Archive for August, 2008


While contemplating how a cheap reproduction of Le Chef d’Oeuvre Ou les Myste`res de l’Horizon might look in my living room, I decided I’d like to know how to pronounce the name correctly. After a few minutes of searching, I came upon a great online demo of a program that allows the user to type in text, choose an appropriate voice based on the text’s language, and hear a pretty natural sounding voice recite the text.  In the languages with which I am familiar, it does a remarkable job of reproducing the cadence and flow of fluent speech.

I wish I had known about it during my internship.

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…was this, an article discussing Musharraf’s resignation from the presidency of Pakistan and mentioning what one of his predecessors, Nawaz Sharif, thinks of him.

‘I have no vendetta,’ [Sharif] explained, seated in his opulent mansion near Lahore, guarded by two stuffed lions. ‘Though [Musharraf] handcuffed me, humiliated my family, tried to destroy my party, put me in a dungeon in a 500-year-old fort, put me in exile for seven years; that is all gone. I hold nothing against him personally.’

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Feels So Right

I just read a Slate article discussing the author’s self-described eco-wander through Germany. He starts the article by writing:

While zooming by a field of wind turbines, traveling on a train from Amsterdam to Bremen at 200 kilometers per hour, I suddenly realized that I was experiencing turbine envy….I’d heard the very train I was on was powered by a grid that includes wind power. My laptop plugged into the train’s wall, I was starting to feel so darned eco that I could practically hear a puff of air each time I hit the space key.

That last sentence captures a fact of environmentalism about which I am decidedly ambivalent. On one hand, since I view self-interest as perhaps the most powerful human motivator, feeling good about doing something green on an individual level is probably a good thing. On the other hand, a warm and fuzzy feeling is not sound basis for public policy, environmental or otherwise. Good examples are contained in the article itself:

Beyond wind, Germany abounds with eco-superlatives. The country produces more solar technology than any other…

And so it does. But this is because the German government guarantees a high feed-in price for any electricity generated by renewable energy. In the case of solar energy, this has had the effect–though of course not the intent– of diverting solar panels from being built in places of the world that are actually sunny and driving up the cost of silicon, a key input in solar panel production, by 1500% in 5 years.

The policy also encourages rent seeking. On a tour of a solar panel plant in Germany, I listened to a city official tell my boss how he didn’t use any of the electricity he generated from the solar panel on his roof. Instead, he sold the solar electricity back into the grid for the guaranteed high price and then bought the cheaper conventional electricity for his personal use, netting him some pocket money each month.

Another example:

I ate bockwurst for lunch (Germany produces 1,500 types of sausage), and the menu noted that the meat was chemical-free and the vegetables organic. More than five times as much agricultural land is dedicated to organic agriculture in the European Union (13.5 million acres) as in the United States (2.3 million acres)…From its wind farms to “small is beautiful” to abundant organics, Germany was beginning to look like the eco-miracle I’d hoped for.

I don’t begrudge anyone their desire to grow or eat organic products, but there is nothing virtuous about it, and indeed, any governmental policy that encourages such an inefficient practice is, in my view, unethical. I refer to Paul Collier, a respected development economist:

The world price of staple foods has rocketed, almost doubling in the past 18 months. For consumers in the rich world this massive increase in the price of wheat or rice is an inconvenience; for consumers in the poorest countries it is a catastrophe.

Food accounts for around half of the entire budget of most Africans….

The remedy to high food prices is to increase supply. The most realistic way is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically sophisticated agro-companies that supply the world market…

Unfortunately, large-scale commercial agriculture is deeply, perhaps irredeemably, unromantic… We laud the production style of the peasant: environmentally sustainable and human in scale…

Our longstanding agricultural romanticism has been compounded by our newfound environmental romanticism. In the United States fear of climate change has been manipulated by shrewd interests to produce grotesquely inefficient subsidies to biofuel…[and] just as livestock are eating the food that would have been consumed by poor Africans, so Americans are running their SUVs on it. One SUV tank of biofuel uses enough grain to feed an African family for a year.

In Europe deep-seated fears of science have been manipulated into a ban on both the production and import of genetically modified crops. This has obviously retarded productivity growth in European agriculture. Again the best that can be said of it is that we are rich enough to afford such folly. But as an unintended side-effect it has terrified African governments into banning GM lest their farmers be shut out of European markets. Africa definitely cannot afford this self-denial. It needs all the help it can possibly get from GM drought-resistant crops.

And sometimes, one might discover that what is perceived as mundane or even dangerous can be more wondrous than it would first appear. So saith William Tucker:

A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months

By comparison, the “wastes” of nuclear power can once again be contained in a single truck. I recently watched one of these spent fuel assemblies being lifted into the receiving room at France’s nuclear reprocessing center in La Hague. It is an eerie sight — the most radioactive object in the solar system emitting double what you would have received standing at ground zero in Hiroshima. Yet a three-foot wall separated us, and the emissions didn’t even register on our badges. More than 95 percent of the spent fuel rod can be recycled. That is why France is able to store all its “waste” (from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity) beneath the floor of a single room.

It all seems too good to be true. People conjure up all kinds of nightmare scenarios just to compensate. Yet the reality remains: nuclear energy is the most environmentally benign discovery ever made.

Maybe, just maybe, a warm and fuzzy feeling can coincide with good policy–nevertheless, prudence dictates that despite his claims about non-registering badges, we should attribute the sensation to radiation poisoning.

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My roommate was born in Mexico and immigrated legally to the US where he was one of my classmates at university. He graduated from a well-ranked program, speaks English fluently, has ten times as many American friends as I do, and as far as I know did not acquire his current job at an environmental fabrics company by stealing it from an American. Nonetheless, because the American government restricts the number of people like him who can live here legally to a number far below the amount employers demand, he has now spent over a month in Mexico proving–among many other things–that he is not an alcoholic or otherwise poses a danger to Americans. All of this to renew for one year his coveted visa.

Meanwhile, because the American government has made the import of certain drugs illegal despite large domestic demand, organized crime in Mexico is posing a danger to life, liberty, and democracy. Nearly 5,000 people have died in the struggle since the end of 2006, more than the number of Americans killed in Iraq. Some border towns are entirely controlled by gangsters, and the high profits earned in the black market are serving to stunt the growth of nascent political institutions.

To achieve more, demand less from your government.

Addendum: Then again, my roommate does have Lebanese roots and shares a surname with Bin Laden’s former driver, so he is probably a terrorist. Touché, America.

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A project manager at my past German internship sent me an e-mail talking about the firm’s involvement in the Hanse Sail at Rostock, a yearly celebration of the the famous Hanseatic League that brought so much wealth to the northern cities of Germany in times past. He also referred me to the a news article containing a statement from the mayor about the success of the latest iteration:

Nun ist auch die 18. Ausgabe der Hanse Sail Rostock bereits vorbei. Unsere Hanse Sail ist erwachsen geworden.

Clicking on the English version yields the following result:

Now the 18th edition of the Hanse Sail Rostock is already over. Our Hanse Sail has become adulty!

Well said Lord, er, Major!

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Having piles of dusty volumes scattered about my abode is something I suspect I will always favor as a means of signaling my erudition to callers. This, coupled with the fact that I like really to possess books when I read them, to make them mine, has meant that as an adult I have always bought books rather than acquiring them via other means.

But since I now live a five minute walk from a branch of the county library, I decided my reading habits needed altering and headed over to apply for a library card. I was startled, however, to see on the application that I needed to be a “property owner” in the county to obtain a card for no fee.

I always thought the public library was justified on the grounds that it served to educate all citizens for the better running of government and society, but apparently this resource is still a privilege reserved for the landed gentry, while the hapless remainder must pay a de facto tome tax! It would come as no surprise to this blogger if literacy tests–just to to check out a book, mind you– were also a part of this despicable practice to suppress and disenfranchise the landless masses.

And let us also not forget the invaluable service libraries do us in providing a haven and bulwark against rogue tsunamis (4’30”):

Addendum: Seeing as I am, in fact, a member of the landed gentry, I went to the library after writing this post to check out some books. I was fascinated by a new-to-me ability to self-checkout, a process which required me merely to scan my library card and place my pile of books on a pad, where the books were somehow then individually and automatically scanned. The whole process took twenty seconds. What modern times in which we live.

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Fun Facts

According to the Energy Information Administration, world demand for oil in 2007 was over 31 billion barrels (.xls), and current proven reserves are calculated to be just over 1.3 trillion barrels (.xls).

1.3 trillion / 31 billion = nearly 43 years’ worth of oil at 2007 levels of consumption.

In 1980 (.xls), the equation was:

645 billion / 23 million = 28 years’ worth of oil at 1980 levels of consumption.

To use an analogy I have come across a few times,  talking about the “proven reserves” of one’s personal supply of food would consider only the contents of one’s pantry, rather than what could be obtained at the grocery store once supplies had run low.

Someone careful might be able to convince me that the real problem is that there’s too much, not too little, of the black gold.

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