Archive | January 2013

One Car, Two Car, Green Car, Porsche

After discussing whether driverless cars could find a foothold in a nation that so loves its cars, Kevin Drum felt he had to explain why a peak oil-aware political blogger owns a 911:

I seem to have unleashed a mini-storm of incredulity yesterday by mentioning that I drive a Porsche. Here’s a typical email from a longtime reader:

“You read a guy for ten years and you think you know him, and I would have never guessed that you drive a Porsche. You can preserve my construct of your personality if you tell me it was bequeathed to you by an uncle you’d never met.”

Nope. I don’t even have any uncles. The real story is that we all have at least a few vices, and mine is that I’m sort of a C-list car guy. I don’t inhale car magazines or anything like that, but I like cars, I like reading about them, and I like driving lively little sports cars. …

I’ve never liked muscle cars that look like Mattel Hot Wheels. Porsches are sexy, but I’ve always admired well-built, efficient cars more than sportsters. When I was a teen, my Dad once brought home Mercedes-Benz flyers. He bought another Oldsmobile, but I pored over those pictures for weeks, and developed a penchant for the Euro sports sedan look. One of my profs told me I’d better have a hell of a practice to afford the cars I liked. An Archimatect cartoon jokes that all architects are required to drive Saabs. I’m not addicted to any brands, but certain models catch my eye. Lancia Beta was an old favorite. Currently I like the looks of the new Dodge Dart, which is apparently styled after Alfa-Romeo’s Giulietta.

As a peak oil-aware political blogger myself, I’ve been wrestling with whether to buy a second car, or continue to do without. Despite knowing all the harm they do to the planet, like most Americans I am invested in the convenience of the personal auto. So I spend a lot of time browsing the so-called green vehicles, but feeling a bit dirty.

Kathy McMahon made a lot of sense on C-Realm’s Reframing the Sucky Collapse:

KMO welcomes Kathy McMahon, the Peak Shrink of, back to the C-Realm to talk about the psychology of predictions. We gravitate to flashy predictions over nuanced forecasts and don’t hold poor track records against those prophets whose predictions promise to vindicate us for holding the right beliefs. Unfortunately for Doomers who hope for a rapid collapse that will vindicate them for being early adopters of the Peak Oil collapse narrative, we seem to be in the midst of a slow degeneration that eats away at our security and wealth but never proves us right in the eyes of our doubters and critics. You may be braced for a sudden, sexy collapse, but do you have the gumption to endure the sucky collapse?

McMahon seemed to flummox KMO a bit by suggesting that even as we keep an eye towards change, we give ourselves some permission to enjoy the world as it is. More and more peak oil gurus have stopped predicting collapse tomorrow and are realizing that our industrial system is willing to make the ugly decisions that will prop itself up for quite some time. In the meantime we have to live here.

At the moment, the plugin Prius seems like a good hedge against higher fuel costs and a reasonable car today. But selective renting and car-sharing makes a lot of sense, too.


Timeout Azarenka

A few nights ago, I was watching the Australian Open quarterfinal between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens. The youngster Stephens was fast afoot and hit the ball about as hard as the legend Serena, but wasn’t winning the important points. Serena won the first set, 6-3, so I figured that was that, and decided to get a full night’s sleep.

Next morning I saw the scoreline that Stephens had come back to win. “Oh, Man!” I thought, “I missed a great match.” But some reports said that Serena was suffering from more than the effects of the light ankle sprain she suffered in the first round. The Tennis Channel repeatedly rebroadcast the match and it was clear that in the second set Serena was just spinning in her serves and pattycaking her groundstrokes, but still holding fairly even with Sloane, who seemed flustered by her opponent’s obvious distress.

Tennis Channel color commenters trumpeted the match as an important victory for Sloane Stephens. The NY Times ran with, Stephens Upsets Williams in Stunner:

What was supposed to be a learning experience against one of the greatest tennis players in history turned instead into one of the bigger surprises in tennis history as the 19-year-old Sloane Stephens introduced herself to a global audience by rallying to defeat her 31-year-old American elder, Serena Williams, on Wednesday, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Farther down the page, the Times did eventually mention the injury thing:

The match took another turn in the eighth game when Williams shouted in pain as she ran forward and smacked a lunging backhand near the net. Grimacing, she was quickly broken again as Stephens took a 5-3 lead. Williams, limited in her movement, broke back in the next game and then called for a trainer on the changeover, eventually leaving the court for further treatment on her lower back.

“Well, a few days ago, it just got really tight, and I had no rotation on it,” she said. “I just went for this drop shot in the second set, and it just locked up on me. I think I couldn’t really rotate after that.”

Williams’s huge serve was considerably slower after she returned to the court, but she managed to hold at love to 5-all while serving change-ups to a visibly rattled Stephens.

Notice that Serena left the court for treatment, and that no one said, “boo” about it.

On Thursday, Stephens played the quarterfinal against Victoria (Vika) Azarenka, and I read that Sloane lost the first set even more quickly, 6-1. But in the second set, Azarenka ‘lost her cool’ according to the NY Times:

…the top-seeded Azarenka struggled to keep her cool down the stretch on a steamy day in Melbourne, when temperatures reached 97 degrees. … When Azarenka walked to her seat for the change of ends, she wrapped a towel stuffed with ice around her neck and was examined by the W.T.A. primary health care provider Victoria Simpson and by a tournament physician, Dr. Tim Wood. She eventually left the court for further treatment, which meant that Stephens, in her first Grand Slam semifinal, was left waiting to serve to stay in the match.

Azarenka returned to the court six minutes later, and the overall break in play was close to 10 minutes. The time allotted on a normal changeover is 90 seconds. … Though medical timeouts are permitted by the rules at that stage of a match in the case of injury, the timing of her break in play was questioned by many in the tennis community, who viewed it as potential gamesmanship.

No one had accused Serena of gamesmanship — but then she lost. Again the Tennis Channel rebroadcast ESPN’s coverage of the match over and over, so I got to watch the whole thing. Early in the second set, commenter Chris Evert did observe that Azarenka was favoring one leg, guessing that it was probably her knee that was injured. Later Azarenka was obviously in upper body pain, so it was no surprise when she called for the trainer. Sloane sat and stared, probably trying to stay focused — which a player has to be able to do in case it rains, or gets too dark, or someone calls for injury timeout.

When Vika returned, what I had read led me to expect that Sloane would muff several serves on her way to a weak service game. But on the first point, she hit a good serve, a few good strokes and went ahead 15-0. She did hit one double fault in that game, but overall she served and played about as well as she had been. Vika simply returned a lot better — as she had in the first set.

What really hurt Stephens was only winning 52% and 35% of points on her first and second serves in the first set, then only 36% of points on both first and second serves in the second set. But in A Timeout Jeered Round the World, the narrative has become that Azarenka is guilty of gamesmanship:

Shriver, who noted that Azarenka had also not mentioned the injury in an ESPN interview while coming off the court, was skeptical. “I think her response at the time was very honest and truthful, that she was stretching the rules,” Shriver said. “That was my reaction coming off the interview, and so that’s why I think all of us, many of us, jumped on it. Because we’ve seen the rule abused for years. I abused the rule when I played.”

If Azarenka was not legitimately injured, was calling a medical timeout cheating? Playing at the edge of the rules? Good old win-at-any-cost strategy?

It occurs to me that the greatest benefit of the injury timeout is to the tournament organizers. If players can receive treatment, they can keep playing. Otherwise they may forfeit — which annoys ticket holders. If players can receive prompt treatment, they can play with less chance of seriously injuring themselves, and pulling out of later events, which annoys tournament advertisers. If players can receive treatment, they can play hard, which can only make the tour look better.

What we have here, is an up-and-coming American player, on an American media network, losing to a more experienced foreigner. I predict that Sloane Stephens will have a fine career whether or not we accuse her opponents of cheating.

Hard Work

Wealthy people love to claim that they got that way primarily due to hard work.

Financial Crisis Suit Suggests Bad Behavior at Morgan Stanley

On March 16, 2007, Morgan Stanley employees working on one of the toxic assets that helped blow up the world economy discussed what to name it. Among the team members’ suggestions: “Subprime Meltdown,” “Hitman,” “Nuclear Holocaust” and “Mike Tyson’s Punchout,” as well a simple yet direct reference to a bag of excrement.

Ha ha. Those hilarious investment bankers.

Then they gave it its real name and sold it to a Chinese bank.

Hey, “coffee is for closers.”

“While investors and taxpayers all over the world continue to choke on Wall Street’s toxic subprime products, to this day not a single major Wall Street executive has been held accountable for misconduct relating to those products,” said Jason C. Davis, a lawyer at Robbins Geller who is representing the plaintiff in the lawsuit. “They are generally untouchable, but we are pleased that the court in this case is ordering Morgan Stanley to turn over damning evidence, so that the jury will get to see what Morgan Stanley really knew about the troubled nature of its supposedly ‘higher-than-AAA’ quality product.”

“Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.”

On some days, even my workaday world feels like Glengarry Glen Ross, but that doesn’t mean I can collect a huge bonus for foisting defective buildings on clients. In almost any other field selling shit will get you in trouble with the authorities. The problem seems to be that Wall Street owns the authorities.

Everything is food, food, food ….

Another day, another book to read. In Foodopoly, Wenonah Hauter purportedly:

… pulls the curtain back from the little-understood but vital realm of agricultural policy, showing how it has been hijacked by lobbyists, driving out independent farmers and food processors in favor of the likes of Cargill, Tyson, Kraft and ConAgra.

Hauter was interviewed in, Breaking up the Foodopoly, and talked about why Whole Foods is also Whole Paycheck:

… there’s a lot of misunderstanding about why organic food is more expensive. Of course, organics cost more because there’s more labor and more sustainable practices involved. But when you look at the reason that organic foods are more expensive in places like Whole Foods, it also has to do with consolidation. It turns out that there is only one major distributor for organic food in the country, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), and Whole Foods is their biggest customer. …

These large conventional companies are also trying to weaken the organic standards …

More generally, the root of our health care crisis can be traced to what we eat, or are induced to eat.

… these companies have used food science to figure out how to addict people to processed foods. The typical American household spends 90% of its budget on processed foods at grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and other restaurants. These companies have employed scientists to figure out how to use fat, sugar, and salt so that people reach a bliss point: their brain actually produces dopamine, which creates a reward system for eating these processed foods.

It’s interesting to think about who’s really responsible for people being overweight and unhealthy. These companies, through their advertising and political power, are able to dictate everything from nutrition-related rules to pesticide regulations to labeling requirements. You can’t really shop your way out of this problem. We need everybody to be involved in the political system.

We try to avoid processed foods, but items like dark chocolate-covered raisins always seem to fall into our carts.

Living in an End Times Paradise

New Year’s morning we stayed in bed and watched a cheesy scifi movie on MGM. I pretended to be Joel, Crow Robot and Tom Servo rolled into one. The 1967 film was called In the Year 2889, and starred Paul Petersen, who played the son in the Donna Reed Show sitcom, and has tried to speak up for child stars since then.

As the show opened, I felt that I had seen it before – a crusty old military man and his daughter were prepared to survive the recent nuclear holocaust. Outsiders straggled in. Crusty talked tough, brandished a revolver and wanted to chase them away, but she convinced him to let them stay. I didn’t remember Paul Petersen in the film. And one outsider was Anglo instead of Mexican. As it went on, scenes that I remembered were missing.

It turns out that the film was a close, almost line for line, remake of Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended tv movie from 1955 — only in color and with cheaper special effects. Nowadays we can satisfy our urge for doomsday with all manner of disaster and apocalyptic movies. Some simply show a dimmer future like the Hunger Games or the tv show, Revolution.

On the Oil Drum back in 2005, all manner of doomers and preppers debated how to prepare, where to buy land, how to defend it, and many were far crustier than the old man in 2889. I remember the one who told people not to show up at his door, warning ‘I’ll shoot you and your pregnant wife’. Talking Points Memo has an interesting article on part of that culture:

The History Of The Prepper Paradise Known As The Citadel

“Imagine living in a community where you know that residing in every single home in the neighborhood are people who think much as do you, respect most of the values as do you, and will not try to force any of their values on you or your children,” another post from October on The Citadel’s blog, this one written by someone with the pseudonym Just a III Guy, reads. “Imagine living in a neighborhood where you know every single neighbor on your street, in your neighborhood, and in the entire town, has qualified Riflemen inside, ready to come to your aid at a moments notice, whether to help you change a tire, fix a problem, or cover your back in a firefight with an Enemy of Liberty.”

The Citadel, as envisioned and advertised by its creators, is to be a walled community of 3,500 to 7,000 “patriotic American families” who are ready for when The Shit Hits The Fan (TSHTF), i.e. the myriad potential society-collapsing disasters, either natural or man made, anticipated by preppers, survivalists, along with other fringe and breakaway strands of -ers and -ists. The Citadel is to be a place for people who want to be “removed and protected from peril in order to preserve ourselves, our posterity, and Liberty in the event of a national economic implosion.” And in whatever time is to be had before grid-down, economic collapse, The Citadel will provide a place to live “a free/freer life in Idaho (or elsewhere in the American Redoubt) amongst the current strong, self-reliant and Liberty-loving residents of the region.”

Contrast this to the Transition Town movement, which hopes for a peaceful future through resilience rather than armaments.

Mackey in the Whole

Reading Food Fighter, a 2010 New Yorker piece, anti-union and libertarian John Mackey seems like an odd choice to have founded an organic grocery chain, but maybe you have to be odd to want to such a thing. Like More Guns, Less Crime author John Lott, Mackey was revealed to have actively posted online as a sock puppet:

Using the pseudonym Rahodeb — a variation of Deborah, his wife’s name — Mr. Mackey typed out more than 1,100 entries on Yahoo Finance’s bulletin board over a seven-year period, championing his company’s stock and occasionally blasting a rival, Wild Oats Markets.

WFM acquired Wild Oats, Mackey promised stop being a sock puppet, and promised to stop having affairs. In 2010, Mackey made headlines by attacking the Affordable Care Act in the Wall Street Journal. Many of his liberal customers (including me) talked about a boycott, but the furor eventually died down. Then just last week he referred to ACA, which almost everyone calls Obamacare, as more like Fascism than Socialism. In a Harvard Business Review OpEd, Mackey ‘regrets’ his words, but defends his opposition to the Affordable Care Act:

How Whole Foods Market Innovates in Employee Health Care

Providing employee health care has become a real challenge for businesses, especially in the United States, where costs keep rising inexorably. Though I regret my poor choice of words in describing Obamacare as fascism, clearly something needs to be done to bring affordable, quality healthcare to everyone in this country. I simply think that free enterprise — where people voluntarily exchange for mutual benefit — is a better answer than any government-mandated or -controlled program.

Companies can make a big difference for their employees — providing good health insurance and promoting good health — all while keeping costs down. I call companies who operate this way “conscious businesses” because they understand that health care should not be only about containing costs — it should be about helping people lead healthy, vibrant, fulfilling lives. I have tried to build my own company on these principles.

Which is great if you work full-time for WFM, or even for my employer. But what if you work for WalMart — another anti-union employer devoted to spending as little as possible on its employees? Speaking to the Seattle Times about his first book, Mackey thinks the answer is in ethics:

In “Conscious Capitalism,” Mackey’s first book, the 59-year-old founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets offers nothing less than a full-throated psalm for the power of free markets to create value and lift humanity.

Yet at its core, and true to Mackey’s ability to avoid those hard-and-fast labels, the book also delivers a pointed critique on how capitalism can lead business astray if its practice isn’t grounded in a sound ethical foundation.

“If everybody is always calculating what’s to their advantage, and no one comes with generosity, or kindness, or compassion, or forgiveness — higher virtues — your society starts to break down,” Mackey said in an interview at his company’s Austin headquarters. “I actually think that’s what’s happening in America right now.”

Mackey ties those virtues to Judeo-Christian religions, but many people that espouse those religions are entirely comfortable being savagely competitive and nakedly self-interested when they aren’t at their place of worship. When you can’t rely on paternalism or religion, what can you do but make laws?

Living With Ev

We used to watch the cable reality show, Living with Ed, in which actor Ed Begley’s actress wife Rachelle regularly poked fun at his devotion to conserving energy. For some reason my wife enjoyed that, and Deborah Petersen mines the same veins of humor on her blog, My Husband’s Electric Car, starring their Nissan Leaf:

I could tell that the idea to buy a battery-charged vehicle was ruminating in my husband’s head for months. Every now and then, he would mention it, and then, the topic arose more and more often, especially after we watched “Chasing Ice” a movie about the disappearing polar ice. I would listen, nod, and ask a question now and then.

How much would our electricity bill go up? How many miles can you get out of a charge? Where do we find charging stations?

Undeterred, he backed up his argument with research, including a slew of financial rebates and incentives offered by the state of California to pioneers – or Guinea pigs, depending on your perspective – willing to enter the yet unrefined realm of driving gasoline-free.

Naturally, things don’t always go as planned:

My husband had driven the Leaf from our San Mateo coastside home to the San Bruno BART station to take BART into San Francisco. There are no charging stations at this BART stop –although I could have sworn that during our negotiations my husband had argued that “ hey, I can charge it at Bart.” On a typical day, none of this matters because a single charge can take him roundtrip to work and back home.  On this day, however, he was making a detour to Palo Alto. The dashboard of the Leaf showed that there were 19 miles remaining in the charge. Home was 22 miles away.  He left work early to give himself enough time to park the car at a charging station, and then, walk to meet me for our appointment.  Palo Alto, according to his smart phone app from ChargePoint has one of the highest concentrations of charging stations.  But apparently the city also has one of the highest number of electric cars and hybrids.  He arrived at a parking garage and then, another to find that he had been elbowed out by a collection of  Teslas and Volts . California’s goal is to construct enough charging stations to accommodate 1 million zero emission vehicles by 2020, but apparently it has a long way to go.

My wife could probably tell the same sort of stories about me and my bicycle commuting.

There are two charging stations at the light rail stop, which are almost always unoccupied. It occurred to me that I could lease a Volt and charge it while swimming.