Tuesday, December 23, 2008

car keys

The keys to my 2000 Jaguar S type have a little remote control attached to them. Now it is pretty standard but at the time it was a rather new feature.

It has four buttons on it:

The first is a lock button. This one button does what all technology should, it makes my life better. The brilliance of this might not be readily apparent to everyone but it makes it so I never lock my keys into the car. On my old van the easiest way to lock the car was to hit a button inside the car. This made it all to easy to lock the door, close it, than realize you don't have the keys. With this button on the jaguar I am outside the car and have the keys every time I lock

The second button is an unlock button. It is nice but unlocking cars was never hard so the net benefit to my life is only slightly positive.

The next button is a panic button. This is Annoying and has no real use but does nothing worse to my life than make me yell at my car when I accidently hit it. People ignore car alarms but pay attention to people yelling help. So I would never actually would want this feature.

The last button I could easily be talked into paying at least a hundred dollars to disable. It is the open trunk button. Sounds harmless enough, right? Actually it just cost me a few hundred dollars and almost certainly will again. Let me explain. The first thing to understand is that it doesn't actually open the trunk, it unlatches it. The trunk stays closed until someone lightly pulls up on it. The insidious part happens when you accidentally hit it, the trunk is now ready to open but you have no idea. Being unaware you drive away with an unlatched trunk. Then when you hit a big enough bump it opens, often causing you to lose whatever happens to fall out before you
noticed it. This just happened to me on the freeway while going eighty with a trunk full of text books and binders of notes. I spread papers over a several mile section of road

Monday, December 22, 2008

Research supports my laziness

It is nice to see when research supports me being lazy. The research has been getting worse and worse for vitamins. Add to the list of things vitamins don't do, preventing cancer.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bad Timing

I sure hope I didn't completely miss the boat on energy jobs. After growing by 500% in a ten year period it really does look like the wind power industry is beginning to slow down, so is the solar industry. I suppose I shouldn't worry though, if the Bush administration manages to preside over more growth in Wind power than the Obama administration than it will be one damn strange twist of fate(although alternative energy probably did do better in the Bush administration than the Clinton one so maybe that is wishful thinking on my part).

Some videos

I haven't posted videos in a while, mostly because I haven't been watching them. So, here are a few from people I am impressed by:

Daniel Gilbert giving a talk for TED:

He is a happiness researcher at Harvard who has contributed a lot to my world view

xkcd founder giving a talk at google:

This is just impressive because he is a member of my demographic group: pasty white guys.

I haven't watched this one yet, but Rames Randi is one of my heros:

He is a magician, and one of the best people alive at seeing through bullshit. A shame he is almost 80, the world always needs someone like him around.


I finally gave in and started listening to Malcolm Gladwell's new book last night. While I had heard most of it before, it is still nothing less than stunning. Within the first few pages he managed to convince me of things I don't think anyone else could.

For example there is about an 11% lower college graduation rate for people who are the youngest in their class than people who are the oldest in their class. That is not the age for their college class, it is the age for their elementary school class! The gap between the average test scores for forth graders is huge between those youngest, and oldest, students in the grade (something like ten or fifteen percentile points). That alone convinced me that: either elementary school classes should be split into kids in a 3 month age range rather than a one year range, or any program that selects students based on their intelligence and gives them better education before the age of ten needs to be eliminated. While it is possibly making the smart kids smarter, just as often it seems to be making the old kids smarter. That extra preparation is what seems to be driving the higher college graduation rates for that group. Once they were passed over for GATE programs and the like they are far less likely to catch up to their classmates who were once just older than them and are now actually smarter from the better elementary school education they got.

Probably the better of the two choices is simply making age ranges for elementary school kids in a class a three month range. It would cost almost nothing to do, but for those youngest children not being compared to children a year older saves a great deal of frustration, but I can see the other point. From a fairness, and class mobility standpoint eliminating those programs before the age of ten could do a lot of good. Giving a small number of students a huge institutional head-start does seem unfair. These clearly are the students who already have better parenting on their side, better schooling to go with it seems extreme.

In a way the book is fairly motivational. As best as psychologists can tell the difference between someone who is poor, and someone who is one of the best in the world, at just about anything is simply practice. For example huge studies on musicians have been completely unable to find any world class musicians so brilliant as to get to that level with less than 10 000 hours of practice. That is about 20 hours a week for ten years, so typically it ends up taking a decade to reach that level. Not only that, but when looking at music school students they were unable to find any people who had practiced that number of hours and not reached that level! Consistently the poor musicians were simply the ones who practiced the least. Beyond actual mental retardation there is almost no place for talent whatsoever, those who practiced more beat those who practiced less every time.

Talk about motivation to get off the computer and learn something of importance! Actually though I could argue that what I am doing now is part of the 10 000 hours needed to build some skill. Another 9000 hours and I could actually be a competent writer!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fusion and Solar

This graph, from this article I found interesting.

It is more interesting when looked at side by side with:

Some environmentalists complain nuclear fission gets so much more money. This complaint seems silly to me, the ratio of subsidies to production is far better for nuclear. A dollar the government spends on nuclear power produces a lot of energy, a dollar spent on solar hardly anything.

The questionable allocation of resources gets really bad when comparing wind/geothermal/water/biomass with solar. We have spent as much on solar research as all of those combined! Yet the second graph clearly shows those three all producing at least ten times as much electricity. Talk about a misallocation of resources. I am not necessarily saying the solar budget needs cut as it, along with fusion, are possibly the best long term solutions, but if geothermal and wind have proven themselves to be so much more capable with so much less money, than shouldn't we be throwing more money at them to see what they can do? This is particularly true of geothermal which has got almost no government funding yet manages to consistently outproduce solar.

What comes up

This figure, from this article, is really quite impressive.

I think that my expectation that housing prices would return to their 2000 levels, and could fall as fast as they came up will not be far from the truth. The only thing I am surprised at is they seem to be falling faster than they came up. Oh well, no one in their right mind will buy into the idea of real estate being the ideal investment for a few years so if I can just get a job and start saving I will be in good shape to buy right at the bottom.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Silly arguments

This might be the silliest argument I have ever heard that nuclear power is not a zero carbon energy source.
But have they considered the carbon emissions that would result from the burning of the world's cities if, say, the expanded use of nuclear power led to increased nuclear-weapons proliferation and, hence, to nuclear war?

But nuclear power takes by far the longest—anywhere from ten to 19 years from planning to operation—so it has the highest level of opportunity-cost emissions. When you combine these implied emissions with the emissions produced in the process of building the plant and mining the required uranium (plus the off-chance of a big carbon release resulting from a nuclear war), nuclear power produces as much as 180 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour. That's still a lot less than coal. But for a supposedly carbon-free power source, it's pretty lousy.

Every single country that currently has nuclear weapons, made their first nuclear weapon before they made their first reactor(North Korea might be an exception to this but they have so far failed to make a bomb that doesn't fizzle, despite having nuclear reactor experience). Therefore there is little reason to expect that blocking countries from building nuclear reactors will block them from getting weapons.

You cannot build a nuclear weapon out of reactor grade Uranium, or even Plutonium for that matter. Because of the requirement of separation of different isotopes before you build a weapon from either source, it is just as difficult to build a bomb out of reactor grade material as it is from natural Uranium. Therefore nuclear reactors do not lead to it being easier for terrorists to get their hands on bombs. The biggest risk with terrorists will always be a group of them stealing a weapon from a military not building their own(usually its Russia people are concerned about, but you could imagine a situation where a quick strike might be able to even seize an American one, although it would probably require hundreds of terrorists an event almost impossible to coordinate).

Now, there will be more highly trained people in nuclear technology if we build more reactors and this will make it slightly easier for nation states to build atomic weapons. However both Pakistan, and South Africa have managed to figure out how to build atomic bombs. These are not exactly the most rich, or technologically advanced countries. That demonstrates that almost any country seriously considering building nuclear reactors could have nuclear weapons if it wanted them, without going through the trouble of building the reactors as a stepping stone.

As for the second argument he makes, that the longer construction times increases the amount of Carbon produced based on opportunity cost. I don't really buy that either. First off, assuming a time of 10-18 years is silly, in any event where nuclear power will make a difference in America reactors will be built in six years or less. The actual construction time is in the 4-6 year range, the rest of that is regulatory red tape that will be easy to streamline without compromising safety.

Even assuming that his timing is correct however, it doesn't change the fact that this is a fictitious cost that will only be incurred at the start of a big scale up in the use of nuclear power. It doesn't change the fact that the total amount of CO2 produced by a nuclear plant over its lifetime is similar to the amount a wind plant of the same capacity would produce. Once the grid developed to the point where nuclear plants were replacing other nuclear plants rather than coal plants this cost would entirely go away.

Oh, and I get to the end of this absurd analysis to see his result. Even after he assumes the burning of major cities from nuclear wars, and adds in several fictitious costs that will not matter in the long run: Nuclear Power still produces electricity while producing one sixth as much CO2 as using coal plants.

Yes, the technology is that good, even those who try really really hard cannot make it look worse than coal.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Steven Chu

I have seen Steven Chu give a couple talks, and had mostly good memories of his knowledge on energy policy. Reading up on the man a little more and I don't think Obama could have found a person who agrees with me more. He seems to acknowledge some simple truths that Obama never seemed to really grasp. For example he has publically stated that we should replace our coal fired plants with nuclear ones. He does this mostly because he realizes that coal power plants are not only releasing more Mercury, Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur, and Nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, but they release a hundred times as much radiactivity into the environment! There really is no environmental justification to stop building nuclear plants until we replace every coal plant we have.

On the biofuels front I typically find him to be the weakest. He however seems to at least know what he is up against though which is better than I get from most people. He directly points out just how much more land you need to get an equal amount of energy from biofuels than from solar cells, and at least isn't an advocate for corn ethanol. Still, he still seems to advocate advanced biofuels that depend upon the 0.1% photosynthetic effeciency of green plants which to me seems a pretty silly black hole to drop money down.

Overall though, he has the ability to just stand up and tell things like they are even if they are unpopular. No one has questioned the existence of greenhouses in hundreds of years; pretending like switching the silicon dioxide in a greenhouse panel with the most chemically similar molecule in existence, carbon dioxide, somehow completely changes this basic physics is silly. The greenhouse effect is real and the only debate we need to be having is how much we are willing to live with and what we are going to do. One of the nice things about having a Noble prize in physics is you have instant credibility. This throws a real wrench into the hire-a-scientist tactics that seem to be standard policy for lobbyists. In order to be taken seriously they have to find a scientist of the caliber of Steven Chu, which in politically charged issues will not be easy.

Friday, December 12, 2008

And life moves in the right direction

My cell phone was returned, my car is running again(it needed a new battery), my defense went well (I actually have to finish writing my thesis, but my committee signed off on my research/presentation so finishing writing the thesis is merely a formality at this point), and two of my four grades are posted, both A's.

Sounds like things are moving in the right direction at least.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

and that makes two of them

Well, I had a hole in my pocket, and now I have neither a cell phone nor any idea where to find it. I guess that makes two of them.

I really have no idea what I will be doing about that, buying two iphones a year isn't really an option but they catch you in a contract so it will be a real pain to get a phone that people will actually return to you when it is lost.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

I may not use open office again

So, I am writing my thesis and things seem to be going fairly well. But I decided to save it and reopen it because I seemed to have hit some setting I don't know how to get out of otherwise. I then reopen my document and find that every single image and has been deleted! It will take me at least an hour to return it to the state it was previously in! Apparently it is a known problem, and essentially the only solution is to simply not work in microsoft word formatting.

Not using .doc files seems absurd to me, no one knows what to do with a .odt file when you send them, which I have done by accident resulting in wasted time on both the part of me and the professor I sent it to. Even worse I have had one experience where I went to a presentation accidentally bringing an open office formatted presentation and it forced me to give the talk cold, without slides. Since that point in time I have religiously used the microsoft formating as a way to avoid any problems. Now that I know using microsoft formating can cause equally bad problems that leaves me with only one reasonable choice, come up with a real copy of microsoft office as soon as I can. I suppose since I am done with school this may become less important quite quickly though.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Almost done

My thesis defense is scheduled for next Tuesday. As I am not happy with my presentation, thesis, or lab work this may just be the most stressful week of my life. After that will be time for something completely different.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

List of marine aquarium fish species

I decided to use the break to categorize and list every fish commonly kept in marine aquariums. Actually, I am not quite there, I haven't even touched the sections on angelfish, butterfly fish, and a few others. Still, I managed to bring Wikipedia's List of Marine Aquarium Fish Species from this, to this. I probably doubled the number of fish on it, and similarly the number of pictures.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Atomic Bomb Dome

This is a particularly eerie sight. After the nuclear blast in Hiroshima the locals took the nearest building to the blast that managed to stay standing and left it as a memorial. Now the city has been mostly rebuilt, but there is still the Atomic Bomb Dome sitting in the middle of the city.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lovelock Quote

I rather like this quote from James Lovelock, who earned his radical environmentalist credentials when he originally proposed the Gaia Hypothesis:
An outstanding advantage of nuclear over fossil fuel energy is how easy it is to deal with the waste it produces. Fossil fuel burning produces twenty-seven thousand million tons of carbon dioxide yearly. This is enough ifsolidified to make a mountain nearly two kilometers high and with a base ten kilometers in circumference. The same quantity of energy if it came from nuclear reactions would make fourteen thousand tons of high level waste. A quantity that occupies a sixteen metre sided cube.
I haven't checked his math, and I am not entirely sure he is accurate. I think he is assuming French or Japanese reactors powering the world not American ones. They use reprocessing which results in only 4% of the waste we produce. Still, that is viable technology and we certainly could run the world off of it.

I also just had a particularly good argument for nuclear power enter my head. Environmentalists often claim we only have a few decades worth of Uranium remaining. This is used as proof that it is a waste of time to dramatically increase our use of nuclear power. However if true it would also make an amazing argument on why we should be using nuclear power. By definition any fuel that can power a nuclear bomb can also power a nuclear reactor. If we could burn up all our fissionable isotopes in reactors than the world could be freed from the risk of nuclear weapons.

Now that people know it is possible to build nuclear weapons it will never be possible to put the cat back in the bag. With the knowledge that it is possible to build a nuclear weapon a hundred or so scientists with reasonable funding and access to materials could at least construct a small nuclear weapon. The only way to perminantly protect from this is to burn up all of the potential fuel for such bombs in civilian nuclear reactors.

This idea suffers a fatal flaw since there is so much Thorium and Uranium 238 that it will take tens of thousands of years to burn all of the fuel. However I suspect anyone who truely believes that we are running out of fuel for nuclear reactors, and among environmental groups these types appear to be common, would agree that the world would be better off if we burned up all possible fuel for bombs and stored the radioactive waste deep underground. The threat of nuclear waste is far less than the threat of nuclear bombs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Carbon Sequestration

The more I think about Carbon Sequestration the more it sounds to me like a really bad idea. People complain about burying nuclear waste--which is only more radioactive than the ore it comes from for about a thousand years. It even loses 99.9% of its radioactivity in the first forty years meaning that if something bad happens in say three hundred years, it would take thousands of reactors worth of waste to equal Chernobyl. Even that would require all of it to get vaporized into the atmosphere, a quite unlikely situation. Sure you have to be careful for the stuff, but it is almost completely composed of solids. Solids don't just dig up from a mile below the surface where they are encased in dry rocks. Even natural gas has trouble doing that.

Carbon dioxide however, that stuff stays deadly forever. There have been cases where CO2 from deep under ground has bubbled up and sufficated thousands of people! Unlike radioactive isotopes you cannot count on it getting any safer as time passes by. It is not very reactive, and like natural gas can just sit underground for millions of years. If that hole you dug to bury the output of a single coal plant happens to have a Volcano go right through it in twenty million years, you can count on it still being deadly and killing whatever rats and cockroaches have evolved into.

Even ignoring this, by definition the mass of CO2 from a coal power plant is about three times the mass of coal that goes in. When you consider we burn a billion tons of coal a year in America alone this is a stupendous volume of CO2 we are creating. I for one am not convinced that we even have sites for this much volume of gas/liquid if we ignored the safety risks.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Planted 29 Gallon Aquarium

I rather abandoned this aquarium since I will be moving and not taking it with me. It currently has no filter, or other equipment except for a light and a heater. The fish however seem to have held up alright, and I still have 6 black tetras and 9 neons as well as one cherry shrimp which held on all this time. Algae is a real issue though, I would have needed to get cherry shrimp breeding in the tank, as well as some Amano shrimp and a filter to get that under control. Someday I will probably try to do a planted tank right, if with almost no effort(I have changed a total of perhaps six gallons of water since getting this tank) I can get things to turn out this well, I imagine if I didn't hold out on what is needed I could have an impressive system.

My best plan for my next creation is a species tank for an Undulated Triggerfish. They are about as far from peaceful tetra tanks as you can get. Stories of them killing groupers several times their size or sharks are rather common. Typically the result of someone buying one is it stays nice and calm for a few months--than one day you come back and you have only one remaining fish. Keeping one alone though would result in an aquarium that I could drop live crawfish, sea urchins, shrimp, clams, and other such critters into for my own entertainment. Sounds like fun.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wind Power Environmental Impact

Taking a look at a wind power plant it can be pretty easy to see why people argue that Nuclear, and Geothermal power both are better for the environment. Sure the wind turbines themselves are fairly small, but it actually takes quite a lot of roads to build a wind farm.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

This is a very old wind plant, more modern ones use less turbines and are unlikely to be as bad. Also since you can put them on farm land, often you won't be building nearly as many roads to maintain the plant. Those roads probably exist already for other purposes.

Solar plants are far worse. They are the environmental equivalent of putting a parking lot on a piece of land. I am not sure I can support the use of solar panels when they are not on the roof of a pre-existing structure. It is simply too land intensive. Biofuels make even solar look good however as they are essentially 0.1% efficiency solar cells.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Demographics is destiny. As a strong majority of people share the same religious, and political views as their parents you can actually predict what the world will look like in the future with a reasonable amount of accuracy by watching demographic trends. I decided to make a rough estimate of whether demographics were favoring Republicans or Democrats. From what little evidence I have, I would suspect that among white people those who have more kids would be more likely to be Republican. I would also suspect that this trend would be more than canceled by the fact minorities have more children than white people.

To do this right, I would have to look at the birth rates of Republicans and Democrats in every state. I am too lazy for this, and don't even know that the statistics for this exist. So, I did something similar, I took a list of number of births per 1000 residents of each state and a list of who voted for which presidential candidate.

States that voted for McCain are in red, states that voted for Obama are in blue.

State: Birth Rate:
Utah: 20.9
Texas: 16.9
Arizona: 16.2
Idaho: 16.1
Alaska: 15.8
Georgia: 15.7
Nevada: 15.4
California: 15.2
New Mexico: 15
Nebraska: 14.9
Colorado: 14.8
South Dakota: 14.8
Oklahoma: 14.6
District of Columbia: 14.5
Kansas: 14.5
Mississippi: 14.5
Wyoming: 14.2
North Carolina: 14.2
Arkansas: 14.1
Hawaii: 14.1
Illinois: 14
Indiana: 13.9
Minnesota: 13.8
Virginia: 13.8
Delaware: 13.8
Tennessee: 13.7
South Carolina: 13.6
Missouri: 13.6
Kentucky: 13.5
Louisiana: 13.5
Maryland: 13.4
Iowa: 13.3
Alabama: 13.3
Washington: 13.2
North Dakota: 13.2
New Jersey: 13.1
Ohio: 12.9
New York: 12.8
Wisconsin: 12.8
Florida: 12.7
Oregon: 12.6
Michigan: 12.6
Montana: 12.4
Massachusetts: 12
Connecticut: 11.9
Rhode Island: 11.8
Pennsylvania: 11.7
West Virginia: 11.5
New Hamshire: 11
Maine: 10.7
Vermont: 10.1

In this list, 7 of the 10 states with the highest birth rate voted for McCain while only 2 of the 10 states with the lowest birth rates voted for him. Just a quick glance at the numbers makes it pretty clear that long term demographics strongly favor the Republicans. The average birth rate in a Republican state is 14.6, the average in a Democrat state is 13.1. That means the average Democrat state has the birth rate of New Jersey(#36/51), and the average Republican state has the birth rate of Oklahoma(#13/51).

This however isn't the whole story. In the long run, it is true those groups in society with the highest birth rates take over. However another way to look at these numbers is to try to calculate how many babies are being born in red states, and how many in blue states. Doing this actually gives the exact opposite trend. Because Obama won so many states he has a higher percentage of the total babies born. When I did the calculation to find out about how many babies were born this year in red states, and blue states, I came up with 1 400 000 babies born in red states, and 2 800 000 born in blue states. While the growth rate is higher for the red states, the total numbers are low. It will take a long time for Republican states populations to surpass those of Democrat states. If present trends hold it is quite likely red states will eventually pass blue states, but that is so far in the future to be impossible to predict. The one exception to this is if within every state the birth rate of Republicans is higher. That may in fact be true but I don't think I can get data to show it to be true.

Friday, November 7, 2008


That the job situation for life science PhDs is such that Science Magazine would publish this article is a bit scary. I am glad I am avoiding that entire can of worms.

"Few among the mass of grad students and postdocs, however, will ever enter that ultra-elite guild no matter how many hours they toil at their PI's bench, because there simply are too few academic jobs. Supervisors have largely abandoned any pretence of promising a career, except to the handful of star students usually designated early by mega-prestigious awards and publications. Few professors, in fact, even have the contacts or knowledge to steer young people toward the jobs that do exist, in quite substantial numbers, outside the academy."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Presidential Wish List

The Democrats winning Congress and the Presidency has most people I know full of a great deal of hope. I am far too cynical for that. Perhaps I will be proven wrong though, the democrats have a strong mandate to shake up Washington as much as they can. To prove me wrong the Democrats could institute any of the following changes in the next four years:

Balance the Budget. Sure it might be best to wait until after the recession to do this, but they have four years. If Clinton could do it, Obama has no excuses to fail to do this.

Scale back the war on drugs. The United States currently is putting more people in jail than just about any country in history. We have many more people in Prison than China despite having a quarter of their population! Why? Because of the war on drugs. it is crazy for a President who admits to have used cocaine to put tens of thousands of people in jail for long periods of time for the same crime. Nonviolent drug crime penalties need to be dramatically reduced or completely eliminated. Yes this includes drug dealers - they are about as inherantly evil as liquor store attendents. Marijuana laws should be ceded from the Federal Government to the state governments. If they at least did this, so liberal states have the right to legalize it, than I would be happy.

Eliminate farm subsidies for commodity crops. If you want to subsidize vegetables I probably wouldn't object as strongly but subsidized corn simply leads to cheap fast food and an expanded national waist line. Oh, and completely eliminate all subsidies for corn ethanol while you are at it.

Put at least a $40 a barrel(~$1/gallon) tax, or tariff, on crude oil. We are sending far too much money out of the country to prop up dictators. The only way to stop that is to simply make it cost Americans more money to send money to these countries through their oil consumption. This policy helps our trade balance, helps the environment, and supports our national security interests. There is no more beneficial policy Obama could set than this.

Put at least a $15 a ton tax on coal. This is for strictly environmental reasons. Even "clean coal" is the most environmentally damaging energy source we use. It results in the death of thousands of people a year from mining and air pollution. As the biggest contributor to mercury, and CO2 emissions it is one of the easiest targets we have to improve the environment.

Move towards socialized medicine. I doubt Congress will even try to make something similar to Germany's system, but there are many simple steps they could take. The easiest would be to ban insurance companies from turning down, or kicking out, patients because they are not healthy enough. Also ban them from charging different people of the same age different premiums. To work this would require allowing a six month grace period where insurance companies are not required to pay for major procedures to prevent people from waiting until they are sick to get insured. Insurance should be there to help the sick afford the expenses they face, not leech money off of the sick.

Throw significant amounts of money into actually building Carbon free energy sources. Research and development is nice and all, but with current technology we could cut our carbon emissions from electricity generation to zero. All we need to do is build high voltage DC power lines from the midwest to the coasts, while building some massive wind turbine factories, and at the end of an Obama presidency we can get around 20% of our electricity from wind. Think of how many tanks we built in World War Two when the nation decided it was a priority. We can scale up wind turbine production just as fast. Geothermal can be scaled up nearly as fast to at least 10% of our electricity. And if Obama is really serious, Nuclear power can replace Coal on a thirty year time scale. Use what is left of the gas and coal tax money after you balance the budget to fund these massive construction projects.

I should send each of these paragraphs as letters to my Congressmen. Perhaps right now they are just crazy enough to make some of these changes.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Annual Energy Review Graphs

The EIA annual Energy Review has a whole bunch of neat graphs. If they are too small to read, click on them and they grow.

Natural gas in America hasn't peaked in the same way that oil production has. Because there are so many different unconventional sources, it is hard to say if it ever will. This graph though does make our situation look a bit rough though.

This graph of crude oil production, consumption, and imports is mostly just scary because it points out that not only are we more dependent on foreign oil ever, but really the only president that managed to do anything like what he claimed he would was Carter.

You can see why I am taking a wind power course. We doubled the amount of Wind Power we are getting between 2006, and 2008. In the last couple months we passed Germany to be the country that produces the most electricity from wind turbines. Oh, and look at how pathetic solar is next to wind and geothermal. You can't even hardly see it!

So much for us cutting back on our coal use. Our information technology is still being powered with the same energy source that powered the Industrial revolution. Since it is growing much faster than the petroleum curve, and more reasonable alternatives exist, that is where any global warming efforts need to be focused. You wouldn't even notice a change in your life if America stopped using Coal in the next thirty years. There is no easy route to doing the same with oil.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

One way to spend $30 000

In any hobby there will be people who you can never match up to. This $30 000, 1200 gallon aquarium is something I won't ever try to compete against.

This needs to be seen in high quality, you may have to go to youtube to switch it. I also rather like the song in that video, Someone Great by LCD soundsystem, which I had never heard before.

This 600 gallon tank is almost in the same league. The intro is annoying though. Skip to 45 seconds into it. Again it must be watched in high quality.

American Per Capita Energy Use

I decided to try to figure out about how much energy the average American uses in a day. As a source I used the EIA Annual Energy Review from 2007. Most of this energy is used to make the food you eat, the metal, plastic, and other things you use in your life. A fair amount runs cars, air conditioners, strip clubs, computers and ovens though.

In 2007 America consumed 1, 128.8 million short tons of coal. This was almost entirely used to make electricity, although some went to Industry. Multiplying by 2000 pounds in a ton, and dividing that by the approximately 300, 000, 000 Americans there are and the 365 days in a year gives the total per capita daily consumption to be: 20.6 pounds of Coal per American, Per day, or 3.8 tons per year.

Natural Gas:
In 2007 America consumed 23, 055 billion cubic feet of natural gas. This primarily went to heating, cooking, fertilizer and provides about 20% of our electricity. Doing the math this works out to: 211 cubic feet of Natural Gas per American per day, or 77, 000 cubic feet a year.

Crude Oil:
In 2007 America used 20,698 thousand barrels of Petroleum per day. Most of this went to transportation, but some finds its way almost everywhere. Remembering that a barrel of oil is 42 gallons, this works out to be: 2.9 Gallons of Crude Oil Per American per day, or 1050 gallons per year.

In 2007 47.2 million pounds of Uranium Oxide was loaded into Nuclear Reactors in America. This was entirely used to create electricity, although some isotopes used in medicine are also created. Most of the Uranium Oxide is U-238 little of which is actually burned in the reactor. Therefore the amount of U-235 burned is about 5% of the following number: 0.00043 pounds(0.2 grams) of Uranium oxide per American per day, or 73 grams per year.

Someday I will give a talk where I show up with a 20 pound rock of coal, three gallons of crude oil, and a helium tank big enough to fill up 210 cubic feet of balloons. I could be wrong, but I don't think many people actually understand the massive scale of this energy use. When you sit and think about every person you are in the room with using this much energy a day the shocking thing is not that we are creating global warming, but that we have managed to use this much energy without killing ourselves.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New Oil Fields

One of the most common responses from someone hearing about the concept of peak oil is to point to some new exciting oil field and say look, we are still finding all this oil! How can oil production have peaked when there is this huge field in Cuba, or this other huge field in Brazil.

The answer to that question can be easily seen by looking at the History of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in northern Alaska. This field is the largest ever discovered in the United States, originally containing 25 billion barrels of oil. It is twice the size of the second largest oil field in America, the East Texas Oil Field. What makes this oil field particularly relevant to the question of peak oil is the year it was discovered, 1968. Just two years before the United States hit its peak production. Someone in 1968 could be forgiven for reading the news that huge amounts of oil had just been discovered in Alaska and concluding that American oil production could increase forever.

What happened however was quite different. We hit peak oil in 1970, and production coming online in Alaska in 1977 was just running to try to stay in place. If you notice in the graph from yesterday, U.S. oil production did increase a couple of years after 1970 as a result of this oil field. It did not however prove to be enough to stop the forty year long decline in production we have had. We never again reached 1970 production levels.

There could even be news about finding a new field the size of Ghawar, containing 170 billion barrels of oil in the next few years. At a rate of world consumption of around 20 billion barrels a day it would only delay peak oil a couple of years, and might not even do that.

The only real plausible situation for us not being at world peak would come from middle eastern countries containing a lot more oil than we think. The rest of the world has been pretty well explored, but countries like Saudi Arabia have been so secretive that some hold out hope that there can be enough oil to delay the inevitable. Perhaps they could be proven right, but I am not betting on it. I can't see them sitting idly on such resources all this time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Peak Oil, and Oil Companies

The degree with which many people in the oil industry are in denial just hit me. I went to a talk by a Vice President at Exxon. She was actually not willing to admit that the United States had hit peak oil. She made the tired old claim that it was not the geology that was the problem it was the politics and environmental controls banning them from drilling oil. This becomes a pretty laughable case when you think about it. This wasn't the map I was hoping for, but it makes the point pretty clearly:

There are only three major regions off limits to Oil companies. One is off the coast of California, another is off the eastern coast of Florida, and the third is the northeast part of Alaska. Now, looking at the map there is a little gas off the coast of California. But it is insignificant compared to the United States as a whole. There is almost no known oil off the east coast of Florida. The northeastern section of Alaska does have a fair amount of oil, but far less than the much larger parts of Alaska they have been drilling in for decades and not enough to make up for the loss.

Even if they were allowed unlimited access to this resource, what effect does it have on the graph of United States Oil Production? Maybe they could stop the decline for a couple of years, but even bringing production up to 1960 levels is wishful thinking.

Today United States oil production has dropped to the levels it was in the mid 1940s. Since the only region formerly producing oil that the government stopped from drilling was the coast of California it is safe to say that almost all of the drop was good old fashioned resource depletion rather than politics. They can whine about the areas they cannot drill all they want, that wasn't what caused us to hit peak production, and we did hit peak production.

If it was just the United States it might not matter. But we keep adding country after country to this list, Libya(1970), Indonesia(1991), England(1999), Norway(2000), Mexico(2004) and so on. The world is just waiting for peak oil in either Russia, or Saudi Arabia before the countries that haven't hit peak cannot produce enough extra oil to make up for the rapid decline in production from those who have and world output begins to decline. Even if it fails to happen because of some amazing technology(unlikely since the United States has the best technology in the world and still hit peak) since population growth since 1980 has happened faster than oil production has increased we hit peak oil per capita decades ago. We must find a way to maintain civilization off of other resources.

This is a huge opportunity. Fortunes will be made and lost off of bets related to this. Peak oil is almost certain not to be peak energy. We have dozens of options. It will however be the driving force behind some of the biggest changes since we got our oil from Whales. Exxon is paying a shockingly small amount of attention to this however.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Wikipedia pages on obscure fish

One of my habits that I haven't decided whether to call a bad habit or a good habit is my tendency to get involved in projects online to either increase the amount of knowledge available on the internet or order it better. There are many examples of me doing this, including: being a top reviewer at shorediving.com, adding close to a hundred varieties of watermelon to Cornell's page on Vegetable Varieties, and getting over 25000 karma on reddit.com before the fact I spent too much time reading newspaper articles from there drove me to stop going to the site or reading newspapers all together.

One I haven't done much of that might be interesting is writing wikipedia pages. While Physics and Engineering nerds have pretty much completely populated the topics I know anything about the same is not true of biology. For whatever reason Biology nerds have left a lot of room for additions, particularly when it comes to pages for species. I can guarantee that if you walk into an average pet store you will see many species that do not currently have a wikipedia page.

A year or so ago I noticed the lack of red abalone page, so I sat down and made one. Now if you do a search for red abalone on google, that is the third hit. That is probably the most credibility I can hope for in my writing. Today I noticed that there is an almost complete lack of pages for common fish in saltwater aquariums. I made a page for Pseudochromis Fridmani, but found dozens of common fish that completely lack a page. It is actually quite a challenge because most sources give information about how to raise one in an aquarium, and not how they live in the wild. Therefore you have little choice but to focus on those issues. Luckily if you create a page where one did not exist, other people who never would have bothered with the subject come and edit the page. That happened with the red abalone page I wrote quite quickly.

Not even the yellowtail damselfish, Chrysiptera parasema has a page so it will take some time before I get the site to be anything like an authority on the subject. Maybe if I am unemployed for long I will add that to my list of hobbies to take on. It does appear though that they acknowledge the lack of information, and are trying to actively improve the page.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Can we build enough plants?

I was watching a fairly good talk from MIT on our energy problems. Right at the start he pointed out the immense scale of the problem the world faces. As an example he mentions that if we were to use nuclear power to create all of the energy use increase in the next 45 years we would need a 8000 new power plants! That is an immense number, but in a world where china alone is building a coal fired power plant a week I decided to try to calculate if it was the sort of number we could reasonably expect to build, or so huge that we may as well give up and try something else.

First, a bit of history. The United States currently has 104 Reactors out of a world total of 439. These reactors were almost entirely build during the two decades from 1970-1990. So as a rough estimate the United States built reactors at a rate of five a year for twenty years.

Now, the United States is something around 3% of the world's population. So an easy way to see if building this many plants is even possible is to assume the whole world could create power plants at a per capita rate that equals that the United States did in this 20 year period. A rough estimate of the number of plants the world could build in a 45 year period is then (45years)*(5 plants per year/.03 percent of the population = 167 plants per year, or around 7500 plants over the whole 45 year period. Because of population growth, this estimate actually has the world creating plants at something like half the rate America built them for that twenty year period. So, it is safe to say that should the world decide to, we could use nuclear power to cover for the whole increase in world energy use over the next fifty years.

Some of these reactors would probably need to be breeder reactors, or thorium reactors. But as there has been a Russian breeder reactor that has operated for thirty years, and an Indian Reactor will soon be running off Thorium there is every reason to expect the technology can be brought to the level required.

I don't see the political will to do so, but it is at least permitted in the laws of physics and economics. That makes it part of a very short list. Given that even the twelve reactors nearly identical to Chernobyl have been operated safely for the past thirty years I don't see the anti-nuclear movement holding up. It is silly to get half our electricity from coal fired plants which kill tens of thousands of people a year because of the small risk that replacing them with nuclear power plants could kill a similar number of people once every couple decades. The biggest accidents involving power plants have involved dam breaks, and as these are less guarded they are the far greater terrorist attack risk.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

SPS corals

I never quite realized how much more impressive a good Small Stony Polyp reef aquarium could look than the more typical tanks. They make me think real coral reef, rather than a bunch of wierd invertebrates. I doubt it is something I can afford in the next five years though.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Choosing between rice

I ran into something the other day that was rather shocking to me, although I always knew it was true. Take a quick look at the following three links showing nutritional information:

Medium Grain White Rice
Medium Grain Brown Rice
Uncle Ben's Whole Grain Brown Ready Rice

A decent case can be made that the pre-packaged brown rice is actually less healthy than the bulk white rice! That seems surprising to me, I could very easily see myself picking the brown rice from Uncle Ben, and assuming that because it is called brown rice it is the same thing as the brown rice I buy in five pound bag.

About.com gives white rice a nutrition grade of B, brown rice a grade of A, and the Uncle Ben's rice a grade of C. I am a little unclear as to the entire reason for this, but it is pretty clear they have some justification for this. As an example the fiber in a cup of brown rice is 3.5 grams, while in Uncle Ben's brown rice it is only 1 gram. Clearly some chemical modification of the rice is being done.

This is of course not limited to rice, and I point it out because it illustrates a common trend. Whenever you let a factory touch your food, there is a strong risk that they are doing something like this behind the scenes. Then you wonder why you are gaining weight while eating healthy stuff like brown rice. No one will stop them though since it really does make the food more convenient and taste better. They have every incentive in the world to alter the food, and even those of us who know it will probably give in and eat it whenever someone announces that they have ice cream in their freezer.

Weekly oil price

I found this graph to be pretty shocking. I am not sure if I am happy about it because it will cut the cost of my drive across country in half, or angry because it will make my job hunt more difficult.

It is hard to say what it means in any long term sense. The price of oil has cut in half in about a three month period. I haven't seen much convincing evidence that anything changed on the supply side, so it is probably just panic because of the economy driving down demand. It is also not unusual for the economy to improve before a presidential election. Usually the party in power has a lot of incentive to make sure things are getting better rather than worse on election day. Although given the complete disaster of the past few months that trend does not seem to be going as well as usual.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Purple Carrots

Dropping out of school to become a subsistence farmer is probably not in the cards. I decided to look and see if I had any carrots in my garden. I picked the first couple I saw before I decided this is dumb I will see if they grow any more. On the plus side they taste like carrots and I didn't even weed around them. I really just cleaned the rocks out of the soil, put seeds in the ground and came back four months later. On the minus side they are red, not purple, and remain tiny. So much for Cosmic Purple Carrots. Actually though, looking at their pictures maybe they are the color they were supposed to be and I just didn't buy a purple enough variety. Next time maybe I should try Deep Purple, or perhaps Purple Haze.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Big Coal

I just started the book "big coal" by Jeff Goodell. After finishing the introduction it is clear that either he is full of shit, or this will be one of the best books I have ever read. Here are some quotes from him:

"In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day."

"Since 1900, more than 100, 000 people have been killed in coal mine accidents, many forever entombed by collapsed roofs and tumbling pillars. Black lung, a disease common among miners from inhaling coal dust can be conservatively estimated to have killed another 200,000 workers. And burning coal is even more deadly. In just the bast twenty years, air pollution from coal plants has shortened the lives of more than a half million Americans."

"I spent three years researching and writing this book... During those three years, about 3 billion tons of coal went up in smoke in America. They created light and heat for much of the nation (not to mention the glow on my computer screen even now as I write). But during those years, the American Lung Association calculates, about 72,000 people in the United States died prematurely from the effects of coal-fired power plant pollution-more than from AIDS, murder, or drug overdose."

"Although America is a vastly richer country with many more options available to us, our per capita consumption of coal is three times higher than China's"

"half of the electricity in Los Angeles, for example, is imported from coal-fired power plants in Nevada and New Mexico"

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Since I am trying to get a job in the field I decided it is very much in my best interest to be able to have an intelligent conversation with anyone over energy technology and policy. I therefore bought a half dozen books that cover the topic from several different viewpoints. I started with Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman.

The following quotes from him pretty much sum up what I have seen in the field:

"For all the talk in magazines and by politicians about the energy issue, if you look at our walk and not at our talk, you would have to conclude that the United States has no sense of urgency when it comes to energy research. It is as if Sputnik has gone up, the nation has been challenged again to reinvent itself, this time in regard to energy, but we're sleepwalking into the future-still quietly hoping that it's all just a bad dream from which we'll soon wake up again, able to fill our tanks with dollar-a-gallon gasoline and drive off with Green Stamps and a set of NFL-logo glasses"

"Even an extra $1billion to $2 billion investment by the federal government in basic science research could make an enormous difference. "the amount of money going into this area for research is a fraction of what is needed," said Alivisatos [a scientist working at LBNL ]. "These days, if you meet a student working in chemistry, physics, or biology and you tell them you want them to work on a solar energy project, their eyes light up. This is what they really want to work on. There are thousands of students who want to work on this problem, but we cannot find the fellowships to support and enable them to do the work that is needed.""

""But let's just remember what happened in the latest budget cycle: Seven hundred research proposals for working on solar energy were turned down for fiscal 2008. The[Department of Energy] put out a call for proposals, the response was overwhelming, scientists all over the U.S. responded with research proposals, and the money did not materialize. The DOE is really trying. They thought they would have $35 million to spend on basic solar research. We got $5 million for our project and we were one of the few to get funded. Think about that potential - think about how many scientists and how many postdoc [students] were ready to work on this problem, and they were all basically turned away. Thousands of scientists who want to work on the energy problem are not able to work on it today.""

"If you add up all the federal dollars going into energy research together- and that would include research on oil, gas, and coal as well as solar- said Daniel M. Kammen the University of California, Berkeley, energy policy expert, it would total around $3 billion in government money and about $5 billion in private sector and venture funds, "which is about nine days of fighting in Iraq." Energy is a $1 trillion-a-year industry and that means reinvesting about $8 billion in R & D constitutes 0.8 percent of revenues."
Some of the brackets are mine, some are his. If it was up to me there would not put the bracket [students] after the term postdoc. These are people who have a PhD, and would be considered full scientists if they had just picked a hotter field.

I certainly can vouch for the armies of graduate students who would prefer to be working on this issue but are not because they can't find a professor in the field who has managed to secure funding to do the work. One of the most frustrating things about reading up on this issue is how long we have known we should be doing something, or even talked about how much we were doing, while we have done almost nothing. It does not seem to be getting better in the Democratic congress, they cut the science budget for the Department of Energy when even Bush wanted it increased. The next president is the only person in the country with any real chance of changing things and with the price of oil tanking I somehow doubt anything will be done.

Monday, October 13, 2008

EIA's magic disappearing oil

A while back I commented that I was surprised that oil prices would increase so much given that oil production finally seemed to be increasing. I now believe that I was wrong. I have now regularly watched EIA oil statistics fairly regularly for about a year. One rather absurd trend seems to have become apparent within the numbers for world oil production. Just about every month the EIA reports that we produced more oil than we ever have. Than they go and lower the estimate again and again over the next six month period.

The most current numbers for world production are:

Thousand Barrels Per day
2005 January- 73,202
February -73,481
March -73,800
April -74,082
May -74,241
June -73,859
July -73,700
August- 73,736
September- 73,301
October -73,396
November- 73,869
December -74,157
2005 Average -73,737

2006 January -73,673
February -73,583
March- 73,419
April- 73,507
May -73,068
June -72,976
July -73,997
August -73,677
September -73,390
October- 73,730
November- 73,362
December -73,141
2006 Average- 73,461

2007 January -72,801
February -73,047
March -72,975
April - 73,220
May -72,744
June -72,348
July -72,869
August -72,224
September -73,028
October -73,689
November -73,395
December -73,873
2007 Average- 73,018

2008 January -73,910
February -74,085
March -74,206
April -73,791
May -74,339
June -74,259
July -75,099
2008 7-Month Average -74,245

You can see from taking a look at that list the maximum production for 2005 was in May with 74, 241 thousand barrels of oil per day produced. In 2006, and 2007 we never managed to produce as much oil as we did in 2005. Then in May 2008 we heroically managed to surpass that production level, again in June, and again by even more in July.

There is only one problem with all of that. The EIA said the same several months back. First in October and November they claimed we finally beat the peak in production that occured in may 2005. Than, quietly, those numbers were lowered a few months later, now they are almost a million barrels a day lower than May 2005. Once again in January, February and March they made the same claim, we finally beat the peak in production that had occured in 2005. Once again, those numbers got subsequently lowered.

Now, I am not saying there is some huge conspiracy here, oil statistics are often not completely accurate for as long as two years. A great deal of guess work goes into producing the numbers since many countries do not publish any production numbers. Still, a really good case can still be made that the world hit peak oil in mid 2005. Even the high prices of 2007 were not enough to break that trend, and the verdict is still out as to whether the prices of 2008 were enough. If that proves to be the case I will be kicking myself for not investing in oil right now when it is down to $80 a barrel.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Why I do disease research

The following graph from the AAAS about what sectors get the most research money does a good job of demonstrating why I am not currently doing energy research, and somehow ended up working on cancer. Despite politicians talking about making us energy independent, energy research is funded with less than half the money that it was in the 70s. The corporate picture looks much the same. At one point the oil companies had huge research institutions. Over the same time period these institutions have decayed significantly. You will know congress takes these issues seriously when the green section of the graph expands to at least the size it was in 1980.

Edit: I just read the small print under the graph. I am not entirely sure anymore it is not complete fiction. It fits with what I have seen at Cornell though. A whole lot of talk, and people interested in doing something relative to the amount of funding to actually do stuff. There was almost no primary energy production research here when I was looking for a lab. Maybe two graduate students doing solar research, and a couple biofuels people.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Above Average!

I have finally succeeded at something in graduate school!

When I was in Junior High, and High School I did four and a half seasons of wrestling. My first season I am pretty sure I was pinned every match and didn't score a single point all season. The second season I was something like 4 and 9 and was probably only pinned half my matches. The third I went up against slightly better competition am pretty sure I was 2 and 12. I don't really remember much about my forth season which was a freestyle season but I am fairly certain that despite beating some redheaded girl and another person with little experience, resulting in my winning the only athletic tournament of my life, it was not a winning season. My fifth season I pinned the first two people I went up against than got ring worm which resulted in me dropping the sport and doing Academic Decathlon instead.

As a grad student I have been taking PE courses though. So far I am taking, or have taken, SCUBA Diving, Beginning Boxing, Mixed Martial Arts, Gymnastics, Swing Dancing, Taekwondo, and Judo. In Mixed Martial Arts, it was pretty clear I was about average. That class however had a fairly intimidating name which resulted in several people with black belts or significant experience in another martial art.

In Judo this semester I have gone up against a total of six people, all about my size, in sparring drills. So far only one put up a real fight, and I suspect would have beat me one out of three matches, the other five I was clearly at an advantage against though. This puts me finally above average at a martial art! Of course this is relative to a much less competitive group of people than being on one of the top high school wrestling teams in the country. Still, I suspect this group of people is more similar to the general public, although most of them were in pretty good shape which is more than I can say for most Americans.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Still no Solar

A few days ago I watched the CEO of Skypoint Solar give a presentation on solar power. It pretty much convinced me solar will not matter for at least a decade, probably two, if then. The following two figures from his presentation pretty much make the case:

(you can click on the first image to get a larger one if you cannot read it)

Solar electricity has been one of the favorite energy topics for researchers for quite some time. The first working prototypes were decades ago. In all of this time solar has only managed to hit .034% of world electricity production. Three hundredths of a percent. Compare that to wind, and geothermal. As best as I can tell have been comparatively ignored by governments yet produce ten times, and twenty times as much electricity as solar respectively. Judging by the huge rates of growth in wind power for the past two years I suspect the numbers are even farther apart today.

That gets worse in the second slide. This figurelists what growth the solar electricity industry would need to maintain to produce 1% on the left, and 10% on the right of our electricity assuming energy use increases by either 175, or 450%. I am unaware of any industry maintaining 30% growth rates over a 17 year period. Yet that is exactly what would need to happen for solar to only produce 1% of the electricity the world uses in 2025! To actually put enough of a dent in coal to actually matter we would need 20-50% of our electricity from solar. Unless something changes in a big way that remains fifty years off. If we dramatically expand nuclear, geothermal, and wind power for the next two decades I don't actually see much remaining for solar to do. Most of our energy problems can be solved before this technology has a chance to get off the ground.

I actually dropped solar power as a field I am looking into on my resume. Once the industry manages to produce 1% of our electricity I will reconsider. The wind industry in America is already at that level, if the wind industry managed to get 30% growth rates over the same time period we would produce something like 50% of our electricity from wind(although practical concerns may limit that at about 20%). I would much rather be in an industry adding full percents to its market share than hundredths of a percent. Geothermal, and nuclear power are in a more similar position to wind than to solar, so those seem like reasonable technologies to work on. I gave up most hope on entering the nuclear power industry though when I looked at a map of where the nuclear power plants in America are located. Out of 104 plants, only 2 are in California and very few are elsewhere on the west coast.

There always is the chance of 40% efficiency solar cells at half the cost of current cells, and there has been 7 years of ~40% growth rates in the industry, so I haven't quite given up hope on the field, but in the next two decades don't expect anything out of it.

Friday, September 26, 2008


My back yard is being invaded by strange bugs. I can't actually figure out what they are doing, they just seem to like to congregate in large groups, mostly on the pavement. When you scare them away it appears that they are just standing on empty ground. Most mysterious.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Trains Verses Planes

A professor here, Francis Vanek, gave a talk last week mostly supporting plug in hybrid vehicles. In it however was a graph that was pretty shocking to me. It is comparing the energy use per passenger mile on trains, planes, and buses.

You would expect that trains would be significantly more efficient than planes than planes are, and in fact they are. However not many people use the train meaning you are comparing empty trains to full planes. This makes me feel a little better about all of those plane rides. A shame the graph doesn't have cars though.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Talking to Dead People

I haven't been writing much on here recently and I thought I would talk a little about what led to that. I decided to try to as much as practical cut off contact with dead people, and people I don't know.

That may seem an odd way to live, but it is how most of people through most of history have lived. The real difference between the modern world, and the stone age is that at some point we learned to transmit information over vast distances in space and time first through painting and writing, then later through radio, tape cassettes, video games, the internet, television and dozens of other forms. Without this transmission of information we never could have created the world we live in today.

So, why cut off from all of this information if it has created so much? Well, perhaps the biggest reason is to see what happens. To the best of my knowledge no group in modern society has actually gone out of the way to live like this. I for example managed to live without a computer or television in my apartment for several months right when I started graduate school. What did I do with that time? Primarily I read books. One person I don't know telling me what to think was replaced with another! There has been no point in my life where I have cut myself off from all of this useful information, propaganda, and entertainment.

Another reason has been the realization that I know too much and do too little. Outside of a tiny number of technical subjects my life would not improve with more information. There was a time in my life where this was probably not true. Not because I did a lot then, but because the only expectation on me was to learn. Was I to cut myself off of information at that point in time the results on my life would most certainly be destructive. That no longer appears to be true, I could forget for decades and still know enough to function in society. It makes more sense to focus on actually doing something.

Watching myself and other people whenever they are not doing something interesting or productive they seem to be taking in information from, or being entertained by people they don't know. They watch TV, surf the internet, read cheap romance novels, read the newspaper, play video games, and so on. Even much of the apparently unproductive time people spend when they are not taking in information from strangers is actually fairly productive. The best example I have is drinking. You might expect that regularly going to the bar would have a general negative effect on your life. In some ways it may well, but if you compare the incomes of people who drink socially with those who do not you find that up to around an astonishing 35 drinks a week people who drink socially make more money than those who either do not drink, or drink alone. It is not the alcoholic who spends his time at parties or in the bar who ruins his life, its the alcoholic who gets drunk and watches television. Cutting the television from his life may be the more prudent move.

I have decided upon a complex set of rules for this experiment. Any activity that is primarily used to contact people I know is fair game. Email, Instant Messages, Phones, and so on. I decided to keep the blog because lets face it, no one I don't know will ever read it. Posting to reddit, or arguing on its comments section is clearly out as it is primarily me communicating with people I do not know. With works of art such as paintings and music I have decided to keep originals, even if the painter is dead, but as much as reasonable limit duplicates and recordings. Going to a concert, or museum sounds close enough to productive for me to keep it as an option. With books and articles, I try to cut it off if it is not directly related to my courses or research. I used that fudge word at the start of this blog, practical, it is not practical for me to enter a new field without a great deal of reading on the subject. The goal is not to be anti-technology, or in some sense even anti-information it is to be pro doing something interesting with my time. I have also instituted a rule to not be an asshole about it. If you are at someone's house and they want to watch a movie, it is rude to apply pressure to do otherwise. Not going to a party, or requesting someone turn off the music at a party are both not options that will improve life.

Starting was particularly difficult. My alarm was initially a radio station, I changed it to that annoying beeping. Car radio got turned off. The first day I drove in silence it was really really hard to not turn the thing on and flip through stations. Within a week I stopped noticing it. I took to turning off my computer to increase the amount of effort I need to get onto it. While you are motivated turning the monitor so it is facing away from you is also particularly effective as a way to break you down when you are less motivated. I stopped carrying headphones with me so listening to Audiobooks stops being an easy option.

In some ways I have done really well, in other ways not as much. I haven't been to reddit in two weeks, which opened up a lot of time in my life. I never started listening to audiobooks or the radio again. I haven't played video games in the time period either. I was doing fairly well with newspapers, forums, and television until I got sick. In the last few days I have not done very well at that.

The thing I would consider this the most like is breaking up with a girlfriend. You end up with all this time, and no obvious thing to do with it. Think of all that time you spend staring at a screen and consider for a second what you would be doing if you were not at that screen. I spent a great deal of time staring at my aquarium trying to figure out what to do. I now seem to go to bed about two hours earlier than before. Before I would get so interested in what I was doing that I would stay up late. Now I face an empty apartment and sleep all of a sudden sounds like a good plan. However when you are faced with no interesting options to do with your time you eventually go to your list of things you really know you are supposed to be doing and do it. While I still haven't been as productive as I need to be, this certainly helped a lot.

Will I try to go along with this crazy plan for long? I honestly have no idea. Anyone who has known me long knows I am capable of taking crazy ideas to limits that most people would consider insane. Breaking so many habits at once is really difficult to do though and if I end up unemployed in January it may prove really hard to hold up.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Abalone are vicious.

There are still some of the roughest months to go in the year, and there have already been six abalone divers killed in California. Last year apparently the number was Seven. As someone who has spent a great deal of time free diving in Northern California this is almost enough to make me take up SCUBA full time. It might sound more complicated, but you have time. With free diving one little mistake, that would take you just three minutes to get out of, and that is it for you. SCUBA is far more safe because you have some time to handle any issue that should come up. Some of the people who have been killed were quite experienced too, here is a list that includes up to 2007.

I guess the only good thing to know is that divers who have spent as much time in the water as I have rarely get in trouble unless the conditions are really bad, or a Great White Shark comes around. I have not exactly been conservative about when to enter the water however, perhaps I should be.

On the plus side, it really looks like a great time to be a spearfisherman in California. Albacore are at or near record numbers, Lingcod have increased dramatically in population in the past five years, while most rockfish have yet to rebound, one of the most common varieties the Black Rockfish has staged a comeback, Halibut have not returned to their levels a hundred years ago but are doing far better than they were in the 70s, White sea bass are also present in far greater numbers than the 60s-80s. The last time I was in the water in CA, all rockfish populations were at record lows, and ling cod were in really bad shape. With the new marine reserves the situation is only going to be improving. So, I think its about time to escape upstate NY.