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Monday April 28, 2008

Harry Erwin's Letter From England:

We have policy wonks here, too. Boy, do we have policy wonks!...

The Brown Government is trying to reduce salaries paid and other current costs in the public sector (taking into account inflation) to allow them to continue to increase spending on their pet programmes without a major tax increase. Now they have strikes and reduced worker productivity to deal with. Any private sector manager could have told them that layoffs work better.



> <http://tinyurl.com/4eufrm>



> <http://tinyurl.com/4my9xc>

Private sector workers are getting steamed, too--this time about



> <http://tinyurl.com/3vtkfe>


> <http://tinyurl.com/49arka>


Only about 70% of the UK families in this study were willing to allow immunisation against a sexually-transmitted virus. I wonder why...


BA story


> <http://tinyurl.com/6lbqoo>

I run into this problem much of the time. My students are very strategic about their learning.


> <http://tinyurl.com/3fmrsh>

Related issue:


Hacking problem

<http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/04/25/mass_web_attack_grows/> <http://tinyurl.com/633kvh >


Beware Outside Context Problems--Harry Erwin, PhD


And A very thought provoking letter:

IQ, Wealth, and Demographic Winter

An important additional factor regarding Bell Curve data is the widely-observed "demographic winter" now occurring, in which most developed nations are well below the fertility rates that can replace their present population's existing numbers.

Fertility declines are associated with increases in wealth and urbanization across countries. This trend appears to begin with the right side of the Bell Curve (more choices, more power; for women, more opportunity to use their IQ for things besides rearing children; more delayed marriages; and less 'devout' faith). That is, the people on the right end of the curve, apparently the world over, breed much, much less than is required for replacement -- to put it bluntly, continue this and the genes of the people who made those choices will go practically extinct within three or four generations.

But it does not end there; indeed, some studies show that "in the later phase of transition, fertility decline among less educated strata is often faster than among better educated strata. The less educated `catch-up' with their more educated counterparts and, when transition is complete, educational differentials in fertility disappear." [Cleland, J. (2004) Education and future fertility trends, with special reference to mid-transitional countries.] For example, the rate of children being born in Mexico declined more 1995-2005 than in almost any known historical example.

This is uncharted economic and social territory, as depopulation -- note, not a 'stable' population, but a rapidly-aging population worldwide, and eventual real, large depopulation, is the currently demographic trend -- had always previously been associated with poverty and chaos.

What a piece of work is man -- the only creature to have the possibility of accumulating enough power and control, principally through the work of those on the right side of the Bell Curve, to voluntarily (starting with the choices of those on the right side of that curve) limit its reproduction below replacement level.

If wealth, urbanization, a more 'cosmopolitan' or vague or syncretic faith, are all associated with IQ, which is associated with population decline, then from the point of view of basic -- the most fundamental -- evolutionary theory, one can legitimately begin to ask if high IQ is a feature or a bug.

John Kelleher

I have often wondered about this myself. I am not sure I have an answer. Having 10 children is not an intelligent strategy. Having three or four is another story. The problem of the Marching Morons (and the world of The Little Black Bag) have been noted by science fiction writers for half a century.



Dear Dr. Pournelle

I noticed that you included a NY Times article from Roland Dobbins submission referring to the Navy's shipbuilding problems. I feel compelled to object to the article's tone and its incomplete and and inaccurate analyzes. According to the Times: "Behind the numbers in the Accountability Office study, experts say, is a dynamic of mutually re-enforcing deficiencies: ever-changing Pentagon design requirements; unrealistic cost estimates and production schedules abetted by companies eager to win contracts, and a fondness for commercial technologies that often, as with the ferry concept, prove unsuitable for specialized military projects.

At the same time, a policy of letting contractors take the lead in managing weapons programs has coincided with an acute shortage of government engineers trained to oversee these increasingly complex enterprises."

The reason I am objecting is that I have spent the last 40 years in the defense contracting business on both sides of the fence. As part of this experience I have seen many project, programs and contracts for large and very large weapons systems. The facile and superficial condemnation above is highly misleading and an insult to the many DoD and contractor personnel trying hard to provide for the common defense under extremely adverse conditions. Allow me to explain (or rant as the case may be.)

It currently takes 12 to 15 years to get a major system fielded after a valid need is identified. It takes 2-3 years to get enough support within the DoD community to actually start fighting for a slot in the budgetary process. It takes another 2-3 years for the need to appear in a Congressionally approved budget. Only then can the acquisition process begin. Allow a year or more to prepare specifications, solicit bids, write and then evaluate proposals and award a contract. Then perhaps we delay another 6 to 12 months to resolve the protests. Of course, many of the "needs" aren't met by any existing technology and new technology and engineering processes and materials must be discovered or invented. 18 months to get to a high level design review is followed by another 18 months to get to the detailed design review. Then there are 4 or more years of fabricating the 100's of thousands of parts and millions of lines of code for that new rocket, aircraft, ship, tank, radar, comm system or whatever. Then test and demonstrate that it works. Maybe then deliver it to the end user in the field.

During this time there has been at least one major change in the world's political situation, two or more changes in the occupant of the Oval Office, 5 or more changes in the senior DoD civilian and military policy makers and their "conflict strategies" and 12 or more changes in Congressional budget priorities. (Imagine hiring a remodeling contractor to add some rooms to your house. Then after he starts work, each week the bank decides to alter the number of rooms allowed and the amount of money he's allowed to spend on helpers and material that week.)

Add to this scenario the environment where Government (and contractor) program managers aren't allowed to make real decision, at least not without negotiating a consensus compromise among the dozen or two players and apparatchiks who must be appeased. And then include the multiple layers of bureaucrats who are afraid to report bad news up the chain (before it has become catastrophic) along with the other bureaucrats who insists that the earth is flat because that's what they've promised their bosses.

So yes, over a period of a dozen years, requirements do change. When Congress only allows enough funding to buy commercial technologies, you can't plan on using rugged military grade designs. And those technology thingees you were trying to invent change the requirements. While the periodic replanning due to Congressional budget cuts also alters schedules and costs. I do suppose that there is some relationship between the periodic acute shortages of funding to staff the government offices that oversee these projects with the shortages of experienced engineers in these offices, but I'm not sure exactly what that relationship is. Congress and the Administration set the policy and hire the bureaucrats. (I didn't say "stupid policy" did I?) The rest of us just try to make it work.

In summary, I do find it somewhat irritating that the Times blames the contractors and the Navy for what the Congress and the SECDEF and his political operatives have wrought.

Thanks for listening.

One of those contractors and former government engineer

We can all agree the procurement system is broken. In just how many places is not clear...


Interesting Parallel

Dr. Pournelle,

It's been some time since I've visited your site, and I was very sorry to learn that you've been ill. I would like to extend my best wishes for a quick and full recovery.

The initial reason for this missive was this. I recently uncovered a couple of your books on Falkenburg in a box of old paperbacks, and I took them with me on the road (I'm an OTR truck driver these days) and re-read them. In that reading I was struck by the social division of "citizen" and "taxpayer" that you had created. In other words, an ever decreasing minority 'footing the bill' for an ever increasing majority.

What struck me about that was the way our society seems to be heading that same way at a seemingly increasing rate. At least, it looks that way to me. Our government ( but not the people ) seems to be lurching farther and farther towards outright socialism with every election, and with the baby boomers soon to retire in LARGE numbers it begs the question "who's going to pay for it all?".

I'm interested in your thoughts.

Thank you,


R W 'Butch' Stiles

You will, of course. Or anyone. Just so long as the government employees are paid and get their annual raises. That's what government is for...


bell curve from an odd angle.


This surfaced in my reading today:


The Reverend Wrights views on differing IQ results of African-Americans and European-Americans ( Hey, I've been hyphenated! )

The Updated comment by Mr. Vanderleun is telling:

"I believe that biology is important. I believe that culture -- deep culture -- is important. I believe that education is important. The balance among these elements is even more important. But the consequences of the view that there are innate biological differences that trump culture and education is very dangerous.

I do not believe a civil society democratically constituted can withstand such a view...."

If the differences that have been documented in the Bell Curve are genetic, and are capable of overwhelming culture & education, which from what I've seen is so. Then we are left with no other alternative than to change our society so that it is something other than an idealistic democracy. A Republic perhaps?

On the more pressing subject. You've done the silly stuff for us for so long that it is about time that we encourage you to do the serious thing and concentrate on getting well.

Wishing you a swift recovery.

Mark Gosdin



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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Several of you sent this information:

Element 122 found! In nature! (maybe) 


As someone who got a chemistry degree back when the Periodic Table stopped at 103, I just find this amazingly cool.

It looks like this confirms the "Island of Stability" hypothesis; they're saying it looks like this stuff (found in thorium ore at a concentration of something like 10E-12) has a half-life of something like 100 million years.

It's filling g orbitals!!

Wow. I sure hope they can isolate enough of it to do some investigation of its chemical properties.

(And, of course, I hope the discovery is confirmed. It could still turn out to be a mistake.)

Mike Van Pelt


Fareed Zakaria's view. This opens a new debate.

Dear Jerry,

I read Fareed Zakaria's article, and then Goggled his background. A lot of vital detail quibbles are possible, the sum total of which would destroy his entire argument. What's most important is:

>>it is from the viewpoint of those who see the future in terms of the >>interests of the right side of the Bell Curve<<

He's nowhere near that 'democratic'. Fareed speaks for a constituency lying two standard deviations to the right on the intellectual and more importantly the financial bell curves. It's not that Fareed doesn't care about people in Kansas and Nebraska. Emotionally he's not aware they exist. And he may not care. T.R. Fehrenbach was no holds barred on Korean society's original brutal attitude to dying beggers in the street. So one wonders how much attitudinal baggage Fareed carries with him from his upper class childhood in Mumbai, India. These are just land spaces he occasionally gazes at from his first class seat. It looks identical to rural Russian land seen from 40,000', just as Louisiana resembles parts of India when seen from that altitude. The people inhabiting these territories are just statistics to Fareed. And if the statistics Fareed relies on are wrong, as they often are, then their ultimate reactions will surprise him.

Fareed's Globalized World consists of first class hotels and city center condos, all linked by private jets and the first class cabins of airliners. It's ultimately a tiny world of perhaps 30 major cities and an equal number of privileged universities and exclusive resorts. In this tiny world of airliners, airports, five star hotel lobbies and rooms, Fareed's Newsweek Magazine is ubiquitous. So surely it represents a dominant 'global' viewpoint, right?

T.R. Fehrenbach wrote in the early 1960s ("This Kind Of War") that if the USA wasn't extremely careful, it would find itself totally isolated in a world where the bulk of the population were peasants. It's advice Fareed and his global masters of the universe set would do well to internalize for their own physical safety, if for no other reason.

Best Wishes,


The Country Club Republican view, writ large.



  the Derb links the fareed article Richard sent you with your analysis. i have been spreading your ideas on it around the blogverse. many are resistant to even the bare idea of IQ differential. :(

rest and get well enough to lifehack you are a resource of incalculable value. ;)



kzinret Kate

I had intended to comment on Fareed Monday. Blame that on my malaise. Apolgies.

In India it is often noted that the upper classes simply do not see the beggars and the dead in the streets. I do not know if that be true, but it is described in both serious fiction and general non-fiction reporting.

Intellectual snobbery is a powerful temptation. "The stupid shall not inherit the Earth" was a theme of Charles Erskine Scott Wood's Heavenly Discourses, a book that had its influence among intellectuals.

A Republic has no choice: it must be structured so that the vast majority of the citizens are valuable: that they be able to support their families, and that they feel they are valuable to the Republic. They may have some deference to intellectuals and leaders, as the Continental Army did to General Washington, and indeed must have; but if the Republic is divided beteen "citizens" and taxpayers, the result if inevitable.

And that does seem to be the course we are steering with NAFTA, global economy, global free trade; and I believe we sow the wind.

I consider this one of the most important issues we face today.


bell curve from an odd angle.


This surfaced in my reading today:


The Reverend Wrights views on differing IQ results of African-Americans and European-Americans ( Hey, I've been hyphenated! )

The Updated comment by Mr. Vanderleun is telling:

"I believe that biology is important. I believe that culture -- deep culture -- is important. I believe that education is important. The balance among these elements is even more important. But the consequences of the view that there are innate biological differences that trump culture and education is very dangerous.

I do not believe a civil society democratically constituted can withstand such a view...."

If the differences that have been documented in the Bell Curve are genetic, and are capable of overwhelming culture & education, which from what I've seen is so. Then we are left with no other alternative than to change our society so that it is something other than an idealistic democracy. A Republic perhaps?

On the more pressing subject. You've done the silly stuff for us for so long that it is about time that we encourage you to do the serious thing and concentrate on getting well.

Wishing you a swift recovery.

Mark Gosdin

I am working as hard as I can on the true meaning of the Bell Curve, and its implications for education. I can only apologize for taking so long. It's both important and fairly difficult. Thanks to subscribers I have been able to take some time for this, but I still have to look to other matters which interrupt.


Third World Elite 

Dear Jerry,

"The question is are we going to be a 21st century city with shared prosperity, or a Third World city with an elite group on top and most on near poverty wages?"

The present American elites are certainly voting for the latter. And they have Fareed Zakaria of Mumbai India to advise them on how to establish a sustainable rigid hierarchy. Fareed's just the man for the job. How else to explain his major media presence? He's a born 'elitist' from a country still sporting a near 40% illiteracy rate, and with communal disunity reinforced by dozens of major languages, religions of every conceivable nature with a pantheon of thousands of gods, a persisting caste structure and sutainable high real estate prices supported by the world's worst overpopulation problem.

Best Wishes,


Ain't diversity wonderful?


Strong words 


Strong words from Dr. Sowell:



There is no reason why someone as arrogant, foolishly clever and ultimately dangerous as Barack Obama should become president -- especially not at a time when the threat of international terrorists with nuclear weapons looms over 300 million Americans.


The three leading candidates for their party's nomination are being discussed in terms of their demographics -- race, sex and age -- as if that is what the job is about. <snip>


And so long as we pay no attention to the real issues, that is how they will be evaluated.


Subject: Arizona capitalists want their slave-labor back.

Arizona capitalists want their slave-labor back.

No mention in this implicitly biased 'news' article about Arizona unemployment figures (including Indian reservations), prevailing wages, et. al., of course:


-- Roland Dobbins


Note that the implicit assumption is that the goal is to pass tests and increase statistical scores, rather than ensure children are educated.

metro/stories/2008/04/25/math_0426.html >

- Roland Dobbins


US Dept of Education, 


I was in Washington, DC over the weekend. During a bus tour around the city with my daughter, we drove by the US Department of Education. Wait until you see this picture of the redesigned entryways to the building.



These "lovely" porticoes grace the two front doors to the building. One wonders how much each cost. Maybe ETS (Educational Testing Services) paid for them as a thank you for all the testing business the Ed Dept. has generated.


When I was in the Mayor's office in LA, I used to visit "the hill" which is the HQ of LA Unified Schools. City Hall was a slum by comparison to that place.


School boards...

Stan sent a link to an article in which elected vs. appointed school boards was discussed.

Nashville TN for many years had an appointed school board. Their tendency to micro-manage became so obnoxious that the county went to the elected board style. Now those people have become such ardent micro-managers that folks want to go back to an appointed board...although now the state legislature would have to approve such a change. The sad thing is that, when the voters "throw a rascal out" the replacement seems to pick up where the rascal left off without missing a beat.

Charles Brumbelow

Oh, and I might add that the most important bit of micro-management is what coaches are assigned to which schools....

The Iron Law in action. I do point out that elected local school board with actual power have some chance of effecting changes in policies... And a few actually will. Good examples are a powerful argument to others.

At one time California's schools gave us bragging rights.


Your description of unrestrained capitalism...

applies quite nicely to the meltdown which took place in Wall Street (and your friendly local banks) due to the marketing of derivatives of sub-prime mortgages.


"...Einhorn points out that the fellows who run big investment banks have a strong incentive to maximize their assets and leverage themselves into deep trouble because their pay is a function of how much debt they can pile on. If they can use relatively low-interest debt to generate slightly higher returns, the firm earns more revenue and executive pay increases. Often, an astonishing 50 percent of total revenue goes to employee compensation at Wall Street firms."

"Under an interesting set of rules promulgated by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004, called "Alternative Net Capital Requirements for Broker-Dealers That Are Part of Consolidated Supervised Entities," the amount of capital that had to underlie assets was reduced substantially. (Mr. Einhorn rightly says that this set of rules should have been called the "Bear Stearns Future Insolvency Act of 2004.")"

"The owners, employees and creditors of these institutions are rewarded when they succeed, but it is all of us, the taxpayers, who are left on the hook if they fail. This is called private profits and socialized risk. Heads, I win. Tails you lose. It is a reverse-Robin Hood system."

"It looks to me [Ben Stein] as if the inmates are running the asylum. One truth, that deregulation is sometimes a good thing, has been followed down so long and winding a road that it has led to an immense lie: that deregulation carried to an extreme will not lead to calamity.

"To think that people of this mind-set are in charge of the finances of the nation that is the cornerstone of world freedom is terrifying. Mr. Einhorn may well have done us a service of great value."

After seven plus years of the latest Bush administration's misadventures in the middle east plus the Clinton administration's similar random attacks of violence, I'm not really sure the United States is still "...the cornerstone of world freedom..." but the point about the inmates running the asylum is well taken.

Charles Brumbelow

I have been trying to tell people this for a long time. Unrestrained capitalism leads to child sex slaves and human flesh for sale in the market place. Very few will approve; most will condemn; but it only takes a few to take "new bold steps" in exercising their "freedom."

The remedy is not to regulate everything, but to use some sense in where you get your notions of justice. But that's a matter for a much longer essay by someone in better shape than I am.

The usual pattern of regulations leads to stagflation. No regulation leads to horrors. Astonishing! Perhaps it is time to get out Aristotle and Cicero again...


Subject: The Purging has begun...

Dr. Pournelle,

The fight for funding continues, but now university administration is taking a side. Although one of his claims sounds a little off the deep end, it's just as bad the other way, with funding tied to the student, not the teacher.


Warm Regards for a Full Recovery,

Peter Czora


start the purges - global warming skeptic loses funding

Jerry, This is what you'd call "predictable and predicted" http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,353023,00.html 

A pioneering expert on hurricane forecasting says he may soon lose funding due to his skepticism about man-made global warming, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle.

Dr. William Gray, who once said that pro-global warming scientists are "brainwashing our children," claims that Colorado State University will no longer promote his yearly North Atlantic hurricane forecasts due to his controversial views.

Gray complained in a memo to the head of Colorado State’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences that "this is obviously a flimsy excuse and seems to me to be a cover for the Department's capitulation to the desires of some (in their own interest) who want to reign [sic] in my global warming and global warming-hurricane criticisms," the Chronicle reports.

I guess we'll be seeing more of this, probably up until the glaciers crush the computers and their models.

Jim Laheta

And this is the best science education system in the world...


"These kids are robust and can do the toughest work."

&feedName=worldNews&rpc=22&sp=true >

-- Roland Dobbins


Racism in the Dark Heart of America--the SF Bay Area?!


One quoted bit caught my eye...

"As an organization, we [Seal Press] need to look seriously at the effects of white privilege. We will be looking for anti-racist trainings offered here in the Bay Area. "

So, let me get this straight. Here in this Last Bastion Of Enlightenment, people are _still_ so terribly unconsciously racist that they need to go to Secular Humanist Confession.

In later quoted passages, the quote-ee claims that being white and/or male means that it's impossible for you to NOT to be racist and sexist. It's inherent in white men to be racist and sexist.

So...y'know, if it's so totally impossible for me to not be horribly racist and sexist, and I'm never going to get any credit for efforts othersie...then why should I even try? I'll just act the way I always do, and I won't bother pretending to feel guilty about it.



Shipbuilding: An Exercise in Futility

Dr. Pournelle, Having observed the shipbuilding and procurement program from the fleet and inside the Pentagon, it is very obvious the Navy made enormous mistakes and is compounding them in the current shipbuilding plan. I'm not alone in this assessment. In addition to the New York Time article there are plenty more in the US Naval Institute Proceedings. The fact that both Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) now cost more than double their initial assessment (and still rising) is reflective of the Navy's poor management of the process. It should be obvious to anyone that it is expensive to wait to define capabilities and requirements until you are bending metal. This disaster is about to repeat itself. Even the most casual examination of the Navy's latest shipbuilding plan will demonstrates just how impossible it will be to execute. It assumes the Navy will be able to double its shipbuilding construction budget over the next ten years. There is no explanation of where the money will come from. It also does not explain how the inflation of shipbuilding prices will be controlled. Words like "appetite suppression" are added to the buzzword bingo category but without any real follow through. Please withhold my name for obvious reasons.

Serving Officer

General Schriever addressed these problems when he build Systems Command in USAF. Of course that has been dismantled. The Iron Law continues.

There is a long history of problems with arsenals in the US. The arsenal system has both strengths and weaknesses. Now that we have consolidated all the defense industries into a very small number of companies we get the problems of both systems.

A study of what Shriever and his Director of Plans Francis X. Kane accomplished with Systems Command is very much worth doing.



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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Food Burning Facts: Plant Infrastructure 

Dear Jerry,

These references have been cited in past years here. Still, a baseline of facts and scale are good fuel for a discussion:


http://www.ethanolrfa.org/industry/locations/  This identifies owners, feedstocks and plant capacities. Brought to us by the Renewable Fuels Association. 147 distilleries are in production today, with 55 under construction and 6 being expanded. Current production capacity is 8.5 billion gallons. Another 5 billion gallons are in the construction category for a current 58% capacity expansion. The bulk of these presently operate on corn. The general consensus is these plants yield a net 30% energy addition.

An accompanying geographic map is here:

which readily explains the sensitivity of Iowa correspondents on this subject. But we're just getting started with food potlatch sites.



One hundred seventy one (171) plants are currently in production


and another 57 plants are under construction plus 3 being expanded. The bulk of these operate on soybean feedstocks.

This is TODAY, which is too late to influence. The 'good' news for tommorow is the USA's first sugar cane bagasse to ethanol plant is now underway in Louisiana. The 'better' news is nearly all of Florida is well known to be suitable for cane growing. Just select which products should be reduced or removed from Florida's current agricultural cornucopia. We can easily clear-cut citrus groves, reduce vegetable truck farming and plow up most cattle range lands. Best of all is the preferred 3d or 4th year rotational crop for cane fields. This is corn.

The question remains, can any referee besides foaming revolutionary mobs blow a whistle at this point?

Best Wishes,


p.s. In case folks missed this:

"In an interesting tussle, a virtually unnoticed clause was added almost at the least moment to a US energy bill that bars the government, in particular the Department of Defense, from using Alberta crude because it is deemed unconventional and too dirty. A provision in the US Carbon Neutral Government Act incorporated into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 act effectively bars the US government from buying fuels that have greater life-cycle emissions than fuels produced from conventional petroleum sources."

"California Democrat Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Republican Tom Davis added the clause. In a letter dated March 17 to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Waxman wrote the clause was in response to proposals by the Air Force to develop coal-to-liquid fuels which produce almost double the greenhouse gas emissions of comparable conventional fuel."


Subject: On ethanol and higher food prices.


The cover story for the December, 2007, issue of the Economist dealt with the end of the era of cheap food: http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10250420 

The article blames higher food prices on (1) rising meat consumption in India and China (more grain diverted to animal feed) and (2) ethanol subsidies. They put most of the blame for the recent sharp run up on ethanol production. Curiously, they didn't say anything about the impact of rising oil prices food production costs. The picture they paint regarding corn use and production don't seem to be consistent with the picture painted by Steve (from Iowa?):

------- begin excerpt -----

Higher incomes in India and China have made hundreds of millions of people rich enough to afford meat and other foods. In 1985 the average Chinese consumer ate 20kg (44lb) of meat a year; now he eats more than 50kg. China's appetite for meat may be nearing satiation, but other countries are following behind: in developing countries as a whole, consumption of cereals has been flat since 1980, but demand for meat has doubled.

Not surprisingly, farmers are switching, too: they now feed about 200m-250m more tonnes of grain to their animals than they did 20 years ago. That increase alone accounts for a significant share of the world's total cereals crop. Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than if you eat it as bread: it takes three kilograms of cereals to produce a kilo of pork, eight for a kilo of beef. So a shift in diet is multiplied many times over in the grain markets. Since the late 1980s an inexorable annual increase of 1-2% in the demand for feedgrains has ratcheted up the overall demand for cereals and pushed up prices.

Because this change in diet has been slow and incremental, it cannot explain the dramatic price movements of the past year. The second change can: the rampant demand for ethanol as fuel for American cars. In 2000 around 15m tonnes of America's maize crop was turned into ethanol; this year the quantity is likely to be around 85m tonnes. America is easily the world's largest maize exporter-and it now uses more of its maize crop for ethanol than it sells abroad.

Ethanol is the dominant reason for this year's increase in grain prices. It accounts for the rise in the price of maize because the federal government has in practice waded into the market to mop up about one-third of America's corn harvest. A big expansion of the ethanol programme in 2005 explains why maize prices started rising in the first place.

Ethanol accounts for some of the rise in the prices of other crops and foods too. Partly this is because maize is fed to animals, which are now more expensive to rear. Partly it is because America's farmers, eager to take advantage of the biofuels bonanza, went all out to produce maize this year, planting it on land previously devoted to wheat and soyabeans. This year America's maize harvest will be a jaw-dropping 335m tonnes, beating last year's by more than a quarter. The increase has been achieved partly at the expense of other food crops.

This year the overall decline in stockpiles of all cereals will be about 53m tonnes-a very rough indication of by how much demand is outstripping supply. The increase in the amount of American maize going just to ethanol is about 30m tonnes. In other words, the demands of America's ethanol programme alone account for over half the world's unmet need for cereals. Without that programme, food prices would not be rising anything like as quickly as they have been. According to the World Bank, the grain needed to fill up an SUV would feed a person for a year.

-------- end excerpt ------

I'd expect the Economist to do more fact checking than Drudge.....

CP, Connecticut.


How the rich starved the world.


- Roland Dobbins


Ethanol, food, and inflation

Hi Jerry,

If we're serious about using ethanol, we should lift the import restrictions/duties and allow Brazil to ship it to us at much lower cost than we can make it ourselves. They make it from sugar cane, which is a much more appropriate source, much easier to grow, and has a much higher return on energy than corn.

There's really two mandates: One that we use ethanol, and the other that it be made from corn, and debate them separately. The former is an energy strategy (misguided in my opinion), the latter is a lobbying strategy from Archer Daniels Midland.

Frankly, I'm not sure that either are a significant impact on the price of food. As another correspondent points out, the dollar has fallen between 60-75% over the past eight years. If we compare the price of most commodities to each other, to gold, and to foreign currencies, we find that the majority of the price increase (but not all - China really has increased demand) is due to the collapse of the dollar. Several estimates are that gas would be $60-70/barrel in the absence of the dollar's collapse.

The capacity of foreign companies to absorb the dollar's decline (and accept lower profits) has been exhausted, and we will see price increases across the board over the next year. In addition, the economic stimulus checks we're all about to receive are a textbook example: that money didn't exist, it was printed by Congress. More dollars chasing the same amount of goods is the classic definition of inflation.

So if we want cheaper gas, we need to stop deficit spending, raise interest rates, and start producing wealth instead of printing it.




Howdy Doctor Pournelle:

I did a little commodities shopping on Saturday. I bought large quantities of pasta and certain canned goods on Saturday. Despite huge increases in the "per bushel" price of corn, it was still 50¢ per 15 ounce can at my local Kroger. I bought a case. I also bought certain favorites in bulk from Costco, where rice was once again available.

A sign read "Limit 4 bags per customer" over the 20 lb bags of basmati. There was maybe half a pallet left. I saw a lot of people congregate around the sign, but no one took any. Aside from the local Indian community, many of Houston's local ethnic restaurants are afraid of running out. I think that also drove the rush to get some. I scanned carts near me as I checked out. No one had rice that I could see. I believe the media-induced panic is ending.

Still, I spent less than $200 on a back seat full of non-perishable food. I stuck to my list, and as a result I only need perishables in the near future. I'm considering a coffin freezer (also known as a "reach in") to deal with this summer's expected meat price increase.


Bill Kelly

Houston, TX


Jerry: Fear mongering?


I wonder if our food delivery system has become as brittle as our petroleum fuel delivery system.

Chris C


The following is a long discussion. My part of it was not very well done: I was distracted, my head wasn't working well, and I was trying to end it without a long discussion.

It is worth your reading:

Subject: oil, food, and ethanol

Jerry, I've just had a chat with a friend of mine, who owns a 1,500 acre combined cattle and grain farm.

He tells me that the price of fertilizer has gone right out of sight - he used the term 'through the roof'. The reason, of course, is that fertilizer is a petroleum product, and as such is subject to the price of oil. Herbicides and pesticides are also products of the petroleum industry.

He also advises me that the outrageously high price of diesel fuel oil is exacting a heavy toll. The reason is that virtually every piece of heavy farm equipment - combines, tractors, balers, you name it - use diesel fuel. The cost of running the equipment is dramatically more than it was last year.

These two factors are key contributors in the rising price of food.

You've published several letters that mention the lack of wisdom in using food to make fuel; frequently, I have been left with the impression that many of your readers believe that, if we would just stop using food for ethanol production, everything would magically be fixed.

Of course, that is incorrect.

The key underlying factor is the high cost of oil. If ethanol production were halted tomorrow morning, the cost of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and diesel fuel would remain the same; and these costs would continue to be reflected in the cost of food. Similarly, the high cost of diesel causes transportation costs to be higher, which acts to further inflate the price of food at the destination. And the lack of ethanol fuel resulting from our shutting down ethanol production would result in an increase in gasoline demand, thus forcing the fuel prices even higher.

There are good arguments to suggest that our newly adopted practice of turning food into ethanol - which allows the wealthy to drive, while forcing the poor to starve - is morally unsound. Even this can be solved; it doesn't take a lot of imagination to envision a genetically engineered crop that would grow in marginal soil and convert easily to ethanol, and that is research we should do. It would be a tremendous gift to the world, and is exactly the kind of research that the United States does best.

But meanwhile, it is incorrect to suggest that one relatively small factor - ethanol production from food crops - is single handedly responsible for the high cost of food. In fact, the amount of food actually used for ethanol production in the United States is quite small, and the food used is of poor quality. The reality is that ethanol production from food crops is a very small contributor to increased food cost. The oil companies would like you to believe otherwise, for ethanol production threatens their profit structure; but a fact is a fact. You can ignore it, but you cannot refute it.

The real causative factor in food cost increases, is the high cost of oil. When we find a mechanism to lower that cost, we will solve the food cost issue.

And until we find that mechanism, we will not.

Regards, Charlie

I replied:

RE: oil, food, and ethanol

 Don't be silly. The easy way to make ethanol is to import sugar from Brazil and use that. Of course we don't and won't do that.

The easy way to bring oil prices is to drill offshore and on the North Slope. Of course we don't do that.

The easy way to bring electricity prices down (you can make fertilizer with electricity) is to build nuclear power plants, expensive but cheap compared to wars. Of course we won't do that.

 Jerry Pournelle Chaos Manor

 Re: oil, food, and ethanol

Hi, Jerry - thanks for the email. I trust you are continuing to recover, and growing stronger every day. My thoughts are certainly with you, every day.

Certainly it's true that ethanol can be made from sugar; ethanol can be made

from a lot of things. But my understanding of the administrations' goal is to move the United States toward an internally generated, sustainable energy

model. Importing anything, from anywhere, will not achieve that goal.

(By the way, I think that 100% energy self sufficiency is a worthwhile goal.

Bush is aiming for something like 15%, ten years from now. It's a very modest goal, and I'd like to see the time frame shortened and the percentage

increased. Stress the engineers, and see what happens. Maybe they'll break - or maybe they'll break through.)

Back on topic now.

Not too sure about offshore or North Slope drilling. I don't think there are any large pockets of oil that aren't already being exploited; if you know of any, I suspect you can become very wealthy in an amazingly short time. Oh, there's the protected wilderness area in Alaska - but that will offer only a temporary respite, perhaps 5 or 10 years. We need a permanent solution, not another Band-Aid.

I'm with you 100% on nuclear plants. We need them, and we need a government

that has the backbone to ram them through. But I will admit - I've never heard of making fertilizer with just electricity. Certainly you need electricity, but you also need raw materials - and I thought the readiest source of those raw materials was oil. I may be mistaken. Regardless, even

if you cannot make fertilizer from electricity, we need electricity for a hundred million other things, and we shouldn't be burning oil to make it.

We don't have nuclear plants today, because the existing energy industry funded and organized a bunch of ecological rights groups in the 1970's. They did a spectacular job of painting the nuclear industry as a terrifying monster, with the result that there hasn't been a single nuclear plant built

in 30 years. At least, not in the United States; they're flourishing everywhere else. Coal, oil and natural gas have had the domestic energy market to themselves for generations, exactly as the conventional energy industry planned.

They're doing the same thing today; they want to quash this ethanol upstart,

and keep the energy field to themselves. The simplest way to do that is portray the generation of ethanol from corn as the single reason for food riots around the world, and the single reason why food - all food, not just corn - is so expensive. And that logic is far sillier than anything I suggested; yet it's everywhere, from CNN to Drudge Report.

And no one is challenging it. Except me, and I must admit, it feels kinda drafty out here, all by myself.

I say again: the reason food is expensive is because fertilizer, pesticides,

herbicides and diesel fuel have all risen dramatically in price, and those costs are being passed on to the consumer. Eliminating the miniscule production of ethanol will not change that. But it will make the energy industry very happy, which of course is their goal.

The reason that fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and diesel fuel have risen in price so much - between 4 and 6 times - is because all of those products are made from oil; and oil has risen from $20 a barrel to $120 a barrel over the last 8 years.

The way to bring the price of food down is to bring the price of oil down. The way to do that, is to either decrease oil demand, or increase oil supply. However, we cannot seem to increase the oil supply, for new supplies cannot seem to be found. Hence, we must decrease demand.

Demand can be decreased most effectively by introducing a competing energy source, and ethanol is an excellent choice. It can be made from corn, potatoes, sugar, sugar cane, sawgrass, dead crows, grass clippings, or just about anything that grows; and it can be turned into E85 fuel, which is 85% ethanol, and that fuel can be burned in many thousands of American cars already on American roads. The rest of the fleet can be modified with nothing more than a new automobile computer, an afternoons job for a home handyman.

If we produce lots of ethanol from non food sources, we'll drive the price of oil down. Way, way down. And no one need starve in the process.

And ultimately, isn't that what we want?

Best wishes, Charlie

 RE: oil, food, and ethanol

 If you believe that ethanol will make the US energy independent I have this bridge I own that you ought to invest in

Jerry Pournelle Chaos Manor

Re: oil, food, and ethanol

Hi, Jerry. I think you're suggesting that growing enough corn to make enough ethanol to feed all the hungry automobiles of America is not possible. In general, I agree with you, if we're talking today, right now, immediately, this minute; but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make a start.

The Wright Flyer wasn't capable of carrying hundreds of passengers across the Atlantic, either; but today, that task happens hundreds of times a day. Technology will do that.

Just to quantify the discussion:

U.S. Motor Gasoline Consumption in 2006 was 389 million gallons per day.

According to the National Corn Growers Association, an acre of corn yields 100 bushels.

According to EthanolFacts.com, One bushel of corn yields about 2.8 gallons of ethanol.

So, 1 acre of corn can generate 280 gallons of ethanol.

We need 330.31 million gallons of ethanol a day to make enough E85 to fuel the US fleet. (85% of 389 million gallons of gas).

So, 120,563,000,000 gallons of ethanol is required on an annual basis. Assuming 1 crop per year, 430,582,143 acres are required to grow the corn.

There are 640 acres to the square mile.

So, 672,785 square miles are required to grow the corn.

Area of the US = 3,537,441 square miles.

So, assuming that no improvements in ethanol production efficiency are realized and that only one crop per year is produced, roughly 19% of the land mass of the United States would be required to grow enough corn to make enough E85 to replace all the gasoline consumed in 2006.

That's a lot of land. How does that compare to the land mass currently being used for crop production?

According to the USDA, in 2002 about 531,250 square miles of that area was currently being used to grow food. That's about 15% of the total land mass.

But: if we could manage two crops a year, we could reduce the square footage needed to grow the necessary ethanol to 9.5%.

And if we could double the ethanol production through hydroponics, genetic engineering and intensive farming, we could get it down to 4.75%.

I look at all that desert land in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas... and I wonder how much corn could be grown using intensive farming techniques, hydroponics, and high ethanol yield corn.

Oh, what the hell. It's a damned stupid idea. Instead, lets just keep sending billions of dollars a day to the middle east, so the terrorists can kill us. That's easy. Growing enough extra corn to get rid of the terrorist threat? Hell, man. We might have to invent something. We'd have to actually work, for a change. What a bitch of a thought. Never mind that we'd suddenly be spending billions of dollars a day IN THE UNITED STATES, stemming a huge leak in our foreign trade, employing local American workers and putting the screws to people that don't like us, and want to kill us.

It's so much easier to just sit around, do nothing, and moan.

Sigh. Charlie

Subject: RE: oil, food, and ethanol

 The laws of physics didn't limit airplanes.

It takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than it gives off when it is burned. That's a mug's game.

Ethanol is in some ways like hydrogen: a distribution mechanism, possibly. But not a source of energy for an industrial society.

If we had lots of cheap electricity we could use that to make fertilizer to grow corn to harvest to make into ethanol; but we don't have lots of cheap electricity with nothing else to do with it, and if we did there are better ways to distribute it than ethanol.

If it were so good it wouldn't need laws requiring it.

Jerry Pournelle Chaos Manor

Subject: Re: oil, food, and ethanol

From the national Corn Growers Association (biased site, but verifiable information):

 Ethanol Production: A Net Energy Winner

There is clearly no doubt that fuel ethanol contains more energy than it takes to produce.

In June 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its 2002 analysis of the issue and determined that the net energy balance of ethanol production is 1.67 to 1. (For every 100 BTUs of energy used to make ethanol, 167 BTUs of ethanol is produced.) In 2002, USDA had concluded that the ratio was 1.35 to 1.

The USDA findings have been confirmed by additional studies conducted by the University of Nebraska and Argonne National Laboratory. In fact, since 1995, nine independent studies found ethanol has a positive net energy balance, while only one study - which used outdated data - found the energy balance to be negative.

A Michigan State University study (2002) found that ethanol produced from corn provided 56 percent more energy than is consumed during production (1.56 to 1). This study looked at producing ethanol from both dry and wet milling of corn-and included corn grain production, soybean products from soybean milling and urea production.

These studies take into account the entire life cycle of ethanol production-from the energy used to produce and transport corn to the energy used to produce ethanol to the energy used in the distribution of ethanol in gasoline.

Ethanol opponents frequently cite a study by Cornell University's Dr. David Pimentel, who concluded that it takes 70 percent more energy to produce ethanol than it yields. Pimentel's findings have been consistently refuted by USDA and other scientists who say his methodology uses obsolete data and is fundamentally unsound.

There's lots more at http://www.ncga.com/ethanol/main/energy.htm <http://www.ncga.com/ethanol/main/energy.htm

I guess it depends on whom you wish to believe. But if Ethanol is so bad, how does Venezuela manage to run most of their vehicles on E85?



RE: oil, food, and ethanol

 1.67 to 1

Think on that for a moment

But I am sure you are right and it's a great idea to subsidize turning corn to ethanol and leaving the price of corn to go where it will. Subsidies never change market conditions.

Thank you

Jerry Pournelle Chaos Manor

Sure, I wish it were a million to one. It isn't. But it is a mechanism for converting solar power to a portable, storable fuel that's better than anything else we've got.

I cannot address the issue of subsidies, for I lack accurate data; but I am told that just about every crook and nanny of the energy sector is getting a subsidy in one form or another. I'm told that the conventional energy establishment - oil, natural gas - is also heavily subsidized. But I have no specifics.

We can probably generate enough electricity using nuclear, solar power, wind energy, and whatever else is at hand to meet our needs for the foreseeable future. But we also need a portable fuel to use in vehicles. Barring dramatic breakthroughs in battery energy density, if it's going to be a made in the USA fuel, it's going to be hydrogen or ethanol. Hydrogen is very difficult to retrofit; ethanol is absurdly easy.

This whole discussion got started through my assertion that ethanol production was not responsible for soaring food costs around the world; and in fact, it may be the only thing that ultimately lowers food costs. I maintain that position is both accurate and correct.

We have land that is not currently in production; using that land, we can create enough ethanol to lower consumption of gasoline, so that supply exceeds demand. When that happens, both gasoline and oil will fall in price; and those twin vectors are the real reason for the increase in food costs.

It's clear that I'm not doing a good job of communicating this message to you; but for the life of me, I cannot think of any way to state it more plainly. Increased ethanol production - AND increased agriculture, to provide a raw material source - will act to decrease gasoline consumption, and lower both food and oil prices.

That's kinda the bottom line.

Take care, Jerry. And be well.

Best, Charlie

And I have since thought that the $10 billion in ethanol subsidies may have saved at least that much in money we would be paying for oil, so the program is not as expensive as I thought.

I leave this for a future debate, but I do note that I'd rather send 5 billion to Kansas than 10 billion to the Saudis. And I'd a heap rather send $50 billion to the Midwest than a trillion to the Middle East. Heck, I'd rather send a trillion to the Midwest than to the Middle East.

At one time we were paying people not to grow crops. It was called the soil bank. Perhaps it is time to grow fuels on it?

But that takes fertilizer.

Nuclear power can fix nitrogen for fertilizer. I'd a heap rather invest a trillion in nuclear power plants than send that trillion to the Saudis.

I also note that there is plenty of oil in these United States, but we would rather sell the nation to the Saudis than drill in Alaska and off shore including out next to where the Cubans are drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Does any of that make sense?

Now the discussion can begin.


getting hungry 


I'm at the point in today's cycle when my brain is turning to mush, and I've not yet tried to assimilate the debate between you and "Charlie"

That said, I'm reminded on one of Heinlein's famous predictions: "We'll all be getting a little hungry by and by." Population, arable ground, petroleum for fertilizer, and energy; his final conclusion was basically that food would be plentiful as long as there was plenty of energy, even if it's more expensive.

What we're seeing is that food production costs are increasing because of petroleum; but food availability is decreasing because food is being diverted to fuel production, to which of course by the law of supply and demand imposes its own drivers on price. Add the changing Indian and Chinese demographics. Global food rationing -- with caloric availability equalized across all continents by global rationing -- just as Heinlein showed in Farmer in the Sky. At least it will end our temptation to overeat...



“If you want 10,000 tons, they’ll sell you 5,000 today, maybe 3,000."

pagewanted=all >

- Roland Dobbins


Subject: ahem

Perhaps it is time to get out Aristotle and Cicero again...

Perhaps the "golden rule" and its surrounding document might also be a useful reference?

Paul D. Perry


Re: IQ, Wealth, and Demographic Winter

Is any of this stuff true? Let's do a counter-example. Until the Twentieth century, cities were not self-sustaining in population, because the diseases of crowding caused their death rates to exceed their birth rates. Cities survived because of a constant influx of immigrants from the countryside. A city was too much of a death trap to have a self-perpetuating gene pool.

The actual mechanism is probably more like a fairy tale -- for the past 5,000 years, cities have been running off smart but penniless country lads seeking their fortunes in the big city.The incentive is there (cities are centers of economic activity, and there are always dead men's shoes to fill). I just don't see what Darwin has to do with it. It seems open-loop from a genetic point of view.

So let's use the original definition of "civilization" -- "the art of living in cities" -- to suggest that, if we've gotten along without a self-sustaining gene pool of civilized luminaries for the last 5,000 years, it's probably not time to panic today because they aren't breeding at replacement rates now that it is finally possible for them to do so.

-- Robert

-- Robert Plamondon

That is a fascinating theory, and one I need to think on!  Thanks.


Charlie and corn

Hi Jerry,

I note that Charlie has read that you can get 100 Bu of corn per acre, from which you can distill 280 gallons of ethanol. By simple extension, he suggests that we could then replace our oil by planting an additional 670,000 square miles of corn, using "intensive farming techniques, hydroponics, and high ethanol yield corn". He also suggests that currently fallow areas such as the great western deserts would be ideal for the project.

Well, at first glance I see a couple of problems. The 100 Bu/Ac yield is from prime midwest farmland. One wonders if the yield would be sustained in the proposed region. Also, according to http://www.waterclaim.org/Presentations/etvsprecip/etvsprecip.htm it requires about 20 inches of water, more or less, to grow corn (in Nebraska). The Nevada desert would probably require at least as much. This means that for Charlie's 670,000 square mile corn farm, he would have to come up with about 1.9X10^13 cubic ft (14X10^13 gal) of water to get the job done. As the deserts are by nature not exactly neck deep in water, this would involve supplying his farm with about 6X10^11 tons of fresh water. Per growing season. As current supplies of fresh water are already pretty tapped out by civilization as is, I suggest that the Pacific Ocean, a BIG reverse osmosis plant, and a bunch of pipelines would be a start. I should probably avoid second and third glances.

Or, more likely, I just don't recognize sarcasm when I see it.

Bob Ludwick

I had intended to comment on the water requirements, but I ran out of energy before I could do that. Thanks.

I don't think we know the true costs here; and that is a matter of some importance.

It seems clear to me that investment in oil refineries, domestic oil production including off-shore drilling, and nuclear power plants would have a higher return on investment in both produced energy and reduced payment to the Middle East, but I can't prove that.


Subject: Another data point - wheat markets - and a general observation


The Washington Post is doing a series this week on the 'global food crisis'. The link which follows has a discussion on wheat production and wheat prices:

It seems clear that single-factor explanations are inadequate to account for the current rise in food prices. It is a tangled mess having to do with government subsidies, tariffs, ethanol mandates, rising living standards, changing patterns of food consumption, speculative commodity bubbles in some markets, and temporary supply disruptions due to crop problems in specific locations.

Despite this muddled picture, the event does raise the profile of a valid long term issue: Given the growing population of the planet, rising living standards in populous developing nations, and the finite limit on crop land, is it wise policy to aggressively promote the use of croplands for energy production (generally) or liquid fuel production (specifically)?

Some historians seem to think that, prior to the 1800's, Europe was stuck in a Malthusian trap: population tended to increase faster than the food supply, leaving most on the edge of starvation. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/07/science/07indu.html) What broke the trap was the industrial revolution, facilitated in part by the steam engine and coal. We have been on a productivity binge ever since, and relatively cheap energy from fossil fuels has been an important part of that binge. If the end of cheap fossil fuel energy is at hand, do we really want to set up a new energy infrastructure in which food production competes with energy production? We might just be walking ourselves back into that Malthusian trap.....

CP, Connecticut

My general principle is that energy converts to anything, so investments in known ways of efficiently producing energy will always pay off: economic growth and the price of energy have a negative correlation.

Were I dictator I would drill for oil offshore just to stop some of the bleeding of resourves to the Middle East; find ways to encourage investment in nuclear power plants (including direct investment if that were needed); and start X projects and award prizes for longer term non-Middle East energy technologies. Alas, I am not in charge.


The Martian Way

Re: your discussion with Charlie on burning food.

First you are too polite to point out firmly the key central point. Until we have sufficient electricity from either nuclear, ground based solar or space based solar ethanol or hydrogen will be expensive alternatives to petroleum in energy consumption in regard to production. I have followed this discussion since getting the message delivered in the punch line of a story by Isaac Asimov called the Martian Way. We are getting angry and calling each other names while undreamed resources float within easy reach over our heads.

Just last year an asteroid composed of more nickel-iron than the human race has consumed in its history floated past within easy reach, we only had to send out a tug and gather it in and process it. Why did we not do this, stupidity is why, we have had visionary writers telling us for about 80 some odd years or more now about the riches that await us in space but the concept has not sunken into the human brain that it is possible. You and several dozen others have written and stressed the riches that await the race in near space here in our own solar system, but what gets all the public and political attention, a piece of religious minimalist trash called "the Limits to Growth." This piece of trash can be refuted by one simple phrase, look up and see plenty, look down and see poverty!

Write a modern version of the Martian Way and show in detail how our religious minimalist politicians are robbing the future of billions of people for their own personal comfort. We need a new generation of muckrakers like Upton Sinclair to turn the public mind outward to our future instead of backwards to a new medievalism that the current crop of excessively rich Country Club Democrats wish for! They are so rich and comfortable they make the Country Club Republicans look like impoverished street beggars in comparison.

-- James Early Long Beach, CA


Russian Airborne Troops Music Video


Alexander Buinov was actually an Airborne officer before going into the music business, so those are probably his genuine insignia he's wearing in the video.

He certainly looks like every hardcase Foreign Legion officer I've ever seen pictures of.

Why can't our military do anything of this quality?

-- Tim of Angle


What limits ethanol production


I was at a conference recently that was focussed on nano-technologies. There was a talk in the bunch, an invited talk, on water supplies. It seemed like a strange outlier relative to the other talks, so I went and heard it.

First surprise: Water availability is what ultimately limits ethanol production in the USA. Not land, not fertilizer. Water. Water to grow the crop, water to process the ethanol. Some processes (the cheapest ones) use 10 gallons of fresh water per gallon of ethanol.

Second surprise: There is a fresh water crisis looming in the US. Not due to seasonal droughts in the Southeast, but much broader. (The reason the talk was in on nano-technologies is that nano may be the way to improve the 40+ year old reverse osmosis methods that are still "state of the art".)

This part in your ethanol discussion, "I look at all that desert land in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas... and I wonder how much corn could be grown using intensive farming techniques, hydroponics, and high ethanol yield corn", is, pardon me, pure moonshine. Not a chance of anything like that, not even within an order of magnitude.


If water limits and water shortages are a surprise, I have not been making myself very clear. Those are important and well known limits.

Given energy anything can be done; but we need more energy that we don't have to pay the Middle East for. Domestic drilling, nuclear power plants -- I sound like a broken record.


Building Nukes 

I may have mentioned this before, but I think it is worth another look. If we want to get things rolling in the nuclear power area we can take a hint from the success of the Navy in its nuclear power program. In our current crisis it would make sense that major military installations be energy independent. One way they could do that would be to build small reactors on large military bases to supply them with power. When not needed these reactors could be used to provide power to the local grid. Terrorist threats are reduced as the plants are sitting on a military base, they would be well guarded.

Hope your recovery continues.

-- --- Al Lipscomb


Today's NYT carried a long story on New Orleans's reopened schools, and the noble work being done by the waves of new teachers drawn by their idealistic altruism.

Despite the usual PC sugar-coating, a few amusing indicators of the actual reality do sneak through. As the paragraphs below indicate, the absolute best classrooms are filled with students who are "quiet and sometimes attentive" while the less-good classrooms are filled with students who are...not.


"From one classroom to another, from disorder to calm, Carver High illustrates the current challenges. In two English classes, Ms. Stuckwisch's juniors and seniors are quiet and sometimes attentive; Curtis Sherrod's freshmen - some 17 or 18 - are another story.

"If I was not a nondrinker, it would be a four- or five-beer night every night," said Mr. Sherrod, a bearded, ponytailed Navy veteran, looking out with exasperation over his remedial reading and writing class. One student was slumped over a desk, immobilized in sleep. Four others were chattering and twirling their hair. Nearly half the class had not bothered to show up. From time to time, the teacher vainly called his charges to order."






CURRENT VIEW    Wednesday


This week:


read book now


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Re: IQ, Wealth, and Demographic Winter

Mention of cities getting a continuous supply of farmboys. That would be in the days when farmers were 95% of the population. Nowadays the USA farm population is down to 5%. Which means the slack is supposedly being taken up from south of the border. I keep thinking most of the left side of the bell curve would have been happy on the now vanished family farm.

Scott Rich


Re: IQ, Wealth, and Demographic Winter

Dr. Pournelle.

I am far more pessimistic than Robert about the “Demographic winter”. He says that

>if we've gotten along without a self-sustaining gene pool of civilized luminaries for the last 5,000 years, it's probably not time to panic today

I believe it would more accurate to use the term “unregulated” instead of “self-sustaining”. In terms of control theory, Robert’s model for populating cities is running without feedback, or “open loop”.

I do not believe that is the case in our country today. Fertility is highly correlated to education. I have plotted data taken from the 2004 US census (the most recent I could find).

The obvious conclusion from the data is that smart women aren’t having many children. Less educated, statistically lower IQ women are having a lot more children than the smart women. We live in an era of unprecedented freedom for women, with unlimited educational opportunity and easy access to reliable birth control. This is a situation unlike any in the past.

This is not an open-loop scenario. Education is a driver. Education and IQ are positively correlated. Education and fertility are negatively correlated. Future demographics look bleak as the smartest women systematically remove themselves from the gene pool.

Steve Chu

PS Sincerest wishes for a full and speedy recovery.

PPS I just upgraded to Platinum status!

Thanks! Galton did a study on genetic studies of genius and another on great men. While there is a definite correlation between great families and great men -- Darwin is a prime example -- most great men do not come from great families; in other words, while it is far more likely that a genius family will produce a genius, most geniuses do not come from genius families. This may be a sign of hope...

But science fiction writers, particularly Cyril Kornbluth but also others, wrote about the fact that smart people tend not to have enough children to replace themselves. "Go to downtown Chicago and all the world is pregnant. Go to Evanston and no one is," is one of his lines (or something very like that. See The Little Black Bag, as well as The Marching Morons...


Subject: corn, food, and ethanol

Hi, Jerry - first, thank you so much for printing the entire exchange. I think you fairly represented my views, and I greatly appreciate your doing so.

I had intended to follow your site closely this week, but my evil overlord masters - AKA customers - demanded that I actually work for a living. Hence I've put in about 50-ish hours in the last 3 days, and today I am both frazzled and out of touch. But let me touch on a comment or two regarding our discussion.

Jim comments that "food availability is decreasing because food is being diverted to fuel production". I would disagree with that assertion; in fact, food is plentiful. There have been no riots due to lack of food; the riots have been caused because the food, although plentiful, was too expensive to purchase. That is a very, very important distinction. I state again: There's lots of food on the shelves. There is no shortage of food. The problem is not the availability, but the price.

In the United States, we have lots of land that is not in production, simply because there is no demand for the food that it could grow. If ethanol production increases, I would expect that the quantity of land not currently in production would decrease; but until it hits zero, diverting food to ethanol production will have no measurable impact on food costs.

Bob Ludwick offers some figures regarding the water requirements of corn growing. Well, he's right, sort of; but you wouldn't grow corn in the desert the way its grown in Nebraska.

What you would do is grow corn using a displacement irrigation hydroponics system. The way I did this, to grow tomatoes in January in my apartment 20 years ago, was to start with a tray filled with gravel. Below that, I had another sealed container with the nutrient solution; and every hour, a timer would start a pump which would pump the nutrient solution from the lower tray up to the gravel filled tray, which contained my tomato plants. When the upper tray was flooded, the air between the gravel was forced out; and when the timer kicked off, the pump would stop and the solution drained back into the lower tray. This sucked fresh air back into the spaces between the gravel, thus providing oxygen for the plants (plant roots require oxygen, or they rot).

This proved to be an amazingly efficient way to grow tomatoes. There was virtually no water lost due to evaporation; all I needed to do was add a tiny quantity of water to the lower tray every few days. (I also added fresh nutrient solution).

In fact, most conventional irrigation - just setting up a great big lawn sprinkler, which is essentially the way commercial irrigation is achieved - results in 90% water loss due to evaporation. This is why drip irrigation systems are so dramatically effective at growing plants, yet use virtually no water. And displacement hydroponics systems are considerably more efficient than drip irrigation.

Here's a quick quote from an article on hydroponics in the desert, from a quick google search:

"Naturally, the weather is hot and dry. The average yield for vegetables in the field is about 5 tons for each acre used (85,000 acres in all). Yet in the greenhouse at Riyadh, the American company gets more than 200 tons for each acre planted! No wonder the Saudis are impressed and keep urging the Americans onto higher achievements."

You can read the article at http://www.mayhillpress.com/arabian.html . There are probably better sources of information, but I'm too crusty and burned out this morning to hunt for them.

We will need water to do a lot of things, including growing crops. And given the importance of water, we should shift over to hydroponics for all our food production. If we could save 90% of the water used for irrigation currently, it would take a lot of the load off our current water woes.

But more generally: we need to confront all our challenges with a positive, 'can do' attitude. If we stop, throw down our tools and quit every time we bump into a problem, we will die. We'll die as individuals, and we'll die as a nation.

But America is a 'can do' nation. Or at least, it used to be; just a few weeks ago I was going through some old black and white photos from my youth, and discovered pictures I'd taken of the screen of our television, as one of the Apollo moonships lifted off. With the American flag billowing gently in the foreground, in the corner of the shot - I stopped, and looked at that shot for a long time. It brought tears to my eyes.

Jerry, we were once a nation that could do anything. We've walked on the soil of another planet. We've sent probes to Mars, not once, but many times. We invented nuclear plants, and every watt of power generated from nuclear energy on planet Earth today, owes its heritage to American Ingenuity.

Surely to hell we can figure out how to grow corn.

Take care, my friend - Charlie

I did some experiments with hydroponics back in survivalist days. We used hand labor -- lift the buckets by hand to make the hydroponic fluids flow -- and got amazing crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash; indeed a lot of edibles from a small shed in my back yard. The structure was plastic tubes, heavy plastic covering, some netting to provide wind strength, and some nylon line to anchor the whole system. It did use electricity in that there was an exhaust fan. I wrote it up in both Survive Magazine and in A Step Farther Out, the Galaxy Column. Hydroponics farming gives a huge return on time investment, and most of the work can be done by minor children. In my case it was labor intensive, but not horridly so. The boys were able to lift the buckets twice a day (that was our schedule as I recall; I would have to find the log books from 30 years ago to be sure). But one thing is certain, we got a lot of fresh vegetables from it. Another certainty: it wasn't worth the effort to keep it up once Lucifer's Hammer hit the best seller list and we wanted the back yard for a pool.

I still have room for a hydroponics shell (a small one) and if it comes to a real crunch on food I'll look into that again. Actually the proper time to look into it is now. The equipment isn't cheap but it's likely to be really expensive if we go into depression times. A vegetable garden in your yard is already a reasonable investment. If you want a lot of yield, look into hydroponics. It worked for me anyway.

As to whether American ingenuity can use that technology to help win us energy independence, I have to say it again: cheap energy will cause a boom. The only cheap energy I know of is nuclear. Three Hundred Billion bucks in nuclear power will do wonders for the economy. We build 100 1000 MegaWatt nuclear power plants -- they will cost no more than 2 billion each and my guess is that the average cost will be closer to 1 billion each (that is the first one costs about 20 billion and the 100th costs about 800 million). The rest of the money goes to prizes and X projects to convert electricity into mobility.

Of course we won't do that.




"And then the senior did something she had never done before -- even in batting practice. The career .153 hitter smashed the next pitch over the center field fence for an apparent three-run home run.

The exuberant former high school point guard sprinted to first. As she reached the bag, she looked up to watch the ball clear the fence and missed first base. Six feet past the bag, she stopped abruptly to return and touch it. But something gave in her right knee; she collapsed on the base path.

"I was in a lot of pain," she told The Oregonian on Tuesday. "Our first-base coach was telling me I had to crawl back to first base. 'I can't touch you,' she said, 'or you'll be out. I can't help you.' "

Tucholsky, to the horror of teammates and spectators, crawled through the dirt and the pain back to first.

Western coach Pam Knox rushed onto the field and talked to the umpires near the pitcher's mound. The umpires said Knox could place a substitute runner at first. Tucholsky would be credited with a single and two RBIs, but her home run would be erased."

The rest of the story is worth a read. I thought a pause for the better things wouldn't be out of place.


I actually heard the story on national news tonight, but for those who haven't, I agree, it's worth  your time to read the rest of the story...


The naivety of Fukuyama.

As if the central government would do anything about this, if they could?

fukuyama29apr29,1,6326334.story >

-- Roland Dobbins


Growing corn

Besides water, there is a shortage of farmers. Their average age is about mine (late 50s, I'll be sixty this winter) and the kids moved to the cities so they wouldn't have the 25-hour days and million-dollar debt. The young ones who want to stay can't get credit to get started. The lost experience will take a generation to regain. My wife and I retired and three couples' attempts to take over the shepherding failed. America has probably reached the production peak, even without the vagaries of nature.

A guy I know made so much money he forgot why he quit farming, went back into the dairy business, and lost most of it in 6 years (and quit farming again.) I was talking to one of the old-timers working there about the newly-minted PhD farm manager; "he can tell you every variety of grass from a few blades but he can't tell when a heifer's in heat."

At a measly $6000 per acre our 150 acres is worth $900,000, a new plowing tractor is $140,000, the plow is $20,000, that "100 bushel/acre" corn seed costs $1000 per acre + fertilizer + TIME in the heat, cold, dust, rain, night... Like many of the farms around here (southwestern PA,) we'll be selling "farmettes" to mid-level executives who want a horse for their kids.

And this year there'll be a shortage of corn because of TOO MUCH water. The Heartland can't work the fields and planting has to be finished be a certain date in any region so harvest can happen. Interesting times.

Break a leg.

Don Miller



 read book now




CURRENT VIEW    Thursday


This week:


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Friday,  May 2, 2008

 If true this could be enormously important. It does not change my views about the requirements for education; but if the schools can actually increase memory and IQ the implications are profound.

Intelligence and Training

Jerry, there's a new result out on intelligence. See <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/health/research/29brai.html>


and <http://www.world-science.net/othernews/080429_fluid>.  It seems to involve carefully focused training rather than general education.

-- Harry Erwin, PhD, Program Leader, MSc Information Systems Security, University of Sunderland.

Whether this increases IQ or merely develops skills is irrelevant: the first principle of education is that you teach skills to the left side of the Bell Curve and general symbol manipulation -- learning how to learn, college bound education -- to the right side. If that brings some from left to right, Hurrah!


Biofuel quanitity requirements

In following the discussion on ethanol and whether or not it is possible - leaving aside the practicality - of using that route for energy independence in the US, I found it interesting that the figures Charlie uses are focused on automotive use. What about industry? Air travel? I cannot speak for the accuracy of the numbers in the following story, but I found it very interesting:


If true, the UK may be able to support its cars, but would not be able to support air travel. Given the amount of air traffic here, I imagine we would have a similar problem. Do we in North America really want to go down a route that may return us to a time when the only *affordable* travel across country (to say nothing of international travel) took days, if not longer, and few people ever saw anything but their own state or province? Of course, some would say that was a good thing - I won't argue the point, but it bears thinking upon.

As for global warming, as a Canadian, I look at all that frozen open land we have, and think about how a few degrees increase could turn all that into grazing land, or cropland - wheat, or canola (biodiesel anyone?), and it's hard to be very depressed about the prospect... whereas cooling is very much something to be concerned about here.


It is unlikely that big commercial aircraft can be powered with ethanol. On the other hand, they like kerosene and if we can save all the heating oil by installing nuclear power plants...

I agree that warming is better than ice.


"We're trying to hold on to a middle-class way of life."

content/article/2008/04/30/AR2008043003672.html >

-- Roland Dobbins

Free Trade, anyone?


"The future is truly frightening."

may01,1,2405682.story >

- Roland Dobbins

Open Borders, anyone?


Kagan the Younger: 'Autocracy is making a comeback.'

As if it ever really receded in the first place:

content/article/2008/05/01/AR2008050102899.html >

--- Roland Dobbins


Dumb idea: suing Wikipedia for calling you "dumb"

Jerry, this is from Ars Technica - thought you might find it interesting.


Regards, Charlie

I would not, myself, be comfortable with an agent who charges large reading fees. Richard Curtis in a Locus article some years ago pointed out that it's hard to read unsolicited mss., and the sensible thing to do would be to charge a reasonable fee -- say $5.00 -- to have an agent's reader make a first pass through them; but the problem of agents charging fees (the maxim is that money should flow toward the writer, not away) is great enough that he won't do that, which means he can only take new clients if they are recommended by an existing client. Most agents have the same policy.

It would make sense if author associations approved a minimum reading fee. In that case there might also be a return of "the publisher's reader", a once important person in the literary publication process.


Subject: New survivalism



It used to be said that no country is more than three meals away from a revolution. While that may not be strictly true, if you have a few days worth of food you are in better shape than if you don't; civilizations can be disrupted in many ways, and earthquakes, floods, and high winds are among them. There is no part of the country safe from all of those.

Those are relatively short term problems. The Great Depression was a longer term disaster...



Some very scary calimari is on the menu in New Zealand, as marine biologists dissect the first Colossal Squid to be caught and flash frozen, as opposed to being found reeking on a beach

The wee thing is only 26 feet long and a scant thousand pounds


-- Russell Seitz





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This week:


read book now



More on corn and burning food:

Corn percentages -- 


"15% max of the dent corn product (maximum estimate in Minnesota for the coming year, double the previous year)"

I lived in Minnesota for about a year back in the early '70s. It's a big place, but it's not the whole world.

I believe the actual amount is a *third* of the corn grown.

"The end of cheap food":



This year biofuels will take a third of America's (record) maize harvest. That affects food markets directly: fill up an SUV's fuel tank with ethanol and you have used enough maize to feed a person for a year. And it affects them indirectly, as farmers switch to maize from other crops. The 30m tonnes of extra maize going to ethanol this year amounts to half the fall in the world's overall grain stocks.

I'd suggest reading the whole article. It gives an interesting "policy wonk" perspective on the "agflation" situation -- and thus, quite likely telegraphs the punches that "we, the people" are about to absorb at the hands of our "leaders."

By the way, for all its benefits, corn is an *intensely* demanding crop, incredibly abusive of the soil in which it's planted -- a crop that will *rapidly* destroy the tilth in the absence of *massive* artificial fertilization (and even at that, various trace minerals are *not* likely to be restored to pre-corn levels). In short, the new "Corn King" economy is apt to be brutal in its effects on future *food* agriculture.

Also, I question the ACTUAL "value" of ethanol-as-gasoline-replacement, because the *subsidies* are running $1.90 a gallon!

It seems that it's a great product -- so long as we're "stealth"-paying for it out of the left pocket, while pretending the *retail* price, paid from the right pocket, is the *actual* price.

See "Cheap no more":



America's ethanol programme is a product of government subsidies. There are more than 200 different kinds, as well as a 54 cents-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. That keeps out greener Brazilian ethanol, which is made from sugar rather than maize. Federal subsidies alone cost $7 billion a year (equal to around $1.90 a gallon).

BTW that's another article I'd suggest reading in its entirety. (It's not perfect; there's the obligtory nod to "global warming" -- unfortunately, obeisance to the neo-"god" of propaganda is apparently non-voluntary in mainstream publications -- but, overall, it's an important read. There's some overlap with the last article -- they're from the same print edition of the publication -- but, there's enough original material to warrant a good reading.)

Here's one more snippet:

Ethanol accounts for some of the rise in the prices of other crops and foods too. Partly this is because maize is fed to animals, which are now more expensive to rear. Partly it is because America's farmers, eager to take advantage of the biofuels bonanza, went all out to produce maize this year, planting it on land previously devoted to wheat and soyabeans. This year America's maize harvest will be a jaw-dropping 335m tonnes, beating last year's by more than a quarter. The increase has been achieved partly at the expense of other food crops.

Regarding "The situation for farmers is not that of fungibility," all I can say is that Steve is either waxing imaginative, or (more likely, IMO) working off a talking-points script. His theme -- that "Farmers are NOT growing -vastly- larger amounts of corn" -- is contrary to everything else I've read on the topic.

I'd really like to know what if any role he has in the "agribusiness," "biofuel," or *lobby* professions. When I see the kind of stuff that's rolled off his keyboard, the phrase "full disclosure" springs to mind.

And regarding "South Africa and Brazil [doing] rather well on ethanol fuel for a long time," I have to wonder if he's aware of the fact that we have a bit of a different climate? Brazil may find it easy to grow sugarcane, but I have a hard time seeing Kansas wheat farmers making the switch.

As to, "I know that city folks don't even begin to 'get' farming" -- well, I'm not "city folk."

Finally, WRT to the cheap shot at Drudge, oh, please, Steve. If Drudge didn't post those headlines, someone else would have. It's not exactly as if the whole world turns on Matt Drudge's list of links -- to articles *already* written by mainstream sources!

I am going to switch gears here, and cut to ("IMO") the chase: The REAL problem -- which we are foolishly, desperately trying to "fix" via folly like ethanol from food, is that the middle-eastern oil empire has apparently decided that this is THE time to sock it to "The West" -- to bring us to our knees once and for all.

In short, the neighborhood bully is throwing rocks through our windows, and we're responding by turning up the thermostat to compensate for the chilly draft.

I only see one winner to that kind of game, and it ain't us.

The future, for us, looks like it will be one of cold, hunger, inconvenience on a scale hitherto inconceivable, and massive resentment.

Of course, those poised to benefit from "subsidies" of one sort or another will do quite nicely, and have plenty of time to write all sorts of letters chiding those who chafe at "the new standard."


I suspect we are in for hard times no matter what. We send a trillion a year to the Middle East. It returns to buy our capital assets. It won't be long before not much of the Unites States is owned by Americans, while our big international corporations move to Dubai where they can escape nonsense like Sarbanes-Oxley and other such restrictions. (Not that corporations should not be restricted, but Sarbanes-Oxley isn't the right way to do it. But that's for another time.)

The result is that we labor to pay taxes to pay the interest on debts that the government contracted for us without bothering to tell us about it. How that differs from the serfs laboring to pay for their masters' life style is not clear. In our case the masters are government employees who get raises every year, and have jobs doing things that most of us really don't want to work to earn the money to pay for. When I was in City Hall we had 81 civil service exempt positions. There are over 500 now, and none of them do anything I want to pay taxes for. I could say a lot more, but we all know examples.

The real question is how to preserve America; and if growing some of our fuel could be part of the answer, it shouldn't be excluded in advance. I'd rather pay a trillion to Kansas than to Saudi Arabia.


Corn displaces wheat.


More side effects from burning food. The food that is becoming a heavily subsidized fuel, corn, is taking over acreage from wheat. Combined with high export demand due to the very weak dollar and you have a wheat shortage and rising prices on bread, pasta, etc.


The patchwork that we have that passes for an "energy policy" is ruining our economy. Combine this nonsense with the bursting of the housing bubble and I think we are in for pretty nasty recession, perhaps a return to stagflation.



Subject: Sugar Cane Ethanol 

Dear Jerry,

"They make it from sugar cane, which is a much more appropriate source, much easier to grow, and has a much higher return on energy than corn."

We can grow cane here too, and already do in Louisiana and Florida. We just need to expand production, like we did with corn earlier. Millions of acres of agricultural land in Florida and the southern Gulf Coast states are ideal for this, even before Monsanto gets busy with hybrids and genetic engineering. I expect Imperial Valley agriculture can also be reoriented towards cane.

Amending soils and learning all the tricks takes time, boyz and girlz. It's not too late to start for the 2008 Family Garden season.

Best Wishes,


I certainly do not discourage my readers from starting vegetable gardens. The exercise is good for you, there is a tranquility in gardening that's hard to come by, and you may save some money.


Subject: Oil imports 

You said:

"Were I dictator I would drill for oil offshore just to stop some of the bleeding of resources to the Middle East; find ways to encourage investment in nuclear power plants (including direct investment if that were needed); and start X projects and award prizes for longer term non-Middle East energy technologies. Alas, I am not in charge."

...and I ask (since it doesn't seem present in any of this discussion ... maybe its taboo) why not a specific tariff on imported (with exceptions for, say Canada, Norway, etc.) oil? Maybe $20 to $100 a barrel? Treaties, statutes might make it difficult. Fine: Impose a "tanker inspection fee" to "protect the ecosystem" on tankers originating certain ports. If make _imported_ oil expensive enough, the market will work to push trough alternate domestic substitutes ... domestic oil reserves, nuclear power plants, etc. Offset the at-the-pump expense a bit by adopting the McCain-Clinton gas tax holiday (which is, otherwise, merely politics, not economics ...)

Chris Johnson
a retired government economist, but please don't hold against me ...

What we need is to lift the restrictions on building oil refineries and exploiting domestic oil. I have readers who say we ought to leave the Alaskan oil in the ground for our grandchildren. Perhaps, although I don't agree; but not drilling in the Gulf doesn't leave the oil for our grandchildren, it gives it to the Cubans and others who are drilling. Slant drilling will allow  -- well "I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!" Saving that oil for the Cubans doesn't make sense to me.

And in fact the energy crisis is a national emergency, and needs all the fast remedies we can come up with, and now.

Tariffs on oil imports are a good idea if we allow alternatives; but if we forbid nuclear power and exploiting domestic oil, the alternatives get fairly grim.


Then there's magic:

Dr. Pournelle,

This seems to have been floating around (pardon the pun) since May 2006, but this is the first that I've heard of it. I don't recall seeing it on your site over the past several years, but perhaps you have seen it? If this is real, it has the potential to be huge. On the skeptical side, certainly, the second law comes to mind - although they are not claiming more out than in. It is certainly worth a look. I've also included the company web site below. A google search on "hydrogen technologies" clearwater only return 477 hits.


I'm interested in your thoughts, and those of your regular readership. Thanks.

Best Wishes for a Full Recovery,
Peter Czora

Hydrogen is a distribution medium; given some of the experience we had with hydrogen as rocket fuel with the DC/X I have less interest in hydrogen as a distribution system than I used to have. It's VERY tricky stuff, and it really wants to escape (and being such a tiny molecule it's very good at it)!

But whatever the advantages of hydrogen for distribution, there are no hydrogen wells. To make a fuel out of water requires that you put more energy into disassociation the H2 from the O, and they haven't yet repealed the Second Law. Once again, disassociating hydrogen from water (and getting LOX as a bonus) may make sense for some technologies, but it is not an energy source and never will be.


Alas the Cold Equations:

Google fu 


Some Google fu on the subject "ethanol per acre".

Yield from corn: 439 gallons of ethanol per acre (ideal - theoretical yield, practical yields still ~ 25% less. Theoretical yield from higher performance sources 2-3 x that, so let's say 4000 liters per acre of ethanol.

"ethanol energy content" yields 21.1 MJ / liter or ~ 85 GJ/acre

Solar constant is ~ 800 Wts/sq meter (est. CONUS average).

1 acre = 4046 sq meter

Direct solar to electric conversion is ~ 10% efficient, and let's take insolation time cycle at 20%.

Hence: 800 Wts/sq meter x 4046 sq meters x 10% x 20% x 3 x 10^7 seconds = 1940 GJ/acre

Hence, corn production via conventional agriculture has only 4% efficiency of insolation for capturing usable energy, not even counting the energy costs of production (which reduce this to something less than 1% efficiency), unless I've slipped a digit somewhere.

Even switching crops and using hydroponics does not do much to reduce the disadvantage of biofuel over direct solar electric; since hydroponics is energy intensive in its own right for all the excess yield suggested.

Heck, using solar electric to electrolyze hydrogen and using the product to directly synthesize complex aliphatic hydrocarbons from atmospheric CO2 might be more cost effective and energy efficient than biofuels.


And direct Solar doesn't work everywhere. Sigh.

Note that hydroponics as a way to produce food is not the same as using it to produce fodder for ethanol conversion. And don't forget what the Whisky Rebellion was all about...



more (or repeated) authoritative ethanol statistics.


Undoing America's Ethanol Mistake By Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison Monday, April 28, 2008

<snip> Last year, 25% of America's corn crop was diverted to produce ethanol. In 2008, that number will grow to 30%-35%, and it will soar even higher in the years to come.

Furthermore, the trend of farmers supplanting other grains with corn is decreasing the supply of numerous agricultural products. When the supply of those products goes down, the price inevitably goes up.

Subsequently, the cost of feeding farm and ranch animals increases and the cost is passed to consumers of beef, poultry and pork products.

Since February 2006, the price of corn, wheat and soybeans has increased by more than 240%. Rising food prices are hitting the pockets of lower-income Americans and people who live on fixed incomes.

While the blame for higher costs shouldn't rest exclusively with biofuels — drought and rising oil costs are contributing factors — the expansion of biofuels has been a major source of the problem.

The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that biofuel production accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of the recent spike in global commodity prices.

For the first time in 30 years, food riots are breaking out in many parts of the globe, including major countries such as Mexico, Pakistan and Indonesia. <snip>

At the same time we are selling America to the Middle East on the Installment Plan


'One-fourth of the corn produced in the United States went to make fuel last year, an increase from less than 15% in 2005.'


- Roland Dobbins

That sounds like burning food to me. Does it save sending money to the Saudis?


And something else to worry about:

Subject: Norman Borlaug on wheat stem rust

Hi Jerry,


The New York Times has a commentary by Norman Borlaug on wheat stem rust. Naturally occurring (and eventually, bioengineered) plant diseases are a major threat to our society, which relies largely on monoculture crops.



Alcohol as a motor fuel

Perhaps I just don't understand, but in my experience alcohol, either methanol or ethanol, is not a very good motor fuel.

Having used methanol and ethanol as fuel in racing engines and model airplane engines, I can state with certainty that alcohol has much less energy content that petroleum products. This especially true when compared to diesel fuel. Even gasoline with 15% alcohol gets reduced fuel economy and don't even consider E85 fuel. This is a proven fact, and therefore is not a subject for debate.

I remember some years ago I saw a display at the L. A. County Fair which promoted the supposed virtues of alcohol as a motor fuel. I spoke to the well scrubbed, nicely dressed, very earnest young lady about the lack of energy content in alcohol. she assured me that I was in error on that point. My experience with race engines suggest suggest a minimum of twice the fuel consumption with alcohol, perhaps more. Alcohol does have the ability to produce tremendous power with rich fuel mixtures, which keeps combustion temperatures down and thus prevents the pistons from melting.

A comparison with small model airplane engines suggests that the difference is even more apparent. A 1.8 CID glow engine (alcohol/nitro burner) burns at least 3 times as much fuel as a 1.8 CID gasoline spark engine. These both mix oil in the fuel as a lubricant for the engine in the standard 2 stroke cycle manner. The alcohol, nitro, caster oil engine very messy compared to the gasoline engine which uses synthetic oil for lubricant.

My experience with alcohol burning race cars suggests that the problem exists in automobile sized engines as well. If the elitists force the truck industry to abandon diesels for alcohol engines the result will be a disaster. Diesel engines can certainly be converted to burn alcohol. In fact most of the major diesel engine manufacturers produce spark ignition engines which burn natural gas.

 These can burn alcohol fairly readily. The diesel engine uses extremely high compression and the fuel mixture varies in proportion to the amount of power desired by the operator. At idle the amount of fuel used is very small. The engine always uses the same amount of air per cylinder fill regardless of the speed or load. This makes a particularly efficient design. No spark engine can come close to matching the present, clean burning diesel engine for fuel economy.

I can see trucks burning alcohol on the highway. They will pull 2 trailers, and the front one will be an alcohol tanker to provide fuel for the truck engine, much like the tender used on the old steam locomotives. That's my 2 cents worth, based on 30 years in the truck industry, with occasional side trips into auto and motorcycle racing.

Jim Cook


Burning corn, and thoughts on things...


Interesting back and forth on ethanol. Nevada/Arizona is really really dry. There is water underneath that is being "mined" from non-replenishing aquifers to grow lots and lots of everything with center-pivot irrigation, those little green spots you see when you fly over. That wouldn't last hundreds of years, and it causes damage from subsidence to over-pump, but there's lots and lots of succdessful farmers out in those deserts.

Just a thought. I'd rather do solar out there, and wind on the ridges, and grow corn and soy where we know (or strongly suspect) it will do OK.

Another thought, once corn (any grain, really. My neighbor brews beer with malted barley, throws it out by the edge of the yard, the deer eat it instantly) is fermented, the residue is higher-grade feedstock than that corn (or whatever grain) was to begin with. Those little yeasts yield high levels of nutrients. So you have additional animal feedstocks available around distillaries, whether for Wild Turkey, Budweiser, or E85.

I've heard that new drilling techniques make new fields possible, and old fields more productive. Just the other day I learned (Wall Street J, I think?) that there's high leasing/drilling activity in Pa using horizontal drilling techniques into a new horizon, and many farmers who own their mineral rights are now able to retire to high income every month for the life of the production. (The number for royalties was $30K a month for a 600 acre farm). Maybe we can nibble this problem to death by 15% here, 20% there. Waste fry oil can become biodiesel, according to Willie Nelson, and the engineer/minister in the next office.

It isn't used for fuel instead of food, it's used for both.

Just some thoughts. I'm in favor of solar generation our in the desert, rather than growing corn or switchgrass, and building newly designed nuclear reactors, and reducing demand with higher CAFE requirements, and nearly every constructive thing BUT keeping doing what we're doing, sending increasing shiploads of money to enemies (or at best dubious friends - there a pun there, the Emir of Dubious maybe?) - nibble the darnned problem to death.


Nickel and diming it to death will certainly help, but what's really needed is more energy.


Food Burning II: The Environmentally Friendly Bio-Plastics Industry 

Dear Jerry,

We also make plastics from petroleum hydrocarbons. Many will doubtless be relieved to learn that very similar materials can also be made from plant hydrocarbons.

http://www.mainepotatoes.com/pdf/BDN.GreenChem.pdf <http://www.mainepotatoes.com/pdf/BDN.GreenChem.pdf

"Earlier this year, a coalition involving University of Maine researchers and InterfaceFABRIC of Guilford announced it was exploring the feasibility of a manufacturing plant that would turn Maine spuds into various plastic products. The hypothetical factory likely would be located in Aroostook County and use either waste potatoes or starch or new acreage of potatoes grown specifically for plastics manufacturing."

(I'll take it on faith that existing food potato acreage will never be diverted to making plastics or ethanol, no matter what price point temptations the futures markets offer to potato farmers.)

"The vast majority of plastic in the world today is petroleum-based, which raises a host of economic, environmental and health issues. But a few factories have begun making a type of plastic known as PLA — or polylactic acid — out of corn starch."

Best Wishes,



Fertilizer & "Oil" 

Dear Jerry,

"The reason that fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and diesel fuel have risen in price so much - between 4 and 6 times - is because all of those products are made from oil; and oil has risen from $20 a barrel to $120 a barrel over the last 8 years."

:very deep sigh: The Peak Oil Global Warming Doomsday Cult has spread its message well.

1. The chemical process used to produce nitrogen fertilizer is documented here:


It's only been around for a century. That might be why it isn't commonly mentioned in the public schools yet.

2. At the present time methane from 'natural gas' is used for the hydrogen source. Hydrogen could also be obtained by electrolyzing water into hydrogen and oxygen, should electricity become abundant enough for any reason. One reason might be from widely cloning Palo Verde.


"It supplies electricity at a production cost (including fuel, maintenance and operation) of 1.33 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. This is cheaper than coal (2.26 cents/kWh) or natural gas (4.54 cents/kWh) in the region at the same time (2002), but more expensive than hydro (0.63 cents/kWh)."

Another source of electricity for electrolysis might be from banning air conditioning and most other electricity usage by raising residential Kw/hour rates. On an historical note, when the Haber process was first implemented the hydrogen came from coal gasification. Cross country natural gas pipelines were still decades in the future back then. Google Books has dozens of full text public domain engineering books covering coal gasification up through 1922. People in areas with coal resources might want to remember this for after the Washington regime collapses amid economic and social chaos ala the USSR's central government.

Best Wishes,


All of which says we need more energy; indeed energy is fairly fungible.

Good luck on conserving our way to prosperity through turning off the air conditioners. I won't go into why that's not likely to work, since it certainly won't happen.


Cost of nuclear power 

Dr. Pournelle,

This Forbes article raises the issue of how expensive nuclear power really is, if the govt does not step in with subsidies to get the initial investment going.


In a nutshell, as things stand (at the time of the article, Nov 2007) nuclear power is not an attractive investment because the calculated total cost for power generation is quite a bit higher than other alternatives. From the article:

A cold-blooded examination of the industry's numbers bears this out. Tufts economist Gilbert Metcalf concludes that the total cost of juice from a new nuclear plant today is 4.31 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's far more than electricity from a conventional coal-fired plant (3.53 cents) or "clean coal" plant (3.55 cents). When he takes away everyone's tax subsidies, however, Metcalf finds that nuclear power is even less competitive (5.94 cents per kwh versus 3.79 cents and 4.37 cents, respectively).

The article raises the perfectly legitimate question of if additional subsidies such as those being poured into solar power (or into the ill-advised food to ethanol industry) would be a better idea, however the bottom line appears to be that in the current regulatory environment nuclear power would require significant government subsidies in order to be an attractive investment. And that may be the only bottom line that counts unless (until?) the govt nationalizes power production nationwide when oil gets REALLY expensive.


The key phrase is "present regulatory environment." Which is the same as saying prohibitory environment. Which is the  same as saying that one party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trial Lawyers.


Re: IQ, Wealth, and Demographic Winter


When reading that the kids of prominent people tend to be smarter than the average bear, I was reminded of the phrase, "From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." I wonder if a two-generation window is too narrow. After all, if intelligence is really heritible, we should be able to demonstrate it for arbitrary numbers of generations, provided that the data is available. IQ testing has been around long enough that I'll bet the question can be tracked for four or five generations.

What I expect we'd discover is that IQ values revert to the mean as quickly as the family fortune. After all, the miracle of compound interest helps preserve the family fortune, but genes are on their own. Besides, selective breeding doesn't work anywhere near as well as people think it does.(A. I. Hagedoorn's classic book, "Animal Breeding" -- sadly out of print -- is a good introduction to this sort of thing.)

Perhaps more importantly, I suspect that a careful look at the data will dispel the never-quite-stated assumption that smart people and dumb people make up non-overlapping gene pools, as if they were two separate species. Asimov's "Marching Morons" seems to fall into this trap. But you can tell that this isn't true simply by looking IQ curve. With two populations, we'd see a bimodal distribution, with one peak representing the average intelligence of dumb people and another representing the average intelligence of smart people. But what we get is a true bell curve with a single peak, just like you'd get with a single population.

-- Robert

-- Robert Plamondon

IQ is certainly inheritable, but the correlations aren't perfect, and there is always regression to the mean. Galton's studies showed that there are plenty of bright people who come from ordinary populations.


I.Q. and evolution: further observations and comments

Dear Dr. Pournelle;

The questions posed in this article seem to break down in the following fashion:

* In light of falling birth rates, are modern societies self limiting?

* Is the first world the product of genetic predictors of greater intelligence?

* Are the large families and other practices of non-Western cultures more a product of nature, ie; inherited intelligence, or are they more the product of culture and a lack of education?

* Finally, is immigration from non-western cultures going to swallow and destroy our predominantly caucasian race and our Western heritage?

It's a fascinating discussion. Nor is it a new one; versions of it no doubt troubled our distant ancestors when they encountered a new tribe (and no, I'm not calling the author primitive!) I for one, however, do not believe that large families are necessarily the product of low intelligence, though this may be so in individual cases. After all, in most third world cultures, a large family takes the place of the hospital/nursing home/pension plan we have come to expect in our western societies. Without many sons, who will work the land or look after the parents when they are too old to look out for themselves? Considering the toll traditionally taken by accident, war or disease (especially disease) only in the past 50 or 60 years has modern medicine(from western countries) turned the practice of having large families into a population explosion.

I would like to draw attention to two examples to support my claim of nurture over nature. First is my own British genetic heritage. If you are Irish or Scottish than at some point in your family tree, large poorly educated families were probably quite common. These people had huge families, many of who never made it to adulthood. When times were good, they got by, but when times were hard they starved. This is not rational unless seen in the light of a Catholic farming/herding society. This life was hard and the Catholic church told them that birth control was a sin. Since girl children involved a dowry and could not be expected to till the soil or carry on the family name, sons were needed. Many sons. The English, who were arguably a little further ahead in some areas than the Irish or the Scots, had smaller families (especially after the reformation, although please correct me if I am wrong) and generally considered the Scots-Irish to be little better than animals.

The second example is of the traditionally Muslim ethnic groups; Arabic, Armenian, Berber, Turk, etc. etc. While Islamic culture has not, I believe, kept up with the West in terms of their contribution to the species, their early contributions in terms of mathematics, philosophy, law and art were flowering when the inhabitants of Paris and London were picking at fleas. The large family is normal for these peoples and for the same reasons; security, continuance of the family name, cultural prohibitions against birth control and lack of access to same.

Interestingly, I read a study (cannot cite it since I don't recall where or when or by whom) that asked third world women from Thailand, Central and East Africa, and other locations if they would have more children if they could and the universal and emphatic answer was, no. If birth control was widely available and if there was legal and cultural support, these women would have smaller families.

I seem to have run on a bit so I will try to be brief. Although I don't believe there is a strong link between intelligence and family size, I DO believe the west has a bit of a problem with keeping it's cultural/racial identity. On a planet straining at the seams with people, it hardly seems like a good idea to encourage people to turn North America into an ant heap in an attempt to keep up with others. I'm not certain what incentive you could offer when sending even one off for a "higher" education can bankrupt you. A ghastly and possibly effective way of evening the scales would be to withhold childhood vaccines from aide shipments, or withhold such shipments entirely. I'm not personally in favor of genocide, mind, though harder hearts may have their day.

Perhaps the best hope of Western peoples lie in the advancement in gerontological science and the bio-tech/nano-tech revolution that is underway, specifically Longevity research. Twenty years ago it was fantasy. Now it is becoming more and more a main stream reality, with the first drugs aimed at extending healthy life only a few years away. If you could extend the human life, that is as good or even better that breeding new ones since you don't have to lose vital skills and knowledge. But I see that I am beginning to ramble so I offer my apologies and will immediately cease.







 read book now




CURRENT VIEW     Saturday

This week:


read book now


Sunday,  May 4, 2008     

Re: I.Q. and evolution: further observations and comments

Dr. Pournelle,

In response to Eric, who said that

> I don't believe there is a strong link between intelligence and family size

I respond that the data says otherwise, at least in the US. I have previously cited 2004 US census data. It is easy to access, and downloadable in Microsoft Excel format.

According to the sample set provided for women ages 40-44, the ONLY educational demographic that has exceeded the self-replacement rate is women who have not attained a high school diploma. Assuming a replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman, women with bachelor's degrees are at 82%, and graduate and professional women are around 74%, compared to 118% for women without a HS degree. We may quibble about the exact figures, but there is clearly a positive correlation between IQ and educational achievement, and a negative correlation between educational achievement and fertility. Unless you challenge the validity of the data, there is no room to believe that there is not a significant correlation between intelligence and family size.

Steve Chu

The data certainly indicate that bright people have fewer kids.


Re: Regulatory Politics

You wrote: " The key phrase is "present regulatory environment." Which is the same as saying prohibitory environment. Which is the same as saying that one party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trial Lawyers."

Actually, it's entirely due to the Trial Lawyers, and hasn't really got anything to do with political parties. The reason that regulators think this way is that our country has spent thirty years saying, in every possible way, that We Do Not Want Risk. We want our risk to be ABSOLUTELY ZERO. No risk of any kind, whatsoever, in anything that we choose to do. I want to be able to buy a gun, load it, point it at my head and pull the trigger, and suffer no ill result. It's Someone's Job to make certain that this happens. And if it doesn't work out that way--if I'm exposed to risk--then obviously it's Someone's Fault, and that someone Must Be Made To Pay.

The government's response is to downcheck anything with risk in it. If they don't approve the activity, then they aren't responsible for negative outcomes--even if the negative outcome is a direct result of their non-approval.

Remember that thing about Misoprostol I sent you a few months ago? A small company did a research study on the use of misoprostol (aka Cytotec) as a labor-induction drug. The company found that misoprostol was exactly as effective as, and no more hazardous than, the standard-use drug for the purpose (Cervidil). The FDA refused to approve the use of misoprostol for labor induction, because it wasn't MORE safe than the existing drug.

Except that misoprostol is already being used by doctors to induce labor, thousands of times every day, all across the United States. They know it's not approved for this use, and yet they do it anyway. But as long as the FDA hasn't approved it, then any negative results from using misoprostol aren't the FDA's fault. As soon as the FDA approves the drug, they are now responsible for any failed inductions.

And there's no way to eliminate these bureaucrats. Nobody ever votes for them; indeed, the closest many of them come to an election is that their boss's boss's boss's boss's boss is appointed by the President. The people who make the actual regulatory decisions have been there longer than any Presidential administration; many of them have been a part of the bureaucracy for longer than FDR was President! Most of them are wholly apolitical. But they're more interested in maintaining the bureaucracy than they are in doing things that might go wrong.



NO Gripping Hand! -- 


On the one hand:

Ballmer: You want XP, we'll keep XP


But on the other hand:

Update: No change in Windows XP plan despite Ballmer comment


NO "but on the Gripping Hand" option located.

I guess that the *power* to *enforce* "your OS dies when we SAY it dies!" is too powerful a drug for them to resist.



Revealed Religion 

Dear Jerry,

This reader's tagline -

"Communism, like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophecies. H. L. Mencken"

- sure fits "Global Warming Science". GW even features its own Apocalypse & Judgement, due solely to Sinful Man's refusal to repent and bow down unquestioningly before the High Priests of Global Warming.

Best Wishes,



Tall Tales About Tuskegee.


--- Roland Dobbins


Subject: American Axle

Dr. Pournelle,

I read the linked article about the travails (or the refusal to travail, perhaps) of the workers at American Axle.

Interestingly, the "picket" quoted was described as being "outside the gleaming headquarters the company built next to its refurbished Detroit plant four years ago".

One is inevitably reminded of C. Northcote Parkinson: "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."

Sounds like American Axle was on the way out anyway!

Andrew Duffin

PS Best wishes for your continuing recovery - we need you to go on doing stupid things so that we don't have to!

I'm trying.


Minor Correction For The Record 

Correspondent Eric wrote on 05/03/08:

"...traditionally Muslim ethnic groups; Arabic, Armenian, Berber, Turk, etc. etc."

Armenians have been primarily Christian since the official adoption of the faith by the nation in AD 301. Note that that was before Constantine The Great, making Armenia the first nation to convert to Christianity.

(I'm sure you already knew this fact, I wanted to point out the error in case you think it needs to be corrected.)



All correct, and I should have caught that. Thanks.


Subject: JK Rowling 


Harry Potter and the battle of the lexicon -- chicagotribune.com 

Sourly amusing tidbit -- the publisher who is seeking to publish the lexicon that Harry Potter author JK Rowling believes reuses too much of her original material and provides inadequate research is a biographer of Michael Moore.


I am sure Ms. Rowling wishes this would all go away. As the judge said, this seems ripe for settlement. Alas, there are serious principles at stake here.





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