Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on, the Republican sweep of the 2010 elections is going to presage some fundamental changes in the tech / science landscape, at least based on what the incoming set of pols say they are going to do.  Time now to take a look at some of these likely results, and of course decide if we like them or not.  One thing for sure, the Democrats have been very timid in advancing their causes during the last two years, and it’s equally sure the incoming Republicans probably will not be.  Whether or not they actually have a “mandate” from the voters to actually implement all these positions is not at all clear, but one can assume they’re going to try.

The background for this analysis is straightforward: broadly speaking, the incoming conservative Republicans are very strongly pro-big-business, believe that climate change is a hoax, and believe that Islam is a special global threat that requires extraordinary measures to combat it.  They also see government and its regulations and laws as the chief impediment to the national improvement.  And finally, they have a strong fundamentalist-Protestant ethos that is the most basic foundation of their worldview, and for many this ethos is hostile to science.

So, where does this leave us?  Like it or not, here’s what appears to be coming.

Dramatically less research funding, especially in areas not producing technologies leading directly to marketable products.  This article in the Times says it all: National Institutes of Health might drop by 9%, National Science Foundation, -19%, and NOAA,  -34%.  This is in contrast to the Obama administration’s projected reduction of about 5% overall in research funding for the next fiscal year.  One might ask why NSF and NOAA are taking such a hit, and the answer is what appears to be the Republican antipathy toward the whole concept of climate change, see below.  They don’t believe it, and they aren’t going to fund it.  Certainly our current economic situation requires belt-tightening, no question.  But these agencies take the brunt of political punishment for their positions: NIH refuses to promulgate the idea that abortion causes breast cancer and rampant depression, NSF keeps acting as if biological evolution were actually true, and NOAA — well, read on.  Opposing these agencies speaks right into the heart of the Republican / Tea-Party conservative core.  Nobody campaigned saying “we’ll cut emissions and promote greener living,” they campaigned on “drill, baby, drill.”  And obviously, that’s what the electorate wanted to hear.

There will likely be a concerted attack, and that’s not too strong a word for it, on the idea of doing anything about global warming / climate change.  For whatever reason, the Republican Party has embraced the position that climate change is a scientific hoax, or anyway if it’s real, it really doesn’t matter.  Part of this is their pro-business slant, and anything that impacts quarterly profits is anathema.  Several incoming Congressmen have stated that they will hold hearings for the purpose of “putting the lie to all this global warming scare talk.”  Rick Perry, the newly-re-elected Governor of Texas, intends to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses in Texas and has filed seven lawsuits against the government to prove it, see here.

This position is partly based on the fact that curbing greenhouse gases and addressing climate change will require concerted Federal action, and the Tea-Party view is that this must therefore just be a big liberal power grab.  Others, and some of these I have personally talked to, take a very Christian-fundamentalist view that “the Earth was put here for our use” and it would be an affront to God if we fail to fully exploit it, and anyway the Rapture is coming very soon so it won’t matter if the Earth is left a gutted hulk because God is going to destroy the universe anyway.  And soon.

So given these, we can expect very little if any Congressional support for any green technology investment or research.

Net Neutrality will be threatened and probably eroded.  The Obama administration has taken a strong stand for “net neutrality,” the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must provide non-preferential routing to all Internet traffic.  In the US, there is an effective oligopoly on Internet service, unlike Europe where it is a competitive free-for-all and hence service is much better (in other words, faster) and the costs are lower.  The big ISPs are determined to not let all this competition happen here, and they intend to leverage their oligopoly position to create a set of tiered services where those content providers who can’t pay the extra tariff will be relegated to second-class service.  Since this is good for the providers’ business, the Republicans are going to fight any net neutrality regulations under the banner of “get the Federal government out of our private lives,” and of course, protect their oligopolistic profits.

Also, and especially in the Internet environment, there will be attempts to enact more intrusive laws that will reduce Internet anonymity and personal privacy.  The Obama administration has not been a shining light here, either, having asked for legislation to require eavesdropping “backdoors” in telecommunication networks and hinting that data encryption might somehow be restricted.  But the more militant parts of the Republican / Tea Party, for all their table-pounding on personal and states’ rights, and freedom, and the Constitution, are worked up considerably against the to them ubiquitous Muslim Terrorists, and believe if they can only curtail some of our freedoms and privacy they will be able to eliminate terrorism or terroristic threats.

How much of this can the new Republican majority enact in two years?  Probably not all that much but they can stall, de-fund, and in general make a mess of things.  And to date the Obama administration has not been an effective counterpoint to them.  My only editorial comment on all this: it’s not pretty if you think that science and technology investments are critically important to our economic and political future, that science should not be trumped by politics and religion, and that personal freedom and privacy are what after all we stand for in the world.

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Of all the poor places on the planet, perhaps no place would be as poorly prepared to weather an earthquake, or any other natural disaster, or even disruption, as is Haiti.  Haiti is without question the most absolutely impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, seemingly a sinkhole of boundless misery and misfortune.  And now, this: a magnitude 7++ earthquake centered almost directly under a fantastically-overcrowded capital city.  The destruction is almost impossible to quantify, and there is virtually no surviving infrastructure.

This earthquake happening is, of course, predictable and inevitable, for Haiti lies directly over a major strike-slip fault zone that is moving at millimeters per year.  Sooner or later, it’s going to give.  If you’d like more details, here is a good explanation from Woods Hole.  The same thing is going to happen to California, sometime, perhaps sometime soon (geologically speaking).  I guess everybody thinks that it won’t happen to them, that they will be dead or away in England or something, so they don’t need to worry about it.  But these things DO come, eventually.  And the reality is, build substandard structures in an active fault zone and this is what happens.  I ask: why is anyone surprised?

To answer my own question, they apparently were surprised by New Orleans, too, in spite of 30 years of warnings by geologists, meteorologists, and engineers.

But the catastrophe of this earthquake is compounded by the thing that is Haiti, by it’s culture and it’s history of misery.  The core of why Haiti is what it is was summarized by Tracy Kidder in the New York Times on January 13th:

Haiti is a country created by former slaves, kidnapped West Africans, who, in 1804, when slavery still flourished in the United States and the Caribbean, threw off their cruel French masters and created their own republic. Haitians have been punished ever since for claiming their freedom: by the French who, in the 1820s, demanded and received payment from the Haitians for the slave colony, impoverishing the country for years to come; by an often brutal American occupation from 1915 to 1934; by indigenous misrule that the American government aided and abetted. (In more recent years American administrations fell into a pattern of promoting and then undermining Haitian constitutional democracy.)

Full text of this is here.    A more comprehensive discussion of Haiti’s beyond-unfortunate history is here.)

The essence is this: slaves gloriously threw off their slavemasters, but never having lived under their own hand, soon fell into slavery again, now to one of their own.  It is beyond sad, they could have been a beacon of liberty in the Caribbean.

So now what?  The history of aid to Haiti is pathetic: for billions, almost nothing to show for it.  This isn’t all their own fault, much of the US aid to Haiti was tied to spending it with American companies, a perfect recipe for fraud and ineffectiveness.  Even before this disaster, providing aid to Haiti was an established growth industry.

Much as I am not a fan of US intervention in the world, if we’re going to intervene, this is the place, and now is the time.  I would suggest these steps:

  • Send in the Marines, stabilize the situation on the ground, prevent total chaos;
  • Haul in food, and be prepared to feed much of the population for several years (yes, years);
  • Develop a 20-year plan that emphasizes infrastructure, for example build roads, build natural gas distribution so that towns, then villages, then individual houses, can get cooking heat, so they can stop destroying their environment by stripping every single twig to make charcoal;
  • Implement this plan with whatever resources are available, and as part of it start — immediately — turning responsibility over to Haitians in bite-sized pieces, to learn to manage as their own;
  • Bring in businesses to employ Haitians doing what is now so often done exclusively in China — give these people a head start, give them hope, give them jobs;
  • Follow the 20-year plan to have us — and other Western democracies — out of there completely by then.

Many will decry this as paternalistic and disrespectful of Haitian culture.  Sorry, but there is so very much of Haitian culture that is so deleterious to them: graft, corruption, voodoo, etc., and it just needs to go.  I would say: where do you want Haiti to be in 20 years?  Step on the road to go there.  Remember, another earthquake is coming, sooner or later.

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Just an update for those who have assured me that the Prius “would never last” or “would blow up” or whatever.

138,000 miles and counting, doubters, and finally I have had to put on new brakes.  Remember the regenerative braking?  All that stopping power has just gone into the generator.  Hence, the pads don’t get used until about 15 MPH.  also, some people have told me that the battery would start failing long before now and my mileage would tank.  Right now, in 70-degree Minnesota weather (what’s passing for summer this year), I’m showing 52.4 MPG pretty consistently in my normal driving cycle.  That’s even better than my motorcycle.

So, as the sticker in my back window shows, “Eat My Voltage.”

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Well, well, well.  Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, a 40-year veteran of Washington and a Republican anchor in Congress, is caught taking $250,000 in gifts from oil magnates and not disclosing them to the public.  This is Ted “Bridge to Nowhere” Stevens, who prided himself as “the meanest man in Congress,” who once said “a vote against this bill is a vote against Ted Stevens, and I won’t forget it,” and who personalized political disagreements to a level that even Richard Nixon would have found stunning.

This is also Ted “the Internet is a series of tubes” Stevens, who tried, on behalf of cable companies, to give ISPs the right to differentially charge content providers to have access to the ISP’s customers.  This is, of course, an attempted body-blow to the whole concept of net neutrality.  I have always wondered if the cable and phone companies were supporting his campaign; now I wonder how much they just gave him in cash.  Not only does he sell out his constituents for cash, he is willing to bargain away the entire Internet and it’s users, to enrichen himself.  And he’s in his 80s — for gosh sakes how much money does he need?

Over the next few years the whole operating structure of the Internet is going to come under tremendous pressure as various players attempt to monetize it to their own gain, and this particular version of Net Neutrality is just one approach.  Several companies are developing technology to allow ISPs — just the transport guys — to intercept your traffic, profile you, and use that profile to serve interstitial and replacement ads on the pages you request.  And there will be other schemes, the potential amount of money to be made (according to their calculations) is too much to resist.  Unless everybody keeps their eyes open, the Internet of 5 years from now will be a very different place.

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If anybody wonders if the hybrid power-regeneration process actually works, here’s some proof.

When you hit the brakes, my Prius turns the electric motor into a generator, and returns the generated power to the battery. As you increase the pedal pressure, it simply increases the field voltage in the now-generator, thus generating more electricity and concomitantly creating more drag. Only if you absolutely jam the brakes on, or reach a relatively low speed (say, about 10 MPH), will it actually engage the hydraulic brakes to stop the car.

Therefore, it should be that your normal braking system is relatively lightly used, especially if you are a relatively careful driver, and the wear on your brake pads should be low.

Having now almost 110,000 miles on my original pads, I went in a week ago to have a brake shop check them out, since I last looked at them about 40,000 miles ago, I figured that they must be almost shot by now. Well, to my surprise, and very much so to that of the brake shop, they found I had by wear-depth almost 50% of my pad life left. So, somewhere around 220,000 miles, I should start thinking about replacing my brakes — for the first time.

Now you’re saying, so what? Brakes are cheap, replacing them is not such a big deal, why do you care? Well, it’s just an index of how much power is really generated over the course of 100,000 miles — power that’s put right back in the battery to use in getting up to speed again, power that is in a normal car just lost as heat. Not such a big deal, but multiply that by 200,000,000 cars and you have the potential for a bunch of savings.

Perhaps that’s one of the keys to all this new focus on conservation: each one of us does a little, but it adds up. Raising the CAFE mileage standards by two MPG doesn’t sound like much, until you multiply it by all the nation’s cars, and then you have ship after ship after ship not coming to our shores with crude oil.

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I don’t usually just link to other blogs, but this is a very interesting post in the NY Times regarding the various considerations for approving / disapproving of the current congestion pricing plan the Manhattan. In addition to the general congestion, economy, air quality, etc. issues, including this one,which is primarily economic:

. . . Second, a new coalition of pro-congestion pricing groups, calling itself Communities United for Transportation Equity, presented research suggesting that black and Hispanic riders and low-income riders have the longest commutes of any residents of the New York region. Of the 750,000 New Yorkers who travel more than an hour each way, two-thirds make less than $35,000 a year and only 6 percent make more than $75,000 a year, the group noted, citing an analysis by the Pratt Center for Community Development of Census data.

So, there’s more to it than just what we, as the relatively wealthy (I guess, I don’t feel like it) fixate on, which is oil prices and carbon monoxide. And, of course, the general enjoyment of riding a motorcycle to work. But if the kind of economic analysis that this argument represents actually carries some weight, it bodes well for downtown-restricting regulation in other cities as well. We are, after all, never short of the economically-disadvantaged.

The larger operative question is, I think, would traffic restrictions in a downtown are actually render it a better place, increase commerce, encourage pedestrian traffic, and so on. It would certainly have a beneficial effect on air quality and fuel consumption, but would it have other benefits? That remains to be seen. But if we mean to make our cities more livable, this is something worth trying. Maybe it works, maybe not, but trying something is better than doing nothing.

Here‘s my first post dealing specifically with the congestion pricing proposal. For the rest of the posts on bikes, click on the “motorcycles” category in the blogroll.

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Be sure to see my earlier posts on this subject, in the category “hybrid cars.”

Within many segments of the US business community there is a strong undercurrent of distrust of anything smacking of a coherent national energy policy, even as we are increasingly threatened by all manner of energy-related problems in everything from hydrocarbons to electric generation and transmission infrastructure. As many of these people continue to raise the cry, “socialized medicine!” as a bogeyman to prevent children being covered by medical insurance, they seem to want to raise the cry “socialized energy!” at any discussion of energy policy.

So in that line I wasn’t surprised when the official organ of the business community, the Wall Street Journal, came out recently (October 29, 2007) with an article “The Economics of Hybrids,” pointing out somberly that “for most US consumers, they’re still a money-losing proposition.” Basically, they figure out by comparing models of hybrid / non-hybrid cars and trucks, factor in the bizarre US tax credit for hybrids, and derive a “hybrid premium” for each model, and then, with some assumptions of average mileage, cost of gas, determine how many years of driving would be required to pay back the “hybrid premium.” This is, of course, a pretty questionable analysis.

By their calculation, the American cars average a payout period of about 4.3 years, and the foreign ones (mainly Toyota and Honda) average a breakeven after around 14 years — the Prius I drive is colossally the worst at a whopping 17.9 years. So, by their calculation, hybrids are worthless to the average consumer. So the, I guess, hopefully you won’t be tempted to buy one, or if you dumb enough to do so, buy an American one.

So here’s my take on all this. Any economic calculation is heavily influenced by the input parameters, and I would point out that:

  • The US tax credit system penalizes firms that make lots of hybrids by cutting out the credit after 60,000 total hybrid cars produced, thus shafting Toyota and Lexus by making their cars about $1,300 to $2,000 more expensive.
  • The WSJ assumes 15,000 miles per year — I average about twice that in my cars.
  • They assume a gas price of $2.79 / gallon, we are now averaging about $3.11 / gallon, and rising.
  • They assume 46 MPG for the Prius, actually I average over 50, and the new Prius is better than this.
  • In the case of the Prius, they compare it to the Corolla, a considerably less-well-equipped car than the Prius; a more comparable car would be the Camry, which is only about $200 more than the Prius.

So, ignoring taxes, at at my actual driving rate and assuming the actual gas cost, my payback time for the Prius vs. the Camry is a whopping 1.6 months, not 18 years (vs. the Corolla) as they state.

Finally, two key points to think about. First the tax credit — this scheme is pretty nuts. They’ll give a little credit to encourage you to buy a hybrid, but it currently has the effect of encouraging you to buy one from somebody who only makes a few of them, so that they haven’t gone over the 60,000-car limit. This rewards US manufacturers to just have a few hybrids in the stable, but not really push them as if they mattered. Either we should reward hybrid purchases, nor not, but not have this perverse incentive to “only make a few.”

And then of course, what about these hybrids? Except for Toyota and Honda, nobody has a hybrid that gets more than 30 MPG, which is nuts. The Prius gives me regularly 50 – 55 MPG, and these are the cars we should be encouraging people to buy. Just having a hybrid drive means nothing much if you don’t get some significant mileage to show for it. It can be done, the Prius does it.

But of course, if you don’t believe in a national energy policy, if you don’t believe we have a problem being dependent on Middle-eastern oil supplies, or that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are a problem, all this is irrelevant!

Dream on!

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