Sunday, April 30, 2006


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

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

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

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

Stupid Life. Interfering with Blogging.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Quarter-Century Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Won't Listen to Me...

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

Coal-fired everything

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

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Great Canadians, Every One

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

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

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

2. Digital Locks are Risky and Counterproductive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Answer: Yes

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

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

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

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

Why Network Partiality is Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh. You First.

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

Life Intrudes

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

In lieu of that, some quick hits:

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

-Holographic solar concentrators? Whatever works!

-Jane Jacobs, RIP.

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

Monday, April 24, 2006

Youtube has paid for itself

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

You call that a think tank?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Net Neutrality revisited

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

Bush at 32%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, YOU'RE Hitler

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

Not quite the ending to Spartacus, is it?


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

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

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

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Gore 2008

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

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why are oil prices so high?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My cup runneth over. On top of guest-blogging for Angelica, I have been invited to blog over at Ezra Klein's place on weekends - an invitation I gladly accepted.

The Dymaxion World brand moves ever forward... (cue evil laugh.)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Now this is funny

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

Canadians will appreciate that enough for me to repeat it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

More good news about Biodiesel

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Further Things I Did Not Know

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

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

Something else to worry about

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

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

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

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

Can't the press get anything right?

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Someone Pinch Me

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

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

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

Sigh of Despair

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

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

Remember Who Bush Is

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

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

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


Horribly Inappropriate Metaphor Watch

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Vision of Hope

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

Monday, April 17, 2006

Back to $70/barrel

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

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

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

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

Net Neutrality Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, THIS Nuclear is an abomination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No alternatives, indeed.

The Hydro Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Nuclear faster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Perils of "No Alternatives"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Pissy Billionaire Catfight!

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

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


Angelica at Battlepanda hasn't got settled in her new joint yet, so she's asking me to guest-blog there until she does. You probably won't notice much difference, but if I post anything remarkable there, I'll let you all know.

Some Random Energy Links

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2006

Quote of the Day

Thomas Edison, 1910:
Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine to use instead of this old, absurd Prometheus scheme of fire. ...

This scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of -- it is so wasteful. It is just the old, foolish Prometheus idea, and the father of Prometheus was a baboon.

When we learn how to store electricity, we will cease being apes ourselves; until then we are tailless orangutans. You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy.

Do we use them? Oh, no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.

There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen, for it can not be destroyed.
It almost makes up for all the cats he killed.

(via Gristmill.)

Ethanol isn't the goal

I've been pretty enthusiastic about ethanol on this blog - and I continue to be enthusiastic about processes like the plasma/FT hybrid I wrote about last month. But it's worth pointing out something that should be obvious - ethanol, in and of itself, isn't the goal. This is especially true of ethanol as it is made today. It is doubly true of methanol or ethanol derived from coal. The goal is sustainability, not ethanol or some other fuel. If ethanol can be made sustainably, then great. If not, then move on.

I mention this only as a way of recommending a blog - r-squared - which I found via The Ergosphere. Robert at r-squared is not nearly as optimistic about ethanol as I, and he's actually a chemical engineer, so he's certainly worth reading in this regard. However, Robert doesn't dispute the need for biofuels - he simply prefers algae-based biodiesel. Given some recent advances in selecting new algaes and catalysts, I certainly agree with him that it's an extremely promising technology.

The only hurdle in my mind to biodiesel is that nobody in North America actually drives diesel cars - well, almost nobody. However, the most recent development I've seen about biodiesel comes from a few months ago, where a type of algae that produced both biodiesel and ethanol was used to get pretty staggering levels of production - 15,000 gallons of biodiesel per acre! - meaning that we could get both types of fuel from the same process.

Anyway, algae-based biofuels are certainly another type of renewable we should be keeping our eyes on. I'm not competent to say which should be preferred, but we should also reject the fallacy that governments and markets can only do one thing at a time. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

This Hurts Me's just that good:
Superman's appeal is the fantasy of good and strong being one person. The danger of this fantasy is the dubious idea -- embraced wholeheartedly by, among others, the Project for a New American Century -- that virtue is a sufficient check on the otherwise unrestrained might of a Superman or a superpower.

All of which is to say I was glad to see that non-canonical Chloe keeps a chunk of kryptonite in her desk drawer, just in case.

Considerably Less Hot

Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has stopped an Environment Canada scientist from speaking publicly about his own novel.

Mark Tushingham has written a science fiction novel called Hotter than Hell.

It is set in the not-too-distant future when global warming has made many parts of the world too hot to live in and has prompted a war between Canada and the U.S. over water resources.

Tushingham was scheduled to speak in Ottawa about his book and the science underpinning it. But an order from Ambrose's office stopped him.
Oh goody, they really are grabbing each and every page from the George W. Bush playbook. 1) War on the press? Check. 2) Silence internal critics? Check. All that's left, I suppose, is to walk away from our committment to addressing climate change.

Oh, wait, that was #3.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What Iran is About

Keep your eyes on the long game - Iran isn't the end of the nuclear insanity. It may very well be the beginning. Via Pastpeak:
For almost half a century, the world's most powerful nuclear states have been locked in a military stalemate known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). By the early 1960s, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had grown so large and sophisticated that neither country could entirely destroy the other's retaliatory force by launching first, even with a surprise attack. Starting a nuclear war was therefore tantamount to committing suicide.


This debate may now seem like ancient history, but it is actually more relevant than ever -- because the age of MAD is nearing an end. Today, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike. This dramatic shift in the nuclear balance of power stems from a series of improvements in the United States' nuclear systems, the precipitous decline of Russia's arsenal, and the glacial pace of modernization of China's nuclear forces. Unless Washington's policies change or Moscow and Beijing take steps to increase the size and readiness of their forces, Russia and China -- and the rest of the world -- will live in the shadow of U.S. nuclear primacy for many years to come.


Some may wonder whether U.S. nuclear modernization efforts are actually designed with terrorists or rogue states in mind. Given the United States' ongoing war on terror, and the continuing U.S. interest in destroying deeply buried bunkers (reflected in the Bush administration's efforts to develop new nuclear weapons to destroy underground targets), one might assume that the W-76 upgrades are designed to be used against targets such as rogue states' arsenals of weapons of mass destruction or terrorists holed up in caves. But this explanation does not add up. The United States already has more than a thousand nuclear warheads capable of attacking bunkers or caves. If the United States' nuclear modernization were really aimed at rogue states or terrorists, the country's nuclear force would not need the additional thousand ground-burst warheads it will gain from the W-76 modernization program. The current and future U.S. nuclear force, in other words, seems designed to carry out a preemptive disarming strike against Russia or China.
Scary stuff. Read the whole thing.

Not to beat a dead horse, but this is why questions of Ignatieff's support for Iraq, and the whole "Empire Lite" thesis is so important. The Bush Administration is building a form of imperialism that is explicitly based on the use of preemptive war and even nuclear weapons. We need to know if a candidate for the Liberal leadership supports this insanity or not.

The Russian Hype

We're finally seeing the expectations of Russian oil crash against the merciless rocks of hard reality:
Claude Mandil, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told the Financial Times that expectations for growth in Russian oil supply were too optimistic and that the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would have to make up the difference.

He said: “To 2010 Opec would have to fill a higher gap. I am not sure that non-Opec supply will be that high and I mainly have in mind Russia but also some other non-Opec suppliers.”


Oil and its by-products are among several commodities that are booming. Metal prices also struck record highs with benchmark copper prices in London reaching $6,005 a tonne. Zinc prices hit $2,980 a tonne, double the level in October. Gold hit a 25-year high of $604 a troy ounce, and silver reached a 23-year high of $13.01 a troy ounce.
So even the perennially optimistic IEA is admitting that OPEC - our allies in freedom, right? - will get a larger share of the global oil markets.

Of course, if OPEC can't meet the increased demand either, then we're screwed, aren't we?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Negative Kind of Positive Feedback

PARIS - Soaring commodity and raw material prices are increasing the cost of oil and gas projects by up to three times, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries ministers said Friday.

Although current high oil prices may be helping to drive much-needed crude investment, the rising cost of construction projects could curtail new energy production development, they warn.

Addressing delegates at Petrostrategies annual oil summit in Paris, Qatari Oil Minister Abdullah al Attiyah said: "Our costs have tripled from two years ago, due to high (commodity) prices. And its not just that, it is also contractors who have tripled their prices."
So: Higher demand = higher energy prices, higher commodity prices. Higher commodity prices = still higher energy prices. Eventually, higher energy prices = lower demand. In this case, economic recession. Oh, and I bet this joke didn't go over so well with the press:
OPEC's Secretary General, Mohammed Barkindo joked with delegates that in the past consumers have criticized OPEC for acting as a cartel, whereas in reality contract firms are acting in that way by pushing costs as high as possible.
Aw, poor OPEC. I'm just broken up for you.

Will the real China please stand up?

Which China is in control, and for how long? The China of the Communist Party, or the China of the well-educated, increasingly wealthy middle class? Another data point for the trend:
XINZHUANG, China — This winter, Liu Xianhong's life was changed for the second time by her infection with AIDS.

The first time was seven years ago, when she discovered that she, along with her newborn son, had contracted the disease through an infusion of contaminated blood given to her during childbirth.

Then late last year, her story was publicized by a leading Chinese journalist, turning one woman's quest for compensation into a national cause célèbre for a new class of advocates who are using the country's legal system to fight for social justice.

Ms. Liu's experience, all but unimaginable as recently as two or three years ago, is increasingly common in China, where a once totalitarian system is facing growing pressure from a population that is awakening to the power of independent organization. Uncounted millions of Chinese, from the rich cities of the east to the impoverished countryside, are pushing an inflexible political system for redress over issues from shoddy health care and illegal land seizures to dire pollution and rampant official corruption.[...]

"This is the way things happened in Taiwan, too," said Merle Goldman, emerita professor of Chinese history at Boston University and the author of the recently published book, "From Comrade to Citizen: the Struggle for Political Rights in China."

"In the early 50's they started to have village elections, which went from the village level and kept moving up. Then they started having NGO's, and then other independent groups and finally independent parties. The government would periodically crack down on them, but they kept coming back."[...]

"I live in Beijing, and three weeks ago there was almost no green," he said in an interview after his release from detention. "Now it is green every day. You wouldn't notice it if you were living it day to day, but the greenness is blooming everywhere now. It is the same with civil society, or with NGO's. Now there is a citizens' consciousness to participate, a willingness to defend their rights. Call it civic power."
The CCP has tried, and is failing, to reconcile one-party rule with the rule of law.

What happens when China holds a competitive national election? I've been thinking about this since I started studying this stuff, and I'm honestly not sure. But I really like reading stories like this one. The shorter the lifespan of the CCP, the better.

Why Does Lt. Gen. Newbold Hate America?

Two senior military officers are known to have challenged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the planning of the Iraq war. Army General Eric Shinseki publicly dissented and found himself marginalized. Marine Lieut. General Greg Newbold, the Pentagon's top operations officer, voiced his objections internally and then retired, in part out of opposition to the war. Here, for the first time, Newbold goes public with a full-throated critique: [...]

From 2000 until October 2002, I was a Marine Corps lieutenant general and director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After 9/11, I was a witness and therefore a party to the actions that led us to the invasion of Iraq--an unnecessary war. Inside the military family, I made no secret of my view that the zealots' rationale for war made no sense. And I think I was outspoken enough to make those senior to me uncomfortable. But I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat--al-Qaeda. I retired from the military four months before the invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11's tragedy to hijack our security policy. Until now, I have resisted speaking out in public. I've been silent long enough.
Actually, General, you've been silent too long.

There's a natural tendency on the left for us to glom on to every military voice who's against this war. Gen. Shinseki is probably more popular in the forums of DailyKos than he is in the Pentagon these days. But people like Newbold don't deserve a pass from us. Where was Newbold in 2002? 2003? Most importantly, where was he in 2004? He had a chance to speak out when it would have mattered, when the debate could have been shifted away from this war. If, in October of 2002 Newbold had resigned, and the next day held a press conference explaining why, his words would have had incredible weight, and could have helped turn the debate.

Instead, Newbold stayed silent. I don't know if he's a Republican or not, but his silence - and the silence of other high-ranking military officers - has certainly helped George Bush. I actually do suspect that Newbold was motivated by partisanship, because of the following statement:
So what is to be done? We need fresh ideas and fresh faces. That means, as a first step, replacing Rumsfeld and many others unwilling to fundamentally change their approach.
Earlier in the piece, Newbold calls the people under Bush "zealots", but the entire piece reads as if Newbold believes that the problem isn't Bush, but the people under him. Matt Yglesias has summed this up nicely as the "if only the Czar knew" complex - the belief that the problem lies not at the top, with the President, but beneath him - the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz axis.

This is simply dumb. There's no serious evidence that either Cheney or Rumsfeld has lost favour in the White House. Newbold apparently can't bring himself to admit that the President isn't being misled by zealots - the President is a zealot. And this is a problem. Because if Newbold had been serious about wanting to change the leadership who created this war, he could have spoken out in 2004, when it would have mattered. Now, all he can do is lower Bush's approval ratings, and probably not even that.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Oh, Yippee

So.... anything interesting happen while I was distracted? Oh, that's right, Bush is preparing to use nuclear weapons on Iran.
A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.”

One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that “a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government.” He added, “I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, ‘What are they smoking?’ ”....

One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. One target is Iran’s main centrifuge plant, at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. Natanz, which is no longer under I.A.E.A. safeguards, reportedly has underground floor space to hold fifty thousand centrifuges, and laboratories and workspaces buried approximately seventy-five feet beneath the surface.
I wonder if the English language even has words to describe the combination of stupidity and isanity this administration represents. America has managed to lose a war against an impoverished Iraq with a barely-functioning government and an Army that happily deserted during the initial part of the war. But these morons honestly think they can win a war against Iran, which is a bigger country geographically, more than 2x the population, a much stronger government and military (Iran nearly beat Iraq during the war, and it would've been a sure thing without US aid.)

The proposal to use nuclear weapons is simply insane. We've managed to go 60 years with nuclear weapons considered to be weapons that aren't "like bombs, but bigger." That is, they haven't been useable weapons. Now Bush wants to undo this? Why, in God's name?

Just a few more articles of impeachment, I guess.

Chinese oil consumption flattening?

Now this is encouraging:
At first glance, the official figures of China’s oil consumption in 2005 seem a bit confusing. With a robust economic growth and rising annual oil imports, China made the surprise announcement that its oil consumption growth rate was dropping sharply, from 15.3 percent in 2004 to 2.1 percent in 2005. Earlier, China’s Ministry of Commerce attributed the slower growth to high oil prices, the government’s macro-control and a relatively sufficient electric power supply, but some argue that this phenomenon is a result of tightening oil supplies rather than a decline in the demand for oil.
You have to pity the Chinese middle class to an extent. The want cars - and who are we to tell them no? - but the moment they want them, oil becomes too expensive for them to own cars. Meanwhile, so long as China and India don't want cars, the rest of us get to drive cheap.

We're bastards.

Freedom, Terrible Freedom

Well, I'm free. As of 6:00PM today, I handed in my last term paper of the year, effectively completing my BA. Thank you Jesus, I'm done.

Of course, it was 6 on a Sunday, so I couldn't find a beer store that was open for love or money. It seems so odd celebrating my University career sober.

My last paper was a bit of a joke - 12 pages on the class representation inherent in the Globe and Mail, in case you're interested. You might be shocked - shocked! - to learn that I argued that the Globe and Mail does not accurately reflect the concerns of the working class.

Shocking but true.

A Moment for Sincerity

Or possibly, self-indulgence. According to my best guess, Angelica from Battlepanda has been reading this blog since Ezra Klein linked to me on April 9, 2005.

Not only did she stick around, but three days later she was telling me I was full of shit. This actually shows remarkable forbearance on her part. I've met people who tell me the same thing within minutes.

Since then, she's linked to me regularly, nominated me for a Koufax, invited me to guest-blog, and generally been great in pointing people to my little corner of the blogosphere.

Thanks, Angelica.