Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's not easy being green -- part IV

The New York Times posts about an Economist article that predicts that more efficient light bulbs could increase the amount of electricity demanded.
...history suggests that better technology 'will serve merely to increase the demand for light.'
The logic is that people demand what the bulbs produce--light. More efficient bulbs reduce the price of that good, causing demand to rise. In this case, demand appears to be very responsive (elastic), leading not only to more light consumption but more energy consumption.

Monday, August 30, 2010

More relativism Guarino-style

Joe Guarino's crusade against the relativists, nihilists, and purveyors of porn in the Greensboro library continues. However, his latest post only helps to expose more relativism on his part.

One of the great services that Joe performs for the citizens of Greensboro is to field questionnaires for city council candidates and to post the responses. I may disagree with Joe's slant on a lot of things, including some of the loaded questions on the questionnaire, but I have to salute him for giving voters a wealth of candidate information that wouldn't come out otherwise.

Why bring up the questionnaire? Well, in today's post, Joe expresses disappointment with a city council candidate who flip-flopped on a question about filtering (she responded that she supported computer filtering on the questionnaire and then didn't support Danny Thompson's ill-conceived motions regarding filtering).

It appears, however, that filtering wasn't exactly the be-all and end-all issue when Joe was making endorsemens. For example, in the District 2 race last year, he endorsed Dan Fischer whose response to the filtering question was “No. I want our children to be able to look for what they need to for research purposes. And there are plenty of people who use the library computers other than our children. If we had a section just for children then yes, I would want some kind of filters on the computers.”

He favored Fischer over Nettie Coads, whose response to the filtering question was "Yes, some should be filtered for exclusive use by young people."

In another race, Joe endorsed George Hartzman, whose very adamant response to the filtering question was, "First Amendment. It is up to parents to raise their children, not the state. Next thing you know somebody is burning books. Who gets to decide what’s filtered?" In that race, Joe passed over a candidate who gave a more positive response.

In another race, he initially endorsed Nancy Vaughan, whose response to the filtering question was "(No) I do not think that the libraries’ should filter computer content. Parents should take responsibility for their children’s computer use. " There were other candidates in the race unambiguously supported filtering.

In another race, Joe endorsed Mary Rakestraw, who did not complete a questionnaire, over Joel Landau whose short but sweet answer to the filtering question was "yes."

Joe continues to cast people who oppose filtering as "amoral" and castigates them as "relativists."
These parties have collectively decided that the false god of "library information" accessed through the internet is at a higher level of priority than the moral imperative of protecting minors. They have constructed an idol in their minds-- and that idol is unobstructed access to the internet.
But in several instances Joe's actions show that he had higher priorities than "the moral imperative of protecting minors." Maybe I missed it, but I didn't see a single case where Joe even mentioned filtering in his endorsement posts.

Joe had an opportunity to make moral choices related to filtering--it was either an all-important issue with him or it wasn't. Joe chose to elevate other concerns.

More slime in the Congressional swamp

"Draining the swamp" is a challenge when the swamp keeps refilling so quickly.

The Dallas News reports
Longtime Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson has awarded thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four relatives and a top aide's two children since 2005, using foundation funds set aside for black lawmakers' causes.

The recipients were ineligible under anti-nepotism rules of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which provided the money. And all of the awards violated a foundation requirement that scholarship winners live or study in a caucus member's district.
Applying the Rangel defense, Rep. Johnson concedes that she violated the rules but did so unintentionally.

Now that she's been called out, she has promised to "rectify the financial situation." Now if only she could rectify the trust-in-your-Congressperson situation.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Time to lift the partial moratorium on off-shore drilling?

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a non-profit organization that was founded by four former Senate majority leaders, has just released a report that concludes that an appropriate regulatory regime has been established to take the place of the partial moratorium on deepwater oil drilling that was imposed after the BP disaster.

Specifically, the report concludes
The Department of Interior’s drilling moratorium has served the productive purpose of allowing time for both industry and government to prepare for a safer, more vigilant, and dependable future for U.S. offshore drilling. We believe DOI and the industry have used this time effectively to develop a new regulatory regime for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, we readily agree with the oft-made point that drilling risks cannot be reduced to zero. But we are satisfied that compliance with the Interior Department’s NTLs 5 and 6 and other actions by the Department will achieve a significant and beneficial reduction of risk. If industry is diligent in incorporating these requirements and DOI is vigilant in oversight and enforcement, we believe this new regime will provide an adequate margin of safety to responsibly allow the resumption of deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Lifting the moratorium and replacing it with a new regulatory regime is not a magic bullet--oil drilling would not resume immediately and the drilling that eventually would occur wouldn't be riskless.

With respect to the first point, affected drilling would continue to be halted for some time while companies bring themselves into compliance with the regulations. Thus, the lifting of the moratorium doesn't translate into an immediate resumption of drilling.

Moreover, the new regulations will increase the costs of deepwater drilling and are likely to discourage some activity. So there would be a reduction in future drilling activity. The recommendations are far from "drill, baby, drill."

With respect to the second point, the report makes clear that many risks would remain and that more steps need to be taken to prepare for possible disasters. The report also makes clear that the changes in the regulatory regime are just starting and that more work and research will be needed.

The administration's drilling ban was an appropriate but controversial (and as the report indicates "blunt") response to the BP disaster. While some criticized the economic impacts, imagine the response if another rig disaster had occurred. Given the problems and uncertainties that existed at that time, the ban was the right policy call.

The administration, however, has backed itself into a corner with the ban. The legality of the ban is in question (the initial moratorium was struck down by a federal court, and it's not at all clear whether the follow-on moratorium will survive judicial review). Moreover, the moratorium is idling work at a time when the economy is barely limping along. The administration is surely looking for a way to move forward.

Hopefully, this report will give it the political cover to do so and provide a blueprint for a more responsible energy policy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guarino's relativism

For the three of you from Greensboro who may have missed the latest goings on, a fierce debate has been raging over whether the public library should install filters on its computers to reduce the amount of porn that's allegedly being downloaded.

The debate was ignited a few weeks ago when a poorly informed and ill-prepared councilman, Danny Thompson, waved a thick stack of papers implying that the majority contained examples of porn-viewing and other indecent behaviors in the libraries. The councilman then introduced a motion to install filters on the computers. A subsequent examination of the papers revealed that only a few indecent incidents had occurred and that such incidents had actually been substantially reduced over the last year. Nevertheless, the intrepid councilman pressed on.

The matter was revisited at a subsequent city council meeting, which voted the councilman's filtering motion down but asked library staff to provide more data.

The ever-excitable Joe Guarino immediately hyperventilated that council members had voted "to permit porn surfing" (nevermind that the available evidence showed that existing library policies were reducing these incidents, not increasing them). Brother Joe has since been on a tear accusing library staff and those who oppose the filters of "moral relativism."

Sayeth Joe,
We are worshipping the idol of unrestricted access to 'library information,' and placing that at a greater level of importance than protecting minors.
He goes on to accuse the library of "peddling" porn.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The library actually has a comprehensive approach that includes registering users, having them agree to usage terms, running throttling software, and having staff and security personnel present. In fact, the councilman's papers are evidence that restrictions are present and result in sanctions. Yet Joe equates these layered restrictions to peddling porn and suggests that the library staff be arrested for distributing child pornography.

Another local blogger, Tony Wilkins, now reports that "two anonymous sources" have told him that 21,000 visits to porn sites occurred last month in the local public library. Multiply by 12, and the number rises to 252,000 annually. Naturally, this has inflamed Joe who now says that "the burden is now on the relativists and the nihilists to demonstrate why filters are not appropriate."

Let's put aside the obvious question of why Tony's sources might have requested anonymity and go with his figures. It appears that Joe is the true relativist here. The most optimistic estimates for the filters indicate that they might screen 97 percent of objectionable material (albeit at the cost of lots of non-objectionable material also being blocked). Apply that likely inflated screening rate to 252,000 page visits, and Greensboro still ends up with over 7,500 porn views.

Joe and the councilman got their knickers in a bunch over a few dozen incidents, yet they would have us adopt a technology that would permit thousands of porn views each year. You tell me who's a relativist.

The only "correct" absolutist position is to immediately remove the execrable internet from the public library. While we're at it, the internet should also be removed from public schools and any public place where children might see someone else surfing--that includes all public wi-fi in non-adult venues (don't want those kids who wandering through Caribou Coffee to accidentally view "Debbie Does a Double Latte" or some such).

Until Joe is willing to remove all possibilities for inappropriate browsing in public places he is the moral relativist.

Our schools are great; yours stink

Gallup has released results from its annual poll of Americans' perceptions of their public schools. In the poll, respondents are asked to assign a grade--A, B, C, D or F--to the schools. Overall, the vast majority of respondents give the nation's public schools a grade of C (53 percent) or worse (26 percent). The results are consistent with a trend of increasingly negative views regarding schools.

An interesting result, however, appears when people are asked about their local schools--the ones that they fund and that their children attend.

Only 27 percent of respondents give their local schools grades of C or worse; 71 percent give them A's or B's. Views regarding local schools also trend in the opposite direction from views regarding schools as a whole. According to respondents, their local schools have become better over time.

The disparity is even more pronounced when parents are asked about the schools their children attend. For this group, 77 percent rate their children's schools as good or better, again with a generally increasing trend.

Results like these are fairly common. People despise Congress but love their own representatives. Other drivers are awful, but few people rate themselves that way.

Objective results indicate that the local view is closer to being accurate. Long-term trends in reading and math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress have shown improvements for most age groups and especially for the youngest groups. Gains have been particularly pronounced for students from minority groups and students with less-educated parents.

Maybe it's time to cut the public schools a little bit of a break and stop villianizing educators. According to the people who seem to know best (local citizens and parents) and according to objective standards, "our" schools are both good and improving.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


One more reason (as if one were needed) not to post or transmit something on-line that you wouldn't want everyone in the world to see now, or later.

The News-Observer reports
Federal prosecutors and child safety advocates say ... teens who text nude cell phone photos of themselves or show off their bodies on the Internet are being contacted by pornographers who threaten to expose their behavior to friends and family unless they pose for more explicit porn, creating a vicious cycle of exploitation.

One federal affidavit includes a special term for the crime: "sextortion."
The article goes on to warn
Privacy is nonexistent on the Internet, and once indiscretions appear online, they are virtually impossible to take back. A nude photo sent to a boyfriend's cell phone can easily be circulated through cell phone contacts and wind up on websites that post sexting photos. Once there, it's available for anyone who wants to trace it back to the person who made it.
Kids, you'll avoid a lot of heartache if you simply don't send this stuff.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Will the Greensboro library filter Quayle?

Ben Quayle, a Republican candidate for the 3rd district congressional seat in Arizona touts himself as, "a lifelong fiscal and social conservative," "a fighter for conservative values," and someone who will "protect life and traditional marriage."

Apparently, those "lifelong" conservative social values include writing for a smutty web-site under the pseudonym, Brock Landers (the name of a character from the movie Boogie Nights), and then lying about his activities when confronted.

The web-site links to some of Quayle's work, which might have a tough time getting through some of the library filters that local conservatives are proposing.

Quayle has already run into some truthiness issues in this campaign, sending out campaign mailers in which he posed with two young girls that weren't his (he is childless) to give the impression that he is a family man.

As the saying goes, watch what they do, not what they say.

Fiscal day of reckoning

An outcome that once seemed unimaginable for the U.S. is now receiving some serious discussion--a fiscal crisis and a sudden loss of investor confidence. The CBO has written a policy brief, "Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis," that describes some dire possible consequences if the U.S. does not get its public budget under control.

The CBO writes about initial manageable consequences, such as rising interest payments that would add to the pressures on public budgets, debt servicing that would also crowd out of other productive activities, and a debt level that reduces our ability to respond to subsequent economic shocks or other emergencies.

However, the CBO goes on to warn
Beyond those gradual consequences, a growing level of federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget, and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates. It is possible that interest rates would rise gradually as investors’ confidence declined, giving legislators advance warning of the worsening situation and sufficient time to make policy choices that could avert a crisis. But as other countries’ experiences show, it is also possible that investors would lose confidence abruptly and interest rates on government debt would rise sharply.
Without some changes in policy, the outlook isn't good. The CBO describes how under existing laws the public debt burden in the U.S. is forecast to remain high but manageable (debt will grow but so will the economy, leaving the effective debt burden to increase relatively slowly). However, many of those existing laws, such as caps on physician reimbursements under Medicare and the expiration of all of the Bush-era tax cuts, are likely to change. Under an alternative scenario, debt could grow much faster and possibly to unsustainable levels, triggering a crisis.

Sadly, neither Democrats nor Republicans are seriously addressing the issue. Democrats continue to add short-term budget boosts, like the current $26 billion aid package for states and local governments, that claim to be debt-neutral in the long run but which rely on budgetary gimmicks (for example, the aid package relies on a future change in food stamp benefits that Democrats will try to undo). Republicans don't even make this pretense, advocating unapologetically for a continuation of the unaffordable tax giveaways to the wealthy.

The policy changes needed to address the growing debt won't be easy or painless. However, relatively modest fixes can be implemented if we act sooner rather than later.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Russia bans wheat exports

Think that weather changes don't have consequences?
Russia banned all exports of grain on Thursday after millions of acres of wheat withered in a severe drought, a portentous decision at a time when crop failures caused by heat and flooding span the northern hemisphere.

...The decision caused an immediate and sharp rise in the already high global price of wheat. It rose more than 8 percent in early trading on the Chicago Board of Trade on Thursday, after having increased about 90 percent since June because of the drought in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and parts of the European Union, and floods in Canada.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration summarizes the dire situation in Russia.
High temperatures and sparse rainfall dominated the climate of the world's largest country during June and July. With temperatures hovering 8–12°F (4–8°C) above average across a large swath of Russia, daily record high temperatures of 91°F (33°C) and 95°F (35°C) were recorded in Moscow on July 16th and 17th, breaking records that dated back to 1951 and 1938, respectively. On July 26th, the city recorded its highest temperature ever—98.9°F (37.2°C)—breaking the previous record of 98.2°F (36.8°C) set 90 years ago. The hot weather has had deadly consequences. More than 1,200 drowning deaths were reported as people tried to escape the heat across Russia. The worst drought conditions since 1972 destroyed 22 million acres (nine million hectares), an estimated 20 percent of the nation's crops, including grain, vegetable, and fodder. Additionally, a state of emergency was declared as 948 forest fires covering 64,000 acres (26,000 hectares) were burning in 18 provinces. Twenty-six forest fires and 34 peat fires were burning in the Moscow region on the 26th, leading to dangerous air pollution levels. Mosekomonitoring, the Moscow governement agency in charge of monitoring air pollution, said that smog levels were five to eight times greater than normal. According to Rianovosti, Russian meteorologists stated that the summer of 2010 was the hottest on record for the country.
A single season or year of bad weather does not equate to climate change. However, a warming climate would contribute to more heat waves and to localized droughts.

Critics of climate change policies are quick to point out the costs of those policies. The situation in Russia reminds us that unabated climate change has costs as well.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Senators Coburn & McCain are suddenly computer scientists

Senators Coburn and McCain have criticized our sister institution, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) for being awarded a research grant from the National Science Foundation's Computer & Information Science and Engineering directorate.

The research grant was awarded to a faculty member in UNCC's Software and Information Systems Department to study how to digitize information on human movement, support visualization of those data, and facilitate interactive communication. Coburn and McCain sneer at the project because the movement being studied comes from dancers and the interactions involve choreographers and potential audience members.

Coburn and McCain don't tell you that the project was competitively awarded after undergoing extensive scientific peer-review that involved computer scientists and NSF scientific panels.

Coburn and McCain also criticize the administrative costs of the project, writing "administrative expenses are unusually high for this project... The project’s lead researcher noted that the university is taking a 44 percent cut to cover 'overhead expenses.'"

However, the Senators have mistated the administrative costs. UNCC charges an overhead (facilities and administrative) rate of 44 percent against the applicable direct costs of on campus research projects. If all of the direct costs were applicable (they aren't), UNCC's administrative "cut" would be just under 31 percent of the total costs. Also, NSF grants often involve contributions of resources from the applicant institution (institutional cost-sharing), making the effective cut smaller still.

Also, the 44 percent cost rate, which is set through an agreement between UNCC and the U.S. government, is hardly "unusual." For example, the comparable overhead rates for on-campus research at the University of Oklahoma at Norman and the University of Arizona are each higher at 50 percent and 51.5 percent, respectively. I couldn't find similar criticism from the senators of their home-state institutions' indirect rates.

Coburn and McCain can't get many of the basic facts of this project correct, yet they would have us substitute their judgement for the expert assessments of NSFs scientific staff and reviewers.

Perhaps the senators could tell us how much taxpayer-funded staff time they allocated to digging this stuff up.