Thursday, July 31, 2008

In case you were interested

The National Review's cover this week:

But I bet I know what's not on the list of suggestions from this conservative periodical. Like, you know, letting two loving people of the same sex marry and adopt children as if they were citizens of the Republic with equal rights and all.

In other news, Orson Scott Card is still a horse's ass. But I especially like this bit:
If America becomes a place where our children are taken from us by law and forced to attend schools where they are taught that cohabitation is as good as marriage, that motherhood doesn’t require a husband or father, and that homosexuality is as valid a choice as heterosexuality for their future lives, then why in the world should married people continue to accept the authority of such a government?

What these dictator-judges do not seem to understand is that their authority extends only as far as people choose to obey them.
Do we actually need to look up the statistics on single mothers to discuss whether motherhood actually requires a husband or father? And who the hell said anything about seizing your children, Orson?

I guess what makes me laugh is the idea that judges are ignorant of the potential for people -- and governments -- to just up and ignore them. As if conservatives aren't, this very moment, trying to get a ballot initiative passed in California to strip citizens of their rights. As if Republicans don't regularly threaten to "hold judges accountable" through a variety of measures. As if, in my own country, the Conservative base didn't demand at least a token effort at reversing the tide of right. Judges aren't dumb.

What's funny is that, in California and Canada, and Massachusetts, and soon New York, the democratic voice has been in favour of extending these rights, not reversing them. Elected bodies are expanding the rights available to gays and lesbians steadily -- though not with the kind of speed that justice deserves.

That's what's really got to burn Card's ass.


The comments to this post by Jake Tapper, in which he points out that the McCains are really friggin rich and popular among the rich:
Money doesn't make an elitist - attitude does. Obama is an elitist, plain and simple.

Posted by: marylou | Jul 31, 2008 10:48:34 AM
Right. Actually being part of the elite -- Republican Senator married to Beer Heiress -- doesn't make you "elitist", while having had an income of a few million since, oh, 2007 or so and enjoying the newfound lack of stress that even middle-income families feel makes you "uppity". Oops, I mean elitist.

Our beliefs are empirically correct and true, until someone acts on them

"Conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed." So saith Rick Perlstein, who has learned and forgotten more about Republican ugliness than can possibly be healthy.

Why that quote? Because earlier this week Jim David Adkisson entered an open-minded Unitarian Church, that apparently had a sign outside welcoming gays and lesbians, and started murdering people with a shotgun.

Adkisson currently sits in a jail cell, while at home police found copies of books by Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, and Sean Hannity. Not for nothing, but if a lefty had murdered evangelicals and been found with copies of Zinn, Chomsky and Naomi Klein in their apartment, do you think there would be any ambiguity at all from conservatives about the responsibility of those authors for those acts?

Except that of course, the analogy doesn't fit. Because Zinn, Chomsky, and Klein don't spend endless hours on the AM dial telling lefties how Republicans are weakening America and joking about how the only way to make America strong again is with a noose and a strong tree. Conservatives are. Michael Savage is beyond the pale, but even O'Reilly and Hannity let the mask slip every once in a while, and nudge-nudge "mistakenly" tell their listeners and viewers what they really think is necessary: lethal violence against people of different politics and religion.

So you might think that Adkisson's rampage might have prompted some soul searching among the right, except if you did you clearly weren't paying attention. Timothy McVeigh was clearly informed by the Republican right's paranoia machine, and the demonization of the federal government that Republicans revel in (when it's not their party in command) fueled McVeigh's attack on the Federal building in Oklahoma City. His attack came only months after, for example, G. Gordon Liddy's broadcast command to his followers that, when government agents came to get them in the night (as they certainly would, the Democrats were in power) you should "aim for the head, head shots, kill shots, kill the sons of bitches."

But when President Clinton dared to suggest that maybe the open sewer of America's AM dial was responsible, in even the tiniest way, for the atrocity at the Alfred P. Murragh building, the outrage from the right was, shall we say, considerable. (Never mind that these same people would later blame the teaching of evolution for the Columbine shootings.) McVeigh wasn't a conservative, they said, because real conservatives never do nasty things like that.

Which brings us back to Adkisson. What he and McVeigh have in common is not getting the fact that they've been conned. The American right doesn't care about abuses of power, and doesn't even care about gay weddings or national security. They care about making you care, and making you believe that Democrats are responsible for all the world's evil. But by and large, there aren't men who think violence against other Americans is the answer. (Imagine Bill O'Reilly in a bar fight, and how quickly he'd be on the floor in a fetal position, to get an idea.) These people like the language of violence, but the real thing is unthinkable -- literally unthinkable: they can't imagine that their words have consequences.

So for you, Jim and Tim, conservative terrorists both, I can only say I feel sorry for you. You let yourselves get conned by a movement that has no use for you. Having embarrassed American conservatives, you get disowned faster than Jesus himself was disowned before sunrise. It doesn't matter how true to the movement's teachings you are: if you get in the way of the true goal -- the pursuit and maintenance of power -- you and your memory go overboard.

Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed.

(Chet has been following the Adkisson case more closely than I have, and has smarter things to say than I.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I should've called it

But the Onion got it right, and got it first:
EARTH—Former vice president Al Gore—who for the past three decades has unsuccessfully attempted to warn humanity of the coming destruction of our planet, only to be mocked and derided by the very people he has tried to save—launched his infant son into space Monday in the faint hope that his only child would reach the safety of another world.

"I tried to warn them, but the Elders of this planet would not listen," said Gore, who in 2000 was nearly banished to a featureless realm of nonexistence for promoting his unpopular message. "They called me foolish and laughed at my predictions. Yet even now, the Midwest is flooded, the ice caps are melting, and the cities are rocked with tremors, just as I foretold. Fools! Why didn't they heed me before it was too late?"

Al Gore—or, as he is known in his own language, Gore-Al—placed his son, Kal-Al, gently in the one-passenger rocket ship, his brow furrowed by the great weight he carried in preserving the sole survivor of humanity's hubristic folly.

Everything is scarificed on the altar of consumption

On the scale of conservative outrages, there are worse crimes than Rush Limbaugh's latest oral flatulence. Still, it's striking:
Folks, I don’t know what the price of gasoline is in China and I don’t know to what extent, if any, it is subsidized — okay, it is subsidized. See, the ChiComs need their economy growing. They need people driving around, moving around. They need people to be able to afford fuel, so they’re subsidizing fuel. They’re not bailing people out of stupid home mortgage messes. They’re buying their gasoline for them, because they need an economy. Know what energy means to this, the whole subject of economic growth. So meanwhile, the ChiComs, a country certainly growing, certainly on the rise, but it ain’t the United States of America. How does it make you feel that Zhang Linsen has a big Hummer with nine speakers blaring as he pulls out into a four-lane road with so much smog he basically can’t see the car in front of him, and you are trading in all of your cars and trying to go out and find basically a lawn mower.
So you've got a man who is, by any measure, American conservatism's leading light, not only praising the authoritarian, anti-American government of Beijing and indeed saying that Americans ought to envy residents of China. Why? Because of gasoline prices. China subsidizes them and doesn't do a lot to effectively control pollution (except, ironically enough, from cars -- where China's standards are actually higher than America's.)

But there you go -- America can trade in the bill of rights, because China's got lower gas prices. Not even that much lower, mind you -- the Chinese still pay above $3 a gallon. So when Thomas Paine, in The American Crisis wrote -- in the depths of winter of 1776, his not-yet-a-country's darkest hour:
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.
He clearly had no idea what he was talking about. Heaven has put a price on freedom, an apparently it's somewhere south of $4 a gallon for regular unleaded. I mean, we expect the decadent leftists to be all pro-Communist China, but when even El Rushbo is singing the praises of our masters from the Mainland, then clearly it's just time for all of us to give up and learn the lines to "The East is Red."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

We must stand in the way of any progress whatsoever!

So, about this ZENN business.

If you haven't been paying attention, ZENN is a car company headquartered in Toronto with an assembly plant in Quebec. They take French-made microcar bodies sans powertrain and install batteries and an electric motor. Presto, electric car suitable for doing most of the work that people actually do with a car: dropping off the kids, picking up the groceries, etc.

So, great, right? Not so fast. The Federal government, which handles road safety certification in Canada, went out of its way to specifically declare that low-speed vehicles -- of which ZENN's car is one -- were not suitable for "open roads", that is roads open to the public, or what the rest of us call "roads".

Now, that's not the end of it. The Provinces own the roads and highways in this country, so they get the final say on what cars get driven on them. Which is why Quebec and BC have brought in various laws allowing the ZENN car to be driven on their roads.

But not Ontario. Ontario's government, unlike the governments of two provinces and 48 states, has decided that fidelity to Ottawa's regulators trumps environmental sense, industrial policy, or common sense for that matter. Listen to Jim Bradley, Minister of Transportation:
The main concern is safety features, said Bradley: Low-speed electric vehicles meet only a handful of the 40 safety standards required by Transport Canada, and Ontario wants to determine exactly what safety features may be required on the nearly silent vehicles.

"I want to see low-speed electric vehicles on the roads," Bradley said in an interview. "We want to make sure it's done so safely."
This is, to put it precisely, premium-grade bullshit. The 40 safety features that Bradley says the ZENN lacks apply to highway-capable vehicles. The ZENN lacks them because, like any decently-engineered vehicle, it doesn't contain things that it will never, ever need. And some of the safety features Transport Canada requires for highway safety are positively dangerous at low speeds, like air bags.

But of course, this is getting much deeper in to the weeds than we need to: nobody with any sense would ever take a ZENN on the highways, and anyone who did should quite rightly be punished for endangering themselves and others. For city streets themselves, we should only note that the roads are shared by bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles, all things that offer far less safety to their passengers than the ZENN would.

So it's clear that "safety" in this case is being used as a red herring by the McGuinty government to keep a perfectly sensible vehicle off the roads. (And really, if it's safe enough for the streets of Quebec, isn't that enough?)

Yesterday, Bradley was re-announcing a 2-year old program that Ontario began, testing the ZENN on closed roads in parks and nature preserves. Today on CBC, there's word of bringing in an independent expert to tell us what any idiot could figure out with 30 seconds and a piece of paper: this car has been ready for Ontario's roads for years now.

Of course, this independent expert isn't going to break any new ground, he's just going to give the Liberals political cover for changing their dumbass policy that should never have seen the light of day in the first place.

Props to John Tory for raising the profile of ZENN right up to the Provincial legislature, and proving once more that even when Howard Hampton's NDP are given a gift-wrapped issue with a bow and everything, they still manage to be left behind. Christ, Jack Layton was up front on this issue, but at the Provincial level it took a Tory.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What Publius said

Here, especially the parts about legacy broadcasters being assholes.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Neato, cont.

China has gotten in to wind energy in a big way:
It is a spectacular sight: fields of spinning blades harvesting energy and transforming it into electricity for the nearby city of Urumqi. A few years ago, this was the only wind farm of such a size in China. But now, bigger facilities have been built or are under construction in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Jiangsu. Since 2005, the country's wind generation capacity has increased by more than 100% a year. The government's renewable energy policy aims to procure 15% of the country's energy from non-carbon sources by 2020, twice the proportion of 2005.

Wind power has taken off faster than the government planned. This year, policymakers had to double their wind power prediction for 2010, having reached the old goal of 5 gigawatts three years ahead of schedule. On current trends, it will almost definitely have to be doubled again.


Getting closer to finding Earth-like planets in other solar systems. Though "Earth-like" is a relative concept:
Sasselov said rocky planets up to five times Earth’s size should be detectable with the new generation of instruments coming on line such as the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative’s spectrometer equipped with the new laser astro-comb, developed at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The spectrometer which will be deployed in the Canary Islands for exoplanet research sometime in 2010.

“Five times larger than Earth is actually pretty good from the point of view of geochemistry and biochemistry,” Sasselov said. “Ultimately, we want to go down to sister Earths, as people call it. It’s my personal belief that super-Earths are as hospitable to life as Earths, but we need to compare them. People want to know if there are planets just like ours out there.”

The second major finding to emerge from the conference shows that researchers can get an idea of conditions on any planets that they do find, Sasselov said. Presented by Harvard’s Cabot Associate Professor of Astronomy David Charbonneau, the results presented the first compilation of the atmospheric spectrum of a planet orbiting another star.

The spectrum, put together for the atmosphere of a gas giant 60 light-years away, uses the light emitted or absorbed by the planet to detect what molecules are present in the atmosphere, in this case, methane, potassium, sodium, water vapor, and small particulate haze, among others. Though researchers have been able to detect single elements that make up the atmosphere of planets since 2001, this is the first time the complete makeup of the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet has been determined.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Facts are stupid things, pt. a billion

Joe Scarborough, defending John McCain from the tyranny of facts:
SCARBOROUGH: And I know a couple of hosts ran this last night and made a huge deal because a liberal blogger picked it up. I guarantee the hosts that ran it had no idea whether the Sunni Awakening or the surge began at the same time....

What is so funny about this is people are just sitting there, eating their Cheetos — “Let me google Anbar Awakening!"
Um, huh? There are plenty of problems with Google, but it's the most powerful, popular research tool available to the common person, ever. So "bloggers" would dare to research something before they'd put it down in print, and should be mocked for it?

Better still, bloggers use google to stay better informed than a United States Senator and Republican nominee for President, and it's the bloggers who should be ridiculed?

I don't understand television.

The Dark Night and International Politics

We comic nerds are suffering an embarassment of riches this year: Iron Man was excellent, Hancock was meh but passable, The Incredible Hulk was a fun two hours, and The Dark Knight is better than all of them. (Not as good as Wall-E, but that's apples and oranges.)

All the good stuff you've heard about The Dark Knight is true. Heath Ledger is (deservedly) getting much praise, but it's astonishing how good everyone in this movie is. Aaron Eckhart is excellent. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are given small roles that they both fill with incredible skill and subtlety. Maggie Gyllenhaal is great. Even Christian Bale, who I'm not really a fan of, didn't disappoint.

There's been a bit of criticism that in fact the non-Ledger actors don't pull their weight in this movie, but I think that misses the design: The Joker is such an outsized character, and played so perfectly by Ledger, that everyone else can only pale in comparison. This also, to me, added a layer of realism to the otherwise fantastical -- our protagonists are supposed to feel constantly at the Joker's mercy, totally unable to understand or cope with the senseless violence he deals out. In that sense, the Joker, not Batman or the other characters, really is the centre of the narrative.

I'm not surprised that the usual suspects are saying that this movie proves that America/Bush/the Pentagon needs to act outside the law because Bin Laden/Ahmedinejad/The Joker is insane and beyond reason. What surprises me a great deal is that I haven't seen progressives read what was an obvious message in the film: Batman has, in many ways, been a disaster for Gotham, and what Gotham needs isn't a hero in tights but better law enforcement.

To start off, I think this movie is one of the most inherently politics-free films I've seen. Not that it's not possible to view the film politically, but that it doesn't particularly lend itself to one political interpretation or another. Viewed in one context, you might (as Spencer Ackerman does) believe that Batman = Dick Cheney. But I think it's just as reasonable to see Dick Cheney as Harvey Dent, a lesson in what happens when our leaders betray our faith in them.

But once you view this movie in the context of it's predecessor (Batman Begins) things become a bit more clear: Before Wayne dons the Hood and Cowl, Gotham is essentially a proxy for the international system: basically one step removed from anarchy, with no effective monopoly on the use of violence. Wayne/Batman believes that if he can give people a symbol, that Gotham can restore itself. (A decent proxy for the American belief that Washington can be a guiding light to the world without actually cooperating with it on things like landmines, global warming, or child soldiers.) But of course, signs and the signified are read differently by different people. While Batman can give the people of Gotham a sign of hope, or at least justice, he gives the criminals a sign that the rules of the game have changed. This isn't me reading in to the text anything that isn't there:
GORDON: But there's a lot of weirdness out there right now... the Narrows is lost... we still haven't picked up Crane or half the inmates of Arkham that he freed...

BATMAN: We will. Gotham will return to normal.

GORDON: Will it? What about escalation?

BATMAN: Escalation?

GORDON: We start carrying semiautomatics, they buy automatics... we start wearing kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds...


GORDON: And... you're wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops... Take this guy... armed robbery, double homicide...

Inside the clear plastic bag is a PLAYING CARD.

GORDON: Got a taste for theatrics, like you...

Gordon hands Batman the bag.

GORDON: Leaves a calling card.

Batman turns the card over.

It is a JOKER.
A great way to set up the sequel, sure, but the wider point is that in a sense, the Batman could only ever invoke the Joker, or someone like him. At one point in the Dark Knight, Wayne asks Alfred "Did I bring this upon [Gotham]?" Of course he did, though we're not supposed to say that.

If you're the kind of person who's incapable of enjoying a film without filtering it through your own personal politics, rather than make you cheer the Dick Cheney's of the world, the two Nolan-directed Batman films ought to have you rioting in the streets. The outlaw use of violence, Nolan is saying, can only beget more outlaw violence. One agent outside the law can only invoke more agents of chaos. This is why I think Matthew Yglesias is getting something very wrong here:
I would say that one important reason Cheney is wrong, is that we're not actually faced with a Joker-style supervillain.
No, Cheney and his supporters are wrong because if you watch the film, it becomes clear that even if we were faced with a Joker-style supervillain, he's fundamentally not the problem -- Dent correctly diagnoses him as a wild dog set loose by others. The Gotham system is the problem, where mobsters and police pick sides based on the day of the week and their mutual enemies, when a psychopathic avenger like Two-Face finds himself executing police or mobsters based on the flip of a coin, and when the nominal forces of order are fundamentally impotent because that's how everyone wants it, all we can say is that Gotham feels awfully Westphalian. The solution is not more disorder (more extreme vigilanteism) but better law and order.

(I'm surprised this seems to have eluded Yglesias, because it's kind of exactly what his book is about.)

If you really wanted to read these films as a reflection of international politics (Is America Batman?) I think you have a dismal road ahead of you. Batman begins to realize that what Gotham needs is not a caped crusader, but a functioning law enforcement system. He begins seriously considering retiring the rubber PJs as Gotham's police and prosecutors become more effective. The lesson here is not exactly kind to the idea that breaking the laws of war and ignoring the expressed opinion of the UN Security Council is going to lead to greater peace and stability.

Moreover, if you read Gordon's "escalation" dialogue from the first film in the context of international politics, I think it's clear you have to say that 9/11 was only possible because of preceding American actions across the globe. That is, if you actually think America is Batman, than you have to concede that Bin Laden/Joker is at least partially the creation of the US government.

Which is why, once again, we really shouldn't be arguing about politics through film. The simple arguments are rooted in bad films, and good films give you arguments whose conclusions might surprise you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

McCain: Incipient Fascist

There's no other word for when politicians use language like this: seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign
The Republicans -- even John McCain -- know that they're almost certainly going to lose. So their only hope for 2012 or 2016 is to lose ugly, and to spread disgusting tales about how the Democrats stabbed the army in the back. If only we had one leader with the fortitude of St. Petraeus, they'll say, who didn't have to negotiate with Congress or pander to be elected...

Since the '06 elections, I think a lot of people thought things were turning around. They're not. The American Crisis continues, and is going to last so long as Republican politics are allowed in polite company. The government of Weimar-on-the-Potomac is actually very unstable, and even if Sen. Obama wins in November there's no telling what the GOP will do to stop any progress whatsoever. If you thought the Clinton years were bad, just wait.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

About friggin time, II

Glory be -- Radovan Karadzic arrested in Belgrade.

My early adolescence was filled with nothing but bad news from the Former Yugoslavia. Nice to see things change.

Credit where it's due

David Brooks writes the rare non-awful column.


About friggin time

Ford begins retooling its US plants to make more fuel efficient cars.

This is kind of an important point:
Among the changes, Ford is expected to announce that it will convert three of its North American assembly plants from trucks to cars, according to people familiar with the plans.

And as part of the huge bet it is placing on the future direction of the troubled American auto industry, Ford will realign factories to manufacture more fuel-efficient engines and produce six of its next European car models for the United States market.
What's been most frustrating about automakers is their unwillingness to sell the same fuel-efficient cars they already make for other markets in the US. Glad to see it beginning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The engine of the future, and it always will be

US Govt: Fuel cell cars still 15 years out.

Energy independence, the stinky way

Problem: Industrial civilization faces a shortage of liquid fuels, mainly because we've based our fuels on fossil fuel hydrocarbons. These are becoming increasingly scarce, and even if they weren't we can't afford to keep burning them because of the environmental impacts. Liquid fuels have certain inherent, irreproducible advantages that make them desirable if we believe (as I do) that there is a reasonable amount of automobile use that deliver a real human benefit of increased mobility.

Possible solution #1: Biofuels derived from plants. There's a whole bunch of different candidates here -- from ethanol to biodiesel, made from corn or super-efficient algae, but the latter has proved far more difficult to recreate in practice than early theory hoped. The more fundamental problem with crop-based biofuels is that it naturally tends to displace food production, and unless we want to have the government get in to the business of telling farmers what crops they can grow on which soil (and we do some of this already) we put ourselves in to the unenviable position of trying to balance our energy and food production on the same scarce resource -- arable cropland.

An additional consideration is that any carbon we do capture via sustainable crop harvests really ought to be buried somewhere to start sequestering the carbon we've been dumping in the air for more than a century.

Possible solution #2: Electricity as a transport fuel. Yes, more, and as fast as possible please. But there are some hard limitations to electricity, namely recharging speeds and energy density. Even the as-yet-vaporware EEStor capacitors will have a range more limited than most drivers would prefer, and charging them quickly (i.e., a few minutes) is a daunting engineering challenge. To deliver 50 kwh in a matter of 10 minutes requires 3 megawatts 300 kilowatts of power. Now, you might be able to engineer the cabling and safety features, but deliver that kind of power to, say, 12 "pumps" would require building a small gas-fired plant at any charging station along the highway. (We're assuming you'd only need rapid charging for long trips, as daily commuting could be slowly charged overnight.) Meanwhile, liquid fuels can be pumped quickly and efficiently, without large infrastructure changes. [graf changed -- see below]

This is why, btw, plug-in hybrids are such a great idea -- rather than attempt to build a "perfect" electric car, let electricity do the lion's share of the work (small daily trips) but keep a small internal-combustion engine around for long-distance drives. And if fuel cells ever materialize for automotive purposes, the plug-in paradigm still has a role to play, though this time the car can also be a generator as well as a consumer.

So if it would be prudent to limit our use of biofuels, but we will still need a decent volume of liquid fuels for mobility, what's the appropriate technology? Well, ideally we want a liquid fuel (liquids are preferable for their energy density) that isn't dramatically less efficient than gasoline, can be created, stored, and moved with existing technology, and wouldn't add pollution to the atmosphere, land, or waters of the Earth. Corn ethanol passes on some counts, but overall is a failure. Cellulosic ethanol or biomass gasification will probably do better, and should be considered. Are there options that have been ignored?

Well, maybe not ignored, but I've just been reading about one of them lately -- ammonia. If you're in the mood to read a whole bunch of engineering reports on the progress various companies have made on using ammonia as a fuel, read some of the conference papers here. Suffice it to say that this is an active and interesting field for an energy nerd like me.

The properties of ammonia are initially promising: under modest pressures it's a liquid, in which form it carries almost twice as much hydrogen as a similar volume of liquid hydrogen would. It can be combusted in a regular spark-ignition engine and, if you believe the claims of the Hydrogen Engine Center, still emit less NOx pollutants than a comparable gasoline engine. It is one of the most commonly produced chemicals on Earth, meaning there's a robust and proven infrastructure for production, storage, and transportation.

The downsides: It's about half as energy-dense as gasoline, it smells foul, and it's currently produced using natural gas, a fossil fuel. If we were to continue using ammonia derived from natural gas, it would be more efficient to simply burn natural gas directly. But the other two factors are not show-stoppers: indeed, a foul smell is a safety feature, and given that a fair medium-term estimate for fuel efficiency in new cars is 60 mpg, an ammonia-fueled car could still travel about as far in a future vehicle as gasoline-powered cars do today.

So is it possible to produce ammonia renewably? Absolutely. Electrolysis of water gives you the hydrogen you need, and nitrogen from the atmosphere is abundant and omnipresent on Earth. The problem is that this has traditionally been pretty expensive when compared to natural gas-based ammonia. The search for cheap abundant hydrogen for fuel cells has already started to produce potentially cheaper technologies to electrolyze water. The other cost is the electricity to power all this, but this I'm less concerned about: between nanosolar, wind, and geothermal the price of all renewables is coming down very very quickly.

A number of midwestern American universities are looking at ammonia production as a way to exploit "stranded wind", windy areas that are too far from the established grid to make them profitable. (Note that the richest solar resources are similarly "stranded" because few of us live in the deserts.) Ammonia production also offers a way to make renewables less intermittent, if they're paired with ammonia-fired turbines. From an engineering standpoint, there seems to be little that would stop widespread adoption of ammonia as another solution to keep in our basket of options.

Ah, but can we make enough of the stuff to be worthwhile? First, consider that of course while we look for a replacement liquid fuel, we're trying to minimize the amount of fuel we need, through mass transit, walkable cities, and more fuel-efficient cars. So we're not looking at replacing 100% of our oil usage with ammonia -- much of it will be replaced with electricity, or walking. I think a fair guess is that we only want to replace 10-20% of our liquid fuel use. So it should be eminently possible for, say, solar power in the American Southwest (or Sahara or Arabia) to generate enough clean, cheap electricity, send it via cable to the nearest shores, and make ammonia out of seawater and air.

After we've made it, can we move the stuff around? "Easily" might be too strong a word, but with way less difficulty than, say, liquid natural gas. It could certainly be shipped over enormous distances by sea or by pipeline. Ammonia can be stored and transported in much the same way we move propane around. The US midwest already has about 3,000km of ammonia pipelines thanks to the fertilizer industry. In the long run, it might be profitable to build massive floating solar farms in the oceans to generate ammonia which they could offload on to tankers. A balloon inflated with liquid ammonia, but submerged at a depth of 200-300 feet, would keep it under pressure and cooled without further energy inputs. Depending on the engineering, you might not even need a tanker -- just drag the balloon back to shore and feed the contents in to a pipeline. A tugboat would be all you needed.

And can we use the stuff, on the scale we're talking about, without harming the Earth? Burned in a turbine or engine, ammonia will release small amounts of NOx, but probably no worse than existing gasoline engines, with no carbon dioxide emissions whatsoever. In fuel cells, it should be possible to eliminate NOx production entirely, meaning that the ammonia would be decomposed in to what we started with -- inert nitrogen gas and water.

So we've got a liquid fuel, with passable energy density, that can be produced on massive scales using renewable electricity, and used without unduly harming the Earth. Not bad. Some things this can't do:

1) Bring us back to the days of cheap driving. I would honestly be surprised if, even with optimistic assumptions, somebody could plausibly produce ammonia as a automotive fuel for less than current prices of gasoline. The days of $1/gallon are long behind us.

2) Bring back cheap flight. Ammonia will forever have too low an energy density to be used as a jet fuel, I would think. It might do fine as a fuel for trains, though.

3) Make us less stupid. Given the technologies at hand, it really would be insane to try and use ammonia to replace all motor fuels, but we may actually try to. Our love of suburbia and big cars is insatiable, and any alternative fuel faces the problem of people not wanting to change.

I'm sure there are problems I haven't covered, and issues that need to be discussed. That's why God invented comment threads.

UPDATE: Corrected a mathematical error above, and it deserves a little elaboration. I overstated the amount of electricity needed to fast-charge a capacitor by an order of magnitude, so, uh, oops. That said, even a 90% reduction in the amount of power required doesn't change things that much.

Patric -- who pointed out my math error, in comments -- says that people wouldn't want internal-combustion cars when an electric car would be cheaper to maintain and last longer, and there's a number of reasons to believe he's right: most of the things that break in modern cars don't exist (or don't need to) in an EV.

That said, energy density is still a key problem: it's cheaper and easier to pump energy on large scales in the form of a liquid than it is to move it quickly over wires. For long-term trips, people aren't going to want to have to wait even 1 hour for their car to recharge before getting back on the road again. If the tank can be filled in 5 minutes and take them on their way again for another 300-400 miles, that's preferable and even arguably more efficient. (Time costs money, too!)

That's why I think that, aside from unreconstructed urbanites who almost never drive long distances on highways, a pure EV is not actually an ideal solution.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I'm still in a mood

I don't generally have a lot of time for automaker CEOs, but Rick Wagoner has half a point here:
General Motors' product chief, Robert Lutz, vice chairman in charge of global product development, says he's been peppered with comments that the current sales and financial problems are no more than just deserts for the auto industry's lack of foresight.

Not so, says Lutz.

When today's models of big SUVs and pickups were being developed, Lutz says, "There wasn't a petroleum engineer in the world I know of who came remotely close to forecasting this (high oil and gasoline prices). Petroleum at the time was forecast to be $45 to $60 a barrel and pump prices around $2.15, $2.35.

"What were we supposed to do, just say, 'We don't beleive any of that,' and quit building profitable trucks?"
I had this discussion just yesterday, and I was in the bizarre position of defending automakers. Wagoner and his ilk weren't oblivious, but they were obviously operating on the wrong information. It's worth noting at this point that the SUV boom and the discussion of peak oil began within a short span of each other -- Colin Campbell wrote his article in Scientific American in 1998, only 2 years after GM began making the Expedition.

The problem for automakers is not, then, that the information was unavailable. Rather, the problem is that the information was dismissed and ignored. The petroleum industry, the relevant government agencies, and even international agencies like the IEA all of tried to find a number of reasons why peak oil production, observed and empirically verified time and time again, should for some reason not happen when it comes to the whole Earth. Unfortunately for GM, they largely succeeded in marginalizing peak oil.

And if you think that's incorrect, consider the reaction to our current predicament. The general political response among the world's largest consumers (us North Americans) has been limited to a) blaming speculators, and b) demanding lower gasoline taxes (when North American fuel taxes are among the lowest in the developed world.)

There are rational responses to the scarcity of oil, but the cheap ones take time, and the quick ones are expensive, and generally all involve (to varying degrees) lifestyle changes and rebuilding our spaces to de-emphasize driving and in fact make it more inconvenient, while emphasizing walking and biking. See most of the economies of Northern Europe for good examples.

And see, in particular, the experience of Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany regarding bicycles. I just finished watching this 70-minute presentation on bike infrastructure in Europe, and it blew me away. Simple, simple changes that are often cheap to near-free, except for our attitudes.

North Americans generally have the same pathology about road spending that Americans specifically have about the military -- it doesn't count as "spending". We build roads and parking and more roads and more parking because, well, we don't know what else to do. It would never occur to us to do otherwise. I have an acquaintance who, enraged, yelled about how his employer charged him $10 a month for parking. It should be free, because that's how it ought to be.

So it doesn't matter if building a bike lane is cheaper, per person-mile, than paving a road. It doesn't matter if a bike is cheaper (and often faster) than mass transit or even car traffic. (Put me on a bike, and you in a car in moderate Toronto traffic, and I'll beat you. And I'm not even a fast cyclist.) We'll keep building roads and commuters will howl in rage at the slightest inconvenience or attempt at balance, and then they'll vote out the politicians who dare to rebalance our transit spending. And then they'll scream at the government that isn't doing enough to lower gasoline prices.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Facts are stupid things

Americans believe, by a huge margin, that John McCain has a better knowledge of world affairs than Barack Obama.

John McCain, for his part, believes the state of Czechoslovakia still exists.

But clearly journalists have no business pointing out that one candidate has no fucking clue what he's talking about, while another is actually making sense. That would be biased.

It's actually pretty clear

If that New Yorker cover has caused this much controversy, I think it's pretty safe to say that it failed at satire.

There's a number of reasons for that -- I think Chet nails most of it here, basically: it's hard for satire to keep up with the fevered delusions of the modern right. It's as if Swift had written A Modest Proposal at the same time as a number of London shops had just begun selling pies filled with mysteriously tender meat. What is the historical example of extraordinary satire would, in that context, be horrible.

Now, it's not the artist's fault that the right has been driven so mad over the Obamas, but great satire holds a mirror up to our culture and distorts it. The tragic thing for this satire -- which only a few months ago would have clearly been pitch-perfect -- is that at this point, there's no distortion involved.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

So I said I'd be bringing up Power and Plenty and there's no time like the present! During a discussion of the decolonization of Asia and Africa, and the wars against Communist insurgents that this in some cases involved, O'Rourke and Findlay write (p. 483):
Malaysia was the exception that proved the rule. The British did manage to defeat the Communist insurgency there, but this was at least in part because ordinary Malaysians were convinced that the British were sincere in their stated intentions to grant them independence, which they in fact did in 1957.
Two points:

1) I've read a shit-ton of books on Vietnam, and all of them mention the "Malayan" sucess. All of the ones I read mentioned Malaya in the context of America's attempts to win a guerilla war in Vietnam, and explore the difference between UK and US tactics. Not one that I've read thus far gave the kind of precedence to the UK effort to convince Malaysians they were leaving that O&F do in the above quote passage. To put it more plainly, every book I've read that was written from a military perspective, for a military perspective, emphasizes military means. But the obvious lesson to learn has nothing to do with the military, but with politics -- or more clearly, policy. There are many reasons the UK would have been able to convince Malayans that they were serious about leaving -- not the least of which was that they'd recently let India go, and with it the entire purpose of their Asian posessions.

Note how America was entirely unsuccessful in Vietnam because it's stated ambition -- the preservation of the Saigon government -- was exactly what the actual people of South Vietnam came to oppose.

So it's clearly a valuable lesson: Malaya -- literally the only example of a successful postwar counterinsurgency operation by a foreign power -- was successful exactly to the extent that the leaders of the imperial power made it clear they had no interest in staying.

And this point is most clearly made not in a military history but in a book of economic history where 20th century warfare -- indeed, the 20th century itself -- plays only a small role. For some reason, military history has de-emphasized the role of the British desire to leave in the only counterinsurgency "victory" of the postwar period. Counterinsurgency has de-emphasized this for the same reason, I think, that theorists of nuclear war de-emphasized that whole "fallout and gigadeath" thing, because if you think about it seriously it undermines the entire rationale for fighting the war in the first place.

2) Which brings us to the news that America's attempts to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement -- the neocolonial documents that guarantee the Americans immunity from prosecution for crimes committed while they protect the Iraqis from themselves -- have collapsed under the weight of Iraqi nationalism and American incompetence. To quote at length from Abu Muqawama:

Because talks were not occurring against the backdrop of negotiating a U.S. withdrawal and a clear signal that we did not want to have the rights and prerogatives to stay in Iraq indefinitely, two things happened:

1. Iraqi sovereignty and nationalist anxieties were exacerbated by the perception that we were negotiating a permanent occupation (regardless of how many times the administration asserted it wasn't seeking permanent bases). This made it difficult for Iraqi officials--including those that wanted a long-term agreement negotiated under Bush--to sign on to anything.

2. U.S. negotiators framed the whole thing to the Iraqis as us wanting to negotiate a way to stay in Iraq. This reversed the leverage in negotiations, making us appear increasingly desperate to give the Iraqis concessions so we could stick around indefinitely. This made it look like we needed them more than they needed us, which is completely back-ass-ward.

If, instead, U.S. negotiators had framed the talks around setting a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal and then sought to establish the conditions for the Iraqi government to receive the residual U.S. support it desperately needs (especially support to the ISF which, despite Maliki's rhetoric, the Iraqis will need for years), then the sovereignty/nationalism issues would have been at least partially addressed and the leverage would have worked in our favor. But because this administration doesn't believe in negotiating a withdrawal and because they have never been willing to impose strategic conditionality on our support to Maliki, they didn't adopt this approach. And they failed.
Now, why would America be unwilling to commit to leaving Iraq? Probably for the same reason that they've been building permanent bases since 2004 -- they don't intend to leave, and never, ever want to put anything on paper to suggest they will. Iraq is supposed to be America's latest unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East, and nothing as trifling as Iraqi domestic politics will be allowed to get in the way.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Various products and services reviewed

Hancock: Meh. Way better than the reviews, unless you're my girlfriend who thought it was a waste of time. Still, it's comparable to Hulk, not Iron Man.

Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron: Installed this on my laptop about a month ago, and it's really, really good once you make it better. Basically, install Wicd instead of the out-of-the-box wireless network software, and install the medibuntu repositories and you're pretty much ready to go. Since my laptop wouldn't play games if I wanted to, it's perfect for blogging, email, word processing. The desktop that I spent multi-hundreds of dollars on gets turned on when I feel like killing people. (I'm gonna argue that this also saves the environment, as I'm not turning on the watt-chugging desktop to blog.)

Power and Plenty by Ronald Findlay and Kevin O'Rourke: A 500-page history of trade during the second millenium A.D. Very, very good if you're in to that kind of thing. A bit too small-l liberal for my tastes, which says way more about me than it does about them. I started reading it around Christmas, put it down when classes started up again, then started again last week and finally finished it tonight. I'll probably be bringing up various bits throughout the next little while, but in particular I'd recommend their chapters on the industrial revolution and the "long 19th century", 1790-1914. Fascinating discussion about an age of globalization that, in many respects, we still haven't returned (regressed?) to.

Sunday funnies

Please, customers of retail stores, just don't say it. It's stupid, we hear it all the time, and it usually does nothing less than make us want to do violence to you.

So don't say it.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Pixar's Rubber Soul

That's this dude's description of WALL-E, and it's pretty apt. But I liked this bit more:
The collection of upcoming animated movies shown in the trailers before Wall-E just drive that point home. It's almost as if this one studio is the sole defenders of the faith, and Frank Zappa was right all along about everybody else - We're Only in it for the Money. A talking Chihuawa movie? Are you kidding me? Another misfit mouse movie? Another road trip movie with stock animal characters?
Yes, that talking Chihuahua movie looks like a war crime in the making. The contrast between the trailer for it and watching the short that precedes WALL-E is astonishing: it's like the difference between a canned laugh track and actually laughing so hard you worry about bladder control.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Oil: still going up

Business Week gets its hands on internal Saudi memos, and it turns out that the Saudis probably cannot sustainably produce more than 10 million barrels per day -- with a surge capacity of no more than 12 million, optimistically. Which is to say, the Saudis have zero, none, nada, zilch in the way of spare capacity to bring to the market.

So despite any temporary declines we might see as the American economy goes south, the reality is that oil is going to keep heading up. Sorry to the SUV owners out there.

As a bonus, all the current Saudi oil development is going towards replacing production declines from older fields, including Ghawar, the mother of all oilfields. This is a sucker's game, which means we're probably looking at absolute production declines in Saudi Arabia before 2020. (That's a wild-ass guess on my part, but once Ghawar goes terminal there's little to nothing the Saudis could do to bounce back.)

An additional note: as the largest, oldest supergiants (like Ghawar, or Cantarell in Mexico, or others like Burgan in Kuwait) all start to go in to decline, we'll increasingly be replacing production from these fields with production from smaller fields, that have been tapped more recently, and often use secondary- and tertiary-production measures, which end up increasing production at the cost of more rapid decline when it comes. The net result of all this is that as our oldest, more productive fields go in to decline, the average rate of decline of global production is going to go up as smaller fields start to make up a larger percentage of all production.

Or, as they put it at the Oil Drum:
The evidence seems to be pointing to an overall increase in the global decline rate for existing wells. What this means is that, if world production is around 86 million barrels a day, then to replace existing declines next year, an additional new production of 4.47 mbd at 5.2% decline, instead of the 3.87 mbd required at 4.5% decline, will be needed just to stabilize supply at a fixed level. If the rate is accelerating this difference of 600,000 bd will increase and drop the top line of the curves such as those that Khebab and others have so carefully assembled.

This increased decline rate is already being reported, and thus the potential peak in 2010 that the graph shows is already at risk and we may struggle to get much above the numbers that we are at today.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

My country 'tis of weird

Canadians of the future -- and no doubt, foreigners of the present -- will be amazed to learn that the colour of margarine has been a lightning-rod issue in Canadian politics, bundled up with such things as French-Canadian separatism and good old-fashioned protectionism for the dairy lobby.

It has literally come to police raids on Wal-Mart grocery sections in Quebec City. But glory be, the people of Quebec will soon be able to enjoy yellow margarine like the rest of the world.

If you're really interested (and there's no good reason to be) there's some decent background here.

In my homeland's defense, this is at least an issue of tangible reality, unlike the fantasies that seem to preoccupy American politics: Does Barack Obama love America or the Prophet Muhammad? Can Social Security be saved from disgrace? Etc.

"I'm John McCain so just get on with it"

Josh Marshall has a decent explanation for how John McCain became such a lousy politician:
Inevitably, one part of the explanation is age. A lot happens between 63 and 72. But we also forget that much of the punch of McCain's candidacy was his anger at key segments of the conservative establishment that attacked him for not toeing the line on issues important to the religious right and on tax policy. That was his punch. That got his goat up. But most of his snark lines this season are meant to kow-tow to those same folks. And in any case, his manner seems to say, why am I up here having to do this anyway? I'm John McCain. Who's Barack Obama? Just make me president!
We've heard a bit of this before, with reports from the McCain camp that McCain just hates Obama's guts, and has about as much regard for him as you would for a bird dropping in your morning latte. [elitist!] Because, that's really what Obama represents for McCain: the elder Senator played the good soldier, and stood aside for George W. Bush and didn't make too much trouble over the last 8 years. At least part of this was to cement his place as the GOP nominee for this year.

But then the GOP ran the government in to the ground, and the party's fortunes with it. So now McCain's got his only shot at the Big Chair, and he might have made a good run at it, if the Democrats hadn't had the good sense to basically run a national campaign before they even selected a nominee. (While I didn't support her, I think nobody can deny that the long campaign made Sen. Clinton a much stronger candidate. Had she prevailed, I think she too would have gone on to beat McCain like a drum.) So his one chance has basically been taken from him before he even got going.

But there's also the arrogance factor, fed in no small part by a sycophantic press that continues to treat John McCain's war record as if it was written on stone tablets by the fire of Yahweh herself. McCain clearly thinks that he's the only politician in his party or any other that's qualified to be President. The fact that growing numbers of American electors disagree with him probably doesn't keep him up at nights. After all, he's John McCain, and who the fuck do they think they are?

Get it? He's old

John McCain thinks Social Security, as it's been constituted since it's inception, is "a disgrace".


Because having been signed in to law in August of 1935, Social Security is what John McCain has always called "that cripple Roosevelt's damned newfangled bolshevism."

Okay, so maybe not. In fact, Social Security is one of the few things in American history that is actually older than John McCain, by almost exactly one year.*

And if I keep making cracks about McCain's age (you bet your ass I will) it's not because of his age, per se. I've known pensionable men who nonetheless learned how to repair computers to supplement their income, and my late grandfather on my mother's side was certainly no dunce when it came to technology. Being old has nothing to do with being out of touch.

But it's clear that in McCain's case, he is totally out of touch with the modern world. And not in a folksy, Reaganesque, lie-about-Iran-Contra kind of way. He is just now, apparently, discovering the fundamental aspects of how the most important program of the US government works. And he thinks it's a disgrace. He has, by his own admission, no idea of how to use a computer. Oh, and he thinks it's cool to joke about killing Iranians with lung cancer**. What an asshole.

*Who wants to put money on Barack Obama very publicly wishing John McCain a happy 72nd birthday this August?

**God, the Associated Press is a bunch of wankers.


Ars Technica has a decent rebuttal to the panic (icluding mine) over Indium and Gallium scarcity. That said, I think the recent trend in oil prices has shown how quickly scarcity can set in, and how ill-equipped the market is to actually predict real scarcity.

There's also the point that needs to be brought up: talking about the planetary "resources" of elements or compounds is worse than useless, because what matters in the end is (in the case of oil, and other mined commodities) proven or at the very least explored reserves. These are two distinct concepts in geology, and not keeping them straight can lead you astray.

To simplify grossly, a "resource" is basically an estimate of the amount of a mineral (for our purposes, this includes fossil fuels) in the ground and maybe it's purity. A "reserve" is something much closer to economic reality, with economic extraction a possibility and plans to do so. These aren't just scientific calculations: banks and financial markets will lend you money based on proven reserves if you'd like money to start a mining operation. Come to the teller's desk with a "resource" estimate, without some clue as to how to turn minerals in the ground in to economically useful products, and you might as well just walk away.

There's an important corollary to all this: a great deal of the stuff in the Earth is never going to be "reserves", because it is either too deep, too diffuse, or to tightly bound to other elements to be worth the effort.

It's widely accepted among the sane that humans are literally going to have to start eating "lower on the food chain": we have to start eating more plants, less animals, because animal protein is a very inefficient form of energy use. What's not often realized is that human industry is also going to have to eat lower on the food chain, in the sense that resources that require huge amounts of energy to produce and refine are going to be less affordable than simpler, low-energy materials.

Now, of course there's caveats to all this. If cheap fusion and nanotechnology proliferate, than maybe aluminum and titanium will totally displace steel and copper. (I am still, despite my pessimism, a sci-fi nerd.) But barring something huge, it's unlikely that we'll be able to replace our consumption of things like copper with more energy-intense metals like aluminum.

I realize opposites attract, but wtf?

Seen at the bookstore yesterday:

A phoned-in hold for a customer of two books, Pat Buchanan's latest, and Sylvia Browne's latest.

That's a novel combination. Lordy, I'd like to see who this person is when they come in to pick it up.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

First as tragedy, then as farce*

Huh. The longer it goes on, the more McCain's campaign looks like Hillary Clinton's, except without the charisma, funding, or competence.
WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain’s campaigns have long been defined by internal squabbling and power plays, zigzagging lines of command and a penchant by the candidate for consulting with former advisers without alerting current ones, always a recipe for disquiet.

After a period of relative calm on that score, it is becoming clear that his campaign is once again a swirl of competing spheres of influence, clusters of friends, consultants and media advisers who represent a matrix of clashing ambitions and festering feuds. The cast includes the surviving members of Mr. McCain’s 2000 campaign, led by Rick Davis and Mark Salter; a new camp out of the world of Karl Rove, led by the recently ascendant Steve Schmidt; and on the periphery, the ever-present Mike Murphy, Mr. McCain’s strategist in the 2000 presidential race who has been dispensing advice to the candidate to the annoyance of the other camps, and is the subject of intensifying rumors in Republican circles that he is about to re-enter the campaign.
Look at the campaign he's run so far: messaging about how you can't trust Obama's message of hope, how voters should choose experience over change, and how he's braved physical danger in Bosnia Vietnam which gives him executive experience, and don't even think of saying otherwise or the press will Clark your ass, motherfucker.

By my count, we'll hear McCain talk about his appeal with "hard working, white voters" sometime in October. By the eve of the election, we'll be told that "anything can happen, we all remember how William Henry Harrison died after his inauguration..."

Fun fact: John McCain actually remembers William Henry Harrison's inauguration.**

*Yes, it's an overused phrase.

**Okay, he probably doesn't. Don't be a spoilsport.

Okay, I guess there's some good news out there

Oh John, I imagine you saying. Enough with your doom-and-gloomery, your "we're using up Indium" talk and your "Greenland will kills us all" bafflegab. What of the good news? Why must you trouble us with this relentless pessimism, this deluge of reality?

Alright, here's a few things:

1) Flying saucers. No, really. Flying saucers. I want.

2) The Polywell Fusion people are gearing up to build their next device, which they say will generate net power of 100MW. A 2m reactor would generate 500MW. As it just so happens, scaling up those flying saucers will require a dense, abundant source of electricity. To the moon, Alice!

3) Other things that require electricity: electric cars! Apparently, they're the new black.

Happy now?

Climate change: stickin' it to whitey?

It's usually true that while the causes of climate change are generated by the richer, whiter nations of the Earth, the consequences will be borne by the poorer, browner nations. News today suggests that at least one aspect of this is not the case: if Greenland begins to add substantially to the sea level, it will affect the east coast of North America most of all, and earliest of all, while it will take decades to affect poorer nations in the Pacific and Indian oceans.


A study in contrasts, II

In 2004, T Boone Pickens was the primary funder of a bunch of serial liars known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Pickens, aside from being dishonored by funding these liars, is a spineless coward himself, reneging on a claim that he would pay $1 million to anyone who could disprove any allegation in the package of lies he used to swing the 2004 election towards Bush.

For this, in a fair and just universe Pickens would no longer be welcome in polite company. America is neither fair nor just.

But. In 2008, Pickens will be spending his money to throw the election a different way -- in favor of wind power. Of course, had he not spent so much money in 2004, he might not need to spend so much money in 2008. And if, thanks to the degenerate liars still roaming around looking for a new gullible billionaire to fund them, McCain should win in November, all the money Pickens spends now will still be wasted, because McCain only lurves nuclear power.

It should also be pointed out that Pickens is essentially bellying up to the public teat here, as the oilman has become heavily invested in Texas windpower. I think that's fine -- public money should be spent on wind! -- but Pickens isn't disinterested here.

Your liberal media at work

Too stupid to breathe.

Monday, July 07, 2008

How badly do you want to eat?

Mike, in the comments to my last post:
Sound like if we get desperate enough, asteroid mining may be coming sooner rather than later.
And I'm too much of a nerd not to rise to that bait.

A quick bit of searching on mining asteroids specifically for Indium and Gallium turns up this PDF from 2001, which gives us some numbers to play with. Basically, if you'll turn your hymnal to page 7 you'll see that concentrations of Indium and Gallium are so small in asteroids (as they are on Earth) that mining a gigatonne-sized asteroid for metals in concentrations of a few parts per million is a lot of work. That said, the vast majority of the mass of a metallic asteroid is Iron and Nickel which can both be separated out easily, so it's conceivable that an asteroid mine would reduce the mass returned to Earth by shipping undifferentiated metals that have been separated from the nickel-iron dross. Still, I've got to believe that there would be other options, like for example giving up our precious LCDs.

Ah, but something else caught my eyes (it always does, I'm terrible in libraries.) Gallium is present (on average) in concentration of 60 ppm, Indium only 0.46 ppm. But Phosphorus is present, on average, in concentrations of 1600 ppm. Still not a lot, but that depends on your perspective. If agriculture starts to stagnate or collapse because of dwindling phosphorus reserves our attitudes towards what's "affordable" and not might change, and quick. On a planet of 9 billion people, phosphorus will be non-negotiable.

Problem: the paper posits a mine capacity of 10 kilotonnes of phosphorus per year, while world demand is more than 100 megatonnes. So we'd need something like 10,000 mines to satisfy world demand. Still, back in the days of Guano Imperialism (god I love that phrase) Britain sent warships to Peru to guard the, uh, stuff. There's more than enough asteroids to satisfy that kind of demand, it's just a matter of expense.

As a side benefit to producing life-giving phosphorus, the mines would also be producing oodles of platinum, gold, silver, and of course indium and gallium. So in this model, a crucial food production infrastructure would also subsidize our giant flat-screen habits. And, on top of everything else, the Earth's phosphorus may have come from space in the first place. That's space exploitation I can get behind!

Update: I've officially put too much thought in to this, but the above discussion is all based on numbers from M (metal-rich) asteroids. C (carbonaceous) and S (stony-iron) asteroids are much richer in phosphorus. S are interesting candidates for mining because they also have useful metals like silicon, aluminum, and useful chemicals like water, carbon, and sulphur.

Not a happy post -- skip it if you like

I've been in one of those moods lately, where I really don't know what's left to say anymore. I suppose the latest thing I've read that made me feel this way is this:
The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.

Running out of oil, yes. We’ve all been concerned about that for many years and everyone anticipates a time when the world’s underground petroleum reserves will have been pumped dry. But oil is just an organic substance that was created by natural biological processes; we know that we have a lot of it, but we’re using it up very rapidly, no more is being created, and someday it’ll be gone. The disappearance of elements, though—that’s a different matter. I was taught long ago that the ninety-two elements found in nature are the essential building blocks of the universe. Take one away—or three, or six—and won’t the essential structure of things suffer a potent blow? Somehow I feel that there’s a powerful difference between running out of oil, or killing off all the dodos, and having elements go extinct.
In case you skipped or failed high school chemistry, elements are not the kind of thing we can produce more of, or find creative ways to produce new reserves of. The Earth is unyielding to our creative accounting measures.

But of course, in some ways this is exactly like oil. Petroleum has unique chemical and physical properties that aren't reproducible: it's an energy-dense liquid, which was created in vast quantities and disproportionately stored underground in large, easily accessible reservoirs. The fact that it's a liquid means that it can be pumped in pipelines over vast distances, cheaply refined into other liquids and gases (themselves piped around) at much lower costs than coal or natural gas.

And it's cheap, both in terms of finance and energy: time was, a barrel of oil's worth of investment would get you 50, even 100 barrels of oil worth of production out of the biggest and cheapest of fields in place like Texas and Saudi Arabia. You can sum up most of the history of the 20th century as either a) increasing use of oil or b) increasing violence over the posession of oil. In some cases (Operation Barbarossa, the Japanese invasion of Indonesia) this was naked and self-evident. In other cases (Gulf War I & II, Operation Ajax) we manage to give ourselves an appropriate fig leaf.

And, as you may have noticed, all of our current substitutes for oil suck. Alberta makes shitty oil out of a mixture of glue and dirt, America and China are prospecting the Nazi- and Apartheid-proven technology of coal-based liquid fuels, Montana might get a federal boondoggle in oil shales, and then there's ethanol, which is probably responsible for starving a few extra million people this year alone. But even if none of those things were true, it would remain true that all of these substitutes have a much, much lower EROEI than classical oil did. (It's almost certainly impossible to get the same 100:1 payback that we used to.)

Which leaves us two options: search for a new energy subsidy that won't ruin the planet, or start wrenching out every possible efficiency and conservation effort possible, or both. While I'm a big proponent of option C, you look around and it's pretty clear that we've in fact decided to pursue option D: neither, and fuck you ya Commie. I support Barack Obama, but it's clear he's in hock to corn ethanol and coal. Conservation remains a dirty word in America. Automotive unions in Canada and the US fight fuel efficiency measures tooth and nail because Asian manufacturers build better cars. The McGuinty government thinks more nuclear reactors -- at double or even triple the price we're being "promised" -- is what this province needs. And the US and Canadian governments are complicit in the desecration of Athabasca at the altar of autmotive mobility.

I try not to get down, but the bad news outweighs the good news on any given day, and when we're emptying out the periodic table of elements like it's an Advent calendar filled with sweets, you've got to figure something is wrong.

At this point, the hip green thing to do is say, "hey, don't be such a downer, the public needs positive messages or they'll be turned off". Sorry, I've been over this before: at this point in the game, optimism is a lie. If we'd started a transition 30 years ago, we might have done it painlessly. If we'd started 15 years ago, we'd still have a lot of work ahead of us but we'd be on the right track. Now, panic and crisis are the order of the day. Because -- and dig this -- the warnings of the environmental movement have been ignored for the last 30 years, and now we've run out of time.

A final note about Indium and Gallium: they are two of the elements that have shown a lot of promise in solar panels, and we are destroying our reserves building flatscreen televisions. In a very basic sense, by perpetuating the status quo we are running out of options to save ourselves. The longer the industrial system continues without change, the worse the collapse will be and the fewer means we will have to build any kind of new, optimistic, "bright green" future.

Moral equivalence!!!

Guess if you can spot the thing about this WaPo article that got on my nerves:
TOKYO -- When it comes to saving energy, the Japanese have much to teach the United States and other rich countries, whose leaders descend on Japan next month for a Group of Eight summit.

Energy consumption per person here is about half that in the United States, and the growth of greenhouse gas emissions is slower than anywhere in the industrialized world.

There is a hiccup, though, in this world-beating record. It happens inside the Japanese home, where energy use is surging. And nothing embodies the surge quite like the toilet -- a plumbing fixture that has been reengineered here as an ultracomfy energy hog....

But as with a Hummer, romance with a high-end toilet is not cheap. Luxury models cost up to $4,000 -- plus at least $2.50 a month per toilet in higher electricity bills.
Get the message? Sure, big stupid Americans drive big stupid cars, but those Japanese heat their toilet seats!!! And they call us wasteful!!!

Okay, this is just an obvious example of American newspapers being stupid. But lets do the math, shall we?

The article mentions on the high end, these toilets cost $5 a month in electricity. (Newer models are more efficient.) If the Japanese pay $0.20/kwh for their electricity, that works out to about 25kwh/month just for the toilet. That's 90 megajoules, equal about to the energy content of 7/10 of a gallon of gasoline.

Or, to put it another way, in an entire month the Japanese use as much energy to heat their toilets as the Americans use to get halfway to work on the first day of the month.

Clearly, these two behaviours are equivalent.

A study in contrasts

Rolling Stone on Team Obama:
Obama's top advisers outmaneuvered Hillary Clinton's organization with no leaks, no nasty infighting and virtually no public credit for their efforts. By all rights, Plouffe and the other chief architects of Obama's machine should be household names on par with James Carville and Karl Rove. And yet, with the exception of chief strategist David Axelrod, who has emerged as an affably low-key spokesman for the campaign, Obama's brain trust works in near anonymity from the campaign's headquarters on the 11th floor of a smoked-glass skyscraper two blocks south of the Chicago River.

That obscurity is by design. Members of Obama's inner circle are largely unknown to the public because the second rule of the campaign is: All credit accrues to Obama. The first rule? Don't talk about Team Obama. As senior adviser Valerie Jarrett puts it, "We aim for you to not know about the inner workings of the campaign because there's not much to know other than: It works."
Vanity Fair's Gail Sheehy on Team Clinton:
Ickes was the only member of the Big Five to have ever run a national presidential campaign. “The rest hardly knew a delegate when they saw one,” says a top adviser sarcastically.

But the real flaw in Hillary’s presidential campaign was the lack of any clear lines of authority. Her “team of rivals,” as she thought approvingly of them, assured she would remain in total top-down control. But it is often necessary to tell a candidate what she doesn’t want to hear in a cold, hard, neutral manner. With Hillary, the word among her staff was “I don’t want to get spanked by Mama.”


Penn and Ickes especially hated each other. Penn was a protégé of the most poisonous character in the Clinton White House, pollster Dick Morris. Leon Panetta, who had battled against Morris’s morally empty advice in the ’96 campaign, compared Penn to Karl Rove and saw Hillary’s dependence on Penn as an ominous sign. “Morris had no lines between right and wrong,” says Panetta. “There are moments when [the Clintons] want to hear from the dark side because that may be the only way to win.… Losing is not part of their vocabulary. They know no limits when it comes to the energy and tactics they will use—no matter how distasteful.”
It's a mark of how poweful the Clintons are/were in the Democratic Party that, despite a crippling amount of dysfunction within their campaign, they still almost won. It's also a mark of how important Obama's clear line on Iraq was to his victory. Yet astonishingly, neither the RS or VF piece gives the war much time. The Rolling Stone piece -- which really is very good, and you should read it -- doesn't even use the words "war" or "Iraq" once, except for talking about the Clintons' view of politics as war. Seriously.

Imagine if somebody covered Kennedy's victory in 1960 without mentioning the disillusionment with the GOP status quo? Imagine if someone covered Clinton 1992 without mentioning the economy? We're in that category here -- the clearest reason for Obama's victory is being ignored in favour of a narrative that totally airbrushes the war out of domestic politics.

Why, exactly, is it important to push the line that there was no domestic penalty for supporting this misbegotten war?

No, both parties aren't equally responsible

While it's tempting to yell "A pox on both their houses" or proclaim that, like a certain Agatha Christie murder, we're all culpable, there's a rather important fact that this NYTimes article omits: the role of the mythical fuel cell vehicle in killing progress in fuel efficiency.

Anyone here remember the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV)? No? Here:
By 1997, participants had settled on the specs of the “super car,” as it became known: the sedan would be a lightweight, diesel-electric hybrid. (Diesel engines, because they use a higher compression ratio, consume less fuel per mile than gasoline engines do.) By 2000, the Big Three had all produced concept cars, which were unveiled with much fanfare at the North American Auto Show, in Detroit. G.M.’s car, which was called the Precept, came equipped with two electric motors, one mounted on each axle. Ford’s Prodigy featured an aluminum body and rear-facing cameras in place of side-view mirrors, and the Dodge ESX3 was made in large part out of plastic.

The concept cars were wheeled out, then wheeled away, never to be seen again. In January, 2002, just months before the prototypes of the vehicles were supposed to be delivered and after more than a billion dollars of federal money had been spent, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the Bush Administration was scrapping the project. When he delivered the announcement, Abraham was flanked by top executives from the Big Three, at least one of whom—G.M.’s chairman, Jack Smith—had stood next to President Clinton when he launched the program, eight years earlier. Abraham explained—and the auto executives seemed to agree—that the program had been based on a fundamentally flawed premise. The future of the car didn’t lie with diesel hybrids or any other technology that would allow vehicles to get eighty miles to the gallon. “We can do better than that,” Abraham declared. The Administration and the automakers, he said, were undertaking a new, even more ambitious venture, called FreedomCAR. The goal of this project was to produce vehicles that would run on pure hydrogen.
After taking more than a billion dollars in subsidies and producing prototypes that all got between 70 and 85 mpg, Detroit and the Bush Administration killed the PNGV in the belief that fuel cell vehicles could be made to get even better.

One problem: they probably can't, and they certainly can't in the near and medium term. Even if fuel cell cars eventually corner the market (and do we have enough platinum to even build enough cells? probably not) it's still perfectly reasonable to build diesel hybrids as a solution for the next 20-30 years. Also fantastic would be if somebody cracks algal biodiesel, the most promising renewable fuel on the horizon.

Between this PNGV and the fate of the EV-1, the only thing of substance that fuel cells have accomplished has been to kill more reasonable short-term solutions in the name of a near-fantasy long term solution.

The GOP and Detroit colluded to kill some of the most promising technologies after they'd been paid to the tune of more than $1 billion in public funds. Yes, they were helped by bad Democrats like Dingell and Levin, but it was Bush who pushed the PNGV off the cliff.

The mask falls

So, imagine this: a media outlet exists in a country largely to support the actions of one party, and demonize all opposition. It has regularly accused political rivals of treason and worse, and reacts vehemently to any and all criticism of itself.

This reaction eventually takes the form of altering and distributing photos of journalists with names like "Steinberg" to darken their eyes, yellow their teeth, and enlarge their noses.

And now imagine that I wasn't talking about a rag run by Julius Streicher, but one of the most popular outlets in the alleged republic of the United States of America.

The election of President Obama will only be the end of the beginning. The rot goes deep. Josh Marshall's immortal demand for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is as necessary now -- if not more so -- than ever.

Friday, July 04, 2008

How I spent the 4th of July

Girlfriend: Away for the last week.

Me: A slob.

Laundry, dishes, vacuuming: New land speed record.

Independence day, my ass.

Like Jefferson and Adams

Are you kidding me? Jesse Helms died on the Fourth of July?

The man was a bastard, but somehow I think he would have enjoyed this outcome.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


I don't know what's more depressing, that people who live in the imperial core feel so afraid all the time, or that the victims of American gun violence need to hold fundraisers to get their health insurance. To have one of these chronic problems would be enough -- to have both, well, shit.

Washington D.C., people. The kind of city that lets poverty fester until the boil shoots hot lead, and then tells you that national health insurance can't happen because everyone else is a Communist.

(I wouldn't say I know Brian, but we've corresponded once and he seemed like a nice guy. Wish him well.)

I don't care if this bores you

Jesse Taylor points out the obvious to those claiming WALL-E is the latest round of liberal propaganda:
There’s a perfectly reasonable conservative read on the movie that doesn’t turn it into a total piece of shit! Of course, that also involves not calling a movie that’s anti-corporate “fascist”, so leave it up to the hairshirted liberal to find it.

The fundamental story of the movie is about a culture beholden to a nanny state - in this case, a literal nanny state that coddles them like babies from the cradle to the grave, a world where individual initiative is destroyed and cultural history is entirely alien to the entire human race. Basically, it’s the exact thing that conservatives have been warning us about for years, wrapped up in a movie with cute robots who rebel against it and lead humanity to a hunting-gathering-growing Earth.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Eventually, even Godwin will be repealed

In a just universe the LCDs at the National Review offices would be splattered with grey matter right about now, as their brains try, and fail, to sort out who the bad guys in all this are:

WASHINGTON — The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive
management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”

What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

I can't help but think of Jonah Goldberg's reaction to someone suggesting he read The Gulag Archipelago:

I've read the Gulag Archipelago. It didn't tell me everything I needed to know about torture, it told me almost everything I needed to know about the evil of the Soviet Union. And, guess what? The comparison between the United States and the Soviet Union is idiotic and slanderous. Our recent experience on waterboarding proves exactly that.

It's true: comparing the US and USSR is idiotic and slanderous. Comparing the US to Mao-era Communist China, it turns out, is factually unimpeachable.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

They have no brains

WALL-E: the latest example of liberal fascism.

There's something about these people that simply doesn't work like normal brains. They loved The Incredibles, which they perceived to have a strong libertarian message. So did I, and I strongly disagree with most libertarians on, oh, most everything.

Did this stop me from enjoying the movie? Not one bit, anymore than the simply awful racism and misogyny in a movie like 300 keeps me from enjoying the above-average action flick inside. I thought there was a lot about Team America that was too juvenile and stupid, but a lot that was really damn funny, despite the fact that I think Stone and Parker are vastly overrated. Nevertheless, I've probably watched TA two or three times now. Because it's a movie, you morons.

Why you would close yourself off from the broadest possible enjoyment of human culture because of something as trivial as a perceived slight to your politics, I'll never understand.