Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Financial Industry Sucks

Yea, I know, that is abundantly clear to everyone now. But it really isn't. Krugman has a little article that scratches the surface. It still doesn't go far enough. Capitalism has some serious upside for innovation, job creation (low unemployment), and development. The benefits of capitalism and the free market begin to disappear as companies get larger. Mega banks being able to spread across the whole of the financial industry and gobbling up smaller banks/investment banks/anything else that makes money producing nothing is a bad trend, and while that should be obvious now, that has been accelerated by this economic crisis rather than reversed.

Large companies can more easily exploit workers, squeeze out competition and engage in behavior that serves their and not their customers' needs. The horrible working conditions in factories around the turn of the (last) century, and the conditions in third world manufacturing plants today are among the results of this. In banking it is not as obvious because their "production" comes not from workers actually producing anything but from people--nominally customers--giving (lending) them money. Bank customers are the equivalent of the manufacturers in productive industries. In return the bank gives very modest service (you can withdraw some of it--though seldom all--you may receive a pittance in interest payments, etc.).

Banks have never been particularly noble institutions (and for you Christian types out there the Bible does not have nice things to say regarding their practices). Insurance companies are even worse. Investment banks, which are a strange hybrid of casino and banking, are right out. All of these institutions, however, have become necessary to our country and lifestyle. In the case of Insurance, their lobbying has been so effective that it is illegal to drive without contributing to the profit of a private industry.

I have a similar knee-jerk reaction against the notion of government getting bigger and providing more services as many others have, but if the government is going to mandate that we have insurance, then they should also mandate, or charter, a not for profit institution that provides such. In banking we actually do have those--credit unions, which are wonderful things that more people should use--but they are being drowned out of the market by the mega banks. Investment banking will never have such due to their nature, but should also never be even remotely considered for a bailout.

The financial industry provides the grease for the wheels of capitalism, and so it cannot be allowed to fail. There are only two ways to ensure that happens: government control, or government breakup. As it is, we have privatized profit while placing the burden from loss on the taxpayers, if we don't reap the rewards, we cannot afford to foot the bill for the losses.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Voting and Intellectualism

First, for all the talk of intellectualism that exists on the left, most people clearly do not know what it is. Barack Obama is thoughtful, intelligent, capable, educated, open mined, but NOT, in the purest sense, an intellectual. He is concerned with getting elected, and affecting change. Neither of those are intellectual pursuits, and in fact both--particularly the former--are more often counter-intellectual.

Many people in the progressive movement believe that there is a logical/rational "correct" side on many given issues and that they occupy it, as is evidenced by the abundance of highly educated and intellectual types on their side.

There isn't. There is no such thing as a purely rational/logical position. None. There is always an emotional underpinning.

It is overly simple, but the emotional underpinnings for the generic left and right in this country can be boiled down to: "People have inherent dignity and worth which supersedes their actions," and "People have no value that their actions do not make real," respectively.

If you think that people have great inherent worth, then you probably vote Democrat. If you believe that people make their own worth you likely vote Republican. If you believe that life is more complicated than that, you probably vote for the most competent candidate, you are also in a tiny minority and likely very frustrated by both sides. If you don't even begin to concern yourself with such thoughts then you are one of the group of idiots who are actually swayed by campaign advertisements.

Policy and Practice

I gave up on Republicans a while ago. Simply because of their policies. But Republicans do not apologize for who they are, what they want/believe in, and they are willing to go to the mattresses to accomplish their stated goals. Regardless of policy/platform/issues, every political party should behave like this. There are different points of view in this country. All of those views are, to the extent possible, represented by two political parties. If one of those parties fights tooth and nail for its issues and the other acquiesces and tries to play nice and get along with everyone, only one party's set of views gets well represented.

My real dislike of Democrats in Washington is not with policy but practice, their unique ability to cave to any Republican pressure, despite overwhelming public opinion against Republicans, is laughable, lamentable, and downright depressing. I voted for Obama, but he gets very little slack from me. If he doesn't get this country out of the rabbit hole--and fast--I'll be ready for some new leadership. I won't vote Republican because their views are just too often wrong, but if voting for Democrats doesn't actually mean anything, then I will "throw my vote away" on third party candidates and write-ins in future elections.

(I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. From kos at Daily Kos:

  1. Republicans ask for the absurd, threaten nuclear/economic armageddon if there's no action.
  1. Democrats cower in fear.
  1. We try to talk some sense into them.
  1. We get scolded for being unserious, and wanting the terrorists to win/people to lose their jobs.
  1. Democrats promise oversight!
  1. We roll our eyes.
  1. Democrats cave on every single point, but pretend to win anyway.
  1. We wonder what we ever did to deserve this sorry bunch of representatives.
  1. Republicans do whatever the hell they want.
  1. Democrats pretend that no one could've ever predicted Republican outrages and express "outrage". Sometimes, they even write a sternly worded letter!
  1. We make "no one could have foreseen" jokes and wonder what we ever did to deserve this sorry bunch of representatives.
  1. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Both parties suck, but one does it with their stated ideology and the other does it by being too damn weak to stand up.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Deserve's got nothing to do with it

I love the questions and polling about whether this group or that "deserves" a bailout. The answer is so simple: Not a single one of 'em does. None. Of course that hasn't a damn thing to do with whether it is necessary or not. It is. For reasons which should be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention. That doesn't make it good, or right or fair or any of a number of other adjectives you can throw at it. More job losses in a recession won't make things better. More financial meltdowns and mergers won't make banking safer. More foreclosures won't make markets adjust in a sane way (though, this one really makes me less than happy).

I too have entertained fantasies about the end of the world as we know it, and doing nothing would lead to at least one of those (the "as we know it" is very important there). I'm fairly sure I would be fine, but I know how to create fire and won't die if I have to go through winter without power. Seriously, though, it is not fair or justified, but necessary. For my Christmas list, let's forget the not gonna happen "peace on earth" and "goodwill toward all" (or men, if you aren't crazy PC).

Dear Santa,

I would like to limit total compensation for execs on bailout money receiving groups to <$100k...not gonna happen.

I would like for financial institutions to be broken up into smaller entities to produce better competition and an eye toward sanity...not gonna happen.

I would like for the big 3 bailout to be accompanied by the government telling them that 27 mpg is a required minimum for any vehicle produced, and that the fleet average must be >40 mpg...not gonna happen.

I would like for people who got mortgages they can afford to have their student loan debt forgiven (as education apparently worked for them, and this does not include me, as I couldn't afford to buy w/o some dumb ass exotic mortgage)...not gonna happen.

I would like for insurance companies (AIG) that receive bailout aid to be restructured as non-profit entities...not gonna happen.

I would like for the execs at companies that lead us down this road to be imprisoned--starting with our very own (thankfully for not much longer) POTUS, his veep, and all their cronies...not gonna happen.

Goodwill toward others is a whole lot easier when "others" doesn't include "them."

Monday, September 22, 2008

The reason I'm voting for Democrats...

Go here and read.

The reason is that pretty much every Republican advocated policy is stupid, even when they have good intentions. The latest is the whole "drill, drill, drill" meme that is being pushed as a real solution to gasoline prices.

I'll admit I'm a bit up in the air about the price of gas: Does the good that high prices do offset the hurt that it causes lower income families? I really don't know the answer, but I do know that the Republican solution will do no good to anyone but oil companies, yet people--in large numbers--are falling for it...again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Scott Adams on Economists

The gist of the article (linked below) is that Scott Adams wants to keep his money, and so will present the data he himself collected in such a manner as to justify his greed...

I like Scott Adams. I usually find Dilbert funny and his books are an amusing read. CNN posted an article he wrote about a poll he funded asking economists about the presidential nominees. It is not funny, it is a little sad.

Now he is honest enough to admit that he is a greedy wealthy person. One of the tiny percentage of this country that will actually be taxed more by Obama (while most of us get bigger tax breaks). His rationale is the same as most greedy people: the dirty government will mismanage/waste it, and (not explicitly stated) he earned it.

Taking issue with the second point first... Wealthy people earn more than poor, not because they are harder working or more deserving, or even more capable/smarter. They earn vast quantities of money because of luck. It happens that their talents had the good fortune to be developed, discovered and are more in demand. But they do have a tendency to think it is because of some sense of deserving. Hard work, ability, can get you a decent living, depending on location and your specific line of work that may mean $50k/yr, or $150k/yr, but that's about it. People making several hundred thousand to millions a year are not more deserving, just more fortunate. Of course they also have the most to spare for funding campaigns, so guess what often happens...

As far as his first point: government does have waste, but also funds the military, education, research, infrastructure, law enforcement... Waste other than military gets lots of attention but it is a tiny portion of the US budget. Cutting taxes to rich people doesn't mean less waste it means less for good programs. Of course, they can afford to send their children to school w/o government support and get health care without government support, and can even hire bodyguards, so have less need for police, so why should they give a damn? About the only thing they can't do is hire an army, so it's always okay to fund the bejeezus out of that cash cow.

The biggest problem though, is that, because of his belief, he does his damnedest to talk up the partisan nature of the economists. So I wonder: are economists views based on politics or are their political views based on economics? I would guess the latter in which case, the partisan divide is not only moot, it's idiotic. Scott Adams is a smart guy, and a funny fellow, but he wants his money so badly that he is pushing hard against the rather overwhelming opinion supported by the economists he paid to have polled:

Obama is better for the Economy of this nation.

Whither blows the GOP?

she is woman, hear her roar,
he is POW, hear them snore.
to think that those who’d run our land
would deign to look down on us, to stand
there lying bald-faced, with little recompense.
is everything republican, now lacking common sense?

Yea, I'm not sure republicans ever did what they said. I liked some of the libertarian ideas they espouse, but they never follow through. At least they used to just bend and stretch the truth rather than outright lie. I don't like the whole of the Democrat platform, but I like enough of it, and I certainly trust them tons more.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

I am such a science geek

I was deliberately arranging apples in an HCP array, not for fun, but because I wanted to fit as many in the box as possible and they were too big for me to use a cubic packing and get three wide. Moreover, I realized that some of the apples were larger than others, and I thought that, if the size difference were great enough, and I had the proper ratio that maybe a BCC would work out better. Of course this lead to a web search on close packing while eating one of the apples. Suffice to say that either HCP or FCC (or CCP) would pack the best, but since I only have enough apples for 1 layer plus a bit, there is no way to distinguish the two.

I think I need more apples.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is Courage Really Allowed a Politician?

My short answer is "no."

My longer answer is that my definition of courage in politics is standing up for what is right in the face of strong opposition. Unfortunately strong opposition usually means voters, which means forfeiting any chance of being elected.

When a courageous stance becomes popular (as with Obama's initial opposition to the war) then the positions taken before are lauded as evidence of courage, but they were not actually taken in a courageous manner (specific to his position at the time).

I suppose that it may not be best to speak in less than glowing terms of the candidate that I will be voting for and whom I want a (large) majority of other Americans to vote for, but I sense a real feeling surrounding his candidacy that he will do many wonderful things, and the reality that will come to be will be harsh for many with such high hopes. He will not end our dependence on oil. He will not get the government fast out of debt. He will not get universal health care that is best for the people (eliminating or minimizing for profit insurance). He will not make housing affordable again. He will take steps in those directions, but they will be small.

We need real courage from our government to set goals, to force us to adapt to a new and different world. We need that, but, because it is difficult, because it takes us out of our comfort zone, we will not support it. We will not vote for it. If Obama becomes the champion of change that so many of his supporters want him to be, it will be very hard to get him re-elected. But if he does not, then he will be viewed as a failure.

This is all neverminding that the handful of GOPers that will be left in the halls of congress come January will probably do their damnedest to grind the government to a halt and prevent the change from happening.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Through Fat and Thin

So here's a little "think yourself thin" thing. Once again there is an idea for a diet steeped in common sense that probably won't work for most people.

The problem with dieting is the focus on weight loss. This is also a problem within the medical community where there is a larger emphasis placed on getting the right BMI (a semi-useful tool that is way over used) rather than simply being healthy.

Eating well and exercising is the best way to lose weight, but it is not a guarantee of weight (fat) loss. The reason is that losing fat--particularly the subcutaneous kind which doesn't start to drop until after the muscular fat is used up--is actively opposed body. When a body activates the processes that use fat (instead of sugars) to get energy it signals starvation. When the body is starving it reacts by shutting down energy burning processes and by triggering "cravings" for foods that are high in sugar/starch content.

This makes losing weight very difficult. It is biology in action and it is a remarkable thing, but the only way to overcome it is to be aware and stick to it...or not.

It is possible to be healthy and overweight, just like it is possible to be thin and at risk. A healthy diet and exercise provide benefits that go beyond a thinner waist, and when dress size/pant size doesn't start dropping it should not lead to frustration. If you eat right and exercise you will be healthier and likely live longer, even if you don't lose a quarter inch from your waist...with muscle development you may even gain.

If we stick to a healthy lifestyle rather than overconsumption, then the next generation will never fall into the obesity trap that we have now.

...Of course with the rising cost of food and energy there may be no choice soon but to eat little and eat healthy.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Ah, the almighty dollar. I've been trying to figure out what it really takes to live in this country and what that all means. The answer, of course, is "Well, that depends."

It depends on where you live.
It depends on your commuting options.
It depends on whether you can cook.
It depends on whether you can have a garden.
It depends on whether you are married.
It depends on whether you have children.

I live with a roommate in an apartment north of Philly and am fairly frugal. My general cost of living is under $2000 /month, including over-paying off debt (mostly student loans). Of course I have plenty of incidental expenses (mostly travel, like to France for a friend's wedding) not included.

Ignoring extravagances and paying only the minimum, I could get by--reasonably comfortably--on about $1500 /mo. That's $18k/year after taxes, ~$21k before (depending on your state/local). Zero debt would reduce that to closer to $1200 /mo. Having dependents does not double the amount necessary. Most expenses remain static or go up by very small amounts. Food will scale almost linear with the number of people, but even that isn't completely true.

A rather liberal estimation would add 33% of the single person cost to maintain standard of living, excepting the potential to have lots of extra education debt. This means $2000 /mo. for two people, $2500 for three, $3000 /mo. for a family of four. That is $36k /yr after taxes, somewhere in the neighborhood of $41k before.

Factor in fun expenses (like a vacation) and I think $50k /year should be plenty for most families.

But it isn't. While for many families the biggest problem is debt, that is largely self inflicted due to over-indulgence, and does not concern the real cost of living. The real first, biggest problem is housing. Housing costs, though coming down are still way too high, and they will remain there for the next few years at least. Though there is no real fix for this problem increasing taxes for better off Americans (here I am really talking any family income over $100k) would help.

The second problem is energy, including for transportation...there are several separate issues here. On the transportation side, increasing the gas tax and using it to fund public transportation, establishing routes that are bicycle/scooter/motorcycle friendly (no cars allowed), and altering safety standards (to allow city/kei cars) while taxing heavy vehicles would do way more to help ease the financial burden in the long run than trying to make gas cheaper (it would also have other benefits, but that is not for this post). On the energy side, reducing consumption is of utmost importance. There are a few other potential fixes, especially long term with respect to new, renewable energy, but for now energy is very expensive because we demand a whole lot of it.

A third, sort-of-problem, is food. Food costs are strange. Most people spend too much on food because they don't want to/don't have time to/can't cook. Preparing one's own meals from the basic ingredients is the single best way to save money on food. Eating out and buying a lot of packaged finished foods is very expensive.

The last problem I will list here is health care. For many people, this is not a major problem, but for anyone for whom it becomes a concern, it can easily outstrip all of the others listed here combined. Better preventative health care is the best option (including healthy diet and exercise), but it is not exactly an easy thing to manage. This concern is beyond the scope of this post, but I will say that I do favor a single payer system, though, for reasons passing understanding, it is a political non-starter, and I can not envision any fix for health care that relies on for-profit insurance providers.

Ok, this is already too long. Caio.

Monday, June 30, 2008

I like 'em!

These new milk jugs that is. I mean, yes they are better for the environment overall and more efficient in terms of transport and storage. But the real reason is that people don't know how to use them. Milk is being spilled left and right by those who are unable to master the new design, and much crying results...not that it's any use.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reporting with poor context is grand.

Ain't it? In this case I'm referring to this article about underage drinking. The article is not exactly clear but on initial read it seems to be saying teens getting (any) alcohol from parents is bad. I don't think that is what the article is really saying, but it is very poorly written.

While binge drinking and heavy alcohol use by teens is bad, supervised alcohol consumption is potentially very good. When a teens first beer is at a kegger in a field somewhere, problems can arise (projectile vomiting, drunk driving, forgotten sex, unwanted babies, and sometimes jail or death). If that first beer is at home then (most of) those things are very unlikely to occur. Learning to drink responsibly, like learning to drive responsibly, eat responsibly, ... is best done at home, and taught by parents.

Of course, not all parents are exactly responsible...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Storm

Five hours outside. Over a hundred degrees. By this time he felt as though he was radiating more heat than the sun was beating into him. "It was supposed to rain, damnit!" he cursed under his breath.
At thirty five and after spending more than ten years doing a bit more beer than exercise he was not the same spry young man who had been drafted by the Cubs out of high school and spent five years playing in Des Moines.
He had never made the big league, and a motorcycle accident had wrecked his arm near twelve years back. So he got a tract of land and dug in.
The land was cheap. He grew vegetables. Some he ate and others went to farmer's markets. He had married his high school sweetheart at age 20. Regretted it at age 21. She left him, then came back, then threatened to leave on a regular basis for the next nine years. They had no children. She was gone now.
"Damn bitch never appreciated how hard I work," he muttered and flung a spade full of dirt over his shoulder.
It landed, scattered, in the vicinity of his pile. A few small clumps bounced of a pair of white sneakers.
The man stopped. He set the tip of the spade at the bottom of the hole he had been digging and guessed the depth to be a bit over four and a half feet.
"Good enough for what it's for," he said and climbed out.
Standing up he noticed that the air had changed. There was a bit of a breeze and it smelled damp. He scanned the skies and could see that a line of clouds had taken up residence to the west. A squall line. So it was going to rain after all.
"Hmph," he grunted and scanned his small field and its withering crops, "looks like you're gonna get the drink you need after all."
He smiled, then turned his attention back to the job at hand.
Bending over, he grabbed the sneakers and lifted them up. The feet inside and legs attached rose as well. The ankle length sun dress slipped down to the woman's waist exposing her legs. A pasty white color that nearly matched the cotton of her panties and was in stark contrast to the tan of her face and arms.
He locked his arms around her ankles and walked backwards, dragging her unceremoniously. Her dress worked its way upward, first exposing her white, round belly, then the underside of her bra, where it stopped, her breasts preventing the indignity from becoming any greater.
When the distant couple came astride the hole--her grave--he stopped and released her legs. They fell, her right foot overhanging the maw. He put his hands on his hips and looked down at her.
He tried to remember the good times. They seemed so distant. They had been in love, he supposed. He wanted to believe that it had been more than teenage lust. He didn't know. In the end it had been an accident, but he had caused it. She had been riding him for not getting the well pump running and when he jumped up to yell back he caught his leg on the coffee table and tumbled into her. They both went down but she had been under him and her head struck the wall coming down. Her neck broke. There was no blood.
They would blame him, he decided. So he chose this path. Dig, bury, tell anyone what asks that she finally made good and run off. He placed his boot against her hip and shoved her in.
The first drops of rain struck his cheeks above and hers down below. He hastily started to fill in the hole.
Each raindrop struck heavily, sparse at first but getting more frequent. The sun was gone and the light was fading fast despite it being just three in the afternoon.
He shoveled faster.
Only an elbow, bent upward from the short violent tumble, remained visible. It vanished then reappeared as the rain stepped up its attack.
His pile was turning to mud but he kept at it.
The hole was three quarters full and the rain was comming down in sheets.
He slopped in the last shovels-full. He was drenched. The hole was topped by a pool of mud.
The rain had created mini-rivers between the planted rows. He dropped the shovel, spread his arms and looked up at the cascading watter.
The torrent continued.
He wept. His tears washed away as quickly as they could form in the corners of his eyes.
Then he heard it. A crack. Loud and close. Lightning does not strike in the middle of the rain, only the edges. He knew this. It couldn't be...
A large branch of the sycamore had broken and fell. It was unrelated to the storm. Just a coincidence. It struck him on the head. He fell unconscious, landing face down in one of the mini-streams that were nourishing his crops. His heart pumped. His chest and stomach moved in and out, replacing the air in his lungs with water and mud. His heart pumped faster, trying to get more oxygen. His lungs were inundated. His heart raced, became erratic, then stopped. Signaling in his brain continued for a bit, then slowed, then stopped.

The next day his nearest neighbor came by to check on him. Then came an ambulance, then the police. His wife's body was discovered, and the coroner's report came back: both had drowned.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Misleading at best

This post over at Daily Kos is a real indicator of a problem, but not the way darkside uses it.

The problem is the second chart which shows the "Percentage of NIH R01 Applications Funded" dropping sharply in ~2003. The reason is not underfunding. NIH is actually fairly well funded. The reason is drift. Because the NIH's research funding budget increased dramatically in the 90's, they were, at first, able to fund more applicants. NSF funding was supposed to be increased as well, but that never happened.

Over the next ~10 years, science depts and universities came to realize that the promised funding would not arrive, and they began a real shift. They pushed hard to expand departments that could capitalize on the NIH funding, and in those areas where NIH funding was traditionally less important (chemistry, physics) there was a drive to shift emphasis in such a way as to qualify for the ample funding, and to hire people whose research goals were better aligned with the new funding reality.

The result was that applications for NIH money soared, and so the modest (inflation type) changes to their money subsequently were not enough to offset the increased number of applicants. So the percent funded started dropping.

The problem is not that the NIH is underfunded, it may be that, but the real problem is that the NSF is severely underfunded. It has caused a shift in fundamental science research in this country...away from things that would lead to advances in energy, for example, and towards health research. This is the real problem, and while simply increasing the NSF budget will fix this, the chart does tell us that the shift back will take ~10 years.

Non-health science research has been hurting in this country, and it won't get better in a hurry. Universities have been hiring health related researchers to take advantage of the existing funding dynamic.

Fuel cells, photovoltaics, battery technology--those very things that would have the best hope
at helping with energy problems--have had the short end of the stick, and the problem started in the 90's. It was exacerbated by the Bush administration, but they were not the cause. Blame it on Clinton (Bill) or the Republican congress that thought taking him out was more important than actually governing, but they caused the disparity that has resulted in the chart darkside shows...and the real problem in science funding.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I Have no Pity

For this woman (edit: stuff was added, I was referring to the woman near the end with 9 children). None. Moreover, I'm a little pissed at the knowledge that this woman (well, her family) has nine little tax deductions, that have to be educated, protected, and otherwise benefit from various other government programs. More tax dollars go to them and they pay lower taxes.

I like children. I would like to have one or two. I am very much opposed to tax deductions for dependents. In fact I would support extra taxes for anyone who has more than 2 or 3 children. We don't need the growth, education comes from taxes, it really would be "fair" but too many people feel entitled to lower taxes...woah, that reminds me of something...

Oh yea, Republicans who hate entitlement programs but are peachy with this type of entitlement.

Oh, well.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Three R's

There are three "R's" that are meant to serve as a guide to consumption in the world. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. These have been tossed around for decades, but it is still only recycle that is actively practiced by a large number of people in this country (though not by Chicagoans).

The thing is they are even listed in order of importance. For emphasis, I'll do the reverse...


More and more common, this is excellent for metals, pretty good for glass and paper, and better than nothing for plastic. Many things can be recycled to various degrees, but in the majority of cases recycling means downgrading, and in all cases it requires energy input to breakdown then reconstitute. So recycle everything you can, but only after doing the next two things.


On the simple side is using grocery bags to pick up after your dog. On the somewhat more inconvenient side: always bring your own coffee mug to fill up at coffee shop/gas station/... Don't get any frickin' disposable cleaning product (wipes, bowl cleaners, etc.): brushes, mops, rags and even sponges can be cleaned (and disinfected) and reused, so knock that crap off!

If you are insane: flatten out and reuse aluminum foil, wrapping paper, ziplock bags, etc. There are better options for many of these things (gift bags instead of wrapping paper, tupperware instead of baggies...), but try and find second uses for anything that you must use that would normally be one shot and done, and trade out more reusable items for as many disposable ones as possible.


Turn off lights, don't run water, use cold instead of hot when possible (laundry). Don't purchase anything that is individually wrapped. Never buy bottled water. Get as much fresh food as possible. Get food that is processed as little as possible. Cancel magazines. Walk and bike rather than drive. Don't use disposable cleaning products (it bears repeating). Don't sanitize every surface every 30 seconds.

What is odd is that, all told, there is a great deal under the reduce category that is quite simple. Moreover, it often means saving money, living a healthier lifestyle, and helping to reduce our impact on the planet. It is win, win, win!

Oh, also, live in a smaller house, don't fertilize, and drive an efficient vehicle. Damn. I knew there was something wrong. Hummers, golf course lawns (and golf courses for that matter) and McMansions need not apply. No matter what "green" crap you add to a 6000 sq ft house, it will never ever be environmentally friendly--are you listening Al Gore? A family of 4 really doesn't need more than 1200 sq ft (or really, even that much).

This nation is not designed in such a manner to make reducing our impact to a sustainable footprint easy. It is--in the limits--damn hard. Reducing, however is the first and best option for achieving sustainability.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Sexism vs. Racism in the primary

Any form of bigotry contains within it a combination of the overt and the subtle (which has been dubbed "stealth" by those who like to play games with words). Racism and sexism have very different expressions, in both the relative amount of each type and the permeation within the United States.

Overt bigotry is fairly straightforward. It is fear, ignorance and loathing. Integration and education do a good job of getting society past this, but it takes time (like generations). The overt bigot will never vote for any member of a group they are bigoted against. This type of bigotry has diminished quite a bit over the past 60 years. It still exists (particularly in certain areas of the country), and it is far more common with respect to racism--or really toward outside/other groups: Hispanics, Muslims, blacks, LGBT--than sexism.

The subtle bigotry is more prevalent for all types. It is harder to identify the causes, but the general solution is the same, though the level at which it must be applied causes serious problems (just try to force integrate a fortune 500 company or a major university...or a legislature). Moreover, there is no consistent way to identify it. People who are bigoted in this manner may actually vote for a member of a certain group as a way to "demonstrate" how not-bigoted he/she is. People who oppose affirmative action may be more likely to be bigoted but it is hardly a given. As such it is very difficult to discern the effect of this type of bigotry on something like an election. It is real; it does have an overall negative effect on the group that it targets, and there may never be an effective measure to demonstrate it (yes, this includes salary disparity).

I would argue that, though it is confined almost exclusively to the latter category above, sexism is far more pervasive overall. There are myriad reasons which have been given, but there is an underlying one that is as often discarded as it is brought up, but provides the only real differences between men and women which lead to all subsequent treatments of either by either. That is that there are biological differences between men and women. These differences go well beyond: one has a penis and the other a vagina. Hormone levels, gland function and neural activity all vary. Behavior and thought processes have differences based in physiology and biochemistry. One cannot truly understand the other (understanding even this is actually a pretty big step). It is, I would argue, these differences which lead to differences in psychology that allow for the basis for what de Beauvoir writes on in Second Sex (read it, I'm not summarizing here).

I should stress that this in no way implies that one is better or even preferred in any given situation. To the contrary it would imply that an idealized world would have roughly equal numbers of men and women at all levels and functions so as to provide the best balance in opinion, thought and productivity.

In the end bigotry in all forms, including racism and sexism, still exists, but it is most often difficult to spot. Moreover, while the effects are mostly negative they are also not something so easy to discern, particularly in, say, an election.

***note: Sexism is unique among the various forms of bigotry. I've said before (I think here somewhere) that I am a fan of Simone de Beauvoir's writing on the issue of sexism, so some of what I feel on that issue can likely be traced back to Second Sex; I use her writing as a guide. I believe that she did well to describe the sociology that I see as the result of our differing physiology/biochemistry.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Methane fueled cars

This back and forth is presented for your confusion...

Person A:
I agree that Hydrogen is not a viable option. I have done a great deal of research into gaseous fuels and found some interesting facts. Methane from animal waste, garbage dumps etc is readily available and renewable, and is also a by-product of CO2 sequestration. The infrustructure is already in place (natural gas pipelines) and current vehicles readily convert to methane using state of the shelf propane conversion technology. Cars running on methane produce 1/2 the emissions accross the board. The other interesting fact is that methane is over 20 times more damaging to the environment than CO2, yet nobody is promoting this as an alternative.
Any help in getting this idea to the Obama campaign would be helpful. I have a list of experts ie scientists and researchers that are willing to present this concept to the right people.

Person B:
Methane can help, but there is not nearly enough of it to convert, and collection is tough--what with it being lighter than air and requiring separation (from air) and all. Moreover, it would be far more efficient to use it at the collection site to generate power which would be put onto the grid.
Plug-in and hybrid electric vehicles, and if we can ever get them here ultra lightweight Kei/city cars, are the best current infrastructure option, and MeOH/EtOH/H2 Fuel Cells (which are also, technically, electric) are the best next tech option. Research being done now may put both options to pasture, but it is not there yet, or nearly as close. By all means, make a push to capture and use methane to generate power, but the inefficiency associated with using it as a fuel for automobiles--along with it being in insufficient supply--is too great.

Person A:
Ever hear of a guy named Smokey Unik. He was a stock car builber back in the 60's. Before he died a few years ago, he invented a "hot vapor engine" and converted a 1984 Fiero to run on his invention. Type, Hot Vapor Engine into your browser and take a look. His system converted liquid gasoline into a gaseous fuel. The Fiero that he converted made close to 60mpg and still ran on gasoline.
Dairy farmers are erecting methane capture tents and cooking animal waste using passive solar to run large generators. These generators are hooked to the grid and supply energy to the local community.
How many people still use incandescent lighting? Thats an easy one.
What I am promoting is an interum solution. Electric cars are a part of the solution, so is better use of the fuels that we have readity available. Methane including natural gas is a far better solution than drilling for more oil. Cars run cleaner go farther on the same amount of energy and can be easily converted with state of the shelf technology and infrustructure.
I am sure you have seen the Proctor& Gamble commercial using methane produced at the local dump to power their entire production facility.
While we strive for better longer term solutions we have 250 million vehicles in the US alone along with 10's of millions of homes that use natural gas for heating. If methane captured from easy sources was added to the Natural Gas supply that would have a 2 fold benefit.
Methane is not sexy, but neither is additional damage to our environment and economy.
We simply can't wait 10 more years when there are easy solutions we can implement right now with huge reductions.

Person B:
I checked out your engine. It's neat, but it is also simple physics/chemistry. Gasoline as a vapor will burn more completely than it will as a liquid (or as an atomized liquid...i.e. very small droplets). Moreover, current fuel injection technology is much better than then and can just about match his combustion efficiency. All we need to do to match his fuel efficiency is couple that with light weight vehicles through small displacement engines...say, Kei cars (which get as much as 70 mpg).
Methane, starting out as a gas, is easier to burn completely than gasoline. This makes it more efficient. It is still less efficient to use CH4 as fuel for a combustion engine than it is to use it to power a generator, and then plug in an electric car (or to power a generator like in hybrids).
Again, I like using methane to produce energy, and I'm sure that CH4 powered cars are better than gasoline, but they are a step sideways rather than forward. We need to get beyond the (always inefficient) combustion engine, not find ways to make them more efficient, because they will never be able to compete with electric motors in that regard.

Person A:
You are missing the entire point.
The cars we have on the road now are going to be here for the next 10 15 years, (thats if we stop producing cars today). You are wrong about the effeciency of liquid fuel injection. Gasoline when atomized (not vaporized) has the effect that Smokey saw in the Fiero.
Atomized fuel is still not as good as gaseous fuel.
A car running on gaseous fuel will be 40-60% more effecient than a car running on vaporized liquid fuels. The 1984 Fiero has essentially the same fuel injection system that your 08 car has. Not sure where you are getting your information?
How long do you think it will take to replace the current fleet with electric cars or light weight cars, 5 10 25 years, (thats if we stop building cars today) and at what rate of replacement per year, meanwhile we are missing the easy fruit. As I said this is not sexy, but will get us to the next technological advancement, greatly reduce pollution, and greatly increase the effeciency of the current fleet, plus its all state of the shelf and utilizes current infrastructure = 0 develpoment cost.
Not a step sideways, not a huge leap forward, just a step forward. Better than a bunch of self proclaimed experts running their mouths. What do you do when the house is on fire? Talk about building your next house, or call the fire department?

Person B:
I'm really not. I am not only aware that vaporized is better than atomized, I even said that. If you really think that electronic fuel injection has not changed in the past 20+ years, I can see why you would advocate for gaseous fuels. Essentially the same, yes, but that doesn't mean that the differences are insignificant. The primary differences have to do with air flow sensing and the ability to adjust the fuel volume on the fly and based on both the detected air in but also measures of the exhaust that can figure whether the mixture was lean or rich. The efficiency resulting has been noteworthy. The reason that overall fuel economy has been stagnant is because all of that efficiency has been used to move heavier cars faster (bigger engines)...the Honda Accord engine displacement and weight have both increased by 50% over what they were in 1983, so it doesn't matter that the engine efficiency increased by as much as 25%, the car's fuel economy is still worse.
But, really, in the end, it's the infrastructure and conversion argument that really loses me. While there is infrastructure to move methane around the country, there isn't nearly as much to get it to fueling stations or into cars, so that would have to be built. And cars would have to be converted (or purchased new, in which case the existing car point is moot). And then it would be made obsolete by better technology to come? And all this for an improvement in efficiency that would be less than if the average weight of vehicles on the road dropped by 50%. I just don't see how this can help, in the short term or the long term. Methane can be of assistance to our energy problems, but not in automobiles.

Person B(again):
Oh, on a personal note, I'm not sure that I have ever proclaimed myself to be an expert here. I'm a damn good chemist and fairly knowledgeable in sciences and even beyond that.
As for the fire thing, aside from being kind of insulting it really does ignore both what I said overall and what you have been saying. You want to retrofit cars. I want to tax the hell out of anything over ~3500 lbs (not mentioned) and allow the sale of cars in this country that have existed in Japan and Europe for years. There is no solution, no matter how off the shelf, that will not take time (measured in years) and money (in the billions). Just because my opinion differs from yours does not mean that I am ignoring anything.

More to come???

Good Starter Motorcycles...and Guns!

I was surfing the tubes, looking for an inexpensive, used, 250 cc or smaller bike to get to and from work during nicer weather, and I came across this site: Good First Motorcycles. The article is a good read (especially for those certain folks who have never ridden before and decide they want to get a Harley--short answer: bad idea).

I liked the page enough to see what else the site had to offer. The page, immediately below the one above in the "Motorcycles and Riding" section was Motorcycle Firearms. While I found reading this quite funny, I know that there are people out there who will read it and think that it seems like a good idea to fire a .357 Magnum while riding a motorcycle at night and maybe on the highway. It isn't.

Moreover the article tries to fit this in under self defense: "...because the driver is attacking the motorcyclist with a deadly weapon (the car), the motorcyclist is legally entitled to defend him or her self with lethal force," and goes on to advocate (loudly) killing the attacking driver: "...FIRE AT THE DRIVER, NOT THE CAR."

And this is the real problem with the internet: every site, no matter how good it is on the whole, is "user beware." Nothing that comes off the tubes should be taken at face value (unless, of course, you read it here). Facts should always be at least double checked, and opinions and ideas should be thought through very carefully by the reader before any parroting of the statement.

This doesn't have much of a point beyond that except to say that those who comment on the various political blogs, are not a good indication of anything except for that particular commenter's thoughts at that particular moment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Obama > Clinton >>>>>>> McCain

First the easy one: McCain is either senile, lying, or clueless. I don't care which, there is no way I will vote for him. I used to respect him as a politician, and I still respect the service he has given this country, but I do not trust him with the presidency. Not even close.

So this means Obama, but someone else is still technically in that race...

I have no clue why Hillary is still running. Her campaign has been a disaster, starting off at incompetent, transitioning into GOP hate/fear mongering, and, just when it seemed as though it had found some high ground (after IN/NC), it did a quick side step into crazy. It really is incomprehensible. She is clever, capable, competent; she knows (yesterday's) politics, foreign and domestic affairs, her policies are nearly identical to Barack's, and people loved the Clinton presidency of the 90's. ...and she lost. I take back the disaster comment: this was a clusterf*** of a campaign that resulted from believing politics are the same today as they were 10 years ago, that loyalty should be valued even at the expense of competence, and that the political map and landscape is static.

I love Obama's message. I like his policies well enough (and substantially better than the republican candidate's). I also like that he has demonstrated an ability to compensate for his weaknesses by getting the right people into the right positions. He was not even on my radar a year ago, and I had no real preference between him and Hillary until around a month ago. I do not agree with everything he says, or every position he takes, but I do like the way he does politics.

This country will elect a woman some day. Just not this year, and probably not Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama inspires people. He represents change and true bipartisan appeal (non-wacko republicans do like the guy, or at least don't hate him). He will win in November and this nation will have the chance, for the first time in more than ten years, to set aside petty bickering politics and move forward.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My housing crisis? I don't have one!!!

So others have written more and maybe better, but I just dug 2 cents out of my pocket so I thought I'd throw them in:

Houses are too expensive. Have been for several years now. Falling housing prices are GOOD for the country, not bad. Corrections to any over-inflated market are, in the long run, good. I feel a little bad for folks whose home prices have crashed by 20-50% (CA, FL, AZ) but those prices were fake, and the bleed over lead to overinflated home prices elsewhere.

Moreover there have been far more people who have suffered due to the housing bubble being inflated than there are people who are suffering due to its bursting. Regular, wage-earning and salaried people who have been left without any hope of getting a house any time soon. I am now gainfully employed and will have no problem getting a mortgage for up to $225k, but that doesn't get me much around here. A year ago I probably could have gotten a mortgage for nearly $500k (with my current finances), but I'd have had the sense not to do so. In fact, even with the relatively small post-doc salary I had in Chicago, I probably could have found someone to give me an idiotic mortgage.

I'm not quite so arrogant to believe that everyone who took out such mortgages is getting their comeuppance, because most people don't understand (or care) how the financial side of things works. They trust that those who do (or should) will make things right. And on the one hand, that trust, while misplaced, was not wrong. Lending institutions do what is in their own best interest (not their customers) but it is in their best interest to have their customers pay their mortgage/loan off, not to get in over their head.

The feedback loop killed them: poor lending practices fueled housing price increases which forced poor lending practices as required policy for many people to get houses, which was justified by the rapidly increasing cost of homes which had been fueled by easy credit to begin with...

All that said, I do not support any type of bailout. Borrowers who can afford payments should make them (exception coming). Those who can't pay or whose home values have fallen to less than 80% of the purchase price should walk. Foreclosure is not good, but it is not nearly as bad as bankruptcy, and the penalty is wiped after 3 years of good credit, so it's hardly permanent. Banks should be allowed to only go after those who can afford to pay, whose homes are worth more than 80% of the purchase price, and those who have more than one house and are not foreclosing on all of them.

It is selfish, but I want affordable housing because I won't spend $220k for a two bed one bath slab foundation condo. I simply will not.

Monday, May 19, 2008


First off, as it turns out, I had readers. Who knew?

Of course now that I've been absent a year, they are all gone I'm certain, but still. I've been in a bit of limbo for a year now, but am now living and working in Philadelphia (actually living in Doylestown and working in Warminster). Things are good and, remarkably, I am still right.

This post is just to get something up again. I have a world of things that I have written in the past year, but have just not gotten around to any kind of finalizing/posting. I may string up some hot topics responses (gas, dem primary, McCain not knowing forwards from backwards...aka losing his bearings, et cetera). If anyone who read this in the past happens by again, know that I am once more settled down and will be posting again soon.