West, anyway) is heavily encrusted with legal, contractual language of obligations undertaken in exchange for promises made.

In 2004 The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal published an o-ed I wrote called, "Save marriage? It's too late." This time was the height of the same-sex marriage wars that had erupted in California and Massachusetts. My basic thesis was that beginning when the Pill became available,

Sex, childbearing and marriage now have no necessary connection to one another, because the biological connection between sex and childbearing is controllable. The fundamental basis for marriage has thus been technologically obviated. Pair that development with rampant, easy divorce without social stigma, and talk in 2004 of "saving marriage" is pretty specious. There's little there left to save. Men and women today who have successful, enduring marriages till death do them part do so in spite of society, not because of it.
Now Tim Harford writes, in "The Economics of Marriage," that the Pill has also changed the matching between men and women because "the logic of a woman who has control of reliable contraception is quite different" from those who didn't.

As I observed in 2004, Tim points out that because of the Pill, men who have the opportunity to marry often do not "probably because they realize they do not need to marry to get sex," since women on the Pill are, as a group, very sexually active. The women who are not so active, say Tim, "are unlucky:"
[T]he existence of other women who are a little freer with their favors weakens the bargaining power of the Madonnas, and means that men have less incentive to marry. Some men will not bother at all, feeling that they can get all they want from a playboy lifestyle. Or they may delay marriage until middle age, cutting down on the pool of marriageable men and increasing male bargaining power.
The net result over the last 40 years has been a sort of price pressure on women to make themselves attractive as wives in things other than sex.

Like earning power, for instance: "the rational response is for women to go to college, bringing them both better prospects in the job market and better prospects in the marriage market." But this is a two-edged sword. The more money a woman earns, the less likely her prospective husbands are to volunteer to pick up the burden of fatherhood.
... the more capable women become of looking after children by themselves, the less men need to bother. It's a textbook case of free-riding: with highly-educated women in excess supply, men have realized that they can get sex, and even successful offspring, [without getting married].
Tim's analytical shortcoming, I think, is that he says that these choices are all explicable using rational-choice theory. But the problem with rational-choice theory is that it assumes that people always make rational choices. In matters that are so emotion-laden as sex and marriage, ISTM that idea is empirically, provably wrong. Nonetheless, many good insights.

Monday, January 14, 2008

No fast solution

By Donald Sensing

I wrote about "The coming 500 mpg car" earlier this month to explore whether the technology presently exists to improve fuels efficiencies enough to obviate the need for significant amounts of imported petroleum.

The 500 mpg car is more accurately the "500 miles per gallon of gasoline" car, since as envisioned it would use a lot more than one gallon of fuel to go 500 miles. But only one gallon would be gasoline. The rest would be E85 ethanol or electricity, the key feature being a long-range battery that can be recharged by a wall outlet as well as by the gasoline motor in the car.

The main fuel problem, though, is producing the ethanol to make E85, a combination of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol. Despite the genuflection of the Congress and the Bush administration to agri-business and the legendary family farmer, making ethanol from corn (maize) is non-cost-effective. A enormous amount of energy is used to plant, fertilize and harvest the corn plants and transport the crop to a conversion plant, where nothing is used but the kernels. There simply is not enough energy in corn kernels to make it work. In fact, it has never been demonstrated with high assurance that corn ethanol consistently yields more energy than it takes to make it. Then there is the moral issue of reducing food production to make corn ethanol. Corn is not just a table staple, it is a crucial feedstock staple; growing corn for ethanol rather corn feeds will make food the next global crisis.

An excellent primer on ethanol economics, and biofuels in general, is, "Biofuels: Doing the Math."

There are, fortunately, other ways to make ethanol than using corn, and these other methods not only promise positive energy ratios, they promise lopsided ratios. Switchgrass, which once covered the Great Plains, has been under testing by the Dept. of Energy for a few years. Researchers now believe that its energy output can be up to 540 percent of the energy inputs needed to produce it.

But that's not the best news. What if we could use ordinary garbage to make ethanol? General Motors is betting it will work. GM has partnered with Coskata Inc. of Chicago to run test activities to determine whether it's possible to convert "renewable carbon-rich materials ranging from cornstalks and woodchips to old tires and city trash into clean-burning ethanol at a cost of roughly $1/gallon." That, I assume, means a production cost of $1 per gallon, not the retail price. Even so, it is much cheaper than any other ethanol so far.

Even though GM intends 50 percent of its new auto production to be flexfuel capable within five years, "GM research suggests that by 2030, one-third of transportation fuel needs can be met by biofuels." Make that "only" one-third. So the idea that we can quickly wean ourselves off oil-driven transportation is not realistic.

But the idea of turning eyesores like this into auto fuel is very appealing, yes?

The United States throws away 250 million tires every year,more than one per driver. Recycling them into ethanol is a really good idea.

TEOLAWKI looms again

By Donald Sensing

TEOLAWKI - The End of Life as We Know It - threatens again.

Folks, the news from outer space just keeps getting worse and worse.

First, the supernova and galactic-attack scenarios.

Then the predicted return of the comet Genondahwayanung, which pretty much annihilated most life in North America when it came here the first time.

And now?

Massive Gas Cloud Speeding Toward Collision With Milky Way!

ScienceDaily (Jan. 13, 2008) — A giant cloud of hydrogen gas is speeding toward a collision with our Milky Way Galaxy, and when it hits -- in less than 40 million years -- it may set off a spectacular burst of stellar fireworks.

Time is running out. Don't go see "The Bucket List," make your own bucket list!

"The leading edge of this cloud is already interacting with gas from our Galaxy," said Felix J. Lockman, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).
Fireworks? Fireworks? Good heavens, man, it's TEOLAWKI!

Hat tip: American Digest, whose post leads with this priceless nugget: "Our premise made stupid: Study Shows over 68% of Science Stories Have Scientific Errors but.... but "over 42% of the stories were completely accurate."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Et maintenant, le deluge

By Donald Sensing

Christopher Hitchens has given up smoking.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Continental destruction, 7 of every 10 people die

By Donald Sensing


That's what happened to North America, according to a team of scientists who say that a large comet exploded over eastern Canada almost 13,000 years ago. Science News Online reports,

Evidence unearthed at more than two dozen sites across North America suggests that an extraterrestrial object exploded in Earth's atmosphere above Canada about 12,900 years ago, just as the climate was warming at the end of the last ice age. The explosion sparked immense wildfires, devastated North America's ecosystems and prehistoric cultures, and triggered a millennium-long cold spell, scientists say. ...

Heat from the event would have set off wildfires across the continent, the scientists suggest. The heat and shock from the explosion probably broke up portions of the ice sheet smothering eastern Canada at the time, they add. The flood of fresh water into the North Atlantic that resulted would have interrupted ocean currents that bring warmth to the region, and thick clouds of smoke and soot in the air would have intensified cooling across the Northern Hemisphere.
It's been recognized for a long time that at this time the glaciers were in retreat, but that this warming period was followed by a 1,000-year-long mini-ice age, referred to as the Younger Dryas. New Scientist reports
But by 12,900 years ago, the ice had retreated sufficiently from the northern Atlantic coast to let meltwater rush suddenly eastward. As an estimated 9500 cubic kilometres of fresh water poured into the Atlantic, it switched off the ocean's salinity-driven "conveyor belt" current, shutting down the Gulf Stream that carries heat from the tropics to eastern North America. It was this that triggered the Younger Dryas cooling, say many palaeoclimate experts.

However, some of the comet proponents now propose a different trigger for the cold spell. The massive airbursts over Canada could have destabilised the continental ice sheet, opening new drainage channels to the east. Additionally, dust and debris from the explosions may have darkened the ice, absorbing solar heat and accelerating melting.
But the worst consequence of the cataclysm was the mass extinctions of the late Pleistocene that have heretofore been attributed to overhunting by the Clovis peoples of the continent. The extinctions were additionally blamed on the Younger Dryas. The new impact theory, though, says that the comet's multiple explosions (caused by its breakup in the high atmosphere) themselves caused the extinctions: "at least 35 genera of the continent's mammals went extinct – including mammoths, mastodons, camels, ground sloths and horses." That's 35 whole genera, not just species, that died out. Just at the time of the extinction the researchers found a significant band of soot in sediments from widely-separated sites.
[T]eam members say this suggests the cometary explosions ignited wildfires that swept across much of southern North America, wiping out large populations of animals. "I don't want to sound catastrophic here," he says, "but this is wild stuff. There is significant evidence of massive biomass burning."
That is, the genera that perished were burned alive. Based on this and other archaeological evidence, researchers say that 70 percent of the human beings in North America were killed as well. The Clovis cultures disappeared.

But did the stories of the remnant remaining survive to this day? Perhaps:
The Ojibwa of the upper Great Lakes region had a story about Genondahwayanung, which meant "Long Tailed Heavenly Climbing Star." During the 1980s, Thor Conway visited the Ojibwa and talked to Fred Pine, an Ojibwa shaman. Pine's story about the creation notes that Genondahwayanung was a star with a long, wide tail which would return and destroy the world someday. He said, "It came down here once, thousands of years ago. Just like a sun. It had radiation and burning heat in its tail." The comet was said to have scorched the earth so that nothing was left, except the native Americans, who were warned ahead of time by Chimanitou, a Holy Spirit, and had gone to a bog and rolled themselves up in the mud to protect themselves from the heat. Pine continued, "It was just so hot that everything, even the stones, were cooked. The giant animals were killed off. You can find their bones today in the earth. It is said that the comet came down and spread his tail for miles and miles." Thereafter, all comet and meteors were treated as serious omens which required the interpretation of the Ojibwa shamans.

There are other stories of a great fire coming from the sky and destroying everything except for certain native American tribes. In some cases the tribes claimed they were warned, while others claimed they just ran for the nearest bodies of water.
The Indian legends are congruent with the comet theory, especially in the suddenness of the destruction.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Will Solar Power Become Economical?

By Donald Sensing

The race is on to make solar power conversion more efficient, hence more affordable. The greater the efficiency of turning sunlight into electricity, the cheaper the electricity will be per watt.

Sunlight is an "extensive" energy source, meaning that its collection is inherently diffused over large areas. That fact should somewhat moderate enthusiasm for solar power's uses. We use enormous amounts electricity intensively - electric motors, for example. Hence, unless sunlight can be converted to electricity at an extremely high rate, the best use of solar power will be to provide power for extensive uses.

Over most of the United States, sunlight falls upon the earth at an average rate of 1 kilowatt per square meter per hour. (1 KW equals 3,400 BTUs, if you ever want to convert solar energy into petroleum-energy equivalents.) That's with a blue sky overhead. Cloud cover reduces the intensity and of course at night there is nothing. That means, of course, that to use solar power at night or bad weather will require a storage medium as well as power generation excess to daytime's needs.

Until fairly recently, solar panels were able to convert only about 20 percent of sunlight to electricity. However, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, announced last summer that it has achieved 42.8 percent conversion efficiency. This is a new record.

Now nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson, famed inventor of the Super Soaker (true) claims he has invented a new kind of solar cell that will convert at 60 percent.

For the near term, solar power will be best used for heating or cooling of homes or businesses, which will require much less intensifying of solar energy than running electric motors. So the solar-powered automobile won't be feasible in the near future, nor will high-intensity industrial motors use solar power primarily. Even so, as efficiencies of batteries improve then so will storage of solar energy, and as solar-conversion rates continue to improve, it will be win-win all around.

However, there is no silver bullet. Increased use of solar energy will be one tool in the kit, but other technologies will continue to play major roles.

Video of Iranian boats "harrassing" US warships

By Donald Sensing

Video released by the US Navy, taken by a crewman aboard the destroyer USS Hopper in the Persian Gulf Sunday.

When galaxies attack

By Donald Sensing


"New Risk to Earth Found in Supernova Explosions"

Eta Carinae is drawing closer to its ultimate explosive demise. When Eta Carinae explodes, it will be a spectacular fireworks display seen from Earth, perhaps rivaling the moon in brilliance.

An explosive star within our galaxy is showing signs of an impending eruption, at least in a cosmic time frame, and has for quite some time. From 1838 to 1858, the star called Eta Carinae brightened to rival the light of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, and then faded to a dim star. Since 1940 it has been brightening again, and scientists think Eta Carinae will detonate in 10,000 to 20,000 years.
And it gets worse.
A jet of highly charged radiation from a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy is blasting another galaxy nearby -- an act of galactic violence that astronomers said yesterday they have never seen before.
Gerard Van Der Leun, whence the first link, declares,
First the global freezing, then the ozone hole, then the alar scare, then the warming, then the comet strike and now, now this, the FINAL INSULT! I tell you if this keeps up, sooner or later every single person alive on the Earth today is going to be dead.
Bummer.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What a Moron!

By Donald Sensing

No, really, a real Moron!

Bryan Scott Moron, 20, of Burleson, Texas, was arrested Friday after he lost control of his truck and struck a mailbox, then a house, MyFOXDFW.com reports.

Living up to his surname, Moron failed sobriety tests, the station said. The arrest report showed his blood alcohol level to be more than twice the legal limit.
Some things you just can't make up.

The coming 500 mpg car

By Donald Sensing

I wrote last Friday (Can we cash-starve the oil tyrannies? Probably not) about whether the United States could starve Saudi-funded terrorism by eliminating the petrodollars the Saudis earn from selling us 1.53 million barrels of oil per day. At $90 per barrel, they earn approximately $137 million every day from American buyers.

We would either have to find another source for that much oil or find ways to reduce our demand equivalently. In fact, both are possible but neither would matter. The Saudis are in the catbird seat since worldwide demand for oil is rising more than fast enough for them to sell all the oil they can pump.

Even so, Saudi petrodollars are source of a great deal of the world's misery, including dollars backchanneled by Saudi princes to al Qaeda or its Islamist allies. Even though the Saudis could replace the American export market fairly easily, we should still reduce our dependence on oil as much as possible. Oil is the most important strategic substance in the world today. As demand rises, it will become more so.

So this post will address whether we can reduce our need for oil enough to substantially decrease our dependence on foreign oil.

We import 63 percent of the oil we use. That percentage has risen for many years. When I first started studying this topic, we were importing just more than half. By the end of this year, I am sure the percentage will higher than 63.

Gasoline drives America's oil imports

Year to year, 45-47 percent of the petroleum refined in America is made into gasoline. (The Energy Information Administration has a table of Refinery Yields for the past six years.) More gasoline is produced than any other petroleum product. Second is held by distillate fuel oil, (home heating oils, diesels and bunker oils) that account for 27 percent, a record high conversion that will likely fall since demand for heating oils is actually down.

A barrel of oil has 42 gallons. Presently, the national average of gasoline produced by American refineries from that barrel is 19.3 or so. Some refineries produce less, some more than the average. How much gasoline (or any other refined product) is produced from a standard 42-gallon barrel of oil is mostly a function of refinery design, but not exclusively. Refineries could be designed or converted to produce less gas, but that means they will have to produce that much more of other petroleum products - 42 gallons of raw oil in means about 39.5 gallons of refined product out. (Some raw oil is consumed during refining; that loss is characterized as processing loss, and amounts to a few percentage points).

That means that the less gasoline that is produced per barrel, the more of something else would have to be produced. But there is not now a correspondingly-higher demand for other refined products.

We could, of course, maintain distillates production at present levels while refining less gasoline simply by refining less oil. Hopefully, that would mean importing less oil. At present rate of refining, we need to refine 16.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) to produce the 4,379,000 barrels of distillates used daily. Since we refine just under 21 mbpd now, once we reduce gasoline demand by 2.3 mbpd then oil use will drop by 4.6 mbpd, but will then stabilize to maintain production of distillates. If gasoline demand falls by more than 2.3 mbpd, then more gasoline will be produced than is demanded, and the price of gas will fall, perhaps a great deal.

This is static analysis, of course, while markets and production are dynamic. We could meet the distillates demand with much less raw oil by converting refineries to produce more distillates and less gasoline. If demand for gasoline falls that's what will finally happen. But some gasoline will always be produced from refining raw oil. That is good because to reduce greatly our need of gasoline will require us to continue using gasoline.

Post-hybrids are essential to energy security

Gasoline-only-powered vehicles will not disappear from American roads for a long time, probably a few decades, so we will need to produce gasoline for that period. But we also need to improve existing technologies to greater efficiencies to increase by an order of magnitude the distance one gallon of gasoline now takes a car.

On Dec. 30, former CIA Director James Woolsey plugged (heh!) rechargeable electric cars.

[L]ast month General Motors joined Toyota and perhaps other auto makers in a race to produce plug-in hybrid vehicles, hugely reducing the demand for oil. ...

... dozens of vehicle prototypes are now demonstrating that these “plug-in hybrids” can more than double hybrids’ overall (gasoline) mileage. With a plug-in, charging your car overnight from an ordinary 110-volt socket in your garage lets you drive 20 miles or more on the electricity stored in the topped-up battery before the car lapses into its normal hybrid mode. If you forget to charge or exceed 20 miles, no problem, you then just have a regular hybrid with the insurance of liquid fuel in the tank. And during those 20 all-electric miles you will be driving at a cost of between a penny and three cents a mile instead of the current 10-cent-a-mile cost of gasoline.

[…]A 50 mpg hybrid, once it becomes a plug-in, will likely get solidly over 100 mpg of gasoline (call it “mpgg”); if it is also a flexible fuel vehicle using 85% ethanol, E-85, its mpgg rises to around 500.
Okay, I'm down with 500 miles per gallon. That's super cool. Mr. Woolsey based his estimates on adoption of lithium-ion batteries, which is what GM announced it would work with. But three weeks ago, Toshiba announced the Super Charge ion Battery (SCiB):

According to Toshiba, the SCiB is a safe, fast-charging battery that can repeat the charge-discharge cycle 5,000 times while retaining its effectiveness. This gives the battery a lifespan of about 10 years, even if it’s used every day. In addition, safety features allow the battery to recharge with a 50 amp current, meaning it can recharge more quickly than a standard battery, reaching 90% of its total charge in as little as five minutes. Toshiba has tested the battery in extreme temperatures, as well, and it has maintained its ability to discharge at temperatures reaching -30 degrees Celsius (about -22 degrees Fahrenheit). ...

... Toshiba says it plans to continue to develop a high-performance SCiB to serve electric-only cars.
There are a lot of questions yet to be answered about this battery, but early returns look promising. It may mean that a plug-in, gas-electric car could achieve electric-only ranges far beyond the 20 miles Mr. Woolsey envisions using li-io batteries. But a plug-in car still uses electricity that must be generated somehow. So, would widespread adoption of plug-in electric cars merely shift oil usage from under the hood to inside a plant? Well, it might, but probably not much.

Presently, oil-fueled electricity generation accounts for a mere two percent of electricity. Coal accounts for 50 percent, hydropower and natural gas, 10 percent each. The rest comes from nuclear, biomass, solar, etc.

Converting America's autos to plug-in, gas-electric drives would require a substantial increase in electricity generation. To wean ourselves off foreign-oil reliance will mean that we will have to use our native resources to produce that electricity.

That could mean a lot more domestic oil production, which we could do if we wanted. But the political fight would be huge. Otherwise, we'd already be pumping from ANWR. So the choices come down to coal or nuclear. Suitable hydropower sites are pretty much all in use now, and the other technologies now in use will for a variety of reasons (including environmental restrictions) never amount to much more than they are now. Adding oil-fired electrical generation will probably make sense in some places, too.

Adopting massive use of ethanol fuels, such as E85, to achieve Mr. Woolsey's 500 mpgg necessitates abandoning maize-based ethanol production. The agri-lobby will fight that tooth and nail, but both economy and morality demand it. Presently, E85 used in flexfuel autos gives up only 70 percent of the energy by volume that pure-gas vehicles enjoy. That means that it takes (on average) 1.4 gallons of E85 to drive the same distance as achieved by one gallon of gas. However, engines designed to run exclusively on E85 fuel (rather than both gasoline and E85) show greater efficiencies than flexfuel engines.

Presently we are using about 9.4 millions barrels of gasoline per day. Not all of it is used in cars. Lawn mowers and other gas-powered equipment account for a significant amount. I haven't been able to discover those quantities, but let me say 7 percent. That means that we'd have a base requirement of 660,000 barrels (rounded) of gas per day for non-auto uses. At present refinery rates, that amount requires 1.4 million barrels of oil to produce.

If E85 efficiencies are not improved, the remaining 8.7 million barrels of gasoline used today would be replaced by 12.2 million barrels of E85 (8.7 times 1.4 replacement rate). Fifteen percent of that is gasoline, so that means we'd still have to produce 1.8 million barrels of gas to make E85. Total gasoline requirement: 666K plus 1.8M barrels of gasoline per day, or 2.5 mbpd (all figures rounded to one decimal). That will require 5.4 mbpd of oil at current refinery yields.

Suppose refineries were converted to invert their present refinery yields of gasoline and distillates. Then half our present rate of oil consumption, 10 mbpd rather than 20-plus, would yield 4.6 mbpd of distillates, not much more than present demand, leaving enough "float" to power some new oil-fired electrical plants. It would also produce 2.7 mbpd of gasoline. So using half our present level of oil has the potential to meet all our present gasoline needs. We'd still need to import 2.4 mbpd, but that could be exported by Canada if it only slightly ramped up production from its 2.2 mbpd presently exported to America.

None of this will happen quickly. The challenges of engineering and finance remain immense. So are the political challenges, since enormous swaths of the American economy and most every member of Congress are heavily invested in the status quo. For that matter, most of the US State Dept. will fight it, being heavily invested in Arabist world views.

Nonetheless, my recommendations:


  • Increase the construction of large nuclear power plants and streamline the approval process. Even so, building new plants will take many, many years. We can't wait that long. However, Toshiba's micro-nuclear reactor is ready now, putting out 200 Kw per unit. Utilities should emplace them where practicable.


  • Coal is more abundant in America than any other energy resource. Despite the cries of the global warming alarmists, coal will need to supply the majority of electrical generation for a long time. It's the cheapest, too.


  • Adding oil-fired electrical generation is the least preferable solution when it comes to reducing oil use, but remember that the objective is not to stop using oil, only oil sourced from particular places. The US has been reducing the proportion of oil sourced from the Middle East for 30 years at least. If new oil-fired plants can come online reasonably quickly, without increasing our dependence on oil from the Middle East, then such plants may be an attractive addition to our electrical generation.

    What about hydrogen?

    The hydrogen-powered vehicle is highly unlikely for economic and engineering reasons. Almost all the hydrogen produced is made by steam reforming, a very expensive process that pulls hydrogen from natural gas. Hydrogen is a fuel, not an energy source, and an expensive fuel to boot. See Gasoline, hybrids and hydrogen.

    But that does not mean that hydrogen is DOA for vehicle-power enhancement. Consider this development in Israel:

    Summary: Of all the ways to reduce gasoline use that I've read about, plug-in, gas-electric propulsion seems to me to be the best option all around. But we won't stop using oil because the demand for non-gasoline, refined products will still require millions of barrels of oil per day. Speaking of non-gasoline fuels, Popular Mechanics reports that diesel auto engines are making a comeback, with excellent acceleration and low emissions. In fact, "According to the EPA, if 33 percent of U.S. drivers switched to diesel vehicles, the country would reduce its oil consumption by about 1.5 million barrels a day." That would take care of the Saudi equivalent right there. So what about a diesel-electric plugin car?
  • California, again

    By Donald Sensing

    Joseph Somsel asks, "Who Will Control Your Thermostat?"

    In California, we have 236 pages of state-mandated standards for building energy efficiency, known as Title 24. ...

    A new revision to Title 24 is in the works for 2008 ... .

    What should be controversial in the proposed revisions to Title 24 is the requirement for what is called a "programmable communicating thermostat" or PCT. Every new home and every change to existing homes' central heating and air conditioning systems will required to be fitted with a PCT beginning next year following the issuance of the revision. Each PCT will be fitted with a "non-removable " FM receiver that will allow the power authorities to increase your air conditioning temperature setpoint or decrease your heater temperature setpoint to any value they chose. During "price events" those changes are limited to +/- four degrees F and you would be able to manually override the changes. During "emergency events" the new setpoints can be whatever the power authority desires and you would not be able to alter them.

    So the state of California has now claimed the authority to control the comfort level of private homes in the state. More nanny nuttery from the left coast.

    This is important, too

    By Donald Sensing

    It won't get the slightest bit of media coverage, but it does matter: Iraqi Army graduates first ever mechanic course.

    The ethanol fallacy

    By Donald Sensing

    My long-time readers know that I have opposed corn-produced ethanol from the beginning.

    Now the analysts at Popular Mechanics add to the argument: "The Ethanol Fallacy: Op-Ed."

    The idea is so appealing: We can reduce our dependence on oil—stop sending U.S. dollars to corrupt petro-dictators, stop spewing megatons of carbon into the atmos¬phere—by replacing it with clean, home-grown, all-American corn. It sounds too good to be true.

    Sadly, it is.
    Yep. The biggest problem?
    It would take 450 pounds of corn to yield enough ethanol to fill the tank of an SUV. Producing enough ethanol [from corn] to replace America’s imported oil alone would require putting nearly 900 million acres under cultivation—or roughly 95 percent of the active farmland in the country. Once we’ve turned our farms into filling stations, where will the food come from?
    A very good question. Here's the answer:
    This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls "a very serious crisis". Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

    The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren't entirely to blame - by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand - but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.
    Get the irony? Global petroleum reserves are at an all-time high, while global food reserves are at one of their lowest levels in the modern era, yet we're reducing the amount of food we grow in order to use less oil. And it's not even working. Read the whole PM article.

    Monday, January 7, 2008

    Tennessee govt. learns math

    By Donald Sensing

    Bill Hobbs explains how the Tennessee government spent probably millions of dollars to catch tax evasion worth less than $20K. Finally, says Bill, "My guess is they ran the numbers, did the math, and realized - belatedly - that spending a few million dollars to stop the loss of $19,220 in revenue didn't make sense."

    Afghanistan Update - January, 2008

    By John G. Krenson

    John G. Krenson

    The Bush Administration has begun to shift some new focus to Afghanistan for fear that it has lost some of its focus there in the last year. If the Bush administration has indeed lost focus there, then it must be true most of the rest of us have as well. Since 2003 Iraq has consumed us and Afghanistan become an oft referred to “forgotten war”. So with a positive turnaround in Iraq, current events in Pakistan such as they are and the start of a new year it behooves us to look back at Afghanistan and think about what lies ahead there.

    First a little - and simplistic - recap

    Afghanistan, a land-locked country that is a “you can’t get there from here” kind of place, has never known true stability, peace, or prosperity. It’s best years in modern times where during its monarchy particularly between World War II and the early 70s. Then the king was overthrown in 1973 by a relative and the communists saw an opening to push for power. That happened in 1978. When this new communist regime seemed threatened the Soviets were “invited in” to prop them up.

    First Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan encouraged and supported mujahedeen freedom fighters from sanctuaries inside Pakistan to fight the Soviets there and Afghans fled the country in droves. The mujahedeen were successful, the Soviets fled, the refugees stayed in their camps, the west said “thanks and see ya later” and the mujahedeen groups went after each other destroying much of Kabul in the process.

    Chaos reigned in the country causing Pakistan to seek some sense of stability there by supporting and building up the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement in the Pashtun southeast that eventually gained control of 95% of Afghanistan. An Islamic State was established with severe enforcement of strict Sharia law. The country remained isolated from much of the world, Pakistan was relatively happy with the situation; yet, oddly enough, the Afghan refugee camps there (which never emptied after the Soviet withdrawal) began filling up with more Afghans seeking to escape the Islamic state at twice the rate as when they fled the godless Soviet infidels. Tens of thousands of others - namely women, Hazaras, etc. - were massacred. Remember the 2 Buddha statues the Taliban blew apart? Most of us do as it was widely covered by our media. Remember the thousands of Hazara Muslims who lived nearby and who were massacred at the same time? I thought not; the media seemed to neglect that little detail in their coverage.

    But the world would have probably been able to live with such a situation for a long time until Osama Bin Laden needed refuge and the Taliban were needing a little extra cash. So he came there in the late 90s but it was not an always harmonious relationship. During one spat Saddam Hussein invited Bin Laden to take refuge in Iraq but Osama and the Taliban worked things out. It made sense as Osama had more leverage and clout in Afghanistan and would always be under the thumb of Saddam should he ever move to Iraq.

    Then came 9-11

    For us the War on Terror began with the attacks on 9-11 though for Bin Laden it was only the latest in a series of attacks over a decade. The US came in, the Taliban went out as did Osama but unfortunately not in a box or even in chains.

    The Good News for US

    But the good news is there have been no further terror attacks in the US or against US direct interests outside the war zone. Roughly 75% of al-Qaeda leaders have been captured, killed or isolated. Bin Laden is stuck in a cave somewhere and al-Qaeda is further away than ever from establishing a caliphate under its influence. There are two new democracies in the Muslim world (Afghanistan and Iraq) and democracy has made significant gains in many parts of the Mideast (Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, to name a few) though it has a long way to go. Most overlooked is the great success in prompting Libya, one of the greatest terror sponsors in the 80s, to switch sides with its WMD sitting now in Oak Ridge Tennessee. While not completely desirable, the Islamic world is in turmoil and that is strategically much more desirable than a hegemonic jihadist Islamic enemy bent on our destruction. Better to keep them divided than unified against us. At least that gives time for the long process of education and liberty to seed, take root and grow - a long process.

    The Good News for the Afghans

    The good news for the Afghans is that they have more stability and opportunity than they have had for over two decades. Consider:

    • Two elections with 50-70% turnout despite the threat of rain - that is, the rain of rockets (liquid rain keeps our own turnout to less than half of theirs).
    • 68 of 188 seats in parliament occupied by women.
    • The refugees are returning, at least 5 million to date - people go where hope is.
    • Annual GDP regularly increases by over 10% with incomes doubling since 2001.
    • There are at least 14 new banks (a sign of economic liberty) and 32 radios stations (a sign of political liberty).
    • There are 9500+ schools (real ones, not just madrassas teaching memorized hate) with over 5 million students - 40% of them female.
    • Kabul University opened not long after the fall of the Taliban and the American University of Afghanistan opened in 2006.
    • Reconstruction along the main road arteries of the country has decreased travel time by at least 50%.
    • 80% of the population has access to health care.
    • See more good news at http://www.defenselink.mil/home/dodupdate/For-the-record/documents/20061006.html


    To be sure the country is still a troubled land with a long way to go. But is it still better off six years since the Americans came? Without question, yes.


    The Threat Today


    The enemy still fights from internal sanctuaries in the mountains and especially from sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan even to include the large city of Quetta. There are an estimated 10,000 Taliban still fighting with the bulk of their efforts in the southern provinces. There are perhaps 2,000 - 3,000 hardcore fighters including al-Qaeda and 100-300 foreigners fighting mostly in the East. And that wayward warlord Gulbadin Hekmatyer still causes trouble mostly in the northeast and around the Kabul area. Violence is up with a surge in suicide bombings. Yet 60% of the country experiences <>


    The enemy is tenacious, the focus on Iraq especially over the last year has aided them, and the safe havens of Pakistan will always give them a place to reconsolidate - especially since the Pakistani government is less than serious about eradicating the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The historic restraint with which NATO and the US fight also ensures the war will take longer than it otherwise might.


    Our Efforts There Today


    Today NATO commands the fight under the auspices of the UN-mandate International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with about 40,000 troops from roughly 40 countries. There are 15,000 US troops under NATO command with another 8,000 or so conducting counter terrorism missions apart from ISAF. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has progressed to around 50,000 troops with many units now capable of conducing the lead role in combat operations and President Karzai is seeking to grow the ANA beyond the original plan of 70,000 troops. The US has embedded training teams developing the ANA and there are Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs - a mix of military and humanitarian aid) in most provinces. The Brits, Canadians and Dutch do most of the fighting in the south with the Americans focused on the east. Other nations concentrate on the relatively more stable north and west.


    A continuing concern is the poppy fields. There has been enormous crops over the last few years with a bumper crop expected for 2008. Indeed, we could use the droughts which hampered poppy cultivation during the time of the Taliban. Poppy is a two-edged sword in Afghanistan. While it funds upward of 40% of the Taliban’s income it also is a black market backbone to the Afghan economy. Eradicate poppy and eradicate much of our support there. General Dan McNeil, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has promised increased efforts against the poppy trade. And that’s just it - the efforts are focused on the trade and not the growth. So results will be limited. The fastest way to solve the poppy problem is to eradicate it by chemically spraying the fields. But, again, our support will be gone. The long term way to get rid of the problem is to see decreased demand in the West and Far East for heroin (as funny a likelihood as it sounds). So the reality is to do what General McNeil is doing - gradually chip at the problem while we gradually build an economic replacement….and pray that global warming hits Afghanistan causing droughts which force a weaning from poppy to other economic options.


    Looking Ahead


    The UN mandate for ISAF was renewed in fall of 2007 and ISAF is settling in to its role of operating throughout the country (ISAF originally only operated in Kabul and has gradually assumed military operational control since Fall 2003 of other parts of the country). We had hoped for a more aggressive posture from a Benazir Bhutto influenced Pakistani government but that is not going to happen and we should expect little more than we have gotten from Musharraf to date. Yet while we continue to make gradual progress in Afghanistan we have entered a phase where what happens in Pakistan may be more important that what happens inside Afghanistan. - 1) little change in Pakistan, then gradual change in Afghanistan, or 2) chaos in Pakistan, then increased violence in Afghanistan, or 3) serious efforts to attack the enemy in Pakistan, then an increased momentum in progress in Afghanistan. Should Pakistan actually fall to jihadist leaders - not likely though a concern given the present circumstances in Pakistan - then the whole situation will be rewritten.


    To drive the current effort the Bush Administration is conducting a top down review of strategy in both the Departments of Defense and State. NATO is also conducting a similar review. Concerns are how to ensure effective integration of military, political, and economic efforts. Results of the reviews are due in the spring. Part of these reviews will be consideration of a special international coordinator under the auspices of the UN to drive the efforts in Afghanistan. President Bush is leaning toward this, President Karzai is adamantly against it - so far.


    The Marines have offered to assume responsibility for all military ops in Afghanistan while leaving Iraq to the Army. But while that makes some sense for a needed aggressive surge in parts of Afghanistan (the Marines are lighter infantry and obviously well suited for aggressive ops), the theater still needs much of what the Army is best at and has deeper pockets to provide (intelligence, logistics, stability and support operations, PRTs, special ops and embedded training teams). There has been a significant Marine presence in Afghanistan in the past and that could still happen without the Marines withdrawing completely from Iraq. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Gates is considering a military surge of troops in Afghanistan similar to that in Iraq but he has made it clear the Marines will not be solely in charge. It does make sense that the Marines should be sent to Afghanistan rather than return to and remain at their home bases as the Iraq surge draws down.


    Karzai has made his umpteenth offer of an olive branch to the Taliban except for about 100 or so of their key leaders. Many members of the Taliban have for the umpteenth time flirted with it. Their current demands to enter peace talks with Karzai are 1) Taliban control of 10 provinces in the south, 2) release of all Taliban prisoners, and 3) a timeline for withdrawal of all coalition forces - ie ISAF. Movement is likely to be slow here.


    Final Questions


    So, is the US better off having gone to Afghanistan? Yes.


    Is Afghanistan better off today than it was on September 11, 2001? Yes.


    Will we and the Afghans continue to be better off if we remain? Yes.


    Is this going to continue to be a long process of gradual improvement with temporary stalls and setbacks? Most likely.


    So we will see what 2008 brings. The most dangerous development would be the fall of Pakistan into jihadist hands which changes the dynamics in Afghanistan with intensified violence. The most likely development we can expect is continued gradual progress and a long road ahead. For the optimistic, hope for a surge of momentum similar to what has occurred in Iraq but still with a long road ahead.


    See www.johnkrenson.com for his book Crossfire: A Time for Peace, War and Love .

    Sunday, January 6, 2008

    Global Warming! Come back! Come back!

    By Donald Sensing

    Despite predictions at this time last year that 2007 would be the warmest year ever, it wasn't. In fact,

    [A] funny thing happened on the way to the planetary hot flash: Much of the planet grew bitterly cold.

    In South America, for example, the start of winter last year was one of the coldest ever observed. According to Eugenio Hackbart, chief meteorologist of the MetSul Weather Center in Brazil, "a brutal cold wave brought record low temperatures, widespread frost, snow, and major energy disruption." In Buenos Aires, it snowed for the first time in 89 years, while in Peru the cold was so intense that hundreds of people died and the government declared a state of emergency in 14 of the country's 24 provinces. In August, Chile's agriculture minister lamented "the toughest winter we have seen in the past 50 years," which caused losses of at least $200 million in destroyed crops and livestock.

    Latin Americans weren't the only ones shivering.

    University of Oklahoma geophysicist David Deming, a specialist in temperature and heat flow, notes in the Washington Times that "unexpected bitter cold swept the entire Southern Hemisphere in 2007." Johannesburg experienced its first significant snowfall in a quarter-century. Australia had its coldest ever June. New Zealand's vineyards lost much of their 2007 harvest when spring temperatures dropped to record lows.

    Closer to home, 44.5 inches of snow fell in New Hampshire last month, breaking the previous record of 43 inches, set in 1876. And the Canadian government is forecasting the coldest winter in 15 years.
    Severe cold is far more lethal to people than high temps. Read the whole piece. It's an excellent synopsis of the ojections of credentialed scientists around the world to global warming alarmism. The writer, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, finishes,
    Climate science isn't a religion, and those who dispute its leading theory are not heretics. Much remains to be learned about how and why climate changes, and there is neither virtue nor wisdom in an emotional rush to counter global warming - especially if what's coming is a global Big Chill.
    Well, climate science may not be a religion, but environmentalism is the hippest po-mo religion. Author Michael Crichton has noted rightly that environmentalism is now a fundamentalist religion, too.

    And remember, global cooling ain’t so great, either.

    GM: Self Driving cars on the road in 10 years

    By Donald Sensing

    GM Researching Driverless Cars:

    DETROIT (AP) - Cars that drive themselves—even parking at their destination—could be ready for sale within a decade, General Motors Corp. executives say.
    GM, parts suppliers, university engineers and other automakers all are working on vehicles that could revolutionize short- and long-distance travel. And Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner will devote part of his speech to the driverless vehicles.

    "This is not science fiction," Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development, said in a recent interview. ...

    Much of the technology already exists for vehicles to take the wheel: radar-based cruise control, motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control and satellite-based digital mapping. And automated vehicles could dramatically improve life on the road, reducing crashes and congestion.
    I wrote about this technology in 2005: The self driving car, on the way:
    Remember how Roy Rogers fetched Trigger by whistling? So we’ll call our cars for curb service via cell phone. Not far fetched: cell phones already have GPS signaling built in for emergency calls. It’s obvious that autodriving systems will be GPS-linked in their next generation. Coupled with GPS, a car’s sensors could enable it to self-navigate from a parking space to pick you up - very handy in a rainstorm!

    What about reduced visibility, such as fog or heavy rain? Obviously for radar that’s little or no problem (depending on the radar’s wavelength) but what about this: couple GPS location detemining with RFID signaling from other vehicles and traffic-control devices such as traffic lights or roadway signs. Turn lanes could be designated by RFIDs, too.
    If there will be self-driving cars then there will be self-crashing cars. Automakers will rethink making such cars when their legal departments start to figure out where tort law will go on this technology. And the lawyers will love it of a whole new field of case law is opened up.