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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Windfarm Development

George Monbiot describes how the development of windfarms forces environmentalists and traditional industrialists to inhabit each others shoes for once. They each find the fit rather uncomfortable:
But these are not the only ways in which environmentalists’ support for windfarms makes me squirm. The joint statement about the Whinash project published by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth complains that “opponents of the scheme, which would be sited beside the M6 motorway, have claimed that the wind turbines will spoil the views, failing to acknowledge that the presence of a motorway has degraded the landscape”.(11) It quotes Friends of the Earth’s energy campaigner Jill Perry, who says, “I’m amazed that people are claiming that the area should be designated a National Park. What kind of National Park has a motorway running through it?” Well the New Forest and South Downs national parks, for a start.(12) Their creation was supported by Friends of the Earth.

Elsewhere, these groups oppose the “infill” around new roads. Elsewhere, they argue that landscapes and ecosystems should be viewed holistically: that they do not stop, in other words, at an arbitrary line on the map, like the boundary of a national park. I understand that green campaigners are placed in an uncomfortable position when arguing for development rather than against it. But I do not understand why they have to sound like WalMart as soon as the boot is on the other foot.

I believe the Whinash windfarm should be built. But I also believe that those who defend it should be a good deal more sensitive towards the concerns of local objectors. Why? Because in any other circumstances they would find themselves fighting on the same side.
I have visited the Lake District National Park, the proposed region in northern England for the windfarm development that Monbiot talks about. From my trip, I did learn that national parks in England have little in common with the national parks found in the United States. For one, I recall seeing many residences, pubs, and conventional public roads within the boundaries of Lake District N.P. In contrast, national parks in the U.S. maintain a much more primitive character. Well, duh, the U.S. government owns the national park -- this from a rather neutral German observer :
Furthermore, the land in a national park is not owned by the nation – unlike most of the land in American national parks. (McAveeney, 9) In British national parks most of the land is privately owned and privately controlled, so the designation as a national park does not alter the ownership of land within the area.
You can see why American environmentlists see windfarms as a sell-out to their cause.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Suckling Sounds

Posted by Bubba at the Belly of the Beast blog:

Peak Oil – The Broken Record

Last week I attended a seminar in Houston about the global oil and gas business which was put on by some friends of mine who work for a significant and politically connected oil and gas consulting firm. For the purpose of truth in advertising, I want to be clear – these guys (and gals) suckle at the hind tit of both international and national oil companies (as opposed to me who suckles at the front tit). They put on a series of seminar talks titled things like: How Much Cash – Where is it Going; and The Last Land Grab; and Iraq and Iran: Two Faces of US Policy in the Middle East; and of course – The Gathering Storm: US Energy Policy. Here is a brief synopsis of what they had to say.

- Consider the current oil prices (and gasoline prices) a long term floor
- Peak oil is a reality (although they did not use those words). Demand could exceed available supply within the next 5 years. Supply is likely to peak in an absolute sense before 2015.
- OPEC and non-OPEC countries have been producing an average of 16 billion barrels per year more than they have found for decades
- The US Government is concerned about gasoline prices (for short term political reasons) but
- The US Government is clueless about the real long term energy outlook for the US and the world
  • The US Government relies on the Energy Information Agency (EIA) to do long term forecasts of crude production
  • The EIA’s forecasting method is based in fantasy and is completely unrelated to the rate at which new reserves of oil is being discovered and developed.
- Competition for energy with Asia (mostly China) will become a major theme in the next decade

Thursday, April 28, 2005

I've seen chunks of guys smarter than that in my stool

Televised press conference
BUSH: One of the great sources of energy for the future is liquefied natural gas. There's a lot of gas reserves around the world. Gas can only be transported by ship, though, when you liquefy it, when you put it in solid form.
B.S. can come in solid or liquid form; although nature prefers the former, the latter comes conveniently packaged as diarrhea. Unfortunately, once it starts, it becomes hard to contain. As a prophylatic against a further case of the runs, maybe our president should pickup a textbook. Instead of The Pet Goat, I suggest Bush read a classic text on condensed matter physics called States of Matter. Written by David Goodstein, CalTech professor and vice provost, it would give Bush remedial education on concepts of which the "reality-based" community finds rather intuitive. Once Bush finishes this book he can graduate to Goodstein's treatise on our current energy predicament called Out of Gas (The End of the Age Of Oil). The latter text basically follows from the former -- the two taken together form a primer on the concept of WMD (World's Mass Depletion).

However, the vanity of small, stupid men like Bush will never allow them to face the facts:
Fourth, we must help growing energy consumers overseas, like China and India, apply new technologies to use energy more efficiently and reduce global demand of fossil fuels.
Never will BushCo acknowledge that we too need to conserve. However, suggesting that other countries conserve and improve their own efficiency issues frames the administration as NotCarter. BushCo would absolutely hate to see themselves turn into Jimmy Carter. How embarrassing. They detest seeing Carter still alive as these events transpire. How crushing to their vanity -- to realize that Reagan has died while Carter still lives and breathes. Carter still alive to see energy depletion come to fruition gnaws at their craw. The precious mustn't remind the citizenry of President Carter and what he tried to convey.
BUSH: That's a cheap shot.
Maybe so, but you gotta admit, it'll get some cheap laughs and mordant chuckles.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Technology Will Save Us

To achieve greater energy dependence, we must put technology to work so we can harness the power of clean coal. -- G.W.Bush
Of course, Bush misspoke when talking today at an SBA conference in Washington. (Or did he? You never know.) The WaPo placed the theme as Bush Touts Technology to Solve Energy Woes. Not clear how that will happen, although he did mention nuclear, hydrogen, and ethanol as options. For the latter, maybe some bio-tech thrown in for good measure to achieve better than pathetic yields?
Advances in technology will also allow us to open up new areas to environmentally responsible exploration for oil and natural gas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Applause.) Technology now makes it possible to reach ANWR's hydrocarbons by drilling on just 2,000 acres of the 19 million acres of land. That's just one-tenth of 1 percent of ANWR's total area. Because of the advances in technology, we can reach the oil deposits with almost no impact on land or local wildlife. (Applause.)
And no impact on our energy needs.

Mike Malloy of Air America Radio played several clips from the address, and Bush certainly sounds as confused as ever. At one point Bush said "Marrels of Oil" in a slip of the tongue. Malloy lit off by pointing out Bush's trivialization of real conservation initiatives, be they hybrid cars or bicycles or hot-air balloons or our own damn feet; and then concluded: "There isn't any more oil, George".

Basically, we got dealt a WHAT-ME-WORRY from BushCo.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Whine Industry

Two climate primates, Ross Gelbspan and Chris Mooney, ganged up on a MobilExxon apologist on a Democracy Now! segment on industry funding of global warming skeptics. Clearly at a loss of anything to say and exasperated as well (listen to the audio), the spokesman said this:
Myron Ebell: The -- you know, this large megaphone that we have, I'm a little bit surprised that Ross Gelbspan has mentioned that, because, of course, the environmental movement, which largely spends a lot of its effort supporting the Kyoto Protocol and energy rationing policies is a huge industry. The Sacramento Bee a couple years ago, maybe it's three years ago now, estimated it was an $8.5 billion a year industry.
The environmental movement an industry? More likely an artful conceit of projection plus framing. Now, $8.5 billion sounds like a lot, but this is like $30 per capita per year invested in health, conservation, and whatever else besides global warming that environmentalists from Sierra Club and elsewhere raise awareness on. (I did look up the original SacBee article here and the writer, Tom Knudson, mentioned only a $3.5 billion figure in 1999. Go figure.)

Sour grapes make whine.

Monday, April 25, 2005

American Thermidor (not Lobster)

I recommend reading Stirling Newberry's series called American Thermidor, Part 1 and Part 2. I commend Newberry on trying to make sense of this huge jigsaw puzzle of the world economy:
The reality is that all of the deficit problems, the energy deficit, the trade deficit, the budget deficit, and the wages and wealth deficit, are connected, each one reinforcing the others. They cannot be solved piecemeal: increasing real wages will mean that Americans will burn more oil, and import more, which means a higher trade deficit. In an environment in which other nations have energy deficits of their own, America cannot export its way to material prosperity, and so it votes for budget deficits to keep the economy propped up. This is the centerpiece of why the Republicans hold power: to undo what they have done requires a broad mandate to attack, not one deficit, but all simultaneously.
Some of the arguments seem to echo Jevon's paradox, whereby the Clinton internet economic boom, seemingly designed to reduce energy use by improving productivity (less work travel) actually worked to exascerbate the situation (more vacation travel) -- finally leading to the Bush bust, when people would just not part with the endless riches imagined and hoped for. All told, a brilliant analysis.

I also missed out on commenting on this Peak Oil fracas on DailyKos. Most of these threads burn out fast, but I thought the level of discourse was pretty amazing for a Sunday afternoon.


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-> Hat Tip: Peak Oil

Pinch more than an inch

First, we heard this from Bush's radio address:
"Good morning. American families and small businesses across the country are feeling the pinch from rising gas prices."
Then this from a Bush interview on CNBC:
"I will be talking to our friends to make sure if they pinch the economy too much, it will affect their ability to sell crude oil in the long run," he said.

There you have it. In deference to BushCo, everyone in the media will eventually use the cute euphemism "pinch" to indicate anything from (A) a reminder to turn off lights when leaving the room to (Z) a horrible slide into survivalism.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Little Big Science

Thanks to SW for this link to comments by a minor media mogul concerning (Air) America's energy independence future. SW rightly pointed out that talk of hybrids won't necessarily solve anything. But the quote that got me thinking:
Sheldon Drobny (co-founder of Air America Radio): ... Today, it is practically impossible to fund anything that advances true science because there are simply very few vested economic interests in the advancement of science unless there are tangible military or economic purposes. If we cannot get funding for technology that “just” advances man’s knowledge, how can any of us expect oil-producing countries around the world to promote alternative energy?
I also basically agree with this but would add the caveat that a few "big science" projects still get funded without miltary or economic purposes. In the physics community, the highest profile projects certainly involve big efforts to meet some economic or military need, essentially drowning out science-for-science projects. Moreover, having received the American Institute of Physics weekly email newsletter for nearly 15 years now, I can't remember ever seeing any worthy announcements of scientific funding for smaller projects. Invariably, AIP announcements always relate to DOE pseudo-pork funding for fusion science at places like Livermore and Los Alamos labs (pseudo-pork tastes just like pork when a project fails). And indignation from the email editors usually comes about when funding levels start to decrease or some "big science" project gets cancelled.

I believe that phycisists may want to start treating "little science" with the same respect as its big brother. Unfortunately, the little science projects rarely work to solely advance man's knowledge. So when the Department of Energy decides to fund a big tokomak or super-collider they can always rationalize their decision by saying: "as we try to unlock the secrets of the atom". Hypothetical "little science" projects of energy efficiency will probably never pretend to generate the cachet of a mission to the moon -- but I still think it can generate significant dividends. This may result in the kind of results that Drobny thinks will result from consumer choices alone, but that we surely will not achieve without some help from the smarty-pants out there.

Today Air America Radio's Laura Flanders dedicated a full hour to talking to a couple of business people on how their companies adapt to a more energy conscious environment. The owner of a "100% green" Wisconsin coffee shop chain said without much irony that neither conservatives or liberals have exclusive rights to proclaiming and then solving the end of oil. Instead, he said essentially that they have to work it out together in a bipartisan manner. In principle, maybe yes, but practically speaking, only the liberal media outlets talk much about this stuff. Let me count those who will not: Powerline, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, Bill Bennett, Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, etc ad nauseum. If anyone ever sees the energy depletion topic mentioned in any of these religious right zones let me know. So far, my ears record a big nada.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

King's LED Hat

Big Gav perked up my interest in revisiting some old research topics by posting on the commercialization of white LEDs. Given that incandescent lights consume a huge fraction of the USA's electrical energy output, clearly any kind of efficiency improvements here would help us soften our landing. From the reports it certainly looks like good news, so I became intrigued in finding out what they use for the underlying technology, especially the blue part of the spectrum (the long sought Holy Grail of the necessary red/green/blue trilogy of attaining white light).

Having spent the better part of the 1980's firmly entrenched in the land of III-V semiconductor research, but then leaving it to seek out a more varied career, I could get a good sense of how the research turned into commercial technology with a bit of digging. For technical background, this white paper by the whirling dervish experimentalist Hadish Morkoc1 of the University of Illinois (now at VCU), though dated, provides the basics.

In the world of semiconductor LEDs and lasers, the key to finding a match to a specific emission color involves searching the periodic table for combinations of elements that (1) form a crystalline lattice, (2) is semiconducting, (3) the semiconducting lattice forms a direct bad gap, and (4) that energy band gap has to match to the wavelength of a specific color (Ebg=hc/lambda). As this rules out just about all possible combinations of elements, researchers typically hammer on a subset of material compounds over and over. For red and green wavelengths, such crystalline compounds have long been known (Nick Holonyak another Illinois prof, basically invented the LED some 45 years ago, and should have probably won a Nobel prize). In the 80's, many thought that the material Zinc Selenide (ZnSe) held out the most promise for the missing jigsaw puzzle piece of blue.

Several of my grad school colleagues at around that time completed their thesis and went to work for a SBIR-sized company that had this goal in mind. I haven't really kept in touch with them at all, but they evidentally did hammer on that material at will, as well as working on the intriguing but frustrating Gallium Nitride family (GaN). (Another company out east worked on the similarly frustrating Silicon Carbide SiC). These guys could themselves have made the blue light breakthrough, but it took a Japanese researcher, S. Nakamura, to really hit on the recipe for a successful blue GaN LED. Check out the interview in that link.

In retrospect, looking at the way the research progressed, Nakamura had it in the bag. One of the problems of an experimental research career path is that grad students become expert technicians within a highly refined specialization. Because the specific tools they use have such a high cost, their marketable skills cause them to peg to a very narrow job description. For example, if the tool they used did not have the right capability, they by definition would never have a chance to succeed. Nakamura happened to know more about chemical-based epitaxial reactors, while my former colleagues stayed with the molecular beam variant of epitaxy. Part of the reason I left that type of research early on (before I became typecast), was the possibility of having to follow expensive equipment around the country, a slave to the machine so-to-speak.

But back to the GaN itself, early on people noticed that though it could form a crystalline lattice and met all the requirements for blue spectrum (with mixtures of aluminum and indium), it had lots of defects and was tough to work with (the closest compound on the periodic table to GaN is Boron Nitride, the stuff that high temperature crucibles are typically made of). Defects basically create extra energy states within the band gap and reduce the efficiency of carrier recombination leading to lowered light output. For the laser variant, the poor prognosis would also include material breakdown as the lasing would locally heat up the defected and dislocated regions causing the dislocations to enlarge (and so on in a classical runaway scenario). Kudos to Nakamura for keeping on this research in the face of great odds. As Morkoc and Nakamura both note, the defects strangely, and fortunately, don't seem to matter as much for Gallium Nitride as it would for other materials, e.g. Gallium Arsenide.

The final bit of irony: the toughness of this material, once thought to hinder any kind of easy processing (high temperature growth, etc) makes it very useful for things like automobile headlights and streetlights. Yes, streetlights, the big energy sucking sound that the USA has to deal with.

Welcome to the real world of research. A big, freakin' crap-shoot.

1Having met Morkoc at a conference, I was under the naive impression that to be a prodigious researcher also required you to be a spead freak.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Earth Day Blogs of the Week

Kudos to three blogs selected as blog of the week on Air America Radio's Majority Report by Bill Scher of Liberal Oasis
Bill specifically called out The Oil Drum as a blog devoted to Peak Oil. Although they just started the blog up recently, the two credentialed contributors, HeadingOut and ProfGoose have certainly developed a head of steam. Very enthusiastic, both of them, the steamy stuff has started coming out of their ears.

Update: Almost forgot ... Peaches!

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Pop Quiz on the Radio

If you listen long enough, radio call-in shows will eventually air a caller asking about Peak Oil out of the blue. Not surprisingly, it happened during a Noam Chomsky interview. Big Gav points out Chomsky's response includes the prediction that motivation to energy self-sufficiency may well turn out as the best outcome for a quick peak -- helping to thwart global warming may turn out as a long-term salvation.

It's pretty much well known that anyone can write in Chomsky style. You would not have to think twice, not even for a few seconds, how to write like this. The reason he gets away with it ... is because he usually gets it spot on.
Chomsky: For example, I was just in Europe for a couple of weeks, and they have the same traffic jams we do, but not SUV's. Their mileage for cars is way higher than ours. They have a public transportation system which we don't have.
Having also just traveled to one of the "Armpits of Europe" (guess which one?), I totally agree and can add that the two-stroke output of Vespas and such also helps to mask the underlying garbage stench.

Tomorrow Earth Day. Let's get on the bike and ride!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Lots of large lotted plots

More questionable ethanol number-crunching from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture here. Now that I have picked up the numerical framing device the ethanol enthusiasts have used (here and here) I thought I would actually try to pop the bubble on some of the more grandiose expectations of that crowd.

The grandest expectation of all considers that we can use ethanol as a fuel in the production of ethanol. Since this would eliminate (at the extreme end) our dependence on fossil fuels completely, one could say this represents the holy grail of biologically derived fuel creation. The breaking point of this argument, albeit rarely mentioned, remains the amount of ethanol needed to overcome the bootstrapping needs of this "self-generation" approach.

Ethanola = Ethanole - x*Ethanole

where, x is the fraction of ethanol extracted (Ethanole) that is reused in the production cycle to create available ethanol (Ethanola). So rearranging the extracted Ethanol to make the overhead more apparent:

Ethanole = Ethanola/(1-x)

So for every gallon produced for sale, we need to extract quite a bit, depending on how close x gets to one. Now if we take typical values of x used by the ethanol industry for fossil fuel overhead (x = 0.74), we get this:

Ethanole = Ethanola/(1-0.74) = 3.85 * Ethanola

So nearly 4 times the amount of ethanol available for net over-the-counter sale needs "extracting" as a gross overhead. Essentially, this means 4 times the size of corn fields needed for our "home-grown" energy independent solution, than if we used fossil fuels as a production energy source.

Well, no worry. As I write this, Air America's Mike Malloy broadcast snippets of G.W. Bushco talking at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Legislative Conference. Malloy mentioned something about losing his Bush to English translation guide as he tried to decipher what G.W. said:
Bush: To achieve greater energy security, we have got to 'arness (chuckles)-- harness the power of clean coal. We should also open up new areas to environmentally responsible exploration for oil and natural gas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Applause.)
After Bush recovered from his temporary Cockney accent, he started delving into his ethanol "visions".
Bush: The energy bill should encourage greater use of ethanol. And I like the idea of people growing corn that gets converted into energy. Somebody walks into the Oval Office and says, there's a lot of corn being grown, Mr. President. Hopefully, that one day will mean we're less dependent on foreign sources of energy. The more corn there is, the more we have to eat. The more corn there is, the more energy there is.

Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of corn for sure.

Are we truly at the tipping point for techno-speak banalities coming out of the right wing?
"Absolutely. We've got Justice Kennedy writing decisions based upon international law, not the Constitution of the United States? That's just outrageous," DeLay told Fox News Radio. "And not only that, but he said in session that he does his own research on the Internet? That is just incredibly outrageous." (via atrios)
Millions of educated people, including scientists, engineers, plus schoolkids looking up what a protozoan looks like, and relatives searching for clues to curing fatal illnesses, etc., all of them outrageous -- are Bush and Delay truly that retarded? But, of course! Acting. Specially prepared for the base element of their following.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Take the Lithium

In certain respects, an ideal electrical capacitor remains the perfect energy storage vehicle. Pure, pollution-free electrons provide the energy, with little downside if we can eliminate the leakage currents and up the voltage without the risk of electrical breakdown.

Toshiba has a press release describing a Lithium-Ion battery with many of the same characteristics of a capacitor, namely extremely fast recharge. In Toshiba's case they claim recharge times of less than a minute.

The unspecified voltage causes me a bit of concern. They claim not to reach the 3.6 volts of standard Li+. Much like traditional capacitors, many of the charging problems go away as you reduce the voltage.
Energy = CV2
Alas, the energy contained within scales as the square of the voltage applied. We will have to wait and see on this one. Likely great for impatient users of MP3 players and such, but maybe not for that hybrid vehicle.

Treehugger also brings up the Vanadium Redox battery. Curiously, the Australian web site proclaiming its invention looks a bit stale.

Pinched or Pinchee?

Reader ~DS~ from Screwing the Unscrutable hints that Bush has started to parade around his energy plan; the one that will likely get railroaded through congress in the coming weeks. From his weekend radio address, it sounds like Bush has presented a game of "20 Questions" to congress (1. Is it vegetable, animal, or mineral? 2. ...). Congress will only win the game, according to Bush rules, when they correctly anticipate the 20 answers with the requisite amounts of cronyism, kickbacks, and taxcuts to his buddies. Read between the lines, and note the understatment of the year -- feeling the pinch from rising gas prices
Radio Address by President Bush to the Nation
Saturday April 16, 10:06 am ET

WASHINGTON, April 16 /PRNewswire/ -- The following is a transcript of a radio address by President Bush to the nation:

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. American families and small businesses across the country are feeling the pinch from rising gas prices. If you're trying to meet a family budget or a payroll, even a small change at the pump can have a big impact.

America's prosperity depends on reliable, affordable and secure sources of energy. And today our energy needs are growing faster than our domestic sources are able to provide. Demand for electricity has grown more than 17 percent in the past decade, while our transmission ability lags behind. And we continue to import more than one-half of our domestic oil supply.

In the coming days and weeks I'll talk more about what we need to do in Washington to make sure America has an energy policy that reflects the demands of a new century. The first order of business is for Congress to pass an energy bill. Next week Congress begins debate on energy legislation and they need to send me a bill that meets four important objectives:

First, the energy bill must encourage the use of technology to improve conservation. We must find smarter ways to meet our energy needs, and we must encourage Americans to make better choices about energy consumption. We must also continue to invest in research, so we will develop the technologies that would allow us to conserve more and be better stewards of the environment.

Second, the energy bill must encourage more production at home in environmentally sensitive ways. Over the past three years, America's energy consumption has increased by about 4 percent, while our domestic energy production has decreased by about 1 percent. That means more of our energy is coming from abroad. To meet our energy needs and strengthen our national security we must make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

Third, the energy bill must diversify our energy supply by developing alternative sources of energy like ethanol or biodiesel. We need to promote safe, clean nuclear power. And to create more energy choices, Congress should provide tax credits for renewable power sources such as wind, solar, and landfill gas. We must also continue our clean coal technology projects so that we can use the plentiful source of coal in an environmentally friendly way. The bill must also support pollution-free cars and trucks, powered by hydrogen fuel cells instead of gasoline.

Finally, the energy bill must help us find better, more reliable ways to deliver energy to consumers. In some parts of the country, our transmission lines and pipelines are decades older than the homes and businesses they supply. Many of them are increasingly vulnerable to events that can interrupt and shut down power in entire regions of the country. We must modernize our infrastructure to make America's energy more secure and reliable.

Every source of power that we use today started with the power of human invention, and those sources have served us well for decades. Now it's time to apply our knowledge and technology to keep the American Dream alive in this new century. There is nothing America cannot achieve when we put our mind to it. And I urge Congress to work out its differences and pass an energy bill that will help make America safer and more prosperous for the years to come.

Thank you for listening.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Biofuels Roadshow

Biofuels enthusiasts mean well but I often wonder if they truly understand the sustainability of their efforts. The Resource Insights blog does a good job articulating the pro's and con's of each side. Needless to say, Cobb finds that the con's arguments usually win out, i.e. no free lunch.

In particular, the scavenging biofuel crowd need to realize that their "free lunch" run will have a short lifetime. I would classify their efforts on par with early investors in faddish antique markets. As a rather pitiful analogy, discarded vegetable oil will (although common now) become as rare as 19th-20th century telephone insulators dotting the countryside. I spent much time in my youth shimmying up poles collecting these emerald-colored glass jewels, but heck if you can find them anymore. Once they started becoming more rare, insulators became more valuable, which caused more people to track them down, a rather abbreviated ad infinitum.

And this outcome occurs for something that has absolutely no intrinsic value1. On the other hand, everyone uses fuel. Old saying: "The early bird gets the worm ... until the drought comes"

1 Aside from well-engineered electric dog fences.

Light Rail vs Personal Rail vs Air Scooter

In light of my previous post on Light Rail vs Personal Rail transport, Sunday's 60 Minutes piece on personal air transport provides some additional interesting context. (If you didn't get a chance to see it, visualize GyroMan from Road Warrior. If you didn't see that either, look in the back pages of 20-year-old Popular Science magazines for the gimmick) I found it strange that CBS reporter Bob Simon basically went gaga over the technology without asking the obvious questions on gas mileage, range, etc. And true to form, the local right-wing radio meatstick also went hyper over the units this morning, sounding almost willing to fork over the funds right then and there. But in actuality, Mr. Meatstick had really no intention of purchasing an AirScooter, as he launched into an attack on all conventional forms of mass transit, claiming them all 19th antiques or some such nonsense.

This follows the premise of misdirection that I pointed out in the previous post. The Air Scooter will become the new Personal Rail; a convenient right-wing excuse to continue defunding Amtrak, Light Rail, and any other workable idea.

From The Times (of England) 80% of traffic in the inner city consists of people looking for parking spots. Instead of endlessly cruising around the block, maybe we should start worry about excess hovering activity in our future.

Sunday, April 17, 2005


Recommended reading in the April issue of Harpers:
  • Death of a Mountain - Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia, Erik Reece
  • OPEC on the March - Why Iraq still sells its oil a la cartel, Greg Palast
  • The $4.7 Trillion Pyramid - Why Social Security won't be enough to save Wall Street, Michael Hudson
  • The Cuba Diet - What will you eat when the revolution comes? Bill McKibben

Not available online, but very worthwhile to pick up from the newsstand. Favorite quote from the strip mining article:
These days it is thought unfashionable, even backward, to talk about laws of nature or to read a philosophy, a morality, into the workings of the natural world. For 4,000 years, theologians and philosophers have debated whether an Intelligent Designer stands behind it all. I have nothing to contribute to that discussion. But this much seems clear: this forest certainly demonstrates an intelligence, one it has been honing for 390 million years. Its economy is a closed loop that transforms waste into food. In that alone it is superior to our human economy , where the end of the line is not nutrients but rather toxic industrial waste. Is there design behind this natural intelligence? I have no idea. But I will venture this: The forest knows what it's doing.

From the April issue of The Atlantic, a short article entitled "Crude Politics: The United States, China, and the race for oil security", reprinted here. Check out an interesting website called PetroPulse referenced by that article.

Light Rail vs Personal Rail

I do not understand the vendetta that right-wingers have against mass transit. As a case in point, Minnesota state senator Michelle Bachman has ignorantly complained about the "honors system" of the Minneapolis Light Rail Transit system. On a radio show, she claimed that only 15% of the commuters actually end up paying for tickets, and therefore we need to get rid of the whole system . As Fred Willard would say, I Don't Think So!:
Why doesn't Metro Transit use turnstiles to ensure that LRT riders are paying their fares?
Metro Transit utilizes a barrier-free fare-collection system which is used by the majority of light-rail systems in North America. The average fare evasion rate for this type of system is 2%, which far lower than the cost to maintain and operate turnstiles. Of course, Transit Police do randomly request that passengers provide proof of fare payment. Passengers who do not provide valid proof end up paying a $180 fine including court costs.
Personally I have seen big, burly Minneapolis transit cops write out tickets a couple of times to non-payers. Ka-Ching. Clueless politicians like Bachman evidently don't get out too much. If she did, she would realize the honors system can work in various ways; for example the London train and bus system allows you to pay via credit card once on board.

Atrios points to an editorial on the future of Los Angeles mass transit here. Commenters on Atrios's blog mentioned that General Motors effectively destroyed LA's early streetcar system by politically positioning GM buses as an alternative -- via this theory. The roads necessary for buses eventually lead to the endemic LA car culture of today.

Another contender, Personal Rail Transport, has some of the makings of an analogous bait-and-switch tactic to LRT. Professor Ed Anderson of the U. of Minnesota has pushed this idea (basically personal pods on elevated rails) for a long time, even going so far as hawking his system Taxi 2000 at the State Fair last year. But in actuality, the politicians use the PRT as a canard to muddy the waters of effective mass transit solutions:
PRT critics on www.cprt.org have accused the concept of being an excuse for right-wing Republican policymakers such as Olson and the pro-highway Senator Michelle Bachman to vote for automobile infrastructure, while supporting PRT as an alternative to mass transit. The claims of conspiracy theorists resemble the actual events that brought an end to the nation’s streetcar system in the 1930s.
In what way does Bachman differ from a thug?
With a pack of notorious mobsters, GM helped purchase and scrap the street railways serving Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Coast2Coast but nobody home

Oil depletion issues hit the conspiracy radio airwaves last month with much of Art Bell's Coast2Coast show devoted to asking what his listeners thought of Peak Oil. Although I managed to avoid listening, from what I have heard elsewhere, caller ignorance reigned supreme. One caller had no real concern as he believed that ordinary fuel originates as a manufacturable quantity (or more likely meant that the fuel crises itself is manufactured, i.e. pretty much the same thing). Another believed that the government stores classified alien-engineered technology in underground bases and thus we should have no foreseeable problems. The dialog continued:
Art: Why do you think that?
Caller: I heard it on your show!
Art you made your bed, now lie in it.

Which brings up the topic of Jerry Springer joining the Air America Radio schedule and replacing the great Unfiltered show (Rachel Maddow will pick up a weekday morning show at 5AM which started last week). Considering his TV fan-base -- conspiratorial at a personal/skank/lying/cheating/boozing level -- Springer's show may attract an audience that thinks Art Bell as too academic. Too painful to consider, but AAR will at least show off egalitarianism in its finest clothes.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Unwise Use of Numbers - Part 2

Randell Jesup provided a good comment to a previous post. A careful reading of a passage shows some ambiguity in what the authors tried to convey. The relevant statement here:
"As you can see, the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower -- 0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered."
I don't believe I misread what the author wrote, but I do think the author totally screwed up in writing what he intended to convey. Note that both the ethanol and gasoline comparisons have an energy "consumed" comparison. It states that 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy is consumed for gasoline delivered. I call B.S. on the authors for classifying consumption of "delivered" gasoline that has not yet been used. Used in this way, this number will never drop below 1.0 and ethanol will look better than gasoline as long as EREOI stays positive for ethanol.

This shows how it pays to stay vigilant on the way people throw around numbers

Secondly, I think Randell also mentioned how the fuel used in ethanol processing needs the extra overhead that the gasoline got stuck with:
0.74 MBTU of fossil energy to produce 1 MBTU of ethanol means that if this is correct, you can draw less oil from the ground, use it to grow whatever and turn it into ethanol and transport it, and be around 0.5 MBTU ahead of petrogas (so far as the draw on the oil/coal reserviors goes) to get 1 MBTU to the pumps. If, instead of fossil fuels, you use ethanol to generate ethanol, you need to produce around 2.5 MBTU total. (That 0.74 MBTU to get 1MBTU of ethanol requires 0.74*0.74 MBTU to produce. That requires likewise, etc.)

Keep calling people on the B.S., me included.

Trick Box

In an otherwise rather interesting opinion piece entitled Oil Insanity, Molly Ivins has entered the energy independence trick-box. She writes:
If you put a tax on carbon, it would move industry to wind or solar power. Wind power here in Texas is at the tipping point now - comparably priced. Our health, our environment, our economy and the globe itself would all benefit from a transition to renewable energy sources.
A progressive like Ivins will need to consider the regressive ramifications of a carbon tax. In other words, not every class in our society would look favorably to such a move, especially the low-income forced to pay a premium at the expense of solar-outfitted ranches in Crawford.

We might find more trick-boxes in the future. Historically, we have avoided poor outcomes based on having run across them before. In all likelihood uncharted territory lies ahead.

Ivins also quotes from the Apollo Project:
The Apollo Project, a sensible outfit dedicated to reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, says 90 percent of Americans support its goal of energy independence. Bracken Hendricks, the executive director, points out that there is "remarkable agreement among many so-called strange bedfellows - labor and business, environmentalists and evangelicals, governors and generals, urbanites and farmers."
I signed up for Apollo's mailing list and have received emails regularly, but apart from a paper called "The Death of Environmentalism", which had a marginally controversial tone, I can't decipher their objectives beyond some general platitudes.

Monday, April 04, 2005


A placeholder in case this place remains quiet for several days.

Opinionated NRG blogs that I fill my tabs with every day:
For amusement, Monte has cleverly collected various rantings into a virtual embodiment of what we face every day.

Unwise Use of numbers

A fascinating talking points memo from the National Corn Growers Association web site suggests amazing energy returns from ethanol in comparison to gasoline. I find it fascinating because the memo states this in the upper right margin:

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
U.S. Department of Energy - Page 1

Argonne National Laboratory Ethanol Study: Key points

The title and masthead indicates that presumably someone (nameless) in some official capacity from this branch of the DOE authored the summary. Unfortunately, the memo contains some astounding claims, that if true, turns conventional understanding of our petroleum infrastructure on its head.

One of the key points from the summarized report make this rather alarming and quite unambiguous statement:
As you can see, the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower -- 0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered.
This relationship perfectly illustrates a mathematical conundrum. At one limit, if the 1.23 million BTU's comes from the petroleum itself, then you would never get any gasoline to the consumer. Everything you pull out of the ground would get completely used up (and then some) to get to the filling station. But we know that we can't use that limit as the study says that the 1.23 million comes from all sources of fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, etc).

So next we have to ask how the relationship pans out for coal. Why doesn't the author from Argonne point out how many millions of BTU of fossil fuel energy it takes to deliver 1 million coal BTUs? Well, he won't because he will find himself trapped inside a trick-box. If the number turns out higher than 1 million BTUs, then his argument collapses into an impossibility. We would use up more energy than we get out (and we know this can't be true). On the other hand, if it is lower than 1 million BTUs, then coal suddenly looks like a better energy delivery vehicle than petroleum. (If we can endure the dirty air, maybe it is?) Instead of ethanol, perhaps we should resort back to steam locomotion as a means of transportation.

I believe we need to look at the original study. Argonne scientists usually publish their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. If they don't, they should not work at a U.S. government basic research lab.

For all we know some bureaucrat might have cherry-picked the key points without the negatives to make it look good. Worse yet, somebody at the corn growers association may have spun the original report to favor ethanol. I could not locate it on the http://www.eere.energy.gov web site.

Pops from the PeakOil message board interpreted the data as reading 0.23 million instead of 1.23 million, implying that they meant some sort of net overhead. But notice that they (i.e. the original "authors" from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy) use the word "consumed". Now if "consumed" in one case meant "handled", I could buy into his interpretation. Then we can chalk it up to bad grammar or syntax (imagine if George Bush had tried to articulate this).

Obligatory disclaimer: Great news if the numbers do indeed pan out!

The key points memo cites a scientist from Argonne named Michael Wang as the author of the original study. Apparently, Wang sits on the Board of Directors of the Energy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to finding energy alternatives. I feel a tad more confident that we will eventually get to the bottom of the strange numbers as a particularly outspoken opponent of the Energy Foundation is Mr. Wise Use himself, Ron Arnold. Arnold authored a book called Undue Influence in which he accuses Energy Foundation of accepting money from every oil company except for Exxon/Mobil, implying that the foundation only exists to undermine Exxon.

To paraphrase an old saying, I hope the enemy of our enemy is our friend.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Insta Dust Bunny

Contrary to the tone of the preceding post, the Foresight Institute has not come up with any real technological breakthrough with regards to nanotechnology. Actually, I find the marketing thrust of the Institute rather comical. Open the door of the techno-clown car, and you find clowns like Glenn (Instapundit) Reynolds come tumbling out of their website. They might actually have a few scientists that show some dedication, but their current defensive posture concerning criticisms by Richard Smalley demonstrate a thin skin.
Nobel Winner Smalley Responds to Drexler's Challenge,
Fails to Defend National Nanotech Policy

Rice University Professor Richard Smalley responds to a longstanding challenge by Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler to defend the controversial direction of U.S. policy in nanotechnology. Their four-part exchange was a cover story for Chemical & Engineering News. This could mark a turning point in the development of the field.
In brief, the resolution of the exchange between Smalley and Drexler has the Foresight Institute parading around Smalley's rather minimal retraction like homies whose team won some cross-town rivalry. Pretty silly really, considering that Smalley still left them with this challenge:
Please tell us about this new chemistry.

With best wishes,

Rick Smalley
Having spent a few years investigating how atoms and molecules rearrange themselves on surfaces of materials, I find much of the Foresight enthusiasm delusional at best. I have learned that tiny particles follow laws of quantum and statistical mechanics that become more constrained and rigid as scales reduce. And as scales reduce, building anything back up to macroscopic utilities becomes even more challenging. The illustration of that proposed molecular manufacturing device could have come from the mind of The New Yorker's ace cartoonist Bruce McCall. McCall has perfected the art of projecting a vision into the future of someone trapped in the last century. Stuff like that simply lures the gullible. In reality, devices that peer into the nanoworld have a rather stunning simplicity. For example, I have heard stories from mid-1980's colleagues who had duplicated the Nobel prize winning Scanning Tunneling Microscope in their basement over the weekend. Much like this. And in contrast to what people have stated on the Foresight archives.

In general, the way to look at nanotechnology, from a rather jaded perspective, is to realize that simple devices may lead to incredible gee-whiz demonstrations, but beyond that you can follow either of two paths: One path leads to continuous marketing and the other path leads to the conventional microelectronics industry (Silicon Valley, et al). The latter group of people understands all too well how to achieve economies of scale and demonstrating how to do anything beyond the one-off prototype. Unlike the Foresighter's, they know chemistry and process. Clean-room engineers in bunny-suits understood nanotech before some marketeer coined the phrase.

So can we put pseudoTechs like Reynolds in their place?

Smalley has a record of raising the ire of technologists. In the context of energy issues, Cypress exec T.J.Rodgers criticized what he considered Smalley's limited ability to articulate a clear-cut energy vision for industry or government to follow. Well, how about this for a vision: Continue to tell it like it is. Take no prisoners. Call them on it. Suffer no fools. As PZ Myers states at Pharyngula:
Slap 'em down. Anyone who tries to tell you that the world is 6000 years old or that evolutionary biology is a failure is an idiot. They don't deserve your patience.
Smalley should take a hint and try on some of the arrogance of Dr. Ron Cranford of Hennepin County Medical Center and say this more often: "How can you be so stupid?"

Which begs the question: What's the deal with this Foresight Institute in the first place? They must have an agenda. They certainly don't exist as a parody web site. But, to me at least, the proposed nanotech molecular manufacturing device borders on the same level of insanity as the riding-saddle dinosaur at Ken Ham's creation museum featured on PBS last week.
JEFFREY BROWN: When the museum opens in 2007, visitors will walk through a world in which dinosaurs and men lived side by side, one dinosaur even has a saddle.

Although the Foresight Institute certainly doesn't stretch incredulity this far, they do inhabit a fuzzy world a bit more challenging to categorize. The fuzziness extends from pure peer-reviewed science on the one end to agenda-driven think-tank pseudo science on the other. The best analogy I can come up with is that the Foresight Institute is to (blank) as the Discovery Institute is to creationism. What this (blank) refers to I have yet to pin down. But if the Discovery Institute aims to use the pseudo-scientific claims of Intelligent Design to couch their true beliefs in creationism, might the Foresight Institute act as the technological wing of Intelligent Design? Think about it. If Drexler and company could create microcosms like the nanotech manufacturing device, might not that provide the proof-of-principle prototype for an intelligently designed universe?

Nano-god indeed, heh.

Is April Fool's day over?

1We tried out a rapid prototyping/graphical programming tool called Foresite. After using it for awhile and then discarding it, a co-worker punned "In hindsight, we never should have purchased Foresite."

Friday, April 01, 2005


The Foresite Institute unveiled visuals of their nanotechnology breakthrough. They managed to harness what they refer to as a potentially "runaway replicator" to achieve near god-like capabilities and nearly completing all their objectives including to "improve the human condition".