Friday, June 20, 2008

Ebay sellers use FUD to fight against paying taxes

So today I got dinged from I think three different people about a Congressional effort to compromise our privacy by requiring eBay, Amazon, and all other online retailers to report our purchases to the government as part of Chris Dodd's proposed mortgage bailout bill. Now, this didn't seem like a Chris Dodd sort of thing to do, so I set to reading a bit. Let's start here, with a press release from some entity called "FreedomWorks". They make it sound as if this provision is going to affect "nearly every credit card transaction in America" and that it's horribly intrusive.

It's not. Quite simply, they are lying. Here's what the provision (S.AMDT. 4983 to H.R. 3221; see pages S5902 et seq of the Congressional Record) actually requires:
Each payment settlement entity shall make a return for each calendar year setting forth--
(1) the name, address, and TIN of each participating payee to whom one or more payments in settlement of reportable transactions are made, and
(2) the gross amount of the reportable transactions with respect to each such participating payee.
In other words, what this does is require "payment settlement entities" (basically, credit card processors and alternative payment processors such as PayPal) to report, for each person who receives funds as a result of processing transactions on behalf of that person, a report to the IRS of the total amount of funds received (over the year) as a result of such processing. It does not require any reporting of information about payors or about individual transactions. Nor does it require any online merchant to report anything except insofar as such an entity might also provide payment clearing services. Payees who receive less than $10,000 in any year and participate in fewer than 200 transactions are excluded from mandatory reporting.

Anyone who has worked as an independent contractor, or has operated a business, is probably familiar with Form 1099. Any business who hires another business to provide services for an amount greater than a certain threshold (which used to be $400 but I believe has gone up in recent years) has to file a Form 1099 with the IRS attesting to the gross amount paid to that other business for those services. The purpose of this provision is to make it harder for self-employed individuals to conceal revenue from taxation. What Chris Dodd is proposing is the same thing, for professional eBay sellers. And he's doing it to raise the money required to pay for the mortgage bailout he's proposing. Since this represents taxes that are legally due and payable but not being paid because the people who are supposed to be paying them are not reporting the income, I consider this perfectly fair and reasonable.

And that's why the eBay sellers are up in arms over this. This doesn't invade anybody's privacy. What it does do is make it far harder to collect money via PayPal or other alternative payment handling methods and have that income be undocumented. Right now, if you're selling stuff on eBay to the tune of $25,000 a year, it's entirely possible that you can conceal most or all of that from the IRS because it's undocumented. Dodd's proposal documents it: PayPal will be required, at the end of the year, to send a note to the IRS that says "Joe Ebay Shark received, via our service, a total of $25,126 in gross payments". And if you don't file a return that reflects that, the IRS will start sending you increasingly nasty little letters asking for their share of that $25,126.

If all you ever do is buy stuff, you won't ever have to deal with it. If you only sell things once in a while, again, you won't have to deal with it (unless you sell really expensive stuff). The only people this affects are people who make more than $10,000 a year selling stuff on eBay, and a handful of companies like PayPal. And, obviously, the people who need a mortgage bailout, to be paid for by collecting taxes already due and payable on tax-evading eBay sellers.

I gotta hand it to FreedomWorks. They took a perfectly ordinary income-reporting provision, and one that is not even all that invasive, and turned it into a vile invasion of online privacy. Too bad they had to lie to do it. I suppose we can't really blame them; the CRO is estimating that this reporting provision will generate $9.8 billion in government revenue over ten years. That's a lot of unreported income.

Please, call Congress at 1-866-928-3035 and tell them that you support requiring professional eBay sellers to pay income tax.

Oh, and go thank Slashdot for uncritically picking up the story and running with it as if were actually true.

America's addiction to oil, part two

I wrote a lengthy article yesterday on the oil crunch. A couple of people pointed out the Tesla Roadster as an electric vehicle option and felt that I unfairly glossed over it. The Roadster is a really neat car, no question about it. However, it is extremely pricy, $109,000, and I still have doubts about its lithium-ion batteries. Also, it requires a 70A charging circuit, which is more than I have available in my house (we only have 100A service here, and putting 70% of that into charging my car would leave insufficient reserve to run the rest of the house). I think the Roadster is a great proof-of-concept vehicle, as is the equally impressive Aptera, but neither of these cars is quite "ready for prime time" and I left them out of my discussion because of that.

Another person asked me about solar power, specifically photovoltaic power. While I think PV power is going to be useful as a spot source, and to provide daytime surge power, there are serious issues that prevent it from being the backbone of our power grid. Last year (2007), the total electrical generation in the United States was approximately 14433 petajoules (see below). One square meter of solar cell, at 40% efficiency (which is about the best anyone has made so far), will yield, under average insolation conditions, about 5.66 megajoules a day, or 2065 megajoules a year. That means we'd need about 6.99 billion square meters of land completely carpeted with photovoltaic cells to generate that 14433 petajoules. That's 2698 square miles. Under more realistic efficiency values (around 8%) we'd need five times that, or nearly 14,000 square miles. We can do that (this is about 15% of the land area of Nevada, most of which we're not really using for anything anyway), but there are several other catches here.

First, photovoltaic power is only available when the sun is visible in the sky. This isn't the case at night. We'd have to find some way to store excess power generated during the day for use at night. There are a number of ways to do this (batteries, pumped hydroelectric, supercapacitors), but none of them is terribly efficient. So that reflects significant losses, which mean even more Nevada desert gets covered by refined silicon. Also, it turns out that the areas in the country that use the most power tend not to be those that have the best insolation. This means that we'd have to generate the power being generated in sunny, empty areas like Arizona and Nevada and transmit it to the areas that use it, like New York and Boston. Long transmission lines have high losses, as much as 50% for applications like this. This is why we typically generate power near where it will be used, and it's why electrical power is so much more expensive in the Northeast. If we tried to power the entire United States using a solar farm in Nevada, we'd probably have to cover most of the state with refined silicon.

Also, photovoltaic cells are expensive to make. The materials required to make a PV cell have to be very pure and must be constructed using very carefully controlled methods that require a good deal of energy. Right now solar cells cost something like $120 per kilowatt of generating capacity to make. At that rate, it'll cost around 500 billion dollars to make the solar cells required, and I'm not even accounting for losses due to inefficiency in storage and distribution. That also represents about two million tons of semiconductor-grade silicon - a couple orders of magnitude times the amount currently available or predicted to be available in the next several years. Maybe I've made a mistake in my math somewhere, but these numbers just lead me to believe that chasing photovoltaic as a prime source of electrical power is a mistake. I think PV as a "boost" source, and especially for microgeneration at the point of consumption, is potentially a good idea, but it's not the solution by itself.

Photothermal power is actually more appealing. The direct efficiency is about the same as photovoltaic, but there are several major advantages. First, the use of salt as a circulating fluid offers a relatively simple way to store energy for the nighttime hours; there's no need for batteries or pumped hydroelectric storage. Second, the design does not call for any significantly expensive materials; no need for millions of tons of semiconductor grade silicon, just ordinary concrete/metal construction and other technologies we've already mastered in existing power plant technologies. It appears to me that photothermal power systems can generate as much (or possibly even more) power than photovoltaic power for the same land footprint, at a fraction of the cost. So in response to the individual who asked me about photovoltaic power, I'd say that you should look at photothermal instead. We still need to carpet Nevada, but this time it's with plain glass mirrors with a thin layer of aluminum, not with refined silicon. A lot cheaper to make, and to fix.

However, allow me make another point about power generation: The main substitute for oil in the American economy is clearly going to be electricity, which we currently generate by coal (7212 petajoules per year), natural gas (2932 PJ/y), nuclear fission (2905 PJ/y), and hydroelectric (886 PJ/y), with a total generated electricity of 14433 petajoules in 2007 (all numbers derived from 2007 government reports). Our total fuel consumption for consumer motor vehicle transport in 2001 was 14876 petajoules, or slightly more than our total electricity production in 2007. That doesn't count fuel usage by commercial vehicles, mass transit, airplanes, or trains. We're just talking about consumer use here. The obvious conclusion from these numbers is that if we're going to replace our current fleet of gasoline-powered cars by plug-in electrical vehicles, it's clearly obvious that we're going to also have to, at a minimum, double our generation capacity, and probably closer to triple it to deal with losses. Yet another reason to restructure our lifestyles to reduce the distance we travel on a daily basis.

This post is long enough, so I'll wait for a subsequent one to talk about where hydrogen fits into the picture.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Oil: How will we ever do without it?

Oil, and the price, supply, and demand thereof, is all in the news today, thanks mainly to Bush's declaration that the US should lift its moratorium on outer shelf drilling. This has led to a groundswell of talk about oil and gasoline prices, American dependence on foreign oil (note polling methodology used), alternative fuels, and all sorts of other things.

The problem is that virtually all of this talk is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Unless you're one of those crazy people who believes in the abiogenic theory of oil origin (which asserts that the Earth contains secret, unlimited supplies of hydrocarbons if you just drill deep enough; while it may be the case that some subcrustal hydrocarbons are of nonbiological origin, that fact will not somehow make their supply limitless), there's no way of escaping the fact that the amount of available oil on the planet is either fixed or increasing very slowly, and that we're drawing down that finite supply at an alarming rate. A 2007 report puts world reserves of crude oil at between 1119 and 1317 billion barrels. Meanwhile, the world consumption of oil (per OPEC in 2006) was 78.3 million barrels a day, or 28.6 billion barrels a year. That means we have between 39 and 46 years of oil left at our current consumption rate, after which we will be out.

Now, many people, especially in the oil industry (and government people friendly to these people) seem willing to hang their hats on the idea that we'll find more oil before we run out in 2054. But even the most optimistic estimates for finding new sources of oil only push the sunset back a few decades more, or rely on the discovery of techniques that seem thermodynamically infeasible today, such as extracting oil from oil sands, which currently cannot be meaningfully done because it takes the equivalent energy of two barrels of oil to get one barrel of oil out, which is something we'd only do if we wanted the oil for nonenergy uses.

And there are certainly nonenergy uses for oil. We make all sorts of things out of crude oil. Plastics, pharmaceuticals, dyes, even food. Many of these will be hard to do without, which might happen if we squander all of our oil for energy. Some of the feedstock demand for these substances can be met from oil sands or from biological sources, but at higher costs (both in terms of dollars and, more importantly, in terms of energy). As we draw down our finite supply of oil, we will find that the price of "cheap" plastic will suddenly not be so cheap, as energy uses increasingly compete with industrial feedstocks for the declining supply of petrochemicals. Wood furniture is looking better every day, isn't it?

So, we need to reduce our consumption of oil as an energy source, and do it fast, before we run out entirely. There are two ways to do this: find alternative sources of energy that can substitute for oil and its derivatives, and reduce our demand for oil and its derivatives by changing how we live. It's clear that we must do both. By far our largest use of oil-derived energy in the United States is to support our extensive transportation system. The problem with transportation systems is that they need a means to store energy in a portable manner, typically as a combustible chemical (fuel), as electrochemical potential (battery), or as electrostatic charge (supercapacitor). The main restriction is that the entire energy source for a given trip has to be mobile with the transport vehicle; that is, no tethers. (Some forms of mass transit use centrally-generated electricity, and are exempt from this issue.) This imposes pretty rigorous energy density requirements, for which there are relatively few options. We currently use gasoline because it's just about the densest available option that isn't dangerously explosive or hazardously toxic. Let's first explore the options for substitute forms of energy storage, then talk about how we can cut demand.

Biological sources of combustible fuel such as ethanol are of no value here; it takes 1.29 barrels of oil to make one barrel-equivalent of ethanol from corn. Switchgrass is worse: 1.50 barrels per barrel-equivalent. Those of you using E85 in your "alternative fuel vehicles" are actually using more oil every time you fill up than if you just put plain old gas in the car. There are advantages to ethanol-fortified gasoline fuels, but they have nothing to do with controlling oil demand. So, we must reluctantly reject biofuels as a solution to this problem. However, as a lot of the energy consumed in farming goes into the production of fertilizer and in the operation of mechanized farm equipment, it remains possible that we might be able to develop farming methods that do not consume more energy than they produce. We must continue research in this area (not only because it will benefit the potential for viable energy production, but also because it will reduce the energy costs of food production), but it seems unlikely to me that this will reap sufficient reward in a timeframe short enough to avoid the impending doom. Similar analysis also deepsixes most form of biodiesel. The one positive of biofuels is that they are theoretically carbon-neutral; that is, they take as much carbon out of the atmosphere as they add to it.

What about hydrogen, George W. Bush's pet solution? Sorry, no. There's two main ways to produce hydrogen in bulk. One of them is from petrochemical stock, which just inserts another step in the chain; the second law of thermodynamics means this is a net loss overall. The other is by electrolysis from water. Since the cracking process is thermodynamically the exact reverse of the reaction involved in burning hydrogen, the energy required to do it is not less than the energy that will be yielded by burning it; another net loss overall. Basically all we're doing by producing hydrogen is storing energy from another source as hydrogen. The problem with this is that hydrogen is not a particularly good medium for storing energy; hydrogen is an explosive gas with a very low boiling point and with a very low density at standard temperature and pressure, requiring complex, expensive, and heavy containment systems to be safely used in a vehicle. There may be niche applications where hydrogen combustion is useful, and hydrogen fueled vehicles do have other benefits (such as theoretical carbon neutrality), but again (as with ethanol) these benefits have nothing to do with controlling oil demand. Hydrogen will eventually become very important, but that day is quite some time off.

Virtually all other available combustible fluids are similarly derived from petrochemicals. The main exceptions are liquified natural gas (LNG) and gasified coal. We have about ten times as much available energy in coal reserves as we do in oil reserves. Of course, coal will run out eventually too, but that date (even if we switched all our oil consumption to coal) is somewhere between 2200 and 2500. There are several problems with coal. A lot of effort (and therefore energy) has to be spent to make it not dirty, and to put it into a form that we can use in cars. There's been ongoing research in coal gasification for years, but the process has not yet been made cheap enough to displace the production of hydrocarbon fuel from crude oil. Eventually the economics of spiraling oil prices will make coal gasification an economically viable alternative even without market tweaking, but it would be a good idea to further incent this behavior now. Also, both LNG and coal are not carbon neutral, and their use will contribute to global warming (assuming you believe in global warming). In any case, increased use of coal will almost certainly be a major part of our middle-term plan as we move to a combination of renewable and fusion power in the future, simply because it's unlikely that we will develop efficient fusion power before the oil runs out.

An examination of the capabilities of the various electric cars on the market today demonstrates why we're not using electric cars. Simply put, the energy storage capabilities of a battery aren't even close to being on a par with what is offered by chemical fuels. The best all-electric car you can find today has a range of perhaps 50 miles at speeds far below what we have come to expect in a car. Electric cars are not today, and quite likely will not in any short time become, a drop-and-go replacement for gasoline-powered cars. Hybrids help some here, in that they use less fuel than nonhybrids, but even doubling the fuel efficiency of the entire vehicle fleet only pushes back the sunset a few decades at most. Plug-in electrics at least allow us to use central power generation, which is an area where we can use renewable sources.

Fundamentally, what has to happen to avoid the oil doom is to rethink our transportation system. And that means more dependence on centrally-powered mass transit, but even more so it means eliminating the need to travel long distances on a regular basis. We can get some gain by making it easier for people to commute to work by light rail or overhead-powered buses, but we get even more if we make it possible for people to walk to work, or to use small electric-powered personal vehicles that can be easily recharged while at the office.

The problem is that our cities have grown up around the car, and around the highway. We have structured our urban environments and our culture on cheap gas. It's a real pain now that gas isn't cheap, and it's going to get even more expensive. (Plaintive cries to the government to do something about the price of gas are about as realistic as asking Congress to lower the gravitational constant. Gas is expensive because we're running out. The government cannot make a naturally limited resource become unlimited.) We can either see the writing on the wall and make deliberate plans to change our way of life gradually, or we can ignore the obvious and let the Titanic slam headlong into the iceberg. Your choice, America.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hang on to your hats

The Royal Bank of Scotland has issued a global stock and credit crash alert, predicting that the S&P 500 will dive to 1050 as panic overtakes corporate debt markets and national banks get squeezed between recession and inflation. Bob Janjuah, the RBS's strategist, believes this will not be confined to American markets.

Oh, and NPR says there's a commodities bubble about to pop, too. Looks to be another case where overly leveraged derivatives destabilized the market. Derivatives always do that. Derivatives have much the same effect as levees on a river: most of the time, they prevent any flooding, but when they fail, they fail big. You can never eliminate all the risk, and in those situations where you manage to neutralize most of it, what remains is magnified many times over.

From the sounds of it, the only safe place to be is cash... and by that I don't think they mean dollars, either.

McCain flops, Gore burns, and the AP stinks

McCain continues to burn his bridges, this time by calling for an end to the offshore drilling ban. This is especially curious since McCain has been courting environmental groups for some time now (the Christian right and the Greens are not fundamentally incompatible; the sticking point has long been the coalition between the Christian right and Big Business, whose goals are rather difficult to reconcile with those of the Greens). It looks as if McCain was hoping to pander to moderates upset about high gas prices by presenting the rather absurd promise that opening up offshore drilling will somehow lower gas prices. Of course, it won't, at least not anytime soon. It's also another flipflop for McCain, who supported the ban in his 2000 campaign. While there is a lot of dispute over the numbers, it's estimated that the moratorium blocks access to about 16 billion barrels of extractable oil, or about 800 days worth at current consumption. And it'll take two years at least to actually get viable production out of these fields, and doing so will be at significant cost. It seems to me that there are better applications of our national resources than vainly prolonging the inevitable by further destroying our environment. Sadly, it seems I'm in the minority here, probably because most Americans have no real understanding of the true state of the oil crisis.

It looks as if McCain may need to do even more pandering: Quinnipiac's latest poll has Obama leading in "critical" swing states Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In Florida and Ohio, thirteen percent of those who voted for President Bush in 2004 now support Obama; in Ohio that number is nineteen percent.

Moving to the other side of the environmental aisle, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research (a supposedly nonpartisan but obviously conservative think-tank) reports that Al Gore's personal electricity consumption has jumped 10% in the past year, apparently despite his efforts to make his home more energy efficient. Quite frankly I'm at a loss as to what Gore is doing in his house to consume nearly 18 MWh a month, unless perhaps he has a movie studio there or something.

The outrage at the AP's attempt to shakedown bloggers continues. Several bloggers have since found instances of the AP quoting from blogs rather extensively, sometimes without credit. Greed and hypocrisy both; such a lovely combination.

A Tale of Two Governors

One of the things I've noticed while reading the coverage of the Flood of 2008 is the difference between Governors Chet Culver of Iowa and Jim Doyle of Wisconsin. Both states started to experience flooding damage at about the same time, and while Iowa's total damage is likely to be far worse, what caught my attention is how the respective governors of the two states responded.

Culver has been all over Iowa, visiting city after city and town after town, and the disaster declarations have been made as quickly as humanly possible, enabling fast access to both state and federal relief funds for these communities. Contrariwise, I've not seen nearly as much mention of Doyle visiting afflicted areas in Wisconsin, and from him I've seen, instead of announcements that federal disaster aid is already on the way, announcements that "they hope to have the declaration in place soon". It seems that fuddling disaster declarations is a trend for Doyle; in 2004 he had to negotiate for a redefinition of a disaster period because he got it wrong initially. This year, several counties had to lobby Doyle to declare disasters, and typically Doyle's declarations come three to five days later as Culver's, for counties that experienced flooding at the same time.

My understanding of the way federal disaster relief works is that the state's governor plays a critical role in the process. Why is it, then, that Chet Culver can do so much better a job of this than Jim Doyle?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Pesky police, blogging dangerously, questionable pins, and surplus water

An apartment complex in the northwest Chicago suburbs is annoyed at the police for blocking off all but one of their thirteen entrances and setting up a checkpoint at the remaining one so they can hand out "crime prevention tips". To quote the complex's attorney, "the Village of Rolling Meadows has in essence said they can barricade a community for the purpose of handing out fliers." Is this some backhanded way to do the same thing DC tried just a week or so ago? I'm especially annoyed at this because I donated a number of books to the Neighborhood Resource Center that the handouts are promoting, and it irritates me to be associated with such officious assholery.

We have more on the Associated Press' policies regarding quotation. They've declared that anything five words or more requires licensure via a website they've just launched. (Five words will cost you $12.50; I haven't looked to see if the rates go up for longer quotes.) Patrick Nielsen Hayden responded by announcing that he would be shortly "putting up my own Web form through which people can PayPal me money in exchange for my promise to not blow up the moon". (Hm. That's more than five words. Patrick, please don't blow up the moon; we're still using it.) Once again, the New York Times goes soft on the AP, "reporting" that this is the AP's "attempt to define clear standards as to how much of its articles and broadcasts bloggers and Web sites can excerpt". No, dear, that's not what it is. It's the AP trying to save its increasingly endangered business model. Not that we haven't been seeing that for years out of the old media establishment.

For some bloggers, though, a nasty lawyergram from the AP is not their greatest concern. The University of Washington reports that at least 64 people have been arrested since 2003 in connection with their blogging activities, mostly in China, Egypt, and Iran, but also in Britain, France, Canada, and the United States. Better watch what you say!

On to politics: The big news today is, of course, that Al Gore has endorsed Obama. This was telegraphed rather aggressively (Gore announced it to Obama's donor list last night, for example) and is not really news, nor is it particularily unexpected. Does anyone really expect Al Gore to endorse any of the four Green party candidates? At least that would be slightly more likely than endorsing McCain.

Others are apparently not so happy about Obama being the prospective nominee: Illinois State Senator Kirk Dillard, who lent his name and face to Obama's primary campaign attesting to Obama's capacity for bipartisanship, is now asking Obama to stop running the ad in which Dillard appears. Apparently Dillard was more than happy to be standing for Obama when he was running against Clinton, but now that he's running against McCain, he's having second thoughts. Perhaps this is because Dillard's contention in favor of Obama's talent for bipartisanship is at odds with McCain's campaign strategy. I'd love to hear what Richard Lugar has to say on the issue. (Frankly I think Lugar would be a great choice for Secretary of State in the Obama administration.)

Apparently not all Republicans are as reluctant to stand for their beliefs: at least one vendor was sighted at the Texas Republican Convention selling buttons reading "If Obama is President... will we still call it The White House?". The same vendor had some other choice options, including "Press 1 for English, press 2 for deportation."

Now, on to stuff that really matters. The Mississippi River continues to flood large swathes of Illinois and Iowa. There was at least one major levee failure in Gulfport and several locations are expecting (or already experiencing) flood levels higher than the previous records set in the Great Flood of 1993. So far, the 2008 flood may not have the impact that the 1993 did; the 1993 flood lasted months, not weeks, and we were far less prepared then than we are now, mainly because the 1993 flood occurred at the start of a major economic upturn and the government was therefore willing to spend money to dramatically improve the infrastructure. Nonetheless, Iowa is already estimating 1.5 billion dollars in flood damage, and this time we're in the middle of a prolonged downturn with a President who doesn't seem to care that much about a pair of blue states like Iowa and Illinois. Things don't look good for Iowa. And it doesn't help that the Red Cross has already run out of money. If you're in a position to help out in downstate Illinois, eastern Iowa, or Missouri, please answer Obama's call and volunteer.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Politics, Copyright, and Corn

Various interesting things from the news:

Stephen Mansfield, who was both George W. Bush's and Tom DeLay's biographer, will be releasing a pro-Obama book this summer. Several sources think this book may help to win votes for Obama from evangelicals. What separates Obama from the others? Obama's faith is real, not the sham faith that so many Republicans wear like a dinner jacket in order to get elected.

The daily Gallup polls are showing a dead heat, but if you ask Americans who they think will win the election, Obama leads by 11 points; Obama's lead with independents is the breaking point here. Is McCain's Straight Talk Express about to be run off the road by the inevitability of Obama?

While were talking about Obama, his campaign has hired a chief of staff for his running-mate (whoever that might be): former Clinton adviser Patti Solis Doyle. Doyle was "fired" by Clinton in February and reportedly hasn't talked to her since; her hiring has led to widespread speculation that Clinton will, or will not, be Obama's VP. Not that this is much of a surprise. What it tells me is that Obama has chosen his VP, as you typically don't go hiring a chief of staff for someone who hasn't been named yet. Obama's campaign obviously has very good control over leaks and over press relations in general.

While we're on veeps, we should note that Bobby Jindal, one of the leading contenders to be McCain's strolling-mate (I don't think McCain's heart could take that many more months of running, so it'll have to be a stroll) has come out in support of intelligent design as a form of legitimate science. Now, I tried to read Conservapedia's article on "baraminology" a while back and just couldn't help but laugh at it. Sorry, dude, this is word jumble, not science.

Turning to the world of copyright, we have a couple of interesting stories. First, from England, we get the news that copyright terrorist Logistep, who ran around last year sending very threatening letters to people who it claimed owed them fines for copyright infringement, is all bark and no bite. My favorite little bit of this nonsense is that they even manage to accuse network printers of infringement. Despite many threatening letters, neither Logistep nor the parties they represent have actually sued anyone or otherwise attempted to enforce their threats.

In the same line, the RIAA recently got caught with its hand in the casehopper again, this time by refiling a case already dropped as a "John Doe" case, in order to get a different judge than the one that was about to dismiss it with prejudice. The RIAA's litigation tactics would make even the most determined wikilawyer blush.

And in related business, the AP has set the blogosphere on fire by filing DMCA takedowns against the Drudge Retort for quoting from and linking to AP content. It's interesting to compare how the old school media and the blogs are reporting on this. The New York Times ran the story under the headline "The Associated Press to set Guidelines for Using Its Articles in Blogs", and their clear editorial bent takes for granted that the AP has all the right in the world to set whatever rules it wants. Meanwhile, let's look at, say, TechCrunch's reaction: "Here’s Our New Policy On A.P. stories: They’re Banned". I assume that the AP monetizes their content; by quoting from and linking to AP content these blogs drive viewers to the AP, which should be exactly what the AP would want. But I imagine they think they can make more money by extortion, and let fair use be damned. I doubt that the folks at TechCrunch will mind if I quote them: "it’s clear that, like the RIAA and MPAA, they [the AP] are trying to claw their way to a set of property rights that don’t exist today and that they are not legally entitled to."

Not entirely unrelatedly, the Times reports that the average teenager's iPod is home to 800 "illegal" tracks, or about half. The Times (another old media outlet) argues the side of old media by suggesting that the solution is to make "breaking copyright unappealing". Nevermind that there's no good way to do that, at least as of yet, that doesn't also piss people off.

Finally, here's one sure to hit in the stomach or the pocketbook, take your pick: all the extra water in the Midwest has driven the price of corn to an all-time high. Oh, and steel prices have doubled in the past six months, too. Of course, some of this can be attributed to the weak dollar, but not all of it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ham wiki

I've copied several of my recent blogposts on ham radio topics to my ham radio wiki, where I plan to revise and expand them. Also, I hope to add other content as the spirit moves me.

Feel free to register and improve anything there. No drama will be tolerated.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Impeach Antonin Scalia!

Apparently the recent Supreme Court decision on the right of Guantanamo detainees to seek habeas corpus review has garnered a bit of attention. I've had, for a long time now, a little CafePress shop selling "Impeach Antonin Scalia" stickers. I think it's made maybe three sales lifetime. Last night, though, someone bought not one, but, in fact, five bumper stickers. I guess they're a bit annoyed at Tony's attitude. Scalia wrote one of the two dissenting opinions; he opined that granting even so much as judicial review of the confinement of these prisoners would lead to the death of Americans. Small wonder more people want him impeached!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Illinois toll road

Another search term that seems to hit my blog a lot lately is "Illinois toll road". There is, of course, no single Illinois toll road the way there is a single "toll road" in states like Indiana. Rather, Illinois has a system of toll highways administered by the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, all located in the area around Chicago. There are four highways in the system: the Tri-State Tollway, the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway, and the Veteran's Memorial Tollway. (There's also the Skyway, but that's owned by the City of Chicago and administered by a private firm under a capital lease arrangement with the City.)

Our illustrious governor, Rod Blagoyevich, has put a lot of political (and state financial) capital into an "open road tolling" project on the state's tollways that has, as I've previously noted, had mixed results at improving the usability of the tollway. In addition to the problems that this has created, the Tollway Authority has been in the news quite a bit lately for its aggressive collection efforts against toll scofflaws, many of which are not actually scofflaws; in some cases the problem (as in the link above) is actual fraud. Another I recall reading about was a case where a man inherited his deceased father's car. Unbeknownst to him, his father had run up a large number of unpaid tolls; when he registered the car in his name the Tollway Authority transferred the obligation to pay them to him, and had his license suspended. (There's something not quite right about that.) I never did hear how that got resolved, if at all.

Still, ISTHA is far nicer than other states, like Florida. In Florida, if your transponder malfunctions, you are, or at least were, guilty of nonpayment and must pay rather severe penalties, even though there is no way for you, as a driver, to know that your transponder malfunctioned. Illinois has long matched up missed tolls with transponder accounts (as the judge in Orlando ordered the Florida agencies to start doing), and in fact one of the benefits of the I-Pass has long been that as long as your I-Pass is funded a missed toll will be automatically charged to your account at the normal I-Pass rate (as long as your plates are on the I-Pass account; woe befall you if they're not) with no penalties. ISTHA has also become much more kindhearted about penalties in the past few months, probably because of all the bad press both for them and for toll authorities in other states.

The other interesting feature of the tollway system is the way it's been designed to capture revenue from interstate travellers. It's basically impossible to avoid the tollway system when traveling through the Chicago area. Since cash tollpayers pay double the toll rate of I-Pass holders, and have to wait in line at the manual plazas (which have been shrunk in number considerably by the open-road tolling project), this is a real PITA for the occasional traveler passing through. This even causes problems for the regular locals, as well, as I discussed in one of my previous articles.

The tollway has long been a convenient means for state government officials to hand off patronage to valued friends. It generates a smattering of revenue, while at the same time costing a lot of money. I can't imagine that it'll last that much longer, especially with today's trend toward "greening", which really disfavors tollways. Tollways increase gas usage as well as pollution due to the need to slow down for toll plazas, and are unfavorable in a green light in that sense to begin with. The open road tolling that Blagoyevich is so proud of helps with that some, but (as I've noted) actually makes things worse on some roadways. On top of that, the skyrocketing price of gas is pushing people off the roads entirely. I suspect that the days of the ISTHA are numbered.

Martin Kelly

I imagine that I'm not alone in having vanity search alerts set up for my name. I set this up originally when I was on the WMF's Communications Committee and would occasionally interface with the press, so that I'd be a bit more aware of where a particular contact has spread. Of course, since my name is the same as the program coordinator for one of New Zealand's TV stations, a tech writer for, and countless other semi-interesting people, not to mention very similar to a well-known actress and part of the names of a well-known writer and the CEO of a well-known pharmaceuticals company, there are a lot of false hits.

The most recent spate of false hits, though, is for Martin Kelly, who was apparently a famous British plastic surgeon in London. I'd never heard of him, but I don't pay much attention to celebrity matters. It seems that his wife was a TV star of some sort. He apparently recently died, unexpectedly, of a heart condition. Death tends to increase one's visibility to the media, at least for a short time, and apparently also on search engines; Google Webmaster Tools tells me that "martin kelly" is the number 2 most common search term matching my blog in the past week, just below "kelly martin" and just above "illinois toll road".

The articles I've seen about Dr. Kelly suggest that he was a generous person well-regarded for his humanitarianism. Plastic surgeons who do cosmetic procedures tend to make a ridiculous amount of money off their commercial practices, and it is quite common for this demographic to offer the reconstructive aspect of their skill for free, especially to children. (For example, virtually nobody has had to pay for a cleft palate reconstruction in recent memory, due to the widespread generosity of reconstructive surgeons.) So the question for me is whether Dr. Kelly is merely ordinary, or actually extraordinary, in his generosity in this regard.

The main thing about this that interested me is how drawn out the media coverage of his passing has been. I assume this is because of his celebrity status and, perhaps more so, because of the celebrity status of his widow. I'm sure many other doctors have died in the days since May 20th; I imagine at least some of them were at least as generous as he was. None of them have garnered this much media attention. Why does Hollywood and its periphery merit so much attention? Perhaps a hint of the reason can be found here.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Studying for your extra?

Got your Amateur Extra license yet? If not, well, you have until the end of June before the new pool goes into effect. Depending on your knowledge base, this will either make it easier, or harder.

Of course, the question pools for the licensing exams in the United States are maintained by the National Conferece of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators, or NCVEC. They periodically revise the pools to reflect changes both in the regulatory regime and in what constitutes "good engineering and good amateur practice". The Extra pool was recently revised, with an effective date of July 1, 2008. So if you're planning to get your Extra license and you've been studying up on it, move now or you'll have to learn new stuff; on the other hand, if you're not quite ready I'll be telling you below what you don't need to study up on if you're going to test after the end of June.

The Question Pool Committee (QPC) added 160 new questions to the pool and removed 228 questions from the old pool in creating the 2008 pool; the remaining 576 questions were carried through either unchanged or revised somewhat or significantly.

Removed from the pool are:
  • all the questions about the exclusive privileges of Extras;
  • one question about procedural handling of harmful interference complaints;
  • all the questions the specific details of the spurious emission standards (replaced by a single question about spurious emissions generally);
  • one question about ITU allocation practices;
  • one about license modifications;
  • one about sharing requirements in 30 meters;
  • questions about the definition of telecommand and the related questions regarding encryption of telecommand transmissions;
  • questions about the "teacher exception" to the prohibition on compensation of operators;
  • the "PRB-1" question (old E1B08);
  • several questions about station control (in some cases replaced by new ones);
  • all of the questions regarding alien reciprocal operation;
  • most but not all questions about RACES (you don't need to worry about the President's war powers anymore);
  • some but not all questions about the amateur satellite service;
  • most of the questions about the volunteer examination process (but one question was added about the minimum age requirement for VEs);
  • questions related to CSCEs for the Morse Code examination (which is no longer offered);
  • one of the two questions regarding the National Radio Quiet Zone (the one about beacon stations, not the definition)
  • one of the several questions related to spread-spectrum;
  • all of the questions that test whether one can correspond the letters used for satellite service bands with frequencies; these were replaced with a pair of general questions about the concept without testing the detailed facts, and one that does test the details of practice;
  • several of the questions regarding to the details of slow-scan television, fast-scan television and facsimile;
  • most of the questions related to contesting (but new, different ones have been added);
  • most of the questions related to packet and to specific digital modes;
  • many questions regarding test instruments and their uses;
  • three of the PPM questions;
  • several questions about receiver design and performance: two about blocking dynamic range, two about sensitivity, two about intercept points, one about selectivity, and one about IF filtering;
  • several questions about noise in mobile installlations;
  • three questions about direction-finding;
  • the question about surface mounting;
  • two questions about principles of resonance;
  • some, but not all, of the questions requiring the computation of resonant frequencies (and a few new ones were added, same idea but different numbers);
  • some, but not all, of the questions related to RC tanks and time constants;
  • some, but not all, of the questions involving phase angles; notably, the ones involving admittance are gone;
  • three of the skin effect questions;
  • all of the questions regarding the Q of RLC circuits;
  • most, but not all, of the questions requiring the computation of ERP given various losses and gains;
  • several questions regarding photoconductors and photovoltaics (replaced with new, different questions);
  • the infamous E6B17, which has the same answer for A and C and for B and D;
  • many, but not all, of the specific electronic design theory questions;
  • several questions about product detection in SSB and FM;
  • several questions about sine waves, square waves, and sawtooth waves;
  • several questions regarding RF amplifier efficiency;
  • all questions related to ITU emission designators;
  • the questions related to pulse modulation (replaced by two newer, quite different questions in the new pool)
  • some questions related to spread spectrum (replaced by new, different questions)
  • most but not all questions regarding antenna theory, design, and construction (notably, the four questions about "symmetrical pattern antennas" are gone).
In place of this long litany of deleted material, we have new material on:
  • safety, both RF and general electronic;
  • restrictions on operating near the edge of an authorized band;
  • the unusual operating restrictions in 30 meters and 60 meters;
  • a new question on marine mobile operation;
  • a more general question about spurious emission (as mentioned above);
  • a replacement question on Part 17 (antenna height and siting) compliance;
  • several new questions on third-party traffic and international communications;
  • replacement questions about station control, with more emphasis on the specific regulations regarding remote and automatic control than in the old pool;
  • new questions about the regulatory requirements that apply to repeater stations, auxiliary stations, and space stations;
  • two replacement questions about VEs (number of VEs required, and minimum age of VEs);
  • one replacement questions about spread-spectrum, specifically authorized frequencies;
  • one question about STAs (STAs have replaced modifications to some degree);
  • several questions about satellite operation practice (replacing the four or five that were in the old pool);
  • a few questions about the theory of fast-scan television and slow-scan television, replacing the practical detail questions in the old pool;
  • two questions about Digital Radio Mondiale;
  • several new questions about contesting, including one about "acceptable" use of spotting networks and one about Cabrillo;
  • several replacement questions about digital modes that are more theory-based than the removed practical questions;
  • several replacement questions about test equipment that may better reflect common uses of test equipment in the ham shack than the old pool did;
  • two questions about the -174 dBm/Hz noise floor;
  • several replacement questions about receiver performance that are more theoretical in nature than the removed ones;
  • several questions about noise rejection that are more general than the old ones about removing noise in mobile stations;
  • a few new questions about identifying and removing RFI;
  • several questions about digital signal processing, software defined radios, and digital waveforms;
  • one electrical theory question which I am pretty sure is copied from the General pool;
  • some new questions about semiconductors, mostly theoretical except for the one about the typical voltage of a photovoltaic cell;
  • a few new questions about RF amplifiers, including microwave applications;
  • some new questions regarding circuit design;
  • a few questions regarding multiplexing;
  • one question about JT65;
  • replacement questions of a more general nature for the removed ones regarding antenna theory, along with a few regarding antenna modeling;
  • several new questions regarding feedline matching that replace older ones that use terminology which seems to have fallen out of favor;
  • one question about Wilkinson dividers;
  • one replacement question on direction finding.
In summary, the QPC seems to have made the test significantly less mathematical, and has in many cases replaced the old math-heavy questions with questions that target whether or not the examinee understands the underlying principle at play. The regulatory focus seems more centered on responsible operation and on the limits of authorized operation rather than on minutiae of the regulatory regime that are of no pertinence 90% of the time anyway. And they've added an entire new section on safety.

I suspect that the new pool will be easier than the old one, but may actually force people to learn more information that they should know anyway as part of being responsible hams. There is, in my opinion, an inordinate focus on contesting, but I understand that for a lot of hams this is the main focus of their activities, so perhaps that is appropriate. And I'm a bit peeved at the inclusion of Digital Radio Mondiale considering the current patent and copyright status surrounding DRM that makes it basically impossible for hams (in the US, at least) to homebrew a DRM system without breaking some law or another. DRM relies on MELP, which is subject to a restrictive patent, and the DLL being used by most amateurs to implement MELP is actually pirated. And they got rid of some of the worst questions in the old pool, especially the symmetrical pattern radiator questions, which were copied from one of the old commercial radio operator tests and serve to test whether you've learned a specific heuristic rule of thumb having no direct relation to theory anyway. So overall I think the new pool is a good thing, but it'll probably create some difficulty for those who've been prepping based on the old one. Quite a bit of new material.

For a complete breakdown of the changes in the pool, go here.