Archive | August 2013

Clipped By the MTA

Last Wednesday afternoon, I left Federal Hill about 4:15 PM, and rode my folding Xootr bike out Sharp Street across Conway St and under the Convention Center, where the road changes to Hopkins Place. Hopkins is one way against, so I just ride the sidewalk for a block. I waited for the light to take my normal left onto West Lombard Street, planning to turn right on Eutaw Street, then through Druid Hill Park, then up and down the hills of Greenspring Avenue to Smith Avenue.

Early this Spring, I switched to a Eutaw/Druid/Greenspring route instead of riding up Park Road to Falls Road, Clipper Mill, various small streets and then Falls Road again to Mt Washington. The problem was the stretch of Falls just past Northern Parkway. Falls is not a marked bike route, but you have a nice wide road as you ride past the Belvedere apartment block on your right.  Then, however, Falls Road tightens to a very narrow two lanes with a lot of small shops close to the street (including Joe’s Bike Shop). Even riding fast downhill in the right lane, I am frequently being passed by drivers that immediately cut back into the right lane to avoid the line up for the left only turn onto Kelly. I had to take the left onto Kelly, so I often ended up between two lines of cars. I’ve seen a lot of cyclists casually riding between cars, but I ‘d rather avoid it.

On the map, I saw that much of Eutaw, and most of Greenspring have separate bike lanes next to the car lanes. Even the right lane of Lombard Street is both a bus lane and a bike lane. So all summer I’ve felt more secure riding the extra half mile along that route. I’ve switched from taking light rail in and riding home to riding both ways when I don’t have meetings.

But last week, after the light changed I rode across the intersection and saw a that a bus was stopped halfway up the block. I was wondering whether to go around it or wait, when another MTA bus passed going fast, loud and close on my left. I was already close to the curb but tried to get even closer. The black wall of the bus pulled closer to the curb – closer to me – and I tried to stay away from it without hitting the curb and falling over. I hoped it would pass before there was no room at all.

I spent several hours last weekend reliving those few seconds. I determined that what I should have done was hit the brakes, vault off the bike onto the curb and pull the bike after me. That’s what I should have done. What actually happened was that the back corner of the bus clipped my left handlebar and turned my wheel to the right. I went down hard and felt my head bounce hard on the pavement. I was probably sprawled right on top of the bike lane symbol at 200 West Lombard.

All the people waiting for buses were looking at me as I picked myself up and checked for damages. A black Ford of the type the MTA police use was behind me, but it wasn’t one of theirs. There was still a bus stopped ahead of me, but I had no idea if it was the one that I had first seen or the one that hit me. I pulled the bike onto the sidewalk where a woman in peach and brown scrubs asked if I was alright. I said I thought so.

My left knee hurt, my right hand was bleeding and hurt a lot, but my head felt OK. The bike looked OK, too. I rode up the sidewak as people stared and found both that the right brake was sticking, and that it hurt too much to use my small finger. I had no real trouble getting home. I just rode downhill a lot slower than usual.

My wife took one look at me and said, “You fell off the bike, didn’t you?” I told her what happened and after putting the puffy right hand in ice water and putting an ice pack on the puffy right knee she said, “You’re not riding that thing to work anymore.” Inwardly I thought, “Of course I am. I just need to find a safer route.”

Now, Cyclelicious, a prolific California blog about all things bicycle, has posted Suicide Swerve – a very timely article for me:

Anybody who reads news accounts of road cycling traffic collisions frequently find mention of these inexplicable “suicide swerves,” in which the hapless driver is just driving along when that maniac on a bike inexplicably swerves right into the car.

Those who share the road with traffic realize what probably happened: the motorist passed with inches to spare, or they move over a little to pass but then merge right into the cyclist’s space on the road before the pass is complete. In either case, the results can be tragic for the cyclist, even if the cyclist did everything right. …

Because these reports are so common, many people … sardonically refer to these reports as a “suicide swerve.” … the infamous “Single Witness Suicide Swerve” or SWSS … refers to a crash with a single surviving witness — the driver of the motor vehicle — who swears to a credulous investigator that the cyclist just swerved right in front of the driver. The presumption of guilt on the cyclist is reflected even in our traffic collision statistics, which show a majority of bike-vs-car collisions are caused by the cyclist.

What has been bothering me as I drive the car to the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, the radiologist and the orthopaedic surgeon’s office is that this accident was incredibly mundane. There was no road rage, no high speed, no dangerous intersection, not even any particularly heavy traffic. The bus driver simply did what most drivers do, which is to completely forget that the cyclist traveling next to him exists a few moments after the cyclist passes out of his peripheral vision. And that was enough to fracture a bone in my hand.

So I’m wondering if there is a safe enough route to bike to work.

Cut-Rate Nuclear Power

A day after a NY Times Business article claims that the time has truly come for nuclear power, CNN reports, Japan to issue gravest warning since quake on Fukushima nuclear plant leaks:

Japan is poised to declare a toxic water leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant a level 3 “serious incident,” its gravest warning since the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami that sent three reactors into meltdown.

The country’s Nuclear Regulation Authority said the leak was expected to be classified as a level 3 incident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale pending confirmation from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

In, Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear, Eduardo Porter of the Economic Scene argues that nuclear energy is actually more affordable than coal, wind or solar.

… Neither the warm glow of the sun nor the restless power of the wind is going to do the trick, at least not soon enough to make a difference in the battle to prevent climate change.

An analysis of power generation in 21 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Energy Agency projected that even if the world were to impose a tax of $30 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, neither wind nor solar could outcompete gas and coal.

A new generation of nuclear power, by contrast, is potentially the cheapest energy source of all.

The study projected that the typical nuclear generator in North America could produce power at $50 to $75 per megawatt-hour, depending on assumptions about construction costs and interest rates, against $70 to $80 for coal-fueled power. Wind-powered electricity would cost from $60 to $90, but there are limits to how much it can be scaled up. A megawatt-hour of solar power still costs in the hundreds.

As I understand it, the nuclear industry would be perfectly happy to build, operate and decommission power plants – as long as the public covers all the costs. In reality we haven’t built any plants for decades. Insurance companies won’t touch them. Private industry won’t finance them because costs always increase and they just don’t turn a profit. A 2011 article from the Guardian, The incalculable cost of nuclear power, asks:

If the costs and benefits of nuclear power are so attractive, where are the investors? At least with wind and solar power, it is possible to see the cost curve dropping to the break-even point in the near future. Nuclear power, by contrast, may never be able to convince investors to put their money down without government guarantees.

The prospect of cost overruns, waste disposal and extended shutdowns are daunting enough. But mostly, it is the potential cost of catastrophic failure that scares away investors. Large-scale disasters, however rare, are colossally expensive, as well as dangerous. The first estimate of entombing the Fukushima plant is $12bn. And this doesn’t include the other liabilities that could force the Japanese government to nationalise the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).

A 2009 Scientific American article, Nuclear power could cost trillions over renewables, cites a study by economist Mark Cooper:

“It is telling that in the few short years since the so-called ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ began there has been a four-fold increase in projected costs,” Cooper said in a statement. “The original low-ball estimates were promotional, not practical; they were based on hope and hype intended to promote the industry.”

Cooper’s study comes on the heels of a recent review of the state of nuclear power by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The researchers concluded that nuclear power was not the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gases and that waste management and safety issues must be addressed for it to remain a viable option. In 2003, the MIT team expressed similar skepticism in a report co-authored by John Holdren, now President Obama’s science advisor.

I think there is a way to generate cheap nuclear power. Simply relax government regulations as we have for coal, oil, natural gas, and even wind. Let the nuclear industry pass along the costs of their failures to the general public as essentially happened after the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills. If you’re willing to play craps with nukes for a little cheap electricity, you deserve whatever you roll.

Update 20130824: From a NY Times OpEd, The New Nuclear Craze:

Which brings us full circle: the new proponents of nuclear power say that since nuclear power is arguably preferable to coal, maybe we should subsidize the building of new plants.

If those were the only options, maybe that argument would be a sound one. But they’re not. Energy efficiency (remember that?), natural gas (imperfect, yes, but improvable) and wind are all cheaper. Even solar is already less expensive than nuclear power in good locations.

… Utilities are afraid that solar power will be to the electrical grid what PCs were to mainframes, or e-mail to the Postal Service: a technology that will simply kill its predecessors. Coal and nuclear power are both doomed, and the profit-making power grid with it. That’s all to our benefit.

Miranda Rights

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face

Miranda was held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK’s terror laws, which give enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who have no connection with “terror”, as ordinarily understood. Suspects have no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated for up to seven days. Under this measure – uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas – there are none of the checks and balances that apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.

It is just too bizarre that Miranda shares a name with what was a basic legal right of those being arrested. By only stopping and frisking, or stopping searching and questioning, the powers-that-detain have essentially thumbed their nose at the laws that we thought protected us.

The Nuclear Comments Section

In Pandora’s Boxes, I discussed a debate (available on Youtube) between Pandora’s Promise Director Robert Stone and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. A recent Dot Earth article features another critique of Pandora’s Promise by Dr John Miller:

When I saw “Pandora’s Promise,” I didn’t believe a word of it. I served as a submarine nuclear engineering officer for my four-year stint in the Navy years ago. I qualified as an Engineering Officer of the Watch (a guy who’s in charge of the plant and its other technicians during four-hour shifts) on two different sub reactors. I know the truth about reactors, and the movie replaces it with the demonstrably false Nuclear Dream, a just-so mythical story claiming that nukes are safe, clean and cheap.

Almost 500 commenters, many identifying themselves as from within the nuclear industry, quickly lined up to take ad hominem shots at Miller’s sociology degree. I used to have a great deal of interest in the additional viewpoints added by comments, but in many sites I feel stupider the more comments I read. Nevertheless in my opinion two comments do bear reading:

GolddiggerSydney, Australia

As a geologist, I can unequivocally tell you that the bitter end at Fukushima was easily predictable: Tsunami of that size must be recorded in the inland hills surrounding the plants location. However, greed led to compromised decisions, which led to a total disaster.
Nuclear power may be theoretically safe, but the execution of it will always be flawed. One simple example of that is our current inability to deal in a meaningful way with waste. A good geologic isolation area is available, but politically motivated groups have stopped implementation of Yucca Mountain. If nothing else we should not move forward on the reactor side of the issue until we pony-up to dealing with the waste (are you listening Mr Reid?). No accurate economic calculation of costs can be done until we know what the cost of long-term isolation is.
We have alternatives, good ones, that are more cost effective, and have fewer political and human issues attached. Sadly, greed seems to give them the back seat, while we recklessly plunge headlong into building untested models. We will reap the seeds we sow, but unfortunately it is not just humans we destroy.

Dr. L. Harrison, PhDAlbany NY

Nuclear power is very complex. The safety issues of both the reactor itself and then the waste handing are remarkably complicated, and there are very difficult corrosion chemistry issues which dominate the question of what are (and aren’t) practical reactor systems in many cases.

Glib claims from either “side” are almost universally wrong, depend on it.

As a practical matter, the current APS reactors started in the US are “nuclear power’s last stand” in our generation, in the US. If these can be brought in reasonably on time and on budget, then there may be a ‘second round” for nuclear power in the US. If they get into trouble, then I think nuclear power is done … except for cleaning up the mess.

Update 20130823: Wired article Comment Sections Are Wastelands Ruled by Trolls. Here Are Alternatives:

A decade or more ago, Internet publishers entered into what now seems like a collective delusion: That a comments section is a necessary component of a web page. Granted, that notion is a relic of an era predating social media, when there was no effective way to talk publicly about what we read online. But it persists with zombie determination. We’ve bought into the fallacy of comments so completely that they remain nearly universal—and universally terrible. A lot of people have tried to fix them. Yet, as Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin says, “everyone who runs a commenting system ends up killing themselves or shooting up a post office.” It’s hyperbole, sure, but trying to wrangle online conversations is a messy, frustrating, and typically thankless affair that involves more time than most people have. Even a dedicated team of moderators can hardly compete with legions of trolls and spambots. Nonetheless, lots of people are trying to make you read the comments again—because in those rare moments when comments are great, they are some of the best parts of the Internet.

The New Normal

I do not work in the fossil fuel industry, but for some reason I received an Oil & Gas Analyst report at my office email address:

Crude Prices to Stay Strong through 2014, U.S. Economy May be in ‘New Normal’

According to the report, while speaking at The Oil & Gas Conference in Denver, Mark Vitner, managing director and senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, LLC predicted that U.S. crude oil prices would average $100 per barrel through 2014, “despite the best efforts of the Obama administration.” Like many in the fossil fuel industry, Vitner took the President to task for not approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which he felt would strengthen the economy. The report does not mention whether Vitner addressed environmental concerns or recent major oil spills.

Apparently without recognizing the irony, Vitner said, “Most people don’t understand the positive spillover effects of the oil boom, … Because of it, people are building rail cars to transport the oil, people are working in steel mills in Ohio to make pipe and people are making barges in Louisiana. Keystone XL is a political decision, not an economic decision. If it were an economic decision, the pipeline would have been built a long time ago.”

Opponents of the pipeline claim that the associated jobs increases are transient at best, and at worst severely disrupt local economies for no long term gain.

“A lot of businesses have been reluctant to make investments (in industrial businesses) because of the uncertainty … The president says U.S. energy policy needs to be ‘all of the above,’ and I agree with him. But when people see no decision on Keystone XL, they start to wonder if ‘all of the above’ includes the oil & gas business.”

To be fair, the Prez has waffled on Keystone. While lately he seems more against it, I suspect a compromise route will ultimately be approved.

Regarding the economy in general Vitner warned, “What we need are more homeowners … We need more household formation. The housing recovery lacks backbone. Until we see a better recovery in the single-family home-building market, it’s hard to see a robust economic recovery.” A recent apartment mini-boom, he said, “is starting to feel a little like a bubble.”

“One reason consumer confidence has been weak is the uneven distribution of household wealth gains during the economic recovery,” Vitner told conference attendees. Although the U.S. unemployment rate has declined, he said almost all of the recent declines have come from workers giving up on job searches. “It’s a fairly lousy job environment.”

I was initially amazed that Vitner could even utter the phrase, “uneven distribution of wealth,” at such a conference without being tar-sanded and ridden out on a rail. On closer reading though, he did attempt to tie it to the Obama economic recovery. In the charts I’ve seen, the gap between rich and poor has been increasing since the 1950s and 60s.

According to the report, Vitner felt that cutting back on Quantitative Easing (QE) would stifle growth, but at the same time admitted that QE has, “… propped up asset values and the stock market, but has led to no improvement in economic fundamentals.” Vitner felt that a slightly lower GDP may represent the New Normal in the US economy. I think that’s too optimistic.

Edward and the NSA

(To the tune of Charlie On The MTA)

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Edward
On a tragic and fateful day
He put a thumb drive in his pocket
Kissed his girlfriend Lindsay
Went to work at the NSA.

But he spilled the beans
At a hotel in Hong Kong
Then he left for parts unknown
When he got to Sheremetyevo airport
The Russian agents told him
He could not leave the transit zone.

Did he ever return,
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn’d
He may reside forever
In the streets of Moscow
He’s the man who never returned.

He pretended to flee
with Evo Morales
But they grounded that plane, too
So Julian Assange
Got a lawyer for Edward
And Putin said, “Here are the rules.”

“If the revelations stop
He can stay in Moscow
At least for one short year.”
Edward looked around and sighed,
“Well, it’s nicer than prison
So for now I’ll be living here.”

Now all night long
Edward hides in Moscow
Saying, “What will become of me?
Crying “I miss my Mom and Dad
And my limber sweetheart Lindsay
But at least the wireless is free.”

Now you US American citizens
Don’t you think it’s a scandal
That our government can spy and spy?
Tell the House and tell the Senate
To stop NSA Surveillance
And vote for change at every turn.

Or else he’ll never return,
No he’ll never return
And his fate will be unlearned
He may hide forever
On the streets of Moscow
He’s the man (Who’s the man)
He’s the man who never returned.
He’s the man (Oh, the man)
He’s the man who never returned.
He’s the man who never returned.

Update 20130822: The Awl has ten real folk songs about the NSA and Edward Snowden. Mine didn’t make the list. 😦

AlJazeera Triplet

Not surprisingly, AlJazeera takes a different tone towards the NSA revelations than most US media outlets. Law professor Richard Falk writes, Snowden’s Asylum: ‘It’s the law, stupid’ :

We should ask these deeply aggrieved senators for honest answers, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham never ones to shy away from a good fight, what they would have done had a comparable Russian whistleblower revealed a Russian surveillance system that was listening in on secret government deliberations in Washington as well as invading the privacy of ordinary Americans.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, thinks, Snowden, Greenwald and Wikileaks are winning:

Indeed, the whole chase scene is symbolic of the difficulties in which Washington finds itself immersed. Unable to win their case in the court of public opinion, the self-styled leaders of the free world resort to threats and bullying to get their way – which kind of sums up American foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century. And the spectacle of US attorney general Eric Holder trying to offer Russia assurances that his government would not torture or execute Snowden speaks volumes about how far the US government’s reputation on human rights – even within the United States – has plummeted over the past decade.

Meanwhile in, Snowden and the paranoid state, writer Sarah Kendzior bemoans the fear that grips the US populace:

Paranoia is aggression masked as defence. It was paranoia (and hubris, and greed) that caused the run-up to the Iraq War; it is paranoia that leads to thousands of innocent Muslims being profiled in New York; it is paranoia that led to Trayvon Martin being shot to death on the street. In Congress, paranoia is less a style than a sickness, employed less with flourish than with fear. Paranoia is the refusal to recognise others except filtered through ourselves – and how do Americans see themselves? Afraid, afraid, afraid.

Of course we’re afraid. The rules are changing. It used to be that a man could follow the rules, work hard and have a reasonable chance of getting Talking Head’s beautiful house and beautiful wife. No guarantee, but at least a shot. As the days go by, though, that route doesn’t look much better than buying a lottery ticket.

Senator Obama wanted to regulate the NSA

From ProPublica, The Surveillance Reforms Obama Supported Before He Was President

When the House of Representatives recently considered an amendment that would have dismantled the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program, the White House swiftly condemned the measure. But only five years ago, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. was part of a group of legislators that supported substantial changes to NSA surveillance programs. Here are some of the proposals the president co-sponsored as a senator.

As a senator, Obama wanted to limit bulk records collection. …

As a senator, Obama wanted to require government analysts to get court approval before accessing incidentally collected American data. …

As a senator, Obama wanted the executive branch to report to Congress how many American communications had been swept up during surveillance. …

As a senator, Obama wanted to restrict the use of gag orders related to surveillance court orders. …

As a senator, Obama wanted to give the accused a chance to challenge government surveillance. …

As a senator, Obama wanted the attorney general to submit a public report giving aggregate data about how many people had been targeted for searches. …

As a senator, Obama wanted the government to declassify significant surveillance court opinions. …

Riding a Poorly-Fed Horse

I had heard of Hutterites, but knew very little about them. In the latest of his series, Communities that Abide—Part V: An Example of Success, Dmitry Orlov offers a quick, but interesting, look at Hutterites in the US. After an ugly episode with a handful of ardent feminists at the Age of Limits conference, Orlov is careful to not endorse the old-fashioned gender roles of the Hutterites, but it is clear that he doesn’t expect ardent feminism, or indeed the sort of ardent self-expression we take for granted, to survive in a declining economy. Commenter Lynford1933 adds some personal experience with the Hutterites.

BTW, even though Dmitry (who comments as kollapsnik) and commenter Butch disagree with commenter Edmond, the first fourteen comments are as on-topic and rational as in any comment section I have read in a long time.

First Orlov takes stock of the have-nots and haves in the US:

… just last week we saw walk-outs by fast food workers in the US who thought it unfair that their wages were low enough to qualify them for public assistance and that the terms of employment often offered them only part-time work but with the condition that they be available to work at any time, precluding them from finding any other work. This is the end result of a couple of centuries of class struggle. Labor has lost. Gone are all of their gains: regulated work week and overtime pay for nights and weekends are history; guaranteed old age pensions are finished; right to public education replaced with right to attend public schools where students are taught little, tested endlessly and medicated into submission for misbehaving.

One might think that if labor has lost, then capital must have won. Indeed, on paper the capitalists are doing better than ever, with greater than ever wealth disparities, equity markets at all time highs (for how much longer?) and non-stop displays of ostentation and conspicuous consumption by those whose profits are subsidized by the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program that keeps their workers fed. But look at it another way: the capitalists and the rentier class are surfing on a gigantic wave of debt, and the collateral for that debt is rather doubtful. An economy that is 70%-driven by consumer spending, where 80% of the population is toying with poverty, is not too promising. If labor is the horse and capital is the rider, and the horse dies, where does leave the rider? On foot, I would think.

There are rumblings of another recession on many sites. Peak Oil and gold bug sites are always predicting imminent collapse, but even normally steady Econbrowser is a bit disappointed in the numbers. In, Econbrowser recession indicator index up to 30.5%, James Hamilton notes:

The bare growth of the economy over 2012:Q4-2013:Q1 is the main reason that our Econbrowser Recession Indicator Index jumped up to 30.5%, a significant increase from the 9.2% figure that we released last quarter. This is one objective signal that the recent GDP numbers are even weaker than we’ve become accustomed to seeing since the economy began its disappointing recovery from the Great Recession in 2009:Q3. Note, however, that this does not mean the economy has entered recession territory. Our index would have to rise above 67% before we would issue such a declaration.

Among other mixed signals, it seems that the recent strong US auto sales are mostly due to boomers continuing to buy new cars every few years. As do many industry observers, Bloomberg wonders why young people aren’t buying cars. Jalopnik offers the obvious answer:

… when the rate of unemployment for people age 16 to 24 is double the national rate, and you add in staggeringly high student loan debt, it’s kind of understandable that young folk aren’t out binge-purchasing expensive cars. The word “unemployment” isn’t even mentioned in the Bloomberg story, …

(To Bloomberg’s credit, today writer Megan Durisin published a story about how underemployment and student debt hampers Millennials’ car purchasing, and why carmakers aren’t giving up on them.)

If, despite the complaints of many pundits and bloggers, Obama appoints Larry Summers to take over the Fed, I’d expect a lot more of us to realize that we are riding a horse that is being fed imaginary oats.

Another Fine Mess

An old Saturday Night Live skit ended with the US successfully invaded by the Soviet Union after everybody in government and military took the day off because some lazy kid didn’t want to go to school one morning.

Edward Snowden is now that lazy kid. In U.S. extends embassy closings; warnings renew debate over NSA data collection, McClatchy sets a similar scenario in the thinly-disguised fictional capital city of Washignton.

WASHIGNTON — The closing of U.S. embassies in 21 predominantly Muslim countries and a broad caution about travel during August that the State Department issued on Friday touched off debate Sunday over the National Security Agency’s sweeping data collection programs.

Congressional supporters of the program, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, said the latest rounds of warnings of unspecified threats showed that the programs were necessary, while detractors said there was no evidence linking the programs, particularly the massive collection of cell phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans, to the vague warnings of a possible terrorist attack.

In related news, members of Congress will skip work to attend special events in protest of the media constantly portraying them as beholden to special interests. The events are sponsored by ExxonMobil, Monsanto and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Update 20130806: McClatchy corrected the spelling of Washington.