Friday, January 28, 2011

Um, Middle East Governments are Not Stable

    The Village Elliot feels compelled to lecture again on a subject that no one wants to hear.  Namely, governments in the Middle East are not stable.  This is underscored by the current situation in Egypt, which has turned very, very ugly in Egypt, where aged despot Hosni Mubarak tries to cling to power while the people are tired of being oppressed by an idiotic government.  The thing that surprises me is that it didn't occur in one of the monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, where tens of thousands of royalty expect to be rich by living off the government.  
    But the average person in these countries lives in dire poverty, ruled by governments that think that new industries are impossible.  
    In the US, we have chosen to depend on countries like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, since we have decided to pin our energy hopes on guaranteed failures like corn ethanol, hydrogen, wind and solar energy (the American Gang of Four).  These fuels are too expensive to allow American industry to compete on the world market, so as a consequence we import 11 million barrels of oil per day while hoping for a miracle.   In the long run, the theory goes, one of the Gang of Four will suddenly become economical.  But we've been saying this since 1973, and darn if we aren't still importing more and more oil. 
    Part of the issue, I believe is that Americans have misleading information about the stability of governments of OPEC countries.  Why is this?  Well I think it is because when we send our oilmen over to do business with the sheiks, they get stuffed with delicious Middle Eastern cuisine, and they visit the harems with beautiful women and they get a distorted view of life over there.  Then the oilguys bring that view back to America, and report that the people revere their government and that they are basically Pro-American.  They need to spend some time with ordinary people or at least read Al-Jazeera to learn that the people are very upset with the lousy governments that they have.  Hatred of America is perhaps one of the great unifying forces that exist over there.
   I don't know if anyone is sure what kind of government will prevail once the Egyptians evict the 82 year old Mubarak.  No doubt the US will have a chance to participate and get involved in a war if it wants.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have been fighting to make sure that there is an appropriately pro-American government there, and some people feel that the policy is partially successful, at least until the next time the people get mad at the government (hint:  about two years).  
    Yet if these governments start to topple--and who knows whether they can contain the problems within Egypt or whether they might spread--this may well threaten the ability to pump oil, which could in turn destabilize oil prices.  Based on our policy of running the economy on debt and not producing our own energy or raw materials, it might be appropriate to start asking how our economy will survive rapid escalation in oil prices. 
    So our panicked State Department is asking what are we going to do to stabilize Egypt?  Will it spread to Saudi?   My question is:  are these really the best friends we have?  Why doesn't the government let us produce our own crude using coal and natural gas, rather than hanging the stability of our country on the willingness of OPEC nations to (1) sell us oil and (2) extend us credit to finance our national debt?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Coal Struggles in West Virginia

   Tempers are beginning to flare in West Virginia and other coal mining states, probably with good reason.  What's at stake is that the EPA has revoked previously granted permits for mountaintop removal mining.  I think this is one battle in a larger struggle between environmentalists and industrialists, and the environmentalists are winning.  According to statistics from the Energy Information Agency, West Virginia mined 158 million tons of coal in 2008, and in 2009 they mined 137 million tons.  We don't have numbers for 2010, but it will probably be about the same as 2009.  What does it mean if coal production goes down by 21 million tons?  Well, at 62 dollars per ton in 2009. So, in round terrms the loss of production is worth 1.3 billion dollars. That's about 720 bucks for each man, woman and child in the state. That's before you ask about the ripple effect--try making steel without metallurigcal grade coal, or aluminum without electricity.  The impact on the US economy is very significant.

“The truth of the matter is, they’re interrupting every kind of operation,” says Bill Raney, of the West Virginia Coal Association. “The frustration level is enormous.”

   This I think is true.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama talked about raising environmental standards as way of killing off industries such as the fossil fuel industry, with the hope that new "green" technologies would rise to take their place.  Hence, while crowds around America were chanting "Yes We Can!" to coal producing states the message was more like "No You Can't!"  It is relatively easy to destroy domestic industries, less obvious to see where these supposedly green technologies are going to come from.
    The EPA has been a great organization since its creation by President Nixon in 1969.  You have to admit skies are way clearer now and the water is much cleaner.   What is missing is the ability to weigh the needs of the economy and the environment together. 
    Rookie Senator Joe Manchin has authored a bill which would make it harder for the EPA to unilaterally withdraw permits once it grants them..  Had such legislation been in place today, we wouldn't be having these fights now.  In my opinion, this is exactly what is needed.
    I'd  like to know, where is the crisis?  Arch Coal was said to be prepared to invest 250 million dollars in a new mining operation, and now these jobs no longer exist.  That's an economic crisis.

Why was there an environmental crisis so acute that it had to result in revoking exisiting permits and eliminating jobs?  People act like there isn't a fish left in our state.  The opposite is true, however.  If you will visit West Virginia, you will see mile after mile of green mountains and streams and lakes.  If you don't believe me, just pick up a hunting magazine and see what the people say.  Fishing and hunting are both excellent.  Animals are not being wiped out by some environmental crisis. 

If it were really true that the environmental consequence can be greatly reduced by not having mountaintop removal, then it should be phased out slowly, not as if there were an artificial crisis that required immediate action.  There should be an effort to find out whether there are coal seams that might be mined equally well by underground mining rather than mountaintop removal.  Maybe we have such efforts, but if so the studies aren't being publicized well.   

We, the American people acting through our Congress, have set up our Environmental Protection Agency as a necessary watchdog for the environment. In my view, we should not kill this watchdog, but we do need to make sure that he is housebroken.  We don't seem to have the ability to balance economics and environmentalism.  I totally believe that you can have both if you manage them well.  Why can't we have an office that tries to figure out how to solve problems, rather than just  shut down industries?  For example, why can't we have top down instructions that say, "well, we want to grow the American economy by 5% this year, and reduce emissions by 5%."  Then that organization could tell how to best do that. What it means is, radical environmentalism isn't going to get everything they want, but neither is radical free enterprise.  There has to be a sensible middle ground in there someplace where both goals--increasing economic growth while decreasing emissions--can be addressed. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Methods of Ancient Navigators

How could ancient peoples sail around the world with only primitive ships, no computers, and only the lousiest of maps--or no map at all?

This question has baffled historians for centuries, despite the unmistakable existence of people who inhabited remote islands throughout the Polynesians. Basically, the answer the historians came up with was that it didn't happen.

Only smart sailors from Europe could possibly make maps and develop sailing technology for long voyages, or so the theory went. European vessels were gigantic constructs, stuffed with supplies of food, water and cargo of different sorts, suitable for very long voyages.

So if primitive peoples were inhabiting remote islands in the Pacific and the Atlantic, they must have gotten there by accident. Perhaps they were caught in storms, and just happened to be swept to islands of safety. Well there must have been a lot of storms, and a lot of lucky people.

Particularly baffling is the civilization at Easter Island, which is 600 miles from the nearest land mass. To make a long story short, the inhabitants of Easter Island spoke Polynesian dialects, so they probably came from islands, located thousands of miles away. More embarrassingly for Eurocentric historians, the Polynesians had no giant ships, but only glorified canoes with no instruments.
Nevertheless, Easter Island was populated by Polynesian people at the time of its "discovery" by Capt James Cook in 1774. Not to mention that over 1000 other islands were also inhabited. Face it, folks, the Polynesians knew how to sail!

But how did they do it? One great way was to follow the paths of migrating birds. If the island has birds--and even Eastern Island does, then a person could find the island by following the birds.

Moreover, by traveling light, the Polynesians could also travel fast. Picture the paddlers as sort of the Polynesian version of the Tour de France. If you can imagine scheduling shifts, with each paddler spending several hours per day paddling, perhaps a canoe could average five knots, or some 4000 miles per month.

Greg Taylor (Honolulu Advertiser) painted this picture of a Polynesian canoe. 

Polynesian navigators also knew a lot about the waves, and how they alter their appearance subtly within hundreds of miles of land. They understood the path of the sun and the stars, and could probably maintain their bearing and latitude with reasonable accuracy.

And if Polynesians knew such tricks, it shouldn't be surprising if other people, say Native Americans or Vikings, were sailing back and forth between North America and Europe at the same time. When I was in elementary school, we were taught that Christopher Columbus was the first person to sail to America. Later we learned that the Vikings may have explored North America. By now, it is generally acknowledged that ancient people were actually very mobile, and a lot of people may have been piling up miles on their Frequent Sailor's cards.

Just because sailors lived in the Stone Age doesn't mean they were dumb. It was really a combination of genius and athleticism that allowed people to find new lands and to trade with remote civilizations. A task awaiting future historians is to get a better understanding of their methods, and to figure out just who was visiting who and when.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Lost Civilization of the North

Lost Civilization of the North

Although anatomically modern humans have existed for tens of thousands of years, we have no record of civilizations prior to about 5,000 BC, when civilizations grew up in places like the Tigris/Euphrates, Nile and Ganges. There is certainly adequate time for civilizations to have risen and fallen. Any number of quack theories purport to identify Atlantis. My personal favorite explanation is that England and France were to blame, as every century or so they send ships via the Pillars of Hercules to go invade.

But no matter. For years I have been curious about the Ainu people, who were the original inhabitants of Japan. They are more Caucasian in their appearance than the Japanese people, and moreover some researchers think their language may have some similarities to Gaelic (Irish). What? How did such people get to Japan? In Japan, there are only a few hundred Ainu left, as most of married into Japanese society.

Recently I found out about another small group of people. The Ket are a group which lives in Siberia, near the Yenesei river valley. They look like Asian people, and live much like the Eskimos, herding reindeer and living like Arctic nomads. Their language is thought by some to resemble the Basques and even the North American Athabaskan Native Americans. How could this be? Well, if you are willing to imagine that there might have been periods of warming during earth's recent history, similar to the Medieval Warming period which allowed the Vikings to survive and to build settlements in Nova Scotia and Greenland, well perhaps the Ket people were able to sail between North America and Eurasia as well.

Another possibility,  would be to have the Ket travel frrom Siberia to North America via the Aleutian Islands to Alaska and then cross the Rocky Mountains somehow to mix with the Athabaskans. Somehow that seems even harder to me than sailing the Atlantic.

Are the Ket the remnants of a once widespread civilization that included travel between the North Coast of Siberia and the North America? I think it's a possibility worth considering, at least.

  This Ket family seems well adapted for life in the Siberian Arctic. 

This picture from 1914 shows Ket people in houseboats, probably near the mighty Yenesei River in Siberia. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Can America Afford the F-35 Jet Fighter?

    The F-35 Jet Fighter is said to be the costliest Defense Program ever.  We are scheduled to buy some 2443 fighters at a flyaway cost of some $87 to $157  million for each plane, or in other words up to 382 billion dollars over the full purchase, depending on who you believe (hint:  pick the higher estimates).  This is the cause of some great debate in Congress,

   My own opinion is that all programs need to be scrutinized in the wake of 10 years of unrestrained spending, eight years by supposedly conservative big-government Bush Republicans, and 2 years of granola-fed Democrats. But fiscal restraint needs to be separated from the program itself, which despite cost overruns and other problems, I would argue that the American defense contractors (Lockheed Martin in this case) delivers better value than anyone in the world.

  You can say what you want about American defense contractors, but they are number one in the world.  Saddam Hussein provided us with a basis for comparison between Soviet-made aircraft and arrmament versus US-made stuff.  Namely, we blasted everything out of the sky.  Recently there has been some fuss about China introducing a radar-evading fighter jet.  The Chinese have some very capable engineers, no question.  But I don't think that anyone can actually compete with the US.

  As far as the unit cost of a fighter plane is concerned, to me it is remarkable that military aircraft are not all that expensive compared to civilian aircraft.  Commercial airliners can cost $200 million, for what that's worth.      So the recent  converts to tight fiscal policies will be blowing smoke about military waste and extravagance, but I believe that is misplaced. Air Force equipment wins.  And if you believe that commercial jets are affordable, then military jets are also affordable.

  I do question whether we truly need all 2443 fighter jets, however, and I also question the economics which says that they should all be built within a period of a few years.  Why do we need so many and why all at once?  I think the best economics is probably to turn out lower numbers with much longer build times, maybe 20 years rather than five.

Another question is whether the country with the best fighter jets actually wins the war.  Gulf War I and II have taught us that the armament and avionics are critically important.  Our missiles are programmed to read maps, turn corners, identify enemy targets and blow them away.  Do you really need to have an exceptional aircraft to deliver these armaments?  

Would it make sense to rely on older airframes?  I admit I have always liked the philosophy of the A-10 Warthog.  That plane, which is a close-air support aircraft and not directly comparable to the F-35 in terms of its mission, was basically an inexpensive airframe which could carry a whopping number of missiles.  No it isn't stealth; and no, it is not nearly the fastest plane out there.  But it is good enough to launch missiles .

Here's a video:

The Air Force bought some 716 of these. I'm not sure what it would cost in 2015 dollars, but I would guess something in the range of $35 to $50 million might be reasonable.  Other fighter aircraft, such as the Mirage and MIG aircraft, might come in at the same range, but none of them have the capabilities of the F-35.  So, and the allegedly high price tag of the F-35 seems to me to be a reasonable value.   If it were a car, most people would gladly pay three times as much for a new version rather than taking a discount for a twenty year old model.  Particularly if your life depended on having the best performance.

If Congress has sabotaged the budget over the years, it isn't Lockheed Martin's fault.  Nevertheless, I think the Air Force is going to have to look at smaller acquisitions, and longer production cycles in order to survive in a budget cutting environment.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is Donald Trump Running For President?

Donald Trump is telling friends that he is running for president. Do you suppose that could be true?

I like Trump in many ways. Some people watch his show and assume he is simply a grouch tycoon who likes to fire people. But I used to watch his show, and found it very interesting to see how a billionaire thinks. A lot of his advice is very practical and level headed.

Some years ago, I remember he posted a full page ad in the New York Times in about 1991 questioning America's foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. Why are Americans fighting and dying to prop up foreign regimes that don't like us and don't care about us? Those same questions remain today, and I don't have a good answer for them. What exactly are we trying to win in Iraq? What do we get if we win?

Trump is no lover of OPEC and importing costly oil as a legacy of debt for our chldren.  "“The first thing I would do [as President] is get my toughest, smartest person and have them…try and divide OPEC....If you have a store and I have a store and we set prices, we go to jail. OPEC is setting the price of oil and destroying many countries because of it…We had $150 a barrel oil [last summer] and it got us into a very big problem. Now oil, that should be $20 a barrel, is at $70 a barrel, and this country can’t afford it.... “OPEC has to be destroyed in an economic sense…It really is an illegal situation…I know people involved with OPEC. They laugh at the stupidity of our country. They laugh at the stupidity of our politicians.”

This is something I also feel very strongly about. America has learned to embrace $3 per gallon gasoline, and any attempt to produce more fuel that would lower the price is met with intense resistance. Many Democrats, for example, embrace the notion that new, green technology is sure to be invented and brought to the marketplace, so we can go ahead and dismantle fossil fuel production right now, without waiting for the alternatives to be commercialized. Here in West Virginia, coal mining (ok, not the same as oil drilling, but what we should be doing is mining coal and coverting it to clean crude oil) is down by about 50% from 2008 levels, thanks to successful environmental lawsuits to stop permitting activities. The logicial consequence of producing less energy is lower economic output. I believe that the US is headed for more debt, and lower production and manufacturing. We do need some help from common sense politicians (Republicans or other) to restore drilling and mining to their proper place, and to insitute new producion activivities from liquefaction of biomass, natural gas and coal. America needs more oil, but for some reason that message can not get through to our thick headed politicians. In the past, our elected leaders have touted hydrogen utlization (forgetting to telll us the source of this hydrogen), corn ethanol, wind power and photovoltaics. All of these energy sources are bogus in that they are not cheap enough to allow American Industry to compete on the world marketplace (though they sound great on 30 second commercials on TV).

Economic growth is not an evil objective. We need someone, perhaps Trump, to help us to grow our economy and to produce more clean energy.

Another billionaire candidate, Ross Perot, couldn't make up his mind whether to run for President or not, back in 1992. But he at one time led both George H. Bush , and Bill Clinton in the polls. So it's not totally absurd to think that Trump might run and win.

By the way, if you are wondering who his Vice Presidential candidate might be, check out this video: