Friday, March 25, 2011

Ever wonder where all your energy is going?

This is a very interesting interactive graphic. It shows how much energy was produced in 2009 by various sources (e.g. solar, coal, petroleum, etc.), how it was used by various sectors (residential, industrial, commercial, transport), and how much was used vs. wasted. It's a little hard to read, at first, but stick with it.

A total of 94.5 quadrillion BTU (QBTU) was produced, of which solar was, by far, the smallest source (0.1 QBTU), and petroleum the largest (35.9 QBTU). Of these, 38.2 QBTU was used to produce electricity, with the remaining 56.3 used directly. (Though I'm a little confused -- the solar link doesn't show it being used to produce electricity.)

I think there must be some policy lessons in there, but I'm sure they won't be learned.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Le Philosophe speaks

The other day, Sidharta says to me, "In your opinion...what is life FOR?"

I thought about it for fifteen seconds. What do you answer to something like that? How do you explain that sort of thing to a kid? My first instinct was to answer something flip like "Why do you assume it's FOR anything?" My neighbor, who I told the story to later, said "It's for keeping your parents happy...that's what!"

But I held my tongue.

Instead, I said, "Why? What do YOU think it's for?"

He hesitated. "Life..." and then, I could see the wheels turning as he struggled to articulate his thoughts. "It's for learning and loving."

And I had thought about trying to answer him! What hubris!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New York Times goes paywall

Ok, so the much threatened paywall for the New York Times seems set to go in the US on March 28 (as of today, March 17, in Canada). The gist of it is that "visitors" will get free access to up to 20 articles on line per month, but after that, you will be barred from accessing articles. Except when you access them through Facebook links.

Sulzberger's letter, and the accompanying FAQ is a bit thin on the details. They don't, for example, tell us how they're going enforce that limit of 20 articles per month. I suspect that's because if they did, every script kiddie in the universe, not to mention a fair number of minimally computer-savvy readers would figure out how to circumvent it before it even gets rolled out.

I have some very fundamental questions about the new subscription based service.

Is that limit of 20 person-based? computer-based? IP address based? If it's computer based (i.e. each PC gets access to 20 articles per month), that could mean that I as an individual get access to almost nothing, if I'm sharing the computer with, say, my spouse and kids or roommates. Is that what they really had in mind? If it's individual-based, how are they going to track that I personally accessed 20 this month, without making me log in first? I can't see "visitors" wanting to register for a free account and then logging in just so they can access those 20 articles. I don't think the NYT can see that, either, so I imagine that the tracking mechanism will be minimally invasive, and therefore easy to get around. I'd have to guess it will either be cookie-based (circumvent by deleting cookies?) or IP based (which will have the unpleasant effect of limiting the number of accesses to 20 spread out over all users, but circumventable by going to a different computer -- especially good if using wireless access, I imagine).

Also, does 20 articles mean 20 distinct articles, each of which I can re-read as often as I like? Or does it mean that if I return to re-read the same article 20 times (I sometimes like Paul Krugman or Roger Cohen that much :-), I can't read anything else?

I find it very interesting that they have explicitly excluded links accessed from social media from the 20 articles/month limit. I would have to guess that there is some money flow from Facebook to the NYT -- I'd love to know what the agreement is. But the text of the letter does not provide an exhaustive list of social media sites, which would lead us to believe that it's a blanket policy.
Readers who come to Times articles through links from search, blogs and social media like Facebook and Twitter will be able to read those articles, even if they have reached their monthly reading limit. For some search engines, users will have a daily limit of free links to Times articles.
I just can't believe they'd allow something like that for Joe's Pizza and Social Networking Emporium, without some financial agreement in place. So perhaps it won't hold for some social media sites.

Guess I'd better go catch a leprechaun, to start paying for digital subscriptions!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Checks (and balances) or checks (and bargains)?

Apparently, there are plans afoot to sell off Federal government real estate assets that are not in use.

Sure problem...we're in the red...raise some cash. Couple of national forests -- who needs them? We can always grow more trees.

However, I was struck by one item in the article:
"This approach will enable us to cut through the red tape and overcome the special interests and parochial politics that have traditionally slowed or halted progress when efforts have been made to reduce government's real estate footprint one asset at a time," the official said.
(emphasis mine).

Now I've seen my share of bad processes, but in my experience, a lot of what is considered "red tape" (i.e. administrative cost and process) is there precisely to put a check on special interests and other bad behavior. Probably the best way to cut red tape, the place you'll really get the biggest bang for your buck in efficiency, is to remove all the scrutiny on the real estate transactions. That's almost certainly where the big administrative costs are. But without the oversight, special interests may have free rein to bully petty government bureaucrats into selling the real estate at just about any price they choose.

In other words, you can cut through red tape OR you can overcome special interests. I question whether you can do both. probably could do both (given that the oversight processes are sub-optimal). But if I were a betting woman, I'd put money on the cut-red-tape-only solution being implemented. In today's climate.