mm499: Blast from the Past! No. 53 – Fuel without oil, or corn

September 19, 2008
© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

So it’s been pretty tough this week, as Faithful Reader might imagine, and we’re dipping our toes gingerly back into the blogging sea tonight.

Nevertheless, we’re all about doing the right thing here at Left-Handed Complement, and in that spirit we’re recycling some of yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s favorite electrons. And, with nearly 470 fresh daily posts in the past 16+ months, the recycling process has an exceptionally rich vein to mine.

I hereby stop apologizing for resuming our observance of the prime directive of blogging: Thou Shalt Blog Daily!

And, I’m guessing that most of you weren’t here nine months ago. As one of my favorite paper publications used to say as they flogged unsold back issues: “If you haven’t read it yet, it’s new for you!”

lhc76019043_thumb24_thumb2_thumb2_th[2]

Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last fall, originally posted November 13, 2007, and with a woman vice presidential candidate, more germane than ever, titled “mm193: Fuel without oil, or corn.”

MUDGE’S Musings

It’s been an ongoing theme (here, here and here) at Left-Handed Complement: the pandering, wrong-headed concentration on corn derived ethanol as the U.S. main alternative to Saudi (and Nigerian, Gulf of Mexico and North Slope) petroleum to fuel our transportation system.

This past weekend, the NYTimes featured a fascinating look at non-corn alternatives to powering our SUVs.

biomassethanol

For years, scientists have known that the building blocks in plant matter — not just corn kernels, but also corn stalks, wood chips, straw and even some household garbage — constituted an immense potential resource that could, in theory, help fill the gasoline tanks of America’s cars and trucks.

Mostly, they have focused on biology as a way to do it, tinkering with bacteria or fungi that could digest the plant material, known as biomass, and extract sugar that could be fermented into ethanol. But now, nipping at the heels of various companies using biological methods, is a new group of entrepreneurs, including Mr. Mandich, who favor chemistry.

The conceptual problem with ethanol from corn has always rested in the strong suspicion that the energy required to process corn to burn in one’s automobile exceeds the yield of energy so created.

Ethanol from corn is a political hot button, especially for all of the presidential campaigners prostrating themselves before Iowa’s farmers — isn’t it high time to divest this country from its inappropriate emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire in the primary process?

You don’t see Georgia influencing election trends, and yet:

In Georgia alone, enough waste wood is available to make two billion gallons of ethanol a year, Mr. Mandich said. If all that material could be captured and converted to fuel, it could replace about 1 percent of the nation’s gasoline consumption.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Fuel Without the Fossil – New York Times

Obviously, there are some very bright people working hard at solutions, made increasingly economically attractive as the baseline of comparison to petroleum-based fuels persists in climbing inexorably toward $4/gallon.

And, corn-based or not, it looks like ethanol is going to be the end result of all of this chemical creativity, since it’s ethanol that has the Congressionally mandated tax credit.

MUDGE used to believe that the fuel cell guys had the answer, but what with the way the real world works, I can’t see corner hydrogen pumps popping up in many neighborhoods in my lifetime. So chemically derived ethanol will have to do.

Good to see U.S. innovation persists. Like the current IBM advertisements proclaim, it’s easy to say, and so very much more difficult to actually do.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm491: Blast from the Past! No. 48 – War with Iran?

September 6, 2008
© Kandasamy M  | Dreamstime.com

© Kandasamy M | Dreamstime.com

Events, continue to conspire, making it unacceptably late to start a fresh project, but hey, recycling is IN, right? We’re all about doing the right thing here at Left-Handed Complement, and in that spirit we’re recycling some of yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s favorite electrons.

I hereby stop apologizing for observing the prime directive of blogging: Thou Shalt Blog Daily!

And, I’m guessing that most of you weren’t here nine months ago. As one of my favorite paper publications used to say as they flogged unsold back issues: “If you haven’t read it yet, it’s new for you!”

lhc76019043_thumb24_thumb2_thumb2_th[1]

Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last fall, and, unfortunately, still all too timely, originally posted November 6, 2007, and titled “mm186: War with Iran: Inevitable?”

MUDGE’S Musings

The potential catastrophe of Iran just keeps scaling up. William Arkin, the Washington Post‘s excellent commentator on military affairs updated us Nov. 2 in his Early Warning blog:

arkinearlywarning

The presidential campaigns can’t get enough of talk about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Bush administration’s eagerness to go to war. Thirty U.S. senators, including Hillary Clinton, sent a letter to President Bush yesterday, reminding him that “no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action in Iran.” Meanwhile, Barack Obama submitted a Senate resolution, also emphasizing that congress must explicitly authorize military action, and that, in regards to Iran, it hasn’t done that so far.

Let me say now, based on my discussions with Pentagon insiders and observers and more than 30 years following the military: We are not going to war with Iran. At least we are not going to start a war now or any time soon. At least not intentionally [emphasis MUDGE].

Can’t help but land hard on that sentence. How much tragedy has the present administration caused, both intentionally and not, over the past nearly seven years?

Read the rest of this entry »


mm489: Blast from the Past! No. 46 – Abolish the Air Force

September 4, 2008
© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

© Carbouval | Dreamstime.com

MUDGE’S Musings

Events, continue to conspire, making it unacceptably late to start a fresh project, but hey, recycling is IN, right? We’re all about doing the right thing here at Left-Handed Complement, and in that spirit we’re recycling some of yr (justifiably) humble svt‘s favorite electrons.

I hereby stop apologizing for observing the prime directive of blogging: Thou Shalt Blog Daily!

And, I’m guessing that most of you weren’t here nine months ago. As one of my favorite paper publications used to say as they flogged unsold back issues: “If you haven’t read it yet, it’s new for you!”

lhc76019043_thumb24_thumb2_thumb2_th[2]

Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last fall, and always in season, especially since it’s back to school time for millions, originally posted November 2, 2007, and titled “mm183: Abolish the Air Force.”

MUDGE’S Musings

From the “If it’s the weekend, it must be military” department, we bring you this fascinating analysis from The American Prospect.

Was sent this earlier today by MUDGE‘s ex-Navy son, who was interested, as is his parent, not due to his parochial leanings toward the maritime forces, but rather due to his interest in history, especially military history.

And the thesis here is based, not only on the present straitened circumstances in which the U.S. Air Force finds itself, fighting in conflicts using techniques in which it has little interest, and causing as a result inexcusable amounts of what is delicately called collateral damage.

No, the analysis expertly recounts the troubled history of the Air Force, built from the first on a flawed premise: the value of strategic bombing.

americanprospect

Abolish the Air Force

What it does on its own — strategic bombing — isn’t suited to modern warfare. What it does well — its tactical support missions — could be better managed by the Army and Navy. It’s time to break up the Air Force.

Robert Farley | November 1, 2007

In August of this year, reports emerged that British Army officers in Afghanistan had requested an end to American airstrikes in Helmand Province because the strikes were killing too many civilians there. In Iraq, the Lancet Study of Iraqi civilian casualties of the war suggested that airstrikes have been responsible for roughly 13 percent of those casualties, or somewhere in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 deaths.

This watershed comes at a particularly important time, as the Air Force observed its 60th anniversary this past September.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm418: Blast from the Past! No. 29

June 22, 2008

It’s the first official weekend of summer, 2008, in the northern hemisphere, and we’re off to the movies! Silly, right? Warm, beautiful day outside. Cold, dark theatre inside. But since I don’t recreate too well (Achilles tendinosis still an issue), we take our entertainment where we can. It’s just deplorable when real life gets in the way of my blogging addiction. But, perhaps you’ll indulge me… it’s summertime, after all.

There’s most read, and then there’s favorite. This is a post which yr (justifiably) humble svt is, regrettably, but not regretfully, not at all humble about.

lhc250x46_thumb2

Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last summer, originally posted September 16, 2007, and originally titled “mm143: Arctic Ice Melt Opens Northwest Passage.”

MUDGE’S Musings

In cataclysmic global warming news, the Panama Canal became obsolete (at least during the summer months) today.

This story has been developing all season, and, for once, the term “geopolitics” is not idly invoked.

nytimes

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Published: September 16, 2007 – Filed at 4:39 a.m. ET

PARIS (AP) — Arctic ice has shrunk to the lowest level on record, new satellite images show, raising the possibility that the Northwest Passage that eluded famous explorers will become an open shipping lane.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm233: Corn in the news — and not just in Iowa!

December 26, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

We’ve frequently commented (most recently here) on how often connections can be drawn from disparate news sources. It happened to us again today.

Read over breakfast this depressing story in the best magazine on the planet, The Economist:

economist

The beer crisis | Trouble brewing

Dec 19th 2007 | ST LOUIS | From The Economist print edition

A shortage of hops threatens Christmas

JUST as the festive season gets going, drinkers in America are finding their favourite beer suddenly more expensive or even—horrors!—not available at all. Hit by price increases and shortages, many breweries, particularly the small “craft brewers” and the even smaller microbreweries, are being forced to raise prices, make do with modified recipes or shut off the spigots altogether.

The humble hop, the plant that gives beer its distinctive flavour, is the main problem. Many farmers in the Pacific north-west, where America’s hop production is concentrated, have turned to more profitable lines—especially corn, which can be made into ethanol. The decrease in hop production, put at some 50% over the past decade, has sent prices through the roof. Brian Owens, the brewmaster of the O’Fallon Brewery near St Louis, Missouri, says that the variety he once bought for $3 a pound (0.45kg) now costs five times that. Many smaller breweries cannot find what they need at any price. Industry giants like Anheuser-Busch and Miller are better off, thanks to long-term contracts. But even Anheuser-Busch has been forced to raise prices for its six-packs.

A crisis of tragically epic proportions: beer unavailable, especially the increasingly popular craft or microbrews, or priced higher due to the newly high price of hops and barley.

Yr (justifiably) humble svt is somewhat cavalier about beer, as he doesn’t drink it very often (the carbs, don’t you know), but in tough times (and they seem to be inching toward tough in these parts) one takes solace where one can, and beer is the solace of choice for many. A shortage, or a significantly higher price, could wreak havoc with the social order.

And, what’s the cause of this potential unrest? Corn.

Corn is supplanting hops and barley for many farmers, since the government has made it increasingly attractive to grow corn for ethanol, totally wrongheaded though that is wrongheaded government! Go figure!

See some previous posts on the use of ethanol as fuel: starting here in the earliest days of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©, and here, here, here, here.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

The beer crisis | Trouble brewing | Economist.com

Ethanol, inefficient as it is as fuel, causing shortages and price increases of one of the major food groups (for many): beer. Talk about the law of unintended consequences…

Thus corn was on my mind when we encountered this article in the NYTimes today. The European Union is once again (still?) grappling with the high intensity issue of the advisability of growing genetically modified corn.

GM foods is a topic we’ve handled quite eloquently (MUDGE’s humility gene must have gotten in the way of an X-ray machine, sorry) in a previous post. But, news is news.

And the Times is quite thorough covering both points of view. Interestingly, there’s actual science supporting both, as opposed to the recent cases where science is called into question on this side of the water and those callers into question can hardly spell the word science (guess the word doesn’t appear in the King James edition) much less accept its findings.

nytimes

Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL | Published: December 26, 2007

BRUSSELS — A proposal that Europe’s top environment official made last month, to ban the planting of a genetically modified corn strain, sets up a bitter war within the European Union, where politicians have done their best to dance around the issue.

The environmental commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said he had based his decision squarely on scientific studies suggesting that long-term uncertainties and risks remain in planting the so-called Bt corn. But when the full European Commission takes up the matter in the next couple of months, commissioners will have to decide what mix of science, politics and trade to apply. And they will face the ambiguous limits of science when it is applied to public policy.

Europe has embargoed seed and food products grown from genetically engineered plants for a decade; very convenient excuse for protectionist trade barriers. Now the World Trade Organization is pushing the EU for a change in policy. But the EU is pushing back, citing scientific studies counter to those presented in favor of GM food:

Ms. Hilbeck says that company-financed studies do not devote adequate attention to broad ripple effects that modified plants might cause, like changes to bird species or the effect of all farmers planting a single biotechnology crop. She said producers of modified organisms, like Syngenta and Monsanto, have rejected repeated requests to release seeds to researchers like herself to conduct independent studies on their effect on the environment.

The give and take on this is interesting.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn – New York Times

So it’s your scientists vs. my scientists, and because it’s science, there’s room for opposing theories. But the EU’s science has that slightly moldy odor of politics.

As mentioned in the post cited at the top, because of our employment at the time we were close to this debate 10 years ago in the U.S. That battle was hard fought, biotechnology vs. the Monarch butterfly (talk about a public relations nightmare for the suits!), and ultimately won in the U.S. by Big Ag, although as the Times makes clear, the Monarch’s well-being is still closely studied.

In the United States, where almost all crops are now genetically modified, the debate is largely closed.

“I’m not saying there are no more questions to pursue, but whether it’s good or bad to plant Bt corn — I think we’re beyond that,” said Richard L. Hellmich, a plant scientist with the Agriculture Department who is based at Iowa State University. He noted that hundreds of studies had been done and that Bt corn could help “feed the world.”

But the scientific equation may look different in Europe, with its increasing green consciousness and strong agricultural traditions.

And, if you let your farmers start to grow GM foods, it will be more difficult to rationalize the artificial protectionist barriers against other modified crops.

The hungry of the world (and there are so many!) can’t eat paper; unfortunately paper seems to be the chief crop of most of the world’s governments.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm219: One Laptop per Child — Harvard speaks

December 11, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Previous entries on this topic:

mm088: Meet the XO
mm089: Amateur mapmaking…
mm099: A $99 Desktop…
mm149: India’s take…
mm153: By a Laptop, Get one…
mm162: Laptop with a Mission
mm170: Technology and Ed …
mm179: OLPC for India after all?
mm189: OLPC cranks up!
mm203: OLPC: News; discouraging word
mm212: Cheap computing…

olpc7926

It’s a topic that just won’t quit: One Laptop Per Child. MUDGE‘s older son (the term “MUDGElet No. 2″ isn’t sufficiently dignified for the rarefied confines of Harvard, donchaknow) is a 2005 masters graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and obviously stays in touch.

He forwarded us a link to this story from Harvard Business School (HBS), aware as he is (hmmm, must be faithful reader! Loyalty hasn’t disappeared! Or at least, polite indulgence for the old man…) of this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©‘s interest in Nicholas Negroponte’s intriguing initiative.

So, though we came late to the story, this past summer, as the PR machinery geared up in preparation for first deliveries, it’s been brewing, as any ambitious project would be, for several years. Thus there are already lessons to be learned, especially marketing lessons, and HBS would like to teach them to us.

harvardbusinessschool

HBS Cases: One Laptop per Child

Q&A with: John A. Quelch  |  Published: December 10, 2007

Author: Martha Lagace

Drop it on the ground. Sprinkle water on its surface. Let it sit in the sun and expose it to swarms of dust—the XO laptop is designed to handle most any abuse from a child. But the journey of the XO laptop from concept to the educational tool for the world’s poorest children is turning out to be a bit more complicated than originally anticipated.

A new Harvard Business School case study called “Marketing the ‘$100 PC'” spells out these opportunities, problems, and challenges from a marketing point of view. As the case asks, can the laptop move out of the realm of “great idea, great gadget” and improve the educational possibilities for children in impoverished environments?

The concept explored is “action pricing,” where a product is developed, as an immense stretch, to meet a very low price, definitely the strategy pursued by OLPC.

The technological challenge was complex: create a tool that would be useful yet attractive to school children, with the strength to stand up to careless and primitive environments, with a screen visible in bright light, a battery capable of receiving power through multiple inexpensive means (a pull cord, a detachable solar panel), and with networking capabilities to teach cooperation and collaboration, all for $100.

So, $188 is not $100, but let’s face it, $100 isn’t $100 any more (try $109.21, and that doesn’t factor in the price of gasoline), so that’s hardly a knock.

The marketing challenge remains difficult:

“While on the surface it is a laudable vision to get one laptop to each child, and the motives are pristine, there are stumbling blocks in implementation,” observes Quelch.

The conservative nature of governments, complex bureaucracy, and decision-making hurdles can all interfere with early public sector adoption of even the most worthy innovation, he says. This slower-than-expected adoption and diffusion may have surprised the leaders of OLPC.

And finally, OLPC faces what has to be gut-wrenching competition from the fiercely competitive computer industry, who, never letting “not invented here” bother them ever, have leapt into the fray. Guess what, you don’t have to be a non-profit to sell computers for $200 — imagine what they really must cost to manufacture!

So, while I’ve cherry-picked the article, it’s still worth a visit. You even get the opportunity to purchase the case itself, if you’re interested in adding the subject to your own marketing/business curriculum.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

HBS Cases: One Laptop per Child — HBS Working Knowledge

Give One Get One is still running, and remains a worthy cause, especially if you follow Left-Handed Complement’s  suggestion to “Give One, Give One”, with the second one directed toward a third world nation closer to home, Mississippi, for example.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm204: Wind power — Ugly, noisy, destructive! Who knew?

November 25, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Twice within a couple of these holiday weekend days the NYTimes has featured stories on power generated by modern wind turbines.

Quite intriguing, really, the theory that power can be produced without burning fossil fuels, without creating 2billion years of hazardous nuclear waste, without the variability of the winter’s snowfall (influenced lately by drought).

Just throw up a few huge turbine blades and let Mother Nature take over.

Well, of course it’s hardly that simple. As the pair of stories make clear, no work of man is without controversy, and wind farms are apparently not as benign as proponents have long claimed.

First, from Sweden:

swedenwind

By MARK LANDLER

MALMO, Sweden — Steadying himself on the heaving foredeck of an inspection ship recently, his face flecked by spray, Arne Floderus pronounced it a good day for his new offshore wind farm.

A 30-mile-an-hour wind was twirling the fingerlike blades of a turbine 380 feet above his head. Around him, a field of turbines rotated in a synchronized ballet that, when fully connected to an electrical grid, would generate enough power to light 60,000 nearby houses.

“We’ve created a new landmark,” said Mr. Floderus, the project manager of the $280 million wind park, one of the world’s largest, which was built by the Swedish power company Vattenfall.

The park, in a shallow sound between Sweden and Denmark, testifies to the remarkable rise of wind energy — no longer a quirky alternative favored by environmentalists in Denmark and Germany, but a mainstream power source used in 26 nations, including the United States.

Yet Sweden’s gleaming wind park is entering service at a time when wind energy is coming under sharper scrutiny, not just from hostile neighbors, who complain that the towers are a blot on the landscape, but from energy experts who question its reliability as a source of power.

So the wind doesn’t blow 24/7/52… who knew? And it turns out that people no more want wind farms next door than they do coal powered generation plants or Three Mile Island. The concept is called NIMBY. Not in my back yard. The elemental conflict between private property rights and the greater good.

NIMBY often wins.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Sweden Turns to a Promising Power Source, With Flaws – New York Times

Our second Times tale comes from Greece:

greecewind4

By JOANNA KAKISSIS | Published: November 25, 2007

THE tiny Greek island of Serifos, a popular tourist destination, depends on its postcard views of sandy beaches, Cycladic homes and sunsets that blend sea and sky into a clean wash of color. So when a mining and energy company floated a plan earlier this year to build 87 industrial wind turbines on more than a third of the island, the Serifos mayor, Angeliki Synodinou, called it her “worst nightmare.”

Greece primarily depends on “brown coal,” a particularly dirty variety that emits much pollution. So wind power has seemed an attractive alternative.

But the huge turbines do catch the eye, and nearby they are considerably noisy.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Debating the Merits of Energy From Air – New York Times

MUDGE‘s first exposure to such objects in any quantity, i.e., a true wind farm as opposed to the occasional country turbine, eye-catching and modern and jarring in a rural landscape though it was, was in Southern California.

Along I-10 just west of Palm Springs is a pass through the mountains featuring what seemed like hundreds of turbines, atop ridges, in valleys, looking like nothing ever seen before. Looked it up today; the farm is called the San Gorgonio Pass, one of several such projects in California. Truly stunning.

But, then again, it’s out there in the desert, next to virtually nothing but the occasional trailer park and chameleon. According to the California Energy Commission, at the time the article was published (2003?), San Gorgonio consisted of more than 2,500 huge turbines.

Breezing along (as it were) the interstate at 79mph, one doesn’t hear them. But they do make a lasting visual impression.

Would I want such an installation in a lake near me? Ugly? Noisy? Destructive?

Given a choice between that, and the nukes that pepper the region that MUDGE calls home (eagerly received by a power-hungry public 50 years ago), can you doubt my response?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE