Saturday, December 1, 2012

California Megastorms

Scientific American:
The intense rainstorms sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean began to pound central California on Christmas Eve in 1861 and continued virtually unabated for 43 days. The deluges quickly transformed rivers running down from the Sierra Nevada mountains along the state’s eastern border into raging torrents that swept away entire communities and mining settlements. The rivers and rains poured into the state’s vast Central Valley, turning it into an inland sea 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. Thousands of people died, and one quarter of the state’s estimated 800,000 cattle drowned. Downtown Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of brown water filled with debris from countless mudslides on the region’s steep slopes. California’s legislature, unable to function, moved to San Francisco until Sacramento dried out—six months later. By then, the state was bankrupt.
A comparable episode today would be incredibly more devastating. The Central Valley is home to more than six million people, 1.4 million of them in Sacramento. The land produces about $20 billion in crops annually, including 70 percent of the world’s almonds—and portions of it have dropped 30 feet in elevation because of extensive groundwater pumping, making those areas even more prone to flooding. Scientists who recently modeled a similarly relentless storm that lasted only 23 days concluded that this smaller visitation would cause $400 billion in property damage and agricultural losses. Thousands of people could die unless preparations and evacuations worked very well indeed.
Was the 1861–62 flood a freak event? It appears not. New studies of sediment deposits in widespread locations indicate that cataclysmic floods of this magnitude have inundated California every two centuries or so for at least the past two millennia. The 1861–62 storms also pummeled the coastline from northern Mexico and southern California up to British Columbia, creating the worst floods in recorded history. Climate scientists now hypothesize that these floods, and others like them in several regions of the world, were caused by atmospheric rivers, a phenomenon you may have never heard of. And they think California, at least, is overdue for another one.
After Sandy, I mentioned that the Sacramento River delta was at high risk for dramatic flooding.  Hopefully, the levees hold back all the rain they've gotten.

Tricky Statistics

The Atlantic features 5 seemingly counter-intuitive statistics stories.  My favorite:

Abraham is tasked with reviewing damaged planes coming back from sorties over Germany in the Second World War. He has to review the damage of the planes to see which areas must be protected even more.
Abraham finds that the fuselage and fuel system of returned planes are much more likely to be damaged by bullets or flak than the engines. What should he recommend to his superiors?
Abraham Wald, a member of the Statistical Research Group at the time, saw this problem and made an unconventional suggestion that saved countless lives.
Don't arm the places that sustained the most damage on planes that came back. By virtue of the fact that these planes came back, these parts of the planes can sustain damage.
If an essential part of the plane comes back consistently undamaged, like the engines in the previous example, that's probably because all the planes with shot-up engines don't make it back.
Wald's memos on this situation -- in addition to being a remarkable historical statistical document -- shed additional light of the statistics developed during the Second World War that would go on to found the field of Operations Research.
The others are pretty interesting, too.

Five Hours of Boredom

I was running our strip till unit in our wheat stubble field this afternoon and was using the autosteer Dad just got put on our tractor.  If you think working ground is boring, just imagine how boring it is when you don't have to steer most of the time.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take something to read.  What I really ought to do is get wireless internet, then I could browse the internet while "driving."

Friday, November 30, 2012

Taxes Aren't As High As They Used To Be


But in fact, most Americans in 2010 paid far less in total taxes — federal, state and local — than they would have paid 30 years ago. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the combination of all income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes took a smaller share of their income than it took from households with the same inflation-adjusted income in 1980.
Households earning more than $200,000 benefited from the largest percentage declines in total taxation as a share of income. Middle-income households benefited, too. More than 85 percent of households with earnings above $25,000 paid less in total taxes than comparable households in 1980.
Lower-income households, however, saved little or nothing. Many pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay a range of other levies, like federal payroll taxes, state sales taxes and local property taxes. Only about half of taxpaying households with incomes below $25,000 paid less in 2010.
The uneven decline is a result of two trends. Congress cut federal taxation at every income level over the last 30 years. State and local taxes, meanwhile, increased for most Americans. Those taxes generally take a larger share of income from those who make less, so the increases offset more and more of the federal savings at lower levels of income.
So don't give me that shit you damn fool Republicans.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Further Up Yonder

Further Up Yonder from Giacomo Sardelli on Vimeo.

A Realistic View of Our Oil Future

James Hamilton:
Right now there is considerable excitement about the potential for new horizontal fracturing methods to free oil from shale and other tight formations that traditionally had been inaccessible. This technological innovation is producing impressive production gains in places such as North Dakota and Texas; however, despite these gains, U.S. crude oil production in 2011 was still less than 60 percent of what it was in 1970. And a key unknown is how quickly production is likely to decline after the initial surge. The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources estimates that production from a given fracking well will decline 80 percent within two years of initial production.
But despite the fact that U.S. oil production today is far below its level of 40 years ago, world oil production increased 33 percent between 1973 and 2010. Here again the story is one of development of new areas. These include the North Sea and Mexico, which went from 1 percent of world production in 1973 to 13 percent in 1999; however, the North Sea is now only producing at about half of its 1999 level, and Mexico is down 25 percent from its peak in 2004.
Other regions, such as central Asia, Africa, and Brazil continue to increase, and the government of Iraq is optimistic that quite substantial production gains can still be achieved there. These helped offset the North Sea and Mexican declines so that world production in 2010 was about at the same level as in 2005, and started to increase again in 2011 and 2012.
My view is that with these new fields and new technology, we’ll see further increases in U.S. and world production of oil for the next several years. But, unlike many other economists, I do not expect that to continue for much beyond the next decade. We like to think that the reason we enjoy our high standard of living is because we have been so clever at figuring out how to use the world’s available resources. But we should not dismiss the possibility that there may also have been a nontrivial contribution of simply having been quite lucky to have found an incredibly valuable raw material that was relatively easy to obtain for about a century and a half.
10 years isn't a hell of a long time.  The time to start adjusting to such a future is now.  Well actually, more like forty years ago.  But now is better than 10 years from now.

Wall Street and the Rest of Us

Ezra Klein interviews Chrystia Freeland:
Chrystia Freeland: There’s a great joke on Wall Street which is that the bet on Romney is Wall Street’s worst bet since the bet on subprime. But I found the hostility towards Obama astonishing. I found the commitment to getting him out astonishing. I found the absolute confidence that it would work astonishing. On that Tuesday, the big Romney backers I was talking to were sure he was going to win. They were all flying into Logan Airport for the victory party. There’s this stunned feeling of how could we be so wrong, and a feeling of alienation.
The Romney comments to his donors, for which he was roundly pounced on by Republican politicians, I think they accurately reflected the view of a lot of these money guys. It’s the continuation of this 47 percent idea. They believe that Obama has been shoring up the entitlement society, and if you give enough entitlements to enough people, they’ll vote for you.
EK: Here’s my question about those comments. Romney was promising the very rich either a huge tax cut or, if you believe he would’ve paid for every dime and dollar of his cut, protection from any tax increases. He was promising financiers that he would roll back Dodd-Frank and Sarbanex-Oxley. He was promising current seniors that he wouldn’t touch their benefit. How are these not “gifts”?
CF: Let me be clear that I’m not defending any of them. But I think the way it works — and I think Romney’s comments were very telling in this regard — there are two differences in the mind of this class. First, they’re absolutely convinced that they’re not asking for special privileges for themselves. They’re convinced that it just so happens that their self-interest coincides perfectly with the collective interest. That’s where you get this idea of the “job creators”. The view is that to seek a low tax environment or less regulation, that’s not special pleading for yourself, it’s not transactional politics. It’s that this set of rules is the most conducive to economic growth for everybody. It will grow the pie. Now, it also happens to be an incredibly convenient way of thinking. If you’ve developed an ideology that what’s good for you personally also happens to be good for everyone else, that’s quite wonderful because there’s no moral tension.
I love the part about the donors flying to Boston for the victory party.  The sense of entitlement in this country isn't just in the 47% of people Mitt Romney talked about, it is also pretty strong in the 47% of people who voted for him.   The Masters of the Universe aren't nearly as smart as they think they are.

Global Warming And Forest Fires

They're bad and they'll get worse (h/t Stuart Staniford)
Our analysis of 42 years of U.S. Forest Service records for 11 Western states shows that:
The number of large and very large fires on Forest Service land is increasingly dramatically. Compared to
the average year in the 1970’s, in the past decade there were:
• 7 times more fires greater than 10,000 acres each year
• Nearly 5 times more fires larger than 25,000 acres each year
• Twice as many fires over 1,000 acres each year, with an average of more than 100 per year from 2002
through 2011, compared with less than 50 during the 1970’s.
In some states the increase in wildfires is even more dramatic. Since the 1970’s the average number of
fires over 1,000 acres each year has nearly quadrupled in Arizona and Idaho, and has doubled in California,
Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago. In the past decade,
the average annual burn area on Forest Service land in the West has exceeded 2 million acres – more than
all of Yellowstone National Park.
The burn season is two and a half months longer than in the 1970s. Across the West, the first wildfires of
the year are starting earlier and the last fires of the year are starting later, making typical fire years 75 days
longer now than they were 40 years ago.
Wow.  That is not good.

Approaching Another Dust Bowl?

The Environmental Working Group's Senior Advisor, Don Carr, at Big Picture Agriculture:

1) According to our recent report, Plowed Under, nearly 24 million acres of U.S. grasslands, shrub land and wetlands were plowed under between 2008 and 2011. About 19 million of those acres have been planted to just three crops, corn, soybeans and winter wheat – some of the main building blocks in our industrial food system — due in part to federal policies like farm subsidies that support only a handful of commodity crops.
2) In intensively-farmed Iowa, EWG found that Iowa State University researchers had determined that some Iowa farms are losing precious topsoil up to 12 times faster than the government estimates. When storms hit vulnerable or poorly protected land, fields sometimes lose more soil in a single day than is considered sustainable for the whole year, or even decades.
3) The recent drought that ravaged most of the country’s farmland spurred a dust storm in October that stretched across Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. It was so big that it could be seen from space.
At least we've learned something from history, and may be able to do a better job this time around.  The whole post is worth a read, and the part about the Ogallala is scary.

New York's Steam System

Via The Dish, Mark Vanhoenacker describes the ConEd steam system under the streets of New York:
Con Edison, New York City’s venerable power company, pipes steam to customers in Manhattan just like any other utility product (such as gas, water, or electricity). The steam—some purposely created, some a ‘waste’ byproduct of electricity generation—comes from power plants.
Commercial, urban steam systems of this size are rare, and New York’s is the world’s largest. (Lockport, N.Y., had the world’s first urban steam system, in 1877, and Denver’s is the world’s oldest in continuous operation.) NYC’s system has 105 miles of main pipes, 3,000 manholes, and reaches around 1,800 buildings—everything from the Empire State Building to United Nations Headquarters. Steam connections run from the southern tip of Manhattan to 96th Street on the West Side and 89th Street on the East Side.
What’s the steam used for? A little bit of it is used as, well, steam—to operate laundries and even to sterilize hospital equipment. But a lot of it is used to heat buildings and their water supplies. Surprisingly, given that the steam’s temperature is around 350 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s also used to cool buildings, via the dark magic of absorption refrigerators. According to Michael Clendenin, director of media relations for Con Edison, the use of steam to cool buildings results in a big reduction in summer demand on the electricity grid.
Urban steam systems offer significant advantages, because a large power plant is generally much more efficient than individual boilers in buildings. Measures to reduce air pollution can be centralized, too.  But given the significant cost in infrastructure—a whole set of pipes under a city doesn’t come cheap—urban steam makes most sense in densely populated areas. Manhattan, say.
That is a pretty amazing system.  The company I work at is one of several in our town who used to buy steam from the city's coal-fired power plant.  Once they shut down the turbines, they put in a gas boiler to continue to provide steam to local businesses and at least one school.  Eventually, they shut the gas boiler and got out of the steam business.  It was always cool to see steam rising out of a catch basin at one of the intersections in town in winter time.  We were working on a storm sewer project one time, and you could actually tell where the steam line ran down the street because the rest of the street had some snow on it, and the path of the steam line was clear.  Anyway, the New York system is massive.  This is pretty impressive:

That must be a massive steam main.

The Haters And Notre Dame

Thanks to my old friend Nolan's suggestion, here's a link to Drew Magary's Hater's Guide to Notre Dame, which features a tremendous flow of bile directed at Our Lady's University.  He goes through the A to Z reasons to hate the Irish.  These are some of my favorites:
Catholicism: No football program wears its religion on its sleeve more than Notre Dame. Even BYU isn't obnoxious enough to have Jesus overlooking the end zone. It's that kind of "we're more special than you" attitude that makes me hope that Satan will one day crawl out of the Earth's mantle and raze the entire Notre Dame campus with a single crack of his fire lash.
Davie, Bob: The worst thing about Bob Davie is the fact that shitting the bed for five years at Notre Dame was apparently enough of a resume for ESPN to hire him to work horrible second-tier Saturday afternoon games for a full decade afterwards. If you were watching Purdue vs. Indiana, you didn't need a graphic to let you know that you were in for three hours of Pam Ward and Bob Davie. Listening to Bob Davie is like listening to a running vacuum.
End Zones: Paint your goddamn name in the end zones already. You look like you're playing on a middle school field with those stupid lines. You're a multimillion-dollar football industry. You're not fooling me into believing you're some simple country program just by skimping on end zone paint. YOUR HELMETS ARE MADE OF GOLD, DICKBAGS.
There are a bunch of other classics, including a great blast at Dr. Lou.  I have to admit that when I went to college, I was a huge Notre Dame fan, and I really hated Ohio State.  By my third year there, I couldn't stand Irish fans, and to be out-of-step, I rooted for Ohio State.  Once I got back to Ohio, I was able to remember why I hated Ohio State, and slowly was able to cheer somewhat for Notre Dame.  I'm not sure if that is some form of contrarianism, or if, like my former coworkers thought, I'm just more motivated by hating things than liking them. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The End Of An Era?

Michael Weinrab looks at where college football is in 2012 through the lens of where it was in 1966:
I don't think it is hyperbolic to state that the aftereffects of the 1966 season sent college football lurching ever so slowly toward modernity; in its own way, it may have even helped to change America. When the top two teams in the country tie one for the Gipper, it is bound to induce a certain measure of angst among a general populace that had long ago built this game into something more than an extracurricular exercise among academic institutions. It would take 30 years, but overtime rules would eventually be adopted, Notre Dame would slough off its self-imposed ban on playing in bowl games, and the Big Ten would relax its restrictions on which teams could play in the Rose Bowl — and it only took 50 years, but here we are, on the verge of something that resembles an actual playoff.
But 1966 wasn't just an argument about Notre Dame and Michigan State and what it means to win a championship when no one wins at all; this was also an argument about the South and what it was failing to become.
"With their size and strength … the Irish and Spartans were the wave of the future of college football," wrote Allen Barra in The Last Coach, his biography of Bear Bryant. "Alabama, with its undersized, all-white team, was a relic of the past."
That year, the Crimson Tide were the only undefeated, untied team in America. Yet, for reasons that encompassed the social and physical and historical, they were considered an inferior product. They lost the Argument. They finished third in the polls.
The golden era of OSU-Michigan wouldn't have looked as impressive as it did if the SEC had integrated sooner, and more Big Ten teams had played in bowl games.  Demographically, the Big Ten was much stronger then than they are now, but without segregation, the SEC would have been plumb full of talent.  Imagine Alabama, Florida and Georgia in an era of no scholarship limits.  As it was, the Buckeyes and Wolverines struggled after 1968 playing against the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl.  A match-up in the 60's with an integrated Alabama team would have been a real challenge.

Again, here is the cover of Street & Smith's in 1963:

That was a good question.  Not winning national championships forced the change.

More Politics and Population Density

Richard Florida and Sara Johnson:
 As Dave Troy puts it, the key factor in this year's election is even simpler — it's all about density. Troy, a founder of several software companies, recently plotted the county-level election results against population density (see the graph below). His conclusion was striking: "98% of the 50 most dense counties voted Obama. 98% of the 50 least dense counties voted for Romney."
The graph shows a clear "crossover point" in terms of density where counties turn blue and Democratic, as he explains:
At about 800 people per square mile, people switch from voting primarily Republican to voting primarily Democratic. Put another way, below 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Republican. Above 800 people per square mile, there is a 66% chance that you voted Democrat.

In a second graph (above), he added red states and blue states, as well as key cities, to his analysis. Based on this he notes two key facts. First, red states have very few cities, and second, the ones they do have vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. He points out that most big cities in red states voted blue. The two exceptions — Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City — had low densities, with only about 1,000 people per square mile, or less than suburban Maryland. He points out that red states seem to "simply run out of population at about 2,000 people per square mile."
Given the logic of economic development and urbanization, he argues that "red states are just underdeveloped blue states," noting that: "As cities continue to grow in red states, those cities will become more blue, and ultimately, those states will become more purple, and then blue." 
The trend doesn't bode well for Republicans.  Real America doesn't grow as fast as those Godless cities, and anywhere you get more people, Democrats get more votes.

Rules Of Reciprocation

Alix Spiegel:
And so if someone passes you in the hall and says hello, you feel compelled to return their greeting. When you don't, you notice it, it makes you uncomfortable, out of balance. That's the rule of reciprocation.
"There's not a single human culture that fails to train its members in this rule," Cialdini says.
This is probably because there are some obvious benefits to the rule of reciprocation; it's one of those rules that likely made it easier for us to survive as a species.
But what's interesting about all this is how psychologists like Cialdini can actually measure the way the rule affects how we behave in all sorts of situations.
Exhibit A: those little pre-printed address labels that come to us in the mail this time of year along with letters asking for donations.
Those labels seem innocent enough, but they often trigger a small but very real dilemma. "I can't send it back to them because it's got my name on it," Cialdini says. "But as soon as I've decided to keep that packet of labels, I'm in the jaws of the rule."
The packet of labels costs roughly 9 cents, Cialdini says, but it dramatically increases the number of people who give to the charities that send them. "The hit rate goes from 18 to 35 percent," he says. In other words, the number of people who donate almost doubles.
You can see the same thing when it comes to tipping.
If a server brings you a check and does not include a candy on the check tray, you will tip the server whatever it is that you feel the server deserves. "But if there's a mint on the tray, tips go up 3.3 percent," Cialdini says.
According to Cialdini, the researchers who did that study also discovered that if while delivering the tray with the mint the server paused, looked the customers in the eye, and then gave them a second mint while telling them the candy was specifically for them, "tips went through the roof."
Servers who gave a second mint got a 20 percent increase over their normal tip.
The personal stuff works on me.  The address labels don't.  I've got piles of Christmas cards from charities.  The only ones who get donations are the ones I was going to give to anyway.  The part about the Hare Krishnas was interesting.  At a certain point, you just say, no, thanks, I didn't want that.

Drought Versus Storms

Dr. Jeff Masters says droughts are a greater threat to us than storms (h/t Stuart Staniford):
People fear storms, and spectacular and devastating storms like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina have stirred more debate in the U.S. about taking action against climate change than any other weather event. But I argue that this attention is misplaced. Drought is our greatest enemy. Drought impacts the two things we need to live--food and water. The history of civilization is filled with tales of great storms that have killed thousands and caused untold suffering and destruction. But cities impacted by great storms inevitably recover and rebuild, often stronger than before. I expect that New York City, the coast of New Jersey, and other areas battered by Sandy will do likewise. But drought can crash civilizations. Drought experts Justin Sheffield and Eric Wood of Princeton, in their 2011 book, Drought, list more than ten civilizations and cultures that probably collapsed because of drought. Among them: The Mayans of 800 - 1000 AD. The Anasazi culture in the Southwest U.S. in the 11th - 12th centuries. The ancient Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. The Chinese Ming Dynasty of 1500 - 1730. When the rains stop and the soil dries up, cities die and civilizations collapse, as people abandon lands no longer able to supply them with the food and water they need to live. We should not assume that the 21st century global civilization is immune from collapse due to drought. If we continue on our current path of ever-increasing emissions of carbon dioxide, the hotter planet that we will create will surely spawn droughts far more intense than any seen in recorded history, severely testing the ability of our highly interconnected global economy to cope. The coming great drought disasters will occur at a time when climate change is simultaneously creating record rainfall and flooding in areas that happen to be in the way of storms.
The future will be extremely challenging. Al Gore may be alarmist and fat, but that doesn't make global warming not a real threat.

Note: I had to update the last sentence to reflect that global warming is a real threat.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Grey Cup Highlights

Mounties present the Grey Cup in the pregame ceremony prior to the Toronto Argonauts' defeat of the Calgary Stampeders:

I think it's funny that fans booed Justin Bieber at halftime.  Mounties make me think of Due South.  It may not have been much of a show, but I used to watch it and Walker, Texas Ranger.

UK Sees More Women Farmers

It is feeding time at North Carlton Farm and Rosie Dunn is separating some hay. The calves love it and they also love the attention from the stranger in the clean boots.
"Not a lot of farmers would have you around at the moment," she explains, "what with all the mud, it's really hectic because the livestock are being moved."
This year has been a wash out and they are currently placing bets on whether it will snow. It is the last thing they need, but more and more women like Rosie are choosing farming as a career.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that there are 23,000 female farmers in the UK. There are 119,000 men, but nine or 10 years ago there were virtually no women farmers.
And 2012 has seen a sharp increase with the number of women rising by 6,000, and the number of men dropping by 5,000.
The president of the National Farmers Union, Peter Kendall, says changes in both technology and attitudes have made farming a more open field.
"A lot of it is computer-controlled technology now and the idea of you having to work with a pitchfork or lug big bales of straw around has gone. If you go back 20 years there was a real public perception of grumpy old men leaning on a gate, chewing on a bit of straw," he says.  "Now, I could take you to three farms that are run by lady farmers and often they make me look a fool, they make a much better job than I do of it."
Damn, another place where women are starting to outclass men.  I'm not surprised that women would find the job rewarding, especially livestock farming.

Copying Nature

Wired highlights another design concept which copies a feature from nature:
The beetle, endemic to Africa’s Namib desert — where there is just 1.3cm of rainfall a year — has inspired a fair few proof-of-concepts in the academic community, but this is the first time a self-filling water bottle has been proposed. The beetle survives by collecting condensation from the ocean breeze on the hardened shell of its wings. The shell is covered in tiny bumps that are water attracting (hydrophilic) at their tips and water-repelling (hydrophobic) at their sides. The beetle extends and aims the wings at incoming sea breezes to catch humid air; tiny droplets 15 to 20 microns in diameter eventually accumulate on its back and run straight down towards its mouth.
NBD Nano, made up of two biologists, an organic chemist and a mechanical engineer, is building on past studies that constructed structurally superior synthetic copies of the shell. An earlier incarnation of the material was first constructed in 2006 by an MIT team — they dipped glass or plastic substrates into solutions of charged polymer chains over and over again to manipulate the surface make-up. Silica nanoparticles were then added to create a rougher, water-trapping texture, and a Teflon-like substance sealed it. Charged polymers and nanoparticles were then layered in patterns to create a contrast between rough and porous surfaces.

NBD Nano says it has achieved proof of concept with its dual water-attracting (superhydrophilic) and water-repelling (superhydrophobic) bottle design, and is currently working on a prototype and seeking funding. Incredibly, the team predicts that the bottle could collect between half a litre and three litres of water per hour, depending on the local environment.
There are a lot of things we can find in nature which can become immense improvements in our lives if we figure out how to harness them.  Here's another one I saw this weekend:
The Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell draws electricity from the soil while the plants continue to grow. Plants produce organic material via photosynthesis. The roots excrete up to 70 % of this material (unused) into the soil. Bacteria around the roots break down the organic residue, thereby forming a new source of electricity. The degradation processes causes electrons to be released. Marjolein Helder and her colleagues placed an electrode close to the bacteria to absorb these electrons and generate electricity via the potential difference thus created. The Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell can currently generate 0.4 Watt per square metre of plant growth. This is more than is generated by fermenting biomass. In future, bio-electricity from plants could produce as much as 3.2 Watt per square metre of plant growth. This would mean that a roof measuring 100 m2 would generate enough electricity to supply a household (with an average consumption of 2,800 kWh/year). Plants of various species could be used, including grasses such as common cordgrass and, in warmer countries, rice.
Nothing may come of these ideas, but it makes sense to try to take advantage of potential breakthroughs we can find in the natural world.  Heck, doing so gave us velcro, and we all know how revolutionary that was.  I mean, it keeps my wallet closed up.

Where I Agree With George Soros

And some of Friedrich Hayek (h/t Ritholtz):
As in that earlier time, the political controversy on the role of the state in the economy is raging today. But the standards of political discourse have greatly deteriorated. The two sides used to engage in illuminating arguments; now they hardly talk. That is why I was so pleased to accept this invitation to the Cato Institute. As I see it, the two sides in the current dispute have each got hold of one half of the truth. which they proclaim to be the whole truth. It was the hard right that took the initiative by arguing that the government is the cause of all our difficulties; and the so-called left, in so far as it exists, has been forced to defend the need for regulating the private sector and providing government services. Though I am often painted as the representative of the far left — and I am certainly not free of political bias — I recognize that the other side is half right in claiming that the government is wasteful and inefficient and ought to function better. But I also continue to cling to the other half of the truth — namely that financial markets are inherently unstable and need to be regulated. Above all, I am profoundly worried that those who proclaim half truths as the whole truth, whether they are from the left or the right, are endangering our open society. Both Hayek and Popper, I believe, would share that concern. Those of us concerned with the protection of individual liberty ought to work together to restore the standards of political discourse that used to enable our democracy to function better.
Exactly.  I am perfectly happy to grant that government is often wasteful and inefficient, and that the private market is often very efficient.  But that doesn't mean that we ought to scrap government and let businesses handle the tasks government traditionally does.  How about proposing ways to make government more efficient?  And if regulations are too complex and burdensome, how about proposing some that are simpler and less troubling?  Just getting rid of all of them isn't the way to go about it.  But why should I expect any rationality from the far right?

First Day of Deer Gun Season

Good luck, fellas.

Megalomania Or Humor?

Josh Brown features selected quotes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book, Antifragile (h/t nc links).  My favorite:
Page 540: "In conclusion, I'd like to acknowledge my forebears whose trailblazing has made this work possible, everything they have done has led to the momentous publishing of the book you hold in your unworthy hands. And so I thank those whose early contributions to humanity have been perfected in this text: Epictetus, Aristophanes, Gaius Julus Caesar, Charlemagne, Al-Battani, Maimonides, Sir Thomas More, Peter the Great, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Joey Ramone and Malcolm Gladwell. I am appreciative of their efforts, despite the fact that they barely approached the coastal shores of the ocean of wisdom and accomplishment that is my body of work."
The man brings up some interesting points.  I don't think I could ever follow his investment advice, but for thinking about the unexpected events which occur more than we realize, I enjoy his perspective.  I would posit that quote is intended as humor, but if not, it is still definitely humorous.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Architect of Death

Roger Forsgren looks at ethics for engineers, architects and technical professionals through the life of Albert Speer (h/t the Dish):
The technical professions occupy a unique place in modern society. Engineers and architects possess skills most others lack — skills that allow them to transform dreams of design into reality. Engineers can convert a dry, infertile valley into farmland by constructing a dam to provide irrigation; they have made man fly; and architects have constructed buildings that reach thousands of feet into the sky. But these same technical gifts alone, in the absence of a sense of morality and a capacity for critical thought and judgment, can also make reality of nightmares. Ferdinand Porsche, the engineer who designed the Volkswagen — an automobile that revolutionized personal travel for the common man — also designed a terrifying battle tank that helped kill millions of Russians on the Eastern Front. Wernher von Braun, who would later design the Saturn V rocket that brought American astronauts to the Moon, designed the V-2 rockets with which the Nazis terrorized Antwerp and London in the waning months of the Second World War.
Few men better exemplify this danger than Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s chief architect. From bold, looming edifices, to giant swastika banners, to the intimidating searchlights of the “cathedral of light” piercing the night sky around one of the Nazi Party rallies at Nuremberg, Speer’s designs became icons of Nazi megalomania. He shared with the dictator a vision of a redesigned Berlin that, when the Third Reich conquered the world, would be a lasting monument to its power for ages to come. “Your husband is going to erect buildings for me such as have not been created for four thousand years,” Hitler told Speer’s wife, reflecting both the scale of their shared ambition and the shared admiration and peculiar friendship that developed between the two men over the course of the war.
Hitler was so enthralled with Speer’s creativity and ability to carry out orders with efficiency and speed that he appointed Speer Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich during the height of World War II. In this powerful office, Speer was for the final three years of the war in charge of supplying the German military. He oversaw the management of a substantial portion of the German economy; he kept the factories running, and the troops supplied with tanks, bombs, planes, and ammunition, continuing to increase production even during the height of Allied bombing. These accomplishments earned him recognition, from both within the Third Reich and outside it.
He makes the case for engineers to be exposed to a broader, liberal arts education:
Today’s engineers need a more well-rounded education — one that stresses not only the analytical skills necessary to be a good engineer but also the liberal arts that are necessary to teach these good engineers the wisdom of history, to provide the foundation for young students to grow and mature as citizens with responsibilities beyond the immediate technical concerns of their work. And the liberal arts can train a young mind to think critically and discriminately about moral questions — aiding in the ability to determine what is right and what is wrong. Most engineers are gifted in math and science; this alone is not sufficient to make them responsible or moral human beings.
Peter Drucker, the business consultant who was instrumental in pushing the management team running General Motors to train its managers in the liberal arts, once wrote that “first-rate engineers ... tend to take pride in not knowing anything about people. Human beings, they believe, are much too disorderly for the good engineering mind.” Perhaps it is time that the engineering profession acknowledged this attitude, and rejected it. We engineers are better and more than the machines we create; we are responsible, not only to ourselves and to our employers, but to our fellow human beings. The humanities offer engineering students the lessons of life and history that are not found in our technical world.
The whole article is a valuable read.  I have to agree with many of the points.  I, myself, have said that I feel much more comfortable dealing with numbers than dealing with people.  That isn't a very successful plan for a complete life.  It is more of a cop-out which allows for me not to work very hard at fitting unpredictable and irrational humans into a life which would require effort on my part to be flexible with those players I don't naturally understand like integers. 

As I have gotten older, I've valued the few non-technical classes I was required to take at Notre Dame to fulfill their requirements for a liberal arts education.  I wish I had the time and opportunity to take more of them.  Now, I try to expose myself to a number of perspectives I never would have when I was younger.  In a way, I have heeded some of the warnings given in this article.  However, there is much more work to be done.

Twinkies In Film

NASA Photo of the Day

November 23:

The Pipe Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Yuri Beletsky (Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution for Science)
Explanation: East of Antares, dark markings sprawl through crowded star fields toward the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Cataloged in the early 20th century by astronomer E. E. Barnard, the obscuring interstellar dust clouds include B59, B72, B77 and B78, seen in silhouette against the starry background. Here, their combined shape suggests a pipe stem and bowl, and so the dark nebula's popular name is the Pipe Nebula. The deep and expansive view was represents nearly 24 hours of exposure time recorded in very dark skies of the Chilean Atacama desert. It covers a full 10 by 10 degree field in the pronounceable constellation Ophiuchus. The Pipe Nebula is part of the Ophiuchus dark cloud complex located at a distance of about 450 light-years. Dense cores of gas and dust within the Pipe Nebula are collapsing to form stars. 
I see some cloud-type faces in the top portion of the photo

Drought Leads To Industry Introspection

Yahoo News (AP):
At the height of this year's drought, decision-makers at the agribusiness giant Archers Daniels Midland kept an uneasy eye on the reservoir down the hill from their headquarters.
At one point, the water level fell to within 2 inches of the point where the company was in danger of being told for the first time ever that it couldn't draw as much as it wanted. The company uses millions of gallons of water a day to turn corn and soybeans into everything from ethanol and cattle feed to cocoa and a sweetener used in soft drinks and many other foods.
Rain eventually lifted Lake Decatur's level again. But the close call left ADM convinced that, like many Midwestern companies and the towns where they operate, it could no longer take an unrestricted water supply for granted, especially if drought becomes a more regular occurrence due to climate change or competition ramps up among water users.
While companies in the Great Lakes region and other parts of middle America long counted on water being cheap and plentiful, they now realize they must conserve because finding new water sources is difficult and expensive — if it can be done at all.
If there isn't enough water in the Midwest, there just isn't enough water anywhere. Ethanol is one of the biggest water wasters there is.  I'm glad businesses are reconsidering their water use, but it seems like they should have realized that it was an issue long ago. Going forward, fracking will not be feasible in drier regions because of the lack of water.

Climate Change And Coral Reefs

The Atlantic highlights 5 charts demonstrating the threat of climate change.  This one is notable to me:

3. Coral reefs are doomed
Coral reefs, which protect against coastal flooding, storm surges, wave damage, and also provide homes for lots of fish, are doomed on our current course, says the World Bank. Coral reefs are dissolving because of ocean acidification--the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the more gets dissolved in the oceans. The illustration shows the impact on coral reefs at various CO2 levels. Coral reefs may stop growing as CO2 concentration levels approach 450 ppm, which is expected over the coming decades. By the time the concentration reaches around 550 ppm in the 2060s, coral reefs will start to dissolve.
That is a lot of ocean diversity of species at risk.  It is just a really bad sign for our future.

Weekend Football Roundup

Notre Dame's defense managed to carry them to the BCS Championship game, while Ohio State's tattoo scandal prevents them from joining the Irish.  If there was ever a year when I'd like to see Notre Dame play the Buckeyes, it is this one.  Instead, they will be meeting the winner of the Alabama-Georgia game.  That won't be nearly as good for the Irish.  Also on the college front, Purdue blew out Indiana for the Old Oaken Bucket, Northwestern beat Illinois for the Land of Lincoln trophy, Tennessee beat Kentucky in the former Beer Barrel game and Alabama crushed Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

In Division III, Mount Union and Widener moved up to meet next week, as did St. Thomas and Hobart, Linfield and Wisconsin-Oshkosh,  and Mary Hardin-Baylor and Wesley.

Up north, Toronto and Calgary meet today in the Grey Cup final at 6:00.  For any of the dozen or so folks in the States who want to watch it, it is supposed to be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network.

In the NFL, I am forced to root for the Browns to beat the Steelers to give the Bengals a chance to creep into the playoffs in spite of their pathetic loss to said team from Cleveland.  I will feel extremely dirty today.

Update:  Browns give up on white flag giveaway: 
The Browns have waved the white flag on their white-flag giveaway for tomorrow's game against the Steelers.
Sponsored by Ticketmaster, the Browns planned to give every fan in attendance an inflatable white flag with the Browns name and an orange helmet on it.
But the symbol of surrender -- especially against the Steelers and their Terrible Towels -- met with great resistance from fans and players.
"After further and careful consideration, we felt it was in the best interests of everyone involved that we not have a giveaway item at tomorrow's game,'' said Browns spokesman Neal Gulkis. "It is something that was intended to be fun for our fans and that they could rally around, and we regret that some didn't perceive it that way. We want to thank all of our fans for their tremendous support and we look forward to seeing them out in force at the stadium tomorrow.”
That is hilarious.