29 May 2010

Rand Paul and the 14th Amendment

First, Fake Libertarian Rightist Nutcase Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul opposes public accommodation civil rights, an issue settled in this country almost 50 years ago. Now, it turns out, he's against a key provision of the 14th amendment, too (although it's not clear he even realizes it's part of the constitution). Why not just chuck the whole deal and restore the British Monarchy here in America? Maybe this lefty radical independence thing wasn't such a good idea. 

OTEC now!

My late father, a rocket scientist (literally) and chemical engineer, I recall was rather negative about the prospects for OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion) technology. This technology basically uses giant ammonia refrigerator-in-reverse technology to generate electricity in subtropical and tropical waters. A great deal of research was done on this in the 1970s, but Pres. Reagan killed it. Now, it appears, thanks, ironically enough, to significant advances in floating platform technology from the offshore oil industry, Lockheed Martin and the DOD have taken enough of an interest in it to develop a pilot plant in Hawaii, which should be online by 2014.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_thermal_energy_conversion  Lockheed Martin also has a website on OTEC.

The feasibility is now thought to be "near-economic" meaning that some subsidy will be required to develop the technology further, then it should be pay-go. It only works in subtropical waters (warm surface, freezing at depth), which is found all over the world from +20 to -20 deg. lat. Notably, the subsidies to build even large 100 MW plants would be significantly less than the subsidies contemplated to build new nuclear plants, especially if you consider the ultimate costs of waste disposal and liability caps for any accidents. OTEC is pretty benign: you could have platform accidents, but nothing comparable to oil spills, and certainly nothing comparable to the environmental depradation of a Chernobyl, is remotely possible. If something goes wrong, you could have a local explosion (as in any power plant or refinery), but the longterm effect would just be that the plant stops working and has to be repaired.

This could mean totally nonpolluting power plants for tropical island countries now reliant on expensive imported diesel, plus countries like Indonesia and India, even Northern Australia, Mexico, Central America, Africa, Brazil,
Thailand, Vietnam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, even a post-oil Arabia, etc., could have near offshore power plants that don't use any fuel. It's possible it could be made to work off(f Florida and Texas, because the Gulf of Mexico is warmer further north than most places in the world. (The West Coast of the Americas, which have cold currents, are less suitable).

But the other great potential is factory platforms that don't even need to be near land. These could manufacture hydrogen or Ammonia,
to be used as fuel, or even making carbon based fuels out of atmospheric CO2 (which is net CO2 neutral, of course); Ammonia to be used as fertilizer, or, by bringing in raw materials, any number of products, including even smelting aluminum, out on the surface of the sea, and using what amounts to solar power.

It seems to me that the Obama administration is in danger of missing a huge opportunity to use the current environmental disaster as a teachable moment, and a moment in which the opportunity to seize the initiative and sell to the American people the concept that we need to make not modest but HUGE investments, and immediately, to develop this and other "off oil now" technologies, for the energy and environmental security of our country.

14 May 2010

Why Oil should pay for its true costs

I think the issue of legislation, now apparently killed in the Senate thanks to AK Sen. Murkowski, of making oil producers assume all liability for the costs of oil spills, really boils down to Econ 101. This isn't rocket science. 

I heard an estimate that if just the cost of environmental impacts (not including climate change impacts)... now assumed by the taxpayers were borne by oil producers, the cost per gallon of gasoline (and proportional costs for other petroleum products) would go up by about 29¢

I think it's a fair statement, as well, that a significant part of the military expenditures in the U.S., devoted to "security" in the "strategic region" of the Persian Gulf, is another hidden cost of petroleum, not borne by the producers or passed on to the consumers. There are other costs in terms of human rights violations in Nigeria and Myanmar, and the giant unknown of the costs of pouring so much carbon into the atmosphere, etc. The whole picture consists of one in which a significant part of the real costs of continued petroleum production are being borne by taxpayers, not just in the U.S. but in other countries, but especially in the U.S.

One has to ask, if these costs were imposed at the pump, as taxes, or as costs actually borne by the producers and thus passed on to consumers, would that not make the cost of renewable sources of energy more competitive... "level the playing field," as right-wingers like to say? If we actually knew the real cost, present and future, of continuing to recklessly consume petroleum (as if there were no tomorrow), I think we would be switching to other forms of transportation energy very quickly.

And much the same analysis would apply to the continued use of coal to generate electricity as well.

Of course, it takes time to transition to other means; and there have to be economic incentives for the R&D to be done to make the technological breakthroughs necessary to make things like microbial biofuels work, but as long as oil and coal are kept artificially cheap, it will remain very difficult for these things to happen. And time is ticking away, while the world's environmental crisis caused by the continued rampant burning of fossil fuels gets worse every day.

12 May 2010

GOP to push health care repeal as top issue for Kagan, huh?

GOP to push health care repeal as top issue for Kagan -- headline in HuffPo [link].

You have absolutely gotta be kidding me. The utter cluelessness of these people is just unbelievable.

More Optimistic View: Let's hope Spitzer is right about Kagan

Having already delivered the somewhat naysaying view on Supreme Court nominee Kagan from what Howard Dean likes to call the "Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party," let me also say that I sincerely hope that Eliot Spitzer is right when he says that the new nominee, who will in all likelihood be confirmed despite the most despicable shenanigans the Republicans are capable of, "will be able to get the Fifth Vote."

If that turns out to be the case, I will admit to having been wrong to express disdain at her lack of a progressive track record.

Kagan not particularly progressive?

President Obama has followed form here, and selected someone who is an institutional game-player rather than a principled progressive to replace John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. This, unfortunately, says more about the character of the President, and not in a good way, than it does about Ms. Kagan. See Glenn Greenwald's piece.

Cameron to become PM

Hmm. I thought I was doing a slightly better than average job (for an American), of following the British elections.. hell, I watched Jon Stewart's Clustershag to 10 Downing sequences religiously... but I have to admit I was surprised by the news that Cameron of the Tories is becoming PM, having reached a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

I suppose purely from the point of view of stability, this is good news for Europe, but of course I'm never happy to see conservatives take power.

Financial Reform Plugging Along

I am delighted that Bernie Sanders' Audit the Fed amendment passed, 96-0, although it did take some watering down to get it done. Now, even though the Sherrod Brown amendment to actually bust up the biggest banks didn't pass, I gather there's at least decent prospect of including the so-called Volcker Rule in the bill. For anyone who isn't familiar, here's an explanation.

07 May 2010

End Filibuster ♦ Majority Rule in America !

I signed the petition here to end the Senate's archaic filibuster rule, which is allowing the minority to virtually paralyze governance in this country. This isn't a minor matter. Our country needs to move forward with reforms in key areas -- climate, financial reform, immigration reform, jobs bill, further health care reform, renewable energy, trade policy, labor organizing reform, incentivizing production over extraction, tax reform.... but none of these things can be done properly under the current paralyzing system.

Euro Weakness not all bad news, and even an opportunity for U.S.

As a colleague and I were discussing yesterday, to some extent, the world economy is a zero-sum game; and to that extent, the fact that Europe is in the midst of a monetary/fiscal crisis is not all bad news for the U.S. Krugman recently wrote quite seriously about the possible collapse of the euro, whereas less than a year ago various econopundits were speculating that the emerging markets, especially the oil producers with gigantic sovereign funds, were likely to dump the dollar and adopt the euro as the de facto world currency. Maybe not, after all.

Since we as a nation have to much too great an extent abandoned actually producing anything in favor of gambling and living on the Big Credit Card, the fact that everyone worldwide will probably continue to want dollars and dollar-based securities will at least give us room to maneuver. But if we're smart, we'll change our wicked ways, and soon, if we don't want to have to live through a generation of economic decline.

To my mind, this means rethinking the whole paradigm of "globalization" and "free trade," not to some kind of reactionary isolationism, but to a really thought-through policy that high priority on American jobs, American production, American energy independence, and a sane global environmental policy in which America is a leading partner; with opportunities for America's superrich to dominate the world financial system, and American military hegemony (as opposed to rational protection of genuine American security interests)... not priorities at all.

Sam Harris in Huffpo: Towards a Science of Morality?

I will confess forthrightly that I haven't yet read all of this. One does have to get up and go to work. But I think this is a vital topic. Personally, I found the unwillingness of a rational scientific worldview to be really, truly clear on ethics one of the reasons I had to look to religion (Buddhism) to inform my worldview (another being the scientific bias against the validity of subjective experience of mind as a basis for truth about mind, but that's another topic). Somehow, our secular worldview, which, despite all, still dominates serious thought in our culture, has to come to terms with the Problem of Ethics. This appears to be a thoughtful and interesting take, as is Robert Wright's Evolution of God.

05 May 2010

Extraterrestrial Ethics, and why we might want to spend our time worrying about our own world for now

In this NYT essay today, Robert Wright discusses the issue of whether we can expect extraterrestrials to have ethics (in light of Stephen Hawking's comment on his TV series to the effect that things didn't go so well for the Native Americans when a technically superior society showed up). This whole discussion is rather old hat among those who've pondered these issues for the past 50 years or so, but I'll throw in my 2 cents anyway.

First, the point is really moot, because there's no plausible scenario in which it would ever make economic sense for one sentient species to try to exploit another across interstellar distances. See this post, which should illustrate why this is so.

Second, and for some of the same reasons as are discussed in that post, the chances are that even communication with xenosophonts (to use a coined word I rather like), even assuming that it is a near certainty that they exist in large numbers scattered throughout the universe, will never be practical. At least, not unless we learn some completely unknown technologies to overcome the limitations of the speed of light, which limits not just transportation but communication as well. Some people love to point at the rapid technological progress in the last 200 or so years, but one thing it'd be well not to overlook is that progress in science normally proceeds through refinement and expansion into new areas of understanding, not through discovery that old ideas were wrong. For example, Newtonian gravitational theory isn't wrong, it's a special case of general relativity that happens to work perfectly well for almost all purposes. Similarly, we may learn all kinds of exotic new things, but we're not likely to find out that, oh, wow, the speed of light isn't a natural physical limit to the translation of particles in space, after all.

I wouldn't say rapid interstellar communication or travel are definitely impossible, but those who plead extraordinarily for these hypothetical future breakthroughs have the burden, at least, of explaining what kinds of breakthroughs might make that possible. Wormholes? Well, maybe, but so far the existence of such things is pure speculation.

So, for now anyway, I'd say that whether extraterrestrials will be getting in touch soon, and whether they'll be naughty or nice, should be the least of our concerns, because the chances of that being an issue we actually have to deal with are pretty well zero.