Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Big Brother watching? Coming soon

There is a slow but steady encroachment on our privacy by government. It often comes with rational and admirable cover terms for a hidden agenda. A recent comment by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, during his conformation hearings, broached the subject of taxing car mileage based on GPS tracking. An immediate hue and cry went up from privacy organizations which saw it as an Orwellian intrusion. It was dropped like a hot potato by the White House.

The EU is currently looking at another tracking system, again with a lofty purpose, one that will alert other cars to slowdowns and accidents ahead (reducing carbon emissions) called Cooperative Vehicle-Infrastructure Systems (CVIS). It too will be able to track cars anywhere anytime. Rest assured the tracking issue isn’t dead in the US. It will just return at a more opportune time.

The erosion started in the early 1990s, when the US government mandated all new cell phones contain a locating system to help emergency services (911) respond more precisely to cell phone calls. GPS is now almost universally used for this, leaving a trail of phone user's movements. What is little known is these phones can be "pinged" even when turned off, yielding their location. This vulnerability reportedly caused the Hamas leadership in the recent Gaza conflict to ditch their cell phones lest they, like others, find a JDAM down their throats. A recent CIA Director, after several operatives were exposed following a European "rendition" by their cell phones, sent all case officers back to relearn their basic tradecraft. He said they should have realized the only sure way to prevent cell phone tracking is to remove the batteries. Good advice! Even systems we assume serve different purposes like OnStar, include cell phone/GPS technology with all the vulnerabilities.

The increased use of on-street surveillance cameras, far higher powered (intercept friendly, no warrant required) cordless phones (who really needs a 1200 foot range house phone?), and proposed legislation to allow airport security personnel to inspect laptop hard drives for "copyright infringement" is ample evidence of government's insatiable appetite to monitor our private lives.

Sanibel’s “Ding Darling”… a birder’s paradise

Living on Sanibel is a unique treat. Unlike most coastal Florida areas, residents have been able to retain a yesteryear flavor. Beaches are not dressed, making them a haven for shellers. There are no traffic lights. There are no street lights. There are no high rises. All development is limited to 42 feet above street level. Only a third of the island’s land is developed, a third is owned by conservation foundations or the city government and not open to development and a third is our crown jewel, the Ding Darling National Wildlife Preserve. Sanibel is SW Florida’s southernmost barrier island with standing fresh water year round. It is a stop off point for birds migrating to South America in the fall and back in the spring. The best time to visit Ding Darling is December through mid April. Pushed by cold fronts in December, the flocks arrive. Most spectacular are the white pelicans, flying long lines of 150 to 300. Unlike the more common brown pelicans, they feed in flocks standing on mudflats, ferreting out shellfish. They are gone now, to their breeding grounds in Saskatchewan. But other species remain. Most spectacular are the rare roseate spoonbills. Their pink plumage becomes more vibrant during their stay here. The iodine in their diet here enhances their color. Here are some shots of the spoonbills and a little blue heron taken yesterday.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mass Transit vs. the Prius…Prius wins

The CATO Institute published a study last year comparing the major modes of urban mass transit. Using government statistics they calculated energy usage and carbon emissions for each mode. The interesting conclusion was that passenger cars and the average of all forms of transit use about the same amount of energy and emitted about the same levels of CO2 per passenger mile. Taking it a step further, they compared the Prius to the mix and the Prius wins. Prius beats every transit mode in energy efficiency and every city rail transit line except two. Modal Energy Consumption and CO2 Emissions per Passenger Mile Mode………………..……BTUs……..Pounds CO2 Ferry Boats …………………10,744………….1.73 Automated Guideways….10,661………….1.36 Light Trucks………….........4,423…………0.69 Motor Buses………………….4,365.............0.71 Trolley Buses…………………3,923……..…..0.28 All Automobiles………….....3,885…………..0.61 Light Rail……………………..3,465..............0.36 Passenger Cars ……………..3,445…………..0.54 All Transit……………………..3,444…………..0.47 Heavy Rail…………………….2,600............. 0.25 Commuter Rail………………2,558…………..0.29 Toyota Prius………………..…1,659…………..0.26 What is interesting is within the rail community there is such a tremendous variation. Most of this is from load factor differences. Transit Line Energy Consumption and CO2 Emissions per Passenger Mile Urban Area……….…BTUs…………..Pounds CO2 Commuter Rail Chicago (NW IN)………….1,587…………..0.33 Newark (NJT)……..……….1,599…………..0.19 Boston …………………..……2,209…………..0.36 New York (LIRR).............2,681…………..0.24 Chicago (RTA)………..…...2,693…………..0.40 New York (Metro-North)..3,155…………..0.28 Philadelphia………………….4,168…………..0.53 Heavy Rail Atlanta…………………………1,983..............0.29 New York (MTA)…………..2,149…………..0.16 San Francisco (BART)…..2,299…………..0.14 New York (PATH)…………2,953…………..0.20 Washington………………….3,084……..…..0.62 Chicago………………………..3,597…………..0.37 Boston………………………….3,631…………..0.44 Baltimore……………………..3,736…………..0.50 Philadelphia (SEPTA)……3,745…………..0.48 Los Angeles…………………..4,233…………..0.26 Philadelphia (PATH)……..5,077…………..0.35 Cleveland……………………...5,494..............1.02 Miami…………………………..6,756…………..0.89 Staten Island……………..…8,039…………..0.60 Light Rail San Diego……………….…….2,102…………..0.13 Boston………………………….2,473…………..0.30 Portland……………………….2,482…………..0.08 Minneapolis………………….2,498…………..0.35 St. Louis………………………..2,613…………..0.48 Salt Lake City………………..2,830…………..0.56 Houston………………………..2,849..............0.39 Los Angeles……………………2,884…………..0.18 Denver………………………….4,400…………..0.78 Dallas……………………………4,466…………..0.60 San Francisco………………...4,509…………..0.27 Newark………………………….4,564…………..0.31 Sacramento……………………4,821…………..0.29 Philadelphia……………………5,459…………..0.69 Cleveland………………………..5,585…………..1.03 Buffalo……………………………5,774…………..0.43 San Jose………………………….6,174…………..0.38 Baltimore………………………..8,128…………..1.09 Pittsburgh……………………….9,265…………..1.18 Toyota Prius………………1,659……….0.26 The study also looks at the near economic self sufficiency of the automobile and the horrendous costs of mass transit. Here’s a sample: Historically, gasoline taxes and other highway user fees have paid nearly 90 percent of all the costs of building, maintaining, and policing American roads and streets. (In contrast, transit fares cover only about 40 percent of transit operating costs and none of transit capital costs.) Aside from being an excellent study that challenges the myth of the superiority of urban mass transit, it contains a wealth of source material for the scholar. Perhaps it would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly for the government to buy us all a Prius.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

National Tax Day Tea Party…Lend your support

I have never attended a protest rally, but on April 15 I will. They are springing up all over, thanks to selfless organizers and volunteers who fear what made America great is being threatened by Washington. The Tea Party movement was started when Chicago Board of Trade trader and CNBC commentator Rick Santelli electrified his viewing audience with his fury over Washington’s policies. He called for a Chicago Tea Party in July. Already Tea Party protests have taken place around the country. Some are small, some much larger. Recently those in Cincinnati and Orlando (more) numbered in the thousands. The size and numbers are growing. And don’t think the political operatives at the White House are ignoring this phenomenon. Just as they reacted to Joe the Plumber, they are acutely aware of anything that would lower the President’s poll numbers. This is truly a grass roots effort. There are no big money organizations behind it, no PR or organizing groups, no vested complaint associations who put on instant protests with slick focus group researched catch phrases and paid-for signs. They are everyday people like Joanne DiCarlo of Naples Florida who is organizing the efforts here. She is a stay at home mom with three children who fears for the future of her country. She has never done anything like this before, but when a friend asked her to step forward, she did. I contacted her last Sunday after I came across the National Tax Day Tea Party website to let her know I would attend and offered to help. America is a great country because of people like Joanne. But they need help. First, plan to attend to make your voice heard. Second lend them your time and skills. The National Tax Day Tea Party website has the listings for Tea Parties around the country. Contact your nearby Joanne and offer to help.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Red River floods, global warming or cooling? The Word according to Obama

President Obama declared the Red River floods in North Dakota and Minnesota a wake up call to take global warming seriously. As with most global warming alarmists, he opened his mouth before checking the facts. In reality North Dakota and Minnesota, the sources of the Red River, had a much colder than normal winter (Dec-Feb). For North Dakota it was the 18th coldest and for Minnesota the 19th coldest in the past 114 years. From the Minneapolis StarTribune: President Obama used the flooding in the Red River Valley to insist that society needs to take global warming seriously. In a White House interview with a handful of reporters, including Janell Cole of the Forum of Fargo, the president said the current flooding cannot necessarily be blamed on global warming, but he said it should be a signal to act. But here are the facts (First map is temp anomalies, despite the incorrect title, and the second is state rankings): In reality the flooding comes from a heavy snow pack and a spring thaw, compounded by the northward flow into a still frozen river downstream. I wish the alarmists would tell us in advance whether global warming causes droughts or floods, whether it will cause Great Lakes levels to go up or down. Every trend away from the norm seems to be caused by global warming. Ask them what global cooling would do and you get a very blank look.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The ultimate oxymoron: Government Efficiency

Here’s an example of the topsy-turvy world of government management. In at least one program there are twice the numbers of folks looking over shoulders as those actually doing the work. And you wondered why the cost of government contracted toilet seats is so high!

Auditor Excess? 

 As Washington grapples with ways to reform an ailing Pentagon acquisition and contracting system, the knee-jerk response inside the Beltway is to study the issue and audit programs (see p. 24). But, several defense officials suggest auditors alone can’t fix the problem. Pentagon program managers acknowledge proper oversight is paramount, but say that more doesn’t mean better.

The pace of --contracting has slowed—some say to a glacial state—in part because of hurdles added to programs prior to contract release. Take the upcoming Small-Diameter Bomb II competition: According to one official, there are twice as many auditors as program and contracting officials, so—if the auditors could take on the responsibility of joining the anemic acquisition workforce—they could become part of the solution. – Aviation Week 3/16/2009

Non-profit status the savior for newspapers? Fat chance!

Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin has proposed legislation to allow newspapers to be classified as non-profit entities (technically a “Low Profit Limited Liability Corporation” or L3C). Non-profit status for newspapers has been the hot buzz in the trade press for the past several months and is supported by the Newspaper Guild as an alternative ownership model. But it’s hard to see how it could make a significant difference. Taxes, especially property taxes, are significant expenses. But the real killers are newsprint and payroll. The factors that made newspapers so highly profitable in the past, namely high entry cost for presses and production equipment and the huge employee base that restricted competition, are what is dragging the industry down now. Desktop publishing eliminated the need for heavily manned, highly unionized composing rooms (often well over 350 printers in major markets) for new entrants, opening the door to small competitive suburban dailies and shoppers. As metro areas spread out, a declining circulation base became even more diffuse, raising the cost to deliver a paper to a reader. In the 1960s and 70s a carrier would typically deliver to half the households on a block, even in a competitive market. Now fewer than one in five subscribe to a paper. Newspapers are still stuck with big production facilities, too much press capacity and in the case of recently acquired papers, way too much debt. It’s hard to see how non-profit status will alter anything. The money advertisers spend is already a deductible business expense, no change there either. Several papers are already owned by non profit foundations or organizations. The profit making Times Publishing Company which publishes the St. Petersburg Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school. Similar arrangements are in place at the Manchester (NH) Union-Leader, the Tupelo Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Anniston (AL) Star and the New London (CT) Day. But in no way does non-profit ownership, or non-profit status, insulate a newspaper from 15-20% year to year advertising revenue decllines. That’s the norm now. It doesn’t bring back readers who are getting their news from the internet. Would the Ford Foundation pick up a non-profit New York Times? Only if they are willing to fork over $100+ million a year for eternity. Update I am reminded that newspaper rank and file have been looking for ways to save their newspapers and their jobs through the same bailouts being handed out to financial institutions and auto companies. With a half a trillion here and a trillion there, what's a couple of billion for newspapers? The problem is how can they remain the government watchdog and feed at the government trough at the same time. By equating newspapers to NPR through the ruse of non-profit status, you open that door. The proponents of this bill would require newspapers to give up political endorsements, and that's about all. Certainly NPR and PBS have found it difficult if not impossible to carry anything positive about conservatives. To say they are non-partisan at election time is more than a stretch. They may not endorse candidates, but they certainly try to sway opinion. At some time in the not too distant future, the forces of fiscal restraint will be heard. A billion or two subsidy for a still biased press can be made a political liability for those who support it. Another thought. How about a Fairness Doctrine for non-profit newpapers?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Symbionese Liberation Parolee

I normally scan the NY Times website to see what the left thinks important. I normally avoid opening items from the opinion pages because they are so reliably far left. If I do, it is only after two cups of coffee to brace my system against the onslaughts. But the lede to an Op-Ed today on Sara Jane Olson, convicted bank robber and attempted murderer of cops, caught my attention. I am not familiar with the author Caitlin Flanagan, but after reading the piece, I am now an admirer. It starts: THE first time I encountered the word “kleptomaniac,” I asked my mother what it meant. She said, “That’s what they call it when a rich person steals something.” And now, thanks to Sara Jane Olson and her return to the spacious house and gracious life she’s made for herself in St. Paul, we know what it’s called when a rich, white woman gets convicted of trying to kill cops and robbing a bank: “idealism.” It goes on to recount Olson’s past with the Symbionese Liberation Army, her flight, discovery and conviction. It describes her unapologetic attitude, justifying her actions as an attempt to redress grievances of certain minorities for not receiving equal justice. It then eviscerates her arguments pointing out how now financially comfortable Olson is trying to game the system using her own privileged status. It is a great read and can be found here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Will Congress prove Plato right on mob rule?

Somehow it seems unseemly for Congress and the President to be fostering a lynch mob atmosphere. But when it comes to AIG there are no holds barred. A prominent NY Senator has demanded the names of bonus recipients be given him, with the implied threat of making them public. This despite death threats sent to AIG. In a civilized society, when you have a dispute with your neighbor, be it your property line or a stereo being played too loud, you don’t try to resolve it with a baseball bat. You take it to a judge. That’s the mark of a civilized society. But Congress and the administration have decided the pitchfork armed mob is a better solution. They are screaming for blood. And the press and network news aren’t far behind.

Plato in his Republic said democracy would fail because it would lead to mob rule. He preferred the Philosopher King approach, a rather self serving conclusion for someone who was a philosopher. Yet the current administration and Congress appear to be trying to prove Plato right. The problem is Congress, at the insistence of the administration, hastily passed a Stimulus package without hearings allowing the very bonuses they now seek to reverse. A judge would laugh them out of court if they challenged their own legislation. The excuse “We didn’t have time to read the bill we approved,” would have him rolling on the floor laughing. So forget the civilized way of resolving conflict. Solution: demonize AIG and try to pass confiscatory tax legislation to recoup the very bonuses they approved. Demagoguery is alive and well in Washington.

The banks that accepted TARP funds are now finding there are strings attached that weren’t there when they accepted them. And some accepted them only at the insistence of then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to put all banks in the same category to protect the identity of “bad banks,” to prevent runs on them. But now the new administration is putting on onerous rules such as slashing dividends, putting off evictions, modifying terms of mortgages (at the bank’s expense), canceling sales meetings and travel, and dropping job offers to foreign citizens. According to the NY Times at least three, TCF Financial, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo are planning to repay the loans quickly to escape these burdensome restrictions. Others won’t be far behind.

As Congress and the administration have discovered, hasty legislation and ill conceived regulations have unintended consequences. Here’s what’s down the road if they stay on the same course. 1. The “good” banks will hoard cash to pay off the offensive, restrictive and costly TARP loans. That will inhibit the very thing the TARP legislation was designed to do, free up money to make loans. 2. The very institutions that played ball with Bernacke and Paulson and got burned, will be reluctant to accept any more TARP funds to take over other problem institutions. The Fed and Treasury need their cooperation. They won’t get it with their current attitude.

It’s time for the players on the government side to get serious about our financial crisis. Demonizing the financial community or leading mobs on rampages accomplishes nothing. They need to prove Plato wrong.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Media corruption? Time will tell.

Yesterday, Politico’s Mike Calderone carried an item on a liberal listserv called JournoList that was started by Ezra Klein of America Prospect two years ago.

For the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space called JournoList. Proof of a vast liberal media conspiracy? Not at all, says Ezra Klein, the 24-year-old American Prospect blogging wunderkind who formed JournoList in February 2007. “Basically,” he says, “it’s just a list where journalists and policy wonks can discuss issues freely.”

It is a restricted list, where only approved members can access and post. There are notables such as Paul Krugman of the NY Times, Time’s Joe Klein and liberal Politico columnists Ben Smith, Mike Allen and Lisa Lerer and hundreds of others. All postings are off the record. I can see a valid purpose for this. Columnists are under the gun to publish once or twice a week, sometimes more. Bouncing ideas off of like minded individuals and having them critiqued in private before publishing is a good idea. But Calderone hints at a dark side to all of this because so few would discuss it with him.

Secrecy isn’t the hallmark of integrity in a news operation. There have been too many times I have read or heard identical catch phrases from supposedly independent journalists reporting under the same deadline. It happens too often to be a coincidence. Is JournoList the conduit for Democrat talking points? Probably not. But still there does appear to be some sort of coordination, somewhere.

But more ominous is the other side of the equation. And it goes back much farther the than the two years of JournoList. And that is the total blackout of certain subjects harmful to Democrats by the news media. It was most evident during the election. There was almost no coverage of Obama’s Chicago past and none on his Columbia years. Compare that to the fly specking of Sarah Palin. Bill Ayers was a no-go zone, at least until Stanley Kurtz started making some noises in Murdoch’s papers and on a Chicago radio station. Only then did the NY Times do a whitewash to provide Obama some cover. Major stories that were red hot on conservative blogs never saw the light of day: Voter fraud, the John Edwards, Rielle Hunter affair, Reverend Wright, ACORN, the Columbian terrorist organization FARC’s captured computer are just a few. For anyone who followed Brunner vs. Ohio Republican Party case (massive numbers of no match new voter registrants) through the Federal Courts, you didn’t find it on network news or any paper outside of Cleveland and state capital Columbus.

Suppressing important news on a massive scale requires more than just bias. It requires coordination and enforcement. How is it done? Perhaps this leaked email from LA Times Editor Tony Pierce to the Times own bloggers gives a hint (from Kausfiles):

From: "Pierce, Tony" Date: July 24, 2008 10:54:41 AM PDT To: [XXX] Subject: john edwards Hey bloggers, There has been a little buzz surrounding John Edwards and his alleged affair. Because the only source has been the National Enquirer we have decided not to cover the rumors or salacious speculations. So I am asking you all not to blog about this topic until further notified. If you have any questions or are ever in need of story ideas that would best fit your blog, please don't hesitate to ask Keep rockin, Tony

This is a story that happened in the Times’ backyard. The Times didn’t cover it and Florida based National Enquirer got the story. Failing to report the story is one thing, but suppressing open discussion blogs goes beyond the pale. The Times just didn’t want this news in the public domain. Nor it seems did any other paper.

Is such coordination between media outlets done through restricted listservs? Possibly. If so, it is at a much higher level than JournoList. Some day a major metro editor will have regrets and bare his soul. Maybe for a healthy book advance or maybe just to redeem himself. The latter happened with CNN’s Eason Jordan.

There is hope.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The primary purpose of the European Missile Shield is to defend the US

The location of the Missile Shield base in Poland has mystified me. It is not optimized to defend Europe, though it appears capable doing so for the northern tier of countries. To defend Western Europe it should be more centrally located, near of all places, the European Mid Course Radar site in the Czech Republic. The other mystery is why did we derate the European based missile to two stages from the three being used at Fort Greely Alaska? Surely there is no significant cost savings. And what there might be would be eaten up by additional testing for a different system. A look at the flight path of a missile launched from the Iranian missile test center near Semnan toward Washington DC (white line on map) shows the reason why the location in Poland was selected. The primary purpose of the European system is to defend the US. But it also points out the touchy situation it has caused with the Russians. The line of flight of a threatening Iranian missile is very close to the course of a missile also aimed at Washington from the westernmost Russian ICBM fields at Kosel’sk (pink line) and Tatishchev. Here’s where there is a very delicate balancing act. How do we defend against Iran without threatening Russian capabilities? If we were to move our Mid Course interceptors downrange from Poland, say to Norway, UK or Iceland, we most assuredly would be able to intercept Russian missiles from their sites west of the Urals which is not our intention. To move them uprange to Ukraine would solve that problem, but cause different but serious political problems with the Russians. Just a guess, but I believe the derating of the European interceptor missiles was to reduce the range and capability against Russia’s missiles to convince them of our good intentions. They should know it anyway. Their engineers can do the calculations. But that probably won’t change any minds in the Kremlin. In many ways the Russians have brought this problem on themselves. They have played footsie with the Iranians, selling them a reactor and fuel that will eventually yield plutonium for weapons. Their efforts to destabilize the Mid East to undercut American interests, is at the heart of the problem. Putin and Medvedev are playing victim when they are the instigators. They are playing with dynamite. Iran is run by religious fanatics. The Russians have Islamic problems of their own in Chechnya. The whole nuclear mess could come back and bite them. At some point we must operate in our own best interests.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Focus Group Leadership

Karl Rove wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal today about the White House’s fixation on Rush Limbaugh. Buried in the story is this gem: Clues might be found in the revelation that senior White House staff meet for two hours each Wednesday evening to digest their latest polling and focus-group research. I would bet a steak dinner at Morton's in Chicago these Wednesday Night Meetings discussed growing public opposition to spending, omnibus pork, more bailout money for banks and car companies, and new taxes on energy, work and capital. Running the country based on opinion polls rather from core principles leads to major policy zigzags that demonstrate a lack of resolve. Clinton’s precipitous withdrawal from Mogadishu, Somalia after the Black Hawk Down incident and the brutal videos that followed, gave Osama bin Laden the impression the USA didn’t have a backbone. And in the case of the new administration, it isn’t just a zigzag, it’s a complete 180. Drudge carried these screaming red ledes just 24 hours after the latest Wednesday evening confab. DIRE EMERGENCY CANCELLED: Obama Declares: Economic crisis 'not as bad as we think'... Retail sales not as bad as feared... From now on, look for Thursday to be the day for major policy change.

Car vs. Bus, Surprise

The private automobile has been the target of liberals for as long as I can remember. In the seventies they attacked cars for causing urban congestion. So they cancelled major freeway improvements into cities to discourage cars, with predictable results: more congestion. Next it was pollution, so the manufacturers developed technology to satisfy the 95% plus reduction of pollutants. Problem solved? No, just a new target, this time fuel economy and resultant carbon dioxide. At a certain point it becomes obvious they just don’t like cars, and by constantly moving the goal posts back, they can keep the pressure on to make it more difficult if not impossible to own one.

Why the hatred for the automobile? Probably because it has been such a liberating factor for the middle class. It allowed them to move out of fetid, corrupt cities to the suburbs and still have the ability to access work and shopping. It allowed them to travel economically where and when they wanted, unfettered by the constraints of public transportation. Yet it is public transportation that they want us to use. Public transit varies in quality and comfort. Nothing can prepare a non-New Yorker for the shock of an MTA subway at rush hour. It is one of the most demeaning experiences you can imagine. Jammed together with strangers, there are times you wonder when the person next to you last took a shower. Women hold their handbags under their arms protecting them. Subways are noisy and unsteady.

On the other hand Washington DC’s Metro and San Francisco’ BART provide quality transportation. But still nothing compares with being able to drive yourself from your home to your destination and not have to worry about timetables, transfers or your safety. Most, if not all transit systems operate at a loss. New York City recently debated whether they should raise fares to reduce a two billion dollar deficit to one billion. In Lee County, Florida where I live, the county government dropped a bus route aimed mainly at tourists traveling to the beach. The math was simple. It cost $6 per passenger to operate the system and a ticket costs $1.

Buses are backbone of urban transit systems. It is assumed because of their passenger capacity and diesel engine they are more fuel efficient per passenger mile than a car. But is that true? Buses operate at maximum capacity inbound in the morning rush hour. But they deadhead back almost empty. They sit with their engines idling to heat them in the winter and cool them in the summer. They operate with very few passengers in the off hours.

Recently the US Department of Transportation published a study of energy use for various modes of transportation. Surprisingly the automobile is very close to bus transit in energy efficiency, with the bus only 8% more efficient per passenger mile. Based on the most recent figures (2006) a bus uses 3,262 Btu per passenger mile, while a passenger car uses 3,525. Not enough difference to pry my hands off my steering wheel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Parkinson’s Law revisited

Probably the most underappreciated business adminstration analyst was C. Northcote Parkinson, author of Parkinson’s Law. It states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” But that is an overly simplistic take on his genius. He noticed that despite the reduction of the number of ships in the British Navy, the number of civilian employees and bureaucrats working for the Navy actually increased. Between 1914 and 1928 the number of Capital ships declined from 62 to 20, and the number of Navy officers and men from 146,000 to 100,000. Yet the number of dockyard workers increased by 10%, the number of dockyard officials and clerks by 40% and the number of Admiralty officials by a whopping 78%. He goes on to explain why there is inevitable employee creep that is totally independent of the amount of work needed. The most significant is called The Law of Multiplication of Subordinates reprinted here:

To comprehend Factor I, we must picture a civil servant called A who finds himself overworked. Whether this overwork is real or imaginary is immaterial; but we should observe, in passing, that A's sensation (or illusion) might easily result from his own decreasing energy-a normal symptom of middle age.

For this real or imagined overwork there are, broadly speaking, three possible remedies: (1) He may resign. (2) He may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B. (3) He may demand the assistance of two subordinates to be called C and D. There is probably no instance in civil service history of A choosing any but the third alternative. By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to W's vacancy when W (at long last) retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence; and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both. It is essential to realize, at this point, that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible. Why? Because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status which has been refused in the first instance to B; a status the more emphasized if C is A's only possible successor.

Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being kept in order by fear of the other's promotion. When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will) A will, with the concurrence of C, advise the appointment only by advising the appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G and H, the promotion of A is now practically certain.

Never in my newspaper career, most of which was in management, was Parkinson ever mentioned. Not in any training courses, not in any discussion groups. Yet his theory nails the most fundamental principal for cost control of the most expensive component in business, payroll. While he takes shots at government civil servants, his criticism is equally valid for profit making companies. Perhaps it is because the gist of his concept is only 4 and a half pages long. You can read it here. He published a book containing Parkinson’s Law and other lectures he gave at the University of Singapore. It is well worth a read. Most libraries have it, and a paperback version is available through Amazon.com for under $10/used.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The turtles at Island Turtle

When I started this blog I looked for a name that would convey something about my new roots: that I live on a lovely, relatively unspoiled sub-tropical island on the southwest coast of Florida. Island Pundit and Island Hawk sounded too pretentious, so I decided on Island Turtle because it was whimsical nonsense, in the same vein as Little Green Footballs. I was lucky enough to find non-copyrighted clip art for my logo, which I really like. But I never thought I had a fascination with turtles, until I started cleaning up the house this afternoon for dinner guests. There in a corner of our bookcases was a collection of four turtles my wife and I accumulated over the years. The first and the third are my favorites. The black one was given to me by a co-worker who exchanged gifts with me and is a handicraft probably from the Solomon Islands, where she and her husband scuba dived. The third is from a gift shop at the main lodge at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was created by Jon Anderson from acrylic clay, using a technique called millifiori, which is too complicated to go into here, even if I did understand it. No paint or decals are used. The other two are of questionable origin, most likely from local Sanibel art fairs. The one problem I have had with the name Island Turtle is Google won’t direct you to this site. It doesn’t differentiate between Island Turtle and Turtle Island. And there are a gazillion Turtle Islands. It will lead you to this site if you use island turtle blog, island turtle blogspot or the single word islandturtle. Better yet, bookmark it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The fallacy of wind power

The advocates of wind generation see it as free energy. The more the merrier. Most have no comprehension of how a grid works and what is needed to deliver reliable power to the end users. They don’t understand that when you turn on a light bulb or when a stamping plant in Michigan, using gobs of power, begins squeezing a body panel into shape, there must be enough electricity on line at that moment to satisfy demand. This is called the baseload, and is usually estimated a day in advance for various time periods. If the grid comes up short, voltage drops, turbines bog down and get out of phase. If more electricity isn’t put on line quickly, brownouts occur. If voltage drops below 107 volts, electric motors for air conditioners and refrigerators, for instance, can be damaged and the grid must access reserves or shed load. The grid’s system operator must maintain reserves at least the size of the largest generator on the grid, in case one goes down. Reserves can be supplied from the grid itself, from a neighboring grid or purchased on the day ahead spot market. Baseload power is supplied by low cost generating systems, most often nuclear and coal. Nuclear is generally operated at full power, shutting down only for maintenance, refueling and unscheduled outages. According to the government’s Energy Information Administration, nukes average 92% annual capacity load factor. More expensive electricity is brought on line as demand warrants. Wind power isn’t a good match for baseload management, but regulatory requirements mandate it be given priority. Wind has a problem. It is an intermittent source of electricity. It isn’t necessarily there when you need it. Here’s an example of 660 kW wind generator located at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy at Bourne. It reports current, daily, weekly, monthly and annual output data online in real time. Click here for current data from this very interesting website. Because of its intermittency, wind power must be backed up by conventional thermal power. This means fossil fueled plants can’t be dismantled as wind power capacity is put in place. There are just times when there is no wind over vast stretches of our country. Just after Al Gore made his energy speech last July, I checked the wind maps of the eastern US. There was no wind over 10 mph (the threshold for wind generation) anywhere on the east coast, and most areas were flat calm. Other than pumped water storage, there is no economical way to store this electricity. There are only 31 pumped storage facilities in the US and all their capacity is spoken for. The prospect for expanding that number is unlikely. If we wish to remain a competitive industrial nation, we must have reliable power at rates comparable to nations competing against us. An example is the aluminum industry. It takes 5 to 6 kWh of electricity to produce a pound of aluminum. Electricity is the most expensive component in the process of converting bauxite to alumina to metallic aluminum. The current market for aluminum is just under 60 cents a pound. To be competitive, US producers must have access to 5 cents/kWh or less electricity. And they must have it 24/7, not when the wind blows. Only nuclear and coal can do that. If we drive costs over that, production and jobs will move to China or Russia. The EU is facing the same problems and will delay cap and trade targets for their aluminum industry. Costs and reliability of our electricity must considered if we allow Asian competitors to continue their carbon emissions. All we will do is transfer our industries to them and world carbon emissions will remain the same.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

NY Times tries to rehabilitate John McCain

If anyone wondered which John McCain would return to the Senate — the coalition-building dealmaker or the gloves-off bruiser from the campaign trail — the answer is now clear: both. -- NY Times 2/7/2009 Whoa! Gloves off bruiser? Where did that come from? I remember him calling Obama a very decent person. Quite frankly it was McCain’s wimpiness that cost him the election. When Sara Palin put some fire into the campaign, and poll numbers shot up, McCain toned her down and carefully scripted her speeches. He never brought up the Ayers connection, he never challenged Obama’s corrupt fund raising that allowed foreign citizens to contribute, he never branded Obama the Socialist he is. Right now the DNC and the White House are attempting to deny the Republican Party the leadership to effectively challenge for the Presidency in 2012. Through their media minions they tried to destroy Bobby Jindal after his State of the Union response, they continue attacks on Sarah Palin and they are attempting to marginalize private citizen Rush Limbaugh. And now the New York Times is attempting to rehabilitate Senator McCain. The last thing Republicans need is for McCain to be the front runner. When was the last time the Times operated in the best interests of Republicans? Beware of Pinches bearing gifts.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Obama, please save our savings before you save the world

For the many who didn’t take out second and third mortgages to pay for cruises or trips to Las Vegas, or try to live beyond their means; for the many who did put their hard earned money into 401Ks, IRAs or simply put money away for retirement or a rainy day, please save our savings before you save the world. You recently said you didn’t follow the ups and downs of the market. Well it has been consistently down for the past month. Decent people who have acted responsibly are being devastated. Uncertainty is the worst enemy of financial stability. And talk of $300 billion/year Cap and Trade taxes on our utilities, doubling of electrical rates, a trillion dollar/year health care plan, the threat of runaway inflation caused by trillion dollar deficits, these are the causes of the current financial instability. Slow down! Many of these problems have been with us for dozens of years. They can wait a bit. Shore up the banks but don’t force them to make risky loans. Above all, don’t allow judges to use whim in revaluing loans. If mark-to-market is a faulty valuation system for banks, try valuing a loan that that has no downside limits. Cramdown will create more doubt on the value of assets, and that’s precisely how we got into this mess in the first place. Put first things first. You have four years to get things done.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Three Great Lakes freeze over

Update: To follow these charts at their new location go to a more recent Island Turtle post here. Coinciding with the effort of the new administration’s efforts to fight global warming, we find three of the five Great Lakes are almost totally frozen over. Lake Erie is totally frozen, Superior about 98% and Huron about 85%. This is an extreme rarity. Perhaps the NY Times and Time Magazine were right in 1974. Perhaps we are entering the new Ice Age.