Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XLVII

Where in Seattle is this?

Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Seeds of Outrage

The Power of Civil Disobedience

Still can't believe we need to protest this crap
~ Tim DeChristopher, a US political prisoner, writes from jail, a month into his 2-year sentence:
With civil disobedience cases, however, the government puts an extra value on an apology. By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference. A government truly of the people, for the people, and by the people is not threatened by citizens issuing such a challenge. But government whose authority depends on an ignorant or apathetic citizenry is threatened by every act of open civil disobedience, no matter how small. To regain that tiny piece of authority, the government either has to respond to the activist’s demands, or get the activist to back down with a public statement of regret. Otherwise, those little challenges to the moral authority of government start to add up.
It is happening again, now, as hundreds are jailed at the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. While not yet approved, the fix appears in. We will seemingly allow the construction of a pipeline from the environmentally disastrous Alberta tar sands to Texas, where refiners will process the devil's excrement into fuels, many of which will then be shipped elsewhere. The oil patch will get richer, the environment dirtier, the air yet fuller with greenhouse gases, but we will not see cheaper energy, more security, or some magical economic recovery due to all the jobs it will supposedly create.

Meanwhile, real solutions go begging.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Stalking Wind

Yet Another Kind of Device

~ New York design firm Atelier DNA has come up with an interesting new kind of device for harvesting wind energy:
Field of windstalk devices

The proposed design calls for 1,203 “stalks,” each 180-feet high with concrete bases that are between about 33- and 66-feet wide. The carbon-fiber stalks, reinforced with resin, are about a foot wide at the base tapering to about 2 inches at the top. Each stalk will contain alternating layers of electrodes and ceramic discs made from piezoelectric material, which generates a current when put under pressure. In the case of the stalks, the discs will compress as they sway in the wind, creating a charge.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Star's Reach

A Novel of the Deindustrial Future

John Michael Greer, Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America
~ John Michael Greer is a terrific writer of many books and two superb blogs. One is Star's Reach, a serialized story describing a future where climate change and the world's limited carrying capacity have necessitated a reversion to a neo-feudal society. "Set four centuries after the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our descendants tomorrow." Unfortunately, he adds a chapter only once a month, but there are now 29 of them, so the story is well along. And well told; I've been following it from the beginning and look forward to each month's installment.

Also worth reading is the weekly Archdruid Report, where Greer provides a closely reasoned set of essays on technology, ecology and the future fate of civilization. Greer is also the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America; his writing is deeply thoughtful and very well worth a read.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Increasing Startup Success

Money Helps

Albert Einstein writing 'Duh!' on a chalkboard
~ Newsflash: research shows that startup companies that receive funding are more likely to succeed!

No, really. People actually spent time to study this. Researchers from Harvard and MIT, no less, found that startups that raised money from angel investors were
  • 20-25% more likely to still be around four years later
  • 9-11% more likely to be acquired or have an IPO
  • larger, with 16-20 more employees
  • 16-18% more likely to have been granted a patent
Putting numbers on these things is interesting, I suppose, but the fact that funded companies do better than ones that don't get funded can easily be placed in the "Duh!" file. Companies that don't get funding can't as easily hire employees, pay for patent filings or do any number of things necessary to execute on the business plan. Thus, fewer succeed to be around years later, much less have a successful exit.

Next time, can researchers study something less obvious? For example, as measured by outcomes:

Friday, August 26, 2011

Oil Shale Regulation

The Need for "Predictable Regulatory Structure"

Oil shale in a can!
~ Is developing oil shale environmentally acceptable?

The Obama Administration is taking another look at the Bush-era decision to allow oil shale development on 2 million acres of federal land. The environmental costs and energy benefits are sketchy, but the industry hungers to begin. Reflexively pro-industry members of Congress are, as usual, in high dudgeon over the possibility of anything but a hands-off regulatory approach.

Scott Tipton, a Colorado Republican put it thus:
The road to viability for the oil shale industry is reliant on a predictable regulatory structure and an environment in which companies can invest in research and development and create jobs.
"A predictable regulatory structure."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shale Game

Does Anyone Know the Rules?

~ Shale oil is both being pushed ever-harder, and is under growing scrutiny for its impacts and its evident lack of sustainability. Before posting some current thoughts, I am reposting my earlier overview from the waning months of the Bush Administration.

Open pit shale extraction Monday the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finalized regulations to encourage oil shale development on federal lands. The rules specify royalty rates and lease sizes and are intended to create a regulatory framework to encourage commercial development, primarily in the so-called Green River Formation, a two million acre tract of federal land straddling Colorado, Utah and Wyoming that optimists in the Fossil Industry think may contain perhaps 800 billion barrels of "recoverable" oil.
"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
—Attributed to Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XLVI

An easier one this week. Where in Seattle is this?

Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Folly of Common Sense

What We Think We Know ... and Don't

media spoon-feeding viewers common sense bull
~ Which is more useful, common sense or expertise?

In recent days there's been another typical dust-up between parties who never agree: the unabashedly right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page on the one hand and Nobel economist and unrepentant liberal Paul Krugman on the other. The specifics of the disagreement, while important to a better understanding of the economy, are not nearly as interesting as the subtext of what makes a compelling argument.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Car Runs on Wine and Cheese

Sustainable Wine Touring?

~ This would be a great way to tour wine country:
[A] new experimental car, called the Lotus Exige 270E Tri-Fuel ... is capable of running on an ethanol fuel made from wine that isn't up to drinking grade, or whey, which is also a byproduct of the cheese or chocolate-making process.
One could taste a wine and skip the cuspidor. Just spit into the tank, and on to the next stop.

Update: More here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Solar Continues to Shine

More Photovoltaic

Solar photovoltaic array
~ Solar is becoming more and more feasible compared to other forms of generation. The latest:
In an announcement that underscored the growing shift from concentrating solar power (CSP) technology to photovoltaics, especially in the United States, Solar Millennium announced that it would convert its 500-megawatt (MW) project in Blythe, Calif. to PV.

In a press release Thursday, U.S. subsidiary Solar Trust of America, cited the lower cost of PV modules and more favorable lending conditions for the shift in technology.

Construction has already begun on the first phase of the project. When completed, the two-phase project will be 1,000 MW – far larger than any current operating site.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

À Chacun Son Goût

Chris Madden cartoon: wind turbines and traffic as eyesores
~ The French say that one cannot much argue usefully about personal taste; to each his own. However, not everything is art, nor do we widely embrace form irrespective of function. Could wind turbines be made more aesthetic? Perhaps, but that's not why we build them.

Nonetheless, they are attractive to some of us, especially compared to, say, coal plants.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Climate Change Shellfish Impacts

Oysters Threatened

The world in an oyster shell
~ I absolutely love to eat fresh oysters, as do many others; together we eat 700 million farm-raised oysters annually in the US.

So it is distressing to see the unfolding disaster in oyster farming. The fishery has been in decline for decades from various causes, including over-harvesting, disease and toxins. Partially in response, the modern industry now relies heavily on farming techniques, including the raising of oyster "seed" (actually larvae) used to plant oyster beds on both coasts.

Starting in 2007, a series of near-total die-offs started happening at oyster farms and at the hatcheries that supply the oyster seed.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Merry Wines of Whitman


~ A trip to Pullman is no longer complete without having a taste and picking up a few bottles at Merry Cellars, a winery located in the Port of Whitman complex right around the corner from the WSU campus.

The patio, bottling and tasting room of Merry Cellars, Pullman, WA

Patrick Merry is the eponymous wine maker. I recommend the Tempranillo. The building has space and the right hookups to possibly be the future home of Phytelligence.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XLV

Where in Seattle is this?

Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blowing Down the Road

Wind Turbines Along I-90

Wild Horse wind turbines from the rest stop along I-90

~ On the way to Pullman as part of my WSU gig. Close to midwifing a couple of biotech startups this month and next. I rather enjoy the view of the wind turbines about 10 miles west of Vantage, part of PSE's Wild Horse project.

Monday, August 15, 2011

On Confidence—II

The Measure of Our Lack

~ As a nation, we are anything but confident:

US public confidence, by state

It doesn't look so bad until you find out that the average confidence is -28. And confidence has plunged in the past two weeks. Says Gallup:
The reality is that there should be more concern about the impact of these events on Americans' confidence in the economy than about their impact on Wall Street investors' confidence.

Only Washington, DC sports a positive confidence number. Do they know something we don't, or are they just in some kind of inside-the-beltway navel-gazing reverie disconnected from the real world?

One guess.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Health and Wealth Correlated

High Income Disparity is Unhealthy

~ A thought-provoking chart:

Chart: Higher income inequality correlates with lower health and welfare

Why should we care?
You might argue: Why do these results matter to rich people, who can live in gated compounds? If you've visited some rich areas in Latin America, particularly when times generally are bad, marksmen on the roofs of houses are a norm. Living in fear of your physical safety is not a pretty existence.

Japan, which made a conscious decision to impose the costs of its post bubble hangover on all members of society to preserve stability, has gotten through its lost two decades with remarkable grace. The US seems to be implementing the polar opposite playbook, and there are good reasons to think the outcome of this experiment will be ugly indeed.
The ugliness has already begun in some places.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Oil Spill Off China

Same Slickness On the Sea and in the Response

Graphic of ConocoPhillips oil spill offshore of China

~ Does any of this sound familiar?
China has called on the US energy giant behind a massive oil spill to speed up its clear-up efforts and issue a public apology after it missed a deadline to clean the sea bed, state media said Thursday.

The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) asked ConocoPhillips to explain why it has taken more than two months to collect oil leaked from two of its drilling platforms onto the sea bed, the official Xinhua news agency said.
ConocoPhillips now blames delay on an impending typhoon, but that's today, and doesn't explain the months of time this spill has fouled the environment. The spill was not made public for nearly a month; perhaps ConocoPhillips was just hoping it would go away without anyone noticing?

Another disturbing parallel with other infamous oil spills: ConocoPhillips now says that the spill may be worse than its earlier estimates.

And a final commonality for those that like to complain about supposedly over-bearing American regulatory oversight, or alleged indifference to environmental damage by the Chinese: the Chinese SOA doesn't seem happy about the policy of secrecy and delay by an oil giant either. No surprise really. Oil is washing up on beaches and the fishing community is angry at the decline of their harvest.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Big Oil and its lobbyists continue their incessant drumbeat of complaints, even as they swear they are responsible offshore actors. Should we believe what they say, or what they do?

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Steady Wind

Firmer When Further Flung

Wind variability is ssmoothed by aggregating individual sites
~ As many have long suspected, variable renewable energy sources, like wind, can be made more firm through numbers. Adding enough wind turbines and spreading them geographically smooths out the variability of individual wind turbines.
The impact is significant, and the optimized system varies from 15 to 50 percent of capacity, compared to individual turbine variability that's twice as large. Over a longer period (a year), the optimized (combined) system provides significantly more reliable power to the electric grid. It reduces periods of zero output to a few hours per year, effectively zero probability.
Still, it always comes back to the grid. If we cannot reallocate distributed generation from where it is available to where the load is, none of this matters. A better grid is what will truly unlock the promise of renewable energy.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Confidence

What are the Rules of this Confidence Game?

Mike Luckovich cartoon: raising the employment ceiling
~ What is the role of confidence in our economy? In our policy-making? Hardly a day goes by without some pundit of dubious authority and even more doubtful expertise blathering on about the importance of confidence. Yet, too rarely does anyone stop the silly chatter long enough to ask a few basic questions, like:
  • Confidence in what?
  • Whose confidence?
  • What would create confidence?
Paeans to the importance of confidence are most frequently heard in the context of what must be done to invigorate our stubbornly moribund economy. We hear in particular how the "restoration" of business confidence is necessary before business will start creating jobs. During the bank bailouts we heard a lot about the importance of maintaining confidence in our financial system. And then there were dire warnings about the damage to investor confidence should the recent and appalling Kabuki over the debt ceiling not get resolved in a certain way.

Business, financial markets, investors—gosh! They need a lot of reassuring!

Yet there's a really important group whose confidence is almost entirely ignored—the American people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XLIV

Where in Seattle is this?

Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

US Energy By State

Consumption, Renewable Production Varies Widely

Grand Coulee Dam
~ The US Department of Energy has revamped their web site. One of the many new things is an interactive map that shows per capita energy consumption (in kilowatt-hours) by state.

It's surprising how much it varies, from New York, with the lowest consumption of 57,322 kWh per person to Wyoming, with the highest consumption of 280,103 kWh per person, more than 5 times as much. Why is that?

Also interesting is renewable energy production by state. According to the map, Washington State produces 92.25% of its energy from renewable sources (chiefly hydro) and 10.96% of the renewable energy of the nation as a whole—242.16B kWh. This is the biggest percentage of any state. Iowa is next with 158.2B kWh and 7.16% of total US production, almost all from biomass.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Banks Or Mattresses?

Greed Unbound

Cartoon: How much money do banks need before they will make loans?
~ How much would you pay a bankster to hold your cash?
Bank depositors grumbling over how little interest they’re earning on their savings may find themselves having to pay their bank to hold onto their money.

That’s the word from San Rafael-based Market Rates Insight, which has built a business on keeping up with rates and trends affecting banks nationwide.

The firm told its clients last November that banks are likely to start charging customers for deposits. The warnings took on more relevance this week when Bank of New York Mellon said it will charge some large depositors for the privilege of letting the bank hold onto their money.


“It’s very likely that this trend will trickle down to retail customers,” said Dan Geller, executive vice president at Market Rates Insight. “The current economic uncertainty makes it more than likely that consumers will be open to the notion of paying a small premium to protect their principle deposits in return for the assurance that their money is safe regardless of how bad the economy gets.” (emphasis added)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

USA, Inc.

Numerical Overview of Our Financial Problems

~ Mary Meeker, perennial star analyst on Wall Street, narrates a detailed and highly factual overview of the current US financial mess. It's 44 minutes long, but is one of the best and most comprehensive recounts I have seen. Please watch, or look at the slideshow. Well worth your time:

The presentation does a very good job placing context around the revenue and spending levels of our federal government as well as the historical and current drivers that got us to this point and which, left unchanged, will make our problems dramatically worse in coming decades.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Time Grows Short

Oil is a finite resource

Gas gauge nearing empty
~ Production peaked in the US decades ago, and the global peak is happening now, if it hasn't already. The transition to a new energy economy must happen because our ability to produce fresh supply will decline, even as economic development quickens throughout the developing world, boosting demand. There are other reasons too: climate change, energy security, and addressing energy poverty, the root of poverty generally throughout the world.

Making the transition is an urgent need:
The most critical question is how much time we have to make the transition. A fully equipped hospital with on-duty surgeons and staff may be the ideal technology for a critically injured patient. But they mean little to such a patient if we are in the position of having to build the hospital and train the surgeons and staff before administering treatment. I think this analogy aptly describes our current predicament. If you miscalculate concerning the time question, it will not matter how clever human beings are.
Our Earth, the patient, suffers from a growing number and severity of injuries. Delivering the cure will take substantial time and investment. What are we waiting for?

This is a repost from my earlier blog of 4/27/10.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Climate Change Health Threats

Interactive Map of US

NRDC logo
~ The National Resources Defense Council has prepared a series of interactive maps detailing the projected impacts of climate change and currently planned mitigation techniques, state by state, on five axes: extreme heat, flooding, drought, air pollution, and dengue fever (due to the improved environment for disease-bearing vectors.)

See Washington State here.

There's a lot of information to dig through, although unfortunately there are many areas of the US where there is "insufficient data" to populate the map. Still, there are many things that pop out, including

  • The vulnerability of the mountain west to severe heat.
  • The smog problem in California is nearly state-wide, not just around LA.
  • The threat of increased incidence of dengue fever covers almost half of the US.
  • Drought will be an issue over the entire Puget Sound, large swaths of the mountain west and, perhaps surprisingly, much of the southeast.
  • High flood risk is also present in Puget Sound (which we have seen in recent years) but is also heavy in the rust belt and throughout New England.
Virtually nowhere in the US escapes some impacts—west, southeast, Midwest, New England, Alaska, Hawaii—all are impacted by climate change. (Except for possible drought problems Kauai doesn't look too bad, however...) The lesson? Climate change is going to affect all of us.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Budget Agreement

"The Customer is Always Right"

~ Or is it just who gets served? Why is the customer always right-leaning?

Mike Luckovich cartoon: Obama serving GOP huge spending cuts, tiny revenue increases

History repeats the old conceits...

Mike Luckovich cartoon: Obama kicking the can down the road

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Where's It Wednesday—XLIII

Where in Seattle is this?

Somewhere in Seattle... but where?

Answer next week.

Details on the weekly Where's It Wednesday puzzle here.
Other weeks' puzzles here.
Answer to last week's puzzle, after the jump.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Things I Learned from my Dad—III

A Love of Reading

~ My Dad instilled in me a love of reading. No surprise for a professor I suppose.

Book on Chaucer by John Leyerle
His life's work included all things medieval, including literature: Chaucer, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As its Director for 10 formative years he built the internationally renowned Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.

What is surprising perhaps is how much I enjoyed medieval literature as bedtime stories from a young age. Especially the Green Knight's beheading game.

Thank you Dad.

John Frank Leyerle
11/18/26 - 8/2/06

Monday, August 1, 2011

IP and China

The Dangers of Mercantilism

Futurist Mark Anderson of Strategic News
~ As Yogi Berra famously quipped, it's tough making predictions, especially about the future. But it can be done, and successfully: Mark Anderson is a probing thinker and futurist who can claim that his annual list of top 10 predictions has been proven right 93.5% of the time since he started in 1995.

This afternoon Anderson addressed several dozen visiting students from Shanghai and quite a few entrepreneurs, investors, and other local leaders. His remarks in part repeated (as he confided to me later) speeches he's been giving for about two years. And indeed, many parts repeated what he said last October at the Puget Sound Venture Club's 25th birthday bash.

Today, however, and despite an audience featuring those he characterized as "the future leadership of China", he was quite a bit more blunt than 10 months ago: China is stealing IP as part of a deliberate government policy to expand their economy. This policy of mercantilism is working very well right now, but left unchanged, the policy will hollow out the Chinese economy and be disastrous for China and for the rest of the world. The only sustainable path is nurturing their own indigenous culture of invention.