Archive | March 2014

Right of Way

Yesterday I rode the bike home on a cool, but clear, sunny day. Adding a front derailleur and smaller gears has taken a lot of stress off my knees as I ride the hills. I know this because I can now climb the stairs at work without grimacing. All props to Bernie at Pikesville Bikes for getting the Xootr kit to work properly.

Riding the long downhill through 25 mph residential streets on Cross-Country Boulevard towards Kelly (the intersection shown above) is exhilarating and usually uneventful. It isn’t obviously steep, but even with no pedaling gravity will pull you along faster and faster. The road is very wide with a concrete joint four to eight feet from the curb on each side. The concrete paving is smooth, then patched and bumpy, then scattered with gravel, so you don’t want to let yourself roll too fast. I ride about four feet off the curb and steer around the holes and cracks.

I passed a small car that looked ready to pull out from Sulgrave and expected it to overtake me, but I didn’t hear anything pulling up from behind. I was braking in anticipation of stopping at Kelly when I heard a car honking quite a way behind me. Turning to look when you’re braking hard is asking to vault over your handlebars, so I just ignored it, but whoever it was got right behind me and kept honking as if I was intruding on his stretch of road. Again, it is a very wide road and I was staying to the right.

I just stopped at the intersection, waited for another car to turn, ignored the honking and rode through. The honker turned right and I never bothered to look back. It was a minor irritation.

So I was amused to see the video on Gawker of a similar jerk in a big truck get his comeuppance after tailgating some woman in an SUV. SUV woman was doing fifty in the left lane of a small – and wet – two lane road, passing slower trucks in the right lane and looking to make a left turn. That didn’t suit Mr Truck Guy, who passed on the right, gave her the finger, skidded off the slick road into the median, and faces charges for leaving the scene.

Many Gawkommenters leapt to the tailgater’s defense. It seems that in the brave new libertarian America, you can’t deny anyone the freedom to go as fast as they want, whenever they want, but you can deny anyone the freedom to take their time, drive safely, be a little bit lost or maybe ride a bike to save gas and get some exercise.

Kleen Koal

A Wired article, Renewables Aren’t Enough. Clean Coal Is the Future shows just how accustomed our civilization is to plentiful fossil fuel energy.

[China’s GreenGen facility] is one of the world’s most advanced attempts to develop a technology known as carbon capture and storage. Conceptually speaking, CCS is simple: Industries burn just as much coal as before but remove all the pollutants. In addition to scrubbing out ash and soot, now standard practice at many big plants, they separate out the carbon dioxide and pump it underground, where it can be stored for thousands of years.

… Even though most of the basic concepts are well understood, developing reliable, large-scale CCS facilities will be time-consuming, unglamorous, and breathtakingly costly. Engineers will need to lavish time and money on painstaking calculations, minor adjustments, and cautious experiments. At the end, the world will have several thousand giant edifices that everyone regards as eyesores. Meanwhile, environmentalists have lobbied hard against the technology, convinced that it represents a sop to the coal industry at the expense of cleaner alternatives like solar and wind.

As I’ve opined before, every source of energy has advantages and disadvantages. Oil is incredibly portable and dense, but pollutes when spilled or burned. Natural Gas is less dirty to burn but harder to contain. Coal is less portable, less dense, and dirtier. Wind and photovoltaic solar are clean once running, but tend to be environmentally-damaging to build and only provide intermittent power. When Nuclear Fission is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid – for an incredibly long time – and it costs too much to build and dismantle. Nuclear fusion still doesn’t produce more energy than it uses.

Thermal Solar is excellent, but won’t support a high technology lifestyle.

Clean Coal … I just don’t know how we can sequester immense volumes of carbon dioxide gas underground without leaks. It seems like wishful thinking.

Dis looks like deflation

In January, reserve boards and economists smacked down Christine Lagarde, and others, for warning about the ogre of deflation. It isn’t deflation, said the Financial Times, it is disinflation. [FT apparently hates being quoted because I got a stern warning after cutting and pasting.] But FT admitted that even dis can be troublesome:

But a prolonged period of either disinflation or falling prices can weaken demand because consumers and businesses will put off spending decisions in the expectation that prices will be even lower in the weeks and months ahead. And it can be catastrophic for economies with high levels of debt.

Last week, Marketwatch had two articles on deflation. The first asked, Are you ready for deflation? U.S. prices are tracking eerily with 1990s Japan

Forget the consumer price index published by the U.S. Department of Labor. Forget the personal consumption expenditures price index published by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Look, instead, at the market-based PCE price index—the only one that is based solely on actual prices paid in the market.

It has been tumbling alarmingly, sinking in the fourth quarter of last year to an annual inflation rate of just 0.8%.

The market-based PCE, says the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, is “based on market transactions for which there are corresponding price measures.” That means, the Bureau adds, that the market-based PCE “provides a measure of the prices paid by persons for domestic purchases of goods and services.”

Some of us thought that was the definition of inflation. The market-based PCE, observes Albert Edwards, chief global strategist at SG Securities, “excludes prices which the statisticians have to invent!”

Edwards, in a new research note, points out that this purely fact-based inflation indicator is undershooting the better known ones, such as the regular PCE and the CPI. And, he adds, it is undershooting by more and more.

The second, Europe’s hot new export is deflation Opinion: Falling prices will make global debt crisis explode again

European deflation is about to be exported globally. It is already set to create a spiralling debt crisis in Europe — and may trigger one elsewhere.

Just because the ECB has decided to ignore it does not mean that deflation is not starting to take hold of Europe. Just take a look at the figures.

The annual inflation rate in Cyprus is now minus 1.6%. In Greece, it is minus 1.4%. Annual price rises are running at 0.8% for the whole of the euro area, a statistical whisker away from outright deflation. The monthly figures were even more alarming. In January, prices fell in every euro zone country apart from Latvia, Estonia, and Slovakia. In Italy, prices dropped by 2.1% in a single month.

And today the New York Times allows that low inflation might have some people concerned about deflation: Euro Zone Inflation in Surprise Fall to 0.7%

Pressure on the European Central Bank to do more to prevent prices from falling in the 18-country eurozone ratcheted up Monday after figures showed inflation across the region unexpectedly fell in February to its lowest level since October. …

The figures are likely to reinforce concerns in the markets that the eurozone risks suffering a bout of deflation, or falling prices.

Obtuse Manouevres in the Dark

I ordered the front derailleur kit for my Xootr Swift. I wanted to get from a low of 36 gear inches down to about 27 – much better for climbing hills on the way to and from work. [As it turns out, it went from 36 -95 gi to 25 – 92 gi.]

It wasn’t that simple. The derailleur mount sits farther back above the chainrings than usual, so the SRAM Rival has less surface in contact with the chain during shifting. Also, the mount had been simplified by a Korean supplier and the cable runs at almost a twenty degree angle from the pulley to the derailleur clamp. Via email, the Xootr guy swears it will work. [I’ll find out today.]

Also, I had forgotten that one shop ruined my original Suntour 52 tooth crank arm while installing folding pedals. They swapped in a Sugino for cost, but I hadn’t noticed that the new one was 53 tooth. In any case the 40 tooth chainring from Xootr wouldn’t line up with the Sugino mounts. A 38 will line up, but that’s quite a range, even for the Rival. So my bike shop guy is searching for a serviceable pair of chainrings. [He found a 50 and a 40 that fit.]

So I’m driving instead of pedaling through the cold weather. And this morning, in the dark, on St Paul street, near Mercy Medical Center, I come up behind a cyclist, wearing a knit cap, dark clothing, and a faint rear light, riding in the middle left of four lanes. “OMG, he’s gonna get creamed!” I think as I carefully pass on the left.

Half a mile on, as the traffic light at Key Highway changes, Light Street going into Fed Hill, another cyclist – wearing a bit of orange but with no lights – comes barreling out of the bike lane going against traffic on busy Light Street in front of the Lutheran senior residence tower. I have all the sympathy in the world for fellow cyclists, but these guys are statistics waiting to happen.

Here’s a longish run down of attitudes towards biking and safety:

Are the Fitness Benefits of Riding Your Bike Worth the Risk of an Accident?

Unless you are traveling at breakneck speed, though, there is nothing inherently dangerous about cycling—it’s the environment you’re in that creates danger. Ian Roberts, professor in the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, began his career as a pediatric trauma doctor. “I saw lots of children hit by cars,” he says, “and it really is awful.” He describes these deaths as “kinetic energy disease”—a reference to the idea of mismatched masses in motion. When one of those masses is protected by metal casing, but the other isn’t, it’s clear who is more likely to be hurt. …

“Making people feel safer on bikes should not mean equipping them with high-vis and reflective helmets,” says Jack Harris, owner of London’s Tally Ho! Cycle Tours. “We need infrastructure that allows a broader cross-section of society to get onto a bike.” The places that are serious about encouraging cycling as a safe, accessible, and pleasant mode of transport have some tough decisions to make about vulnerable users, including cyclists, in the allocation of urban space.

At the Copenhagen rehabilitation center where Ann-Doerthe Hass Jensen works, her physiotherapist colleague Daniel Thue Bech-Pedersen says: “Our main goal of rehabilitation is to allow any individual to be more active again.” This can mean being active for work, for leisure, for getting yourself around. “When you can transport yourself and make sure you lower your risk of having another stroke or whatever,” he says, “then one plus one equals three.”

America, the fossil fuel colossus

A few days ago All Things Considered (dum dum dum dum, dum dum de dum dum) ran a segment – Concerns About Russia Fuel New Calls For Gas Exports – about whether the US should use its shale gas boom as a lever against Putin.

Russia’s leverage in Ukraine comes, in part, from its energy supplies. Ukraine is dependent on the country for the majority of its natural gas. But what if the U.S., with its new surge in natural gas supplies, was able to undercut that relationship?

NPR of course, never engages in self-censorship, so when they say that we have so much gas that we can undercut the Russians, they must believe it.

And today, CNBC claims that, US poised to become world’s only superpower:

The U.S. is poised to become the sole economic superpower in the world.

I call it “Fortress America.”

I’ve been traveling around the U.S. for the past 18 months and have noticed enormous changes. They’re not driven by the Federal Reserve’s easy money policies, although many of the positive changes taking place in energy, manufacturing, technology and retail sales could not have happened if the Fed, namely Ben Bernanke, had not saved the economy from another Great Depression. …

I base my outlook on four legs of an economic stool:

* The energy revolution
* A manufacturing renaissance here at home
* Rapid technological innovation
* A major recovery in residential real estate

That second one made me wince because I recently had a long online discussion about deflation, where it was made clear that a lot of economists justify really low inflation because they don’t believe that there is anything in the US worth investment except the financial sector. Innovation is of course the new steampunk. And in real estate, the major recovery is that people are moving back to areas with less expensive real estate whether or not there are jobs in the area because homes in more prosperous areas are far too expensive.

As for the energy revolution, as you did in school, Compare and Contrast the above with a Bloomsberg Businessweek article from a few weeks ago, Big Oil Has Big Problems:

Some of the world’s largest oil companies are reporting pretty ugly earnings. Profits at Exxon Mobil (XOM), the biggest U.S. oil company, are down 27 percent off its worst fourth-quarter earnings in four years. Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.B), Europe’s biggest oil major, saw its profits tumble 48 percent. …

In a way, the world’s major oil companies all suffer from some version of the same problem: They’re spending more money to produce less oil. The world’s cheap, easy-to-find reserves are basically gone; the low-hanging fruit was picked decades ago. Not only is the new stuff harder to find, but the older stuff is running out faster and faster.

The Businessweek article sees some hope in longer lead projects and the shale gas boom, but that’s not a given either according to a Bloomberg article, Wells That Fizzle Are a ‘Potential Show Stopper’ for the Shale Boom:

New wells are fizzling out in their first year, threatening the 3-year-old oil boom. …

Just when the nation is hastening its march toward energy independence, the industry is concerned about crummy rock causing shale wells to sputter, some dropping as much as three-quarters of their output in the first year. That forces drillers onto a hamster wheel: They have to drill more wells, faster, to keep production up and satisfy investors, who in turn see costs rising and profits suffering.

Drillers think they can do better with a new, ‘science-based approach’, but one CEO admits, “We’ve drilled all the good stuff, … These are very poor quality formations that I don’t believe God intended for us to produce from the source rock.”

Make-up Call

After Nick Kristof used his byline to revive Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen, the New York Times allowed Allen a chance to respond. Some people found the response convincing, but some felt that he, “made himself appear even less sympathetic to an already critical public. And he made an already ugly situation even uglier.”

Not to worry. As soon as I saw the headline of the Times’ latest Retro Report feature, The Trial That Unleashed Hysteria Over Child Abuse, I knew the Gray Lady’s management were doing their best to make nice with Allen and his lawyers.

It has long been said, in varying language, that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. You do not have to reach back 200 years to Scotland to find enduring wisdom in that adage. You need return only to the 1980s and to the subject of this week’s Retro Report documentary video, part of a series re-examining news stories from the past. This week’s subject is the notorious McMartin Preschool abuse trial. …

Of course, child abuse was then, and is now, an appalling reality in this country. So is false memory. The tricky part is sorting out which is which. If you have wondered whether it is possible that Woody Allen long ago sexually abused his and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan — and who has not wrestled with this explosive accusation and Mr. Allen’s insistent denial — you readily appreciate the depth of the problem.

The problem for those of us who read the Wilks decision and Vanity Fair articles – as well as the many articles defending Allen – is that there is a lot more to these allegations than a child’s memory – false, implanted or otherwise. Grown people observed and testified about Allen’s indifferent behavior to Mia’s adopted children, and even to Satchel, who was supposed to be his natural son.

No one can deny that Allen eventually noticed and began romancing Soon-Yi Previn. I have fallen out of love myself, and while I didn’t start dating a teenager or stepdaughter, if Allen had ended there with a long marriage to Soon-Yi, I and most people would have gotten over it, as we have with so many all-too-human celebrities.

But Allen was also creepily hands-on with his and Mia’s adopted daughter Dylan O’Sullivan Farrow, fawning over her and in one account rubbing suntan lotion deep into the crack of her buttocks until chided by Mia’s mother, actress Maureen O’Sullivan. Allen has claimed that he was happy in a new relationship, but clearly he saw something in prepubescent Dylan that he hadn’t in prepubescent Soon-Yi.

False Flag

For every spark that started a war – the explosion of the USS Maine, the attack on Pearl Harbor, hijacked jets downing the WTC towers – there seems to be a theory that the victims’ side arranged it themselves to justify an aggressive response. Such attacks are called false flag operations, and such plots were often featured on the 1960s TV show, Mission Impossible, though usually without the loss of innocent life. More recently, and to satisfy my inner nerd, Captain Ben Sisko allowed a false flag assassination on the Star Trek spinoff Deep Space 9 to get the Romulans into a war against the Dominion. On the tube, you see, False Flag is A-OK – when your side benefits.

In the initial reports, it was assumed that the Ukrainian President miscalculated badly by ordering or allowing his forces to fire on and kill more than one hundred persons during the anti-government protest. Authoritarian strongman (but now weakman) Janukovych certainly seemed like just the type to do that. But it seems to be accepted now that a group of snipers fired down into the square at protestors, police and bystanders. The question is, who gave the orders? An AP article at Yahoo, Russia, Ukraine feud over sniper carnage, discusses some possible villains:

Ukrainian authorities are investigating the Feb. 18-20 bloodbath, and they have shifted their focus from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s government to Vladimir Putin’s Russia — pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion. Russia suggests that the snipers were organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government. … Putin has pushed the idea that the sniper shootings were ordered by opposition leaders, while Kremlin officials have pointed to a recording of a leaked phone call between Estonia’s foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief as evidence to back up that version. …

Dmitry Orlov (who I have briefly spoken with once) claims that Western media – even the Huffington Post – won’t even let such ideas into the comment sections.

… now I hear that no comment linking the new Ukrainian government to the neo-Nazis or the neo-Nazis to the mass murder in Kiev can get through on any news site. It seems like there is an actual news blackout on this message:

“It appears that the US State Dept. gave $5 billion to Ukrainian neo-Nazis who used some of the money to hire mass murderers who massacred protesters, policemen and bystanders in order to provide a rationale for overthrowing the democratically elected government of Ukraine and installing an anti-Russian puppet government.”

That’s about as short and sweet as I can make it. Please go and see how many places you can cut and paste that sentence. It would give us an idea of the extent of the censorship in the US. …

Orlov can’t imagine that the sniper attack could benefit anyone else but those who did benefit. Having been raised watching Mission Impossible, I can imagine a lot of things, but Orlov’s explanation does make the most sense right now.

What to do in response, though is another matter.