Tuesday, January 31, 2017


I'm a "Consulting Technologist" by profession. Sometimes I'm a project manager; sometimes a technical consultant; sometimes a programmer; sometimes a QA tester; sometimes an electronics hardware repairman. I've pulled wire, installed alarms and telephones, and repaired radios.

Once I managed a large Y2K project.

For those younger readers who don't remember or have merely heard of it, "Y2K" was the Year 2000 date bug that appeared in most software written before the turn of the last century. To save space on early computers, only the last two digits of the year were saved, and this meant that the year 2000 was sorted earlier than 1999. This, the world was warned, would have dire consequences. Banking interest would be calculated incorrectly, equipment would malfunction, records would be improperly deleted, etc. Planes would fall from the sky. Prison doors would fly open. There was much discussion and gnashing of teeth.

And when the year finally came, banking interest was calculated correctly, few devices malfunctioned, and nearly all records remained intact. Planes did not fall from the sky. Prison doors remained secure.

Since then I have heard oh so many times that Y2K was a "non-event".

Except that it wasn't. None of those dire things happened because a great many people like me spent a great many hours, on the order of years, in a great effort to repair and upgrade the software and devices before they failed. While a few fools dug bomb shelters and stocked them with 20 years worth of dried beef, we simply analyzed the systems, found what was wrong, and fixed it.

Y2K was a non-event ONLY because we prevented it.


In 2012, on this blog, I wrote a post called "Gun Control Conspiracy Theory in a Nutshell". In it, I discussed the purported efforts of the Left to eventually criminalize individual gun ownership. I showed how a conspiracy theorist comes to his conclusions, and why they seem so strong an incontrovertible to him. Written in 2012, it indicates that conspiracy theorists fully expected that the Obama administration would "pull the trigger" on this theory in his second term.

When that came and went, I have heard oh so many times that this was a "non-event".

Well, I said at the time that it was. But that doesn't address the conspiracy theorists' beliefs, because -- like Y2K -- they fixed it. In this case, they removed from Congresssional control the Democrats who could have effected such a thing. Whether or not such a conspiracy was actual doesn't really matter for the purpose of this illustration. If it did exist, then it would have been prevented by the 2012 elections. Thus it's not possible at this point to deflate the conspiracy theorists' argument. If you ask them, the Second Amendment wasn't taken away ONLY because they prevented it. It's still a great conspiracy theory. It's still bullshit, but a great theory.

But it's also something else. Like Y2K, it's a reminder that undesired consequences can be prevented with diligence, foresight, and effort... even when you think they're inevitable.


The Three Graces:
Faith, Hope, and Charity
(Indianapolis Museum of Art)
Today many people think that the worst is inevitable. Worse, they feel that the worst has already occurred and we just haven't started feeling the effects. That's a bit of hysteria, I think. Even those who aren't hysterical are troubled. I relayed some of the following to one such troubled friend, in the hope that he would not lose hope. But it's edited, because this isn't for him; it's for you.

But before I get started, I should point out that I don't think a different ideology is in itself reason for alarm. As I said, I'm Libertarian. That doesn't mean that I'm an anarchist or that I don't believe in caring for other people. It's not about "I got mine, now you get yours". Rather, it's that charity is personal. I don't need a government to make me be tolerant, or reasonable, or kind, or giving. I feel extremely sorry for the people who do. I think they've received the wrong education. And I feel sorry for those think they don't, but everyone else does. I think they lack the empathy they would force on others.

I'm for small government, but I've grown used to never seeing it. And I think there are plenty of cases where the government should simply say, "it's not my business". And in those cases, there should be no law.

"No law" is the kind of thing that the founders intended for religion. And yet we have plenty of laws determining what organizations are or are not religions and whether they should be taxed, and under what circumstances, etc. Instead we could have no law as instructed, no exemptions, and simply treat everybody equally and fairly. I think of marriage as a religious institution. But beyond that, what conceivable interest does the government have in my marriage? In anyone's? And yet, some people want to make some marriages "legal". Others would would make some marriages "illegal". Both are horribly misguided. "It's not my business" means there should be no law.  It's of literally no interest to me who you partner with so long as all involved are of age and no one is forced.

I think the Left sucks. I think the Right sucks. I think they both want to force things that are none of their business. I think the very worst comes when they try to legalize or criminalize certain thoughts. I don't even like to categorize positions as "Left" or "Right" because they're so often interchangeable. I think both sides are generally blind to their hypocrisy.

I say this so you know where I'm coming from.


Trump was not my candidate. Neither was Clinton, but it was Trump who got the lion's share of criticism on this blog pre-election. Being Libertarian, I'm used to "not my candidate" winning.

There will be quite a bit of "suck" that comes from Trump, just as there was quite a bit of "suck" that came from every President prior to him. These comments address whatever you might think that "suck" will be.

There are a number of things that keep me hopeful. Many are rooted in our Constitution.

One thing is that the children of immigrants, legal or not, are citizens. They can't be deported, and it's not in the best interest of the US to deport the millions of parents who care for them. Had I a young student with immigrant parents I might console her with that.

Another is that while Trump is a callous jerk, he's a pragmatic one. So (for instance) while he campaigned on support of torture, now that he's in office he will "defer to the advice of his generals". My hope and expectation is that we will see a lot of that. He will re-interpret some promises or ignore them completely so as to claim delivery. I don't care, so long as the final result is acceptable. I hope and expect that when we look at what's actually delivered as opposed to media coverage or election promises, that discrepancy will be apparent. For instance, the media loudly reports a "ban on Muslims entering the country". There is no such thing.

Another is that his party doesn't like Trump. They know he's a loose cannon, and Congress faces election more often than the President. I hope and expect that they will not allow Trump to ramrod stupid legislation through because they have to face the voters at home. I intend to be vigilant and remind my Congressmen of that. I expect them to adjust legislation in committee and open debate, exactly as the legislative process requires, so that they don't pass stupid laws. Frankly, I also intend to ignore stupid laws. I can choose to be tolerant and kind and rational without instruction from the government. No signature can force me to do otherwise.

By no means the last reason for hope, but the last I'll list today, is people. I have to admit, they've been letting me down lately, but I hope and expect that this will not continue. When someone is intolerant, the response should not be more intolerance. When someone is hateful, the response should not be more hate. Fear of violence does not justify violence. All of those things drive reasonable people away and improperly validate the opposition. I think that people gravitate toward tolerance, love, and peace when they see the real thing. What we need is more of the real thing. To effect change, we have to be the change. More people used to believe that, and then many lost it. Neither Gandhi nor MLK threw a brick in anger. It's neither racist nor appropriation to remind people.

Our country has faced far worse than this guy. We survived a civil war, and surviving this Presidency doesn't require another one.

I may be a Pollyanna. I like Pollyannas. Honestly, I think if we had a few more, we'd be in much better shape. When faced with Bad Ideas, we should simply be able to calmly say, "Mmmmmm..... No." In politics, that's a lot better than responding in kind or turning away. And when Good Ideas come from unexpected quarters, we should be able to recognize them without allowing ourselves to be respond according to programming. "Block everything" isn't rational. It's not about which team "wins".

I hope to be able to recognize Good Ideas without chagrin, and say "no" to Bad Ideas with civility, and accept the reality that disagreement does not equal hatred.

I hope the same for you.

Monday, January 02, 2017

How Quickly They Forget

Recently brought to my attention: a 2014 article on Forbes.com, by James Conca:

It can power your car or your body.
The article points out that corn ethanol has no environmental ("green") advantages over petroleum with regard to emissions. Not only does it require you to burn more of it to release the same energy as petrol, but the production relies on a fermentation process that of itself releases additional "greenhouse gasses".

The article goes through a lot of math; and for the most part it's pretty good math. But in my assessment, the math isn't the most important thing.


Tasty, and it can run an engine
What's not addressed in this article is that the initial big push for creating corn ethanol in the first place had nothing whatsoever to do with the environment... at least, not in the public consciousness. Now, I'm no chemist. But I was in high school in 1979. One of my projects in my senior year was creating bio-fuel out of cane sugar. As rum goes, it wasn't terrible (true). Also, it could run a lawnmower for a short time before ruining it, so the "proof" (pun intended) was good enough to get me an 'A' grade. And I do remember why I did it.

It was done in the 1970s in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and the later oil crisis of 1979. Fuel efficiency and alternative fuels were heavily pushed at a time when we were told of scientific predictions of a global freeze. It's fashionable today for climate change enthusiasts to argue that 1970s concerns about global cooling were a "myth" by noting that the numerous popular articles of the time were not peer reviewed and therefore don't count. This ahistorical thinking ignores the fact that global cooling was the broadly disseminated view to which the public was exposed and upon which they made decisions. Even if there were a broad consensus of climatologists in the 1970s who quietly argued for eventual global warming, their views didn't make it into the public consciousness at that time, and had non-measurable effect on the subject of alternative fuels, which were championed not because the technologies were "green", but in order to reduce dependency on foreign sources of energy.

NOTE that I'm not arguing for or against climate change. This isn't about climate change. It's about the information that the people of the 1970s used to make decisions. They used the information available to them then... not now... and what they saw then was this:

A decade of expectations:
RadioTimes (Nov '74), TIME (Apr '77), TIME (Dec '73)
TIME (Dec '79), Science & Mechanics (Dec '69)

Often vilified, but still history. The point is, people make
decisions based on the information they have.
What people saw then gave them no reason to worry about CO2 levels. Even the EPA was far more concerned with smog, which was more a quality-of-life issue then than now. Retractions printed decades after the fact are irrelevant to the current discussion.

Furthermore, although peak oil was and is a valid concern... someday it seems likely that the wells will run dry... It wasn't the case that ethanol was pushed in the 1970s because there was an actual imminent "shortage of oil". There were a number of other more compelling reasons, all of which were financial and political.

In 1971, America's reduced production was as a result of production capacity. The oil industry had been "skating" without making new investments, thus foreign imports had been steadily increasing. These were decreased by OPEC in the wake of the Yom Kippur War: the US was being punished by Arab-dominated OPEC for being allies of Israel. As a result, in 1973-4, pump prices that had been hovering around $0.36/gallon jumped up to over $.50/gallon overnight. And we were stuck with it. As was repeatedly pointed out at the time, new refineries take years to build.

In 1979, the fuel prices were as a result of decreased production resulting from the Iranian Revolution that deposed Shah Pahlavi. That pushed pump prices to over $1.00/gallon. Pumps weren't even made to register prices that high, and a leading "1" had to be painted or taped to the pumps. Even if Iranian production hadn't tanked, the new regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini would not have been eager to sell the oil to us... they were holding 50 US hostages at the time, taken from our embassy, as they blamed the US for providing sanctuary to the former Shah.

The further push for ethanol in 2007-8 once again had the impetus of rising fuel prices. Of course, this time, "green technology" was added to the list of rationale. I think that rationale is spurious.

Ethanol was initially pushed as a means of lowering dependence on foreign oil. It provides a renewable resource in place of an exhaustible fossil fuel. The "green" angle was tacked on years later. And hey, why not? Corn is a growing, natural, living thing, right? It made intuitive sense that it would be green in every sense, if you didn't care to ponder the math. This is why you see pictures of sunshine and corn cobs on fuel pumps without any mention of fermentation and distillation and chemistry. This is about as informative as putting Tony the Tiger on a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and serves the same purpose.

It's only when you do some chemical accounting that you realize there really is no such thing as a free lunch. You only get out what you put into it: every calorie must be accounted for. The fact remains that biofuels were less efficient simply wasn't a major concern for those who were more concerned with the immediate choke on foreign oil sources and the expected eventual achievement of peak oil production. The word 'sustainable' wasn't used; 'renewable' was.

the carbon dioxide cycle in ethanol production
via Researchgate 
It has always been known that ethanol production, whether from corn, or any other biomass, requires the release of copious quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Only a part of it is released when burned. The bulk is released during fermentation and during harvesting and processing. This carbon dioxide is chemically the same no matter the source. It will stimulate plant growth no matter the source. Concern over "carbon emissions" is not something that can be addressed with ethanol. Its "green" status is a rather effective selling ploy. Despite that, ethanol must be economically competitive on its own merits. Social engineering is not required, and as with any product it should adhere to truth in advertising.

So you won't find me agreeing with this headline, although I broadly agree with the article itself. Corn ethanol is NOT "of no use". It has a very specific usefulness, in which climate control plays a negligible part. Rather, it is an alternative fuel supply, closely compatible with existing petroleum technologies, that can be used in the event that petrol sources run dry.


The Forbes article is from April of 2014. Isn't it strange how it still feels like "news" because the underlying facts have not been broadly publicized? Instead we still see friendly, happy sunshine logos on fuel tanks and propaganda from people who really just don't like uncomfortable math. This is marketing, not science.

As to why I'm responding to it now... this blog is about stuff that interests me. 'Nuff said.

  1. Memory. I was there.
  2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2014/04/20/its-final-corn-ethanol-is-of-no-use
  3. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1969-1976/oil-embargo
  4. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/10/15/234771573/the-1973-arab-oil-embargo-the-old-rules-no-longer-apply
  5. http://inflationdata.com/articles/inflation-adjusted-prices/inflation-adjusted-gasoline-prices/
  6. Sources of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_oil_crisis
  7. Sources of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1979_energy_crisis
  8. Sources of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Revolution
  9. Sources of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_hostage_crisis
  10. Sources of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil
  11. http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-peak-oil-predictions-haven-t-come-true-1411937788
  12. https://skepticalscience.com/What-1970s-science-said-about-global-cooling.html
  13. http://notrickszone.com/2016/09/13/massive-cover-up-exposed-285-papers-from-1960s-80s-reveal-robust-global-cooling-scientific-consensus/#sthash.lTVEvfWx.dpbs