Maybe budget surpluses are not a good thing

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Federal budget surplus balloons to $14B

Well, obviously the surplus itself is a good thing, but what’s done with it is another matter.

This is where my very liberal tendencies ram head-first into my fiscally responsible tendencies, and I’m not sure where to draw the line. One thing I’m sure of: continually going out and looking for ways to spend the extra money is not a good idea. Where does that end? Very likely it all comes crashing down the next time the economy takes a turn for the worse and the government needs to look for programs to cut.

It all comes down to whether the federal government should be continually looking for ways to expand the services it offers. As an example, should the federal government provide child day-care in a similar way it provides health care? Personally, I don’t think any of these ideas are bad by themselves, but taken as a whole I wonder how large the federal budget will end up being, and therefore how high our taxes will be, to fund them all. Further, there’s the old argument of whether a government agency is the best way to provide those services and I think the answer is “sometimes.”

I think we should focus first on making the programs we have now the best they can be. Improve health care, public transportation, and funding of alternative energy. Pay down the debt with all additional surplus, and once that’s gone either cut taxes or dump it all into alternative energy development.

Ahmadinejad goes to America

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It’s now been 2 days since the President of Iran spoke at a New York university, and it has been interesting watching the commentary. I actually haven’t seen much in the way of support for how Columbia university handled the situation, but perhaps folks like Rush Limbaugh and his ilk are taking that up.

A full video of the event is here, and a summary is here.

The big news was how the university President opened the event, and introduced the President of Iran, with a 19-minute speech criticizing the man. Personally, I thought this was pretty bad taste. It’s completely obvious the university felt under pressure since there was a small uproar that they even invited him. But, to open a “debate” with an invited opponent in this way is very bad taste and seemed almost cowardly.

Here’s a bit of commentary arguing that Ahmadinejad came off the winner in this whole game: Smartest Man in the Room

And finally, even Donald Trump thinks the whole thing was a sham.

Hiding efficient cars

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A friend sent me a link to this article: Dirty Secret: Green Cars Automakers Won’t Sell You. I was really amazed at some of the details in here. It’s about certain cars (or models of cars) classified as PZEV which means Partial zero-emissions vehicle. Some US states have requirements that cars within this classification are available to consumers.

There are actually quite a few PZEV models out there, and typically the manufacturers produce a special model for this classification. Amazingly, these models are “designed to produce minimal air pollution at their point of use, typically less than 10% of that of an equivalent ordinary vehicle.” A 90% reduction. This would, by itself, solve a large portion of our greenhouse gas problem. (Although, since it says “typically” I was trying to get some emission comparison numbers, but was unable to find them so far)

The catch is, according to this article, that it’s actually illegal for dealers to sell PZEV cars to people from outside the approved states. This is thanks to the “Clean Air Act”. Wow. Another example of how blatantly idiotic and corrupt the US government and car manufacturers are.

On a last note, this is an inspiring story of a family that decided to not bother fixing their car when it broke, and the benefits of living car-free: Giving up car revs family up.

The High Cost of Bringing People Together


Yesterday, I attended the Austin City Limits music festival in downtown Austin, Texas to enjoy live music in an open air venue with thousands of my closest friends. Which is to say I took the highway from the suburbs to downtown, which was bumper to bumper most of the way. Once downtown I circled for ages, looking for parking before walking to the shuttles which dropped me off within walking distance of the venue. And of course the process was made more difficult by the thousands of other people driving around throughout the city. All of this travel gave me time to reflect on some statistics about another outdoor music festival, Burning Man, published in a recent Scientific American:

Burning Man Attendees: 40,000

Carbon emissions from burning “the man”: 112 tons

Total on-site emissions: 2.473 tons

Emissions from participant’s travel: 25,019 tons

This made me realize how environmentally dangerous our cars really are. Even if the event had been held to raise money for environmental causes, the very act of bringing so many people together causes so much more residual polution that it would defeat the purpose! What could be more ironic than raising money for the environment by driving hundreds of cars in circles for days?

Organizers could dream up ways, like the natural gas shuttles provided at ACL, to lower the event’s environmental impact. What about walking to the event? It’s good exercise and there’s no internal combustion involved, right? Well, when you add up the carbon footprint of the delivery trucks that brought the food in your stomach to your local grocery store or restaurant, it turns out that on short trips your total footprint is lower if just drive there. SciAm notes that even Burning Man made a token effort, by generating their own power with a 30-kilowatt solar array.

Weeklong carbon offset by the 30-kilowatt solar array: 6.9 tons

Bottom Up Progress


It’s finally September. Rather than directly address the critics of his “troop surge” idea when he proposed it last spring, George W. Bush asked us all to reserve judgment until September, to “give it time to work”. Now that September has arrived, the analysis is exactly what we expected: “Progress is being made. We must continue doing what we’ve been doing.” Stay the course.

There does seem to be progress in some provinces of Iraq. Attacks on US troops in Al-Anbar province are measured in double digits per month, down from triple digits this time last year. Al-Anbar was once the most lawless and dangerous province, all but surrendered to insurgents, where today the locals are increasingly cooperating with the US ground forces.

US troops have been making deals with tribal leaders, providing supplies and weapons while backing off from the house to house raids and street sweeps that made them so unpopular in Baghdad. As hoped, the locals have largely turned against the remaining al-Qaida agitators in their midst, and violence across the board is down. But Al-Anbar is an almost entirely Sunni province. The few Shiites who once lived there have been driven away by the sectarian violence of the last few years, or been victims of it.

Like a hideous mirror image, Baghdad is now largely Sunni free for the same reasons. The Shia dominated central government is accused of covering up the actions of police and military death squads that roamed the streets targetting Sunnis in and around the capitol. The violence in Iraq is abating because the damage is already done, the ethnic cleansing already complete.

In the time since the interim government was set up, sectarian violence between the Sunnis and the Shia have overshadowed even the al-Qaida inspired attacks on coalition troops. As the dust settles from the Iraq invasion, we are beginning to see the future of the country, a geographical area sharply divided across cultural lines, with Shias controlling Baghdad and the east, Sunnis controlling the wide swaths of the west and the Kurds, who already consider their northern provice a separate state, keeping to themselves. Far from political reconciliation, in the wake of Saddam’s defeat, his subjects have carved up his nation and walled themselves in.

Screen Door on a Submarine

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It’s the 75th anniversary of a spectacular technical gaff. In 1932, a British prototype vessel sank during military exercises. The vessel was a hybrid between an aircraft carrier and a submarine. The intent was to sneak into enemy territory and launch short range aerial attacks. But in hindsight, the flaw in the design was clear:

“It is believed the disaster happened because the vessel’s hangar doors were opened before it properly surfaced.”

In theory, could it still be possible to salvage the design? Modern aircraft doors open inward so that the pressure inside the plane keeps them sealed shut. Perhaps the reverse could have worked on the submarine, where the hangar door could not open outward against the pressure of the water. This wouldn’t protect the vessel in shallow water, unfortunately. Another approach would build mechanical interlocks on the door that only open when the engines are off or when the depth guage is within a tolerable range, preferably zero. But mechanical parts can wear, break or be damaged in combat.

It is a tragedy that 60 British sailors lost their lives that day. It was also inevitable. The history of technology is littered with projects which, like this one, should never have been attempted.

No End in Sight

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I’ve just seen the new documentary No End In Sight. It’s a documentary about the aftermath of the Iraq war, from the point of view of the Americans on the ground trying to reconstruct it. It’s also the first movie I’ve seen that features the security contractor that guarded the film crew in Iraq prominently in the opening credits.

Their version of the story is that the Americans were, in fact, greeted as liberators for the first few days, but that the chaos of the first month after the fall of Baghdad disenfranchised and disillusioned the Iraqis. Much is made about the looting that immediately followed Baghdad’s occupation, and the filmmakers go so far as to imply that the military knew about it and made a conscious decision to allow it, underestimating the scale of the damage to Iraq’s infrastructure. When the bureaucrats arrived to run Iraq’s institutions they found there were none left. The government buildings where the records were kept had burned down, the rest had been gutted and stripped down to the rebar in the walls. The interim government had no phones, let alone computers.

Throughout the first year of Iraq’s liberation, power was handed from unqualified person to unqualified person, few had any experience or even fewer spoke the language. Edicts were handed down from Washington that contradicted the reality on the ground, few more so than De-Ba’athification and disbanding the Iraqi army, decisions that threw hundreds of thousands of trained military men, as well as engineers, doctors and teachers, out on the street and barred them from any future civil service in the new governement.

No End In Sight is a slow motion train wreck, coldly narrated by the individuals who were ordered to stand by and watch it happen. I was familiar with most of the facts, but what surprised me was how close the US came to making it work. Since the story is told by US intelligence and military insiders, they claim that they were doing their jobs perfectly but that a few key decisions made by a small group in Washington brought about the disastrous, yet entirely predictable insurgency.

Unlike a Michael Moore film, No End In Sight has no sense of humour, but it shares Moore’s need to hear the truth from the people on the ground. It doesn’t have the emotional subplots of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, nor does it propose any solutions, but the film presents its evidence and reaches its inevitable conclusion with the same methodical process of educating the audience and leading us by the hand behind the curtain of propaganda and mass media “common” knowledge.

It’s still only playing in select cities, but the list of cities is growing. Check it out and decide for yourself.