30 January, 2006

Charts are busted!

ExxonMobil posted fourth-quarter profits of $10.7 billion.

Last quarter, you may recall that they posted profits of $9.9 billion, which was the record at that time. But these heady times we're living in won't sit still for a period as long as several months. Hah! The very idea. So we have a new record. The king is dead. Long live the king!

Some of you might find it alarming that humongous oil companies have essentially got the rest of the world hostage, at barrel-point, or held over a barrel, and other puns as well. We don't even have to draw a diagram, here. Oil price high. Consumer pay through nose. Oil company make out like bandit.* It's pretty clear that oil companies are essentially robbing oil consumers blind.

So why should we let them do this? If only oil executives would descend from their board-rooms and bathe us in the effulgence of their wisdom! Fortunately for us, the U.S. Senate recently had hearings on this exact subject (although oil executives apparently aren't effulgent so much as oppugnant).

Therein, execs do a lot of whining, complaining about environmental regulation, how they can't drill everywhere they want to, limited access to the best oil fields, environmental regulation, Russia causing the price of oil to be low for several years, and environmental regulation. (I'm not exaggerating about the environmental regulation!) Also lots of fulminating about the free market and how it should be left to do its own thing.

This is balls. Most of the increased cost of gasoline is explained by one factor, and one factor alone: oil price. Quoth the head of the FTC:
The vast majority of the Commission’s investigations and studies have revealed market factors as the primary drivers of both price increases and price spikes. ... The world price of crude oil, a commodity that is traded on world markets, is the most important factor in the price of gasoline in the United States and all other markets.
Despite all the complaints of oil executives, despite their grumbling about what a difficult, technical industry petroleum production is and how long the investment cycle is, the fact is, their high profits bear absolutely NO RELATION AT ALL to the high costs they may or may not be incurring. They do not deserve high profits because of unusual circumstances that required much more of them. Their high profits come only because they are fortunate enough to be standing in the right spot at a particular historical juncture.

I thought this quote (ironically) said it best:
"If it's Google, no one asks about the profits because they're too busy buying the stock," said Amy Myers Jaffe, associate director of the energy program at Rice University. "Exxon is different. We have these emotional feelings related to gasoline because there's no readily available substitute."
Sorry, Amy - that's not an emotional reaction. When someone exploits their position of dominance and the inflexibility of the market they are in to make tons of cash, that's just robbery. We don't tolerate it from monopolists - why should we tolerate it from the oil industry as a whole?

I won't suggest that price controls should be put in place. It would be essentially impossible to control the price of crude. Actually, I don't think there's really anything constructive that can be done about this situation (short of repeating tropes about alternative energy sources). This is just capitalism, plain and simple. Some get rich. Others watch.

* Who, I am told, use plenty of tongue.

29 January, 2006

Foxes, henhouses

Wow, a coca grower as drug czar. That's pretty wild. Almost as wild as an anti-government activist as president. Pretty soon you'll have someone who hates the U.N. nominated as U.N. ambassador of the institution's host country! Nah, it'll never come to that.

27 January, 2006

Things I learned from the rich

I began work at a high-paying corporate job. There, I get to meet the kind of people who are attracted to high-paying corporate jobs. Today, one of them taught me several facts about the world. It was remarkable to learn so much from one young man.
  • It's harder for a rich person to lose a bit of comfort than for a poor person to remain totally uncomfortable. "What you don't know you don't miss."
  • Converting to a single-payer health insurance plan in the United States would be a logistical nightmare -- a bigger one, apparently, than creating Medical Savings Accounts, which we happen to have as a pre-tax perk at this job. (Not to mention that it would be a bigger ordeal than building the biggest, fastest highway system in the world -- but don't get me started on the Futurist miracle of the Interstates.)
  • Increased abortion of females in China and India will make the countries more warlike, as societies led by males are more warlike.
And from another, older man: the economy is doing great.


The stage-fright of seeing us nominated for an award (an award! for a blargh!) left me momentarily tongue-tied. Then I checked the access logs and saw that our newfound fame had so far failed to deliver its intimated deluge of readers. So with that, back to the fun.

23 January, 2006

We are blushing

So some anonymous do-gooder has apparently nominated us for the category of "Most Deserving of Wider Recognition"* in the 2005 Koufax Awards. We are there along with some 300-other blogs, including the definitely deserving Nur al-Cubicle, Pinko Feminist Hellcat, and Yep, Another Goddamn Blog, all of whom are capable of writing longer paragraphs than I am. Unlikely indeed that this humble blog should rise to the top of this stack, but I won't complain if we do. Perhaps we can help the cause along by increasing our buoyancy - hot air rises! We will begin now. "Harumph, harumph! Capitalism! Destruction of the earth! Et cetera, et cetera. Something about animals!"

* This category reminds me of one we had in our Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby, "Most Kid-like Construction", which I used to win every year because I was the only kid who actually made my own damn racer.
A Pinewood Derby is where you hand out a bunch of blocks of wood and a set of wheels to several hundred kids. They take them home to their engineer dads, who craft the blocks of wood into aerodynamically perfect, forward-weighted, graphite-lubed racing machines. (Including spoilers. I am not shitting you.) Then everyone races their cars down a ramp, and I lose.

Oh crap! We're in arrears!

Sorry for the long delay in updating that old poll. (To top it off, the results were inconclusive. Now we'll never know!)

There's a new one.

Rhinocrisy Guide to Being Evil, part II

I woke up to NPR's Morning Edition. Evil, demonstrated.

It would be evil to contemplate aggressive war, which violates the most basic international law. It would be really evil to discuss it as if it were no big deal. No big deal at all. Not only that, but to ignore other options other than about 10 words at the beginning of the story referring to vague "diplomatic options." And at the same time to ignore the fact that diplomacy can not work while nuclear states get respect and non-nuclear states get invaded.

It would be evil to discuss how to reduce the horrors faced by coal mine workers while offering cures that still essentially place all responsibility for safety on individual workers, rather than on mine managers. Rather than enforcing mine safety laws that already exist -- the Sago mine had over 200 violations in the year before 12 workers died there -- so the cure is to provide more oxygen tanks and electronic tags to keep track of exactly where miners are. Electronic tags, of course, will also help bosses fire people they think are lollygagging. And oxygen tanks? Yeah, that will do a hell of a lot of good against fires and collapses. Relegate structural solutions to silence. What's good for the mine owners is good for America.

And most of all, it would be evil to wake up millions of Americans with a 7 a.m. newscast that spouts so much sinister nonsense. Time to go walk in front of a bus.

22 January, 2006


I have a new job in a fancy newsroom full of murmurs into phones and the perpetual pitter patter of keyboards and dozens of flat-screen TVs hanging from ceilings blazing with the overpowering light shows of CNN, MSNBC, Sky TV, and of course Fox News. As the day goes on, I sometimes zone out gazing at one or another monitor to see what the networks consider to be important.

Friday Fox News carried a lengthy report about the possibility that Victoria's Secret might be marketing to teens. Unbelievable, isn't it? That a maker of women's lingerie would try to sell it to the women most insecure about their bodies and most susceptible to marketing messages? The ones at the beginning of their brand-loyalty lives? Shocking -- almost as shocking as Crest toothpaste marketing to teens, or Fox News marketing to teens.

This story struck me as funny because the anti-porn do-gooder being interviewed, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America, was, compared to the usual fake-tan pankcake makeup broadcast babes incredibly homely. I'm sure she was motivated by a real concern that young women receive too many messages promoting early sex. Which is a fair concern, even if her group deals with the issue in ridiculous ways. She was also on-screen for less than a quarter of her interview. The entire time she was talking, the network was playing tape from the Victoria's Secret fashion show. It cracked me up that Fox was able to use supposedly moral scolds as a medium for their only cleavage of the day.

Meanwhile, American liberals are all upset because the mass media, which includes me, is not spending as much energy on the Bush Administration scandals as it did on Clinton's blowjob. The thing they don't understand is that Fox never cared about Clinton one way or the other. They don't DO politics. TV news producers couldn't care less who's in the White House, so long as it's exciting. Clinton's routine good governance and feel-good speeches might have brought in some viewers. But every good producer knows that there's nothing like boobies.

19 January, 2006

Rhinocrisy Guide to Being Evil, part I

Judging by our comment history, some of our readership are sadly underdeveloped in the range of skills required to be evil. This might become a problem for them in a hypothetical post-apocalyptic future where they will need to be willing to backstab comrades for those precious six gallons of 93-octane unleaded, or administer some effective eye-gouges in the middle of a knife-fight. We thus present this (possibly) continuing series, hoping to contribute to your greater degeneracy. No need to thank us! That wouldn't be evil.

So, a coalition of parents is suing Kellogg's and Nickelodeon because they are apparently running commercial advertisements for "junk food" targeted at children. Both Nickelodeon and Kellogg's deny this vehemently:
A Nickelodeon spokesman said the network has led young viewers to be more active and eat healthier--and has pushed sponsors for more balance in their offerings. And a Kellogg spokeswoman declared that the breakfast-staple maker is proud of its contributions to healthy diets, and its efforts to educate people about nutrition and exercise.
Let us learn from this example. First of all, you will note the use of official spokespersons. VERY evil. If you have an official spokesperson, you're probably already well on your way to being a horrible bastard. Ideally, your official spokesperson should brazenly refuse to apologize for your crimes and conclude their sentences with an appropriate maniacal cackle, like the favored "Muahahaha!" or possibly a clangorous "Wahahahaha!"

If that proves impossible, though, it's nearly AS evil to insist you're being good when it's clear to all and sundry that you are, in fact, some sort of cacodaemon. Observe the picture to the right, which combines the Kellogg's product "Wild Bubbleberry Pop-Tarts" with the popular Nickelodeon character Sponge-Bob Squarepants. Now, let's establish some facts. Although I haven't consulted with a botanist, I am fairly certain that there is no such actual berry known as "bubbleberry", although I have been able to determine that it is the name of a breed of cannabis plant. (I attribute this to coincidence. But those of you at home, note: marketing cannabis-filled Pop-Tarts to children would be AMAZINGLY evil.) For those of you who only consume Müëslïx, I will tell you that a Pop-Tart is a device containing a fruit-facsimile covered with a thin sheen of petroglaze, possibly studded with radioactive nubbins composed of Strontium, Iridium and the especially flavorful Rubidium. They were created as an emergency mechanism to prevent the stomachs of starving college students from collapsing while the damn cafeteria was closed on weekends.

It should be abundantly clear that encouraging kids to consume such a beast is NOT THE RIGHT THING TO DO. Neither Buddha, Jesus, Sgt. Slaughter, or any of the other Good Guys would approve of such a move. Yet not only did Kellogg's and Nickelodeon team up to do this, they afterwards insisted that they care about the health of children and are proud of what they have done to contribute to it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is evil you can take to the bank and smoke.

16 January, 2006

Wanker of the Day: John McCain

Jon Schwarz reposts an amazing comment from TPM Cafe about what a colossally bad idea attacking Iran would be.

Nevertheless, it's clear that we're the nation of bad ideas at this point. Check out John McCain, the "reasonable" Republican and probably their strong candidate for the 2008 presidency, regarding the recent airstrike in Pakistan:
"It's terrible when innocent people are killed. We regret that. But we have to do what we think is necessary to take out Al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives," US Senator John McCain told CBS television's "Face the Nation" program.

"We regret it. We understand the anger that people feel, but the United States' priorities are to get rid of Al Qaeda, and this was an effort to do so," the Republican lawmaker said.
This is merely a prelude to his asshat comment on Iran:
McCain also said Washington should be prepared to take military action if necessary against Iran, calling the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program the biggest international crisis in more than a decade.

"The military option is the last option but cannot be taken off of the table," he said.

"This is the most grave situation that we have faced since the end of the Cold War, absent the whole war on terror," the Republican lawmaker told CBS.
To quote Bart Simpson, "Nnyugh. ¡Ay Caramba!"

13 January, 2006

The wait is over

The U.S. has said it, loud and proud: Your long wait is over! It's been almost 4 years since Bushie bombed a country the U.S. had previously left untouched by aerial ordnance. (Oh come on, you remember little old Yemen, don't you?) But now, Pakistan joins the list.

There's nothing like trial by air strike to teach the world about democratic values.

12 January, 2006

Good idea, bad idea

Check out TerraPass, an "eco-capitalist" venture. The premise is this:

Every car produces a certain amount of CO2 annually. However, if we offset that production of CO2 by reducing our production somewhere else by a commensurate amount, then the net effect of driving is essentially zero. In real-world terms, this can be achieved via the Chicago Climate Exchange, where greenhouse-gas production credits are traded. If we buy up credits and "retire" them, then we are increasing the real-world value of production credits and thus forcing companies to conserve more. TerraPass, the product of a Wharton professor and his students, does exactly this.

The Chicago Climate Exchange seems like a good idea, and it actually has some teeth to it. Although its membership is small, not even a thousand companies, it accounts for 230 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, which is something like 4-5% of U.S. annual production. Not bad. And its emissions-reduction performance is also reasonable.

And the idea of "retiring" credits also seems relatively sensible. There's other organizations that do this; the other one on the CCX is Carbonfund.org, which is based on a similar premise to TerraPass; reduce your footprint by giving them money, which they'll use to retire credits on the Exchange.

But I vastly prefer Carbonfund to TerraPass. Why? Simple: marketing. TerraPass sells itself as a way to reduce the guilt of driving. First, your TerraPass footprint is based entirely on your car's gas mileage (which, by the way, underestimates your car's CO2 footprint, since the energy returned on energy invested for gasoline is at least as bad as crude oil, which is 20:1) instead of a more comprehensive assessment of your total lifestyle. Second, their "product" is a sticker you can put in your car window, or on your bumper, showing what a good citizen you are. Third, all their press indicates that this is what they are offering to people.

Not to be unreasonably vicious about this, but people really should be made to suffer for the crime of driving. I say this simply because they need to be encouraged to stop, or at the very least drive 95% less. The last thing that we need is more ways to stabilize car culture, which is explicitly what TerraPass offers. (See their TerraBlog if you are unconvinced.)

Judas gets a makeover

Woah! After 2000 years, the Vatican is apparently softening its view on Judas.

Two things to think about here:

One is the simple theological question, which is a major one for Christianity. It's remarkable that such important questions should still be open questions after so many years. You'd think God would have made his perfect plan a little less ambiguous.

Anyway, my favorite statement of the problem of Judas comes from Borges, who wrote a little "short story" about it called "Three Versions of Judas", which are:

  • Judas is the tool of Satan. This has backing in the Gospel according to Luke, which says "Satan entered him", and John, which says the same. Problematic, since it means Satan was doing what God wanted after all.

  • Judas was only fulfilling God's plan; Christ had to die and thus had to be betrayed. This is an oft-favored viewpoint, popular amongst liberal types. See "Jesus Christ Superstar" or "The Last Temptation of Christ". Problematic, since the Bible clearly has Judas being punished and makes him out as a villain.

  • Finally, Borges farcically proposes that since Christ's suffering was brief, and mankind's sin is endless, surely it was not enough to redeem us. Therefore the true messiah should be someone who is still suffering in Hell on our behalf, viz., Judas.

It should also be noted that Judas has historically been a standard card played by anti-Semites; in art he has often been portrayed with red hair, stereotypically associated with Jews in medieval Europe. So there's clearly good political reason to revise the role of Judas. But as I'm fond of saying, political imperative does not necessarily coincide with the truth. The Gospels are without a doubt documents written to be antagonistic to Jews. The early Christians surely had many adversaries within the Jewish community; the majority, even. So it shouldn't surprise us to see that what's been handed down through history plays well in generating anti-Semitism. This is more a call to abandon the Gospels than anything else. Attempting to reconcile it with current mores is needlessly futile.

(Via CT)

11 January, 2006

Bageant Blog!

Woohoo! Your daily dose of cantankerousness, right here. His blog is titled "Drink, Pray, Fight and Fuck". Awesome.

Bisphenol A on the hot seat

Brita filter pitchers, Nalgene bottles, and some sippy cups are all made from a chemical that has been linked in many independent studies to serious developmental disorders. The chemical, Bisphenol A, is the main component of the hard, clear plastic called polycarbonate.

Bisphenol A can be released from the plastic when scrubbed with detergents, scuffed, or fogged from exposure to sunlight. It can then enter the body of a person or animal eating or drinking out of the polycarbonate container. In the body, it imitates estrogen and causes all manner of sexual disorders, from low sperm counts to genital cancers.
At the hearing on Tuesday, Fred vom Saal, a reproductive biologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the effects of low doses of bisphenol A, known as BPA, are clear in animal studies.

"Every aspect of maleness is disrupted," Vom Saal said, including the animals' sperm counts, prostate size and behavior, because it blocks testosterone production.
Now California is considering banning polycarbonate in baby toys. Unsurprisingly, the plastics industry has sent its pet scientists out to prevent regulation.
"Human exposure is extraordinarily low," said Steve Hentges of the polycarbonate division of the American Plastics Council. "And there is no evidence that any human has been harmed by use of these products."
Unfortunately for the plastics industry, these scientists are probably charging way too much for their services. The good news for any industry seeking to prevent regulation is that Chris Hoofnagle, a lawyer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has created a handy guide to preventing regulation -- even if you know nothing about the industry. And his guide is brilliantly written as a deck of poker cards, for easy memorization. Next time, perhaps the plastics industry will take on some high school student-council vice-president who would gladly accept a volunteer "internship" testifying in Sacramento. She could probably do a perfectly competent job.

Just to bring her up to speed, let's see -- so far, the plastics industry has used:
2 of spades
3 of clubs
5 of hearts
5 of diamonds
and at the end of the LA Times story, a hint of the deadly 8 of diamonds.
I am sure that Jack of Spades is waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, the story gives a great insight into the power of the purse when it comes to the alleged objectivity of science:
Vom Saal countered that 140 animal studies have found hormone-altering effects from low exposure to the plastics chemical. In a published review of the studies, Vom Saal reported that every one funded by industry showed no effects while more than 90% of the government-funded studies found effects.
Go figure!

Hot air in Australia

So the U.S. and Australia, the only two Kyoto holdouts in the world, are putting together an alternative climate change coalition along with India, China, Japan and South Korea.* They're calling it the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. To me it seems something like a well-written farce. The premise of the partnership is that real action on climate change will be driven by industry and new technology, not by government regulation.

Playing the part of Head Clown was U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who told reporters, ""It's really the private sector, the companies that own the assets, that make the financial allocations, that are ultimately going to be the solvers of the problems." His best joke was this: "I believe that the people who run the private sector, they too have children and they too have grandchildren. They too live and breathe in the world and they would like things dealt with effectively." This should pass without commentary, I think.

The favorite technology being pushed by this coalition is "clean coal", which we've previously insulted here (mostly by describing it). Clean coal, you'll recall, is expected to come to market, optimistically, in ten years' time, which might coincide nicely with Tuvalu being completely submerged.

Be sure to note that the coalition will not set any targets for countries to meet, and will instead rely on a "non-binding compact" to reduce emissions. They won't even include the sort of carbon credits trading favored by Kyoto. One has to wonder what sort of incentive is there going to be for development of low-emissions technology in the complete absence of any regulatory pressure. In fact, this seems like nothing so much as a bid to allow foreign investment into difficult-to-reach corners of the four Asian countries. Never lose an opportunity to engage in some shameless capitalism at the world's expense.

* This might be news to China, India, Japan and Korea, all Kyoto signatories who perceive this as a complement, not an alternative, to Kyoto. Meanwhile, however, the Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell explicitly stated that this would be an "alternative", and it's hard to see how the anti-Kyoto Bush administration could see this as anything other than a way to cloak their inaction.

10 January, 2006

Hello, mummy.

Did the Ancient Egyptians invent Freon?

Important stuff you never knew

I'm always amazed at the crucial judicial verdicts handed down by people who should rightly have recused themselves. Previously we've complained about John Roberts and how he should have recused himself from Hamdan v. Rumsfeld when he found out he was in consideration for a Supreme Court appointment.

Today I was startled to find out an even earlier incident of a similar sort. Apparently, back in 2000, Sandra Day O'Connor was thinking to retire, but didn't want to do so during a Democratic administration. A Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics article describes her disgust when the election was initially called for Gore:
Sitting in her hostess's den, staring at a small black-and-white television set, she visibly started when CBS anchor Dan Rather called Florida for Al Gore. "This is terrible," she exclaimed. She explained to another partygoer that Gore's reported victory in Florida meant that the election was "over," since Gore had already carried two other swing states, Michigan and Illinois.

Moments later, with an air of obvious disgust, she rose to get a plate of food, leaving it to her husband to explain her somewhat uncharacteristic outburst. John O'Connor said his wife was upset because they wanted to retire to Arizona, and a Gore win meant they'd have to wait another four years. O'Connor, the former Republican majority leader of the Arizona State Senate and a 1981 Ronald Reagan appointee, did not want a Democrat to name her successor.
And yet, when the opportunity presented itself several weeks later to choose the fucking President of the United States, "Justice" O'Connor did not recuse herself. I quote United States Code, Title 28, Section 455, Disqualification of Justice, Judge, or Magistrate (found here):
(4) He [sic] knows that he, individually or as a fiduciary, or his spouse or minor child residing in his household, has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding;

Big anvil

America's widest newspaper has an interesting story today about shipcracking in which it casually mentions that the world's steel mills produce 1 billion tons of steel per year. I figure it's probably metric tons. If steel has a mass of 7.86 grams per cubic centimeter (see CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics), a ton of steel is .12722 cubic meters.

I am glad it is so compact, as I want to build the world's largest steel anvil. I would hate to have it take up too much room.

According to my exhaustive research watching various episodes of the documentary program "Animaniacs," a 25-kg anvil is 40 cm long, 11.25 cm wide, and 17 cm tall. (Note this is a nice hard steel anvil, not the more common cast iron anvil or the more Anvilanially musical brass anvil.) Multiply it out and you find that the anvil will 1.37 km long, 384 m wide, and 581 m tall, with enough steel left over to make a hammer so I can use the very large anvil to forge a new bicycle to replace the one stolen from my back yard. Then I just need some steel for the bicycle.

08 January, 2006

A meteoric rise

Last year was a pretty remarkably bad year for oil markets. That is, "bad" if you are a consumer of oil. Good if you are a seller somewhere along the supply chain. Observe this amazing performance:
(Apologies for the low quality. Blogger insists on resizing the figure and converting it to a jpeg. I am unspeakably annoyed.)

Aside from a few hiccups along the way, this is a pretty astounding, exponential climb in price, 2.5-fold in only two years. This is amazing behavior for a commodity. For some perspective we can look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here's the average price for fuel oil in the U.S. compared against white bread for the past three years:

Meanwhile, here's the behavior of the same two commodities during the 1990s:
This is not quite indicative, since the price of fuel oil in the U.S. is subject to many non-market forces, but it at least suggests that there's a sea change going on in the oil world. It ought to be an interesting year.

03 January, 2006

A New Year Has Come!

Ah, yes. It is now 2006.

That other year, which we shall not name, was not a good year. Many people died. Many more entered this unfortunate world. Others were forced to memorize multiplication tables and eat their greens. Some lost their virginity in embarassingly brief encounters and felt humiliated afterwards. Others had no sex at all and felt hollow. A few crawled across the sky of a wide Western state under the nylon wings of a glider and knew a moment of peace. Most wished they were someone else, somewhere else, with different dreams, and a few extra inches of height.

But this year will be better. In this year, we will give babies beautiful names not chosen out of vanity. We will sing more, loudly, and we will readily sing the harmony parts, with good cheer and without complaint. We will make more delicious things. We will want less and give more. We will stroke each other and not ourselves. We will pause and see things we never saw before that were there all the time, and it will amaze and delight us. We will listen when someone says, "...", and we will be silent for a moment as we reflect on it. We will not distinguish between the future and the present.

P.S. As you may note, I've redone the site. I'll take your complaints here.

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