Middle (age?) Spread to Prosperity

This post is a little longer than usual, even for me, so I’ve made it in a slightly larger font to make it easier to read, which, of course, made it LOOK even longer than it already is.

I watched a documentary film a couple of days ago, and there on my screen tonight was one of the “characters” from the documentary in the middle of the PBS Newshour. It was not quite the blending and bending of finding “Ironman III” in the midst of the “news” although that in itself is not such a strange event any more since the commercial side of television has subjugated the News division of the networks under the Entertainment division.  What once was “news” is now actually “infotainment”. All you have to do is count the number of letters in the term to divine the implied emphasis. But this was a genuine billionaire plucked from the politically liberal documentary (well, I assume it was intended to be “liberal” since it was taken from the notes and lectures of Bill Clinton’s secretary of Labor, Robert Reich’s course at Berkley, a strongly liberal pedigree if ever there was one) and plunked down in the decidedly liberal “news” of the Public Broadcasting System.

Now admittedly the Public Broadcasting System is perhaps a little more socialistic than purely unbiased “in the PUBLIC interest”, though it does seem to me, being a liberal sort, that is has more right to the claim of “fair and balanced” than the network that claims that slogan (Fox, if you didn’t know). But here we are amidst the “debate” about how to improve the economy, and the “liberal” side is being defended not by a “community organizer-in-chief”, nor any of his cabinet or any such person, but one of the first Amazon investors (number seven according to the stock certificate he showed us on his wall during the Reich documentary) who also sold his second company to Microsoft for some six point some odd billions of dollars as well (though I presume his was not the sole proprietor of that business either). Still, during the PBS news multi-millionaire Nick Hanauer was making the same point that he had made in Reich’s film: One billionaire can still only drive one car at a time, even if he buys five or six.  That is no way to stimulate the economy compared to paying thousands of people a decent wage so that those thousands of people are each able to afford to buy and operate a car. Making tens of thousands of cars employs a lot of other people who would then be able to afford a car, and so on. It is the middle class that will be the make or break factor in the economy, and we’ve got to find a way for them to get past their long stagnated wages and back into something like a middle class life style. The “American dream” of a comfortable lifestyle was not based on “chicken” as the standard meat to support the nutritional needs of a family. The consumer price index, which was attuned to that American dream was “adjusted” (downward) to the much cheaper meat (to chicken from beef) so that the market basket of consumer goods would not appear to be inflating so rapidly. It was an accounting trick, or more specifically a political trick to make people think that things were “fine” as the economy was “adjusted” to favor the already wealthiest people’s acquisitive financial capability.

The middle class meanwhile has been going through various strategies. Most recently, they were using the equity in their homes as a “piggy bank” to finance their lifestyle, and that is one factor that helped bring on the mortgage crisis. The so-called mortgage crisis was also brought on with a liberal dose of help from the mortgage companies lending practices (more on that in a moment) and Wall Street bundling those supposedly solidly collateralized loans as stable investments, when they knew the underlying collateral, the mortgages were not investment quality. And for that matter that the equity value in the homes that were mortgaged was not sufficient to satisfy the criteria for investment grade. Meanwhile all of this was being insured against losses by similarly worthless paper known as debt-swap insurance from AIG.  The banks, and especially AIG got bailed out by the government. I say “especially AIG” because claims against AIG were paid in full, with little or no proof of loss, and no haggling in the manner typical of insurance adjusters over the actual value of loss (if any). But the ones who got little or no help were the homeowners who lost their homes (and in some cases substantial amounts of equity, which was due to a large extent of the vast availability of foreclosed homes), the homes themselves lost most of their equity value anyway.  Whether led by their own greed to overspend or misled by misrepresentations of the stability of their mortgages’ low, low rates, which were variable, not fixed. That was a fact that many borrowers either failed to understand or were led to be overly optimistic about by the nearly constant news reports that the federal reserve bank’s prime lending rate had been virtually perpetually low, at least for a very long time, with announcements that they had no plans to raise it. Ah, but our greedy mortgage bankers got very itchy, very early on, to bump those rates, a notch or five higher, generally to the maximum increase they were allowed under the terms of the variable rate changes permitted by those variable mortgages.  That put the “regular” mortgage payments well beyond the rates that the borrowers had originally qualified to pay, and put them out of reach of their actual ability to pay, thus the mortgage default crisis came into being, self-created by the mortgage lenders. And by this time, mortgage subsidies from the federal government were not enough to put a stable footing under the FANNIE MAE and FREDDIE MAC bundles in which those institutions had “invested”.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were virtually obligated to buy up those mortgages under the terms of their charters, although some sense of discrimination should have prevailed over the ACTUAL viability of both borrowers and the ACTUAL equity value in the homes. There were, after all, minimum standards that had to be met for the mortgages to qualify, and one of those was real equity, which in many cases just wasn’t there.  And everyone, every over-reaching, and greedy or unknowingly vulnerable one was spread over-a-barrel, or living in one, especially since the IRS still wanted its share, and its share of ordinary income was double or more (in at least some cases) what wealthy, top 1% had to pay. The bite it was taking out “ordinary” (earned) income was often more than double compared to the “unearned income” the kind received mainly by the people earning so much the last thing they needed was a lower tax rate than their employees as Warren Buffet himself eagerly pointed out was the case in his own office.

 Before the “piggy bank” strategy there was also a more disruptive social trend that was a positive step toward social equality, but away from that “American Dream” as conceived in the earlier part of the 20th Century. That dream which looked so promising and really possible by mid-century following the end of the Second World War. This “progress” was accepting that a single wage earner in a family was insufficient to pay the bills, the spouse also had to find a job.

Not only was this a major tilt from a more-or-less level field for lower middle class and the lower classes to attain that middle class “dream” status, it became an uphill struggle in several different ways. Let’s just start with the change that came about in the field of “child care”.  Now, as wages stagnated and prices kept rising, forcing both parents to seek employment outside the home, the practice of sending the little ones off to pre-school or kindergarten was no longer a brief respite during the day for the homemaker to be able to have a couple hours relief from the hectic pace of caring for the children and “relax” by “merely” dashing out to pick up new socks for the boys at Penny’s, and groceries for the family at Safeway, and stop by the local bakery for some fresh bread, and pick up the dry cleaning from the corner outlet, just in time to greet the tiny van delivering the children home, all of which was facilitated by “borrowing” the family car (the one and only family car) after dropping the spouse at work in the morning, expecting them to catch a  ride home with a co-worker who lived nearby.

Of course this happened starting in the 1960’s and led to the “Women’s Movement” because spouses (mainly women, of course, at that time) were only given the opportunity to take lower paying and relatively menial jobs.  After all, the “wage earner” was supporting the family and spouses were just supplementing income, a little “pin money” as it was known at the time. Employers exploited this attitude to its maximum in those years with never a thought about equal pay being “fair”. But over the next 20 years, the “need” for a second income grew as wages continued to fall behind inflation (and the Consumer Price Index continued to hide it by masking the real price changes behind market basket adjustments: You will notice that the CPI is now quoted as being “excluding food and fuel”, because, the claim is, that food and fuel prices are “too volatile” to be included, and thus, at any given point in time would disproportionately skew the index number in one direction or the other). Of course we still have to buy food and fuel, but that doesn’t figure into the pure “index” of how the economy is doing. The fact that it is the “consumer” price index is an historical anomaly. But one of the areas that continued to inflate the cost of living was that now child care, outside school hours as well as for pre-school and kindergarten age kids, was now essentially a necessity.  Demand exceeded supply, and prices for child care rose to the point where the lower classes either had to rely on relatives and skip “professional” care (I use professional in the loosest possible sense here, since training for being a worker in a child care facility is about as rigorous as being a dog walker in Billings, Montana), or pay through the nose (well, not quite but in many cases the cost of child care ate up almost the entire second salary). There is no question that the demand for child care did create jobs by the thousands, that is, by the time you count every town in North America. The fact that child care of any sort was expensive made the cost of “private school” prohibitively high for most lower middle to middle middle class families.

Now as I have already pointed out, this prompted the so-called “Women’s Movement” which began in the 1960’s and continued through the 1980’s and even into the 1990’s.  (Actually, of course, the “women’s movement” began in upstate New York in Seneca in the mid-19th century, but that’s outside the scope of this discussion.) The equal pay for equal work efforts have never reached actual parity, but opportunities did start to open up. The “glass ceiling” has been broken, several times in the Supreme Court of the United States, twice in a major party candidate for Vice-President of the United State (so far), female governors pepper the states, and so on. But even with both parents working outside the home, incomes have failed to keep pace with the demands of home ownership for most of the lower echelons of the economy. Recognition of this fact spawned a brief subsidy program for first time home buyers that was intended as much to try to revive the home construction industry as to put those first time buyers into homes.  It was a costly experiment that essentially failed to accomplish either of those goals, though it did help a few people a little bit.

What the first time buyers’ subsidization package failed to do was a more important lesson than what it did accomplish. It failed to be a broad stimulus to the economy as a whole. It did create some jobs, but it was seen for what it was, an attempt to see a blip in the uptick on construction employment as a positive sign that the economy as a whole was on the mend from the disastrous financial crisis of 2008. It fooled very few. You can pull the wool over almost the entire American public’s eyes, but this was not one of those times. The now famous quote of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin actually applied to the initial stimulus package that the new President managed to get through Congress, loaded with tax cuts that the Republicans considered “stimulus” but you can’t tax cut your way to prosperity.  The so-called US$800 billion in “stimulus” was, in fact, “lipstick on a pig,” heavily burdened with tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations (“small business owners” was the term favored by Republicans), with very, very little for the kind of massive infrastructure projects that would have created massive numbers of new middle class employment. This stimulus was nothing like the interstate highways system that President Eisenhower managed to get through Congress. Unfortunately, while it was a visionary and highly worthwhile deficit spending program, it was passed under the (secret) guise of a military spending bill because the very “definition” of an interstate highway was such that it must create a whole national system of emergency “airports”, which is to say, emergency landing strips of highway to allow rapid airborne deployment of American forces anywhere they might be needed within the United State in case of invasion by a foreign power. Since it was “military” spending, as well as infrastructure, in the wake of the Second World War, it was not hard to convince Congressmen (still almost exclusively men) that this was a wise application of taxes being collected, and even deficit spending to accomplish this defensive military goal. It was not a goal that received a lot of public attention, the military deployment purpose of the landing strip designs was intended to be a “secret” national defense strategy based on the experiences of the previous war. As they say, the military is always fighting the previous war (or in this case, anticipating that the next war, whoever “the enemy” might be, would be fighting in roughly the same manner as the last war, a strategy which was fairly self-evidently unwise since the Americans had been a significant factor in winning the prior war.

However, with his attention elsewhere (on social welfare problems, as could be expected from a President whose previous employment had been oriented toward just such problems of urban blight) President Obama failed to produce a vision of equivalent inspiration and scope. Of course, too, the previous Democratic administration had been waiting eight years (through the 2nd Bush interregnum) to try again to put forth a national health plan, and were no small influence (especially in the peacemaking process following the rather bitterly fought primary campaign between Clinton #2 and Obama).  But worse still, the insurance lobby had grown “fat”, which is to say, even more powerful than it had been, especially by the introduction of a diversion of Medicare money to the insurance companies’ “Medicare Advantage” plans that siphoned off a considerable (approximately $700 billion per year) in administrative fees from actual Medicare benefits, and their buddies in Congress, were not about to let “socialized medicine” (a single payer plan, like Medicare itself) take away that rather rich icing from their “cake”.  The rhetoric arising from this eventually became a Republican claim that the Obama administration plan for their “Affordable Care Act” (eventually known as, proudly, by President Obama himself, “Obamacare”) was “taking $700 billion away from senior citizens” while the administration said it was adding the $700 billion which the (Republican) Congressman Ryan’s proposed Republican budget diverted away from public health care. None of which created any jobs (except for the lawyers who already worked for the politicians drafting legislation to counter the other party’s proposals, and a few ad agency jobs to publicize the fight).

At that time (early in the Obama administration), which was, you will recall, shortly after the financial debacle that virtually coincided with the 2008 presidential election, the various calls for stimulus was a virtually a shouting match between Republicans calling for tax cuts and Democrats calling for spending as the best economic stimulus. The resulting compromise (some claim that governing is the art of compromise) did very little to stimulate the economy largely because of smallness. That is, the smallness of the size of stimulus that President Obama’s colleagues managed to squeeze from Congress. If President Obama had been able to pull out as visionary an infrastructure project as President Eisenhower had done with the Interstate Highway System, say, as an interstate railway system upgrade to equal the quality and speed of tracks and trains that now crisscrossed Europe and Japan (and more recently selected routes in China, too), it would have been the kind of economic stimulus that would have “kept jobs at home”, a key element of stimulating the domestic economy, and put thousands upon thousands to work across the country. Again, flooding the demand for workers, pushing up wages, moving out of wage stagnation for the lower middle class, and under girding the lower classes, too. You can’t lay track in Malaysia using Malaysian labor if you are upgrading the track between Baltimore and Boston, or Atlanta and Houston.  In fact, this is exactly the kind of national infrastructure project that could be initially targeted to begin in areas of depressed economic conditions, starting in multiple locations, eventually joining up at distant points (a lot less tricky than joining the eastbound and westbound track of the first transcontinental railroad now that we have pinpoint accurate GPS. So even if you had to spread the political “pork” of government spending across every state in the nation, all of those joints would be laser aligned and GPS positioned. Would $700 billion have been enough?  Not a chance, but once undertaken, the commitment to making a nationwide system workable would draw in private capital wanting to gain advantage, state and municipal budgets being applied to assure that railway stations were attractive not only to passengers but to concession lessees who would profit from the foot traffic of passengers boarding and unloading.  Then too, there would be all the private shipping companies who would be eager to add loading and unloading facilities. It might be expensive to load flatcars with trailers from trucks, but trucks can’t travel at near airplane speeds across the country for less fuel per ton than they can as part of a high speed train.  Once the tracks can handle the speeds, the overcrowding and delays of airports reduces air travel costs too (not necessarily airline ticket prices, which are, today, operating on very thin margins already).

Was Obamacare the greatest social program since Medicare?  Since Social Security, perhaps?  Well, no, not nearly, especially since it still ended up in the hands of the insurance companies whose overhead was still far higher than the single payer system of Medicare itself, but added regulations that required insurers to pay back a portion of premiums not used on actual care of the subscriber, and other details of the overall plan, like no exclusions for pre-existing medical conditions, made it better than it appears on the surface as just another means of funneling federal money to already profitable insurance companies. But did it create jobs? Did it mean that more of the middle class went back to work? It did not. In fact, fairly significant reductions in the jobless rate from over 8% to around 6% more recently are reportedly due more to long term unemployed persons simply leaving the workforce, no longer seeking jobs and therefore no longer being counted as officially “unemployed”.  The size of the workforce itself adds about 200,000 persons per month.  Young people mature, though, unfortunately fully one third of them are not even graduating from high school. That is not exactly the kind of highly skilled workforce one would want to be expanding every month.  So job growth has to keep pace with that expansion just to stay at the same level.  New jobs must be created at the rate of 200,000 every month just to keep up with population growth.

There are those who advocate an increase in the minimum wage, but there are two flaws with that plan.  Firstly there is the inflation that will cause, not only will a hamburger now cost $11 instead of the already over priced $4 for a pretty plain burger at the corner burger joint, which will hit the poorest the hardest, but they want to “phase it in” over several years to allow people to adjust to the higher wages, which will merely guarantee the price inflation time to phase in as a parallel effect.  And worst of all, rents will rise and landlords will reap the majority of the benefits, exactly the richest 1% who are already excessively compensated (but in this case not taxed until the real estate asset is sold, so essentially this is a tax deferred increase in income, like an IRA for rich people).

Another interesting proposal that has backing from both Nick Hanauer and Robert Reich is an increase in the EIC, the “Earned Income Credit”. This, in case you haven’t heard of it or benefited from it is a “bonus” from the government that they hand out at tax time (April 15th each year) to people who have had a poor income (lower classes and lower middle classes) especially mothers with children who have no husband to help support those children (or even one child) although it also applies to single fathers too, but that is a relatively rare occasion.  One of worst features of this program, the income from which can be quite substantial (in terms of the small income these people earn in the first place). It is intended to assure as the name implies that they have at least some non-government income, this program subsidizes their income, in other words encourage people to have at least part of the annual income from actual “work” from someone, preferably backed up with a W2 form to prove that the work was actually done.  The BIG problem with how this is handled is that although there is an “option” to spread out the payments over the entire year, adding it to income being earned by the low wage earner week by week supplementing the low pay to make it something closer to a living wage.  That option, however,  is almost never chosen by the person receiving this subsidy from the IRS/government.  They take it as a lump sum, on the day they file their taxes. Ask the folks at any tax preparation firm.  The early filers are almost always, mainly, the ones who expect the Earned Income Credit, because it is like Christmas to them. Indeed, the onslaught at tax preparation firms starts a couple of days before the deadline for employers to deliver those W2 forms to their employees, which since it comes around the end of January is very much like a late Christmas (bonus) for them. They take the “bonus” and spend it so quickly it almost never affects the lifestyle, the nutrition of the children, or any of the other benefits to poor families that the legislators intended it to fulfill when they passed the law funding this program. Typically they pay off the huge credit card debt that they have accumulated over the prior year, or they pay off the debts to merchants who have been kind enough to lend them credit (usually at a very profitable rate of interest), or they use it to go out and buy a “new” used car, trading up from the old piece of junk car they are already driving that is sapping them dry with repair bills to one they hope will get them through to the next Earned Income Day, when they will be able to afford to do the same again. That is how Earned Income Credit is actually used by the typical recipient.

The economists have wisely, I think, settled upon this mechanism as one which can have the maximum benefit to the people who need it most, and without causing a general inflationary trend like raising the minimum wage would (which, as we know from the above, tends to benefit the rich more than the poor anyway).  I would endorse that move, except that they need to FIX the Earned Income Credit FIRST.  They should make it mandatory that the EIC be distributed to the eligible recipients over the course of their employment.  The EIC should also be scaled the amount of employment that they have managed to engage in.  If they work 20 hours a week for 40 weeks a year, the EIC should be proportional to those 40 weeks, perhaps inversely proportional to the wages they earned, but NOT as it is now, increase for every child they have.  Tying EIC to number of children may benefit the elected officials by keeping their electorate population high, or even the churches in the district by adding annually to the number of potential parishioners. But there is no provision in the EIC that the parent must feed and clothe the child adequately.  It is entirely local provisions that the parent must educate the child, and believe me, I have heard tales from social workers that would make your skin crawl if not outright vomit at the kind of treatment (no let’s call it what it is, “neglect) that children supposedly being educated at home, were receiving. I am not talking about children who could not merely read, I am talking about kids wandering nearly or actually naked around an apartment in which dirty diapers line the walls and a dead, already stiff from rigor mortis dog was still being ignored under the television set, the drunken mother, well pickled in her favorite alcohol, asleep on the kitchen table. It may sound unbelievable, but it was a true story told to me by a social services worker about the work she was doing. Lump sum EIC should immediately be abolished.

Most important, however, is to create and follow an inspired vision for the future.  It doesn’t matter in the short term whether that might be high speed railway system across the nation. North and South, East and west and everywhere in between, or some other environmentally beneficial program, like a national flood prevention program that created adequate levies, and drainage alternatives everywhere there has ever been a devastating loss of life and property.  I am admittedly biased. I would like to see that “vision” being a renewable economy based on renewable energy resources, including a re-envisioning of agriculture as an industry that used less water than the human beings on the planet (aqua-culture, aquaponic farming, recycling both water and nutrients in leakless containers that allow water to enter the ground and the natural water table only after multiple cycles of use on the cultivation of plants that feed people, or for that matter switching to algae as a main source of food, fuel and feed for animal “crops”, while also feeding the algae its favorite food, excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from fuel burning energy stations, smelters and furnaces. But whatever course we choose, it must be soon, it must be before the legislatures stall action until it is too late to reverse the effects of climate’s changing patterns of more and more devastating storms, years of drought including failure to resupply aquifers with adequate snow pack in the mountains to replenish the aquifers in the spring, and scorching hot weather in spring, cold snaps in summer, rising sea levels that threaten to completely submerge island chains. Whole island nations in the Indian Ocean are rapidly decreasing in size as rising ocean levels actually have already covered some of their island lands. We need to pay attention to the fact that we have warm the sunny melts in Winter causing runoff that is forced to be contained between frozen river banks, unable to moisten the land needed for Spring crops and generally highly unfavorable conditions for the survival of humans on the planet.

 Some vision is needed.  Any vision that puts people to work on worthwhile projects. Helping American is also not the only solution.  Creating economically viable nations in other parts of the world, whether by shoring up failing bureaucracies in under-governed countries, or showing them how small scale capitalism can benefit local communities.  We need to put thousands of people to work, and we need it now, to get the middle class back on track toward a living wage, preferably a living wage from a single family member so that the other spouse can choose to be the homemaker/childrearing patent, because neglect of children, especially failing to instill in them a sense of the real importance of their education to their future success is going to be the ruin of our society if we don’t reverse the trend toward 30 to 50% high school drop-out rates.  People with that little education are not destined to join the middle class, they are destined for a life of poverty and misery and I do not want to see that happen.  Do you?


Stafford “Doc” Williamson


Gasification of Waste to Energy, Oscars (& Richards & Julies & Marions)

Sometimes a news release is more confusing than illuminating. I am becoming more of a fan of simple gasification of wastes to produce electric energy (as compared to using fossil fuels for this purpose). One such announcement came out a few days back that a company called Global Energy, Inc. has signed two separate deals. For some strange reason they seemed to feel it was only worth one publicity release, and thereby helped confuse more than enlighten me. The press release said that Global had a deal to allow them to purchase projects from the company to which they are licensing their technology (that is, IF I understood correctly, and I am not sure I did). Specifically the release says they will have, “the right to invest a majority of the equity for all of the projects that are developed by,” the other company, which is called Renewable Diesel LLC.
Meanwhile, Global Energy Inc., has also done a deal to license their technology to Covanta, who have recently become involved in power production in Guangzhou province of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese deal is specifically for converting some of the 27 million tons of annual household wastes in that province. The deal with Global has to do with “certain feedstocks” in the US and some other countries. Meanwhile, Global Energy Inc., seems most intent upon using its Integrated Gasification and Combined Cycle IGCC processing for the (clean?) combustion of coal and “petcoke”. So, I trust you can see where the initial reading of the half page press release left considerable confusion as to what was being announced and who was doing what, and to whom.
Nevertheless, I wish all three companies the very best in their efforts, and hope that we see more of the gasification of MSW and less of coal. Whatever else may be done with coal fired electric generating plants, it is still digging fossil carbon out of the ground, and spewing it into the atmosphere, or at best adding that carbon load to the life cycle carbon in plants and oceans. Until and unless we are forming smokestack carbon directly into sheets of carbon fiber materials for the construction of airplanes and cars and such, I have a great deal of difficulty looking upon combustion of fossil fuels (coal) as a positive step for the environment.
On the other hand, I read an interesting, though unsubstantiated statement this week that I will be giving some thought and perhaps some investigation to follow. In a “pro” forum on biofuels, one gentleman forwarded the proposition (which he claimed was a conclusion) that the temperature of the planet causes the rise in atmospheric carbon and not the other way around. As you may know, if you have been reading my columns for a long time, I am not a subscriber to the idea that ANY scientific theory or “law” is beyond re-examination, and I am certainly not convinced that the verdict of thousands of scientists make “global warming” (or, if you prefer, “climate change”) a fact as regard to the main cause being human originated greenhouse gases concentrations rising in our planet’s atmosphere. There are at least to major alternative theories that still seem viable and neither has been conclusively disproven. If either of those are, indeed, the primary cause of our climate change observations (including greenhouse gas concentrations), this gentleman’s proposition that planet temperature may be effect rather than cause in our situation.
Whole books have been written, I am sure, on both of these postulates, so I won’t try to argue for or against them, except to say that the actual amount of energy transaction initiated by humans for the last few thousand years is probably less than 1% of the energy output of the center and star of our solar system, the sun, in a week. (Probably closer to 1% of the sun’s output in an hour.) So it seems perfectly plausible to me that the much overlooked idea that the upward trend in sun spot activity may well be the real source of additional energy striking the earth and possibly the principal cause for a warming trend in our weather. Nor is that the only alternative explanation.
Similarly, rather than an external force (or human’s bumbling) causing slightly different weather, it could, in fact, be INTERNAL forces, below the surface of the earth’s crust. Down deep in the mantel or even at the level of the earth’s core, the convection currents of molten rock or the expansion or contraction of the core (by even microscopic amounts) could have unimaginably significant effects on the earth’s magnetic fields, the gravitational fields, and thereby subtle but not insignificantly affect ion levels , wind patterns, ocean currents, and much more as well. I am certainly not saying that these are more valid explanations, I am simply saying that not enough is known about either core dynamics or solar radiation to completely eliminate them as contributory, to some large or small degree.
Remember that even Sir Isaac Newton’s “laws” are invalid at the sub-atomic level, if quantum physics has any validity, and for that matter, quantum physics is starting to be displaced in the scientific pantheon by string theory. Who knows what the next generation might discover. I am also not saying that my own personal version of “string theory” is any more correct than anyone else’s, but I do hope that eventually some brilliant young mind(s) may stumble across it (maybe even with my help) :o) and gain an insight from an alternative perspective that may flip on a light bulb in their mind that takes us through the next giant leap for mankind.
Back in today’s energy world, Wired’s Blog reported some substantial improvement in hybrid battery performance was claimed by some folks who replaced the factory installed Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries with their version of a lead-acid battery. Their variation was superior in performance because of more efficient charging. Lead-acid batteries can be recharged on a smaller increase in power than the factory ones (105% vs. 140%, I believe the article said), but also because of more efficient power management which was possible because of the addition of electronic monitoring and modern electronic capacitors, indeed it was called the “Supercapacitor UltraBattery”. Further improvements were also expected by the use of a “foamed” lead plate. The foam structure is actually carbon fiber in the “Firefly” battery. Again the recharge characteristics offer an advantage because the NiMH batteries charge best with a constant flow of current (not really available when being charged by intermittent regenerative braking, for instance), while the lead acid batteries only require constant voltage for the most efficient use of the charging energy, so again, this is better suited to the mobile application, and Firefly touts this as making plug-in hybrids a step closer to your garage.
I watched part of a Bill Moyers program on PBS Saturday night (due to the inconvenience of Arizona having its OWN time zone, PBS may have broadcast this on another date in your area, if you even get PBS, which tends to only be available in the USA and border town to the North and South). His guest, being interviewed, was a former National Public Radio reporter. “After the war,” as she termed it, Sarah Chayes, went back to Afghanistan to develop a business, to try to help, in many ways, including rebuilding the country in a way that we as Americans, or rather the Bush administration, have neglected to do in that country since “winning” the battle with the Taliban, and installing our guy, President Hamid Karzai as president of the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (hey, I kid you not, that’s the link to his web site, just like “whitehouse.gov”). It is Ms. Chayes contention that the US$1 billion we are sending to Pakistan every year is what is financing the insurgents in the area, and the Pakistani government is turning a blind eye to a certain Mr. Baitullah Mehsud in order not to have him running amok all the time. Ms. Chayes says that the Pakistani army tosses us a token al-Qaeda leader from time to time, but the Pakistani people consider Mehsud to be the main terrorist in their country, according to what Senator Joe Biden said when he appeared on This Week with George Stephanopolous on Sunday) and no one is actually looking for Osama Bin Laden. The National Post (www.nationalpost.com online) reports that the Pakistani, “the military seem prepared to cut the same sort of deal they made two years ago with Islamist extremists in North Waziristan.”
Meanwhile they also know very well where Mehsud is, too, but they are not attempting to go after him to avoid reactionary actions by his supporters elsewhere. Sarah Chayes still operates a cosmetics business in Afghanistan in Kandahar province. She says that although the roads in town and the road to Kabul have been paved, they are no longer safe for her to travel. Certainly not alone, and not as a woman alone. The locals tell her that during the day they are extorted by corrupt officials, and then the Taliban come with their own extortion threats at night when the government officials have gone home.
Senator Biden also pointed out that our total financial contribution to the rehabilitation of Afghanistan in the past 5 or 6 years has been about equal to what we are spending in Iraq in just 3 weeks. Senator Biden, Senator John Kerry, and Senator Chuck Hagel have just returned from observing Pakistani elections in which President Musharaf’s party was overwhelmed by support for two opposition parties. Yet the “wise men” of Washington advise that it is too soon for the Pakistani Parliament to consider impeaching President Musharaf, even though he now says he has no plans to resign, and that we need to give him “room” to come to that decision on his own.
Although I am tempted to turn to the Oscars here, I will spare you, since I have just put the TiVO on hold to finish this column and haven’t finished watching them myself, yet. However, in the world of entertainment, it is not entirely coincidental that I just watched a film set in Serbia where, this week, protesters set fire to the US Embassy to signal their disapproval of US officially recognizing the new independent government of Kosovo. Oh, don’t mistake my meaning. I had no prescient feelings about Kosovo or US reaction to it.
What I meant was not entirely coincidentally to Ms. Chayes’ account of the Taliban and the “ceasefire” with insurgents in Pakistan, this film was about a what happened after a “massive manhunt” that failed to turn up the leading Serbian war criminal known as “the Fox”, reviled for his slaughter of whole villages Muslims and other unspeakable horrors in the name of “ethnic cleansing.” The film is called The Hunting Party which stars Richard Gere, Terrance Howard (probably best known for his fine performance in Crash) and although his “star” status did seem to rate him star billing, Jesse Eisenberg. (Mr. Eisenberg’s performance was outstanding, and I offer that unbiased assessment on Oscar night, of all nights.) The story goes that “only the most ludicrous details and incidents are true”, that after a supposed massive manhunt by the UN forces, these few journalists are able to locate and meet with this heinous war criminal in just two days of casual journalistic investigation, at which point the film story goes, they are rescued by a secret (non-existent, they are so secret) CIA team from the clutches of this monster mass-murderer just as he is about to kill them. Yet somehow the Serbian leader who was just running out the back door when the CIA arrived, guns blazing, escapes and everyone who had any contact with the journalists is transferred to another country. I am not in the habit of spoiling people’s enjoyment of a movie by giving away the plot entirely, so I won’t reveal the ending, but although the film was at least passable, with many enjoyable moments, the real point of the film, and of my mentioning it, is the parallel to the situations in the Middle East today.
Well, that wasn’t exactly my traditional “good news” ending, so I will take a quick side trip to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (“the Oscars,” to you), to mention that the wonderful young actress who gave such an outstanding performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (I commended her performance in this column a few weeks back, I believe) won the statuette for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. It was well deserved, even among such luminaries as Kate Blanchett, (who also DID win for Best Supporting for her portayal of Bob Dylan [yes, THE Bob Dylan, the man] in I’m Not There) and Julie Christie (in Away from Her) and the captivating newcomer Ellen Page (from Nova Scotia, by the way), in JUNO.
I was happy for Kate Blanchett in the supporting category, although it might have been nice to see the second “tie” in Academy history so she could split it with the marvelous performance by Ruby Dee who played Denzel’s character’s mother in American Gangster.
Now, I must get back to the rest of the Oscars on TiVo, and I will look forward to chatting again with you next week.
Stafford “Doc” Williamson
p.s. Oh, yes, almost forgot to mention, I opened a new online “Game Mall” at
http://gamemall.winfotech.com and don’t puzzle too long over the actual name of the Game Mall, it is pronounced “Circus” but spelled “Psyrk.us” (well, I thought it was cute). See you at the mall, I hope. ;o)

Hybrid Plug-ins 100MPG & Hydrogen Fuel, Cashmere Mafia v. Lipstick Jungle, AMA Medical Insurance Proposal

Hillary ClintonI am nothing short of amazed at all the news there is each week in the field of renewable energy. I would virtually have to start making this a daily column just to keep up with it all. On the other hand that would be thoroughly un-necessary because most of what is reported as “news” comes down to rather trivial matters of “announced” contracts which may or may not ever amount to anything of substance.

On the other hand, sometimes it takes a half a day of research just to find out if the “announcement” of a “BREAKTHROUGH” is justified, or just hype. One such instance was an item I came across this week claiming that a British firm, ITM Power, of Yorkshire, has achieved a “breakthrough” in converting renewable energy sources into hydrogen for use not only as a portable fuel, but to fuel households (in England at least) for both heating and cooking purposes. They did admit that your “gas cooker” (what we would call a “stove”)(or an oven and stove) would have to be “slightly modified” as would the Ford Focus dual fuel internal combustion engine. In addition, the operating principles of this system are based the assumption that you have a wind turbine on your roof, or that the roof is covered in solar panels to provide you with a source of renewable energy, otherwise the only great advantage of the system is that you could use off-peak electricity at lower costs to accomplish the conversion of ordinary water into hydrogen (and release extra oxygen into the atmosphere, or at least they didn’t mention trying to make use of the oxygen generated when splitting the water molecules).

Now if all of that negativity and intentional deflating description of the so-called “breakthrough” has led you to believe that I am no fan of this accomplishment, I should apologize for leading you down the garden path in this case. The real breakthrough of ITM Power is that they have come upon a method of constructing these electrolysers that reduces the cost from an industry average of some US$2000/kW, to something like US$163/kW.

Now if you want to consider that any 7th grade science student can electrolyze water with a $0.20 battery, $0.02 of wire and some electrodes, a US$163/kW might seem like no great bargain. On the other hand, a commercial grade product that can accomplish this benchtop demonstration in a safe and reliable manner, storing the hydrogen for transmission to “cooker” or the family Volvo, this could, indeed, be good news, worthy of the title.

If you have been reading my column for any time at all, you know how frustrated I get with the too little too late snail’s pace of progress in most places, which is why it puzzles me that I found it very encouraging news that Pacific Gas and Electric has contracted with a company called “Raser” to provide them with a pair of plug-in hybrid SUV’s for evaluation. Reportedly these vehicles would be able to achieve a net of 100 MPG by having a 40 mile range on a fully charged battery alone, and the story makes it sound like the onboard engine generates electricity (rather than powering the car directly) for another 400 miles from a (tiny?) tank of gas.

PG&E has already gone to great lengths to “Green” up their fleet of vehicles. They just purchased 250 new Compressed Natural Gas vehicles to bring their total of CNG and dual-fuel CNG to 1180 cars and trucks. They are also experimenting with a Ford Escape that they have converted to be a PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) and a Ford F550 heavy duty truck. I saw my first F550 at the car wash the other day (I know, I lead a sheltered life, but hey, I don’t get out much since I’ve been married) (27 years next month). This little monster was reported by the owner to be a highly reliable vehicle that had been used to pull 5th wheel style trailers across the continent frequently, though unfortunately he was not using biodiesel in the big V8 diesel engine. He asked about my mini-van, saying his wife was pushing him in that direction. I told me we liked the Pontiac, but our other car was a Ford product, the Mercury Mariner hybrid, and we have been pleased with that so far. He indicated he might consider a hybrid, so I suggested he look at the Saturn VUE hybrid which starting in 2008 was supposed to have electronic vehicle stabilization as a standard feature. The Mariner offered electronic stability control in all models EXCEPT the hybrid.

Speaking of choice in hybrid varieties, I don’t think it elicited a laugh, or even a chuckle from me, but I did appreciate the fact that Lexus now has a whole series of Hybrid model vehicles available, or rather, most precisely, a hybrid for each of their GS, LS and RX series or models. Their lame attempt at humor in their advertising campaign about the “h” disappearing from alphabets everywhere else because they now have to be used for the “h” in the model numbers of the Lexus hybrids is catchy, but falls short of actual humor. On the other hand, the fact that Lexus now offers a line of hybrid is no joke either, so credit where credit is due, this is a good thing.

Speaking of “credit”, yours had better be pretty good if you want one of the Lexus machines, the manufacturer’s base price for a GS 450h is US$54,900, and although the Active Power Stabilizer Suspension System (with run-flat tires) is an available option, it will add another $3300 to the price, add another US$2850 for their “Pre-Collision System (PCS) and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control” package and another US$1500 for the voice activated navigation system.

They also are working on their corporate citizenship by recommending ways for hybrid drivers to help economize with their new cars. From the Lexus website’s “Fuel Economy” page:

  1. 1. Plan ahead. Combine short trips in order to minimize cold starts.
  2. 2. Accelerate slowly.
  3. 3. Avoid heavy braking. Monitor traffic to minimize braking and coast whenever possible.
  4. 4. Avoid speeds in excess of 60 mph. Fuel economy suffers at speeds higher than 60 mph and drops significantly above 70 mph.
  5. 5. In slow-and-go traffic, accelerate to the desired speed, then lift off the accelerator pedal, allowing the vehicle to run more on electric power.
  6. 6. Ensure tires are at the recommended pressure.
  7. 7. Avoid carrying unnecessary loads. Extra weight reduces fuel economy.
  8. 8. Use the air conditioner and the defroster only when needed.
  9. 9. Use premium fuel to improve fuel economy and performance.

Frankly I have to wonder if this last one is not just something to pander to the “snob appeal” of the luxury car buyer market. Generally, premium fuel does not deliver any better gas mileage and most experts recommend against it unless the engine specifically requires it, because any performance increase is likely to be less than the proportional cost increase.

Lexus does list a number of the benefits to owning hybrid vehicles, including, “increased horsepower, lower emissions, smoother ride, reduced noise,” (one of my favorites, it’s just fun to drive down our street with the Mercury SUV making less noise than our neighbors’ electric golf carts), “longer battery life, and better fuel economy.”

I don’t approve the following message, but it isn’t my campaign. However you will note that the story has been very carefully crafted not to “hurt the party” (the Democratic Party, that is, of course), because it is accusing Senator Obama of being complicit in policies of the Bush administration, thus it is not exactly fodder for the Republican side, which has already launch anti-Obama media.

What I do like in recent developments in the campaign is the fact that Senator Obama and Senator McCain have been confrontative of each other. I think this is a far more constructive (so far) route for all concerned. I know that they claim “negative ads work”, but that doesn’t me I have to like to see them, and I don’t. Actually I found the above YouTube.com video clip in an excellent column in Newsweek online by Andrew Romano which is probably worth reading (certainly if you happen to read this column before next Tuesday and the results of the Wisconsin primary are not yet in).

Mr. Romano seems to think that there is a very strong possibility that Senator Clinton will pull out a “surprise” victory (on this point he agrees with CBS political analyst and Slate.com’s political columnist Jeff Greenfield) in Wisconsin, in part because Wisconsin closely matches Ohio where she is strongly favored because of the composition of the electorate there. Analysis from This Week with George Stephanopolous was of the opinion that Senator Hillary Clinton needs to win all three of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania to put the outcome of the leadership race to rest before the convention and even then she will need the majority of the so-called “super-delegates” to achieve the necessary majority. Greenfield says, as I have recently, that the “managed expectations game” that the Clinton campaign machine is working is a finely honed strategy that they execute very effectively, and that he expects: “Indeed, its potential for Hillary is so promising that it’s worth pondering whether the “on to Texas and Ohio!” battle cry of her campaign might be one huge head fake, designed to turn a strong Clinton showing—much less a victory—into one of those ‘Oh my God, what a shocker!’ reactions that changes the whole tenor of the political conversation.”

I would really like to see Senator Clinton’s campaign focus turn toward the matchup with the Republican candidate, and not risk damaging Democrats themselves any further with negative attacks.

This falls into the realm of politics too. I meant to get on with the entertainment news but this got me steamed, so the entertainment side will have to wait ’til the steam pressure goes down. Reason for steam: The AMA has a Health Insurance proposal for you to consider.

In the proposal linked above, the AMA shows us that what we need (according to the good doctors) is a tax credit for individuals to buy their own health insurance. Having worked at H&R Block for several tax seasons in the past, I can assure you that most Americans don’t have a tax burden sufficient to be able to use a tax credit of the size the AMA is proposing (their example shows a tax credit to a family [presumably 4 persons]) of US$7500. If the government were to make it a “refundable credit” (the “earned income credit” which is currently available to low income tax “payers” [and I use the term “payers” loosely, because these are people who file income taxes in order to receive this federal income subsidy] to try to extend this benefit to low income families, I assure you that it would not go, in the majority of cases, to purchase health insurance. They might use it to pay off last year’s hospital maternity bill that wasn’t covered by insurance they didn’t have last year, but more likely it would go to purchase a better used car than the rusty old hulk they are driving now, or to buy some “personal watercraft”, or ATV or two. Purchasing health insurance is just not seen as a “necessary” investment of substantial portion of income by most low income wage earners.

The AMA’s magic formula is shown in an example of a US$50,000 household versus a US$150,000 household, where the latter gets NO tax credit, while both families are expected to have employer provided health care insurance that amounts to about US$10,000 per year as a precursor to this example, in which the employer pays 75% of that US$10,000 premium. Now, at no time to my hands leave my sleeves during this “magic” transformation, but the employer provided premiums continue to be paid by the employer, but are now counted as employee salary. (From what well of the milk of human kindness the AMA believes these blessings flow, I don’t know, but it seems like a highly unlikely scenario.) However unlikely, they continue now to show that the US$7500 that was formerly subsidized by the employer for both employees is now substituted for by the corresponding US$7500 tax credit against the US$50,000 family’s now US$57,500 taxable income, thus having transformed healthcare costs for the lesser income family from 18% to just 4% while the upper income family’s healthcare costs rise from only 5% to just 6% overall.

Let’s get reasonable, please. “For profit” organizations providing healthcare insurance are in the business for the benefit of the shareholders, not for the benefit of the policy holders. That’s why we see instances like the recently highly publicized one in which a girl with significant medical difficulties was being denied a liver transplant by the insurance company until the day she died, at which time, due to public pressure they reversed their decision. It doesn’t have to be “single payer” healthcare (as in one monolithic federal health insurance system), but it certainly needs to be a national plan of NOT-FOR-PROFIT. Single payer does have tremendous economies of administrative overhead and costs, plus the advantage that individual health care providers don’t have to maintain elaborate accounting and billing systems that address the demands of every separate insurance provider. I know of a local clinic here in Phoenix that offers a 40% to 60% discount for “self-pay” because of how much cheaper it is to deal with a cash client than insurance claims.

I am rapidly running out of time for today, so I will just mention that two shows cut from the same cloth have caught our attention, Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle. Lipstick Jungle was rather a disappointment in the debut episode last week, but this week they redeemed themselves. That is fortunate for Lipstick’s cast, because they benefit from being born from the brain of HBO’s now defunct Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell. The stars of Litpstick Jungle are the still beautiful Brooke Shields, Kim Raver, veteran of several seasons of Third Watch and 24, and a truly sparkling Lindsay Price. Cashmere Mafia is quirkier, and easier to like at first glance, especially the always charming Lucy Liu (formerly of Ally McBeal series, and the Quentin Tarantino film series Kill Bill), Frances O’Connor, and Miranda Otto, and Bonnie Sommerville. In the pilot episode Sommerville’s character is suddenly smitten with another woman, a turn of events she finds both intriguing and unexpected. Neither show is aimed to steal fans from the wrestling or bass fishing channel, but with such a range of choices of beautiful women, they just might end up attracting a few glassy stares from mesmerized males.


Stafford “Doc” Williamson

Wood for Coal?, Propaganda x 3, Video Everywhere (almost), Obama the Beautiful

I saw a documentary film a night or two ago.  The title was “Six Degrees” but although it intended to capitalize on the popularity of that name (the film starring Will Smith and Donald Sutherland)this was about speculations on the effects of global warming.  You’ll find this a “theme” in the stuff I am talking about this week, but this so-called “documentary” television program was bordering on grossly exaggerated propaganda, so of which was highly speculative, and some of it, intentionally misleading.  Rather ringingly absent from the program was anything relating the supposed effects of “global warming” to any kind of time line.  I may have missed it, but nowhere that I saw was there any attempt to correlate degrees of warming (in Fahrenheit, of course, for American audiences) with a time period over which that warming would have the proposed effect.  One year or even two with the whole 6 degrees of warming for JUST that year or two would actually have relatively little effect in the longer term.  More in the realm of reality if we have 2 degrees of warming (Fahrenheit) for 4 decades, yes, we’d probably see changes in ocean currents and the other “global effects” this program purported to be facts, but that was never part of their equation.  They just kept bumping up the temperature and piling disastrous effect on top of devastations from the previous state. 
Barack Obama

This kind of yellow journalism was bad enough, but we hit intentional deception and misleading editing when repeatedly thoughout the program we were shown images of steam escaping from cooling towers, of conventional electric generating plants and from the nuclear cooling towers of Three Mile Island.  The fact that there once was radiation contaminated steam rising from those towers at Three Mile Island is not something to be glossed over lightly, but in this instance, the editors and producers were (barring gross ignorance on their part) trying to imply that all this was heavy releases of particulates and carbon dioxide contributions to global warming.  Water vapor condensing into steam is not a major contributor to climate change, and the use of the images of these billowing white clouds to suggest that we were witnessing “smokestack” pollution is downright dishonest.  Propaganda is too polite a word for it.

“Wood is the new coal,” was the proclamation in a brief article that came to my attention this week.  That’s not all that pleasant a thought to me, but then I gave it a little deeper consideration, and frankly, to some extent that is correct.  The difference is that unlike the unfortunate ignorance of my own forefathers who denuded their native Fair Isle (off the North coast of Scotland) of all but ONE TREE in their desperate attempts to stave off death by freezing (as well as to boil their porridge, of course), we have the chance to apply modern silvaculture and seek alternative sources for the vegetative matter.  Note that I didn’t call them “trees”, because although they are substantially “wetter” to start with, the most efficient green plans we know about these days are still algae.
That is not to say, either, that the development of wood pellet making plants in Northern Florida (by Green Circle Bio Energy, a subsidiary of SCE Group of Sweden) to export 120 truckloads (20 train car loads) of wood in the pellet form to Europe each and every DAY when they enter full production later this Spring is insignificant, because we need to recognize that even with the trees coming, in this instance, (reportedly) from managed tree farming areas, that such practices may not always be strictly observed in every place that attempts to duplicate this process.   The trees are ground to a find powder, dried and compressed as pellets. They are intended specifically for the European electric generating industry.  This report cites coal fired electric generating plants as having successfully tested combined coal and wood pellets combustion for steam generation as high as 10% wood pellets.  The basic premise, of course, is that trees being renewable resource and absorbing carbon dioxide to produce their growth are part of the non-fossil carbon cycle, and therefore not adding to the carbon load in the atmosphere.
The secondary problem, however, may lie in the success of this type of use.  If it becomes widespread enough, we could end up treeless like the Fair Isle.  Okay, perhaps not entirely treeless, but demand is likely to outstrip supply if the trend is allowed to grow for a few decades.
The primary problem is, of course, that although 90% coal combustion is better than 100% it is too small a change to meet the demands we are facing in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel sources.
Okay, keeping in mind that I found this on a “social networking site” under a label saying, “Modern Propaganda?” this video was just so beautifully done that it was effectively (and affectively) inspirational.  Now that is not to say that it changed by views politically (I am already a “fan”,  just with limited to how fast want to see him rise), but this video, put together in an extremely professional and polished way was truly impressive.

It also didn’t hurt that Kate Walsh (formerly of <A HREF=http://abc.go.com/primetime/greysanatomy/index?pn=index><B><I>Grey’s Anatomy</I></B></a> and Scarlet Johansson (of <I><B>Lost in Translation </B></I> fame) were in there, supporting Senator Obama.
In Iowa, a state of which I became considerably fonder when Senator Obama was so thoroughly endorsed by members of the Democratic Party caucuses, a certain Mr. Curtis Hartog, a senior technical consultant for Foth Infrastructure & Environment, of Lake Elmo, Minn.,  reported to the Waste Commission of Scott County, that all 5 technologies that produce energy from waste were too expensive to be considered, when, as Executive Director of the Commission, Kathy Morris says that the current landfill being used still has 50 years capacity at this time.  The  was all reported in <A HREF=http://www.qctimes.com/articles/2008/02/08/news/local/doc47abe87535e0c865319010.txt> an article in the “Quad City Times” (online edition)</A>, in which we are informed that, “The cost of turning waste into energy can run as high as $150 per ton, while the price of the fuel produced fluctuates with market demand.” 
Let me see if I can dig up the Changing World Technologies estimates of mixed MSW to fuel.  Old data I have squirreled away suggests that Changing World Technologies (now a partner with ConAgra in the plant in Carthage, Missouri) expected to get about 20% usable fuel oil from mixed municipal solid wastes via what was then called “thermal depolymerization” (which Mr. Appel and friends now calls TCP for “thermal conversion process”).  Now, even allowing that figure to be pretty optimistic, especially considering that they had trouble scaling up to their current plant, so let’s cut that down to 15% or about 300 pounds of fuel output per ton of waste input.  Assuming diesel fuel at about 6.8 pounds per gallon, that should be about 44 gallons.  Now, admittedly, municipalities may not have to pay retail prices for the quantities of products they buy, but since the gas station I passed today had diesel fuel on sale for $3.29, and I’ve seen it higher lately, that certainly suggests to me that even with Mr. Hartog’s “as high as” scenario of $150 per ton it is pretty close to break-even.  And that is not taking into consideration the environmental impact of the fact that landfill garbage rots over time, producing methane, which although it is possible to collect it from a properly constructed landfill site, is actually a worse contributor to climate changing greenhouse gases than mere carbon dioxide. 
Taking that these facts in combination with the fact that most people who want to construct waste-to-energy plants will cheerfully do so with private capital, accept municipal solid wastes (MSW) into their facility for less than the typical “tipping fee” charged even to municipalities themselves as privately owned landfill sites to dump something there, and can still make a profit (because with “negative cost” feedstock [due to the tipping fee], and the fact that virtually all of the possible energy-from-waste processes are at least partially self-fueling), in most cases the worst case cost scenario does not apply.
For my last point I a return to the point of “modern propaganda”.  One of the films nominated for an Oscar this year is a strange little animated feature.  <I><B>Persepolis  </B></I> (of which I have only seen brief promotional cuts) is the story of a young girl and her family in Iran at the time of the revolution that deposed the Shah.  I reserve final judgment until I have at least seen more of it, but the rather blatant anti-Iranian viewpoint, not just anti-Islamist intolerance viewpoint, it certainly looks like more propaganda (in black and white, a hallmark of propaganda traditionally) than “art”.
Okay, I lied, this last item is one that crosses categories, so while it is “kinda” entertainment news, it is also marketing and publishing news.  There is a new service from Google that allows website owners to put a video feed on every page of their web sites (not that we’d recommend that kind of oversaturation, but in theory it is at least possible).  Not only is that video feed updates on an ongoing basis, but it is also “tunable” content, which is to say, you can request just certain video “producers” like the national (American, as far as I know) television networks, or as specific as YouTube’s “geriatric1927” or “lonelygirl15” (a fictional character from some innovative “soap opera” producers), or just a theme, like “auto racing”.  But it is also publishing and marketing news that Google is offering this because this type of video feed will also have “commercials” associated with it.  Revenue from those commercials will be split between the web site publisher and Google (if you know how to set up this kind of arrangement), so the day of “everybody becomes a broadcaster” on “commercially supported” channels has arrived.  Talk about the democratization of the media!!  You can get more information about this at <A HREF=http://googleadsfree.winfotech.com/>http://googleadsfree.winfotech.com/</A&gt; (That page doesn’t actually contain all the info about the Google ad supported video feeds, but if you sign up in the form provided, the follow up emails will explain it all, and I can also personally attest that the information being sold through the offer on that page was well worth the price, at least from my perspective as a website publisher and author.)

Stafford “Doc” Williamson

p.s. Oh, and just in case you are inclined to think of “diet” as a “dirty” word, you might want to check out our new UNdiet site at <A HREF=http://undietlifestyle.winfotech.com/>UNDIETLIFESTYLE.winfotech.com</A>.

Imperium Delays IPO; Fed Rate Cut Still Coming; Bartiromo, Gates, Soros, Dell, Bono at WEF Summit; Obama Doubles Clinton; Kennedy’s Double Endorse Obama

Imperium Renewables, the Seattle based firm with the largest US based biodiesel plant (at Grays Harbor) has delayed plans for an IPO citing “market conditions”. This move was widely anticipated after the departure of their CEO. However, another interpretation has also been put forth which is that because of the tripling of biodiesel production capacity in the US, and the rise in Soy Oil prices there just is not enough available feedstock to supply additional plants at this time. Indeed the Greentech Media article that summarizes these facts proclaims “Feedstock Shortage” in its headline.

Of course, the “not enough” feedstock is not really the problem at all. The problem is that feedstocks for the popular, cheap and easy method of making biodiesel, using a catalyst, and ethanol (or methanol) to esterify vegetable oil needs cheap vegetable oil to keep it cheap (which is to say, competitively priced). Biodiesel as an industry has become its own major competitor. According to the same Greentech Media article, Soy Oil cost just US$ 0.27/lb. (or US$ 540/Ton) back in August of 2006, while the December 2007 price has soared to US$ 0.44/lb. which comes out to US$ 960/Ton. That’s a 56% increase in less than 18 months.

Few will question that when cooler heads prevail that we will be seeing a lot more of jatropha and other non-edible oils becoming more important rapidly over the next few years. Off to a slower start may be the algadiesel based on the oil content of the fast growing green plant. But let us not neglect, either the use of genetic engineering and “synthetic biology” in which microbes are being grown specifically to produce “long chain alcohols” (butanol, for example) from cellulosic sources. Since, as far as I know, the oil content of algae is of no particular interest to these microbes that are producing butanol from the cellulose and lignin of plants (5 carbon sugars, as opposed to the 6 carbon sugars of glucose and sucrose) it would well behoove those working in these to areas to start talking and experimenting cooperatively and collaboratively. Wouldn’t you agree?

I always find it incredible that occasions like a G8 meeting or this week’s World Economic Forum annual Summit in Davos, Switzerland, produce a horde of, often unruly, protestors who are AGAINST globalization. There is entirely too much of the “us” (whoever “we” are) against “them” (and it matters little which “they” anyone refers to, since being “not us” is perceived as being inherently a bad thing). Globalization is about spreading the wealth. That is not to say that I don’t recognize that some exporters of jobs aren’t doing it to “exploit” the cheap labor in other parts of the world, but driving down costs while increasing profits is the aim. The idea that all CEO’s and boards of directors of major multinational conglomerates somehow match the moustache twisting, black hat image of 19th century melodrama villains is a little far out there.

The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries were building on ancient knowledge that had been ignored (if not outrigh suppressed) for anything up to a couple of thousand years. Unrestrained by public opinion, or the threat of exposure to public criticism, the so-called “Robber Barons” were indeed almost incomprehensibly callous in their tactics and even occasionally completely immoral in their practices. But major publicly held corporations do tend to have to answer for their actions and even their motives to the media and the public. The collapse of Enron is the prime example in recent times, though there have been others too.

My wife (I blame her NYC upbringing) tends to see corruption and conspiracies lurking around every corner, even brazenly in plain site. She is not entirely wrong, but I hope she is not right as often as she believes she is. (That’s dangerous talk to put in print, so I’m hereby claiming temporary insanity in case we ever find ourselves in court.)

The fact is that I hope that the majority of businesses and business people have in mind to make their living by an ethically sound set of business practices to make the world a better place for themselves, their family and ultimately the world entire. Now all of that is preamble to the fact that I was teaching a class on industrialization last week, combined with the fact that I have been paying attention to a gentleman who I know only through internet correspondence as S. Kumar. S. Kumar is a resident of India, and seems to know a good deal more than I do about how to make money on the internet. The combination of these two factors, along with my long support of micro-credit as a means of bringing about some greater degree of equality globally, have led me to a new paradigm that I hope some readers will find interesting.


Global Village Cottage Industry is not as catchy a name as I would like it to be, but it does describe this concept that borrows a little, too, from Isaac Asimov’s writings. Examples have been cited in literature about microcredit that speak of an “instant phone company” when a small, and previously isolated village suddenly gains access to market information because a microloan allows one villager (or that that villager’s family) to acquire a cell phone. Suddenly the local basket weavers can access information from an uncle or a cousin in a larger town or city to discover what the market price of baskets (or whatever commodity) may be that week, and therefore better able to either price their own labors locally, or to attempt to calculate the costs/benefits of providing their own transportation and/or wholesale to the big city markets.

It is, in fact, possible now to earn several hundred dollars per week from a modest web presence, some of which can operate on “autopilot” for years drawing a few dollars a week, while others, which might require more human intervention and attention to keep it “tuned” to the market. For those villages where average wages are about US$1 per day or less, facilitating a micro-economy of internet information brokerage could well represent a doubling of the village’s total net income. In remote villages where impoverished populations are isolated additional challenges and difficulties might also need to be addressed. Items like how to connect to the internet via phone lines, much less high-speed data lines could be a really difficult feat, especially at moderate costs. Just supplying power to a computer or two might require a generator or a solar panel (charging all day just to run the computer for a few hours at night) perhaps.

It is of no particular consequence to the owner of the web site, nor to its’ users whether the owner may be in New York City, or Elberta, Alabama, or Mumbai, India, though server space on a direct high speed optical connection to the backbone of the net may be more expensive than a server in a basement in Siberia somewhere. Nor am I advocating that this should be the only industry in town, for we saw what can happen to a New England milltown when competition closes the mill. But it is possible to establish this kind of “cottage industry” virtually anywhere, and by capturing even a miniscule percentage of the worldwide traffic for certain items of ecommerce, it becomes possible to generate a modest income by American or North American standards, but that same very modest income to us, might represent full-on luxurious to an otherwise impoverished family in an isolated and economically disadvantaged community.

Just to be clear, here, let me state that I am not talking about publicizing the basket weaving skills of the locals, although that too could be one way to monetize a web presence. I mean that merely becoming a source of information that attracts people, one has the opportunity to earn a living by having once gained their trust, to refer them to other information of value, which might include pure information (“how to’s” or houseplans) or access to money saving opportunities, like sales at Amazon.com (collecting affiliate commissions on sales made because of their referrals). At the same time large organization in the retail field like Wal-mart, K-Mart/Sears, Circuit City, and so on, are also placing retail advertising wherever they can “capture eyes”, so merely having traffic to your sight could make you eligible to earn from the “publishing” of some of that advertizing content as well.

CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, who had a rather rapid rise to national television stardom just a few years ago had an interesting program this Sunday with an array of movers-and-shakers for guest. Not the least of her interviews was a satellite link to Texas (Ms. Bartiromo was in Davos covering the World Economic Summit) with former President of the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, Mr. Robert McTeer. Mr. McTeer claims that he had been advocating “strong action” to avoid recession, meaning at least 50 basis points (0.5%) cut in the Fed Funds Rate. Mr. McTeer, with better comic delivery than most economic heavy-weights, joked in poker playing terms that they saw his bet and raised him a quarter, which resulted in the Fed Chairman Bernanke’s cut of 3/4’s of a percent in the first cut issued by the Fed outside its regularly scheduled meetings since 1971 according to Ms. Bartiromo’s Wall Street Journal Report program on CNBC.

Mr. McTeer, however, was not impressed with the tax rebate giveaway the politicians were putting together. He didn’t mention, but I think that I did (with respect to one of Congressman Ron Paul’s policies about expansion of the money supply), that the M4 money supply was increased by fiat in December by more than US$ 40 billion. (Yes, “Billion,” though the “funny money” auctions, as Congressman Paul might call them, were not until this month and next, I believe.) Mr. McTeer also said that he felt that the economic effects of the US$ 150 billion giveaway by Congress and the President in the form of direct rebates to taxpayers (plus business incentives and tax breaks) [and the probable “piling on” of some “tasty” pork by the Senate, as Donna Brazile on This Week with George Stephanopolous put it] was unlikely to be necessary considering the cooperative spirit of the Fed and it’s quick action. Mr. McTeer did suggest, however, that he felt it was a good possibility that there may be an additional 0.25% interest rate cut coming, and that could happen as soon as the next regularly schedule Fed meeting.

And in the rest of the class of “heavy-weight” Maria found Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Bono promoting Bono’s “RED” campaign to pay for HIV/AIDS drug treatments for Africans. Another interesting picture on the World Economic Forum website was one in which I believe I saw Bill Gates on stage with the Chairmen and CEO’s of BOTH Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Nor would it be prudent to ignore that George Soros was also present at the summit. Mr. Soros is, I understand, also scheduled to appear on a CNBC European broadcast in a debate on economic policy in which the resolution he speaks to is something to the effect that their needs to be, “a new sheriff in town,” on the world economic stage, because central bankers have, “lost their way.”

Speaking of, “lost their way,” the anticipated boom from computer telephony integration (or “CTI” as it was called in the comupter and communications industries) never really took place (except behind the scenes where it ended up crashing some of my early retirement dreams as Lucent Technologies stock took a dive at the turn of the century) although the anticipation of it may have inspired physicists to postulate “dark energy” because most of the fiber-optic cable that was laid in preparation for the explosion of demand remains “dark” (unlit by the necessary lasers to make it useful) because bringing it on line would cause existing tariffs to drop like stones to virtually nothing and it is hard for communications companies to continue to charge premium rates for guaranteed premium grade “quality of service” when there is no shortage of bandwidth for everyone everywhere. (It’s another one of those “corporate inertia” things I spoke about last week that I find so annoying, everyone is so worried about preserving today’s established markets that they stifle the evolution of new markets and new technologies to protect the old territories.) But the convergence we are now seeing is one of cell phones with video displays also accessing web based data and gradually creeping in is the GPS integration of local commercial information as well.

Things do not always work out the way we expect or plan them to. I predicted the future of the internet quite a number of years ago. Projecting the number of subscribers was not my field (and still isn’t), but technology was, (and is), so I predicted several things. I expected to see a proliferation of “virtual reality” sights. That has been slow in coming about, but one example does stand out. I believe the most prominent example today is “Second Life”, which is a really interesting phenomenon itself, because although it strongly resembles the Dungeons and Dragons romantic sword and sorcery roll playing games of the 1980’s and 1990’s, this seems to be a place to meet and greet real friends (new and old). I won’t try to pigeonhole the D&D crowd but I will say that computer game players started out as the more geeky among us, and while one cannot know how many still are, the mere fact that these communities of online folks interact socially makes them seem to have more adventurous and more gregarious natures than those nerds and computer jockeys of old.

Now I have to admit I was more than a little bit spoiled by my early computer experiences. Mind you, I admit that I am discounting [naturally enough, I THINK] the Timex/Sinclair 1 kilobyte “toy” computer, which introduced me to programming but never did a single useful thing in its life with me. So I have had some optimistic views on the future of computers and the internet. At that same IBM and IEEE sponsored speech I gave in Toronto many, many years ago, I showed a picture of a video watch, or rather a mockup of a video watch that I predicted would be the future common access and interface device to the internet and most people’s computer experiences. Along with that I predicted that it would be a voice interactive experience, which is to say that like the denizens of Star Trek we would just speak to the computer, and receive much of what we wanted back in the form of voice response as well, supplemented by screen graphics only when really needed. Video is a terrible waste of bandwidth, especially if all you are sending is the graphics to represent text that conveys the information.

Well, through a series of semi-disasters I just received on my desktop a Gateway GT5404 computer with Microsoft’s VISTA Home Premium operating system. It has 1 GB of RAM, 250GB of SATA hard drive and a Pentium Dual-Core CPU, which is a 64 bit processor that handles two 32 bit streams at 2.8 gigahertz. Both a sticker on the machine itself and the software reporting the type of system it is emphasize that “dual stream” feature. The sticker says, “2 x 2 MB L2 cache.” The software says that it is “rated” 2.80, but then goes on to explain that it is 32 bits at 2.8 GHz and another 32bits at 2.8 GHz. This operating system also contains the speech recognition features that became standard with Windows XP editions. I am not, by any means, holding my breath, but I am hoping that this will become a feature of my computing in the very near future. This XP machine on which I am working (a Dell, by the way, but “only” 1.6 GHz, and 768 MB of RAM) can barely handle my 9 windows of Word, Internet Explorer and Outlook email if Outlook is attempting to download new messages (as it does several times an hour). Therefore speech recognition would be totally impossible since I would have long since forgotten what it was I intended to say LONG minutes before the operating system got around to attempting to copy my words to the screen (or execute the commands if that is what the words were). The dual execution scheme on this new Gateway might be the answer to this kind of problem, but I am fearful of getting too excited about it. I was doing voice/speech recognition work on an IBM XT computer back about 1986, and even though that was “discreet speech” (un-connected, distinct words with “pre-trained” vocabulary) the progress in this field has been of dire disappointment to me over the last 21 years, especially relative to the increase in computing power. For a comparison (you can do the math if you like) my old IBM XT type (actually from Matsushita) operated at 10 megahertz and had 1 megabyte of total RAM (even the hard disk was 10 megabytes total capacity).

Please wish me luck on that front.

Amazing political news: Caroline Kennedy wrote a endorsement for Senator Barack Obama, published by the New York Times newspaper, in which she said, “I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them.” The Times also reports that Senator Ted Kennedy is slated to provide his endorsement of Senator Obama on Monday (January 28th, 2007).

Not so amazing political news: Senator Obama won the Democratic Primary election in South Carolina. What was surprising, perhaps, was that Senator Edwards, who was born in South Carolina did so poorly. What was almost more surpising was that Senator Obama’s vote count was 55% for Senator Obama, and just 27% for Senator Hillary Clinton. And talk about “globalization”, it is certainly NOT a one way street. That article link above about the South Carolina election results is to a Korean newspaper website that just happened to be one of the top results on my Google search terms.


Stafford “Doc” Williamson

Greenfuels UPGRADE, Safeway goes GREEN, ODU algae, + Sanitation Year

Don’t you find it gratifying when one of the REALLY BIG guys comes over to your side, your way of thinking? Try to imagine for a second that you are reading this while I am speaking in an Irish accent as I say, “It warmed the cockles of me heart t’ hear it!” (It just seems appropriate to have an Irish accent when announcing a major “green” event.) Anyway, enough stalling, the fact is that America’s third largest chain of grocery stores, Safeway, based in Pleasanton, California, has announced that all 1000 of its trucks will be running on biodiesel. Details were sketchy in the Associated Press newswire item released in the San Jose Mercury News online site, but they did say that they wanted to make the company more environmentally friendly by using soy and canola based biodiesel fuels. They also included mention of installing solar panels on a couple dozen California based stores, and buying power from wind farms as part of their greening efforts.

Another big sign is when you start hearing about cross industry development deals. That is, when multi-national corporate interests start to collaborate to explore exploitation of a market. In this instance I am talking about a news release that came out a couple of weeks ago (and I just didn’t want to drag out my column’s length any further at that time, so I skipped it until now) [thanks Charlie for the reminder though] that the D1 and BP alliance on jatropha are also cooperating with both Bayer (you know, the aspirin people) to develop crop sprays for jatropha, and with Daimler (aka formerly known as Mercedes & Chrysler) to test jatropha derived biodiesel in their engines. That’s a pretty broad range of coalition partners from chemical/pharmaceuticals to auto/transportation and fuels/agriculture. Certainly an interesting sign of the depth of interest in jatropha as an organic oil source.

Another project that has just come to my attention is taking place at Hampton Roads Sanitation District sewage processing plant. Old Dominion University is growing algae on their roof. Well, more specifically in tanks on their roof. Reporter Scott Harper of pilotonline.com (aka Virginia-Pilot newspaper) reports the basics in his article, but the “research” purpose (other than giving the Virginia Governor something to crow about in the alternative energy sphere) seems to gone below the reporters notice. The overall ambitious talk of using algae cultivation to sequester carbon dioxide from power plants and other factory smokestacks, as well as agricultural runoff of both nitrogen and phosphates sounds like a good idea, and reportedly the Governor is seeking to expand funding for the research, but why this is at the stage of fundamental research and not at least demonstration gauge is baffling to me. None of this is new, although methods of getting carbon dioxide from power plants to sewage processing plants may prove to be a considerable challenge.

There was one other insight contained in Mr. Harper’s article, however, which is that, “The Pentagon does not want to pay more than $1.50 per gallon of green jet fuel.” Somehow with the price of petroleum crude oil is running at close to $2.00 per gallon, I have difficulty seeing where the Pentagon thinks this $1.50 per gallon “magic green fuel” is going to come from. It is certainly unlikely that this stuff will come from soy or corn oil, chances are pretty slim that palm oil biofuel (upgraded to jet fuel) will make that price benchmark either. The Air Force is just going to have to wait for algafuel, and I guess that’s what the ODU researchers are hoping to achieve.

A little further along the development curve is a small new company with about 4 acres under current cultivation, as I understand it, but looking at a much larger development area in Malaysia. The company is called Aquatic Energy LLC, and has a PhD on the roster, one, Clare Gutteridge, who is presently teaching organic chemistry at the US Naval Academy. Now, be warned that in the video I am point you toward, the company person speaking mistakenly says it is “rain forest” area. It is not, according to the company Chief Executive Officer, David A. Johnson. He explains that the Malaysian land in question is actually underutilized rice growing land that has been inundated by salt water infiltration and therefore unproductive. This is exactly the kind of area that SHOULD be cultivated for an algae crop, since many stains of algae are very tolerant of high salt content. The other point made in the video is that the company is expecting a yield of about 1000 to 1500 gallons per acre as compared to 100 gallons per acre for soy and perhaps 500 gallons per acre from palm oil. The interview is by “ecogeek”. Take a look for yourself.

Next on my list this week is a re-visit to Greenfuels Inc. You may recall that I have been critical of the Greenfuels designs for bioreactors that called for a vertical triangles of translucent acrylic tubes. Well, take a look at this video and see what I discovered this week.

Politics is a puzzle at the best of times, so I am not going to try to unravel the 4 contests 3 winners in the Republican Presidential nomination race, nor the 3 contests 2 winners, except the loser got more delegates in the second caucus than the winner of the popular vote did on the Democratic side. I’ve got my favorites, and apparently so does everybody else, because it was a surprise to me that Ron Paul managed a second place finish at this stage of the game, so even he is not out yet.

On the other side of the world, however, Pakistan is at minimum a conundrum. What baffled me this week was not so much news of any particular even, but a reporter’s update on the status of the country. Fareed Zacharias, frequent guest on This Week with George Stephanopolous and editor of the international edition of NEWSWEEK magazine, appeared this past week, instead, as a satellite video guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. That in itself is hardly newsworthy, but what he said about events in Pakistan recently (having just returned from Pakistan, reportedly) was less than clear to me. Or rather, it was less than clear in the implications in particular. Fareed said that the Pakistani Army (remember, President Musharraf is no longer head of the Army, too), has “finally” taken the fight against the Talaban and Al Qaeda seriously enough that they are actually attacking the Al Qaeda strongholds within Pakistan. They are no longer distinguishing between “our terrorists” and “their [US’s “bad guy”] terrorists”. Indeed it is well known (or at least often reported) that the Pakistani Army is well peppered with Islamist sympathizers. Mr. Zacharias said that the army, in now actually taking action against Al Qaeda strongholds within Pakistan, that, “They have turned against their former masters.”

Unfortunately, the clamour of local politics has drowned out any minor news developments from Pakistan, so I am not sure what he means by that statement, or what real actions have taken place. Musharraf, remember is under considerable US diplomatic (and other world) pressure to keep his promise of democratic elections (now scheduled for February, following the disruption and national mourning of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto). If real progress is being made about rooting out Al Qaeda in Pakistan, we have not heard about it here.

Steve Zahn is not the most attractive man on the planet, but he has a certain charm about him. I was horrifically disappointed in the mini-series Comanche Moon in which Mr. Zahn played a fairly significant role. The acting was wooden, the dialogue worse, and although the plot was winding its way into some interesting twists and turns, I had completely lost faith that it would ever improve by the time we had watched an hour of it. Rachel Griffith has never looked worse, and the acting was so broad and course it was no more than caricature. Sorry, Rachel, I really love your work as a rule, but not this time.

Mr. Steve Buscemi, on the other hand, was a real standout in an intimate little grinding drama where the character is less appealing, verging on despicable slime, in fact, but the plot worked extremely well, and considering that the tale was essentially just two characters locked in conflict in a single room for almost the entire movie, Interview which also stars the stunningly beautiful Sienna Miller, who was also prominently featured as the ingénue star in Stardust where the stunningly beautiful Michele Pfeiffer played the villain. In this case the plot twists DO hold together and make it one of the best “intimate” little movies since My Dinner with André.

Mr. Buscemi directed and also wrote the screenplay, in an adaptation re-make of a Dutch movie from just 4 years earlier. That film (also called Interview was directed by Theo Van Gogh, the director who was murdered by Islamist extremists for his less than reverent view of Islam. BBC news quoted Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende as saying “it is unacceptable if expressing your opinion would be the cause of this brutal murder”.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot to mention that according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the U.N. has declared this to be the International Year of Sanitation


Stafford “Doc” Williamson

Biodiesel, green energy, biofuels, jatropha, Greenfuels, Pakistan, Buscemi, Giffiths, Commanche Moon, Interview, ecogeek, assassination

Perversity & Inertia, Soy Futures v WVO, Diabolical Diebold? Election 2000 v 1876

It seems perverse if not downright self-destructive to develop a passionate dislike for one of the laws of physics, but I am doing it none the less. Strictly speaking, it is not Newton’s First Law with which I have so much trouble, it is the fact that society and economics seem mired in it. Carefully considered conservatism, is only sensible. Idiotic investment inertia is unconscionable, and yet the law of the land, or at least the slope of the economic landscape.

News items are starting to appear about the business failures in Germany of their still nascent biodiesel industry, just because the tax break went away. Well, that and the rising costs of vegetable oils. But ringing the death knell of the industry is certainly premature at best.

On the other hand, it seems like pure leverage that Brazil is seeing in their biodiesel industry. Just as the B2 deadlines are approaching (government policy that all diesel will be blended with 2% biodiesel), prices are spiking for soy beans (the majority of Brazil’s biodiesel is produced from soy beans) (Brazil is the #2 producer of soy beans in the world and soy is also one of Argentina’s largest crops, by the way). Producers are claiming that the price for biodiesel, set by auction, is no longer viable based on their costs. Government officials are reportedly unsympathetic, or rather, perhaps just not too quick to respond to what they consider a rouge by producers to force prices higher. ANP, Brazil’s national oil and petroleum products market regulatory agency spokespersonEdson Silva, told Reuters news agency that, “Producers are interested in gaining a foothold in the market, which has an extraordinary potential, so they may work with reduced profitability now for a while. We believe they will deliver everything that was contracted.” He also indicated that he thought prices of soy would ease with the approaching February harvest season. However industry spokesmen say that prices will have to become “realistic” at the next auction or subsidies will have to be created. Defaulting on deliveries could see the producers barred from future auctions, but the government spokeman was not concerned and expected that they will deliver the contracted amounts for the program.Still, in Brazil, the Brazilian Society for Scientific Progress (BSPC), has announced they are creating a network of small local biodiesel plants to convert WVO (waste vegetable oil) to biodiesel in order to help meet the B2 initiative goals. Local citizens are expected to contribute their waste oil to these local plants. But if you think that sounds too “third world” and impractical on a larger scale, well, you might need to revise your thinking. In Kilmarock County, Scotland, they have come up with a system of trading a bucket of used cooking grease for a bus ticket, according to an article in Autogreen Blog. The bus company distributed collection containers to homes all along the routes it services. And in Murcia, Spain, in order to keep the sewer water clean enough to be used for the usual grey water purposes, a local company has distributed funnels to the citizens so that they can now take used cooking oil and grease to any school or grocery shop to be redeemed, which also recycles the plastic soda bottles they use as the standard containers for their deposits.

Biodiesel Magazine reports that the Galveston Bay Biodiesel plant that started with a 20 million gallon per year output capacity, only to immediately start expansion plans to 100 million gallons, seems to have settle US$6 million in liens from contractors for just $2 million, as well as having a US$15 left from the contribution of a new investor to apply to the expansion efforts. Meanwhile Galveston Bay Biodiesel is also suing Chevron for pulling out of the deal last year, claiming that Chevron misrepresented their intentions. Biodiesel Magazine characterizes the suit as more like a domestic dispute than a contractual issue.

Chrysler, being one of the “victims” (as well as perpetrators) of the myths that create corporate inertia in the world, points out that all of its current models of diesel engines come out of the factory capable of running fuel that is 5% ASTM biodiesel. Now I grant that with “variable geometry turbocharger” technology, your engineers might get a little nervous about whether the still ruggedly frontier-like industry of biodiesel production might jeopardize the peak performance of your carefully tuned torque. But on the other hand, here in Phoenix, Arizona, the Deer Valley Unified School District had already completed 4 million miles of proven reliable transportation in their buses and other vehicle BACK IN 2001 using biodiesel blends. And it was recently announced that one of their suppliers has won another contract to supply them with fuel, including what they call OXyG B-60, which is a little deceptive since it is “only” 20% Biodiesel blend. What is innovative (relative to the Deer Valley contract) about this sale is that OXyG B-60 is that this is a product made from WVO, not purpose produced vegetable oils.

Speaking of “on purpose”, although there has been a lot of speculation about Senator Clinton’s “near tear” the day before the New Hampshire Primary, and I am not coming down on either side of that fence, I did find that Bill Maher’scomment onHBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher somewhat … (I’ll save “offense” for the next subject) … disturbing. It seemed that Bill was stuck in the 50’s, comparing Mitt Romney to the Leave It To Beaver character Ward Cleaver, but also implying that Hillary Clinton’s crying was inappropriate for a presidential candidate. Specifically he mocked the concept that one might choose to be, “electing a president you want to have a good cry with,” while finding acceptable the “want to have a beer with,” as an electability criterion. Okay, Bill’s job is to be a comedian. (Bill Maher, not Bill Clinton.) (And by the way, Mike Huckabee really CAN tell a joke well, as proven on the Tonight Show recently.) But that was a blatantly sexist remark. Women, given the chance to vote for an equally qualified candidate who happened to be female, would find it completely normal and even “intelligent” to choose the candidate with whom she could imagine she might have a good cry. Heck in the last gubernatorial race here in Arizona, I would rather had sat down for a beer or any other beverage with Janet Napolitano that any of her opponents (and I liked one or two of those guys too). Still, she’s endorsing Senator Barack Obama.

While in political mode, I am sorry to say that (former) Senator John Edwards has fallen from my list to even consider, though it isn’t even his own fault. No, this one I blame on his lovely wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth seems to have picked up the bad habit from somewhere of pronouncing “nuclear” as “noo kew lar”, and I swear I would vote for a Republican candidate who pronounced it correctly before I would put even a spouse of someone who cannot in the White House again.

then there is THIS, a video of Republican Fred Thompson on Fox News, Hannity and Colmes talks about the assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. He is critical of Governor Huckabee’s comment that, following the assassination, “it is a police matter, now.” He ratchets up the rhetoric, and beats the drum for the “global war on terror,” the standard “party line” for Bush Republicans. But while that is understandable, it clearly reveals that Governor Huckabee has a more realistic idea of how to deal with terrorism.

Just in case the embedded version of the video clip can’t be seen here, you can download it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NROUayHtd3k.
It is not often that you can say that a comedy is inspirational. Occasionally a good comic movie has a serious point to make, and oddly enough, despite former White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow’s claim that “none of us” know what is really happening inside those voting machines (and Mark Cuban’s legitimate claim that he REALLY DOES — he was a computer guru before he was a billionaire, and because a billionaire because he was a computer guru) (in the most recent HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher) Robin Williams 2006 movie, Man of the Year where the plot hinged on a hacker tapping into the voting boxes from Diebold (though as [former Judge, now broadcaster] Catherine Crier pointed out Diebold has now changed its name). It is a serious issue and should get some attention before we embark upon another national election, unless we want to actually live with results far more dire than those in the Robin Williams movie. At least in the Hollywood Happy Ending, they CAUGHT the tamperers.

Now hold that thought for a second. Back to politics.

E.J.Dionne, columnist for the Washington Post (and Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institute) pointed out that the Republicans haven’t been in such disarray in terms of putting forth a presidential nominee since the election of 1836 when the Whigs had put forth 4 candidates in hope that at least one of them would appeal to each of the 4 geographical constituencies that would play a role in determining the next President. Politics repeating themselves is just another aspect of that old cliche that “history repeats itself” (since we seem to refuse to learn from past mistakes). That point came home to me a few weeks ago when I was called upon to teach a history class that focused on the Presidential election of 1876, which was filled with both similarities and contrasts to the election of 2000. Ohio and Florida played pivotal roles then and now, the support or lack of public support from the incumbent president and accusations of corruptions of the outgoing administration also seemed to have significant effects on the results, and the outcome was eventually decided not by the voters (winner of the popular vote did not prevail in the electoral college due to political party partisanship regarding the certificates of the electors) but by the members of Supreme Court. Even the impending inauguration date played a role in both dramas.

On the subject of inspirational comedy, perhaps the comedy of errors in both 1876 and 2000 should inspire us to action on the voting machine issue, but that is not the only inspiration I came upon this week. I had the true pleasure of watching The Bucket List, directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The concept, the “bucket list”, if you haven’t seen it revealed in the publicity already, is that before you die, you should keep in mind that life is finite, and that whatever you feel you want to do, or just HAVE TO DO, should be put on a list, “before you kick the bucket.” For anyone too young to recognize that phrase, it means, “before you die.” The movie is a delight, and I hardly need mention that the three named individuals are master craftsmen at what they do, so quality is never in doubt. What amazed me was that it actually inspired my wife to want to create her own bucket list. That’s pretty high praise from her, and I agree.


Stafford “Doc” Williamson

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