Monday, August 31, 2009

Closing the books

The business of selling music has gone through revolutionary changes over the last few years. In the past the money was in albums and CDs. Touring supplemented income from music sales. Now bands sell one or two good songs and those songs open the door for ticket sales from touring.

It appears books are going down the same road. The book tour will become a leading method for writers to earn a buck or two. Instead of selling books on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble, authors will drive sales of e-books by giving readings.

E-books could spell the end for hardbacks, warns Hachette chief

Hardback books could be killed off if Amazon’s e-books and Google’s digital library force publishers to slash prices, Arnaud Nourry, chief executive of French publishing group Hachette, has warned.

Mr Nourry said unilateral pricing by Google, Amazon and other e-book retailers such as Barnes & Noble could destroy publishers’ profits.

He said publishers were “very hostile” to Amazon’s pricing strategy – over which the online retailer failed to consult publishers – to charge $9.99 for all its e-books in the US. He also pointed to plans by Google to put millions of out-of-copyright books online for public use.

“On the one hand, you have millions of books for free where there is no longer an author to pay and, on the other hand, there are very recent books, bestsellers at $9.99, which means that all the rest will have to be sold at between zero and $9.99,” Mr Nourry said.

There was a real and “muscular” debate in the industry in the US, he added. Retailers were paying publishers more than $9.99 for each e-book, so were selling them at a loss: “That cannot last . . . Amazon is not in the business of losing money. So, one day, they are going to come to the publishers and say: by the way, we are cutting the price we pay. If that happens, after paying the authors, there will be nothing left for the publishers.”

Some rival publishers have expressed concern in private at Amazon’s fixed $9.99 per title pricing on its Kindle electronic reader. Others note the minimal costs of distributing books electronically mean they can make higher profit margins even with lower prices than in print.

Mr Nourry’s comments come as analysts predict a growth spurt for the still-niche electronic reader market, with wireless devices from Sony, Plastic Logic and others due to compete with the Kindle.

We are the Media

The people who claim the media is under corporate control missed the big news. In less than 10 years the Internet, cell phones, video cameras, Youtube and alert citizens unlocked the media business and took control of it. But instead of concentrating power in fewer hands, the new forces distributed media power to anyone who was interested.

The difference in coverage of the last two presidential elections showed the rapid pace of change over a mere four years. The collapse of major daily newspapers shows the transformative power of the Internet and the rise of citizen journalists, bloggers, ranters and opinionators.

All a Cub Reporter Needs Is a Scoop and an iPhone

SAN FRANCISCO — A Web site for local news hopes to fill the growing void in professionally reported local news by recruiting citizens armed with iPhones as reporters.

The site, Fwix, will release an iPhone application this week that enables its users to file news updates, photos and videos, live from the field. The items will appear on Fwix’s year-old Web site, which also collects links to local news articles from newspapers and blogs in 85 cities.

“We believe we are the real-time local newswire,” said Darian Shirazi, Fwix’s 22-year-old founder.

Many local news Web sites are sprouting up, relying on sources like police reports and neighborhood bloggers to supplement dwindling local newspaper reporting. But most provide an incomplete picture of a reader’s town.

Fwix, which is backed by BlueRun Ventures, hopes reader submissions about a fire, car crash or new restaurant down the street will fill in the picture. Peter Krasilovsky, who studies local media at the research firm Kelsey Group, said he was skeptical that enough people would actually send in news reports.

Still, user participation has jumped for other sites when they offer mobile apps. When Citysearch let people write local business reviews from their phones, there was a sharp increase. People are more likely to submit content to a Web site in the moment, said Dinesh Moorjani, who runs mobile for Citysearch.

Of course, people are already using Twitter for on-the-go news updates, but news gets lost amid tweets about the cat and plans for dinner. Mr. Shirazi said Fwix would offer more relevant updates. Its software ranks items based on whether other users submit articles that mention similar events and locations and if the person was at the scene, information it gleans from the iPhone’s GPS location data.

Fwix said that 400,000 people visit its site each month but eight million see its ever-updating lists of headlines and local text ads in widgets on other sites, like Weather Underground. Mr. Shirazi said local media outlets have expressed interest in running Fwix headlines, too.

That is key to its success, Mr. Krasilovsky said. “If it could be like The A.P. and be widely distributed, that could be fantastic.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Memoriam Dominick Dunne: 1925-2009

A fascinating fellow and a writer of compelling stories. Unfortunately, he died in the shadow of Ted Kennedy. That means media coverage of Dunne will lose out like coverage of Farrah Fawcett who died the same day as Michael Jackson.

Dominick Dunne, a best-selling author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

The cause of death was bladder cancer, said his son Griffin Dunne.

Dunne—who joined Vanity Fair in 1984 as a contributing editor and was named special correspondent in 1993—famously covered the trials of O. J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, and Phil Spector, as well as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. He wrote memorable profiles on numerous personalities, among them Imelda Marcos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Elizabeth Taylor, Claus von Bülow, Adnan Khashoggi, and Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. His monthly column provided a glimpse inside high society, and captivated readers.

His first article for the magazine appeared in March 1984—an account of the trial of the man who murdered his daughter Dominique. Throughout his life, Dunne was a vocal advocate for victims’ rights.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on October 29, 1925, Dunne was awarded the Bronze Star, at age 19, for his service in World War II. In 1949, he graduated from Williams College with a B.A.

In April 1954, Dunne married Ellen Beatriz Griffin, who went by Lenny. The marriage ended in divorce in 1965.

Dunne began his career in New York City as the stage manager of The Howdy Doody Show, and in 1957 he moved to Hollywood, where he became the executive producer of the television series Adventures in Paradise. Later, Dunne was made a vice president of Four Star Productions, a television company owned by David Niven, Dick Powell, and Charles Boyer. He then moved on to producing feature films, including The Boys in the Band, Panic in Needle Park, Play It as It Lays, and Ash Wednesday.

But by this time drugs and alcohol had become an unmanageable part of his life, and in 1975 he drove himself up to the woods in Oregon. Living alone in a cabin, he became sober and began, at age 50, to write.

In 1980, Dunne moved back to New York and saw five of his novels become bestsellers. His books include The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (Crown, 1985), Fatal Charms (Crown, 1987), People Like Us (Crown, 1988), An Inconvenient Woman (Crown, 1990), A Season in Purgatory (Crown, 1993)—which was adapted for television as a four-hour CBS mini-series—and Another City, Not My Own (Crown, 1997). A collection of essays, Fatal Charms (Crown), was published in 1987, and his memoir, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper (Crown), was published in 1999. Justice (Crown), a collection of articles that had appeared in Vanity Fair, was published in 2001. And his last book, Too Much Money: A Novel, is scheduled for publication in December 2009 by Random House.

The documentary series Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice premiered on Court TV in June 2002. Dominick Dunne: After the Party, a documentary about his life, premiered in 2008.

In addition to his son Griffin, of Manhattan, Dunne is survived by another son, Alex, of Portland, Oregon, and a granddaughter, Hannah.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

H1N1, The Y2K of Flu

Another pseudo-crisis not to be wasted. Despite the Obama administration's claims of 36,000 annual deaths from the flu, a little research shows that in recent years the number is about 64,000. Seems as though there is some good news inside the manufactured dark cloud. The Obama administration is claiming the H1N1 Swine Flu virus might kill anywhere from 30,000 to 90,000 sufferers this year.

Does that mean flu deaths stand a good chance of going down? Seems that way. Recent predictions about various threats with Biblical links have fallen flat. Global Warmists have been deeply disappointed by the unusually low number of hurricanes that Climate Change was supposed to whip up.

Of course the Chicken Littles developed a sense of shamelessness during the Y2K hoax. They devoted a couple of years to predicting a global failure of computer systems when the world's clocks ticked into the year 2000. But despite the predictions from of massive computer mayhem from "credible" experts, the new year dawned bright and sunny, without a single computer problem on the planet. However, some home computers refused to boot up that morning until it was discovered that owners had unplugged them.

Anyway, the Obama administration deserves credit for trying to raise the national anxiety level about something. It appears that spreading predictions about a fatal plague spreading across the nation is meant to stimulate interest in a government-run healthcare plan.

But the Obama team learned it must tread carefully or things can get out of hand. The Cash-for-Clunkers program is one example of a giveaway that was good news for some car companies. However, it was soon apparent that giving people a real deal can get too costly in a hurry.

The Obama team must have huddled after that one and brainstormed over how to create an issue that attracts massive interest but involves less money. Particularly money that is going to people who are in generally good shape.

A good strategy is to spread fear. It costs nothing to spread and after it takes hold, people want protection, which they might seek from their government. Hence, someone from Team Obama said it was time to predict the Hurrican Katrina of flu. The word went out. Expectations of mass death and societal disruption are now in the minds of millions.

Will Americans beg their government to save them from the H1N1 disaster they now believe is about to overwhelm the population? Does it matter? The arrival and impact of Swine Flu is like the weather, unpredictable more than a day or two in advance. Thus, no matter what happens, Team Obama will claim its efforts lessened the impact of a dangerous illness, even if getting flu shots results in an increase of deaths.

Hospitals May Face Severe Disruption in Swine Flu’s U.S. Return

Aug. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Swine flu may hospitalize 1.8 million patients in the U.S. this year, filling intensive care units to capacity and causing “severe disruptions” during a fall resurgence, scientific advisers to the White House warned.

Swine flu, also known as H1N1, may infect as much as half of the population and kill 30,000 to 90,000 people, double the deaths caused by the typical seasonal flu, according to the planning scenario issued yesterday by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Intensive care units in hospitals, some of which use 80 percent of their space in normal operation, may need every bed for flu cases, the report said.

President Barack Obama was urged by his scientific advisory council to speed vaccine production as the best way to ease the burden on the health care system. Initial doses should be accelerated to mid-September to provide shots for as many as 40 million people, the panel said in a report released yesterday. Members also recommended Obama name a senior member of the White House staff, preferably the homeland security adviser, to take responsibility for decision-making on the pandemic.

‘Serious Threat’

“This isn’t the flu that we’re used to,” said Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. health and human services secretary. “The 2009 H1N1 virus will cause a more serious threat this fall. We won’t know until we’re in the middle of the flu season how serious the threat is, but because it’s a new strain, it’s likely to infect more people than usual.”

Data from clinical trials to assess the safety and effectiveness of swine flu vaccines will start to become available in mid-September, health officials reported Aug. 21. Full results from the two-dose trials won’t be available until mid-October.

“We are making every preparation effort assuming a safe and effective vaccine will be available in mid-October,” Sebelius said today at the CDC’s Atlanta offices.

The president’s advisory council describes as a “plausible scenario,” that 30 percent to 50 percent of the U.S. population will be infected in the fall and winter. As many as 300,000 patients may be treated in hospital intensive care units, filling 50 percent to 100 percent of the available beds, and 30,000 to 90,000 people may die, the group’s report said.

“This is a planning scenario, not a prediction,” according to the report. “But the scenario illustrates that an H1N1 resurgence could cause serious disruption of social and medical capacities in our country in the coming months.”

Hospital Crunch

Peter Gross, chief medical officer at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said if the group’s scenario comes true, “I think every hospital in America is going to be in a crunch. We’ll be hard pressed to deal with those predictions,” he said.

The estimates seem “overblown,” Gross said, given that swine-flu outbreaks in 1968 and 1957 failed to cause as many deaths, even with medical technology and disease surveillance less advanced than today.

“Influenza, you can make all the predictions you want, but it’s more difficult than predicting the weather,” Gross said yesterday in a telephone interview, after the advisory report was made public. “If influenza was a stock, I wouldn’t touch it.”

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Energy to Kill an Industry

If we force the price of energy up with various schemes that are nothing but taxes, the price of everything else in the economy will increase too. On the other hand, nations smart enough to ignore the Global Warming legislation trap will enjoy an even greater manufacturing advantage over the US. Thus, a growing amount of imports will become the low-cost alternatives to American-made products.

Oil Industry Details Costs of Climate Bill

Proposed federal legislation aimed at curbing global warming would drastically reduce domestic fuel production, according to a new study commissioned by the oil industry as part of its campaign to oppose new restrictions.

The report's findings, which are expected to be released Monday, project that by 2030, U.S. refining production could drop 17% from today's levels if the climate bill is passed as currently proposed. The drop would have to be made up by foreign imports, the study says, meaning the U.S. could end up relying on other countries for 19.4% of its refined fuel -- nearly twice the amount it imports today.

The American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. oil industry's main trade group, commissioned the study in an effort to hammer home its argument that restrictions on emissions will be a burden on U.S. refiners. Although part of an attempt to derail the bill, the report gives the first detailed prediction of the legislation's impact on refining operations. The report was done by EnSys Energy, a consultancy that specializes in the refining sector.

The report also underscores the bleak prospects for refiners, who have had profits wiped out by slumping demand during the recession.

Even beyond the recession, industry experts expect demand for gasoline to continue declining as vehicle mileage improves and new biofuels are developed. Valero Energy Corp., the largest U.S. refiner by volume, last month posted a quarterly loss, and analysts are expecting at least one refinery to shut down due to slackening demand.

The industry sees the climate-change bill sponsored by U.S. Reps. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) and Ed Markey (D., Mass.) as the harbinger of a grimmer future. Proponents of the law say its costs would be minimal and that it would create millions of new jobs in renewable-energy industries and help steer the U.S. away from a dirty fuel source.

The Waxman-Markey bill, which the House narrowly passed in June, would put a price on greenhouse-gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to climate change. It would issue a fixed number of "allowances" for emissions, and companies would have to pay for emissions they generate beyond those allowances.

The bill requires refiners to have permits for nearly half of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions, though the industry would receive only about 2.25% of the total emissions allowances. The electricity-generating sector, also a major source of greenhouse gases, obtained a larger share of the allowances.

"Equity is really what we're asking for," API President Jack Gerard said in a phone interview.

The API study is based on the current state of the industry, assuming scant use of nuclear power or new technology to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases -- a reflection of doubts over how widely such technologies can be used. The study also assumes there will be no international program allowing companies to offset their emissions by buying pollution credits.

If the U.S. puts a price on carbon emissions, domestic production would decrease as U.S. refiners deal with higher costs and lower demand for fuel, the API-backed study concludes.

Average U.S. refinery output would drop to 12 million barrels a day in 2030 from about 14.5 million barrels a day currently, if nuclear power, technology to reduce carbon emissions and the use of international offsets fail to become widespread. Refinery utilization rates could drop to 63.4%, from about 83% today.

Without the restrictions of a Waxman-Markey bill, U.S. production rates would grow to an average 16.4 million barrels a day in 2030, according to the study.

Friday, August 21, 2009

High Times South of the Border

Okay. It seems Mexico has started down the slippery slope. First, decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs. Next, allowing possession of more and more. Then legalization followed by taxation. Mexico may become the leading destination for people taking drug excursions.

Let's see. How will the availability of drugs affect the prostitution business? Will more young girls be lured in, plied with drugs of all kinds? How long will it take before everyone in the country is cultivating a few pot plants for purchase by tourists?

Supporters of the new law claim it was motivated by a desire to reduce corruption among cops. Who do they think they are kidding? Now that drug possession is legal, the business will depend on police protection to grow. With the granting of permission to possess drugs, the industry can now take a more formal shape, and it will benefit from market made less violent by the presence of police, who will demand -- and get -- a cut for keeping everyone in line.

Mexico decriminalizes small-scale drug possession

MEXICO CITY — Mexico decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin on Friday — a move that prosecutors say makes sense even in the midst of the government's grueling battle against drug traffickers.

Prosecutors said the new law sets clear limits that keep Mexico's corruption-prone police from extorting casual users and offers addicts free treatment to keep growing domestic drug use in check.

"This is not legalization, this is regulating the issue and giving citizens greater legal certainty," said Bernardo Espino del Castillo of the attorney general's office.

The new law sets out maximum "personal use" amounts for drugs, also including LSD and methamphetamine. People detained with those quantities no longer face criminal prosecution.

Espino del Castillo says, in practice, small users almost never did face charges anyway. Under the previous law, the possession of any amount of drugs was punishable by stiff jail sentences, but there was leeway for addicts caught with smaller amounts.

"We couldn't charge somebody who was in possession of a dose of a drug, there was no way ... because the person would claim they were an addict," he said.

Despite the provisions, police sometimes hauled in suspects and demanded bribes, threatening long jail sentences if people did not pay.

"The bad thing was that it was left up to the discretion of the detective, and it could open the door to corruption or extortion," Espino del Castillo said.

Anyone caught with drug amounts under the new personal-use limit will be encouraged to seek treatment, and for those caught a third time treatment is mandatory.

The maximum amount of marijuana for "personal use" under the new law is 5 grams — the equivalent of about four joints. The limit is a half gram for cocaine, the equivalent of about 4 "lines." For other drugs, the limits are 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams for methamphetamine and 0.015 milligrams for LSD.

Mexico has emphasized the need to differentiate drug addicts and casual users from the violent traffickers whose turf battles have contributed to the deaths of more than 11,000 people since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006.

But one expert saw potential for conflict under the new law.

Javier Oliva, a political scientist at Mexico's National Autonomous University, said the new law posed "a serious contradiction" for the Calderon administration.

"If they decriminalize drugs it could lead the army, which has been given the task of combating this, to say 'What are we doing'?" he said.

Officials said the legal changes could help the government focus more on big-time traffickers.

Espino del Castillo said since Calderon took office, there have been over 15,000 police searches related to small-scale drug dealing or possession, with 95,000 people detained — but only 12 to 15 percent of whom were ever charged with anything.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Hidden Problem of Electric Cars

There are many myths surrounding electric vehicles. However, in addition to the myths there is are a few troubling realities that are ignored.

For example: The battery problem. First, of course, is the fact that no good batteries for electric cars exist. Second, every battery will degrade and need replacement within a few years. Like tires. Where will the old batteries go? Like tires, the new batteries cannot be recycled. The lead in the old lead/acid batteries is reuseable. But not forever. And lead is hazardous stuff.

New batteries will head to land-fills at a pace that reflects the popularity of electric vehicles. Maybe they will go to the same land-fills currently overflowing with old tires. However, there is no chance the batteries will find their way into road-beds and other places where chopped-up tires are buried.

Moreover, electric vehicles need a lot of batteries. Hundreds of pounds of batteries in each vehicle. Weighing more than the old internal combustion engine, but replaced roughly every five years -- if the owner of the electric vehicle is lucky.

The concept of electric vehicles includes a sense of environmental superiority. Thus, the process of mining the Earth for the components and manufacturing the batteries implies the highest standards of environmental care will guide the process. That guarantees high costs. Unless the raw materials are ripped out of the ground in a less developed nation and/or the batteries are manufactured where environmental laws are lax.

Bottom line: electric vehicles offer almost pollution-free operation. But manufacturing and disposing of these vehicles and their batteries will offset all the advantages.

Future Cars: Hybrids and Electrics in 2010 and Beyond


What's coming in hybrid and electric vehicles over the next few years? The market for electricity-sippers is expected to boom over the coming 12-24 months, with options ranging from hybrid vehicles (think of the Toyota Prius for an example) to plug-in hybrid vehicles (those that get a little extra "juice" from your wall outlet for more electric range) to pure electric vehicles (like Nissan's Leaf, running only on electric power with no tailpipe emissions) to range-extender electric vehicles (think of GM's Chevy Volt, which runs on electric power most of the time until a small gas or diesel engine starts to support long-distance driving).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunshine is free. It's the Solar Panels that Cost

Amory Lovins is back, once again suckering people with his own brand of life on the Walden Pond of his imagination.

Bottom line -- alternative energy is many times more costly than conventional energy. After considering everything, building a small, well insulated home, heated and cooled by the most efficient conventional equipment is the cheapest way to live.

The Homely Costs of Energy Conservation

A Environmental Pioneer Raises the Bar on a Green-Energy Experiment, but Can His Latest Innovations Help the Rest of Us?

Snowmass, Colo.

A quarter-century ago, in the wake of America's first energy crisis, a young scientist named Amory Lovins came to the Rocky Mountains and built himself a radical house based on a radical idea. The country could save both energy and money, he believed, by combining common sense and unconventional technology.

Mr. Lovins did achieve substantial energy savings, and many of his innovations, from better insulation to multiple-pane windows to more-efficient refrigerators, eventually became familiar fixtures in American homes.

But on the second part of Mr. Lovins's ambition -- saving money -- the calculus has been more complicated. The advances that allowed him to create a roomy home with a tiny carbon footprint came with a hefty upfront cost.

Now, Mr. Lovins has completed a renovation that he hopes will demonstrate how much more energy-efficient houses can become. But the project also serves as a reminder of the still-enormous gulf between what is technologically possible and what society is able or willing to pay for.

The 4,000-square-foot structure Mr. Lovins and his then-wife completed in 1984 looked part-cave and part-spaceship. Its 16-inch-thick stone walls kept the interior temperature fairly constant. A book-lined interior was dimly lighted with electricity from solar panels on the roof. The greenhouse that formed the central living room let in light, and it stored heat in a small jungle of plants, from guavas to coffee to bananas.

The house, which Mr. Lovins dubbed the "Banana Farm," used one-tenth the energy of a typical U.S. house of its size. Lower utility bills quickly offset the higher construction costs, saving money on heating and cooling within a year.

Since then, Mr. Lovins has become perhaps the world's most famous apostle of energy efficiency. The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy and environmental think tank that has consulted with companies including Wal-Mart Stores and Ford Motor.

Having seen many features the Banana Farm helped pioneer trickle down to the consumer market, the 61-year-old Mr. Lovins hopes his latest efficiency moves eventually will find widespread acceptance as well.

Most studies suggest energy efficiency is the cheapest way to start meaningfully limiting pollution by curbing growth in fossil-fuel use -- far cheaper than generating more wind or solar power.

A report last month by McKinsey & Co. concluded that the U.S. could cut its energy use 23% below the projected U.S. demand level in 2020 by boosting efficiency, and save $1.2 trillion in energy costs. But that would require immediately making expensive investments in new equipment. Other countries have subsidized and mandated those steps, and the U.S. is beginning to follow suit. But a recession is a tough time to make big changes.

Mr. Lovins is "pushing the envelope of what's possible," but "that's probably a step too far for what's practical," says Scott Nyquist, head of the global energy practice at McKinsey, which has worked with Mr. Lovins on research projects.

Mr. Nyquist is renovating his own 1930s-era house in Houston, in part to test what energy-efficiency goals are feasible and affordable. He decided that some features championed by Mr. Lovins, such as light-emitting-diode lights, remain far too expensive. "I'm being disciplined," Mr. Nyquist says. "I'm trying a different approach than Amory is."

Banana Farm 2.0, as Mr. Lovins calls his updated digs, was renovated largely with equipment donated by individuals and companies eager to be associated with the project. Mr. Lovins says he doesn't know what the two-year renovation would have cost had he had to pay the full tab. But just a few of the major items would put the retail cost of the project well beyond $150,000.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Lovins climbed up onto his home's flat roof, an easy task because the back of the house is built into the side of a hill to take advantage of the earth's insulating power.

Laid across the roof are devices designed to capture solar energy: photovoltaic panels that convert sunlight into electricity, thermal panels that use the sun's warmth to heat water, and clear plastic tubes that funnel sunlight down into the house, where it illuminates the central hallway.

A bank of new photovoltaic panels nearly doubles the amount of solar electricity the house produces, to 9.7 kilowatts, enough for the house's needs. The panels, which were donated to Mr. Lovins, retail for about $30,000, not including installation, though tax breaks cut that price significantly.

"We are making no economic claims for Banana Farm 2.0," he says. "We deliberately brought in a bunch of cutting-edge, even bleeding-edge, stuff." Instead, he thinks that with the right government policies to spur market demand, even the most advanced green modifications could make economic sense. His role, as he sees it, is to push the limits of technology.

"Demand is the sum of a lot of negligible individual actions," he says. "When there are a lot of individuals, it isn't negligible. It adds up."

Banana Farm 2.0 isn't combustion-free. A wood-burning stove still sits near Mr. Lovins' office -- a backup heat source he hopes to abandon if the house works as planned this winter. But the new solar panels have allowed him to get rid of two devices that burned gas: a stove and a water heater.

Some of his proudest advances stem from mundane changes. He installed an electric stove made by a Swiss company that is 60% more efficient than other models he found. The savings stem partly from pots designed specifically for the stove. The pots eliminate warping that typically occurs with copper cookware, wasting heat.

He also has shaved energy use by insisting on an unconventional plumbing design. Typically, residential pipes that carry water would be ½-inch wide and turn at right angles. But that builds up friction, requiring electric pumps to work harder to propel the water. So Mr. Lovins had ¾-inch-wide pipes installed that run diagonally across ceilings and walls to minimize friction.

"If it looks pretty," he says, "it probably doesn't save energy."

For now, Banana Farm 2.0 is a showcase of what is technologically possible. Adopting some of the house's innovations on a wide scale would require huge investment and sweeping changes to governmental policy.

Still, Mr. Lovins knows that some of the most effective ways to reduce fossil-fuel use don't require groundbreaking science. As he headed out to dinner in his hybrid car on a recent evening, the Banana Farm's owner did something decidedly low-tech: He turned off the lights.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Cuban Paper Pushers

What price will Cubans pay for black-market toilet paper in the coming months? How many examples of utter failure are needed to convince dreamers that communism does not work?

Cash-strapped Cuba says toilet paper running short

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba, in the grip of a serious economic crisis, is running short of toilet paper and may not get sufficient supplies until the end of the year, officials with state-run companies said on Friday.

Officials said they were lowering the prices of 24 basic goods to help Cubans get through the difficulties provoked in part by the global financial crisis and three destructive hurricanes that struck the island last year.

Cuba's financial reserves have been depleted by increased spending for imports and reduced export income, which has forced the communist-led government to take extraordinary measures to keep the economy afloat.

"The corporation has taken all the steps so that at the end of the year there will be an important importation of toilet paper," an official with state conglomerate Cimex said on state-run Radio Rebelde.

The shipment will enable the state-run company "to supply this demand that today is presenting problems," he said.

Cuba both imports toilet paper and produces its own, but does not currently have enough raw materials to make it, he said.

One of the measures taken to address the cash crunch is a 20 percent cut in imports, which in recent days has become evident in the reduction of goods in state-run stores.

Cuba imports about 60 percent of its food.

Despite the shortages, prices will be cut between 5 percent and 27 percent for some food, drugs and personal hygiene products, officials said.

A visit to a store in Havana's Vedado neighborhood on Friday found that prices had dropped for mayonnaise, barbecue sauce and canned squid.

One customer, who gave his name only as Pedro, complained that "it doesn't look like prices have been lowered for the fundamental products" such as cooking oil.

Ana Maria Ortega, deputy director for military-run retail conglomerate TRD Caribe, said there will be no shortage of basic goods.

"The conditions are in place to maintain the supply of essential products," she said on the same radio program.

Cubans receive a subsidized food ration from the government each month that they say meets their needs for about two weeks.

President Raul Castro told the National Assembly last week that the government had cut its spending budget for the second time this year and has been renegotiating its debt and payments with foreign providers.

Cuba has long blamed the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island for many of its economic problems. It also said that last year's hurricanes did $10 billion worth of damage that forced the government to spend heavily on imports of food and reconstruction products.

Castro, who replaced his ailing older brother Fidel Castro as president last year, also has complained that Cuba's productivity is too low.

He has taken various steps to boost output, including putting more state-owned land in private hands and pushing for salaries to be based on productivity.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

An Exchange with Romius

romius, how do you interpret the borrowing binge of the last several years?

Virtually anyone and everyone was given a mortgage after merely promising to repay the money. Nothing more. Just signing a note promising repayment.

Are lenders like drug dealers, seeking dependent people with habits they cannot control?

Do you believe in personal responsibility? Should borrowers look at their finances and determine their capacity to send monthly payments to a creditor? Or is it okay for borrowers to ignore good sense and grab every dollar a lender will give simply because it's there?

Can individuals be trusted to act sensibly on their own behalf? Or are individuals inherently out of control? Do people need limits in their everyday lives set by the government?

Should businesses, at times, refuse to give customers what they seek?

Are No-Documentation Loans illegal?

Is it legal to lie on loan applications? Such as when a borrower asserts he has the assets and income to repay his debt?

Smoking cigarettes kills millions of people. Should manufacturing, selling or smoking cigarettes be made illegal? Or do people have the right to develop lung cancer and/or cardio-pulmonary disease?

Is abortion murder? The Supreme Court says a fetus is not a human. The Court also says it does not know exactly when a fetus becomes a human. The court concludes that as long as a fetus is not a human, the fetus is not protected by the Constitution. Therefore it is legal to end the existence of the unprotected fetus.

Does the refusal of the Supreme Court to acknowledge WHEN the developing human organism becomes "legally" human mean abortion is not murder?

Free Energy? You obviously know nothing about science and engineering. And nothing about human inventiveness either.

Like oil itself, sunlight, wind and moving water are free. But engineers, scientists, and all the people who build the equipment that turns sunlight, wind and moving water into electricity expect paychecks for their labor.

Generators that convert wind and water motion into electricity cost real money. The panels that convert sunlight into electricity cost a lot of money. And they use hazardous materials in the energy conversion process.

However, wind generators and solar panels are avaiable today. Their prices are already heavily subsidized by governments around the world. Nevetheless, electricity from solar and wind sources is still far more expensive and less reliable than electricity produced by conventional methods.

People who believe there is an abundant and cheap energy source that powerful leaders keep out of reach of most of the global population are people who believe in flying carpets and perpetual-motion machines.

As of today, oil is the least expensive, most dependable and most flexible energy source -- ever. It is the vitamin that has given the world's leading economies much of their strength.

Meanwhile, we know a lot about energy. We know there are NO elements on the planet that can be used to make batteries that are significantly superior to the best batteries available today.

There's no Moore's Law, semi-conductor experience ahead for batteries or solar panels. The gains will be incremental -- inches gained here and there. No Philosopher's Stone turning a pound of lead into a power station.

You need to understand what science and engineering can do, and you need to understand the timetable. It is generally slow.

Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer in flight. He was trying to fly in 1500. It took 400 more years before the Wright Brothers got a plane into the air. However, in the last century, flight has advanced rapidly.

The first battery was made in 1800. After two hundred years, battery technology has advanced like a speeding glacier.

Scientists and engineers have learned that it is far easier to design portable devices that use less electricity than it is to develop batteries that hold more.

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