Friday, May 23, 2008

Degassing over Gasoline

News sources have been buzzing since late winter over the price of gasoline and diesel. As we head into Memorial Day weekend, the topic is coming into an especially intense light. One survey I heard cited (sorry, I can't find the source) suggests that about a quarter of American families have changed their plans for the weekend, either shortening or canceling planned trips. An article on MSNBC states that an AAA survey shows a 0.9% decrease in the number of people intending to travel 50 miles or more from home. And an article in the San Francisco Chronicle shows a whopping decrease of 0.1% in planned excursions of the same distance. The same article later goes on to say:

TripAdvisor, a travel Web site, surveyed 4,000 people worldwide and found that 51 percent of American travelers are altering summer vacation itineraries because of soaring fuel prices. While 73 percent of those surveyed will take driving trips, 37 percent will take fewer road trips and 18 percent will drive shorter distances.

Let's take a look at what gasoline actually costs with all this "skyrocketing" rhetoric: according to (homepage link- this is an interesting and useful site), on the world gasoline prices page, US prices are 0.77 (that's 77%) of world average. In a list from highest to lowest, we rank 102nd out of 141 countries listed. For each $3 we spend (and I'm rounding a little here), you would spend $4 (or its equivalent) in the average country. Or to put it another way, for the price we pay for ten gallons, you would get only seven and a half in an average country. (To get a clearer description of exactly what these numbers represent, move your cursor over the Definition button at the top of the bar graphs)

16 countries are paying double or more the price we are. Germany, at #19, and a country that I think most Americans would identify as Europe's industrial powerhouse, is paying 1.49 compared to our 0.77: not quite double but nearly so. In other words, quite a number of countries are paying nearly double the price Americans are. Their economies may not be quite as robust and productive as ours, but nearly so.

According to a recent report from The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy (57 pg PDF, 1.1 Mb) at Rice University, "The future of U.S. oil consumption is centered squarely on future developments in the transportation sector, which represents more than two-thirds of total petroleum use." A relatively small increase in efficiency or decrease in driving could have a relatively large impact on prices. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I haven't read this entire report yet, though I intend to. A further caveat: Most of the "Energy Forum Sponsors" listed on the seventh page are major oil producing or production support corporations- this suggests that the conclusions should be examined carefully for bias)

So my point is this: quit whining. Gasoline is far underpriced in our country. We as citizens and drivers could, if we chose, have a substantive impact in stabilizing its price with a few simple descisions. When I see a driver sitting in an enormous Hummer, complaing about how much it costs to fill his tank, and immediately afterward saying that he loves his vehicle and would never give it up (CNN around 3:00 PM today), I have no sympathy. Gasoline is a precious and, with known technology, essentially irreplaceable commodity. When the impact of "skyrocketing prices" reduces our travel plans between 1 and 0.1 percent, we ain't hurtin' that bad.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Scite of the Day

This is one that I've been intending to put up for a while. Today seems like a good day; there's a slew of interesting stories. Science Daily is a great site for keeping up with current news in science generally- that is, it doesn't focus on any single discipline in science. The stories are often just passing along or paraphrasing of press releases, which has some weaknesses. Press releases are simply a form of advertising, and advertising is a form of propaganda. Don't expect any real examination of the weaknesses of the discovery or study, and do expect emphasis of the potential benefits (especially with respect to anything having to do with medicine) as opposed to likely benefits.

Despite this weakness, these releases are a great way to keep up with breaking science news, whatever your particular interests may be. If you scroll down toward the bottom, you can sign up for a daily newsletter or an RSS feed. I haven't figured ot RSS yet, but I love newsletters than I can read as my schedule and interest permit. I generally read only a few articles out of each newsletter (maybe one in eight), but often the paragraph accompanying each headline and link is enough to give me enough info that I don't feel the need for more detail. For eaxmple, from today,

Increase In Drunk Driving Fatalities Followed Ban On Smoking In Bars (May 21, 2008) -- A ban on cigarette smoking in bars is meant to save lives by reducing patrons' exposure to secondhand smoke. But it may actually be having an unintended consequence. By comparing data from a variety of locations around the United States where laws requiring smoke-free bars exist with locations without bans, researchers found a relative increase in fatalities caused by drunk driving following ban enactment. It seems that smokers are willing to drive longer distances to an establishment that allows smoking. ... > full story

Now I really appreciate that: I've got the gist of the story and an explanation. I don't need to read the whole article. Someone more interested than me in these issues might want more detail and click to read the whole thing. So lets look at a couple that I did read...

Halting Methane Squanderlust: Catalyst Converts Methane To More Useful Compounds (May 22, 2008) -- The pipes that rise from oil fields, topped with burning flames of natural gas, waste fossil fuels and dump carbon dioxide into the air. Scientists have identified the structure of a catalytic material that can turn methane into a safe and easy-to-transport liquid. The insight lays the foundation for converting excess methane into a variety of useful fuels and chemicals. ... > full story

I've long been troubled by the amount of "flaring" that takes place in the petroleum industry. Producing crude oil often involves the production of a great deal of methane, the main component of so-called "natural gas." It is often economically unfeasable to deliver this methane to market, so it's simply pumped up a pipe and burned, or "flared." In this day and age, indeed since I first learned what was happening, this has struck me as unforgivably wasteful, though I do understand the economic imperatives at work. So the idea is that a zeolite mineral with molybdenum oxide on its surface can convert methane to benzene (which despite the paragraph above is not exactly safe: it's a potent carcinogen). Benzene is an extremely important industrial chemical, as a solvent and as a precursor for a whole lot of organic materials. Still (and to reiterate my point about news releases) the process/catalyst is not yet economically feasible. Nevertheless, this is an important step in research I hadn't heard of previously... news to me.

Observation Of X-rays From Birth Of Supernova Leads To All-out Effort To Record Stellar Death (May 21, 2008) -- NASA's Swift satellite caught the rare birth of a supernova earlier this year, allowing astronomers to rapidly deploy ground-based telescopes to follow its evolution and learn about normal stellar explosions. Astronomers have analyzed the data to conclude that the original star was more than 30 times the mass of the sun, but only slightly larger, when its core ran out of fuel and imploded, blowing the star to smithereens. ... > full story

OK, so I'm a sucker for anything supernova. They're only the most energetic events that take place in our extended neighborhood. (Gamma Ray Bursts seem to be restricted to the early universe, so we see them only in distant galaxies- which is a very good thing). This is kind of a geeky article, but through one of those rare happenstances that are so important for science (luck favors the prepared researcher), orbital observatories caught a supernova in a not-too-distant galaxy in the very first stages of the explosion.

Ancient Amphibian: Debate Over Origin Of Frogs And Salamanders Settled With Discovery Of Missing Link (May 21, 2008) -- The description of an ancient amphibian that millions of years ago swam in quiet pools and caught mayflies on the surrounding land in Texas has set to rest one of the greatest current controversies in vertebrate evolution. ... > full story

Turns out that frogs and salamanders did come from the same group, and later than previously thought. The last-known ancestor of both groups has been discovered. They have an interesting "artist's conception" picture of the beastie; I wish they had a photo or at least sketch of the skeleton.

So there you have it: whether you visit the site, which is constantly being updated, get the e-mail newsletter (as I do), or the RSS feed, Science Daily is a great place to get general science news days before the MSM picks up a fraction of the interesting stories.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Walrus and the Phoenix

Couple of good science stories in today's NYT. One is on walruses, the partners in danger with polar bears. I was a little skeptical of this article, expecting to read a portion of it before leaving for something a little more interesting. However, it turned out to be quite engaging at both a scientific and emotional level. I finished it being quite impressed with the animals- the descriptions of their personalities make them sound somewhat like dogs: highly intellegent, sociable and affectionate. Their physical capabilities- sound production, ability to manipulate objects, and learning abilities- were new to me and very impressive. In short, a recommended read.

Another article is on the expected landing this coming Sunday of the Mars probe Phoenix. Two days ago, a couple of websites on this subject comprised my scite of the day. I've seen innumerable stories on this event in many of the science sources that I try to keep up with, but this strikes me as the best overall story I've seen. Of particular interest is that (in contradiction to my comment of the scite linked above), “'It’s extraordinarily unlikely the vehicle will survive,”'said Mr. Goldstein, the project manager. But on the outside chance that spring sunlight recharges the craft next year, he said, it has been programmed with a “Lazarus mode” to signal that it has risen from the dead."

Primary Participation

So I finally turned in my ballot a couple of hours ago. I tend to put it off until the last minute, and I always feel surprised when I hear that someone turned theirs in a day or two after they received it. We got our ballots about two weeks ago, and the voters guide a week or so before that. But it was only yesterday that I sat down with the guide and my faithful internets and did the Google thing to finally decide how I would vote on the undecideds.

Of particular concern for me was the district 5 representative, a position held for the last 2 or 3 terms by Darlene Hooley. I had written a couple of letters to her regarding Iraq and recieved very supportive responses, so I was happy with her. I got it down to two with the guide, then went to the positions pages of the candidates' websites. The other major contest is for a Democratic opponent against Senator Gordon Smith. Smith is a moderate Republican, and I've been pleased with his growing opposition to the war. Still, he has voted with the Bush appeasement block on most issues, and I wouldn't mind seeing him replaced.

For you Oregonians, there is only an hour and a half to get your ballot turned in. The two closest drop boxes to my favorite coffee shop are at The OSU Valley Library, at the information desk, and the Corvallis Public Library, in the main lobby. According to today's Gazette-Times, 54% of eligible Democrats had cast their ballots as of yesterday; looks like we might be headed for a record primary turnout this year.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Guinness World Record holder for the 'Most Pierced Woman', Elaine Davidson, poses for a photograph in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland showing some of her five thousand nine hundred and twenty piercings on May 16, 2008. Photo/David Moir (From All Hat No Cattle, 5/19/08)
A lot of folks that hang out at my favorite coffee shop have tats and piercings. Amateurs, every one of them.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rich Reading

Frank Rich has a good column in today's NYT on the problems facing the Republican'ts. I'm going to use that word, first, to signify that they can't get their hopes up about further distorting and destroying this country with their foul agenda. Second, as a reference to the replicants of PK Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," best known as the source for the great Sci-Fi classic, Bladerunner. The Republican't stance on many issues is so bizarre and extreme that I often wonder if they're authentic human beings. ***hyperbole alert***

In his column, entitled, "McCain Can Run, but Bush Won’t Hide," he goes a step further than I did in this post: "The G.O.P.’s best hope would be for both the president and Dick Cheney to lock themselves in a closet until the morning after Election Day."

Rich has a marvelous way of bringing together information, much of it new to me (as a news junkie, this is quite an accomplishment), with wonderfully insightful analysis, then adding his own dry-toned, straight-faced humor. His column appears on Sundays.

Scite of the Day: The Fall of the Phoenix

I am fascinated by geology. In approximately 6 days and 23 hours from the time of this writing, there will be yet another in a long string of events that it has been my privilege to witness: yet another robotic lander will descend to the surface of a neighboring planet.

The Phoenix lander will descend to the surface of Mars next Sunday, and if all goes well, begin beaming back information on the presence of water, ice, and the potential for life on that dry, cold body. NASA's website has a number of videos; also of interest is the Mission Overview page. NASA's websites often seem to me to be designed with media in mind: a few showy pictures, shallow information, and focused on appealing "bites" rather than really promoting understanding and excitement. It's frustrating to hear about an interesting story on the tube, go to NASA hoping for more in-depth info, and find that the blurb is the only information provided. In other words, you can find some interesting stuff, but it's limited, and don't expect in-depth coverage on much of anything.

In contrast, check out the Phoenix Mars Mission site hosted by the University of Arizona. There are some cool static pictures of the current location of the spacecraft from several perspectives. Like the NASA site, this one has a countdown clock showing (to the second) how long until the expected touch-down. Some of the FAQ's are really interesting, and help clarify what will actually take place on the mission. I haven't looked at the kids' section too carefully, but it looks like there might be some good stuff there too.

Landing on Mars has historically been risky at best; fewer than half of such missions have been successful. But the ones that have made it safely to the ground have given us some incredible information. The two rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, have sent back a plethora of stunning images and continue puttering around the surface of the planet (albeit with some signs of old age setting in) after nearly 17 times the engineered lifespan of 90 days. The Phoenix Mission is also expected to continue for about three months, but in this case, the lander will lose solar power after a maximum of 5 months, and will fail at that point.

Between these two sites, you should be able to follow this modern chapter in the long history of human exploration with ease.