Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ethanol: The SDI of Energy Policy?

Cruising Free Republic today I came across a link to this NYT article detailing Saudi plans to "temper" the price of oil. This is hot on the heels of the President's State of the Union address which highlighted a renewed US resolve to find alternative fuel solutions, the most promising of which is ethanol. I've also noticed a lot more stories about the increased production of ethanol in the last two years. The problem is, ethanol, for all its promise, is still a long away from being a viable alternative. Some of the very real and potential problems are reviewed in this editorial that appeared in the WSJ this weekend.

The story about the Saudis interest in moderating prices combined with all the hoopla over ethanol got me thinking--could ethanol be the Star Wars Defense Initiative of energy policy? For decades the Soviets relied on their ballistic missiles to keep the US in check. Reagan said the US was going to make them obsolete with SDI. The fact that SDI had yet to be proven a viable defense system, was irrelevant. The Soviets knew if anyone could pull it off, the US could. They also knew if Reagan said he was going to do something, they had to take it seriously. I also bet we let enough intel "slip" into their hands that they had to believe we were working in earnest. We all know how the story ends. The Soviets bankrupted themselves in an effort to keep up.

For decades the Saudi's and other totalitarian regimes have relied on their oil reserves to influence US and European policy in their favor. And up until the last decade or so, the US hasn't shown a ton of resolve to find alternatives to oil. But with so much government money being thrown at ethanol, I can't help but see a parallel to SDI. We may not have perfercted the use of ethanol just yet, but we can grow enough corn to keep trying until we do. I think the Saudi's see this and might be hedging their bets a little.

I'm not saying we should abandon alternative fuel research even if they drop the price per barrel to $1.05. Just as we shouldn't abandon development of technology that will make ballistic missiles obsolete. Any technological advance (or bluff) is worth the price if in addition to making life better, it puts despotic regimes out of business.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Currently I'm plowing my way through Crime and Punishment. And I think 'plowing' is an appropriate description here. Dostoyevsky certainly took his sweet time setting up the plot. I'm not saying I'm growing bored with the book, but I did catch myself thinking as I read one passage today, "Get to the point!"

I am not proud of this. It's more of a confession. As someone who writes for a living, I probably tend to venerate literary giants more than most. When I think things like that, I get much the same sense of dread I used to get as a kid when I'd mutter something rebelious under my breath and thought mom and dad might have heard me. It was like Dostoyevsky was standing over my shoulder, asking, "What was that young man?"

Ironically, one of the reasons I've wanted to read the book is precisely because of the painstaking detail in which Dostoyevsky told his stories. Another is that Crime and Punishment is considered by some to be a brilliant indictment of elitism. And I'm more than a little interested in how Dostoyevsky's faith shaped his writing. I guess today just reminded me that, as with any worthwhile endeavor, a certain amount dicipline is going to be required on my part to see this through.

In other news, Laurie learned Wednesday that she got the social studies curriculum coordinator job she'd been interviewing for. It's a big step up for her and one that could help her reach some of her long term career goals. She's already blogged about it, so I won't steal any more of her thunder. You can read about it here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

One Born Every Minute--Result

Just a quick followup to a post from about five months ago--

Back in June I related a story about an encounter I had with one of those door-to-door magazine salesman. Actually he was more of a saleskid, much like the Orlando Jones character in Office Space. You can read about it here. For those of you who recall, or prefer the Cliff notes version to reading the whole story, I was fairly certain I'd been scammed. I wasn't.

I've been receiving issues of Flying since October. I have no clue why it took so long but I hope the kid earned the trip to the Bahamas that he was gunning for.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


"With God's help it might be possible. --I mean, why did He encourage me to build a perfect timepiece in the first place? So the blacksmith might start work 5 seconds earlier or later? Or was it to give us the ability to explore His creation in safety, to move without fear in the space He's given us to inhabit?"

So says John Harrison, as portrayed by Michael Gambon, in A&E's brilliant adaptation of the book Longitude by Dava Sobel.

A few summers ago while attending a wedding in Aspen I stumbled across a paperback copy of Longitude while killing time in a small bookstore. I think I'd seen a preview for the A&E movie and that's why I bought it. In any case, I remember walking out of the bookstore, sitting down on a park bench and being totally absorbed for about 2 hours straight.

The book is about one of the most significant scientific advances in human history--the ability to determine longitude at sea using specially designed clocks invented by John Harrison. Up until the 18th century, sailors of all nations were able to accurately determine latitude using celestial navigation. There was, however, no reliable way to determine longitude. This made sailing on the open seas, out of sight of land, an extremely risky venture. We're all familiar with stories of sailors perishing in storms or sea battles. According to Longitude the losses from such perils were rivaled by the numbers of mariners who, attempting to cross the open sea, simply got lost and never saw land again. Or if they did find land, it wasn't usually where they were headed, as in the case of Columbus.

Every monarch and parliament of the time that engaged in trade and exploration knew that the first nation to devise a way to accurately determine longitude would rule the seas. Their naval and merchant fleets would be able to move about the globe at will exploring, plundering and/or conquering it. This is why in 1714 British Parliament passed the Longitude Act that promised 20,000 Pounds to the first of Her Majesty's subjects who could solve the problem. That John Harrison, a common carpenter and not a noted scientist of the day, solved the problem makes this story even more engrossing for me.

Without going into a ton of detail, Harrison (and many others) knew that if sailors could accurately compare London time with a noon sighting of the sun at sea, they could figure out longitude. The problem was clocks of the time were not suited for life at sea and would not keep consistent time. Temperatures and moisture effected the metals and the ships motion effected the pendulums. When you consider a difference of 30 seconds could translate into hundreds of miles difference in location it's easy to see why this was a problem. Harrison's ingenius clocks were able to keep consistent time in all conditions.

If you get a chance, Netflix this one. I still haven't finished the book, but this movie has all but assured I will now.