Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mars, Titan both yield "Liquid Sky" secrets to NASA

Well, I don’t know that scientific findings in space announced major political or social issues, but they do make us ponder the big stuff.

Today, NASA reported that its robotic lander near the Martian North Pole established that the ice that it found, when melted, really was water and not carbon dioxide. Finding water (along with the evidence that much of the Martian surface was cut into channels and canyons by water) raises the likelihood that some kind of life comparable to ours existed before and could exist underground today.

But what’s more interesting is the finding of an ethane lake on Titan, the large moon of Saturn about the size of Mercury and with 2/3 the diameter of Mars. It has a thick atmosphere, and all the chemicals it takes to make life. It’s just too cold, unless there is a source of heat underneath from seismic activity, or heat from Saturn’s gravity. The lake is about the size of Lake Superior. This is the first body outside of the Earth in the Solar System in which a liquid lake or sea has been found. There may well be many more, judging from Cassini photographs.

Titan has a “reducing atmosphere” of nitrogen and "greenhouse gas" hydrocarbons (and probably ammonia). If there were (enough) oxygen present, it could burn. Theoretically, it could provide all the fossil fuel humans could ever need, if we could bring it back, and didn’t have to worry about global warming. Imagine “strip mining” and “mountaintop removal” on Titan. Remember that the “Alien” movies were predicated on the idea that other planets (even in other solar systems) would be mined for natural resources.

NASA offers a video and media show “Titan Video Tour” at this URL. NASA has accumulated a lot of pictures from Titan’s surface, and offers some artist’s renditions. One picture showed a coastline that looked a bit like the southern California coast. The Wikipedia article also has some good pictures. (Yes, Titan has enough "notability".)

It takes light (and hence a radio wave email to any angelic inhabitants) a bit more than an hour to reach Titan from Earth at closest position; hence the title of my experimental sci-fi screenplay "69 Minutes to Titan."

Europa, a moon of Jupiter, is thought to have an ocean underneath an icy surface which may be only a few thousand feet thick. At it is just conceivable that Triton, a moon of Neptune, could have liquid nitrogen on the surface, as could the “Plutonian” bodies like Pluto itself or Sedna.

Titan and Europa would make great subject matter for an Imax film. Oh, remember that Gustav Mahler named his Symphony #1 “The Titan.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How about a mileage tax instead of gasoline tax?

Oregon is considering replacing the gasoline tax with a tax on miles driven. The proposed rate would be 1.25 cents per mile, which would amount to $125 for every 10000 miles. The claim is that the tax would be the same for a car that gets 19.7 miles per gallon (and is driven 12000 miles a year).

The state is claiming that technology exists to determine whether miles were driven in or out of state. The technology involves downloading digital odometer readings and transmitting them to the state (through XML, no less) every time the motorist fills up. Privacy advocates that this makes the state "Big Brother" and able to track a motorist's movements.

High mileage vehicles, and particularly hybrids or electrics or other innovative cars that perhaps don’t use conventional fuel at all, still use road surfaces but may contribute much less revenue for road and bridge maintenance, in a time when infrastructure maintenance is a top political priority all over the country (as with the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August 2007). However, high mileage vehicles may weigh less and contribute less to wear.

The fact that the gasoline tax penalizes gas guzzlers happened by accident, policies said. Yet, at times, some people have claimed that driving a gas guzzler is personally “sinful” and adding to global warming and dependence on foreign oil. Libertarians, on the other hand, insist that government has no business making such social engineering pronouncements. People with large families tend to buy larger vehicles that may consume more fuel, and sometimes commute longer, from further suburbs.

Any tax on driving penalizes people who live in rural areas, particularly in less populated western or mountain states, more.

The story by Eric Pyne “Oregon to test mileage tax as replacement for gas tax” appeared July 5 in the Seattle Post Intelligencer and the link is here.

Another typical story appears at CFIF and is titled "Taxing by the Green Mile", here.

An earlier story in the San Francisco Chronicle, by Edward Epstein, "Hybrids could pay more gas tax: U.S. to study tariffs on miles driven, not gallons purchased," dates back to April 20, 2005, link here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Discover Magazine reassures us about the Large Hadron Collider and the safety of Earth (and maybe the Universe)

The August 2008 issue of Discover Magazine has a blog-like entry or editorial on p 45 reassuring us that the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland don’t threaten Earth (and perhaps the entire Universe) with the ultimate mega-disaster. The same could go for other colliders in Illinois and Texas.

In print, the article is called “The Menace of Mini Black” and online it is called “The extremely long odds against the destruction of Earth; don’t be too concerned that the world’s largest particle accelerator is about to go online.” The link is here, , and it is authored by “The Editors”. We really don't have to worry about the ultimate "purification," perhaps on the Mayan Calendar doomsday date on December 21, 2012.

The basic concern has to do with black holes being created inside the accelerator. Although such an object usually results from the explosion of a supernova (and there are several ways this happens, well documented on the History Channel’s Universe series), on a micro scale it might happens because of the concentration of mass-equivalent energy. The editors translate the explanation into consideration of the graviton, and postulate that in other dimensions (yeah, like the name of the horror film movie studio) unseen to us (accessible through mathematical objects called “branes”) these pseudobox-particles might be a lot more energetic and temporarily “massive”. We don’t know if that’s really true, but it might be. Nevertheless, since the black holes would be small, they would be hot and emit Hawking Radiation and evaporate almost instantaneously. That is, unless there is some sort of Buckeyball structure that could hold onto them, like in unusual isotopes (that is a postulate for one of my sci-fi script proposals).

The editors describe the risk in quantum terms. The probability of a mega destruction of Earth is like the probability of suffocating because suddenly all the air in the room concentrates on one side.

Nevertheless, there are some naysayers, such as James Blodgett, who emailed me one time. A site that discusses him is here. Another example is Sir Martin Rees, who raises concerns about runaway strangelets from colliders in a book called “Our Final Hour.” Perhaps our one-in-a-universe civilization would self-destruct by starting "The Big Rip"!

Discover Magazine has always had interesting, prospective articles. In 1983, it presented the work of Stanley Prusiner and the prion, long before mad cow disease was well known. There was even a brief period when some people speculated that this agent could have something to do with AIDS.

Even given all this, sometimes I wonder if Krysztof Kieslowski, director of "The Decalogue" (1987), is right in questioning the "god" of science or "Wissenschaft" (as depicted in Richard Strauss's famous orchestral tone poem "Also Sprach Zarathustra"), particularly in his film on the First Commandment.

Update: August 6, 2008

Fq(x) provides a story by Kevin Black, to the effect that the Hadron project could be nullified by particles from the future, a kind of "The 4400" effect.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Solar Superstorm: A potential economic mega-disaster?

Here’s another potential mega-disaster that the History Channel hasn’t covered yet to my knowledge. It don’t think “It Could Happen Tomorrow.”

In 1859 there was a solar storm that led to northern lights as far south as Georgia, and made people think night was day. It seriously disrupted telegraph operations, which composed the email technology of the era. It is supposed to be a once in 500 year event, “they tell us.” But there was a milder one in 1921.

The August 2008 Scientific American, on p 80, runs “Bracing for a Solar Superstorm” by Sten F. Odenwald and James L. Green, link here.

The article discusses the meteorology of the Sun, and explains how larger storms relate to the sunspot cycle, and why really large storms are rarer.

The first part of the articles discusses the potential impact on space operations and satellites, which we depend on more than we think, and which generate billions in revenue for telecommunications companies. But the big effect would be on our electric power grid. The article explains how large solar storms induce reverse currents that fry transformers or at least cause uncontrollable surges. Most of the US Northeast and much of the rest of the country would be knocked out by an 1859 event, and it could take months to repair. Without these, food could not be refrigerated, and companies with businesses predicated on operating computer servers could not operate. This sounds like an economic mega-disaster that sounds unimaginable, even if there were little physical destruction.

The last major Northeast failure occurred in 2003 because of a fallen tree in Canada and a software problem in Ohio. It took two or three days to fix. There was a 24 hour failure in New York City in 1977 when I was living there. Smaller flares may actually cause damage to equipment that expresses as surges or failures in fair weather without explanation.

There was a solar flare in October 2003 that caused minor disruptions. Ironically, on the same day, the broadcast episode of "Smallville" was based on a solar flare affecting the powers of young Clark Kent.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Congress sends mortgage bailout to President Bush; 400,000 homeowners may be helped directly; "moral hazard" played down

Congress has passed a “mortgage bailout” and sent it to President Bush. Typical media coverage comes from Sean Lendell of The Washington Times, Sunday July 27, “Bill called ‘an infusion of confidence’ for markets,” link here.

The bill passed the Senate 72-13 (Saturday) and appropriates $300 billion to guarantee loans for certain homeowners, up to a cap of $625000. An estimated 400000 homeowners will be helped in staying in their homes, probably most of them having dependent children or elderly.

Christopher Dodd (D-CT) spoke on CNN of the frustration stable homeowners have over the “moral hazard” issue of other “less prudent” homeowners being bailed out. He pointed out, however, the all homeowners have self-interest in preventing foreclosures in their immediate neighborhoods, which will drop property values by 1% immediately or more, and increase neighborhood crime.

The most relevant govtrack reference appears to be HR 3221 “Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008”, originally introduced by Nancy Pelosi. The link is here and provides considerable detail as to the passage through Congress.

Picture: Outside Freddie Mac in Vienna, VA (no place to stop)

Friday, July 25, 2008

E-schools provide limited teaching jobs; boys surrender their trump in math and science

A new trend in education is “E-school,” which is taking hold, however slowly, in northern Virginia. Ian Shapira has a front page article in The Washington Post this morning, July 25, 2008, “The Odd World of E-School Teachers: Distance from Students Alters Exchange of Ideas,” link here

Still, the number of openings for e-teaching jobs in public school systems is small, and would seem to require normal licensure. The appeal of a job like that could include the ability to telecommute from home, and often the absence of typical discipline problems experienced by many classroom teachers. However, these courses would normally be more upper level courses for more mature students.

There was another major education story recently: according to a study published July 23 in the journal Science, girls are as good at math and science as boys. There is a typical story by David Malakoff in Science Now, “Girls = Boys at Math,” link here. The actual article “Diversity: Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance” (by Janet S. Hyde,1* Sara M. Lindberg,1 Marcia C. Linn,2 Amy B. Ellis,3 Caroline C. Williams) must be purchased from Science Magazine at this address.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fresh water could present another sustainability issue

The August 2008 Scientific American highlights another sustainability issue: fresh water. The article in print appears on p 46 (S.A. has the most attractive font for numbering pages that I seen since browsing grade school readers). The piece is authored by Peter Rogers, and the title is “Facing the Freshwater Crisis.” There is a sophisticated version online here. There is discussion of buzz words like “green water” “blue water” and “gray water” (which is recycled).

It’s obvious that global warming could reduce mountain snows and endanger water supplies in southwestern U.S., but so could careless growth. The article says that the US could have to invest $1 trillion in water technology in the next couple of decades.

The piece made a particularly interesting point, that in some areas of the world, particularly northern India, fresh water for city use is rationed and limited to a small amount of time a day so that more is left for agricultural irrigation.

I can recall summers in Kipton, Ohio (near Oberlin) where, in the 1950s, houses used cistern water for washing and laundry, and well water for drinking. Pumping the well was a daily chore. On returning home to Arlington, city water would taste richer. The town did not get drinking water service until the 1960s.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Do oil companies invest their profits in new drilling?

Yesterday, MSNBC featured a big AP story on whether or not oil companies are really using their “windfall” profits to find new oil. It provides a photograph of CEO Jim Mulva of ConocoPhillips, and claims that his company spent $275 million on new exploration but $2.5 billion on buying back shares of its stock.

The story is here.

The story says that the five biggest international oil companies spent 55% of their profits on buybacks; that is up from 30% in 2000 and 1% in 1993, when Bill Clinton took office.

The story says that ExxonMobil spent $8.8 billion on stock buybacks and $5.5 billion on exploration, which is better than Conoco.

The story mentions ExxonMobil and Chevron as major investor owned companies and as holding less than 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves. The CEO of Chevron (David O’Reilly) recently appeared on Larry King Live on CNN.

The story gives another link to Newsvine for public discussion of “policy v. profits”, here.

It is significant that retirees and pension funds that were prescient enough to invest in oil stocks are benefitting from the runup in oil prices. It is the people who have to drive long distances for a living who hurt the most, as well as anyone hit hard by food prices, an indirect result of increased demand for oil.

ExxonMobil has a current account ("America the efficient: Using energy wisely can drive down consumer costs and strengthen U.S. energy security") of its own stand on the issue with a July 10 op-ed on its own site (it’s a formal site, not quite a corporate blog) here.

Windfall profits taxes have made attractive word salad for politicians. President Nixon proposed them back in 1973.

Monday, July 21, 2008

School systems have to balance needs of advanced students with underprivileged, under NCLB, under budget pressures

The current economic pressures on school systems may be compromising the ability to fund math and science education for top students. When resources are limited, there is a tendency to wonder if “no child left behind” means that resources must be spent on lower performing an disadvantaged students, even as a “social justice” or ‘fairness” matter.

The DC Examiner has a Monday morning story by Leah Fabel, “Math whiz says district’s failure to fund team just doesn’t add up.” The story refers to Montgomery County, MD, one of the highest income counties in the United States, and its inability in a $2 billion budget for its school system to find $10000 for its math teams. The issue is described from the viewpoint of one high school student, Jacob Hurwitz (it’s not clear, but he may be graduated now). The print article and article shows him solving a strange math problem on the blackboard with chalk (no, not a modern white board wired to the Internet). It looks like geometry, but if you try to read the words, it looks more like topology, which I didn’t think was taught in high school (differential calculus is taught at McLean High School and presumably Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County).

The link is here.

I digress here for a moment. In 1962, one of my best friends had a blackboard in his bedroom in suburban Maryland, and at one time would work calculus problems (“hard to motivate” integration by partial fractions) on it. He later got obsessed with chess, and wound up getting drafted and going to Vietnam. But he survived.

Today, The Washington Post offers a column (on p A15 in print, with the editorials) by Joseph Lieberman, “A Lesson for D.C. Schools,” about the work of controversial Michelle Rhee, chancellor of District of Columbia public schools, in introducing performance based standards for teachers, with much emphasis on connecting with disadvantaged students. As with Prince Georges County, MD in recent stories, there is emphasis on breaking away from union-based seniority systems, and introducing teacher-performance systems that require both academic credentials and a real interest in working with less advantages students. The link is here (it may require registration).

But what is the next generation of young adults going to need to solve the global warming and energy crisis: math and science education, at the highest levels.

Update: July 24

The District of Columbia School system will require teachers expecting incentive pay to work under probation, and loss of seniority can mean that when schools are closed, some teachers will have to sell themselves to individual principals. The story (Metro, P B01, Washington Post) by Bill Turque is "Pay-Hike Plan for Teachers In D.C. Entails Probation," link here.

Update: July 26

The Washington Post has an article by Jay Matthews, "At Thomas Jefferson, 2.8 is Tantamount to Failure." Thomas Jefferson, with young Mathematics Education and Instructional Technology Ph D Evan Glazer as principal, is the magnate school for top high school students in Northern Virginia, run by the Fairfax County system. The link is here. There is a requirement to keep a B average to remain there (like graduate school!) The story is specific in printing an account of a problem over a history grade with a specific student and teacher. On July 29, Raw Fisher added a Post op-ed on p B3, "When Elitism goes off the deep end," here, with more discussion this one kid's performance (and some speculation, making him a cause celebre), grade inflation. "A B-minus isn't flunking out in anybody's eyes. Defining it as an unacceptable, shameful performance only means this school's sense of judgment is way off."

I never subbed there, but I did see that there obviously were some top students, as in the calculus courses, at a number of other schools (Yorktown, McLean, Langley, Madison, West Potomac, and so on).

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ethanol fuels: look at both sides of the debate

Clifford May has a not-so-strident editorial on p 1 of the “Voices” Section B of the Sunday July 20, 2008 Washington Times, “Falsehoods in the Pipeline”. The piece does not yet come up online (the visitor should try later), but the points he makes are worth noting.

OPEC head Chakib Khlelil apparently claimed last month that the increase of biofuels on the market accounts for 40% of the runnup in crude oils futures prices (which dropped about 8% at the end of this past week, thank you, probably after May wrote his piece). May says, that’s like saying that the availability of Kool-Aid drives up the price of Coca Cola, even in Atlanta. Oh, I remember those boyhood summers in Ohio when us kids would mix Kool-Aid with well water (fetching it was a daily chore then) for our summer refreshment, while the Nats (call them the Senators) lost to the Indians in concurrent baseball games booming on the kitchen radio. We didn’t seem to relish the carbonation of Coke then (pun intended). Carbonic acid, dentists say, is bad for your teeth, as bad as sugar. Chakib has indeed given us an odd, illogical metaphor to chew on.

May goes on to talk about the way the government pays farmers not to plant land, including some of that farmland between Kipton and Oberlin that we (as kids) used to play in back in the 50s, making those adventures back to the pond. Today, that whole area is getting built up with all kinds of little businesses. Maybe we shouldn’t be growing King Corn for fuel, but all kinds of other things like sawgrass. We just need some more research in bacterial genetics to figure out how to convert it to alcohol (for cars, not booze) more economically. That’s why students major in chemical engineering, and biochemistry.

Brazil, May says, certainly has its sweet tooth, enough for all the Kool-Aid it wants, and all the ethanol car fuel it wants. The interior sections of the country, the “Midwest” beyond the “Appalachian” Brazilian highlands, are oceans of pure green, bright enough to cause retinal fatigue. Brazil’s dependence on foreign oil is 0 (it will soon be producing more off-shore) and ours is 70%. It’s a pretty telling story. Apparently, Brazil is booming. There are, of course, legitimate greenhouse gas questions about clearing forests and jungle, especially around the Amazon.

Libertarians are quick to point out that ethanol is not real good for cars, with mandatory gasohol causing oil pan gaskets to leak eventually. That’s already happened to me. But that’s just an engineering issue that could be solved with design.

Today, the Washington Post had a major story on hunger in Africa (see my International Issues blog). The Washington Times op-ed makes a good companion piece.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

XOM: what's the fair share price? Also, banks "not on the SEC List" find themselves marks for short selling

Light crude oil has fallen about $19 in the past week. It fell slightly Friday, and XOM (ExxonMobil) rose slightly. The suggestion, from this combination of circumstances, is that about $81 is a “fair market price” for an XOM share based on its earnings potential, and that prices in the 90s recently were the result of speculation and are not sustainable by earnings. A retiree who owns substantial XOM could use that price to estimate a stable value for his assets.

Financial writers propose all kinds of theories for letting a little of the pus out of the oil futures price. Perhaps this sounds like putting Orajel on an aching tooth and putting off the visit to the dentist for a root canal job or extraction. But one big reason is that Bush himself lifted the Executive ban on most offshore drilling (one that had been put into place by his father), and Congress is hinting that it may be willing to do the same. Barack Obama may not support that, and it’s possible that the energy crisis may really help McCain—because drilling and exploration will bring down gasoline prices. But they may exacerbate global warming unless they are undertaken very carefully.

Of course, another reason is that Congress is hinting at regulating commodities speculation with some sort of margin requirement. Even the talk of that can knock the wind out of speculation. Nevertheless, the speculators have provided us with ample warning, as did CNN: we must do something about the glowing global demand for energy at the same time that more carbon dioxide is building up in our increasingly Venusian atmosphere.

Related to all this is a Wall Street Journal weekend story (p B1 “Personal Finance: Money & Investing” by Kara Scanell “SEC Short-Sale Rule Gets Negative Reviews; Banks Not on List Fear They’re Now Even Bigger Targets,” link here. There are 19 mortgage firms on the list, including Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. I can remember in the office that co-workers would make jokes about selling short back in 2000 or so – a few people logged on to their home computers from work and did it at “home from work”. It was “fun” when the dot-com bubble burst. (I didn’t do it.) Now, the banks not on the list but maybe close to belong on it feel that they are the new marks.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Al Gore: Get electric uilities onto renewable energy within ten years, or else!

Professor Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Truth”) gave us our tongue-lashing yesterday and a dire warning that our way of life in the U.S. and North America could vanish if we don’t turn around the greenhouse gas problem (and probably the oil tipping point problem) quickly. He challenged American electrical utilities to produce all of their electricity with renewable means (wind, solar, and perhaps even ocean tides and even lightning) within ten years.

T. Boone Pickens has been urging something similar, as he has been instrumental in pushing Texas to build wind farms on the high plains to power the (four) big cities to the east. Pickens wants to use natural gas to power automobiles, but most commentators stress building high-mileage plug-in hybrids. Pickens also thinks that the government should declare a national energy emergency. He will appear on ABC Nightline July 18.

Other countries have been innovative. Brazil, which actually has discovered new oil resources off-shore, has gotten its motorists partly off of gasoline with massive sugar cane farming to produce ethanol fuels.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been warning that global warming is a real danger, but still will not impose carbon emissions regulations as long as George W. Bush is president. The EPA warns that teenagers living now will, at middle age, think of their youth as the good old days as summers get much hotter, and huge storms much more frequent. But the physics of the planet’s atmosphere means that most warming will happen at the poles, with rise in sea level from melting of ice caps. Rapid melting of the Greenland glacier could disrupt the Gulf Stream that warms Europe. Rise in sea levels could disproportionately affect poorer countries.

Gore is right in warning about fundamental risks to national security, because of resentment of developed countries consuming resources and polluting the planet. The Canadian group that produced the “End of Suburbia” films advocates that Americans start preparing for a decentralized life style than could have enormous impact on social values, and force individuals into patterns of direct interdependence and socialization that they are not used to. We may learn that our “moral thinking” indeed has flip sides.

In the Washington Post Business section, Steven Pearlstein (“Macbeth and the Market”) talks about “herd behavior” and fundamentals, and the extremely long time horizons it can take fundamentals to work.. Steven Mufson also talks about the “oil bubble speculation.” Oil prices started to drop the past two days because Congress hinted at the idea of regulating speculation and margins, Pearlstein says. It could also have fallen because Bush has formally deregulated offshore drilling, and is pushing Congress to do the same.

There’s something else to say about herd behavior. When you work for somebody else, at least publicly, you have to do what they say and even “say” what they tell you to say. When you have a family to support, you have to go along with the herd, it seems, to be credible. You have to fit in. That’s what people think. (But a rural survivalist family would disagree.) The freewheeling speech on the Internet, with all the individual blogs and social networking profiles, comes from people without “real responsibilities.” Well, there is that impression, that “the privilege of being listened to” should come from real responsibility and social credibility. Does that contribute to herd behavior? Probably. In the decentralized world of “Escape from Suburbia”, perhaps not.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Merrill Lynch posts big loss, reassures account holders with formal statement and publication

Since I use Merrill Lynch for some cash and retirement portfolio management myself, I was alarmed when I heard that the brokerage house today posted a second quarter $4.9 billion loss.

The company today posted a PDF “Why Your Accounts Are Safe at Merrill Lynch,” at this URL.

The paper discusses several issues. First, there is “safe securities holding practices,” including physical holding of the securities at Depository Trust Company.

The main issue, of course, is separation from individual accounts (cash management accounts and IRAs of various kinds) from the investment bank’s own assets. There is a mechanism provided by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC). “SIPC funds are available to make up for any shortfall in client assets that the broker-dealer was required to maintain” up to $500,000 per client, outside of cash, which itself is insured in a customary and familiar manner by the FDIC for up to $100000 per account.

The company today (July 17, 2008) also posted a pseudo-pop-up for account holders that says “We've recently announced the sale and expected sale of non-core assets such as Bloomberg, L.P., and the capital raised in aggregate from these deals is approximately $8 billion. We have record excess liquidity of approximately $92 billion (at June 27, 2008)--up significantly from the first quarter of 2008.” Major media outlets and wire services (like the AP) will carry various versions of this story.

None of this contradicts the fact that the securities themselves in an account are generally not insured, and that their value rises and falls according to the market.

When I was working for Chilton Corporation (credit reporting company) in Dallas in the 1980s, it was bought by Borg-Warner which in turn was bought by Merrill Lynch Capital Partners in a leveraged buyout in 1987. At the time, the bottom line demands on the company were stressful for the company and employees, until Chilton was finally sold to TRW in 1989 (to eventually be spun off as Experian -- much of which is still in the Dallas area, ironically). But management, for over a year, talked about "Merrill Lynch" as their owners as they felt pressured to make "Merrill Lynch" happy. Even then I had started my CMA. What goes around comes around.

Individual health insurance still has big problems with pre-existing conditions

Individual health insurance, left to the somewhat distorted mechanisms of a “free market” is not doing very well with people who have pre-existing conditions. Maybe it never has, but in some parts of the country the problem may be getting worse.

Julie Appleby has a front page story in “USA Today” (“Individual health policies leave many behind”) on July 17 about the problem. (The link is here.) She cites the Swain family, with (fraternal?) twin sons Logan and Morgan, in Georgia. Because Logan is much shorter than “normal,” the family wasn’t able to get Logan included in its health insurance policy. The mother, Theresa, works as a substitute teacher (an occupation with issues that I have discussed in detail in this blog before) and the father William ran his own landscaping business. Eventually, however, he took a job that offered group health insurance and was able to get Logan covered.

That illustrates another problem. The difficulties in the individual market forces many parents to try to hand on to “establishment” jobs (especially union jobs) that offer better benefits, where they may be exposed to overseas offshoring and economic downturns (especially now). They might find better opportunities and self-sufficiency if they went on their own, but they cannot afford to do this if they have dependents. And, as it is becoming clearer, not everyone always “chooses” to have dependents by marrying and having children. Some people raise siblings’ children or have heavy eldercare responsibilities.

According to Appleby, just five states (Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont) require private insurance companies to sell to all applicants. Washington has a partial requirement like this.

Many people have policies canceled and claims denied (as in the movie and John Grisham novel “Rainmaker”) if they gave “misleading” information on their individual insurance application.

Most industry associations say they could insure everyone if states would take over responsibility for pre-existing conditions. But healthy people sometimes find it advantageous to move to more “conservative” states where their rates may be lower because insurers won’t take sicker people (the “cherry picker” problem).

Barack Obama emphasizes the idea of requiring insurers to take everyone. John McCain talks about using pre-tax dollars to purchase individual insurance but soft-pedals the pre-existing problem, although this could change during the campaign. The two presidential candidates might, in debates, be forced to come closer in their positions.

No one is likely to require domestic partner coverage, but many companies like to offer it to attract skilled workers. Domestic partner coverage (especially for gay couples, in any state where then cannot marry) might become harder to get in a world where employers play a smaller role in providing health insurance than they have in the past 70 years.

Kaiser Permanante has a useful chart online (the “Individual Market Guide”) about guaranteed issue, here. In some states, like Virginia, Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans are insurers of last resort that take everyone, although their individual premiums will be much higher than what an employer could get.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

US Airways Pilots say airline is pressuring them to carry less fuel

The US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA) placed a paid advertisement in the USA Today newspaper today, p A5, “A Message to Our Valued Passengers From the US Airways Pilots.” The large-print message says that the airline has been pressuring pilots to reduce fuel levels. There are minimum requirements and standard practices, allowing for additional stops or for extra time in holding patterns. The announcement complains that pilots who do not comply will be subject to “training events.” Pilots claim that they can be fired if they do not go along with the "training."

The press release is at this URL. I didn’t see the exact ad on the union’s website, at the paper, or elsewhere. The visitor would need to purchase the paper or see it in a library to see the entire ad.

"CNN Money" ’s story is here.

The pressure to reduce fuel weight is part of a desperate trend by airlines to cut weight, by charging even for first bags, charging for meals, eliminating movies, etc.

USAir has a statement on its website asking the public to ask Congress to reign in on oil speculators, as has the airline industry as a whole, here, by referring to a “stopoilspeculaiton” link already discussed. Critics are saying that all the airlines could have locked in the price of oil two years ago the way Southwest did, and the airlines are trying to interfere with the “free market.”

“Larry King Live” on CNN covered this problem tonight.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Laser printer imprint could jeopardize privacy

Would you believe that there could be any connection between laser printer technology and privacy?

Well, there is a story that a number of laser printers, including low cost one, leave invisible yellow dots that identify the serial number of a particular printer, and sometimes the time and date of the printout. The federal government uses this technology largely to look for counterfeit money or possibly legal documents. Possibly they could be used in other kinds of criminal investigations. However, it could be used to track down dissidents, particularly in other countries, such as China.

About 4% of the printers sold in the US for personal use are laser printers.

The story by Thomas Frank appeared in USA Today in the Technology section, link here.

I have owned several laser printers, the first one an HP purchased in 1985 for over $2000.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Small" California bank (Indymac) falls to subprime crisis, jeopardizing "careless" depositors

The media widely reported yesterday the failure of IndyMac Bank in Pasadena CA and the operation by the FDIC, whose statement on the matter ("Failed Bank Information") is here. According to widespread reports, there were a significant number of depositors who had more than $100000 in one account at the bank. These depositors will be guaranteed (by the FDIC) only 50% of deposit amounts over $100000 in any one account. In time, more money for them may be recovered.

In 2006 IndyMac had employed 10000 people. After the latest round of layoffs, employment would have been about 3400.

The sale of a bank or its seizure by the FDIC does not affect the obligations of borrowers for mortgages held by the bank, which are simply sold to other companies.

This was the fifth FDIC bank rescue this year, as some smaller banks that had specialized in risky subprime mortgages to unqualified applicants fail and foreclosures mount.

As recently as July 1, IndyMac had denied that it was in danger of collapse, as in a Los Angeles Times story by E. Scott Reckard and Angela Chang, after its share price had lost 90% of its value. However, this week depositors started making a run on the bank.

This is said to be the second largest bank failure in US history. The largest occurred in 1984 with the Continental Illinois Bank.

In the late 1980s, many banks in Texas failed during the savings and loan crisis. Most were sold to other banks. Republic Bank was eventually sold to North Carolina NCNB to become NationsBank and would eventually take over the Bank of America and use the larger bank’s name. In Washington DC Riggs would be absorbed by Pittsburgh-based PNC.

The media is reporting that Freddie Mac and sister Fannie Mae are "too big to fail" but apparently Freddie Mac will try to sell $3 billion of its securities on Monday. Sunday afternoon, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson made a statement reassuring investors that bonds for Freddie and Fannie are good, and that the Federal Reserve has taken steps to guarantee them capital. Marketwatch link is here. This whole discussion calls to mind (in "stream of consciousness") Ingmar Bergman's film "Fannie and Alexander."

On Monday, July 14, Sebastian Mallaby, on p A13 of The Washington Post, proposed "Nationalization: A Solution for Housing" with respect to Fannie and Freddie, and suggested that without it they would become subject to "equity runs." Link.

Picture 1: SE Texas

Picture 2: FDIC, Arlington VA. It's busy today!


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Does Gull Island have enough oil to bail US out of energy crisis?

In some quarters, “conservatives” are writing that a place called Gull Island, off Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, could bring in enough domestic oil to bring down gasoline prices to $1.50 a gallon. The concept of "peak oil" or tap-out points, after which prices will rise astronomically and economic meltdown must occur, is left-wing hogwash, they say. Contrast this with the outlook of the "End of Suburbia" films (reviewed on my movies blog July 4).

For example, an article by Mark Anderson at American Free Press claims “Alaska’s Gull Island Oil Fields Could Power U.S. for 200 Years,” link here. That’s an old article, looking back to August 2002. The article maintains a high-level Manchurian-like plot to use oil to keep the world masses under control.

And a 2005 article by Joel Skousen of the “World Affairs Board,” “Gas Price Manipulation and Gull Island Oil,” at “Rense” and discusses both the Kuparak and Gull fields.

There is also a series of YouTube videos by Lindsey Williams (a Baptist minister), author of “The Energy Non Crisis” from this link. There is a list of these videos at “Educate Yourself” here. I do see that the book dates back to 1980!

Williams also claims that the US is targeting Iran for wanting to use its own currency for the price of oil, rather than the US dollar. But pricing of crude oil in dollars may be driving the price up for American consumers more since the dollar is weak, in the wake of the subprime crisis; link.

Gull Island is located very near Prudhoe Bay, 400 miles north of Fairbanks on the Arctic Ocean. Wikipedia states that the amount of recoverable oil from Prudhoe Bay is twice that of the next largest domestic field in East Texas. High temperatures there in mid July typically reach the mid 50s.

Update: Monday, July 14

USA Today has a front page cover story by Rick Jervis, William M. Welch, Richard Wolf: "Worth the Risk: Debate on offshore drilling heats up: doubts persist despite oil industry advances," link here. Away from the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska and a little bit of California, most areas are still closed off, and in theory have enough supply to last a few years. CNN also recently presented a brief report on the boom in oil shale in northern Alberta, and Canada may export this oil to China (if a new Pacific pipeline is built) as well as to the United States.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

So we have two Dr. Phil's -- tell the airlines to stop whining? Do state laws hurt health insurance?

I remember Senator Phil Gram pretty well from my days in Texas. So I have to chuckle at the flap today over Gram’s calling the country “a nation of whiners” and said we were in a “mental recession.” Where did this appear? The Washington Times, of course. The link is here (story by Ralph Z. Hallow and Donald Lambro) Oh, I recall a sixth grade teacher who once chided me, "Bill, is that you whining?" "Those were the days, my friend. I thought they'd never end."

So McCain politely distances himself from Gram, and suggests Gram’s exile to Belarus, where Gram might not be welcome. And Barack Obama (recalling Lloyd Bentsen) hits it out of the park. “We already have one Dr. Phil. We don’t need two.” Obama also said something like, "It isn't whining to expect the federal government to extend struggling families some relief." Yes, families, particularly.

The airlines may be “whining,” asking the public to lobby Congress to reign in on oil speculators. A consortium of twelve airlines claims that speculators are responsible for $60 of the $140 futures contract price of a barrel of oil. It strikes me that this is definitely “gimme lobbying,” trying to get passengers to write letters on their one specific issue. My own take is that essentially the oil price spike is a result of how markets behave with “supply v demand” tipping points are reached, although if Congress authorized more offshore and Alaska drilling, the price would come down. (Is it oil company “blackmail”? Maybe.) The Airlines Transport Association publishes its paper here. Yes, maybe you could regulate hedge fund investments in commodities futures on margins. Then what? You can also visit the ATA’s “stop oil speculation” website here.

Along the lines of resisting the urge to whine about health care, Reed Abelson has a story in The New York Times today, “Small Business Is Latest Focus In Health Fight,” link here. There is a well-made point that in some states, laws prevent small employers from banding with out-of-state employers to form larger purchasing pools. So maybe Gram would concur.

Update: July 16, 2008

The Center for Economic and Policy Research, on July 9, presented a paper saying "Housing Market Meltdown Will Cause Massive Losses in Household Wealth", link here. The group published a study called "The Impact of the Housing Crash on Family Wealth" (pdf) here. The article maintains that "due to the collapse of the housing bubble, the vast majority of Americans have accumulated little or no wealth." Americans will become even more dependent on Social Security and Medicare.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Pickens offers energy plan involving wind power, natural gas

Tonight, ABC World News Tonight discussed the energy plan of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens. His website “Pickens Plan” offers a 5 minute video that explains the plan. In 1970, Pickens says, the United States imported 24% of the oil that it uses. By 1990, the number was 42% (after the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, and then the Saudi increase in production in 1985). Now it is 70%, and costs this country $700 billion a year. That’s about $2000 per person, either for fuel, debt, loss in the value of the dollar, etc.

Even though he is an "oil man" Pickens says we can't just drill our way out of this problem, even offshore.

Pickens wants to build massive wind farms in the Great Plains. He has model farms in Sweetwater and Pampa TX. (where the largest wind farm in the world is being built, on the high plains in the Panhandle). That would free up natural gas used for electricity generation for use in automobiles (presumably instead of hybrids). Natural gas, he says, is cleaner, emits less carbon dioxide, and is domestic so it will be cheaper. Detroit, of course, has to decide what technology to emphasize in building new cars, and that affects what infrastructure is built across the country by oil companies.

I’ve had some correspondence with one of the people mentioned in the recent film “Escape from Suburbia” (see my movies blog for July 4), about a forthcoming book by Scott Kellogg, “Toolbox for Sustainable City Living” (South End Press, 2008). I’m told that his concept is “radical sustainability” and that solar power won’t fill the bill, because the panels will wear out in 25 years and we will be tethered to an industry that produces them. I don’t know how credible this claim is.

Update: July 22

T. Boone Pickens described his Plan to Congress today, according to an AP story by Suzanne Gamboa, link here. Pickens does not believe we can find enough oil in the free world at acceptable price to get out of our quicksand trap of dependence on foreign oil. He warns we could see $300 a barrel in ten years or less.

Update: July 26

Ali Velshi's program on CNN raises the question of migratory birds being harmed by windmills. It's not clear if the birds are smart enough not to fly into them.

Update: Aug. 22, 2008

A Southern Maryland family will build a 33-foot windmill on its property, according to a story in The Washington Post by Megan Greenwell, "Wind Power's Energetic Fans
Environmentally Conscious Couple Seeks Approval to Build Turbine in S.Md.," link here.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

DC wants to close off major arteries for commuters, pass-through travelers

The “people’s” democratic administration of Washington DC (under Mayor Adrian Fenty) is considering asking for more draconian steps against motorists, the most visible of which would be to close off the exit from I-395 (just after the two tunnels) onto New York Avenue (US 50) heading NE toward the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and toward Annapolis and Bay Bridge.

Unlike most cities, Washington does not have an Interstate that runs through the city continuously. So some motorists go “straight” through the mixing bowl on I-95, which becomes I-395 as a spur, to the Fourteenth Street Bridge. It then meanders across the Chase Bridge toward the tunnels, and winds up at New York Ave. About three miles of New York Ave have lights (most with cameras, and with speed cameras) until it becomes a freeway at the Arboretum and the Washington Times property. One can then take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (called MD 295) to 495 (the Beltway), head west to I-95 (eight lanes) to head toward Baltimore. As a practical matter, this is the shortest route through the area going north. I-95 actually follows the Beltway through Prince Georges County after crossing the new Wilson Bridge (near the new National Harbor) and heads north toward Baltimore only after about 30 miles of Beltway, often clogged.

A right turn onto US-50-NY Avenue from I-395 presents one with an extra bus stop lane and light, one which almost got me a ticket, but I talked them out of it (with some improvement in light timing afterward). The time I spent on emails was worth the amount of the ticket.

Washington DC has been criticized for its heavy use of camera fines, often said to be motivated by revenue rather than traffic safety. AAA has called Washington DC to have the most literal enforcement of speed limits and other traffic laws in the nation. Some enforcement activity seems justified to increase the likelihood of apprehending possible terror suspects. However, some observers feel that the fines and harassment of commuters is motivated politically, because Congress won't allow DC to levy a commuter tax. In the DC area, local income taxes are dependent on where you live. In the New York area, by comparison, they often depend on where you work.

DC’s red light camera locations are given at this website from the Metropolitan Police Department.

DC has legitimate concerns about pedestrian safety. One of the most dangerous areas for pedestrians in my opinion is around U Street and the Lincoln Theater, where there are a lot of newly renovated condominiums and apartments and many bars and restaurants, including some that cater to the LGBT community.

The Speed cameras are given at this location.

The front page (Sunday July 6) Washington Post Story is “D.C. May Choke Driving Options: City Considers Ways To Take Commuters Off Key Roadways,” link here.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Will the 55 MPH national speed limit come back because of the oil price spike?

Will we again have a national speed limit of 55? That’s what Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia suggests now.

From a practical viewpoint, it makes some sense. Some people will want to drive 50-55 in order to conserve fuel. They could be at risk for rear-ending if many drivers (especially trucks, under delivery schedules), still driving legally, go 65 or perhaps 70 under the grace limits.

Back in 1973, speed limits were suddenly deceased to 50. Gasoline stations were closed on Sundays, and even-odd license plate purchase rationing was implemented. Ration books were printed but never used. Even though the Yom Kippur war is said to have catalyzed the Arab oil embargo, there had been some warning signs back in 1972 after the dollar devaluation and loss of gold standard, and there had been talk of oil shortages even then.

After a while, the limit nationally was 55, and stayed that way until the 90s, when many states took it back to 65 or 70. Maryland was a holdout for a long time, staying at 55 for several extra years.

The oil price thing is a “quickening.” It’s coming at consumers very quickly. Today I watched “The End of Suburbia” (from 2004) which I reviewed on my movies blog (check the profile) and which talks about draconian steps coming suddenly. We don’t have gas lines (yet) because supplies seem adequate for slightly reduced demand. Don’t hold your breath.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Nats, Washington DC in dispute over "free speech" and property rights

Today station WJLA in Washington DC mentioned an interesting “property rights” problem. The local government of “quasi home rule” in Washington put up the money for the new Nationals Stadium on the Anacostia River, displacing many residents and businesses in an effort to raise property values and gentrify a previously poor neighborhood. So the City wants to put up a sign reading “taxation without representation” on a billboard within sight line of most fans at the Nats’ baseball games.

But the Nationals management balked. It apparently believes that if it permits any political advertising at all in the ballpark, it will have to take all comers for anything (gay marriage, “family values”, 2nd Amendment, etc.). Baseball, it maintains, has no business intervening in the political views of fans. Baseball is show business and entertainment.

But the City owns the stadium. It seems that the City has a case to make its biggest grievance known. The TWR message appears on Washington DC license plates.

How does the libertarian idea about property rights play out on this one?

The Nats lost today, 4-2, to the nemesis Florida Marlins. They’ve been hit harder by injuries than almost any time in history, and have to field an essentially minor league lineup. Even so, they’re winning about 35% of their games. Will Zimmermann, Kearns, Milledge and Johnson ever return?