Low Gasoline Prices: Good or Bad?

The price of crude oil has dropped lately, and the gap between Brent and West Texas Intermediate prices has narrowed as well. Around here the price of gasoline at the pump has dipped to $3.05 per gallon – down from $3.33 a year ago.

So naturally there must be a conspiracy.

The first theory is that in addition to economic sanctions, the US is trying to punish Russia with lower crude prices. If so it isn’t working. Thanks to those sanctions the ruble is lower, too. Russia earns dollars selling oil abroad but spends rubles at home, so as long as they can exchange currency they are doing OK.

A second theory is that the market as a whole is purposely allowing deflation so as to convince the Federal Reserve to continue Quantitative Easing (Free Investment Money) past the stated expiration date. Usually speculators are accused of raising oil prices, but now they are accused of lowering them, too.

A third theory is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is trying to punish Obama for his inaction in Syria and overtures to Iran and Qatar. Because it is always Obama’s fault.

A fourth theory is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is trying to assert itself as swing producer against America’s oil-fracking boomlet. I doubt KSA are gullible enough to believe that the fracking bubble will last much longer.

A fifth theory is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is tired of losing money by keeping the rest of OPEC in line. While it is in OPEC’s interest to keep prices high, it is in each member’s interest to lower prices a bit and sell more crude. As swing producer, KSA can increase or decrease production to maintain prices – but that also means they have to forego some profits here and there.

The fifth theory makes some sense to me, but I also think that deflation is really happening in that usually unmentioned sector of the economy that is still out of work. Yes some folk are buying Porsches and Teslas and iPads like times are good, but more and more families are making meth in the basement, too.

So while admit that I like paying less for gasoline, I suspect the human cost is quite high.

Con + Fusion

Opening Science Blogs, my eye jumped to, Go away, cold fusion, by PZ Myers, who writes his Pharyngula blog in the Life Science section. Myers is no physicist, but on basic scientific caution questioned the latest E-Cat demonstration reported in Extreme Tech:

Again with my childlike understanding of these kinds of processes – if I were in a room with something burning with a million times the intensity of gasoline, even if it was a tiny quantity, I’d be worried about containment. Why aren’t these guys? They all seem to be assuming that there is 100% efficiency in the conversion of hydrogen plus nickel into electricity – but where does that happen in the real world?

Despite an earlier article in which Extreme Tech’s Sebastian Anthony claimed to want to finally see results for either hot or cold fusion, he nevertheless dutifully publicized the latest E-Cat claims, though he equivocates:

The researchers are very careful about not actually saying that cold fusion/LENR is the source of the E-Cat’s energy, instead merely saying that an “unknown reaction” is at work. In serious scientific circles, LENR is still a bit of a joke/taboo topic. The paper is actually somewhat comical in this regard: The researchers really try to work out how the E-Cat produces so much darn energy – and they conclude that fusion is the only answer – but then they reel it all back in by adding: “The reaction speculation above should only be considered as an example of reasoning and not a serious conjecture.”

Anthony fails to note that the “unknown reaction” might be a heavy electrical cord that is never unplugged. Also even cold fusion believer Stephen Krivit observed that the experiment was flawed because Rossi himself inserted and removed the reactant samples.

Following up the Myers post, impressively-bearded Ethan Siegel at Starts With a Bang recalled his smackdown of the E-Cat test from a few years ago .. and then some:

The E-cat: cold fusion or scientific fraud? (Synopsis)

Throwback Thursday: The Foolish Fallacy of Cold Fusion (Synopsis)

Comments of the Week #32: From black hole death to cold fusion crackpots

Among his commenter/tormenters is Alain, who probably hasn’t forgiven me for deleting the magnum opus of links he attempted to insert in my comments section.

Writing about hot fusion, Siegel notes that we have managed Inertial Confinement, Magnetic Confinement and Magnetized Target Fusion here on Earth. Though none of them have produced more energy than they consume, he urges us to invest in nuclear fusion and in traveling to Mars – presumably by means other than John Carter’s astral projection.

We need to invest in the long-term future like it’s our only hope, while simultaneously stepping forward in the present to bring that future to reality. Whether we invest in nuclear fusion or not, we should be sending human beings to Mars. Whether we send human beings to Mars or not, we should be investing in nuclear fusion. And if-and-when we do develop and control nuclear fusion, it won’t be a quicker trip to Mars that we set our sights on, but ever farther and more remote targets. There’s a whole Universe out there, and shame on us if we choose not to explore it.

I do wonder, though, if hot fusion will ever yield dividends. Lockheed-Martin’s vaunted Skunk Works shop supposedly claimed that they would have a truck-sized fusion reactor in three to ten years. MIT Technology Review asks, Does Lockheed Martin Really Have a Breakthrough Fusion Machine?

… many scientists are unconvinced. Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT and one of the principal investigators at the MIT fusion research reactor, says the type of confinement described by Lockheed had long been studied without much success.

Hutchinson says he was only able to comment on what Lockheed has released—some pictures, diagrams, and commentary, which can be found here. “Based on that, as far as I can tell, they aren’t paying attention to the basic physics of magnetic-confinement fusion energy. And so I’m highly skeptical that they have anything interesting to offer,” he says. “It seems purely speculative, as if someone has drawn a cartoon and said they are going to fly to Mars with it.”

Others wonder where they will get the tritium required, and Business Insider pours some cold heavy water on any claim that Skunk Works’ ideas are more than theoretical.

Outrunning the Red Death

I recently mentioned the old joke about outrunning the bear, and noted that changing the bear to a pack of wolves probably makes the joke a lot less funny for the smug libertarian or survivalist prepper. Changing the bear to a community of infected people is even less funny. While I was scrambling to learn a bit about Ebola, I ran across the the concept of herd immunity. Briefly, doctors and nurses inoculate most members of the population against a virus or bacterium to protect weaker members.

This may not make sense to libertarians, who may ask, Why not just inoculate the weaker members, and leave the strong alone? In some cases the answer is simple: weaker members may not survive the inoculation. In other cases though, as with pertussis, or whooping cough, herd vaccination is attempted even when vaccination of infants is possible.

I say attempted because there is indeed a backlash against vaccination. Many science-oriented blogs chronicle the exploits of Jenny McCarthy and other minor celebrities who still campaign against some vaccination based on the claim that it leads to autism. Other parents object to all vaccination on religious grounds. Some people have simply given up trusting doctors, the medical establishment and the government. Given the efficacy and cost of US medical care I can’t blame them for that, but I’m not sure that abstaining from vaccination is the best way to protest.

There has been a local backlash against vaccination in Pakistan after the CIA used a vaccination program as a cover to collect DNA while searching for Osama bin Laden. (Some 911 truthers claim that the government already knew bin Laden was long dead, but perhaps no one told the CIA.) One result has been that in 2014 so far, 61 of the 77 documented cases of polio worldwide were in Pakistan.

In many places the medical community complains about the return of diseases that were thought to have been eradicated. I ran across a NY Times book review of On Immunity written by Eula Biss:

In “On Immunity,” [Biss] is especially exacting on the topic of what she calls “people like me,” those blazingly hygienic parents, many of them upper-middle-class, for whom organized personal purity (air filters, water filters, “natural” foods) substitutes for organized religion.

She understands this impulse toward immaculateness. She also deplores it. She observes that purity is the “innocent concept behind a number of the most sinister social actions of the past century”: eugenics movements, forced sterilizations, miscegenation and sodomy laws, and the slaughter of millions. “Quite a bit of human solidarity has been sacrificed,” she says, “in pursuit of preserving some kind of imagined purity.”

Human solidarity is, in a way, her great subject in “On Immunity.” Our children need their shots not merely for their own sake, but also for the sake of others. “Immunity,” she declares, “is a public space.”

Biss is decrying obsessive personal hygiene as a sort of go-it-alone individualist response to a herd problem. And Ebola is a perfect case whereby a lack of investment in general sanitation and medical care could be bringing the Masque of disease and death to everyone’s door, whether rich or poor.

In Buffalo Wind, the latest of his Dark Age America series on the vulnerability of the wealthy elites during a time of slow collapse, John Michael Greer has veered into discussing Ebola, but it makes general sense to me that upholding the middle class social contract was also a sort of herd immunity that ultimately protected the wealthiest. If we still had a thriving middle class, we wouldn’t have had Occupy Wall Street, and we probably wouldn’t see the Tea Party movement still affecting primary politics. If we treated our returning veterans fairly, we would have fewer people vaulting the White House fences. If we still had a growing economy, rich guys wouldn’t be writing OpEds about poor people with pitchforks. We’d also probably have fewer zombie shows on the tube.

Unfortunately we aren’t upholding that contract and I suspect the the plutocracy knows we can’t afford it anymore. Today I’m supposed to receive a copy of Laurie Garrett’s Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health and a copy of Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Instead of investing in infrastructure that might protect the middle class, it seems to me that our government has invested in spying on the middle class.

Ebola, Shmeebola?

During the Age of Limits conference, Orren Whiddon asked us for predictions about when the apex of world population might occur and what might affect it. I think I said something about widespread outbreaks of disease caused by failing antibiotics, breakdowns in water management and poor sanitation in large cities. I was thinking about familiar scourges like influenza, malaria and botulism. I couldn’t come up with the word (sheesh) but I think Dan or someone just after me agreed that a pandemic might be in the offing. A few others agreed, too, but John Michael Greer pronounced pandemics to be as unpredictable as asteroids.

To most Americans, except for a few infected doctors being flown back, Ebola is mostly happening waaay over there in hot, crowded Africa, and I suspect that many think that Ebola could never happen here, anyway. Many MSM articles have concentrated on calming fears of another Black Death – because Ebola is not an airborne disease. At ScienceBlogs, while Tara Smith reblogged her Slate article, Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola, Orac took the opportunity to attack Ebola quackery.

Greer is now very, very concerned about Ebola and deep in the comment section of his latest post warns us:

… you’ll want to read up on Ebola, … its early symptoms resemble flu, it can stay latent for up to three weeks, and it spreads from person to person quite well — right now, the number of cases in Africa is doubling every 20 days, which is not the profile of an easily contained virus. Current estimates are that if things continue as they’re going, 1.4 million people will be infected by January 1, 2015; at that rate, we get 2.8 million by January 20, 5.6 million by February 9, 11.2 million by March 1, 22.4 million by March 21, and so on. It doesn’t take all that many more doublings — I’ll leave the number for you as a math exercise — before the total number of infected people passes the total population of the planet.

Now of course it’s not going to infect everyone on the planet; there are geographical barriers to get past, and odds are that the currently very high rate of transmission is being driven by extreme poverty, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. That said, unless something happens fairly quickly, Ebola will spread to East Africa; once it’s there, stopping it from getting to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent will be a very difficult thing; and if that happens, it’s probably a safe bet that over the next five years or so, it’s going to hit the Third World globally and make forays into the more developed countries as well. We are potentially looking at the Black Death of the 21st century, and the easy assurance with which people in the developed world insist, inaccurately, that it’s not something they have to worry about is among the major factors that are driving Ebola toward pandemic status.

I’m glad I didn’t predict an asteroid, but I did start to read up on Ebola.

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) admits that Ebola is out of control, but notes that the primary reason for the spread:

“is more likely to be a result of the combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities after years of armed conflict. Perhaps most important, Ebola has reached the point where it could establish itself as an endemic infection because of a highly inadequate and late global response.”

It is certainly good that the US doesn’t have a dysfunctional health system in which people have to wait for several hours in a crowded emergency room to get treatment, and equally good that the US doesn’t have high population mobility, densely populated areas and lack of trust in authorities. Otherwise I might be worried.

Laurie Garrett, who released her book The Coming Plague in 1995, writes for Foreign Policy (paywall):

Wake up, fools. What’s going on in West Africa now isn’t [Dan] Brown’s silly Inferno scenario — it’s Steven Soderbergh’s movie Contagion, though without a modicum of its high-tech capacity.

Last week, my brilliant Council on Foreign Relations colleague John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, warned that spread of the virus inside Lagos — which has a population of 22 million — would instantly transform this situation into a worldwide crisis, thanks to the chaos, size, density, and mobility of not only that city but dozens of others in the enormous, oil-rich nation. Add to the Nigerian scenario civil war, national elections, Boko Haram terrorists, and a countrywide doctors’ strike — all of which are real and current — and you have a scenario so overwrought and frightening that I could not have concocted it even when I advised screenwriter Scott Burns on his Contagion script.

Electric Bike Hubs

One of the problems with electric bikes has been that there seemed to be only three ways to get one:

One – Buy a bike with the battery artfully integrated into the frame;

Two – Buy a retrofitted bike with the battery attached somewhere;

Three – Buy a kit from Bionx or Currie, and attach the battery somewhere.

My problem with Option One is that such bikes tend to get too heavy to pedal without the e-drive. Products like the A2B Alva or Octave are attractive, but look like mopeds or light motorcycles. Also they cost three thousand dollars and up.

Regarding Option Two, I was in a shop a few weeks ago and groaned when I picked up an A2B Kuo, a folding electric bike with lots of features that weighs 40 lbs. The A2B Galvani looks like a bike, but with the hub and battery in the rear, I wonder about the balance. With the hub in front and the battery just above the axle, Xootr claims their e-Swift is perfectly balanced, and it still only weighs 25 lbs.

I never had the time to mess around with Option Three, but now there is an Option Four. A group from MIT called Superpedestrian developed the Copenhagen Wheel, which has both electric motor and batteries entirely contained in a 700c or 26″ rear wheel. The Copenhagen Wheel costs $800 and is available for pre-order. You can put one on your bike, or buy an entire bike.

Another group called FlyKly has a Smart Wheel in 700c, 26″ and 20″ wheels. The Smart Wheel is only for single speed enthusiasts. Although FlyKly has changed hands recently, you can preorder their hub now, also for $800. Delivery starts in October 2014.

A third company, ZeHuS, offers their Wize hub, but only with their own bike or to other manufacturers for now.

In theory this is a great idea. I could use the electric drive wheel for commuting, but swap in the original wheel for short trips or exercise. In practice, I need a 20″ wheel and more than a single speed drive, and I’m not interested in owning a smart phone or tablet just to manage my bike hub.

And of course batteries don’t last forever.

Update 20141020: ZeHuS has acquired FlyKly, and FlyKly’s Smart Wheel has been redesigned to be smaller and lighter. There are complaints on Kickstarter that FlyKly is late delivering their hubs, but that may not be entirely a bad thing.

John and Eric

As I listen to reports that Eric Frein is wearing diapers, smoking Serbian cigarettes and generally having the time of his life eluding about a thousand pursuers in backwoods Pennsylvania, I can’t help but note the irony that after all the dark-skinned people shot by police for no good reason recently it was a white man who shot two state troopers, killing one, for no good reason.

A video reveals John Crawford III in a WalMart, picking out a pellet rifle styled to look like an assault rifle, then casually walking by other shoppers and talking on a cell phone with the rifle mostly pointed at the floor. He spent about a minute at the end of one otherwise unoccupied aisle when police armed with rifles – real rifles – rushed in and shot him without warning, killing him.

Many have noted that Crawford lived in an open carry state. In some open carry states, firearm enthusiasts have made a point of openly carrying real rifles or sidearms to stores and restaurants. Some establishments have asked them to leave, others welcome them. Some open carriers have been challenged by police, but so far none of them have been shot without warning. Except the black guy with the pellet gun. Had Eric Frein been carrying that pellet gun, does anyone doubt that he would have walked out of that WalMart alive?

TechnoStall

I ran across a brief interview with avowed libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel in MIT Technology Review titled, Technology Stalled in 1970:

The way some pessimists put it is that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. I would argue that there was never any low-hanging fruit; it was always of intermediate height and the question was, were people reaching for it or not? I’m frustrated because I think technology is progressing slowly, but I’m optimistic because I think it could be going a lot better.

Apparently Thiel has a new book out. I was reminded me of all the flak I got when I blogged about Joseph Tainter’s suggestion that innovation is not characteristic of human history and that we have reached an innovation trough. (For Tainter’s talk on innovation, see the last several minutes of youtubes Part Three and all of Parts Four and Five.)
I news-googled Thiel and found a recent NY Times article about a debate between him and anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber:

… as it happens, the event was conceived less as a cage match than as a friendly meeting of contrarian minds, both of whom happen to think — in seeming contrast to most people in the world — that our supposed age of dizzying innovation is actually an era of technological and intellectual stagnation.

“I find it interesting that Peter and I agree very strongly about 20 percent of everything, and probably disagree just as strongly on the other 80 percent,” Mr Graeber said in an interview before the debate. “But the stuff we do agree on is the stuff no one else agrees with us about.” …

Once upon a time, [Graeber] said, when people imagined the future, they imagined flying cars, teleportation devices and robots who would free them from the need to work. But strangely, none of these things came to pass.

“What happened to the second half of the 20th century?” Mr. Graeber asked. His answer is that it was deliberately short-circuited by a “ruling-class freak-out,” as “all this space-age stuff was seen as a threat to social control.” …

[Thiel] didn’t blame any ruling-class freakout, [but] did see a loss of nerve and sclerotic bureaucracies. He cited the anarchist slogan “Act as if you are already free,” and praised initiatives like SpaceX, the private space technology company started by his fellow PayPal founder, Elon Musk. “We’re not going to get to Mars by having endless debates,” he said. “We’re going to get to Mars by trying to get to Mars.”

I have a copy of Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years floating around my apartment, and I guess I should read it.

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