Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saying Crude Things About Oil

I frequently tell people that the issue most important to me is Energy. It's a complicated one, and because it's intimately tied to world politics, oil and coal lobbies, and it is often linked to the Global Warming issue, it is easy for people to misunderstand where I'm coming from and what motivates me.  So, I'm writing this post to explain myself. 

If you intend to engage with me on any topic related to Energy, it's important that you understand these things, and understand what research I've already done, so that you respond to what I actually think and not to what you think others think about this issue. For example, if you see me admit that I accept the overwhelming weight of evidence that mankind is causing Global Warming, you might be tempted to dismiss the rest of my argument as "environmentalist propaganda."  That would be a mistake. My motivation is not informed by the Global Warming debate.  You probably need to look deeper - and this is my attempt to help you with that.

So, carve out some time to read, prepare to open new tabs to read background, and take notes.  If you still want to argue with me when you're done, then you care more than you thought you did.

When I was a kid, just beginning to pay attention to the world around me in the 1970s, I remember seeing stories about gas shortages on the news, accompanied by images of long lines at gas stations and tales of rationing. This would have been the second energy crisis in the U.S., after our failed meddling in Iran led to the deposition of the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. (The first energy crisis occurred in 1973, when OPEC retaliated for our decision to re-supply Israel during the Yom Kippur War.)  Don't take my word for it, though - I was only 7.  This lady was 18, and working in a gas station.

The Point: From my earliest memories, Energy has been a central issue.  It drives world politics, economics, and as the population of the Earth grows in size and demands more and more energy to survive, it makes all of our other conflicts worse.  I have wondered since those early days of my childhood how we (humans) might be able to stop relying so heavily on oil that we would be vulnerable to this kind of episode.

One way that is readily available - and has largely been rejected by the American public - is to use mass transit.  There are a lot of reasons (both compelling and frivolous) why mass transit is so unappealing to our population. I think some of them are well-articulated in this paper. My own desire (which people who know me hear about all the time!) is to see electric cars on the market.

Many people have pointed out that my pet idea is not a good solution, and they cite two reasons why:

  1. It is expensive to develop and roll out a new technology, and electric cars "aren't there yet."
  2. Shifting to electric cars only shifts us from dependence on oil to dependence on coal, as most electricity is generated by coal in the U.S.

The first half of that first reason is true.  It is certainly expensive to shift an entire population of 300+ million people over to a new technology.  But that kind of large-scale investment in ourselves has never stood in the way of American Progress(tm) before.  After all, we were motivated enough to build the Interstate Highway System in Eisenhower's time, and before that we built the railroads - largely thanks to federal land grants and assistance from State and local governments. So in itself, the expense should not be a game-stopper. It is, in fact, an investment.

The second half of the first reason is not true.  Electric cars are finally on the market after a long delay, and while there is a minority of people for whom their range will not be enough, these cars should already be able to meet the needs of the average commuter.  I do not pretend to know why the delay has been so long, and while there was a movie done speculating why a few years ago, I haven't seen it and I try to avoid assigning blame or wallowing in conspiracy theory.  That said, there are clear economic forces at work against a move away from reliance on oil - and it doesn't require a belief in some evil cabal or accusations of "greedy oil barons" as much as it requires an understanding of how investment works. (More on that in a moment.)

The second reason is also true, by the way. Trading dependence on oil for dependence on coal would not be a good solution. Apart from the climate impact (which won't really get into in this essay), the strain on our current electrical infrastructure would require some significant upgrades to that system. My favorite solution, though, is to take advantage of new renewable technologies - in particular photovoltaic solar - and make the production, sale, installation and maintenance of individually owned energy production a priority.  That way, individuals can scale up their own distributed electricity production as they need it, and large, centralized producers can focus on industrial customers or residences where it is impractical to have their own system.

But whatever direction we chose to go in a move away from oil, we would be threatening the oil market to some extent. The laws of supply and demand operate in a very straightforward manner, as the handy "What's Up With Gas Prices" infographic provided by the American Petroleum Institute can tell you.

A 2012 article in Forbes has a few interesting stats on this:

  • Demand shrank "[f]rom 9.29 million barrels per day in 2007 to 8.2 million barrels per day [Feb. 2012] (that’s from 390 million gallons a day to 344 million gallons), a plunge of 12%."
  • Drivers in the U.S. drove "about 100 million miles fewer [in 2011] than in 2007. Granted that’s only a 2% reduction in miles, or roughly a half-mile less for each of the 210 million licensed drivers in the U.S."

  • Since hitting a low in 2008, drillers are pumping 18% higher volumes, totalling 5.8 million bpd. The U.S. now supplies more than half of its petroleum needs from domestic fields.

  • John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute says that after taxes and refiners’ profits, 84% of the price of gasoline is tied directly to the price of crude oil. And who controls that? “It’s all the Saudis,” says Ed Hirs, professor of energy economics at the University of Houston.

According to that API infographic, worldwide demand is expected to grow - "The Energy Information Administration expects growth to accelerate over the next two years reaching 88.8 million barrels per day in 2012 and nearly 89.7 million barrels per day in 2013." 

I throw all of these stats at you to make a point about scale.  "Barrels per day" is clearly a good unit of measurement for comparison.  The U.S. approached 10 million barrels per day in demand, while supplying around two-thirds of that for itself. The World demands nearly 100 million barrels per day, and most of the production to meet that demand is controlled by the Saudis.  To show where the oil comes from, check out this neat map from APM.

The Point?  No matter what we do, we do not ultimately control the supply of oil.  We have been largely shielded from the results of that fact by aggressive foreign policies revolving around oil politics. But our adventures have cost us, and those we have offended over the last century are beginning to gain enough economic clout to take us on. At the end of the day, we can only count on 10% of the supply, if that - and much of that is hard to reach, expensive and dangerous to produce, and always vulnerable to volatile world markets.

So thanks to Supply, we are vulnerable.

In 2011, when Newt Gingrich tried to pin rising gas prices on the Obama administration, CNN reported:

Also, it's important to remember that oil and gasoline prices don't move in lockstep with one another. Gas prices lag behind oil prices by a couple of weeks.
During the oil price spike of 2008, gas prices were still trying to catch up as oil prices had already started falling.
That put refiners in a tight spot.
"[Refiners] couldn't sell their product for as much as crude was increasing," Rayola Dougher, a senior economic advisor for the American Petroleum Institute. "People lost money."

That's, literally, the money quote right there: "People lost money."

And people are going to lose money no matter what the Energy Policy of the U.S. is.

That's important to know.  No matter what we do, people will lose money.  And when they do, that loss will affect all of us. I'm not saying this to try to scare you.  It's just that if you understand how unavoidable that one fact is - people WILL lose money - it changes your individual motivation from one of "I'm only concerned with what I'm paying at the pump right now" to "I need to make sure that when the bottom falls out, I'm in a position to survive it."

In other words, we need to take control over our own Demand.

There really is no hope for avoiding some kind of financial fallout from the inevitable collapse of the oil industry. There is hope that we can make that collapse somewhat graceful, and less damaging. Staying on our current path, however, ignores the same problem that led to the housing market's collapse a few years ago: leverage.

Consider this from a recent Rolling Stone article Bill McKibben wrote about why the fossil fuels industry has fought so hard to discredit science supporting the notion of Global Warming (emphasis mine):
"We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. ... Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It's why they've worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada's tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians."
Whatever you may think of the science supporting the Global Warming issue (and if you want to debate that with me, I'll just go ahead and refer you to this resource and save both of us a lot of time), the purpose of this essay is to convince you that there is a real financial danger ahead that can be mitigated if we are smart. Because there are hundreds of billions of dollars worth of money to be made in oil sales, and because companies (and entire nations) have already bet on the futures of those sales while the oil in question is growing harder and more expensive to reach, everyone is financially motivated to gloss over those expenses and risks - extraction, processing, and transportation are not going to get any easier or cheaper.

Oil and Coal are giants we should not attack and slay, but they are burdens that we should plan to set down gently. We are addicted not only because of our cars, but because we have allowed the hedging against supply & demand to creep into the rest of our money. We need to plan to put that money somewhere else. There will be severe costs for ignoring that plan.  There will be less-severe costs from investing in a way out.

My money (if I had any to bet) would be on the prudent course.  Put our policies behind incentives for moving electric cars and rooftop solar to market, and take our money out of coal and oil.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Evolving Out of Evil

I was asked to respond to this question on a friend-of-a-friend's Facebook page, but couldn't reply directly due to various Facebook privacy settings - so I thought I'd bring my thoughts here for everyone.  Steve asked:

"...the problem of pain and suffering is often pointed out by atheism as being inconsistent w/ a loving, merciful god so therefore God must not exist. Evolution is often touted as a process by which things change "from a lower, simpler or worst to a higher, more complex, or better state" (via Webster's dictionary).

"So ...If evolution is the process by which things (and we would include humans in things) get better, how do the continued evil actions of mankind get explained in evolutionary thinking? How long before humans get it 'right' in evolutionary terms?"

 David already hit one right answer square on the head: 

"I would take the position that things are better, that society, and civilization has gotten better. We have not attained perfection, by any means but things are better. the simple fact we can have an intellectual discussion on this very subject with fear of the inquisition or being charged with treason evidences that."

But my own thought was that this question conflates concepts that are commonly mixed up.

1. The dictionary of "evolution" is not the same as the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.  Too few people understand what that is, and tend to argue against it in ignorance.

2. We, as individuals and members of our culture, have a completely different concept of "better" than nature does. Survival of the "fittest" doesn't correlate to "nicest", and "good enough" usually trumps "perfect" in the real world.

The first point drives most of the discussion between any creationist(s) and "adherents of evolution" and it betrays a fatal flaw in our education system. Few of the people who believe in a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story have any idea what the Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection actually is, what it says, or how it has changed since Charles Darwin first suggested it.  That becomes apparent when a creationist asks a question about evolution, and frames it the way Steve has here.

This isn't an attack on Steve.  It's just important that everyone understand why the question isn't very useful.  There are simply too many logical fallacies embedded in a question like that. Brian Dunning did a much better job of explaining them, and how they work, in his recent podcast on "That Darned Science".  The main one that applies here is Dunning's reply to "Dezi" on scepticism being a "negative" of everything. 

The truth is, there is no "atheism" which "says" anything.  There is no atheist dogma.  An atheist simply believes that there is no god, and may or may not accept any number of other ideas depending on their other beliefs.  But there are millions of atheists who get tired of being told that without a god there can be no joy or morality - because we tend to see ourselves as still being good and moral, strangely enough - and they frequently use arguments like the one Steve cites to show the faithful that they don't have a lock on the definition of "evil" - which is the focus of the second point. 

The argument itself is not an "atheist" argument; Christian philosophers have been grappling with it for as long as there have been Christian philosophers.  From Wikipedia: "An argument from evil attempts to show that the co-existence of evil and such a deity is unlikely or impossible, and attempts to show the contrary have been traditionally known as theodicies." Some Christians even have a pretty good handle on Evolution, and write about how they can be a good Christian and still accept what the scientific method and more than a century of evidence are telling us.

So, with all of that set-up, I hope it is understood that:

a) I'm not going to lecture Steve (or anyone else) on the Theory of Evolution.  There are so many good, reliable, existing resources for learning about it already - go find them.  (You can start by Googling "Jerry Coyne" and look for his YouTube video.)

b) David's answer is one "correct" answer, in that he took the question at face value and applied a different yardstick to how Steve measures "better".  I put "correct" in scare quotes because that answer is really a subjective opinion, and there's no way to "prove" that it's any more valid that the perspective of those in the thread who see evil in those around them.

c) If you're really interested in understanding evil and God, then you should probably read up on "theodicies," linked above.

As for MY answer - which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what other atheists may say or believe - I see evolution happening everywhere, and our species has reached a point where we have developed a certain set of skills and traits that we call "intelligence."  We are social primates who have developed self-awareness and independence.  We have a lot of conflicting impulses, and we have lots of tools for dealing with them.

The concept of "evil" doesn't really factor into my understanding of evolution, except to say that sometimes I see examples where being "evil" is an advantage, and other times where it isn't.  Since my own definition of evil has more to do with an individual's intentions, most definitions of evil are based on an individual's point of view, and since individuals are unpredictable and ever-changing (or evolving) creatures, I don't think it's ever likely to "evolve" away.

That's not to say that I won't continue to try to be good, with or without a god in the equation.  It's just that the existence of "evil" doesn't prove anything one way or the other.

Saturday, August 4, 2012


By request - the text of my audio story published by the Dunesteef audio fiction magazine.

Something was wrong, but you couldn't quite figure out what it was.  You were hiking through the Black Forest, following those leads.  The girl who reported the sighting may not have remained a virgin, but that didn't mean that her story was false.  It just meant that the experience would never happen to her again.

You were still pure, however, and your hope and faith made you a beacon to draw them, if they were there.  If they wanted you.  But something was wrong.

Her description was flawless; everyone gets the pure white coat, the flowing mane, and that damned horn.  But she knew the details.  She heard them speaking their names.  Names you recognized.  Names you first heard when you were a young girl, and you wandered away from your family's campsite on that trip to the Black Forest.

And she saw the tattoos and the scars.

Which brought you back out there with your gear and your plans.  This time, you were determined to get the proof that you needed.  It had gone beyond an obsession, long before your job was lost and your reputation was gone.  Certainly, you wanted to put a stop to the snickers and the pity.  But this desire was older than that; it was much more than that.  You had given up on that dream of proving yourself to doubters early on, and you learned to pay lip service to their disbelief, so they would believe you had recovered your senses. 

The doubters couldn't help you get what you wanted, anyway.

It was that desire to see Them again; to touch them; to ride one of them again.  That desire kept you alone - and intact - throughout your adult life.  It kept you aloof and distant, focused on your career.  Your success as an interrogator was attributed to that detached focus.  But in hindsight, your whole life was a balancing act between lies that hid your obsession and the truth that smoldered beneath, like embers hidden by wet leaves.  No one could lie to you.  You could smell the feeble smoke of their falsehoods, and fan the truth into flame.

On the interview tape, you were different, though.  The girl's story was feeble; it was plain they had stolen that car and headed for seclusion.  You were your usual, competent self, cold and taking notes, waiting for the holes in the tale that would inevitably show themselves.  She veered from the unlikely into the fantastic, telling you of the sound of hoofbeats, and the flash of silver through the trees.

You froze at that.  Your detachment melted away.  You ought to have torn her lies apart right there; exposed her fraud and closed the case.  And yet you listened, and instead of cutting apart the lies with logic, you asked for more.

Where did you go? What did you see?  How many were there?  Can you describe the marks...

You wrote down everything, squeezing her for details until the chief came and ended the interview.  They took the girl away, and you screamed at them to stop; you needed to know more.  The tape captured your frenzy, and words that you were shouting.  Words that couldn't be heard on replay, because no two listeners heard the same sounds.

They detained you, and made you wait for the chief's decision.  You simply stared intently, stroking a lock of your silver hair, which had fallen out of your normally severe bun as you clutched your notes and eyed the maps on the walls of the station.

They took away your badge and your car; they revoked your investigator's license.  After the magistrate reviewed your case, they were going to offer you a small pension, and a quiet, part time desk job at some village in the southern part of the country. 

It was strange that you had become so intent; that you lost your control.  If you had stayed calm, you could have interviewed the girl again later; you could have taken your notes, and pretended not to believe her.  You could have held on to the dignity and respect of your peers.  Would that have made a difference?

You went alone, with the illegal gun you had found during a drug raid, and a pack full of modern camping gear; microfibre bedroll, piezoelectric generator, and basic protein sequencer.  You went with no radio, no GPS, and no phone, but you took a long, thin silver chain and wore it coiled off your belt.  You wore the night vision goggles, but didn't really believe those would help you.

It was your blood they would smell, and they would find you.  Or they wouldn't.

You wandered, uncertain for the first time in your life.  Something was wrong, but you couldn't figure it out.  You could only roam through the woods, clutching your hopes as they wilted into doubts.

And then, as you approached a stream, they surprised you.  They appeared out of nowhere, surrounding you, and pinning you where you stood on the road; a ring of tall white equines with their long, thin horns forming spokes that seemed to emerge from your body and radiate out to their foreheads instead of the other way round.

You knew that a distant part of you felt fear.  The old, weary part of you felt that, but it was far away, and it was sinking beneath the waves of joy that were radiating from the young, innocent virgin still within your heart.  The joy of a faith long held, and now rewarded; the joy of anticipation fulfilled on a wedding night, after a protracted engagement; this was what you felt, even before they spoke to you.

But they did speak to you, and if you had swooned when they did - swooned as you had all those years ago when they came upon you, lost and afraid - they would have escaped you again.  This time, though, you were ready with your silver lasso, and you revealed to them your secret.  You reminded them why, for so many centuries, they had avoided wise, older women who wander through the forest in favor of those innocent, young virgins.

As quickly as they had appeared, they were gone... scattered like brilliant aspen leaves, first shimmering silver, and then flipping into the dark green that dominates the trees of the forest, giving it its name.  All but one, which strained at the end of your chain, trying to flee.  You leapt upon his back, chain coiled around your fists; fingers balled into his mane.

He was not the same one you rode in your youth.  That time, you had found yourself astride a young stallion with a pattern of swirls that wove around his middle in the shape of a saddle.  This time, you were riding their king.  No swirls on this back; no hint of domestication.  This skin was covered with the story of their kind.  Tales of their migrations across time; their conflicts with other creatures; the Flood that ended their rule.  Scars told of the battles that followed, the encroachment of humankind.  And one symbol, on his shoulder, where the pommel would be... this you recognized as the seat of their power.

You caressed it with a finger, risking your grip to ride one-handed.  This tattoo, on the back of their king, was the key to their continued existence; this symbol was the Meme - the Idea which kept them alive in the hearts of the world.  It kept them anchored, despite their secrecy.

You should have let it go, then.  You would have been filled with their magic, returned to your golden youth.  Nothing could have harmed you until you let it, and no one would have doubted you with the knowledge that you held.

Instead, you wanted too much.  You wanted to be seen, in the city, riding triumphantly upon the King of the Unicorn.

You believed that nothing could harm you, though you ought to have realized the danger.  The Meme that had revealed itself to you should have filled you with their caution.  But hubris is not a trait of the Unicorn; it belongs to us.  And to you.

And so you rode him to the city, where you were able to charge to the center square; a highway, choked with fools and machines.  And when you stopped, you dismounted, holding onto his chain, expecting all eyes to be on you, and on him.  You honestly believed that the world would stop and take notice.  Most did, but certainly not all.

The humble car should not be enough to kill the King of the Unicorn, but he is a creature of magic, and it is a creation of iron.  It was simply unfortunate that the car struck him from behind, and that you were in front of him, arms upraised and shouting for attention.  When the horn pierced you, it lifted you off the ground, and the weight of the beast carried you both over a wrought iron fence (yet more iron), and into a fountain.  The horn snapped off at the very base when it struck the stone, leaving it in your body.  The Unicorn fell away, and a mighty flash of silent, heatless light blasted from his forehead.

By the time the authorities arrived, the water of the fountain was a dark red.  The blood and moss had obscured whatever strands of white were left in his coat, which had mostly turned a dingy grey.  The horn had remained, but as a charred and blackened stick.  And the proof you wanted so badly was reduced to this sooty shaft through your torso, a dead horse in a fountain, and the uncertain memories of witnesses who had barely noticed the event.

They took your statement, for whatever it is worth, capturing your last breaths on tape.  Legally, it will be inadmissible.  The pain and trauma would have robbed your credibility even if they hadn't given you the pain killers.  But it has been transcribed, and notarized, for the public record.  Reading it, one could assume only that you had broken from the strain of police work.  No one would believe the tale you told in this age of miracles and wonders.

Not that anyone ever will read it.  Such a humiliating incident is certain to be buried as deeply as possible.  As will you, and the King of the Unicorn.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to Tell If You Are a Bigot

First, the definition - so that the bigots can't pretend not to know what it is:

big·ot·ry   [big-uh-tree]  noun, plural big·ot·ries.
1. stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one's own.
2. the actions, beliefs, prejudices, etc., of a bigot.

Second, the Golden Rule:

The Ethic of Reciprocity -- often called the Golden Rule in Christianity -- simply states that we are to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.
Almost all organized religions have such an ethic. It is normally intended to apply to the entire human race. Unfortunately, it is too often applied by some people only to fellow believers. (Note: this second link includes Humanism's version.)

And third, a concept that too many are having trouble with: Fact vs. Opinion

Like many of you, I feel overwhelmed by all of the chatter over marriage equality - between the Boy Scouts and Chick-Fil-A, the amount of stupid is burning up my Twitter and Facebook.  (And yes, I'm adding to it. Thank you, Captain Obvious.)

But there are a few recurring (and stupid) ideas that keep popping up that I've addressed elsewhere, and think you should have this response in your arsenal.

A distressingly large number of people have tried to turn all of this into an attack on "normal" people. They say "why can't you just 'live and let live' - leave Chick-Fil-A and the Boy Scouts alone?"  The reason is because both of those groups are ignoring the Ethic of Reciprocity (Golden Rule) and are actively picking on a minority group.  I made my case against the BSA already.

But someone asked me in a Facebook thread, to "Show me proof that Chick-Fil-A has done something to harm another human being." Done, and done. THEY proved that with their press conference announcing that they had donated money to the Family Research Council, and intended to continue "defending traditional marriage."

This is proof of harm, because despite their name, the council has done no "research" to show that allowing free U.S. citizens to marry each other does any damage whatsoever to "traditional" families. (The FRC is also listed as a hate-group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, by the way, just to head off the whiny cry of "why are you people calling Chick-Fil-A a hate group, now". There is ample reason for criticizing their Insincere Bigotry.)

The reason that the LGBT community is fighting - and the reason that I am increasingly fighting alongside them - is because the current state of U.S. law and the laws of the several states regarding marriage is unconstitutional. These laws - DOMA, DADT, State-level bans on gay marriages - are pushed into legislation by groups like the FRC, funded by donors like Chick-Fil-A, despite the fact that the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law.

Who is harmed by these laws? Every family which is denied their rights under DOMA. Sally Ride and her partner of 27 years. Children of gay or lesbian parents, like Zach Wahls. My friends, their partners, and their children.

If you recall the trial over California's Prop 8, this is what the Judge said in that case:

"Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the 2-1 majority, therefore argues that "Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for 'laws of this sort.' ""
So, there is my proof of harm.  Unconstitutional bigotry, funded by a wealthy organization to which I will no longer give my business. Now, a challenge to all of you who think you are being victimized by Scary Gays who are fighting to get this changed:  Show me proof that gay marriage has done any material harm to you or anyone else. If you think you can, you should go find the attorneys in the Prop 8 case and give it to them - because when the judge asked them for it, they couldn't offer any.

Do not bring your unsupported assertions about how They are eroding "family values," or your smears equating homosexuality with pedophilia and molestation. Do not bring your offended sense of entitlement because you think "gays are gross" and because you think the minority should conform to your sensibilities.  And do not lie.  Do not tell me that your opinion is based in anything other than bigotry.  You can't claim that, because it isn't true.

One last thing - do not tell me to "shut up and stop trying to infringe on their free speech."  Because if you don't see the epic ironic stupidity in that quoted statement, then you are beyond hope.