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User Journal

Journal Journal: The Prius: Still costs more than its worth. 9

It's a 2009 Ford Focus SES, a very nice vehicle. MSRP of $17,865 [1]. 7.1l/100km combined mileage [2]. Judging from the intervals so far(5000km, 10,000km), it looks like Ford wants me to change the oil every 5000km. The oil change cost me about 50 bucks.

So, I figure my annual cost of ownership this way: To own a car, I need to pay for it, I need to pay for insurance, I need gas, and I need to change the oil.

I assume that I want the 5yr, 100,000km powertrain warranty to last the whole 5 years I own the vehicle, limiting the distance travelled to 20,000km/yr. I assume gas is about a dollar per litre.

vehicle payments before taxes: $3573/yr
insurance: $2100/yr
Fuel: $1440/yr
Oil: $200/yr
Total cost to own and operate the vehicle: $7313/yr

I bought a new car recently, and was running through the cost of ownership over the warranty period of the vehicle.

Compare to a 2009 Toyota Prius, another very nice vehicle. MSRP of $24,270 [3](This surprised me because it means the price went down considerably). 4.1/100km combined mileage [4]. The oil change interval appears to be every 8000km[5]. I'll assume the oil change will cost about the same.

So, I figure my annual cost of ownership this way: To own a car, I need to pay for it, I need to pay for insurance, I need gas, and I need to change the oil.

I assume that I want the 5yr, 100,000km powertrain warranty to last the whole 5 years I own the vehicle, limiting the distance travelled to 20,000km/yr. I assume gas is about a dollar per litre.

vehicle payments before taxes: $4854/yr
insurance: $2100/yr
Fuel: $820/yr
Oil: $125/yr
Total cost to own and operate the vehicle: $7899/yr

Prices would need to double -- that is, they'd need to hit an average of $2.07/l ($7.8/usg) for a year for the vehicle to be a break-even deal.

I know my conclusions from this data, but feel free to form your own.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Extinction: Why humanity must shrink to avoid it.

The human race has thrived on what is effectively borrowed time.

Fossil fuels are, everyone agrees, finite in supply. After we deplete our resources, they won't be replenished within the probable lifespan of the human race.

"Carrying capacity" is the maximum population an ecosystem can support before becoming unsustainable. You don't see it right away, but over time exceeding the carrying capacity of an ecosystem will cause the population to crash. For example, if an island has enough vegetation to sustainably feed 200 deer, you could get 201 deer and there wouldn't be an immediate destruction, but eventually the island would be stripped bare and the entire population would die out.

Once our reserves are depleted, the ability of the human race to feed itself will be restricted. We'll be suddenly trapped by the natural carrying capacity of the planet's ecosystems. It is essential that before then, the human race become technologically advanced enough to push the natural carrying capacity upwards to create enough food without fossil fuels, and equally essential that the human race manage their size to lower the target carrying capacity we'll need to reach with technology.

If the population keeps growing at the current rate and technology to increase the natural carrying capacity of our farming ecosystems without fossil fuels continues to be ignored, humanity will be destroyed.

We've got renewable power today. It's no magical source of infinite energy, even though it works extremely well for providing cheap renewable energy to places blessed to have the geography and the infrastructure.

Today, we exist in the numbers we do only because fossil fuels power our expansion. Without them, we'd have to rely on biofuels, which history shows us can't even provide enough power for a population a fraction of the current size.

Before fossil fuels were used to heat homes, wood was. That was the cause of deforestation in England -- with a much smaller population than today. After wood became impractical, coal was used. Similarly, after whale oil became much more difficult to procure, natural gas was used to light lanterns. Fossil fuels offset the fact that renewable sources of energy were all used in an unrenewable fashion. This devastation of renewable sources of energy was brought about by a population much much smaller than the population inhabiting the same area today. That's exactly the problem. Once the fossil fuels disappear, the population that was already sucking the natural renewable resources of the island dry is orders of magnitude larger, and will suffer. Even fish stocks have been decimated, leading to the collapse of fishing economies, like Newfoundland.

Many people will respond with their favourite pet vapourware technology. Year after year, we continue to be promised a flying car[1], but we don't get it. Don't rely on vapourware to provide energy for a population 6 times greater[2] than the one that deforested England[3] and brought whales to the brink of extinction[4].

I believe in technology, but I don't believe in miracles. I don't believe that technology is a perfect machine that will always provide us exactly the solution we desire. Much of the incredible advancement of the past couple centuries has been the elimination of biofuels in favour of cheaper fossil fuels.

We're far past the carrying capacity of natural or man-made means of collecting solar energy. At our current rate, the amount of food we need just to feed outselves will double by 2080[5]. This is before we think about the amount of food that will have to be grown for conventional biofuels. The problem is that using biofuels with current technology is terribly inefficient. "In fact, even if the entire corn crop in the United States were used to make ethanol, that fuel would replace only 12 percent of current U.S. gasoline use."[6]

There's no free lunch -- literally. No matter how you roll the numbers, there's a limited amount of energy hitting the earth, and once we've used up the fossil fuels, we've got to live with that energy and find ways to use it efficiently to keep our species going. Even look at the articles giving alternative ways to produce nitrogen fertilizer -- biofuels! Where do you think the nitrogen in those biofuels will come from? Nitrogen fertilizer! We need to manage the population because the free ride is going to end. Our choices are either be ready for it, or face extinction.

Our currently installed base of industry cannot support our race.

The reason we can support 6 billion people is nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer is a "wonder drug" which causes plants to grow incredibly well. It's used around the world, but to give an idea of the effectiveness of nitrogen fertilizer, it was recently introduced to villages in China that couldn't support themselves. Suddenly they became capable of exporting huge amounts of crops using these chemicals. Nitrogen fertilizer is created almost entirely using natural gas feedstock. Thus, food is effectively a product of fossil fuels. Without nitrogen fertilizer, we wouldn't be able to grow enough to feed everyone.

Ammonia is the most important chemical containing nitrogen. It's a fundamental ingredient in fertilizer. Today, the raw ingredients to create ammonia are natural gas, steam, and air. As of 1982 (and industrial plants don't move very quickly, so it likely hasn't dramatically changed), natural gas, air, and steam is reacted with heat over a catalyst, creating the perfect combination of nitrogen and helium to produce ammonia, with water and CO2 waste products removed.

Electrolysis is a possible alternative method. It isn't competitive at the moment, just like most hydrogen from electrolysis processes (50-70% efficiency, greatly depending on size, and no matter what you're talking about obscene amounts of energy). At the moment, a fraction of a percent of the world's hydrogen supply is produced through electrolysis because of the problems involved[7].
So where are the problems?

1. Synthetic ammonia is the most important source of ammonia, which in turn is the most important source of nitrogen.

2. Current synthetic ammonia production for fertilizer relies almost exclusively on natural gas. In 1980, 14,686 kilotonnes of nitrogen contained in ammonia was created using the natural gas process. By contrast, all other sources combined accounted for 80 kilotonnes of nitrogen.[8]

3. Current ammonia plants are optimized exclusively for the use of natural gas as a feed stock. Substantial re-tooling would be required to use another feedstock.

4. Massive amounts of energy is required to use electricity as a substitute for hydrocarbons. This will likely require proximity to generators and will preclude the use of existing processing plants, which can run entirely with a water and natural gas supply. Current electrolysis plants are located geographically very close to hydroelectric dams.

5. Whether this is possible at all is highly dependant on other industries which are similarly addicted to petroleum and coal.

5a. The creation of cement currently involves a lime kiln which burns oil, natural gas, or crushed coal.

5b. The creation of steel involves the use of carbon created with hydrocarbons.

5c. The creation of many plastics directly requires crude oil feedstock.

5d. The purification of many metals requires acids with similar issues. Hydrochloric acid is produced almost entirely directly or indirectly from hydrocarbons. The nitric acid process uses ammonia directly as a feedstock.

5e. Many mines use gasoline, natural gas, diesel, and oil to produce power, and couldn't run without the mobile energy source.

5f. The cardboard boxes that these things come in rely on availability of Kraft paper, which uses oil or natural gas to recover process chemicals.

5g. The production of glass requires lime, which is created using a kiln, which uses oil or natural gas

5h. Wood fibres for structural components or for paper, heavily use fossil fuels as a portable source of power to remain viable.

It's easy to say "Oh, we'll just switch to something new", but that shows a naivety about just how important they are. Entire industries rely on oil and natural gas, and there's no substitute. Once oil started going up, everything did. Metals shot up, wood shot up, fibres shot up, food shot up. Imagine if there wasn't enough to go around now. Where do you allocate your resources? Do you make ammonia to feed people now, or do you make cement so you can build new ammonia plants so you can feed people tomorrow? For those who say "go nuclear", how exactly do you intend to build new nuclear plants without any process feedstock for the building materials, without a portable source of energy for mines in the far north to use?

Let's examine the energy cost of three heavily fossil-fuel subsidized critical industries, ammonia, Portland cement, and iron.

Nitrogen: 14.0067gmol1[9]

Hydrogen: 1.00794gmol1[10]

The reaction that creates Nitrogen is as follows:

1/2N2 + 3/2H2 = NH3

Therefore, for every 1g of nitrogen required, 215mg of hydrogen will be required.

The practical energy required for a hydrogen electrolysis unit is 50kwH/kg[11]

The world production of ammonia in 2006 was 124,000,000,000kg.[12]

So assuming of all that, (.215/(1+.215))*124,000,000,000 ~= 21,942,386,831kg of hydrogen would be required.

Therefore, assuming no other losses, the total power required to supply hydrogen to the world's present ammonia production and not have people starving to death in the streets is roughly ~21,942,386,831kg * 50kwH/kg = 1,097,119,341,550kWH

It takes about 2000kwH/tonne of low-grade iron.[13]

World production is approximately 1,544,000,000t[14]

Therefore, to maintain current iron production would require 3,088,000,000,000kWH.

Now let's replace the kilns in cement factories.

Currently, the low-end of cement kiln energy usage is 5.3GJ/tonne[15]

Google tells me 1 GJ = 277.777778 kWh

Therefore, an equivilent electric kiln would need to use 1,472.22222kWh/tonne

World production of cement is 1,462,470,000 tonnes/yr[16]

Therefore, assuming 100% efficiency, replacing the kilns in the cement industry would take 2,153,080,833,330kWh

Our energy use to convert these three industries to electricity will cost 6,338,200,174,880kWh.

Let's see how much power we have to play with:

2,600,000,000,000kWH generated in 2005 from Nuclear Power[17]

3,266,511,001,300kWH generated in 2005 from hydroelectric and renewable electricity[18]

So without hydrocarbons, we're looking at 5,866,511,001,300kWH of total installed electricity generating capacity.

In other words, we can't even convert these three industries to current nuclear


[8] Shreve's Chemical Process Industries, p. 305


Journal Journal: My Reality Invaded By the Real World 7

So I am at work yesterday afternoon and I get a panicked phone call from my wife because neither of our sons (my stepsons) have shown up from school. Now one has an after-school program he goes to and she is supposed to pick him up at school, but our other son is nowhere to be found. She drives frantically to the school and upon arriving sees no buses anywhere, and more importantly the school is surrounded by police and fire department vehicles. She asks a police officer what is going on and he explains that all the kids were evacuated from the middle school to the high school (which is down the road about 3/4s of a mile), but has no information as to why.

The kids make it home all right, but they were forced to evacuate without being able to at least bring their coats, and yesterday was cold and rainy, which made neither of us happy.

When I got home, I went on the school district web site and sure enough, my guess as to what happened had been accurate: someone had made a bomb threat to the school. Now, we live in central NJ, basically out in the middle of nowhere important, midway between NYC and Philly. We're a fairly diverse, more upscale community, and up until yesterday, peaceful.

This was a middle school, for crying out loud! 4th through 8th graders! 1000+ kids! And someone, some moron, thought it would be funny (or perhaps mean, or even psychotic) to call in a bomb threat to the school about five minutes before dismissal.

I hope it was not a kid in the school, because if it was, I want the the child to watch their parents be flayed alive. Yes, I'm that mad right now. I suspect when I calm down, I will only want them stoned to the point of unconsciousness. If it was an adult, they better have a horrible mental illness, because that's the only thing that would keep me from finding them myself and stringing them up in the center of town. Again, when I calm down, I'll probably be human enough to allow them to live, but horribly crippled. I can't say.

I may be in this state owing to the 9/11 flashback I had when I read it was a bomb threat, for on that day, as I sat in my office, stunned and pretty much incoherent to the disaster going on around me, a higher up came through and told each person still there (there were only a handful of us at the time) that someone had called in a bomb threat against our building in Midtown. It didn't move me to leave, because I knew this was more idle threat than actuality, but it pissed me off that someone thought now was the chance to get in their licks while the lower end of Manhattan was smoking and burning. I don't know if they ever found out who did it, and that person should probably be glad I don't know who they are.

I've watched Oklahoma City, 9/11, Columbine, Virginia Tech... seen them come and go and promised myself I would do everything in my power to keep my kids away from those types of events, full well knowing it's impossible to predict the actions of madmen. And now I'm just so pissed off that it's hard to articulate. The world is so full of problems and we live with enough fear of the unknown now that something like this is unconscionable.

I only hope I calm down.


Journal Journal: Interesting Quote

From the Quote of the Day widget on my iGoogle page:

If you put tomfoolery into a computer, nothing comes out of it but tomfoolery. But this tomfoolery, having passed through a very expensive machine, is somehow ennobled and no-one dares criticize it. - Pierre Gallois

I want to start a software company just so I can make that our motto.

United States

Journal Journal: Interesting Anniversary 1

Today marks the 67th anniversary of one of the most famous engineering disasters of the 20th Century: the failure of the Tacoma-Narrows bridge. "Galloping Gertie", as the bridge was referred to because of its propensity to move, was subjected to 35-40 mile per hour winds this day in 1940, causing the center span to begin a harmonic oscillation that eventually led to structural failure. It was a unique event for the time in that the collapse was filmed, allowing engineers a spectacular view of the bridge's failure.
User Journal

Journal Journal: The Best Obsolete Technologies

Given the nature of the world today, where it seems a technology, application, or piece of equipment is rendered obsolete 15 minutes after it becomes available, Wired has gone back and looked at some of the best obsolete technologies. What's interesting about the list is that despite many of the items having been superseded by more modern technologies, several of them (like the Sundial or the Slide Rule) could still be useful and others have found new life (the Stock Ticker no longer relies on paper, but can be seen on CNBC, CNN, etc. as a crawl at the bottom of the screen).
User Journal

Journal Journal: RIP, Paul Tibbets

Paul Tibbets, the man who flew the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb, has died at the age of 92. The following is probably the best insight into his life:

Tibbets, then a 30-year-old colonel, never expressed regret over his role. It was, he said, his patriotic duty -- the right thing to do.

"I'm not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I'm proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did," he said in a 1975 interview.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Recruiters suck (RANT)

Now happily ensconced in a new job, I still get a raft of emails from recruiters. No matter how you try to shut down a job search, their are always recruiters who have somehow not gotten the hint or have dredged up a copy of your résumé from 5 years ago and think you're still looking for a job. What cheeses e off most? Glad you didn't ask, but I'm going to tell you anyway:

  1. Farmers - recruiters so lazy that they simply do a bulk search, grab your info without reading it, and send you a job that you are clearly not qualified for
  2. Tech-ignorant - nowhere on my res does it say that I work with Java, but I get requests to look at Java jobs all the time. The only place Java appears on my résumé is in the word "JavaScript"
  3. Job-ignorant - I suspect a lot of recruiters simply use on-line tools to match jobs to résumés, because it's clear they don't read their own job copy. If I live in NJ, and a job is in Michigan, and they are looking for only local applicants, do I qualify?
  4. Used-car salesman - yes, the canned patter recruiting email... how I love them so.
  5. Do my job for me - of course, since you've done such a lousy job is sending me a job description that clearly doesn't fit me, I'd be more than happy to pass on the job description to my good friends in the tech business. I realize referrals are a great way to drum up business (I made the mistake of trying to sell life insurance), but I really don't think much of passing around jobs unless there's someone I know who is out of work and could use the help, which happens very rarely.

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Work is the crab grass in the lawn of life. -- Schulz