30 April, 2006


Word on the street is Alberto Gonzalez won't go to work tomorrow (May 1, 1o Mayo) in support of immigrant rights.

Speaking of cabinet secretaries, look at their future. The meter is off but the spirit is on.

27 April, 2006


Some Democrat Senators are trying to get a windfall profits tax put in place on oil companies, and alarm bells are ringing. Especially since some Republican senators are apparently discontented as well, recognizing that high gasoline prices are going to be a significant electoral issue this year. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) tried to put an amendment onto the latest megalithic spending bill winding its way through Congress* taxing profits 50% on oil revenues over $40/barrel. Punishing bloated capitalists is an easy way to earn yourself points when consumers are suffering. The bill currently in play is sponsored by Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who has tried to get such a bill passed before, post-Katrina, and includes exemptions for money reinvested in further exploration. Even Arlen Specter says it's "worth considering" a windfall tax amongst "a number of options".

A windfall profit tax is fine by me, although I do think if people are suddenly going to start taking anti-capitalist positions because of obvious market failure, they should at least have the decency to stay that way.§ And lest you have any doubts about how this is being played, there's little or no talk about oil shortage or how global demand is going to grow; that sort of talk would lead to talk of "conservation", which during an election year is verboten. Senate Democrats (e.g. Harry Reid) are talking about removing the gas tax to ease the burden on consumers. Removing the gas tax. Anything to allow Americans to continue gassing up without worry. This is bad medicine: treat the symptoms, not the disease.

Anyhow, all this talk of a windfall profit tax is bringing up the last time there was a windfall profits tax, in the early 1980s. Like the unfortunately named House Majority Leader, John Boehner (R-Ohio):
"The windfall profits [tax], when it was tried in the '80s, failed miserably because it led to less discovery. It led to less production and was a failure," Boehner said. "There is no reason for us . . . to go there again."
There's also a whole slew of papers and talking points reiterating the above line, like this Heritage Foundation article. These make basically two claims: first, that a windfall profits tax would not generate much revenue, since the one in the 1980s didn't, and second, that the tax sets an unnecessary burden on domestic producers and would depress production.

The former claim is perhaps true, since the 80s tax made a paltry $40 billion net, as opposed to the projected $369 billion. This is because the price of oil crashed in the 80s as a result of extremely good conservation measures, and eventually OPEC ramping up production again; after 1986, the price of oil dropped below the floor set for the windfall profit tax; after this point there was no more windfall to tax, and even before then declining prices made the tax untenable. If such a situation were to repeat itself, we'd have little cause for complaint - if the revenue vanishes because of a collapse in the price of oil, well and good. This, however, should be no reason not to pass the tax by itself.

The latter claim usually cites a Congressional Research Service study from 1990; in light of recent events the author (Salvatore Lazzari) published an update, available here. His argument is this: since the price of oil is determined on a global market, a windfall profits tax imposed on domestic producers means that the effective price per barrel of oil is reduced by the amount of the tax, per barrel. We may then compute, based on what we think is the price elasticity of supply for oil, the effective reduction in oil output this must have precipitated. Based on that, the study concludes that there was (depending on what the price elasticity actually was) somewhere between a 3 and 6% reduction in domestic production in the 1980s.

I'll make the caveat that my economics is for shit, here; the study's calculations are reasonable, although one might debate the price elasticity figures employed. In the original study, the lower-bound was 0.5, while in the 2006 update the author acknowledges that lower figures might be correct. I'm not qualified to debate this matter.

But what I do take issue with is the study's assumption that the full value of the tax should be deducted from the price per barrel. Lee Raymond is adequate evidence of this: capitalists eat profit. Not all of the profit is reinvested, and so we needn't assume that in the absence of a windfall productivity would suffer. It would just mean some rich people would be a little less filthy fucking rich than they otherwise would have been. This is a key assumption made by proponents of the tax and one that the study fails to acknowledge.

All of that said, I think this tax is a waste of time. And as a political dodge, it's worse than ineffective, since it distracts from actual measures that would promote real reductions in the price of oil. Giving rebates from tax revenues to customers would certainly be a popular measure, but it's, first, not going to have any impact on the price of oil, and second, couldn't possibly provide substantial relief from high gasoline prices - probably 1 or 2% at most. And since we're unlikely to see drastic increases in output from any major producers (all of whom are running basically at capacity), we're not going to see a drop in gasoline prices unless we force conservation. Anything that detracts from that is pointless.

* Which apparently has gotten George Bush's knickers all in a twist. After spending us $8 trillion into debt, he and the Senate Republic leadership have suddenly decided they are fiscal conservatives again and want to cut the porky bill from $105.6 billion down to a lean $92.2 billion. Ah, election year!

Quimby: Demand? Who are you to demand anything? I run this town! You're just a bunch of low-income nobodies!
Aide [whispering]: Election in November! Election in November!
Quimby: What? Again!? This stupid country.

Like Lee Raymond, CEO of ExxonMobil, who just retired with a $400 million golden parachute. At current gold prices, this would be a parachute weighing 20 metric tons.

Of course, in the same interview he mouths off about how he's passed legislation outlawing OPEC, which "get[s] together, reduce[s] the supply of oil, and that drives up prices," a mysterious and ignorant statement considering that (a) the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the major OPEC producer, most definitely does NOT connive against the U.S., and (b) OPEC has increased their production quotas repeatedly in past months, and just recently (a few days back) announced they're going to keep them at 28 Mbd total, almost at full capacity. So take what he says with a grain of salt.

§ In other words, I'm bitter because I was on the "dispossess the ruling class" wagon way before these ruling-class jerks showed up on it.

26 April, 2006

Health coverage

I am tempted to write 750 words on this and put everybody to sleep. Instead, let me keep it short. Every American attempt to improve the condition of health insurance makes me want to throw men in suits from rooftops. The latest is Massachusetts' clever scheme that will require all residents who can afford it to buy health coverage and will subsidize insurance for the remainder.

This plan will give private companies a captive market, reducing what minimal incentive they now have to keep prices down.

People who compare the situation to car insurance, which is also mandatory in the U.S., forget that people who don't want car insurance don't need to get a car. There is no similar way to opt out of Massachusetts' health plan.

The only people who opposed the plan were standing up for small businesses, which will be penalized if they fail to offer their workers health coverage. While it is valid to note that some marginal businesses will close down or move when faced with the new cost, that is beside the point. The problem is not that this law is anti-business but that it is nowhere near anti-business enough. It picks on small businesses while providing a guaranteed cash stream to the big insurers.

The alternative is just the other side of that huge one-way mirror called the Canadian border. Go over and take a look sometime.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled feature: A 3 a.m. demonstration against the IMF in Washington D.C. that I somehow completely missed! (I must not have been at the Fairmont that night.) I find screaming to be stupid, annoying and unhelpful, but this event sounds funny all the same.

25 April, 2006


The Mayday general strike seems to be taking root around the Bay Area. I know that the unions and many immigrant workers plan to take the day on -- on the streets -- rather than going to work. Maybe I'm too quick to giggle, but I find it funny that a movement with this mission statement
The increasing militarization along the US-Mexico border -- by now a veritable war zone -- serves as a brutal reminder that all borders operate as integral and deliberate parts of exploitative economic systems, inseparable from capitalism and neoliberal globalization. The US-Mexico border, and all other borders between nation-states and governments, are reproduced in our minds and throughout society, serving to enforce and legitimize the boundaries, disparities, and exploitative relationships between people. The demand for full amnesty and free movement of people, therefore, aims at justice for immigrants at the same time as it aspires to a world free from all such destructive divisions. More information on our analysis is available here
would also call for people to bring pots and spoons to raise a ruckus in a cacerolazo. Articulate vs. deafening?

Someone after my tiny heart created this flyer (front, back). See you there? What are you seeing in your community?

20 April, 2006

The tides, they are a-changin'

A number of interesting and alarming studies have come out in recent months underscoring the horrific pace of global warming. The most dramatic of these was one that claimed that the Atlantic currents that warm Europe have been shutting down. That claim, widely hyped in the press (and believed by yours truly), was probably overblown, it turns out. But other developments have a little more heft to them.

For example, a pair of studies came out in Science last month that examined paleoclimate evidence of sea level rise in the last interglaciation, and concluded that sea level rise of something like 4-6m might come upon us quicker than we might imagine. Since something like 450 million people live beneath the 10m mark, this sounds pretty problematic (the Gore-narrated "An Inconvenient Truth" illustrates this graphically with coastlines flooding and talks about refugee crises). Not to worry; last time the rate was 11 mm/year, which gives us something like 270 years to run away from a 3m rise. I think we'll manage to avoid immediate catastrophes.

So, don't panic. But DO panic. An assload of studies on Greenland give cause for concern that that pile of ice is thinning rapidly, and West Antarctic ice shelves are breaking up, contributing, by themselves, an astounding 0.4 mm/year to sea level rise. What's most alarming about this to scientists studying climate is that all of these processes were more or less unanticipated.

If you believe this is the product of anthropogenic forces, this is all rather depressing news, since it seems there's little being done to stop this particular trainwreck. Kyoto is set to come in to force in 2008, which means that the United States, the world's number one emitter, is almost certainly not going to be in compliance (barring a miracle - I burn a candle in your name, Mithra). The number two emitter, China, is exempt. And even idyllic countries like Canada might be on the outs, now that the Conservatives are in power (Harper is apparently a Kyoto opponent). And, let's not forget that I hate Kyoto anyway - in 1990 we were experiencing a rise of 2 ppm/year of CO2, hardly small nuts, which makes all this agonizing to achieve those cuts pointless (or less pointy, anyway). As to what happens in 2012, when Kyoto runs out, it's anyone's guess. We'll find out in November.

New poll on the right.

Breast is best

I see that although some cad voted to ban breasts in our latest poll, no one's elected to ban breast-feeding so far. Hurrah for that, since breastfeeding is almost undisputably an unmitigated good.* Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits, breastmilk contains lysozymes and immunoglobulin A antibodies, which protect the infant from bacterial (etc.) infection until it can develop an immune system of its own. No formula (the favorite alternative to breastmilk), as far as I know, provides the same, which at least partially accounts for the significantly higher rates of mortality and manifold increase in hospitalization rates amongst formula-fed babies. This, incidentally, is what prompted a bunch of people to call for a boycott against the Nestle corporation for marketing formula in third-world countries. Since formula is usually sold in powdered form and must be reconstituted with possibly contaminated water, this is a significantly greater risk to the child, compared to breastmilk, which is free, provides immune protection, and has other ancillary benefits as well.

There's some indication that breastfeeding has other, long-term benefits, as well, including general mental development, possibly reducing obesity, and reducing the likelihood of childhood cancers.

It's unfortunate, then, that breastfeeding rates are less than 100%. In the United States there's a particularly high class discrepancy in breastfeeding rates that's believed to be a product of a combination of lack of education on the subject (which, frankly, is dismal - even the Mayo Clinic says blithely that formula is "perfectly acceptable" as an alternative to breastmilk without discussing its failures), time and work pressures, and, unfortunately, the availability of the WIC formula credit.

We're still at a vast improvement from the 1950s, when breastfeeding went completely out of vogue and was actively frowned upon by ignorant boob doctors. But as more women are forced into (or choose to enter) the workplace, hopefully this positive trend won't backslide.

Post scriptum: Yes, menstruation won in the poll. No, no one is surprised.

* The one bad thing I'm aware of is that dioxins, which are fat-soluble and accumulate in the mother's body throughout her life, can only be excreted through fatty discharges, viz., breastmilk. The mother's first-born will thus receive her mother's full complement of accumulated dioxin while nursing. Not a great way to start off life, but it's probably still better to breastfeed.

Parse that as you like.

Worth a listen

Crank volume, gather co-workers, click.

(For the song alone, click this.)

18 April, 2006

Big bird

In Pinnacles National Monument, I took a couple hours to make cursory observations of the Life of Condor.

California condors are big. I mean big like I was using binoculars to make out one guy's head when its flight feathers scraped my forehead. Big like it was landing on a rock a quarter mile away and I had to hold onto a tree-trunk from the wind.

They are ugly. Fugly. Rumor has it that they went damn-near extinct because their mothers kept kicking them out of the nest before they could fly after telling the fathers, "You can't convince me that I gave birth to that thing."

They are dominant. One landed on a rock and a big old redheaded turkey vulture yielded its seat as readily as a sparrow giving up to a jay, a jay to a crow, or a crow to a vulture. But those metaphors don't do the size difference justice. The condor was a good twice the size of the vulture. The nervous buzzard moved to a nearby pinnacle of rock and sat there for a minute until the condor ruffled its feathers. That sent the vulture immediately off on a high wheeling flight to find a new roost.

They are slow and strong. They eat dead calves. It takes them a day to get around to eating. At that point they fly around, pulling on the cadaver. A crew member said they will drag it all over unless the corpse is chained to the ground.

They look dumb, even if they are smart. They wear numbers on their necks, like football players. More than 90 percent of their food comes from people.

They travel in packs. They go on road trips together -- 11 of them were gone last week and came back just before the weekend.

In other words, the life of condor is one of being big, ugly, dominant, slow, strong and dumb. Why do I think it should be the national emblem of the United States?

Oh yeah. A couple counter-arguments:

They are organic. At Pinnacles, the feeding crew uses only organic calves. (That keeps the condor meat organic, making it more marketable at fine stores like Whole Foods.)

And the real reason: they are on their way back from extinction.

12 April, 2006

You and your pathetic Super-Friends couldn't hope to defeat me!

Here's a classic evil supervillain line, from arch-fiend Silvio Berlusconi, who is refusing to concede defeat in the recent Italian elections: "Did you think you were about to be free of me?"

Fortunately I have discovered that his secret vulnerability is being pantsed. Anyone willing to fly to Italy?

11 April, 2006


The fate of all things. This was once Highway 1, the main paved road down the coast of California. Today it is quiet enough to hear the tiny waterfall from 50 meters, songbirds, the wind rustling flight feathers of hovering hawks. A mile below, the current highway is closed by a landslide, so the land is almost empty of humans from the ocean across to Interstate 280, a very rugged few miles away. It is encouraging, in the middle of the disaster-prone Bay Area, to visit a place where one can see that chaos and destruction of human endeavors is not, in the long term, the end of the world.

Good news bad news, Crash n burn edition

Good news: Speaking of trapped rats, the Bush Administration itself is in an ever-tighter spot. George Bush's approval rating in California is now the lowest of any sitting president since Richard Nixon on the eve of his resignation.

Bad news: A president that lacks the public's trust but has thousands of nuclear missiles might not be such a good thing after all. (Especially when he knows that people only understand force.)

10 April, 2006

How come this never happens to Al Qaeda?

For some reason, terrorist cells' rosters, complete with Social Security numbers, never seem to show up on stolen hard-drives for sale at the local flea market. Nor do their troop assignments, target lists, or memos that could prove embarrassing to governments that help them out. Why do I mention this? Because it happens to the committed, security-conscious "best fighting force in the world." Oops!
A reporter recently obtained several drives at the bazaar that contained documents marked "Secret." The contents included documents that were potentially embarrassing to Pakistan, a U.S. ally, presentations that named suspected militants targeted for "kill or capture" and discussions of U.S. efforts to "remove" or "marginalize" Afghan government officials whom the military considered "problem makers."
And here I thought one of the lessons of Vietnam was that you can't beat people who care more about their fight than you care about yours.

Oh, I'm sorry, did I say "lessons of Vietnam?" Did I imply that humans are capable of learning from experience, the divine ability that differentiates us from pit bulls and phytoplankton? Sorry, I misspoke. Those who want to feel different will have to satisfy themelves by staring in differentiated awe at their opposable thumbs.

See this movie

If you are in San Francisco or the East Bay this week and you have 2 hours to enrich your life, turn off the computer and get thyself to a movie house. From the moviemakers:
Sir! No Sir! tells the story of one of the most vibrant and widespread upheavals of the 1960's-one that had a profound impact on American society, yet has been virtually obliterated from the collective memory of that time. Like the Vietnam War itself, the GI Antiwar Movement started small and within a few years exploded into a force that altered history. Between 1966 and 1975, groups of soldiers emerged to challenge the war and racism in the military. Group action and individual defiance, from the 500,000 GIs who deserted over the course of the war to the untold numbers who wore peace signs, defied military discipline and avoided combat, created a "Fuck the Army" counter-culture that threatened the entire military culture of the time and changed the course of the war. Sir! No Sir! chronicles the GI Antiwar Movement using vividly told stories from individual participants and never-before-seen Super-8 and 16mm film footage of events that capture the mood, politics and culture of an increasingly polarized America during wartime. (83m)
(emphasis mine) The film will open nationwide next week. The filmmakers said they are more like to get wider distribution if their opening weeks do well here in the coastal enclaves, so get out there and get you some learning. As someone who has read a fair bit about the Vietnam War and activism against it, this was still almost all new. Who knew that there was a prison riot at the Presidio of San Francisco stockade followed by a mutiny trial for 27 anti-war soldiers? Not me! (He knows lots of things.)

The film opens in New York April 17 and in Denver and Madison on the 28th.

09 April, 2006

Happy Freedom Day!

Usually, I think I know how to speak and read English. Then I come across a couple paragraphs like these and I wonder whether I missed a day of vocabulary class.
Iraq observed "Freedom Day," a holiday that commemorates U.S. Marines tearing down a statue of
Saddam Hussein as Iraqis cheered in Firdous Square on April 9, 2003, marking the collapse of Saddam's regime.

Meanwhile, at least 15 people were killed Sunday, including eight suspected insurgents shot by American soldiers in a pre-dawn raid north of the capital.
Freedom (vree'-dome): (n) 1. The right to blow up one's self and neighbors in an attempt to affect geopolitics. 2. The right to be blown up in one's home by young men from a far-off country who for one reason or another consider one to be an insurgent. (See: misery)

Good news, bad news

Good news: Via Americablog, I learn:
Bush has caused a worrisome officer shortage in US Army:

The Army expects to be short 2,500 captains and majors this year, with the number rising to 3,300 in 2007. These officers are the Army's seed corn, the people who 10 years from now should be leading battalions and brigades.

"We're ruining an Army that took us 30 years to build," Republican maverick Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told a group of reporters at a recent conference....

The Army denies the shortage is a crisis, but its top civilian, Francis J. Harvey, acknowledged concerns, telling the Washington Post: "We are worried."

Americablog, being a posse of Democratic Party partisans who find it more important to attack George W Bush than to think about what they consider good for the world, is predictably concerned. Oh no, they write. Now how will we invade Iran? For my part, I think the decline in military recruiting is great news.

Bad news: A country that lacks troops and officers but has thousands of nuclear missiles might not be such a good thing after all.

07 April, 2006

Take that, Steven Pinker!

A standard trope of evolutionary psychologists is that differential mate selection between the sexes is driven by competing sexual interests. Men will seek out younger women, who can bear them many children, and women will be attracted to the men who command more resources and power, who will be able to provide for them in adversity. The fact that this theory bears out a rather misogynist view of the sexes is probably just a coincidence. I mean, this is science, right? What's sexism got to do with it?

Like a lot of evolutionary psychology, I think this is trash. Drawing conclusions about why particular features evolved is extraordinarily difficult, especially since in this case you have to assume that there was a particular selective pressure at all. Not necessarily true; not everything is adaptive, and not everything that is adaptive need have emerged. Last I checked I can't shoot stinging foam into anyone's eyes.

Evolutionary psychologists proceed by taking their cues from the real world. Observe existing human behavior and draw conclusions about our evolutoinary past. These are usually ridiculous, overblown conclusions entirely unsupported by any actual evidence. E.g. this absurd Just So story about why men like blonde women better. Socialization is never admitted as a factor.

My favorite example is of a pair of ev psychologists who attempted to raise their child in a "gender-neutral" fashion, but found, to their dismay, that little Johnny liked playing with guns anyway, and concluded this was because of an evolutionary predisposition. Yes, that's right. Men evolved to love guns. You idiots.

This is not atypical. You can open any issue of most evolutionary psychology journals to find such flatulent conclusions. As a sample, here is an abstract I pulled up from the latest issue of Evolution and Human Behavior (the same one that contains the above "blonde cavegirls" study). It concludes, on the basis of a slight difference in answer to survey questions asking about people's preferences regarding their partners' senses of humor, that:
In summary, our results augment prior studies on the sexual selection of humor. We provided further evidence that sexual selection may have influenced humor production because it is specifically preferred by women in relationship partners. Furthermore, men’s reported preferences for humorous partners may be the result of sexual selection shaping male preference for partners who signal sexual interest through humor appreciation.
There is ZERO discussion of differential socialization and its possible influence. Egad, you say? Hold your surprise. This is nothing new.

So, getting to the punchline, the same journal is going to publish a study showing that the apparent evolutionarily-determined mating preferences outlined above (guys like young hot girls, girls like rich guys and don't really give a shit about appearance) are, well, not necessarily true. It seems that they may have been the result of, um, social circumstances, and as women gain more financial independence, their attitude towards what they want in a partner changes. "Quid?" an imaginary evolutionary psychologists cries, popping his head out of the underbrush. "The patterns we're observing might be contingent on the particular culture we're observing rather than on evolutionary dynamics? Alack-a-day!"

Unfortunately I doubt publication of stuff like this is enough to shut down an entire field due to embarassment, but a boy can dream.*

* About guns, most likely.

06 April, 2006

O Tempora! O Mores!

I learned, to my dismay, that kids no longer sit "Indian style", they sit "Criss Cross Applesauce". What the fuck?! We invented that shit, man! Give credit where credit is due. All you white people wouldn't know how to sit on the ground if it weren't for us!*

* Also we want credit for the Asian Squat, which I am firmly convinced has a strong genetic component.

05 April, 2006

Pitch black

An Ohio town, during and after the blackout.
My friend John Hayden wants an annual holiday celebrating the night sky, complete with a universal blackout (of lights, not necessarily of power). He arbitrarily proposed August 4th as the date, although precedent suggests the better date is August 14th, the anniversary of the 2003 blackout that covered most of northeastern North America and left 40 million people in the dark. For romantic reasons I'd prefer Midsummer (traditionally celebrated June 24; coincidentally, the 25th is a new moon this year).

Financial considerations mean any such holiday would be impossible, since the enormous enjoyment people would derive from being able to see the stars would not result in any growth in GDP*, and thus is, from a capitalist perspective, a useless activity not worth engaging in, and the total loss of consumption in a single night would probably amount to many billions of dollars worth of trade. Not to mention safety considerations (shutting down streetlights on highways, e.g.), enough to scare away even the wildest & craziest of municipal authorities.

This is unfortunate. Personally, stars are the closest thing I have ever come to worshipping, and the idea that one could, in the past, have been casually awestruck simply by gazing upwards at night both frustrates and inspires me. Sometimes I'll catch the moon in a moment like that - it's the only thing left that can still do this, and I think it's difficult for it to bear the weight of the job that the entire firmament used to accomplish. But when it's full and the sky is clear (or better, if there are only a few tufts of clouds), it can still quite take your breath away.

So light pollution is something of a nemesis of mine; even if its ecological impact is not that great, I believe it's quite spiritually damaging to us. Heaven is one of the most awesome sights available; a huge body of myth certainly testifies to that. I think I can say quite safely that we have produced nothing that compares to it, and we never will. Our spirits are left bereft and weaker because of that absence, and our devotion to nature is probably also consequently smaller. This may come across as mystic garbage, but I mean it quite seriously; we should take some care as to how our environment reflects on our souls.

There are groups dedicated to fighting light pollution, of course, the best known of which is the International Dark Sky organization. There's also this group of Neo-Luddites who in the past celebrated the anniversary of the 2003 blackout (though now no longer, maybe). On the other hand, if we want to be more pro-active, an enterprising group of individuals with some high-powered rifles could probably simultaneously knock down enough high-voltage power lines that they would trigger cascading power failures and take down a substantial portion of the electrical grid... but this sort of talk is quickly going to get me into trouble, so I'll end here.

* Yes, I considered telescope sales.


I don't right about video games much; I don't think I have ever, actually. And I don't really play them all that much, since I find most modern games boring. There's only so many variations on Wolfenstein-3D you can play before you realize that Id pretty much sucked the FPS genre dry by the mid-90s.

Anyway, so I was pretty excited by this video of Will Wright (creator of SimCity and The Sims) presenting a game called "Spore" at the 2005 Game Developer's Conference. He's managed to fold together many different games into a single one - SimCity, the Sims, Civilization, Pac-man, Space Invaders, etc. But what's really neat is the introduction of what he calls "procedural" elements. E.g., much of the game involves designing creatures. In an editor you may fiddle around with creature design, add body parts, reshape skeletal structure, etc. The behavior of your creature is then computed by the game itself - that is, if you build a creature with five legs, the game will figure out how a five-legged creature will walk and build on that. This makes the game incredibly fluid in terms of what you can create - and in fact in the game is populated by creatures taken from a player-created database (it's asynchronous, not massively multiplayer, though - you just download other people's creations and the game animates and controls them), meaning that an intricate world grows out of your own (and other's) creativity and interaction with the game itself, not from armies of unimaginative animators.

Pretty cool. If you're not up for watching a 35-minute video, this Gamespy article has a good summary.

03 April, 2006

Forbes 2000

Forbes published their list of the 2000 largest companies in the world for 2006. An interesting list - in the top 20, banks (or other investment groups) and the oil industry predominate, taking up 16 of 20 slots. In the top 100 this drops to a mere 46 out of 100 being oil & gas or investment. The same groups account for 11 of the top 20 most profitable groups (not surprising considering they're so large).

Coal to liquid

After getting my nose bloodied on this Crooked Timber thread,* I did a little reading on coal to liquid technology. Pretty neat stuff, it turns out, far neater than I would have (or had) imagined. (I let this post languish for a week or so, but in the interim someone else e-mailed me about it, so I thought it was sufficiently intriguing that it merited completion).

The essence of the technology is the Fischer-Tropsch process, invented in Germany in the 1920s. The Fischer-Tropsch reaction is, basically, to begin with a mixture of H2 and CO and burn it along with a catalyst into the hydrocarbon of your choice (controlled by temperature/pressure conditions and the ratio of CO to H2).

The mixture of CO and H2, called "syngas", can be produced by a number of methods. The most popular rely on natural gas or coal gasification. The latter involves simply controlled heating of coal in a low-oxygen environment. Gases, of course, are much easier to separate than petroleum fractions, especially simple gases like the ones in question. The Fischer-Tropsch process thus produces fuels of impeccable quality - you can make almost perfectly pure hydrocarbons, which makes them some of the highest-grade fuels in the world. And the process can be controlled to produce pretty much whatever you like - waxes, oils, kerosene, etc. You can read more about the process from smart people here.)

Unfortunately for its proponents, the economic viability of coal-to-liquid projects rests somewhere around $40/barrel of oil, which means that to date there's only one large coal-to-liquid producer in the world, the South African company Sasol, which has produced in this manner for decades so that South Africa can retain energy independence, even at great economic cost. Fortunately for them, now that oil is at $65/barrel, coal-to-liquid is definitely profitable and likely to remain so. Sasol is now entertaing offers from around the world to build coal-to-liquid plants. (Now might be a good time to buy Sasol stock...)

The governor of Montana has proposed implementing this technology in the States (with his own state's copious coal stores) and thereby winning energy independence. Seems eminently plausible, in fact, in a world of expensive oil.

The downside to all this is, of course, ecological. Coal is simply disgusting technology, one of the most destructive things you can mine, and there is considerable CO2 waste from coal gasification, which means a much higher GHG burden from coal-to-liquid than even from normal petroleum-based gas-guzzling. On the upside, it seems plausible to me that this technology could be adapted to employ waste biomass, which would one-up even these guys.

* In my defense, I had just woken up and thought shooting off my mouth would be easier than all that pesky fact-checking.

Shit, that's not much of a defense!

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