Monday, November 30, 2009

The Peugeot BB1 Four-Passenger Electric Car

My Italian correspondent and frequent technology adviser, BT, says if he had the money he'd be tempted to buy the new Peugeot Electric Car which is now being produced in France. He's an avid user of trains and bicycles so I'm not all that sure how much he needs a car. Then again, he's a photographer and maybe hauling around all that equipment year after year is wearing thin.

Here's a link to some photos and videos of the new BB1. Even before I read the description, I thought it looked like two scooters bolted to a frame with some metal wrapped around. But it's clearly a head turner.

Now the BB1 is a four-passenger vehicle but the Smart electric car has been around for a year or so (it looks like it's based on the two passenger Daimler Smart car). I've spotted four or five Smart cars around the Bay Area (there's a gasoline version but at least two I saw are confirmed electric types). I've been tracking down information on the Smart car and I'm surprised there isn't a whole lot available, though here's an article from Forbes and here's something of a fan site.

Hybrid Technologies has been responsible for making successful conversions and sales but Daimler appears to be going ahead with its own version of the Smart electric car, though it won't actually sell them until probably 2012.

I notice a number of car companies are testing electric cars in various markets. Whether electric cars are made in Europe, the United States or East Asia, I hope they get support, particularly from various governments. Actually all of this is going to take time to sort out. The smaller electric cars are probably going to be replaced by medium-sized vehicles in five to ten years. True hybrids will also be in the mix. A lot will depend on battery technology (that is improving very rapidly), improvements in electric grids and undoubtedly the price of oil.

We're entering a new era and it might be a close call. But there's some room for optimism. A hundred years ago, in 1909, the auto industry was just gearing up for the modern age—a lot of improvements were made in ten years.

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Sarah Palin Is Consistent....Sometimes

Since there are more important things to talk about than Sarah Palin, I promise this will be the last post discussing her for a bit. The problem is that watching Sarah Palin is often like watching a train wreck. Of course for eight years George W. Bush was something of a train wreck so one can't entirely ignore Palin.

What caught my eye over the weekend is this story on Huffington Post:
Sarah Palin dropped out of a 5k race on Thanksgiving Day in Kennewick, Wash. The former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Governor quit the race because she wanted to avoid the crowds that were waiting for her at the end...

For all I know Palin's reason for quitting the race is legitimate. But the word that caught my eye was 'quit.' Every time she fails to show up for an event, every time she drops out, every time she ditches an interview, even every time she changes her mind, the tag of quitter is going to follow her.

And yet a politician should have the right to change his or her mind. It would have saved our nation a great deal of grief and trouble if George W. Bush had changed his mind a few times.

What Sarah Palin and George W. Bush have in common is an unwillingness to engage the world as it is rather than as what they believe it to be based on the extremes of their ideology and prejudices. Part of the reason President Bush lasted eight years is that he had enormous power at his disposal. Given all the issues that Bush should have been dealing with, he was a bit like an incompetent general who has such overwhelming force at his beck and call that his many blunders left him weaker but still standing at the end of eight years. Make no mistake, Bush left our economy weakened and our position in the world weakened through his steadfast refusal to change his mind at critical junctures.

Thanks to Karl Rove, George W. Bush was able to put the far right into his corner and get them out to vote. Sarah Palin, despite her many shortcomings, doesn't need Karl Rove. She has her own radar for right wing nonsense. That alone is enough to make her dangerous. That's why she was selected by John McCain. It's ironic, by the way, that McCain got deservedly labeled as erratic when in fact he's considerably more steadfast than Palin.

The bottom line is that despite all the jokes and silliness surrounding Palin—often invited by her actions, words and lack of knowledge—there is a possibility she will be the next president of the United States. If by some fluke she is elected and continues her pattern, she will be feckless and erratic while her handlers will insist she has a plan and knows her mind. And our country will drift yet another four years.

It would be easy to dismiss Palin out of hand except for one thing: many American progressives are exhausted. They have been fighting for eight years to restore at the very minimum some sense of balance in our system. Many progressives are acutely aware of what has been lost under Bush. For many, Obama is not, so far, the beacon of light many hoped he would be. It would be a mistake, of course, for progressives to throw in the towel. This is a generational fight, one hardly understood by a media fascinated more by how much their colleagues are going up or down in the pecking order than by the vast changes now going on in the world.

The Carnegie Endowment for Peace notes that vast changes are already underway:
The world’s economic balance of power is shifting dramatically. By 2050, the United States and Europe, long the traditional leaders of the global economy, will be joined in economic size by emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. China will become the world’s largest economy in 2032, and grow to be 20 percent larger than the United States by 2050.

If the United States cannot get its act together, we may see that change moved up to 2020. China has made a number of smart economic decisions in recent years but they are still generations away from making smart decisions on human rights and other issues as well. It may not seem like it at times but progressive politics will matter for many years to come.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Taking On Right Wing Mythologies

Are there still rational conservatives? Yes, you can sometimes see them on TV: they have a look of astonishment, they chuckle as if they're not hearing right, then their jaw drops open followed by a bout of spluttering until they can't help themselves and say, "You can't be serious..." to some right wing talking head. Of course they then worry about getting a call from Rush Limbaugh or some other right wing enforcer. It is an unfortunate fact that rational conservatives have allowed themselves to be shoved aside by the right wingers who clearly are dominating the Republican Party these days.

I'm always astounded at the mythologies on the far right. Sarah Palin's admirers, for example, look at her as if she's some sort of savior. I noted some months ago that she probably quit her job as governor of Alaska in order to avoid ethics problems and otherwise cash in. And that's exactly what she's doing.

Why is it so hard for so many Americans to recognize that Sarah Palin likes two things: attention and money? For her, governing Alaska was obviously a bit of a bother. So she quit. Nevertheless, she is taken seriously by the far right as a potential candidate for president. Why? Largely because she effectively feeds their mythologies and is never particularly bothered by facts .

One of the more shameless charges made by Sarah Palin was the fiction that death panels would be the result of passing health care reform. The reality for some time has been that if you do not have health insurance and you have a health problem, the odds of your survival are already diminished without any panel of any sort being convened. Health insurance companies used to be focused on providing service. Now they're focused on money. That of course is something Sarah Palin can understand.

Given all the politics that has gone on, Sarah Palin is a mere sideshow compared to all the other mythology surrounding health care reform. And the right wingers conveniently ignore who is supplying much of that mythology: insurance companies and others making obscene profits. Naturally any number of lobbyists, pundits and political consultants are trotting out slick conservative arguments, many of which were used against Medicare in one form or another more than forty years ago. Fortunately those arguments did not succeed in the 1960s. We can only hope those arguments will not succeed in the current environment.

S.W. Anderson of Oh!Pinion does a terrific job of addressing some of this. Here's just one part of his response to a right wing commenter trotting out a familiar and misleading argument about moral hazard:
Did Social Security cause people to quit saving/investing on their own for retirement? If you think so, explain the explosive growth in mutual funds and 401k’s over the last 25 years. Has the fact Medicare gives most of the 65-and-older set a chance to buy health insurance they can begin to afford ruined insurance companies’ chances to make money off these people? Hardly, as all the supplementary and Medicare Advantage plans make clear.

Give his post a read.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Obama, China and the American Press

George W. Bush left the White House a failure. He also left the nation in free fall. There are many things I wish Obama would do and many things I wish he would do faster. But he faces problems. First, he faces an obstructionist Republican Party. Even within his own party, there are moderates who have fallen behind in their understanding of how much things have changed and how much we need to do.

Day after day, Obama must deal on the one hand with millions of Americans who are angry at what happened in the last eight years and on the other with millions who are angry period. He also faces an American press that is barely in touch with what is going on out in the real world.

The truth is that the United States has not faced so many problems since World War Two. Another truth is that many of those problems are of our own making or have worsened from years of neglect. Bush's go-it-alone foreign policy was based on fantasy but it was pursued for eight years and cannot be undone in a matter of months, though Obama has done much to repair the damage done by Bush.

I was disgusted this week that so many news sources spent more time talking about Sarah Palin and her book than Obama's trip to Asia. Sarah Palin knows nothing and has accomplished nothing but her tour trumped Obama's tour.

Now I realize that for the last twenty years news stories on foreign policy trips usually start out with the phrase, "Although producing no breakthroughs on key issues...." But talking eventually does lead to results and not talking usually leads to deterioration in relations. The reality is that private talks always clear away misunderstandings and facilitate future cooperation. The above quote, by the way, is from an AP story about our ambassador to China, a reasonably rational Republican. Here's what Jon Huntsman said:
"I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao," Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier.

"I've got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren't talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meeting."

Although the Chinese stagecraft their news, one important aspect of Obama's visit is that it was the top story in China. Obama's visit was taken seriously by the Chinese even if many American journalists preferred to minimize what happened or prefer to say that Obama isn't effectively dealing with China, whatever that means.

I have no illusions about China. It is still an empire, it has a poor human rights record, it is nationalistic (one shouldn't ignore the symbolism of its pageants at the last Olympics), it is often plagued by corruption and it is still an autocratic system even if it is more benign than it once was. In addition, China is sometimes paternalistic toward its minorities, sometimes indifferent but there is never equal footing for minorities. At the end of the day, however, through deliberate policies, blunders and inattention, we are tied to China as never before. For one thing, they own a significant portion of our debt. And they make a great number of our goods, often through contracts with American manufacturing companies.

But at the end of the day, the United States is still the most powerful country in the world. Some quick graphs can be found at the BBC comparing the U.S. and China. Note, for example, that U.S. military spending is more than 5 times what China spends.

James Fallows at The Atlantic has a series of posts on Obama's visit. In one post, he talks about Chris Matthews who seems too often to follow the mood of grumpy pundits rather than finding out what actually happened:
...people have sent clips of today's talk show by my friend and former colleague Chris Matthews, which went in super-heavy for the "Obama humiliated in Asia" line. With all good will to Chris, I fear that this show today, notably the comments by the Washington Post's reporter from the Asia trip, will be the new symbol of exactly the kind of instant-analysis that, in my view, fundamentally misrepresents what happened on the trip.

In another post, Fallows writes:
...the before-and-after analyses from a private client newsletter by Damien Ma, Divya Reddy, and Nicholas Consonery of the Eurasia Group, reinforcing the idea that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment.

It shouldn't be overlooked that the operative word in Fallows post is: informed.

To be honest, Obama could do a better job of courting the press—one of the many books of Roosevelt's press conferences would make great night reading. But the press has a responsibility to get out of the 24 hours news cycle and actually do news. Our country is sagging in large part because too many people simply don't understand what's going on. Let's face it, it's easier and cheaper to follow Sarah Palin around than to keep up on foreign policy and do some behind the scenes reporting.

It's ironic that there are writers who write because they want to better understand the world around them. It takes attention, a bit of reading and experience, lots and lots of practice and a bit of thought to use writing as an analytic tool. When I was younger I thought I noticed journalists that operated that way. Certainly Edward R. Murrow was like that.

Murrow was probably the last major journalist who could effectively analyze and explain things to Americans; he did an amazing job during the crises of the 1930s and 40s. We have journalists who can do that but they're not always in a position to be heard. Even very good journalists like Rachel Maddow can sometimes get distracted putting out fires instead of explaining the world, though I'm happy to see that she's getting better at that on her program. (I'm not a journalist, by the way, though I've been writing for forty years and have been working of late to add more tools to my utility box.)

I'm going to borrow from Fallows one more time but it's just a quote from Obama—from his opening statement at the controversial Shanghai Town Meeting:
...America will always speak out for these core principles around the world. We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation. Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.
Contrary to the opinions of the usual pundits, this does not sound like a "humiliated" or "humbled" president. We are in interesting times. I write often of the American Crisis. That crisis did not begin last year with the economic meltdown. It's been building for years. It was blatantly apparent during Hurricane Katrina on multiple levels from the effect it had on oil supplies to the dismal response to fellow Americans in distress.

Like many Democrats, I worry about how Obama is doing. From time to time, he surprises me and I realize, okay, he is paying attention. I'm going to stick my neck out and say maybe there's more to the Asia trip than meets the eye. Consider the following story from Bloomberg:
Bill Gross, who runs the world’s biggest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., said Chinese growth is likely to be hurt by an absence of consumer demand from trading partners such as the U.S.

“The Chinese, I suspect, will have a bubble of their own to confront,” Gross said...

At the moment, the fates of the United States and China are tied together. China has been hearing conflicting advice from around Asia but they recognize that they and the U.S. have mutual interests. Whether we like it or not, we need each other. Let's see where events lead in the next few months. I'll have more to say.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ronald Reagan Was Wrong about Health Care---in 1961

I can't help emphasizing that I've known honest Republicans all my life. But with people like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Rudy Giuliani and a hoard of Congressional Republicans in the back pocket of the health insurance industry, honest Republicans are a bit overwhelmed these days.

One of my favorite commentators on the national scene is Cynthia Tucker. She quotes Nicolas Kristoff today but she also added old video of Ronald Reagan railing against Medicare. Little do people remember.

I know Ronald Reagan was charismatic and many voters found him reassuring but the truth is that he often didn't know what he was talking about. America's economic decline can be traced to Reagan's first year in office.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Politics of Alternative Energy

Like Barack Obama, Sarah Palin has written a book. Unlike Barack Obama, Sarah Palin rarely knows what she's talking about. When Rachel Maddow does a major segment on Palin's bizarre interpretation of her own history, there's not much to add. I only mention Palin because she is proof of concern raised recently in a Newsweek article by Daniel Lyons when he wonders aloud whether the U.S. is doomed to drift along in the Twilight Zone:
It's not because our scientists aren't brilliant. They are. But look at what they're up against: a noisy babble of morons and Luddites, the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd, the birthers, and tea-party kooks who have done their best to derail health-care reform and will do the same to any kind of energy policy.

The real danger of course is that the United States will fall behind in technology after leading in numerous fields for most of the last hundred years or so. Yes, we still make technological advances but there are danger signs, the biggest being how little the federal government has spent on basic scientific research in the last thirty years. We spent more as a percentage of our GDP from 1940 to 1980 and it paid enormous dividends.

We also used to pay more money to improve our infrastructure. We were willing to think of the future and build roads and decent schools. We have also from time to time been able to rise to the occasion in the face of changing conditions. In the 1970s we knew we were facing a long-term energy problem and we actually took steps to deal with it. Then Ronald Reagan was elected and we turned to the fantasy that the markets always know best. And we did very little to improve our energy situation with sustainable solutions.

The Wikipedia map on the right shows how Europeans responded to the energy crisis. Today, a far greater percentage of their energy infrastructure is in the form of alternative energy than it was in 1980. Germany and Denmark, in particular, seem committed to converting completely to alternative energy over the next 20 years.

Technically, the U.S. produces about 7% of its energy from several forms of alternative energy, but most of it is either hydropower or biomass. For the most part, hydropower was harnessed decades ago and there's very little room for expansion in terms of conventional dam projects (harnessing tides may be another story though).

As for biomass, it has a useful role but U.S. production methods are inefficient and sometimes lead to more carbon dioxide production than simply using gasoline. If we only count windpower, solar power and geothermal, alternative energy in 2006 accounted for less than 1% of U.S. energy use. Things are improving but not nearly fast enough.

Clearly one way to address our growing energy problems as well as global warming is to cut down on the use of fossil fuels for driving cars. Hybrids, plug-ins and pure electric cars are all a step in that direction. But of course there's a problem as pointed out in a post on earth2tech:
“Without a doubt,” the group writes, “electric and plug-in hybrid cars can help reduce CO2 emissions and oil consumption.” But surprise!: Electric vehicles won’t solve climate change. The cars don’t produce tailpipe emissions (thus, the common shorthand of “zero emission vehicle”), but they are only as clean as their electricity supply.

Electric cars powered by coal-burning power plants are still more efficient than gasoline but this is no long-term solution. Even the potential of natural gas from shale is not a long-term solution though it is likely to provide time for transition. The real danger at the moment is a return to the complacency of the early 1980s. Then again, it is sobering to realize that we would be far along the road to energy sustainability if from the 1980s to the present we had taken our energy problems more seriously—as the Europeans did.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Poor People and the Price of Water

Lima, Peru is the 13th largest city in the world and yet it gets under 5 inches of rain a year. So poor people still get water, right? At least a little? Uh, not exactly. At least a million residents have no running water.

In a mostly feel good article about one lucky neighborhood that received assistance with installing plastic water catchers—nets that catch water drops from the fog—I was struck by this sentence:
Buying water, trucked in by resellers, costs nine times what it does in richer urban areas, precisely in places where no one can afford it.

I repeatedly come across a wide range of sources that note how expensive some things can be in the poorer neighborhoods of Third World countries. Actually, I come across the same kind of statistics in rich countries. A classic example are poor neighborhoods in the U.S. where residents without transportation have to buy food at small markets or liquor stores where prices are inflated compared to large supermarkets in middle-class suburbs. It's a strange world.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

A Thought Experiment on Global Warming

Hard numbers tend to put people to sleep. But numbers can tell a story. Imagine a warlord of some faraway country who's awakened in the middle of the night and told his enemy has sent 100 soldiers across the border. "You awakened me for a hundred soldiers? Take care of it and don't bother me!" says the warlord before falling back asleep. An hour later, another aide comes in and wakens the warlord to tell him 500 soldiers have crossed the border. "What? Can't my pitiful generals take care of 500 soldiers? Wake me when a real army comes or I'll have your head!" Three hours later a third aide comes in. "How many?" growls the warlord. "One million, sir." The third aide finally has the full attention of the warlord.

The scenario, by the way, has happened in the past. It pretty much happened to Stalin in 1941 when Hitler sent his troops across the border. Stalin first refused to believe the early reports and pretty much panicked hours later when he realized how big the invasion was. Stalin eventually threw the Germans back but without the help of the United States, it is highly probable that Hitler's invasion would have succeeded.

Today many people can't believe global warming is real. One part of the problem is that numbers are clearly putting people to sleep. But another part of the problem—besides coal and petroleum companies with vested interests—is that there are people who can't believe humans can have that much impact on the environment. I find this odd since there are plenty of examples of human impact if one simply takes a good look around. I've seen, for example, large deforested areas that once held logging communities back in the 1930s. Those communities are now ghost towns so old and neglected there isn't much left of them.

My grandmother many years ago showed me any number of areas in Southern California that used to be wetlands before they were drained and turned into large housing developments. It takes willful ignorance to pretend that we haven't had a major impact on biological life. We have driven many species to extinction or near extinction. We have now been over-harvesting the world's oceans for a number of years. But even by the 1960s, the average person ought to have known we were having an impact on fish populations. Why? Because many types of fish people were catching were considerably smaller than the ones caught in the 1920s.

In California, it's almost startling to realize that many of the mining areas famous during the Gold Rush haven't produced significant ore for over a hundred years.

Actually humans have been having an impact for a very long time. The pyramids have been visible from space for thousands of years. Today, from space, one can see smog covering many large areas around the world.

For some reason, many examples of human impact get ignored. So I'm going to suggest a thought experiment that might suggest just how much influences humans have on the earth. Thought experiments are just illustrations and after I present the following thought experiment, I'll add some sensible qualifications.

First, we have to start with some numbers. In 2008, humans consumed at least 474,000,000 terajoules of energy. Other estimates are in the same ballpark but this number comes from various published sources (though it does not include minor sources of energy such as burning firewood). The important thing to know is that 80-90% of the consumed energy has come from burning various kinds of fossil fuels. It's not a quaint metaphor to say we live in the age of oil.

Now there are 6.8 billion people in the world and maybe it's not all that amazing that so many people would produce so many terajoules. But consider this: the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 produced some 60 terajoules of energy. That's a tiny fraction of the energy humans now produce in a year. The largest hydrogen bomb the United States exploded was a bit more than 45,000 terajoules but that's still a very tiny percentage of yearly energy production.

Let's look at this another way. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union had in excess of 20,000 nuclear weapons. The yield of the weapons ranged from 1 kiloton up to something like 15-45 megatons of dynamite. If we assume an average size of 100 kilotons, the destructive yield of 20,000 nuclear weapons is 6,000,000 terajoules. That is still less than 2 percent of the energy humans produce and consume in a year.

Now many global warming naysayers say humans don't have enough impact on the climate to affect global warming. So now for the thought experiment. It's actually just the reverse of a thought experiment that was done some thirty years ago. Scientists asked what if 20,000 nuclear weapons were released in a massive all-out nuclear war. The affect on the climate was interesting. It was argued at first that all-out nuclear war would lead to a nuclear winter lasting two years. The reason was diminished sunlight as a result of all the dirt and debris from the explosion thrown up in the air as well as all the smoke from the ensuing fires. However, later calculations showed that the result would only be a kind of nuclear autumn lasting a few months. Nuclear war of such size of course would create an unimaginable level of destruction. Notice that exploding 20,000 nuclear weapons would not raise the temperature of the earth in the ensuing days (at least not at first). That's because most of the heat would be radiated into space but the debris would have the effect of blocking out sunlight.

As it happens, heat is also supposed to escape into space when we release all that heat from burning fossil fuels. To a large extent that's exactly what happens even now. Except that greenhouse gases are trapping a certain percentage of escaping heat and reflecting it back to earth.

There is a possible though far-fetched way that humans could accelerate global warming with only a tiny percentage of our annual energy production—not that anybody in their right mind would do it. But we're talking about a thought experiment. If 20,000 nuclear weapons were sent to Greenland for use in late spring or summer, a geologist with knowledge of glaciers and the specific underlying drainage basins working together with a demolition expert could probably figure out where to explode the weapons to release somewhere around a third of the ice pack. This would be sufficient to raise the world's sea levels by seven feet. Even if the released radiation is discounted—which of course it can't—the result of the higher sea level alone would be devasting within days, if not hours. In addition, there would be very little in the way of fires and most of the material that would enter the atmosphere would be water. It is probable that the remaining ice would melt at an accelerated rate thus eventually raising sea levels even further.

Now this is just a thought experiment to show how just a tiny fraction of the energy we use every year could be channeled so that the physically world would dramatically change. Just as no one in their right mind would launch an all-out nuclear war, no one in their right mind would send 20,000 nuclear weapons to melt a third of Greenland ice sheet. When we understand the possible consequences of our actions, there are certain things human beings do not do. Let me repeat that: there are certain things human beings do not do.

Every year the evidence of global warming grows stronger, not weaker. When any corporation talks about cleaning up the environment, find out if they're simply exporting their excess carbon dioxide or even their pollution to a third world country. Most global warming naysayers are funded by coal companies and the oil corporations. These are the same people who have taken years and years to clean up their own pollution in other areas involving their operations. When there are oil spills, the first response of many oil companies is to call the lawyers before they call the clean-up specialists. The climate doesn't pay much attention to lawyers. If humans do certain things, there are consequences. That's just the way it is. It is the early 21st century and it's time for all of us to bite off some responsibility. It begins by agreeing there are certain things human being do not do.

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