Archive for March, 2012

U.S. nuclear plants are wearing out

March 31, 2012

If these YouTube videos have been taken down, click on Danger Zone: Aging Nuclear Reactors for Al Jazeera’s documentary on U.S. nuclear safety.

I have long believed that nuclear power is a dangerous technology that can be provided safely.   This Al Jazeera documentary raises the question as to whether nuclear power will be provided safely.  The documentary shows that many U.S. nuclear power plants are poorly maintained and are being kept operating past their planned closing dates.  Moreover many are next to earthquake faults.   If nuclear power plants cannot be operated profitably without violating the industry’s own safety standards, they should be shut down as soon as replacement power can be made available.

Because such a long time is required to bring a new nuclear power plant into operation, the replacement power will have to be coal or, preferably, natural gas.  Maybe some day there can be a new generation of nuclear power plants using current technology and located on seismically safe sites.   If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. nuclear industry were responsible about continuing nuclear power in this country, such a generation of nuclear plants should have been ready to go on line now.  If this is not politically and ecoomically feasible, then nuclear power, at least for now, is not politically and economically feasible.

21st century due process

March 30, 2012

The Constitution of the United States says that noone can be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. President Barack Obama has asserted the right to sign death warrants for anyone he deems a terrorist.

Attorney-General Eric Holder was asked how President Obama’s claim squares with Constitutional due process.  Holder replied that the Constitution guarantees due process, not legal process.  Cartoonist Ruben Bolling speculated on what the new due process might look like.

Double click to enlarge.

Christian marriage and civil unions

March 29, 2012

The major objection to legal recognition of gay marriage is that it is contrary to the historic teachings of Christianity and, indeed, of Judaism, Islam and other faiths.   But in fact the civil law as regards divorce has departed from Christian teachings from some time.

As I read the Gospels, Mark and Luke report that Jesus condemned condemned divorce, or Matthew that he condemned divorce except for reason of unchastity.  The first is the historic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning marriage.   The second was the teaching of the main Protestant churches down through the early 20th century.

New York state’s “no fault” divorce law, under which I myself was divorced many years ago, allows a husband and wife to dissolve their marriage based on mutual agreement.   This is contradictory to the idea of marriage as bond which lasts “so long as you both shall live” than a same-sex union.   So are the laws of other states.  Civil marriage law for decades has ceased to reflect the Christian teaching that marriage is a sacrament that neither party can dissolve.

The Christian writer C.S. Lewis recognized the problem back in 1943

A great many people think that if you are a Christian yourself, you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone.   I do not think that.   At least I know I would be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine.

My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.  There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on  her own members.   The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

I don’t think the government should be in the business of defining marriage at all.   God, if He exists, knows who is married in His eyes and who is not.  Nothing the law can say can change this.  Let the government define the legal responsibilities of partners in civil unions and of parents to children,  and let the churches, who claim to speak for God, define marriage.

This still is a great time to be alive

March 28, 2012

Project Orion was a proposal to propel spaceships by means of pulsed nuclear explosions.  It had the support of Freeman Dyson, Werner von Braun, Stanislaw Ulam and other physicists and rocket scientists, but was abandoned by the Air Force in 1959 and rendered illegal by the Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Click on Project Orion: Its Birth, Death and Possible Rebirth for details.

Asteroid mining would be a means of making space exploration economically self-sustaining.  Click on Space Future: The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids for the argument that this is practical.

Click on PlanetQuest: The Search for Another Earth for NASA’s report on the discovery of planets in other solar systems.

Click on Nomad planets: stepping stones to interstellar space? for one possible way interstellar travel could be feasible.

When I was a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I took it for granted that by 2012, there would be human colonies on the Moon and Mars.  I thought Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History was a plausible scenario for what would happen.   I’m no longer sure colonization of the Solar System is feasible, let alone sending starships to other solar systems.  All I can say is that I would like to think it is possible for humankind can venture out into the rest of the universe, and I think the possibility is worth exploring.

Newt Gingrich is regarded as a crackpot for advocating a mission to Mars, but not for advocating an attack on Iran.  The latter would be at best a monstrous crime, the former at worst a glorious folly.

Click on xkcd for more cartoons.

As usual, it is the victim that is on trial

March 27, 2012

Back in the 1960s, I covered murder trials as a reporter for The Daily Mail in Hagerstown, Md.   In none of this trials was there any question of who the killer was.   The argument for the defense was that the deceased brought his fate on himself, for being an abusive husband,  an abusive parent or something else intolerable.  The juries were almost always sympathetic, and the killer usually was either acquitted or treated with extreme leniency.  I thought the result was probably right, but I would have liked to have heard the victim’s side of the story.  That is one of the disadvantages of being dead.  You don’t get to tell your side of the story.

That is what is happening in the Trayvon Martin case.  The victim is being put on trial.  And he doesn’t get to tell his side of the story.

Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old boy who lived in a gated community in Sanford, Florida.  One night he went out on an errand.  On the way home he was seen by an armed Neighborhood Watch volunteer named George Zimmerman, who thought his behavior was suspicious.  He called 911 and, despite explicitly being told not to do so, started stalking Martin in his van.  Martin at the time was talking to his girlfriend on a cell phone about some strange character following him.  Zimmerman got out of his van, there was some sort of confrontation, Zimmerman was seen holding Martin down on the ground, and Martin was shot dead.  Martin himself was unarmed.

The significance of Martin being black is that this happens so often to black people, including teenagers and young children.  Because it is a pattern, black people across the United States are naturally up in arms about the case.  But to many white people, the greater issue and the greater injustice is white people being accused of racism.

As always happens in such cases, there has been a concerted effort to dig up dirt on Martin.  The worst thing that has surfaced is that Martin was suspended from school, reportedly for being in possession of an empty marijuana baggy.   If true, this does not, alas, make him different from other teenagers these days.

Click on What Everyone Needs to Know About the Smear Campaign Against Trayvon Martin for more about this.

This just in:  The Orlando Sentinel reported this morning that Zimmerman told police that Martin jumped up, cold-cocked him with one blow and started hammering his head against the ground before he pulled his gun and shot him.   I will be interested to see if any eyewitnesses confirm this.   It seems improbable that a teenager, with no history of violence, would jump a man 10 years older and 10050 pounds heavier for no real reason.  It seems more likely that the chaser, rather than the chase-ee, would be the aggressor.  As I said, Trayvon Martin isn’t around to give his version of the story.

Click on Zimmerman says Travon decked him with one blow, then began hammering his head for a  report on what Zimmerman reportedly told police.

[Afterthought]  Even if the facts were partly or wholly as Zimmerman reportedly said, that does not close the case, in my opinion.  As Ta-nehisi Coates said, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows a person who feels threatened to shoot without waiting for the other person to shoot first.  Trayvon Martin had good reason to feel threatened.  Should he have waited for the other person to throw the first punch?  But of course there is no way to ask him what he was thinking.

[Update 3/29/12]  The police video of George Zimmerman appears to contradict the account he allegedly gave to police.  Click on New Video of George Zimmerman at the Police Station for details.

The facts of the case would be better determined in a court of law than by me and others publishing dueling sets of leaked information.  My excuse for doing this is that the case may well never reach a court of law.

[Update 3/31/12]  Forget what I wrote above about the police video.   Click on Who Needs Journalism: MSNBC Broadcasts a New Clearer Tape for the reason.

Click on The Danger of Rushing to Judgment on George Zimmerman for some words of wisdom.

The older generation masters the i-Pad

March 26, 2012

The clip is in German.

Daughter is visiting father and is helping in the kitchen.

She asks: “Tell me, dad, how are you managing with the new i-Pad we gave you for your birthday?”

“Good,” he replies and then demonstrates to the daughter’s surprise.

Father asks: ”What’s wrong?”

Hat tip to my sister-in-law Sandra Ebersole.

Additions to my Links menus

March 25, 2012

If you find my posts of interests, I think you will find the items on my links menus of even greater interest, especially the Articles of Interest and the Articles of Lasting Interest.  I add to Articles of Interest roughly once a week.

I have added two new menus, Essays by Paul Graham and More Links and Pages.  Paul Graham is a computer programmer, venture capitalist and essayist who lives in the Boston area.  Many of his essays are of interest mainly to information technology specialists or business managers, but others, particularly the ones to which I have linked, are of great interest.  More Blogs and Links is a kind of P.S. to the menus about it.

I list some of my old posts which I think are still of interest under Notable Posts.  The posts and pages which get the most views in the current day and the day before are listed under Popular Posts and Pages.

Florida law and George Zimmerman’s impunity

March 24, 2012

The Trayvon Martin case involves the shooting of a young black man by a young white man, and the failure of the white-run Southern police department to take any action against the killer.  The more evidence comes out, the less defensible and more bigoted the police department’s attitude seems. … …  My feeling is the same as when I wrote about the Troy Davis execution last fall: this case is obviously about race, and is important on those grounds.  Race relations are after all the original and ongoing tension in U.S. history.  But it is also about self-government, rule of law, equality before the law, accountability of power, and every other value that we contend is integral to the American ideal … …

via James Fallows.

George Zimmerman

Many commentators and bloggers speculate that George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch guy in Florida who killed the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, will claim justification under Florida’s new expansive self-defense law.

Historically the right to claim self-defense as a basis for justifiable homicide required you to show that you had taken other reasonable actions, including backing way from the situation, to protect your life.  Florida’s expanded law, according to various bloggers and commentators, expands that right.  You have the right to stand your ground, and still use deadly force if you feel in danger.

In Florida you may kill anyone who’s not in an iron lung machine, or comatose, at will, as long as you do it with no-one else around and you are willing to say you were scared of your victim at the time.  Really.  You can probably shoot him in the back if you say you thought he was going for a piece tucked in his belt. … … George Zimmerman, who apparently spent night after night out and about with his 9mm burning a hole in his pocket, finally got to use it for what it’s supposed to do.  I’m aware of no statement of regret from Zimmerman, and it appears that he’s in good shape legally, at least for now.

via The Reality-Based Community.

The thing about this right is that it can be claimed only by the shooter, never by the victim.   George Zimmerman, the gun-toting Neighborhood Watch volunteer, who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager did not grant Martin any right to stand his ground.  Neither did he grant him any right to retreat from the situation, nor to move forward.   Any of these actions could be been deemed evidence of guilt.

Martin would have been better off if he had carried a concealed weapon, and shot Zimmerman before Zimmerman shot him. He undoubtedly would have been put on trial (whether Zimmerman will be is doubtful), but he would at least have been able to tell his side of the story.   That is one of the legal disadvantages of being a homicide victim.  Your killer gets to tell his side of the story, but you do not.

I have read comment on the Internet pointing out that there is no proof that Zimmerman acted out of racial prejudice, or arguing that since he is of Hispanic heritage, he can’t be racist.  The issue becomes not whether there was any reason to shoot an unarmed 17-year-old boy, but whether he would have been as prone to shoot a white boy as a black boy.

I never heard of a Neighborhood Watch volunteer carrying a concealed weapon.  None of the Neighborhood Watch in my own neighborhood do, and, even though I am white, I would feel uneasy if they did.  I believe there is a Second Amendment individual right to keep and bear arms, and an inherent right to self-defense, but with those rights go responsibilities.

It is of course impossible to know what Zimmerman thinks or feels in his heart.  All we can know is what he did.  You can’t change the hatred and prejudice that people feel in their hearts.  You can change the law that says, basically, that you can kill somebody with impunity if there are no witnesses and you are willing to say you are scared.

People who endanger or take innocent life should face consequences.  I believe that anybody who takes a human life with a firearm, intentionally or accidentally, whether wearing a badge or not, should forfeit the right to ever touch a firearm again, unless they were defending themselves or someone else against an actual clear and present danger.

Click on Suspicion.  Paranoia.  Murder. for an excellent summary of the case on the Psychopolitick web log.

Click on Stand Your Ground and Vigilante Justice for comment on the Florida law by Ta-nehisi Coates.

Click on The Trayvon Martin Case for the full comment by James Fallows.

Click on A gun is to shoot and, in Florida, “the rules are different here” for the full comment by Michael O’Hare on The Reality-Based Community web log.

Trayvon Martin: the perils of being black

March 24, 2012

Years ago I had a conversation with a black guy who worked in Democrat and Chronicle news library about all the forethought he gave to what he would do when encountering a police officer, so that the officer would not become nervous and kill him.  The situation of greatest peril, he said, was when he happened to be in an all-white suburb, where the presence of a black person was automatically regarded with suspicion.

Trayvon Martin

I recalled that conversation when I read about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was peaceably walking in his own neighborhood, by George Zimmerman, an armed Neighborhood Watch volunteer, apparently for no reason except Zimmerman’s unfounded suspicions.

A black man who lives in the same gated community said he never walks around in his own neighborhood, precisely for fear of meeting up with somebody like Zimmerman.  He told an interviewer he takes all his walks downtown.

Geraldo Rivera wrote a column saying that Travyon Martin brought his killing on himself for wearing a hooded garment, because so many black criminals wear hooded garments.  He said Zimmerman is to blame for being reckless, but Martin also is to blame for being unwise in his choice of outerwear.

Think about this.  You have equal blame for a trigger-happy guy who kills a decent young teenager for no apparent reason, and the teenager for failing to read the trigger-happy guy’s mind and acting accordingly.

I don’t like the expression “white privilege,” because I think being able to peaceably go about your business is a right, not a privilege, but, being white, I’ve never thought my life was in peril every time I had an encounter with police authority.

A blogger named Matt Johnsen put it this way

The Thinking Viking is a taller than average, usually well-groomed white man of 40, weighing in at 175 lbs.   About as far as you can get from a slender 17-year-old black teenage boy, 140 pound 6’3″ Trayvon Martin, aside from our gender and being tall.   I’m wearing a freaking hoodie as I type, I own four of them, three black, one grey.   I wear one almost daily as I walk to the store a couple blocks away.  The rent-a-cops in my neighborhood are all – so far as I have seen – Hispanic or Black.  If one of them had shot and killed me while I was walking home, talking to my girlfriend on the phone, I can assure you, they’d be in jail – or at least charged formally – by now. The man – George Zimmerman – who stalked and murdered Trayvon Martin has not been charged, and is walking around a free man.

Anyone who thinks this isn’t racially motivated isn’t seeing things clearly.  As for the Stand Your Ground law he is using as his defense?  You cannot claim self-defense if you follow a total stranger in your car and then confront them after being told by 911 dispatch to stand down, wait for the real cops. Would he have done this if a 40-year-old white man had been with Trayvon? I doubt it.

But I will tell you this.

If I had been followed by an unmarked car with some strange dude in it, clearly watching me, I would have run or at least hurried, as Trayvon did.  And if that car had followed me all the way home, and the driver confronted me, he would have been met by a few things a lot more dangerous to him than than a bag of Skittles.

A camera, a gun, and my phone dialing 911.

via The Thinking Viking.

Click on Toward justice for Trayvon Martin—and for all children for reactions of parents of black children, including President Obama.

Click on On the Police ‘Investigating’ the Killing of Trayvon Martin for the source of the statement by the black man who takes all his walks downtown.

Click on Trayvon Martin Would Be Alive But For His Hoodie for Geraldo Rivera’s column.

Click on Walking While Black—On Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for Matt Johnsen’s full post, including a picture of Johnsen in his hoodie.

Click on the Trymaine Lee and Ta-Nehisi Coates web logs for many good posts on the Trayvon Martin killing.

Daniel Yergin on energy security

March 24, 2012

The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World is Daniel Yergin’s magisterial survey of the world energy situation.  His guiding principle is that energy security requires diversity of supply, and so he surveys energy  in all its aspects, from the battle for control of the energy resources of the new nations of Central Asia to the possibility of using genetic engineering to create ethanol-making fungi.

This book is not as focused and gripping as Yergin’s previous book, The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power.  Its great merit is Yergin’s encyclopedic knowledge and his ability to see connections among seemingly unrelated facts.  I learned interesting things I didn’t know, such as that China is now the world’s biggest market for automobiles, or that Admiral Rickover was not only the father of the U.S. nuclear submarine, but of the civilian nuclear power industry as well.  This is a long book, but worth the time if you have an interest in the subject.

Yergin is an insider, not a hostile critic of the energy establishment.  I take his views to represent the consensus of well-informed people within the energy industry.  I mean this as an observation, not a criticism, but I do not take his opinions as necessarily the last word.  For example, I can’t agree that the invasion of Iraq was justified though mishandled, and that the U.S. has “no choice” but to attack Iran if its government acquires nuclear weapons.

The book has six main sections
▪    An update on the world oil industry since publication of The Prize in 1991.  The most important new developments, according to Yergin, are the emergence of China as possibly the world’s largest market for energy and the re-emergence of Russia as a major energy exporter, especially of natural gas.
▪    A rebuttal of the assertion that production of oil, other liquid fuels and natural gas have passed their peak.  Yergin argued that “unconventional” sources, including hydraulic fracturing and deep water drilling, will assure supplies at current rates of use for decades.
▪    A survey of the world electrical industry, and the merits of nuclear power, coal and natural gas to power generating plants.  He concluded abundant, cheap natural gas is the fuel of the future.
▪    A report on global warming and its effect on world energy policy.  Yergin is curiously noncommittal on the validity of global warming science.   His concern is its impact on world energy policy.  The chief problem is the conflict of interest between the United States and the energy-efficient Europeans and Japanese, on the one hand, and with China and other emerging nations, which can’t avoid using more energy as they raise the material living standards of their populations, on the other.
▪    A report on photovoltaic cells, wind energy and other alternative energy sources for electrical generation.  Wind energy is the most promising, according to Yergin, but will require continuing government subsidies to be viable on a large scale, he said.
▪    A report on ethanol, electric vehicle technology and other alternative energy sources for automobiles.  Electric and hybrid vehicles are a viable but as-yet small industry, he wrote; the future of ethanol rests not with corn, but less expensive sources such as sugar cane and switch grass.

I put down the book with a great appreciation of the difficulty and complexity of the task of assuring a supply of gasoline for my car, natural gas for my furnace and electricity for the computer into which I am typing these words, and also an appreciation for the difficulty of bringing new technologies into practical use.

Daniel Yergin

What Yergin wants is what I want—the blessings of modern, prosperous industrial civilization without burning up nonrenewable resources to the point of scarcity, and without threatening human health and the human environment.  Unfortunately, he wrote, we don’t yet know how to do this.

For at least the next 20 or so years, he wrote, we will have to rely on technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and deep water oil drilling.  Subsidies are necessary because, in the past, promising developments of new technologies have been wiped out every time oil prices fell.  So far the greatest progress has been by eliminating waste, improving efficiency and conservation, which don’t get public attention because they are not glamorous.

Fortunately, Yergin said, there is growing availability of “what may be the most important resource of all—human creativity.”

Click on Daniel Yergin | Official Website for Yergin’s home page.

Click on Daniel Yergin Examines America’s ‘Quest’ for Energy for a link to a National Public Radio interview with Yergin on hydraulic fracturing.

Click on the following for reviews of The Quest.

How Will We Fuel the Future? by Fareed Zakaria in the New York Times

Fareed Zakaria, Daniel Yergin and the elite disdain for clean energy deployment by David Roberts on the Grist green energy web site.

Daniel Yergin explores the energy industry and how it’s reshaped the modern world by Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times

Daniel Yergin’s guide to the essentials of industry in the 21st century is another triumph by Ed Crooks in Britain’s Financial Times

An enjoyable assessment of our energy needs from an industry insider by Derek Browne in Britain’s The Observer

Daniel Yergin can’t quite fully support wind, but he tries hard by Chris Varrone on the Renewable Energy Focus web site.

Visions of an Age When Oil Isn’t King by Dwight Garner in the New York Times

Click on the following links for two of my earlier posts on The Quest

Hubbert’s Peak: are we running out of oil?

Natural gas: the fuel of the future?

The world’s resources: who’s got what

March 23, 2012

Double click to enlarge.

Below is a map of the world’s greatest consumers of resources.


Natural gas: the fuel of the future?

March 21, 2012

When I reported on the electric utility industry 25 or 30 years ago for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, natural gas was regarded as a premium fuel—an ideal fuel in that it burned cleanly, without emitting pollutants, but costing much more than any of the alternatives.

Nuclear power was the cheapest fuel, followed by coal and then oil.  But nuclear power plants were the most expensive to build, followed by coal-fired plants, then by oil-fired plants with natural gas plants the cheapest to build.  So the logic was that you would want nuclear power for your base-load generation—the power you would want turned on all the time, year in and year out.  And you would want natural gas for your peaking power, the power you would turn on to meet peak demands, such as for air conditioning on the hottest day of summer and electric heat on the coldest day of winter.

I’m now reading energy expert Daniel Yergin’s new book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, and Yergin says all that is out of date.  Natural gas is now cheap and abundant and, in his view, the fuel of the future for the electric power industry and much else.

Yergin wrote:

Natural gas is the fuel of the future.  World consumption has tripled over the last thirty years, and demand could grow another 50 percent over the next two decades.  Its share of the total energy market is also growing.  World consumption on an energy-equivalent basis was only 45 percent that of oil; today it is about 70 percent.

The reasons are clear:  It is a relatively low-carbon resource.  It is also a flexible fuel that could play a larger role in electric power, both for its own features and as an effective—and indeed necessary—complement to greater reliance on renewable generation.  And technology is making it more and more available, whether in terms of advances in conventional drilling, the ability to move it over long-distance pipelines, the expansion of LNG onto much larger scale, or, most recently, the revolution in unconventional natural gas.

Back when I was reporting on the industry, natural gas was transmitted in pipelines.  That’s why the Reagan administration objected to Russia’s Gasprom exporting natural gas to Western Europe; officials feared the Soviet government would be in a position to cut off supplies.

Click to enlarge.

There was an emerging trade back then in liquified natural gas, or LNG, but this was in its infancy.  LNG involves cooling natural gas down to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, at which it turns into a liquid with 1/600th the volume of the gas.   Yergin described how availability of LNG has created a world market in natural gas, led by Qatar, which shares access with Iran to the world’s richest natural gas field, right in the middle of the Persian Gulf.  Other LNG exporters include Oman, Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Libya, Egypt,  Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Australia, Russian Sakhalin, Alaska, Trinidad and Peru.

The necessity to keep LNG at such incredibly low temperatures makes it seem like an unforgiving and dangerous technology.  Yergin didn’t address safety issues, but the Wikipedia article on LNG indicated a good safety record to date.

What Yergin calls “unconventional” natural gas is extraction of natural gas tightly locked into strata of shale by means of a technology known as hydraulic fracturing—a technology which, some of us here in upstate New York believe, creates a danger of water pollution, minor and not-so-minor earthquakes and destruction of the rural countryside.  Yergin did not deal with these objections.  I imagine he would say that this is no worse than coal mining, oil drilling or any other type of fossil fuel extraction.

Coal is the most undesirable source of energy.  The mining of deep coal is one of the most dangerous occupations.  Coal miners have a high death rate in mining accidents and black lung disease.  Surface mining is destructive to the environment.  Coal is the worst source of pollution.  Coal emissions cause respiratory disease and acid rain.  And coal is a major contributor to global warming.

Yet coal is what the United States may have to fall back on if all else fails.  Yergin pointed out that the United States has a quarter of the world’s known reserves of coal, about the same as Saudi Arabia’s known reserves of oil.  The United States together with China, another coal-rich nation, are working on technologies to burn coal cleanly.  One such technology is carbon capture, which would remove carbon from the smoke as it goes up the stack, and make it useful, or easily disposable.

I always thought of nuclear energy as a dangerous technology that is possible to operate safely.  The Chernobyl disaster showed the cost to human life when a nuclear power plant was operated without proper precautions.  Yet the excellent safety record of the U.S. and French nuclear power industries convinced me that, with proper safeguards, these dangers could be averted.   And, as Yergin noted, the increasing efficiency of nuclear power plants has been the equivalent of a whole new source of energy in itself.  I agreed with President Obama’s plan to bring about a rebirth of nuclear energy in the United States.

The Fukushima catastrophe in Japan called my assumptions into question.  The catchphrase, “Nobody could have predicted…”, is a common excuse for negligence and failure.  But I do not think the Japanese were negligent.  As far as I know, they did everything a reasonable person could have done to ensure safety and reliability.  Nobody could have predicted an undersea earthquake would create a tsunami that would inundate the plant and destroy all its backup systems.

So this leaves natural gas.   I still think it would be best to put off hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as long as possible, in hope that more benign technologies will appear.  If not, the gas is not going to go away.  It will be more valuable in the future than it is now.  If there is no choice but to go ahead, New York and other states should enact a severance tax, similar to what Texas, Alaska and other states have for oil.  If we are going to put the countryside at risk, we should be getting something back in return.

Click on Daniel Yergin | Official Website for Yergin’s home page.

Click on Daniel Yergin Examines America’s ‘Quest’ for Energy for a link to a National Public Radio interview with Daniel Yergin on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.  [Added 3/24/12]

Click on Hydrofracking and  carbon caps for an earlier post of mine.

Click on Liquified natural gas wiki for a Wikipedia article on LNG.

Click on Qatar Economy | Economy Watch for more about Qatar’s natural gas industry and the source of the map below, which shows world exports and imports of LNG and pipeline nature gas.


Hubbert’s Peak: are we running out of oil?

March 20, 2012

In 1956, the brilliant maverick oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that oil production in the United States would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970, and world oil production would peak in about 50 years—that is, sometime around 2006.

M. King Hubbert's 1956 prediction of world oil

He extrapolated the rate of growth in oil production and the rate of discovery of new oil reserves, and based his prediction on when new discoveries failed to keep up with growth.   His chart of the rise and fall of oil production is called Hubbert’s Peak.  He had another chart, showing how nuclear energy could be a source of energy for many centuries.  You could call that Hubbert’s Plateau.

Hubbert’s prediction was accurate in regard to the United States.  Oil production in the Lower 48 states did peak around 1970 or so.  Many smart people believe that oil production in the Middle East has peaked or is about to peak.  But, as Daniel Yergin pointed out in his recent book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, worldwide production of liquid fuels continues to increase.

Actual world oil production

What Hubbert failed to take into account, Yergin wrote, were two things—(1) price and (2) technology.  The world gets its oil from sources that were unavailable in 1956, and uses liquid fuels other than oil.   Energy companies drill for oil deep in the ocean.  “Tight oil” and “tight gas” are extracted through hydraulic fracturing of shale deep within the earth.  Oil can be extracted from Canada’s tar sands.  More than four-fifths of liquid fuels—and, according to Yergin, you have to speak of liquid fuels rather than just crude oil—are extracted by advanced techniques that were unknown in Hubbert’s day.  The increase in world oil production probably owes more to chemical engineers than it goes to oil geologists.

In a way, Hubbert was right.  Production of the easy-to-get oil has peaked.  What Yergin calls the “unconventional” sources are available if you are willing to pay a high enough price—a price not only in dollars, but in the risk to the human environment, and in the amount of energy it takes to extract the new energy.

Hubbert's Plateau: nuclear energy as the solution

Yergin says there are enough reserves of “unconventional” energy to last for centuries at (here’s the problem) current rates of use.  The problem is not so much that someday the world have have used up more than half its supply of fossil fuels, as that if the rate of consumption of fossil fuels continues to increase year by year, it will someday catch up with production.  Yergin is aware of that, and is a strong advocate of energy conservation and development of renewable resources.

I don’t claim to have a good answer as to what should be done.  I think that it is amazing that deep water oil drilling or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas are possible at all, without expecting they can be carried out with 100 percent reliability and zero damage.  My inclination is to postpone use of potentially harmful processes as long as possible, in the hope that better technology will reduce risk and in the expectation that future generations will need these resources more than my generation does.

At the same time, I drive a car powered by gasoline and I heat my house with natural gas.  I wouldn’t like to try to get along without the first, and I don’t know how I would get along without the latter.  This is more important to me than the hazards and costs of energy development.

Click on What’s Wrong With Peak Oil for an article by Daniel Yergin in the Wall Street Journal.

Click on Is Yergin Correct About Oil Supply? (an opinion the Wall Street Journal did not run) for a rebuttal to Yergin by Gail Tverberg on her Our Finite World web log.

Click on The Oil Drum for a web log devoted to peak oil and energy issues.

Below are some maps (not taken from Daniel Yergin’s book) indicating where future oil and natural gas may come from.


The epic history of oil

March 19, 2012

I finished reading Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, tells the story of the world oil industry from its beginning with the drilling of the first oil well in Titusville, Pa., in 1859 to Saddam Hussein’s failed invasion of Kuwait in 1991, with a brief epilogue bringing it up to date.  I’m now reading his current book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.

It is a big, detailed book which I would not recommend except to somebody such as myself with a lot of time on their hands.  I read it, even though it was published 20 years ago, because I believe the best way to understand something is to understand its history.

  The main things I took away from the book:
▪    An appreciation that the creation of the modern oil industry really was an epic achievement in terms of engineering, technology, organization and the enormous obstacles, both natural and human-made, to be overcome.
▪    An understanding of the central place of the United States in the history of the world oil industry, and of the oil industry in the development of the United States
▪    An understanding of the key importance of oil in world politics and military power.
▪    A  realization that the history of the world oil industry has always been a cycle of boom and bust, glut and scarcity, which makes the current runup in gasoline prices nothing new.

Nowadays I think of oil in terms of the Middle East, but for a century or more the United States was the main producer and exporter of oil.   In the earliest days most of the world’s oil supply came out of Pennsylvania, and the next big discoveries were around Baku in the Russian Empire and Borneo and Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies.  Texas and Oklahoma did not become important oil regions until late in the 1920s, and Saudi Arabia until after World War Two.

Cheap oil made possible much of what we regard as the American way of life.  The oil industry was created to provide kerosine for illumination, as a substitute for illumination.  But without a pre-existing oil industry, there would have been no auto industry, aviation industry or any other industry based on internal combustion.  Early U.S. preeminence in oil made possible our early preeminence in these other industries.  Our periods of greatest prosperity, especially the period from 1945 to 1973, coincided with low oil prices.

I tend to take fruits of oil-fueled industry for granted, but, as Yergin pointed out, there was a time when none of this existed.  Somebody had to think of drilling for oil instead of digging for oil.  Somebody had to think of setting up gasoline pumps instead of selling it in cans.  Somebody had to figure out how to drill for oil in the jungles of Borneo, the deserts of Persia, the bottom of Lake Maraciabo in Venezuela and the north slope of Alaska.  It really was an epic story.

Crude oil prices adjusted for inflation. Double click to enlarge.

We think of oil in terms of scarcity, but there have been times when an oil glut was considered the more serious problem.  This was the case during the Great Depression, when the Texas oil industry was collapsing under overproduction of oil.  The Texas Railroad Commission (which, despite its name, regulated oil) worked with the Roosevelt administration to set up a system of production allocations regulating what could be taken from each oil field.  The federal government restricted foreign imports to prevent Texas oil from being overwhelmed.

Texas increased and decreased production in order smooth out the cycle of boom and bust, so that oil-using businesses wouldn’t be ruined by sudden increases in oil prices nor oil producers by the sudden collapse.

This helps explain why Texas oilmen for so many years supported the Democratic Party.  When I first learned how this system worked, back in the 1950s, it seemed to me to be an example of government-protected monopoly working against the public interest.  After reading Yergin’s book, I can see the need for some entity to fulfill the function of the Texas Railroad Commission.  Price controls don’t work, as we Americans learned in the 1970s.  But it is a good thing to smooth out swings in prices when they are so wild that they periodically crash an industry.

In later years Saudi Arabia took over the function of swing producer, which partly explains the tight relationship between the U.S. government and the Saudi royal family since President Franklin Roosevelt’s first meeting with King Ibn Saud in 1945.  Saudi Arabia’s function as swing producer has been a great source of tension with Iran.  The Iranian government, which unlike Saudi Arabia rules over a large population who need jobs and income, has always wanted to maximize production and income, while the Saudis have been able to afford to take a longer view.

U.S. gasoline prices adjusted for inflation

There’s a lot more in the book.  I put it down with a greater awareness of how oil is intertwined with everything and what a radical change ending our “addiction” would be.

Click on The Stuff That Makes the World Go Round for Leslie H. Gelb’s review of The Prize in the New York Times.

Click on “the world’s most critical nonhuman economic resource” for a review of The Prize in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.

Click on Overdue Evaluation for a 2006 review of The Prize by Doug Merrill on the A Fistful of Euros web log.

Oil and world power

March 19, 2012

Oil was the key to world power during the 20th century.  It still is.  Reading Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power reminded me of just how much military and political power rest on oil.

The power of the 20th century British Navy rested on oil.  In the years leading up to World War One, the British Navy went from coal to oil because of the German naval buildup.  The British wanted something that would give their navy an edge.  Oil would give British ships greater range and speed than coal-fired ships.  But while the United Kingdom had coal mines within its border, it had no oil.

Britain needed a secure source of oil.  The British government decided for that purpose it needed to control the oil of Persia (now Iran).  This involved stopping the emerging Persian democratic movement, and installing a dictator with the title of Shah, and giving the British government control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum, then BP), which held the British concession.  This drama was replayed in 1953, when U.S. and British intelligence services helped overthrow another democratic movement and installed the previous Shah’s son, with consequences that were felt in 1979 and to this day.

It was oil supplies from the United States, not Persia, that sustained Britain during the two World Wars, a reason why the “special relationship” was so important to the British government.  Yergin wrote that about 90 percent of Allied oil in the Second World War came from the United States.

The German army was severely handicapped by lack of oil in both world wars.  The main oil-producing European country prior to the discovery of North Sea Oil was Rumania, which was allied to Germany in both World Wars.  But the oil of Rumania was insufficient.  One of Hitler’s motives for attacking Russia in 1941 was to seize the oil of Baku; that is why he ordered his generals to break off the siege of Moscow and move south.  Yergin said the German army might have succeeded in Russia or North Africa if it hadn’t literally run out of gas.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 after the United States threatened an oil embargo.  They hoped to cripple the United States naval forces long enough to seize the oil of the Dutch East Indies, and might have succeeded, according to Yergin, if they had launched another wave of attack and destroyed the oil tanks storing the U.S. Navy’s fuel reserves in Hawaii.   Instead the U.S. was able to mount submarine attacks to such a degree that most of the oil never reached Japan.

Russia under the Tsars, the Bolsheviks and their successors was always one of the world’s top oil and gas producers.  Whatever their government’s failures in economic policy, they always had that to fall back on.

Access to oil—specifically, to oil as a source of aviation fuel—is essential to U.S. world power.  Today the power of the United States rests on the U.S. Air Force, as much as British power rested on the Royal Navy.  Supremacy in the air gives U.S. forces the power to invade and occupy small countries almost at will, although not necessarily with success.  The U.S. Navy has nuclear ships, but the U.S. Air Force requires aviation fuel.  Someday there may be an alternative to gasoline for hand-based vehicles, but the Air Force will always need a secure source of oil to avoid being grounded.

When you think about the need for oil and access to oil, many world events are easier to understand.

Rocket science and free enterprise

March 19, 2012

When I was a boy, I read the Robert A. Heinlein books for boys — Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky and all the rest — and then graduated to his Future History series — The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Green Hills of Earth and so on.   They depicted the human race going to the Moon and the planets, and living among the ancient canals of Mars and the teeming jungles of Venus, and then figuring out how to get around the faster-than-light limit which kept us from the stars.

It turned out that Mars and Venus aren’t like that, but I still was stirred by the thought of exploring and settling the Solar System.  The moon landings took place in 1969, six years ahead of Heinlein’s schedule, but it turned out that it was just a stunt, and didn’t lead to Heinlein’s Luna City or anything else.

With all the urgent problems that need to be solved on our home planet, I’m ready to give up on this boyhood fantasy.  But Jeff Greason, who is shown in the TED video above, is not.  He is one of an number of entrepreneurs who, like Heinlein’s fictional D.D. Harriman, think they can make space travel a paying proposition.

I think the odds are against him, but I hope he succeeds, and I think it is just barely possible that he might.  In any case, he and his competitors represent the free enterprise system as it ought to function.  They aren’t trying to cheat anybody out of anything.  They are striving to outdo each other on the basis of performance.  If they succeed, everybody benefits.  If they fail, nobody loses except themselves and maybe their creditors.

Years ago, as I recall, Newt Gingrich had the idea that the federal government should finance the space program by offering prizes.  Rather than having a government-operated program, the government could award cash to the first companies to each certain milestones.  I forget exactly what they were—the first to keep human beings alive on the Moon for more than a week, the first to send a human in orbit around Mars, the first to send a human to step for on Mars, something like that.

This is a concept that could have many applications.  For example, the federal government could offer prizes to pharmaceutical companies for being the first to develop certain kinds of life-saving drugs for which the potential market is small.  Then the government could take the rights to these drugs, and license them to be marketed at affordable prices.

Hat tip to Virginia Postrel.

Mike Daisey made stuff up about Apple

March 19, 2012

Mike Daisey’s stage show about Apple Computer, to which I referred in a previous post, contained a lot of stuff that he just made up.  Foxconn and other components suppliers in China apparently don’t employ child labor on a large scale, as he claimed, though other assertions about labor conditions are confirmed by independent sources.  Some stories he told about encounters with Chinese workers apparently were invented.

Mike Daisey

All this came to light after the WBEZ radio in Chicago, the producers of This American Life, had second thoughts about a program they aired on Mike Daisey and distributed over Public Radio. They did their own investigation and issued a retraction.  Then they did a whole new program about their mistake.

Click on Retracting “Mr. Daisey and The Apple Factory” for This American Life’s press release.

Click on Retraction | This American Life for a link to an audio of WBEZ’s retraction program.

Click on Retraction PDF | This American Life for a transcript of WBEZ’s retraction program.

Click on Mike Daisey Statement on TAL for Daisey’s response.

Click on Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China for a factual account of Apple’s Chinese suppliers.

I give WBEZ credit.  The managers took corrective action as soon as they realized there was a problem.  They didn’t fire the whistleblower or try to cover up.    This is a level of integrity which ought to be routine in large organizations, but isn’t.

Mike Daisey is not a reporter, but what he did is something that reporters often are tempted to do.  They have a good news story, and reach for an extra embellishment that would make it an even better story, which discredits the whole thing.

The other thing to remember is that the problem isn’t just Apple Computer, but the whole system of outsourcing to China.  If this controversy results in an improvement in Apple’s labor practices, this will be good.  But if it merely results in shifting of business from Apple to other companies that are no better or possibly worse, nothing will be gained.

[Added 3/20/12]  Click on The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case for thoughts of James Fallows, formerly China correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.

The “Cui Bono?” rule

March 18, 2012

American Extremists - I think we're all cui bonos on this bus

Click on American Extremists for more.

Canary Islands’ sky and sea in motion

March 17, 2012

These great time-lapse pictures were taken by Daniel Lopez, a professional “astrophotographer.”

Click on Daniel Lopez on Vimeo for background on the photographer and his work.

Hat tip to The Agitator.

What’s driving up gasoline prices?

March 16, 2012

Republican candidates say rising gasoline prices are due to President Obama and his administration’s onerous restrictions on the domestic oil industry.  But I don’t see his administration as being all that restrictive.  There is more oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Overall U.S. domestic oil production is up 20 percent from 2008, according to energy expert Daniel Yergin.

Democratic liberals say that the cause is Wall Street speculators who are bidding up the price of crude oil.  Normally speculators account for about 30 percent of futures contracts on crude oil and producers and users 70 percent, but now they have 60 percent of the market, according to economist Robert Reich, or 80 percent, according to Senator Bernie Sanders.  They say speculators have free rein because the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s plan to limit what speculators can acquire has been overruled by a court decision.

But there wouldn’t be speculation if speculators didn’t have reason to think oil prices will go up in the future anyway (or if they were in a position to corner the market).  The emgargo against Iranian oil has tightened the world’s supply of oil.  Actual war with Iran would create a huge shortage.  More than 20 percent of the oil sold on world markets goes through the Straits of Hormuz, and that would be jeopardized by war with Iran.

Other factors are the increasing demand for oil from China and other emerging countries, and the fact that in the annual cycle of gasoline prices, prices normally rise a bit in the spring.

I think it would be a good thing for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to have the authority to limit speculation in oil futures, but I don’t think this will prevent gasoline prices from going up in the long run.  I don’t think President Obama’s policies toward domestic oil production affect oil or gasoline prices, but I think his war talk about Iran spreads panic about future oil supply, which leads to hoarders bidding up the price of oil.

Click on Q&A: What’s Going On With Gasoline Prices? for analysis by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones magazine.

Click on What’s Behind Rising Gas Prices? for energy expert Daniel Yergin’s thoughts about the Iranian situation’s effect on oil and gasoline prices.

Click on Why Republicans Aren’t Mentioning the Real Cause of Rising Prices at the Gas Pump for economist Robert Reich’s thoughts on speculators.

Click on Wall Street greed fueling high gas prices for Senator Bernie Sanders’ thoughts on speculators.


Our corrupt politics: Is money the problem?

March 16, 2012

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein says the influence of big money in politics is exaggerated.  He wrote an article in the current New York Review of Books arguing that powerful lobbyists may shape legislation, but it is populist partisan politics that determines whether the legislation is enacted.  People whose main concern is money and profit are generally more reasonable and open to compromise than grass-roots zealots, he wrote; grass-roots partisan extremism is a much more serious problem.

In 2011, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO joined together to call for a major reinvestment in American infrastructure.  None passed.  In 2010, most of the health care industry was either supportive or neutral on the Affordable Care Act, and if any one of them could have swung the votes of even a few Republican senators or congressmen, the desperate Democrats would have let them write almost anything they wanted into the bill.  But not one Republican budged.  In 2009, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the stimulus bill as a necessary boost to the economy.  Not one House Republican voted for it. Almost every major business group has been calling for tax reform and a big, Simpson-Bowles-like deficit reduction package for years now. But Congress remains deadlocked.

Ezra Klein

Indeed, the more likely Americans are to have actually heard of the bill, the less likely money is to be the decisive factor in its fate.  That’s not to say that lobbyists and interest groups don’t have a hand in the construction of these laws—before they came to a vote—and don’t have a say in the component parts.  They do.  The health care industry, for instance, was able to cut a slew of early deals with the Obama administration; and the industry’s power helped put out of consideration certain provisions, like a public option that would have partnered with Medicare to bargain down prices.  The financial industry, disgraced as it was, managed to win a lot of battles in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill.

But in the end, it didn’t decide which votes ended up in the “nay” column and which ended up in the “aye” column.  The leadership of the two parties did.  Which is to say that while moneyed interests are decisive in passing laws and influencing provisions that few Americans care about, they’re much weaker on the issues where Americans are actually watching.  But those issues are the ones that have convinced America that Washington is broken.  Which suggests that as big a problem as money is in politics—and make no mistake, it is a big problem, as the rise of the Super PACs shows all too clearly—it is not the only one, and it is probably not even the worst one.

via The New York Review of Books.

When President Obama sought to enact health care reform, he first promised the drug companies that nothing would be done to lower drug prices, and the health insurance companies that they would not be crowded out of the market by a public option, but that instead they would get a new captive clientele.  Klein is right that the drug and health insurance companies did not determine the outcome; they only determined that, no matter what the outcome, their vital interests would not be threatened.  The same is true of Wall Street and the Dodd-Frank bill.

The monied interests do not determine the outcome of the game; they determine something much more important, the stakes of the game.

The hot-button issues that stir up the public—such as whether it is okay to call an attractive young single woman who uses contraception a “slut” or a “prostitute”—are almost never issues that affect the structure of economic and political power.

What we are drifting toward is a politics in which the right is defined by the Koch brothers, Richard Scaife and Adolph Coors, the “left” by George Soros and rich Hollywood movie stars, firms like Goldman Sachs have a foot in both camps and people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett represent the vital center.  We need a politics that offers more options than those.


Rainbow Rowell’s welfare essay

March 15, 2012

Rainbow Rowell is a former columnist for the Omaha World-Herald (the first woman to hold that job) and the author of two novels, Attachments and Eleanor and Park.   In 1994, as a 21-year-old journalism student at the University of Nebraska, she wrote the following for the Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper.

Sometimes I think they can tell.  “They” meaning everyone, meaning you probably.  “They” meaning professors and friends and prospective employers.  Sometimes I think it shows in everything I do and say. In the way I walk and dress.  Sometimes I think they smell it.  Beneath my perfume, seeping out from my well-soaped skin.

Sometimes I think no matter how hard I study and smile and struggle, the poverty is still in me, rotting in my breath, devouring my stomach, burning in the back of my throat.  In my eyes.  And sometimes I think they can tell.

Rainbow Rowell today

And so I run. I excel….  Out of fear.  Fear is my motivation and drive.  My muse.  Because if I make everyone happy and pass every test, they can’t send me back.  They can’t.

But it can.  It can catch me.  It can catch me, and it can catch you.  Don’t ever think you’re too smart or too clean.  Don’t ever think you’re too hard working.

“I don’t like welfare,” someone told me yesterday.  I don’t like welfare either.  I hate it.  But I don’t know where I’d be without it…. My mother went on welfare when I was 8.  My father left us—three kids, a pregnant wife—on a farm in eastern Nebraska.  A farm with no phone.  No car.  No heat.  No electricity.  And a few weeks before they turned off the water.  No nearby family to step in.  No benevolent private sector.

We needed a safety net.  And I thank God—and this state and this nation—that there was one.  Being on welfare was hard.  Harder for my mother than for me.  The monthly check was hardly enough for a family of five….  But we were warm and safe and fed.  Above all, we were together.

Now…for the first time in my life I’m not wearing used shoes, and I own more than two pairs of jeans.  I’m two semesters away from a degree.  I have a decent shot at being middle class.  After a few years on the job, my taxes should pay back those welfare checks, food stamps and school lunches.

I’m hearing more and more about welfare.  I hear important men and women talking about trimming the fat from the budget.  About setting loose welfare queens and cheats.  About the government’s role.  About waste.  About orphanages.  Welfare, it seems, is dragging our nation down.

But Aid to Families With Dependent Children saved my family.  Welfare gave me a chance.  Most people on welfare aren’t lazy.  Aren’t dirty.  Most people on welfare are children, children neck-deep in poverty.  Children who already face more obstacles than they should.

And I don’t want them to fail.  I want them to have the same chances I had.  The same hope that maybe someday they’ll crawl out of poverty.  That if they work hard enough they can get away.  That if they study and smile and struggle, they will rise above it, beyond it.  And maybe no one will ever know.


via Blue in the Bluegrass.

Click on Rainbow Rowell for her home page.

President Obama’s deep game

March 14, 2012

President Obama’s admirers say that he plays a deep game, that he is always thinking three or four steps ahead of everybody else.   You shouldn’t take what he’s doing and saying at face value, they say; the logic of what he’s doing will be revealed after the fact.

Is President Obama playing a deep game on Iran?  If so, who is he playing it against?

Recently he gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly.  Goldberg served as a young man in the Israeli Defense Forces and has good sources within the current government of Israel.   Here is part of what the President told him.

We are going to continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course. … … It means a political component … a diplomatic component …  and it includes a military component.  And I think people understand that.

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.   I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are.  But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.

via The Atlantic.

A day later the President said the following in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.


Now if President Obama’s aim is to avoid war with Iran, and to use sanctions and diplomacy as a stalling tactic, this interview was a terrible blunder.  If sanctions and diplomacy fail to pressure the Iranian government into abandoning its nuclear program, which seems to me quite likely, then Obama by his words has put himself in the situation in which he either has to go to war or admit that, in fact, he really was bluffing.

But what if his aim is not peace, but war?  What if his aim is to co-opt liberals into going along with an attack on Iran?  He has redefined the issue so that it is no longer war against Iran vs. peace with Iran.   Now it is war against Iran right away vs. war with Iran when and if economic sanctions and covert action fail.

An attack on Iran would not be an isolated event.  Iran is a larger, more powerful and more united nation than Iraq or Afghanistan were.  This would be the start of an open-ended conflict which would not be limited to Iranian soil.

Of course I can’t know President Obama’s mind.  I can only know what he publicly says and does.  And right now his statements and his actions duplicate all the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration, but on a larger scale.

Click on Obama to Iran and Israel: ‘As President of the United States, I don’t bluff’ for the complete interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Click on Transcript of Obama’s AIPAC speech for the complete speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Click on The 0% Solution: War as the President’s Private Preserve for analysis of the implications of President Obama’s statements by Tom Englehardt on his TomDispatch web log.

Click on Top Ten Dangers for Obama of Iran Sanctions on Behalf of Israel for moral and political objections to economic warfare against Iran by Prof. Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, on his Informed Comment web log.

The trouble with Daylight Savings Time

March 14, 2012

I like the idea of more daylight hours in the evening during Daylight Savings Time—which is irrational, I know, because I am an old retired guy who lives alone, and I can get up and go to bed any time I want.

The problems with Daylight Savings Time are the bother of changing clocks twice a year; the complexities of different DSTs in different time zones, a particular headache for organizations that have international teleconferences; and sleep deprivation as a result of disturbing our biological clocks.

Here’s a true story.  Many years ago, when First Universalist Church of Rochester was temporarily without a settled minister, I had the task of leading the Sunday service and introducing the guest minister who gave the sermon.  It was on the Sunday when we changed to Daylight Savings Time, and I turned my clock an hour backward instead of an hour forward.  I arrived early, as I thought, and found the after-service coffee hour breaking up.  Of course the resilient Universalists were able to carry on all right without me, but it was still embarrassing.

Hat tip to The Browser for the video.

Looking back on the Nestle boycott

March 13, 2012

In 1843, Henri Nestle, a German-born inventor living in Switzerland, created a substitute for mother’s milk, based on cow’s milk mixed with meal that had been baked by a new process.  He hoped to do something about the high infant mortality rate in Switzerland, where one in five babies died in the first year of life.  According to the Everybody’s Business almanac, he tried out his new formula on a prematurely born child who had refused his mother’s milk and was suffering from convulsions.

The 15-day infant thrived on the milk food, and Nestle started selling his formula in large quantities.  Nestle in time merged his business with a condensed milk business, and the resulting firm eventually became the multinational giant Nestle, which sells milk products, including infant formula, all over the world.

Starting in the 1970s, the Nestle company has been accused of doing the exact opposite of what Henri Nestle intended.  A worldwide boycott was organized against Nestle on the grounds that, far from helping safeguard the health of newborn children, its products were causing the deaths of children in poor countries.

The boycotters said that Nestle infant formula was being marketed to poor women who would have been better off breastfeeding their infants, and who were not told and often lacked the means to prepare the infant formula safely.  Thus it was a common sight, they said, for a woman to be holding an infant dying of diarrhea or malnutrition, while her pockets were filled with empty Nestle infant formula containers.

The boycotters said that Nestle gave away free samples of infant formula to women in hospitals.  Impressed by the idea that using Nestle’s formula was the advanced modern way, they used the formula instead of breastfeeding, and then found their ability to breastfeed impaired when they left the hospital.

This sounded both plausible and shocking to me, but when I began work on an article for the Democrat and Chronicle about the Nestle boycott, I learned there was another side to the story.

Dr. Dana Raphael, founder of the Human Lactation Center and an advocate of breastfeeding, ridiculed the idea that a Nestle boycott could help poor mothers in the Third World.  Women in poor countries are experts at keeping children alive, she said; they’re not likely to be bamboozled by advertising by Nestle or anything else.

She said that most poor women supplement their breastfeeding with whatever is at hand—whether it be free samples of infant formula, or the water that’s left in the pot after boiling rice, or whatever.   Their problem is lack of access to clean water or pasteurized cow’s milk, and lack of money to buy sufficient food generally.  Boycotting Nestle isn’t going to change this one way or the other, she said.

I don’t know whether Dr. Raphael or the boycotters are right.  I am inclined to believe Dr. Raphael rather than the boycotters, but I don’t have any independent knowledge of my own.  Whichever was right, what the boycotters asked of Nestle might have done good and would not have done harm.  The boycotters did not call for Nestle to cease selling infant formula worldwide, only to adhere to certain standards that would assure that the formula was not misused.

The Nestle boycott has been off my radar screen for 30 years, but I recently starting thinking about the subject of corporate boycotts because of the controversy over Apple Computer and its sourcing of components from Chinese sweatshops.

If one corporation is worse than all the others, a corporate boycott would be justified and probably would be effective.  Corporations do respond to the pressures of the marketplace.  If a corporate boycott results in a company improving its practices, it is a good thing.  But if a boycott results in shifting of business to other companies that are just as bad or worse, it is an exercise in futility.  What’s needed are rules of the game by which all players must abide.

The Nestle boycott is still going on.  Nestle claims it abides by guidelines of the World Health Organization; its critics say it does not.  I couldn’t say who is right, but it would be interesting to know whether the annual bonus of any Nestle manager is affected by their adherence or lack of adherence to the WHO rules.

Click on Milking it for an article in The Guardian about sales of infant formula in Bangladesh.  The article is the source of the above picture.

Click on The Nestle Boycott—what’s that all about then? for a thoughtful and fair attempt to weigh the issue by a British woman living in Finland on her Note from Lapland web log (which is fascinating in itself).  Her verdict: Nestle is guilty as charged.

Click on Breastfeeding and Doula Support for an interview with Dr. Dana Raphael.