Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Signs of the times

Remember that show from the 70's 80's, V?

Based on the shambling zombie of an old scifi cliche, bipedal evil lizardpeople disguised as human beings (cloaked in clever Hollywood latex no doubt) come to Earth in giant flying saucers. Their world was dying due to - wait for it - lack of water. So they invaded Earth to steal ours. Using giant vacuum cleaners they sucked all the water up to their spaceships in order to transport it a gazillion billion miles back to lizardworld - presumably to fill swimming pools and keep their golf courses green.

Even as a kid I knew just how utterly stupid this concept was. No matter what technology they possessed, it would have been impossible for the aliens to move the sheer volume of water necessary to refresh their world. And more to the point, if the lizard civilization commanded the fantastically enormous resources and energy implicit their plan, they'd have been far better served to bend that technology towards finding, or creating, the resources they needed closer to home. Instead, they embarked on an ill-fated long range military conquest in order to maintain their flawed and failing lifestyle. Stupid, idiotic, and inevitably doomed to failure.

Thirty years later I wonder if the producers of that ridiculous show aren't slapping each other on the back for their foresight and prophetic vision. Because we're living that scenario right now - only we are the stupid lizard people.

Oil prices have hit record highs every morning for the last month, continuing a dizzying climb that's been going on for over two years. There are many causes for this. Increasing desperation and panic, war and conflict, uncontrolled population growth, short-sighted and self-serving leadership, idiotic energy policies, Gordian-knot regulations and taxation that continues to drive up energy costs without paying any tangibles dividends, the uncontrolled greed and avarice of those who control the assets - both those who produce energy and the parasites who trade it on the open market, an entrenched technology and industrial complex that smothers innovation and steadfastly refuses to invest in real alternatives in any significant way, our throwaway economy, and our own arrogant refusal to economize or demand a change in our infrastructure. Ultimately though, it comes down to one thing and one thing only - simple supply and demand.

Demand exceeds supply, it's really just that simple. There are too many thirsty lizards in the pond. Either we need a bigger pond, or we need less lizards or we need to get off our scaly asses and find a better way to do business.

There isn't enough oil. Oh sure, there's enough in the ground - for the moment. But it's getting harder and harder to get it out, it's either in war zones or unfriendly countries, or it's in remote and difficult to reach terrain and unless we find vast and heretofore unknown reserves beneath our oil refineries that isn't going to change. Despite advances in technology, it's getting harder to get the oil out of the ground in sufficient quantities. It's getting harder to move oil in high enough volume to where it can be refined. It's getting harder to process it in sufficient bulk to meet demand and in sufficient diversity to meet hundreds of self-serving federal, state, and local blend requirements. And it's getting harder to move the final product to where it can be used. And the end user, far from reducing need, continues to demand greater and greater volume in order to support some idealized wish fulfillment fantasy of the American Dream. Every single step of the process contributes to increasing scarcity and cost. Every single step.

As a result it costs more, a lot more. And it's only going to get worse. There may be brief respites from increasing energy costs, but unless significant changes are made, those respites are going to be further apart and fewer in number and increasingly less significant. Eventually, we will reach a point of no return - the point where we simply do not have the resources and innovation to do something about it, even if it means the demise of our civilization. History is rife with such examples, from Rome to the British Empire to the Soviet Union.

The signs have been all around us for over forty years, but up until recently we've had enough reserve in our economy to allow most Americans to go blithely on fiddling while the city burns. But oil powers everything in our economy, everything, and the cracks are getting wider, and no amount of patching is going to cover them up.

In addition to the obvious things such as the gleeful pronouncement by the news organizations every morning of record prices, and the blustering and grandstanding of the politicians, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth by my fellow citizens, some significant indicators I've noticed are:

- Car companies are starting to promote smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. TV advertisements are shifting away from the monster SUV's. However, if you look a bit deeper, you'll see that this situation is merely clever marketing. American car companies haven't stopped building monster SUV's and not one has committed to building strictly fuel efficient or alternative fuel vehicles. GM has a test Hybrid pickup available only in California, and only because it was mandated by law, they're not making it available elsewhere and neither are other manufacturers. They don't want you to buy it. The reason for this is that manufactures are betting that the current oil situation is only temporary, and as soon as the storm passes they'll go right back to the massive eight cylinder, 350 cubic inch, four-barreled, Hemi-carbureted, Viagra induced wet-dream they've been promoting for the last two decades. Is this their fault? Not entirely. While they may have put the idea in our heads, we bought it. And continue to buy it and refuse to demand a change.

- Truckers are up in arms. They've marched, er driven, on Washington to demand relief from impossible fuels costs. They haven't yet marched on Peterbilt, Ford, or Volvo to demand development of more efficient or alternative fueled tractors though, and they haven't removed those giant king-sized sleeper cabs that add tons weight to a significant number of long haul rigs. There is little innovation in the shipping industry and every year sees an increase in the volume of long haul over-road transportation, rather than a shift to more efficient container-based rail transportation between regional distribution hubs. And before anybody gets up in arms over my apparent targeting of the heroic truckers, you should know that I have a commercial driver's license and extensive experience driving tractor/trailer rigs for the military, and my wife works in the shipping industry - I'm familiar with the process, thanks.

- The collapse of the home mortgage industry, which was driven directly by a slowing economy and inflation, caused by soaring oil prices. All the little things are adding up, and increasingly people simply can't meet their monthly payments. This hasn't stopped them from taking out loans with insanely compounding interest rates however. And once you have the house, you have to have the boat to put in the driveway, and the monster truck to pull it. Americans still live with the idea that it just can't happen to them, but it does and is and it's happening more and more frequently now.

- As a direct result of the mortgage collapse, the homeless population is reaching new highs. In addition to the drunks and the addicts and the mentally ill, it's becoming a way of life for a significant number of the middle class here in America and there's not much sympathy, or aid, to go around. Cities, such as Santa Barbara, California have given up trying and have simply resigned themselves to the fact.

- The number of gas station drive-offs is up geometrically. There is some indication that thieves are stealing credit cards and license plates specifically to facilitate drive-off theft; it's becoming an sub-industry of the criminal underworld. In some cases, thieves will jack a large truck or SUV, fill the tank at a local station and drive off without paying, siphon out the gas and sell it - and abandon the worthless vehicle. Police increasingly are not following up on reported drive-offs, even if the perpetrator is caught on camera, because the shear volume of gasoline thefts is overwhelming their available manpower. There has been a significant increase in outright volume theft, i.e. thieves forcing the locks on storage tanks at gas stations, school bus depots, and other such storage facilities and taking hundreds of gallons. Gas stations and bulk storage facilities are having to implement round the clock security, driving costs up even higher. Additionally, gasoline theft from parked vehicles, both private vehicles and agricultural and commercial equipment, has doubled or even tripled in some areas. Exact figures vary depending on source and region, and not not every supplier is willing to provide precise data, fearing that it will make them an easier target - i.e. some franchise gas stations are not allowed by their parent companies to implement a pre-pay option, because the company does not want to invest in the equipment necessary. The sale of locking gas caps is up significantly.

- I've noticed that people are driving a bit slower on the highways. I've always driven the speed limit and I notice lately that others are too. There's been no real talk of returning to the widely unpopular, and widely flouted, 55mph national speed limit imposed by Nixon during the OPEC embargo of the 70's, but then again it's an election year.

- I've notice that there are less folks in the grocery store and a lot more in the bulk food stores.

- The cost of a 12-pack of Killian's Irish Red has gone from $10.95 to $18.59 in less than a year. People are switching to cheaper beer.

- A new form of energy related spam has appeared in my inbox. While the government and industry may be mired in their ways, grifters and scam artists are nothing if not innovative. Lately I've gotten daily messages advertising suppressed technology that purports to turn water into gasoline - a reemergence of the old Brown's Gas (Oxyhydrogen and/or Aquagas) scam from the 70's. I get spam for 'magnetic molecular fuel alignment systems' (magnetism, is there nothing it can't do?) and Tesla technology that will give me 100 plus miles per gallon, or even free me completely from oil's greasy shackles. I've seen ads in recent additions of reputable magazines for bio-diesel reactors and a home ethanol distiller that purports to make all your gasoline from sugar and grass clippings. Somebody is buying this crap. And the scams come in all sizes from the small to the large, from the single slick con artist selling magic herbal fuel additives to an entire bogus medicine show that is doing its level best to sell us rubes on the idiotic assumption that converting highly efficient food producing cropland into inefficient ethanol snake oil is a really, really good idea.

I could go on, the signs are all around us, but I won't. Should we be afraid? Yes. Should we be pissed? Yes. Should we be depressed? No. We have the technology, the resources, and the innovation to do something about it. We're not lizards, we don't have to go the way of the dinosaurs. Far from spelling our doom, this crisis can lead to real innovation and force a change to our civilization that is long, long overdue.

It's an opportunity, and the time to take advantage of it is now, while we still can.


  1. First of all, I have no memory whatsoever of this show of which you speak. My adolescent self must have known it was bullshit. Yay adolescent self.

    Second, have you seen where Chrysler is offering an incentive program that if you buy certain cars by July 7th, you get a locked in price of $2.99/gal for 3 years. (You can buy the amount of gas that should get you 12,000miles per year for that period and there's a mildly complicated way you have to go about getting the gas...only mildly complicated, though.)

    I've got to wonder if they've just marked up all their vehicles up front or how they're going about making up the difference since the gas retailers still end up getting whatever they're charging.

    Know anything about this? Comments?

    (Not that I'm thinking of buying a car. I'm perfectly happy continuing to be a subway rider most of the time and letting employers rent me a car when I need one.)

  2. I meant to mention that, Nathan.

    It's a brilliant marketing strategy - perfect in every respect, it plays to consumer concerns, the marketing practically pays for itself. It cost Chrysler nothing, They've rolled the cost into the price tag of their new vehicles (hey, everything costs more, even new cars, who's going to notice?). It allows them to keep producing the same vehicles and they don't have to change their production lines. They've put limits on it (12,000 miles) so people in the program are highly discouraged from using the card to fill tanks on vehicles not their own. And if gas prices do fall below $3.00 per gallon (some economists and market watchdogs are predicting a bubble burst real soon now) it's per gravy in their pocket. If the bubble doesn't burst, well, they are out nothing.

    I'm sure somebody in marketing got a real nice bonus for this one - and I expect other manufacturers will follow suit sooner rather than later.

  3. Ha! Suzuki: Free gas for the summer, if you buy now - announced today. I'd read the fine print though, because you have to finance through their dealerships. Your definition of 'free' may not be exactly the same as theirs. Just saying.

  4. Good for you, Jim. You've taken an effective rant, and finished it off with the best spin that can be put on the situation! I'm not saying that a hope for real change is just spin, but that you've pointed to the possible up side, rather than dwelling just on the negative.

    I think we can go down a different road than we have. I think we do have the technology to be able to produce and distribute energy in a form that isn't dependent on million-year-old fossil deposits. I think we can utilize energy more efficiently than creating millions of tiny explostions every hour.

    But we have to do the up-front, high cost, low return things to get those things going. We have to turn away from the oil companies and their entrenched way of making money. We have to allow some perceived hardships (wind turbines make too much noise? WTF?)

    We will do these things, or we will starve. I'm optimistic enough to think we'll actually get the job done before we start to starve.

  5. People are switching to cheaper beer?! Oh, the humanity. Won't GW think of the beer?

    I guess, people may still like GW better to have a beer with, but it ain't the same beer as in 2000 and 2004.

  6. And this morning, the news was trying to sell me on "hypermiling". Google it. I'm too lazy to paste a link.

    And I won't be hypermiling a whole lot either.

  7. Hypermiling?

    Well you know it's good if it has a catchy buzzworthy name.

  8. Oh and Steve, I don't drink cheap beer, and I'm not sharing it with GWB under any circumstances. Period.

  9. The short version of hypermiling is that you have to coast a lot. Foot on gas --Bad / Foot on Brakes--Bad.

    I guess it's another word for idling as fast as you can.

  10. Yeah, I googled it.

    Hypermiling, i.e. drive sensibly, and not like some lead footed idiot. That'll be twenty dollars, please, checks payable to hypermiling.com.

    Makes about as much sense as paying Jennie Craig to tell you to eat right and exercise.

  11. I'll tell you to eat right and exercise for free.

    Just one of the many bonus services that come with knowing me.

  12. Michelle, you're doing it wrong. You don't give it away for free...you just discount it heavily and steal all their customers.

    ::That little gem of business advice will be $5.00. Thank you for your patronage::

  13. The biodiesel reactors are real. You can create a small amount easily in your (well ventilated) garage using a plastic soda bottle and small glass mason jar. But, the big reactors make bulk generation much easier, at the price of better equipment.

  14. But I don't want to know all those *other* people.

    It's much easier just to harass the people I already know, for free!

    What a deal!

  15. Alex,

    Oh yeah, I know at least some of the biodiesel reactors are real, or you can download plans and make your own - it's not hard in small quantities.

    I suspect however, that the reactors advertised via spam are a scam though.

    The reason I mentioned it in the post is that even 6 months ago it would have been unlikely that anybody would be interested in an ad in the back of SciAm, today however - well it's a sign of the times.

    The ethanol distiller is also legit, however there's a catch - if you use refined sugar you'll end up paying about what you'd pay for moonshine, i.e. about $20USD per gallon. In order for you to produce a usable quantity economically you have to buy non-food-grade raw sugar from Mexico in bulk and it still comes out to about $3.50 a gallon, more depending on tariff and shipping for the sugar.

  16. Nathan, I hate to break it to you, but if you were born in 1960, your adolescent self was 23 when the first V miniseries aired (the success of the initial miniseries led to a second successful miniseries, which led to an utterly unsuccessful TV series--my 12 year-old self watched the show religiously--not because it was any good, but because the TV pickings for a SF geek in 1984 were pretty freaking slim and you took what you could get). The show is possibly most notable in retrospect for the fact that one of the recurring alien characters (a friendly alien who helped the good guys) was played by Robert Englund, who went on to play Freddy Krueger.

    I do feel obligated to add that the original miniseries wasn't bad if you treated the silly premise as the McGuffin it was and got over the fact that the main plot twist was stolen from one of the best-known Twilight Zone episodes ("To Serve Man")--the SFX were decent, the acting was adequate, the makeup and costumes were better-than-average-TV for the era, and there were a few thrills and chills. I mean, at the time V aired, the best American science fiction TV shows on the air were 20-to-30 year old reruns of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone in syndication, if that tells you anything. Terrible era to be a sci-fi fan, just terrible....

    (As to the main point of the post: well-said Jim, and I think I pretty much agree with everything you say.)

  17. Oh--something else:

    Real hypermiling is dangerous as hell and I'm surprised someone on TV was pushing it. Serious hypermilers draft tractor trailers and turn the engine off and on while on the highway--driving behaviors that can get your ass scrambled with the debris of your car if you don't know what you're doing (and are still risky even if you do). Hypermiling takes it a step beyond "drive sensibly."

    But then I didn't see what Nathan saw--it's also possible (likely) the term is being degraded to mean "drive conservatively." To that extent, it's fine. Do that.

    But please don't draft a semi with your engine off. I like you guys, and would hate to imagine all of you becoming one with the universe--or at least the part of the universe consisting of your car and the back quarter of a freight trailer. Not Zen. Not Zen at all.


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