Corn is destroying America, and Brazil

It was good to see a major newsmagazine like Time do its cover story on the corn ethanol scam this week. I’ve been worried about corn as a source of biofuel for some time. So far, it makes no sense, and is only used because of the power of the corn lobby and senators from agricultural states. I’ve read various arguments (all with political agendas) about just how much petrofuel is burned in order to make corn based ethanol. Some figures calculate it takes more petrofuel than you get ethanol out — in other words, by putting ethanol in your car, as we all do 10% during the summer in California, you’re actually burning more fossil fuel than you would otherwise. E85 (85% ethanol) is even worse. Other figures, supported by the corn ethanol lobby, say it is not nearly that bad, but even with their best numbers they can only make it a modestly positive gain.

It’s hard to work out who to believe, but the most telling fact I learned was this: None of the corn-ethanol producers run their whole system — tractors, trucks and ethanol conversion plants — on their own product. Since they should be able to get their own product at a discount, this makes no sense.

Adding to the confusion is that a gallon is not a gallon. In particular, a gallon of ethanol has only 70% of the energy of gasoline, so you’ll only get 70% of the mileage. (Diesel has 12% more energy per gallon than gasoline, which is the real reason why diesel cars get better mileage. They aren’t really much better per kg of carbon burnt.)

The only ethanol source that’s provably positive is sugar cane. More on that later. There are a lot of worthwhile efforts to develop ethanol from cellulose (like switchgrass) or algae, and they could make a real difference. The corn lobby is not that excited about those.

In spite of this, we watch ads describing E85 cars as green, when they are anti-green. People see E85 priced 19% cheaper than gasoline (national average) and think it’s some bargain. It isn’t.

Corn for ethanol is driving up the price of corn. That make more land get converted to corn. In turn, Time found, that was making shifts in land use in Brazil, and the result was that more land in the rainforest is being cleared (often by burning) than ever before. But now there’s a horrible irony — all this is happening because people imagine they are doing something green by using corn based ethanol. (Brazil uses sugarcane for its own ethanol production.)

Now on to sugar. In the USA, sugar costs more than twice as much as the rest of the world. That’s why Coke from Mexico has real sugar, because sugar is cheap there. In the USA it has — surprise, surprise — high fructose corn syrup.

Sugar is expensive in the USA because there are import taxes and quotas that benefit a fairly small number of families who are really sugar agribusinesses. Those families love their little monopoly on sugar production of course, and fight to defend the laws that provide it. But the corn lobby joins in to help of course, to sell more high fructose corn syrup. (Though now HFCS has dropped in price to be closer to the world sugar price so we would not entirely get rid of it.)

We need to:

  • Immediately remove laws that require the addition of ethanol to gasoline. Find something besides MTBE or ethanol if need be.
  • Clearly label corn based ethanol and E85 as lower mileage and non-green, punishing those who advertise it as green. Or make them run their machines on their own ethanol and publish the numbers.
  • Put more into research of truly net-positive biofuels that don’t use existing crop-lands or involve clearing of forested land, and use them only if we can show they are net-green.
  • Abandon sugar quota and sugar tarrifs
  • Consider growing more sugar cane if we want biofuels, but again, factor in the cost of the crops displaced or land cleared.

Biofuels are a hard problem. Using recycled veggie oil is great, and we’ve run our Burning Man camp on that, but there is only so much of that out there. Even if we converted all our croplands to biofuels, we would only modestly dent our fuel consumption. This suggests that only solutions like algae or wild grasslands could work.

Disband Congress

No, I don’t mean dissolve congress. Rather I propose a different way to run a legislature in the modern world.

There would be no capitol. Instead, all members would work in their districts, all the time. And we would put in a bunch of extra nice HDTV videoconferencing systems. The system would be designed to handle meetings, all the way up to a full session of the house or senate, with multiple screens to show amalgamated “crowd” as well as close-up views of the important figures — the person with the floor, the person next to get the floor, the last person to have the floor, the Speaker, the party leaders etc. Members would attend sessions that way, and through a secured channel, vote. There would be screens for semi-private discussions with others during the meeting. Of course all this video would be available to the public, too.

Members, and their staffs, could also videoconference in HD with other members and their staffs, as well as any other government officials they need to talk to. And quite possibly, with a few exceptions such as classified committee meetings, all that video would be available to the public too. For those without the equipment, the old capitol would come equipped with meeting rooms that use the system. “Going up to the hill” would mean going to use one of the rooms.

Members could meet in person of course, but they would need to have a chaperone to assure they don’t make secret deals. Classified meetings would get a properly cleared chaperone.

And they could meet with lobbyists over the videoconferencing system too. And those meetings would certainly be available to the public. Registered obbyists need not and could not come to meet in person.

Of course, the members would get out of touch with beltway thinking. They would lose the serendipity of meeting the right person on the hill, the business done at exclusive beltway cocktail parties. But in exchange they and their staff would live and breathe, quite literally, their district. I can see arguments good and bad about the trade-off but it is not clear that either one is inherently superior. It would hurt the DC economy a bit, and airlines would lose some business.

Strictly speaking, all the transparency rules I describe above, where members can’t talk off the record or without chaperones, is not inherent in the idea of a videoconferenced legislature. One could do that and still allow all sorts of unrecorded conversations. They would figure out ways to have them anyway. What the video system does is enables an easy implementation of an all-transparent, all-recorded seat of government.

Food for thought, anyway.

Holy cow: Walking consumes more gasoline than driving!

Note to new readers: This article explores the consequences of using so much fuel to produce our food. If you come out of it thinking it’s telling you to drive rather than get some exercise, you didn’t read it! But if you like surprising numbers like this, check out the rest of my Going Green section and other sections.

In my growing research on transportation energy economics, I’ve come upon some rather astonishing research. I always enjoy debates on total cost analysis — trying to figure out the true energy cost of things, by adding in the energy spent elsewhere to make things happen. (For example, the energy to smelt the metals in your car adds quite a bit to its energy cost.)

Humans are modestly efficient. Walking, an average person burns about 100 Calories per mile at 3mph, or 300 per hour, while sitting for the same hour burns around 80 Calories just keeping you warm. In other words, the walking 3 miles uses about 220 extra Calories. Calories are kilocalories, and one Calorie/kcal is about 4 BTUs, 4200 joules or 1.63 watt-hours.

While walking 1 mile burns an extra 74 Calories, on a bicycle we’re much better. Biking one mile at 10mph takes about 38 extra calories over sitting. Again, this is the extra calories.

A gallon of gas has about 31,500 Calories in it, so you might imagine that you get 815 “mpg” biking and 400 “mpg” walking. Pretty good. (Unless you compare it to an electric scooter, which turns out to get the equivalent of 1200 mpg from pure electricity if you allow the same perfect conversion.)

But there’s a problem. We eat, on average about 2700 Calories/day in the USA, almost all of it produced by agribusiness. Which runs on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels provide the fertilizer. They run the machines. The process and transport and refrigerate the food. In many cases our food — cows — eats even more food produced with very high energy costs.

I’ve been digging around estimates, and have found that U.S. agriculture uses about 400 gasoline-gallon equivalents per American. Or 1.1 gallons per day, or about 10 Calories (40 BTU) from oil/gas for every Calorie of food. For beef, it’s far worse, as close to 40 Calories of oil/gas (160 BTU) are used to produce one Calorie of beefy goodness.

You can see where this is going. I’m not the first to figure it out, but it’s worth repeating. Your 3 mile walk burned 220 extra Calories over sitting, but drove the use of 2,200 Calories of fossil fuel. That’s 1/14th of a gallon of gasoline (9oz.) So you’re getting about 42 miles per gas-gallon of fossil fuel.

If you eat a lot of beef or other livestock, and want to consider your incremental food as having come from beef, it’s around 10 miles per gallon. A Hummer does better!

So yes, if you drive your Prius instead of walking it’s going to burn less fossil fuel. If 2 people drive in a more ordinary car it’s going to burn less fossil fuel than both of them walking.

Biking’s better. The average-diet cyclist is getting 85 miles per gallon of fossil fuel. Still better for 2 to share a Prius. The beefeater is, as before only 1/4 as good. At 21mpg he’s better than a Hummer, but not that much better.

This is a fuel to fuel comparison. The fuel burned in the cars is the same sort of fuel burned in the tractors. It has extra energy costs in its extraction and transport, but this applies equally to both cases. And yes, of course, the exercise has other benefits than getting from A to B. And we have not considered a number of the other external costs of the vehicle travel — but they still don’t make this revelation less remarkable. (And neither does this result suggest one should not still walk or bike, rather it suggests we should make our food more efficiently.)

And no, picking transit isn’t going to help. Transit systems, on average, are only mildly greener than cars. City buses, in fact, use the same energy per passenger mile as typical cars. Light rail is sometimes 2 and rarely even 3 times better than cars, but in some cities like San Jose, it uses almost twice as much energy per actual passenger than passenger cars do. Taking existing transit vehicles that are already running is green, of course, but building inefficient lines isn’t.

Many people take this idea as a condemnation of cycling or exercise. It isn’t. Cycling is my favourite exercise. It is a condemnation of how much fossil fuel is used in agriculture. And, to a much lesser extent, a wakeup call to people who eat the average diet that they can’t claim their human-powered travel as good for the planet — just good for them. What would be good for the planet would be to eat a non-agribusiness diet and also walk or bike. How your food is farmed is more important though, than where it comes from. It’s the farming, not the shipping, that’s the big energy eater.

Obviously if you were going to need the exercise anyway, doing it while getting from A to B is not going to burn extra oil. Human powered travel well above the need to exercise is the only thing that would hurt, if fueled by U.S. agriculture. And eating a high calorie diet and not exercising would be just as bad.

Happy eating!

What’s not wrong with these numbers

As I note, since most of us need to exercise anyway, this is not at all a condemnation of walking and cycling, but rather of the amount of fossil fuel that agriculture uses. However, a lot of people still find faults with this analysis that I don’t think are there.

  • No, it doesn’t matter that making the fuel costs energy. It’s (roughly) the same fuel going into the tractors as going into the gas tanks. We’re comparing fuel in tank to fuel in tank. But if you really want to factor that in, about 82% of well energy makes it to the gas tank of the car or tractor.
  • Yes, I do account for the fact that just eating or sitting consumes calories. This calculation is based on the extra calories that biking or walking take, compared to sitting in a car. The base “keep you alive” calories are not counted, but they do require more fossil fuel to create.
  • I don’t include the energy required to make a car, which ranges from 25% (Prius) to 7% (Hummer) of its lifetime energy usage. However, most cyclists and pedestrians still own cars, so this is still spent if it sits in the garage while you walk. And while a 2000lb car may take 60-100 times as much energy to make as a 30lb bike, this is not so large a difference if expressed per lifetime vehicle-mile.
  • This is based on the USA averages. Of course different food means different results, but doesn’t change this story, which is about the average eater.
  • I don’t include the energy needed to build roads for bikes, cars and food delivery trucks. The reality is, we’re not going to build fewer roads because people take some trips walking for exercise. Nor are people going to not buy a car because they do that.

Every election will be "The election that technology X changed forever."

Pundits like to point out when some new media technology changes seriously changed politics. When I was young, everybody talked about how the Kennedy-Nixon debates ushered in the era of the TV candidate and changed politics forever. (It did indeed seem unlikely a candidate in a wheelchair from polio could win today, but in fact in Bob Dole and John McCain we have two candidates without full use of their arms.)

No doubt when radio came into play there was similar commentary.

But now it’s more rapid. So I’ll make a prediction. Form now on, the pace of change in media and the other technologies of politics will be so rapid that every election will be different in some important way from those before it, due to technology. Some of the changes will be overhyped, some will be underhyped, but there may never again be “politics as usual” — meaning politics as they were 4 years ago.

This will be both good and bad. Most interesting to me is the cost of media. In the USA, most political corruption and influence comes because all politicians feel they must raise a huge amount of money, so much that they spend more time doing that than actually doing their jobs, and they will even admit this. They feel they need to raise this money to make media buys, in particular TV ads. So anything that breaks this equation, such as formalized political spam may have the potential for great good. As for the rest of the changes yet to come, it’s hard to say how we’ll feel about them.

Better word than "singularity" - "The Takeoff"

Quite some time ago, I challeged readers to come up with a better word than The Singularity to describe the phenomenon, famously named and described by Vernor Vinge, of a technological gulf so wide that it is impossible to understand and predict beyond it.

The word is not good because when people with math training hear it, those who already know the normal meaning of the word, it makes no sense. Vinge’s singularity is not a point discontinuity or an asymptote going to infinity. It is not necessarily even a single inflection point. For those who don’t know the regular meaning of the word, the name conveys nothing. It was a metaphor.

Ray Kurzweil, against my advice, gave the term a big boost in The Singularity is Near, a book which I should disclose had major contributions by my S.O. And so people are now more wedded to the term than before.

I propose a different term: The Takeoff.

While this term has a few meanings, both literal and metaphorical, that are well known to most people, they will not confuse the literal meaning, and the metaphorical meaning is actually close to what we’re trying to express. A departure from the ground into a whole new realm, with a sudden acceleration.

In fact, I suggest this term because it is already in use. Students of the area regularly refer to two types of singularity they call a “hard takeoff” and a “soft takeoff.” Switching to this term would simply strengthen these terms.

And yes, there is a negative meaning of the term (similar to rip-off) but I don’t think that will be a major concern.

Other terms suggested have not grabbed my attention. Some suggestions, like “the spike” are just plain wrong — it is most certainly not a spike (whihc goes up and comes back down sharply,) except in dystopian visions.

Twitter didn't cause the SXSW audience revolt

While it’s stupid that the biggest story to come out of South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive was the gossip over the interview of Mark Zuckerberg by Sarah Lacy, the one “hook” that has kept the story going is the suggestion that it was the use of twitter, in particular snide comments on twitter, which turned the audience against Lacy, the interviewer from Business Week.

There have even been comments (from those who weren’t even there) suggesting witch hunts and misogyny. Other bloggers used hyperbolic terms like “train-wreck” and “career-ending” which are serious exaggerations.

Short summary. In a “keynote” interview, Lacy, who has just finished a book about Facebook, was on stage to interview Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg was, as usual, a difficult interview subject, but for a variety of reasons the character of the interview changed as the audience turned against Lacy, cheering criticism of her. Most agreed they had not seen somebody lose an audience like this in some time.  read more »

Portable identity as vaseline

Earlier I wrote an essay on the paradox of identity management describing some counter-intuitive perils that arise from modern efforts at federated identity. Now it’s time to expand these ideas to efforts for portable personal data, especially portable social networks.

Partly as a reaction to Facebook’s popular applications platform, other social networking players are seeking a way to work together to stop Facebook from taking the entire pie. The Google-lead open social effort is the leading contender, but there are a variety of related technologies, including OpenID, hcard and other microformats. The primary goal is to make it easy, as users move from one system to another, or run sub-abblications on one platform, to make it easy to provide all sorts of data, including the map of their social network, to the other systems.

Some are also working on a better version of this goal, which is to allow platforms to interoperate. As I wrote a year ago interoperation seems the right long term goal, but a giant privacy challenge emerges. We may not get very many chances to get this right. We may only get one.

The paradox I identified goes against how most developers think. When it comes to greasing the skids of data flow, “features” such as portability, ease of use and user control, may not be entirely positive, and may in fact be on the whole negative. The easier it is for data to flow around, the more it will flow around, and the more that sites will ask, and then demand that it flow. There is a big difference between portability between applications — such as OpenOffice and MS Word reading and writing the same files — and portability between sites. Many are very worried about the risks of our handing so much personal data to single 3rd party sites like Facebook. And then Facebook made it super easy — in fact mandatory with the “install” of any application — to hand over all that data to hundreds of thousands of independent application developers. Now work is underway to make it super easy to hand over this data to every site that dares to ask or demand it.  read more »

Have a projector at the back of big conference presentations

Fancier conferences put up two projectors to let the audience see the slides. But the presenters still look at their slides on a notebook on the podium, or in some cases on a monitor on the floor below their stage.

How about adding a projector that projects on the back wall, just above the heads of the audience, for the speaker to see their own slides? Then they can roam the stage and see the slides without losing eye contact with the audience. They may not be able to see clear detail on the slides but they shouldn't need it.

It's true this does not work as well for "Presenter mode" which shows the speaker a different display on the notebook from what is seen on the projector, both because most notebooks don't have two video outputs, and also because you don't want to give the audience access to your notes and the title of the next slide as is often shown in presenter mode. However, not too many use this and it's not usually the end of the world if somebody can look back and see the notes.

You also want to show the speaker a clock. If that can be overlaid on the rear screen, great, but this can also be done as a different screen with a big clock. Projectors and screens are small enough to make this workable at fancy conferences.

eComm reborn well

Today I am at eComm, a reborn conference. Tim O’Reilly, who does the eTech conference (which just took place last week) used to run an emerging telecom conference called eTel. They decided not to run it again, so some of the participants who wanted a little more edgy telecom conference pushed to start a different one. I had hoped it would be an ad-hoc conference in the barcamp/unconference style, but instead it’s become a more traditional $1K conference like eTel was.

However, the result seems to be a success. Very good list of speakers (though some are just doing sales pitches as their talks) and a decent sized crowd. And even a few people who were also just at SXSW (as I was.) Some are calling the chain of conferences — eTech, SXSW, eComm, VON and many others as “March Madness.” It does seem possible to spend the month of March, if not your whole life, at conferences.

We’ll see what interesting develops here. Thom Howe spoke to try to convince carriers to become commodity providers, using the example of corn to say that it can be lucrative. He’s right that they need to become commodities but wrong that they can be convinced to want it.

(And corn turns out to be a terrible example. Corn is everywhere because of abuse of the law and corruption in government, in combination with sugar quota.)

Robodelivery and high-end, low-usage equipment rental (and NPR interview)

Earlier on, I identified robot delivery vehicles as one of the steps on the roadmap to robot cars. In fact, these are officially what the DARPA grand challenges really seek, since the military wants robots that can move things through danger zones without putting soldiers at risk.

Deliverbots may well be allowed on the road before fully automated robotaxis for humans because there are fewer safety issues. Deliverbots can go more slowly, as most cargo is not super-urgent. If they go slower, and have a low weight limit, it may be the case that they can’t cause much harm if they go astray. Obviously if a deliverbot crashes into an inanimate object, it just cost money and doesn’t injure people. The deliverbot might be programmed to be extra-cautious and slow around anything like a person. As such, it might be allowed on the road sooner.

I gave a talk on Robot cars at the BIL conference, and an attendee came up to suggest the deliverbots enable a new type of equipment rental. Because they can bring you rental equipment quickly, cheaply and with no hassle, they make renting vastly more efficient and convenient. People will end up renting things they would never consider renting today. Nowadays you only rent things you really need which are too expensive or bulky to own.

By the way, the new NPR morning show the “Bryant Park Project” decided to interview a pair of speakers, one from TED and one from BIL, so I talked about my robot cars talk. You can listen to the segment or follow links to hear the whole show.

It was suggested even something as simple as a vacuum cleaner could become a rental item. Instead of buying a $200 vacuum to clean your floors once a week, you might well rent a super-high quality $2,000 unit which comes to you with short notice via deliverbot. This would also be how you might treat all sorts of specialized, bulky or expensive tools. Few will keep their own lathe, band saw or laser engraver, but if you can get one in 10 minutes, you would never need to.

(Here in silicon valley, an outfit called Tech Shop offers a shop filled with all the tools and toys builders like, for a membership fee and materials cost. It’s great for those who are close to it or want to trek there, but this could be better. This in turn would also let us make better use of the space in our homes, not storing things we don’t really need to have.

An instant temporary internet kit

Over the weekend I was at the [BIL conference], a barcamp/unconference style justaposition on the very expensive TED conference. I gave a few talks, including one on self driving cars, privacy and AI issues.

The conference, being free, was at a small community center. This location did not have internet. Various methods were possible to provide internet. The easiest are routers which can take cellular network EVDO cards and offer an 802.11 access point. That works most places, but is not able to handle many people, and may or may not violate some terms of service. However, in just about all these locations there are locations very nearby with broadband internet which can be used, including hotels, businesses and even some private homes. But how to get the access in quickly?

What would be useful would be an “instant internet kit” with all you need to take an internet connection (or two) a modest distance over wireless. This kit would be packed up and available via courier to events that want internet access on just a couple of days notice.

What would you put in the kit?  read more »