Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

 Dahlia Lithwick on the oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood cases.

 My life as a retail worker: Nasty, brutish and poor.

 The New Yorker's review of the Piketty book on inequality. Along with handy charts.

 "The technique involves replacing all of a patient's blood with a cold saline solution."

Video of the week: And now for something completely different. HT Stephanie Farr.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Did Three Mile Island produce the most expensive power in history?

Three Mile Island
Today is the 35th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear mishap in U.S. history. In world consciousness it ranks with Chernobyl and Fukushima, and it happened about 25 miles west of where I'm sitting right now.

TMI Unit 2 began commercial operations on Dec. 30, 1978. That means it was producing power for consumers for just under 90 days before catastrophe struck on March 28, 1979. Basically, it was the nuclear power equivalent of a teenager buying a Maserati then crashing it the next day.

How bad was it? Unit 2's total cost was $700 million, according to the "TMI Facts & Figures" (PDF) put out by GPU Nuclear, the utility that built and operated it. Spread that over 90 days, you're looking at $7.78 million a day. Even for a power utility, that's not chump change.

We can also spread that construction cost factors over the amount of power Unit 2 produced in its short life. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, Unit 2's power cost $2,640 per megawatt-hour, or $2.64 per kilowatt-hour. That's about 30 times more than my local utility PPL's current price to compare of 8.75 cents.

To be honest, I expected that result to be far worse than it is. Still, 30 times is a lot. If you're an average homeowner in PPL's service area, paying $80 a month (U.S. households typically use about 900 kilowatt-hours a month, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration), you wouldn't want that to shoot up by a factor of 30 to $2,400, would you? Hawaii's electricity costs are considered pretty outrageous, but even there, the stuff is only about 35 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Plus, the "price to compare" includes not only generation, but transmission. According to the EIA (it's in a spreadsheet, so no link), the cost ratio is about 85/15. So the generation portion of the price to compare is 85 percent of 8.75 cents, or 7.44 cents. Apples to apples, then, the cost of Unit 2's power was about 35 times PPL's present generation price.

In short, I think there's a pretty good chance that, yes, the electricity produced at TMI's Unit 2 was the most expensive ever generated.

The math that yielded that $2.64 figure is a little tedious, so you can stop reading now if you don't care how I reached it. If you do, take a deep breath, and let's carry on.

The calculation

Unit 1's capacity was about 900 megawatts, according to GPU. Operate a 900-megawatt plant for one hour, and you've generated 900 megawatt-hours. There are 24 hours in a day, and Unit 2 operated for roughly 90 days. So we have 900 x 24 x 90 = 1,944,000 megawatt-hours, max.

Divide $700 million by 1.944 million and you end up with $360 per megawatt-hour. But that was 1979. Scaling up with the Bureau of Labor Statistics handy inflation calculator, that works out to $1,164 per megawatt-hour in 2014 dollars.

Add in operation, maintenance or fuel costs, which according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, were $25.48 per megawatt-hour in 2012, and you get a total of $1,189.48. One megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts, so that works out to $1.19 per kilowatt-hour, or nearly 14 times PPL's current "price to compare" of 8.75 cents.

But wait, there's more! The initial cleanup of Unit 2 after the accident took more than a decade and cost $973 million. Treating those as 1988 dollars for inflation-adjustment purposes (the cleanup stretched from 1979 to 1993, so using 1988 yields a conservative figure), that's another $1.9 billion in 2014 dollars. Plus, there's more cleanup and the decommissioning yet to come, estimated at $837 million as of 2009. Chalk up another $915 million after inflation. So we have $1.9 billion + $915 million = $2.815 billion. Divide by the 1,944,000 megawatt-hours that Unit 1 produced, and we get $1,448 per megawatt-hour. So our final cost is $1,448 + $1,189 = $2,637 per megawatt-hour, or $2.64 per kilowatt-hour, which is 30 times PPL's price to compare.

Let me stress,  by the way, the "back-of-the-envelope" nature of all of this. I'm seeking a plausible general order of magnitude here, not a result that's exact down to the penny.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Memetics in action: Dawkins, Thomas Jefferson and the subversion of subdivision, or vice versa

Richard Dawkins
As the word "meme" propagates further and further into the mainstream, proportionally fewer people remember that the word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his seminal 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.  As originally conceived, the word referred not just to pictures with funny captions exchanged on Facebook (not least because they and it had not been invented yet) but to replicable cultural units in general:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
So, the other day, apropos of the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases, I was looking into the Founding Fathers' views on the separation of church and state, and I happened to come across the following quote from Thomas Jefferson:
The priests of the different religions [sic] sects dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.
Quite a vivid, almost H.L. Menckenesque comment there  once we sub "religious" for the obvious typo "religions." But hang on a moment ... "subdivision"? That doesn't make sense, does it?

No, it does not. A few more Google searches yielded two discoveries: That Jefferson had written about the subversion, not the subdivision, of "the duperies on which they live," and that the mistaken word "subdivision" is a meme traceable to ... none other than Richard Dawkins himself. Specifically, to his 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion. 

To confirm, I had a look at my old-fashioned paper-and-ink hardback edition of the book. Sure enough, there it was, the epigraph to Chapter 4, on page 111: "the subdivision of the duperies." Tripped up, I'm guessing, by Microsoft Word's over-enthusiastic spell-checker, Dawkins had mis-transcribed the quote. He made a goof.

A goof that, according to Google, has been replicated on the Internet roughly 58,000 times. How bad is that? The correct quote, again according to Google, appears only 1,930 times.

In short, Dawkins inadvertently illustrated one of his own main points about memetics; namely, that memes, like genes, propagate for many reasons other than fidelity to reality or usefulness to their hosts, i.e., us. Sure, it would be preferable if the correct quote flourished. But it didn't, because the quote is long enough and its meaning robust enough that you still get the gist of it even with the goof, and since the 1820 letter where the quote originated is pretty obscure, few people are going to come across it except via Dawkins' highly popular book. Once a few dozen folks had typed or cut-and-pasted the quote without noticing the problem, that was enough for the corrupted version to take hold.

Thus spreads a maculate meme. QED.

Fortunately, as even the most fervent proselytizers for "memetics" acknowledge, human beings retain at least some conscious power over memes, however wayward they (the memes) may be.  Children reinvent the meme "educashun" over and over, yet "education" remains the way the word is spelled. And even though "the subdivision of the duperies" is winning the meme race at the moment, there's no reason it can't eventually be reined in.

Thomas Jefferson
To that end, and also just because I think it's interesting, here's the relevant excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's letter to JosĂ© Francesco CorrĂȘ a Da Serra, dated April 11, 1820, in which Jefferson describes the local clerisy's reaction to his pet project, the University of Virginia:

Dear Sir,
    Since I had the pleasure of seeing you, I have learnt that you are about to leave us. ... it would particularly grieve me were you leave us without having seen our University in it's present advanced state. this is such as to give an idea of what it will be. we are enabled now to accomplish the buildings of the whole establishment (the Library excepted) by the close of the next year; and this being secured, it is impossible that the legislature, or it's constituents, can see with indifference such a suite of buildings standing compleat, and unoccupied. there exists indeed an opposition to it by the friends of William and Mary, which is not strong. the most restive is that of the priests of the different religious sects, who dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light; and scowl on it the fatal harbinger announcing the subversion of the duperies on which they live. in this the Presbyterian clergy take the lead. the tocsin is sounded in all their pulpits, and the first alarm denounced is against the particular creed of Doctr. Cooper; and as impudently denounced as if they really knew what it is. but, of this we will talk when you see us at Monticello. in the mean time cura ut valeas, et me ut amaris ama
Th: Jefferson 
Take that, you errant "subdivision," you. 1,930 ... plus 1.

Oh ... and incidentally, isn't "duperies" a word that absolutely deserves to come back into common usage?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The missing voice

Today's the Supreme Court hears arguments in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. Conestoga Wood is based in Lancaster County, so the coverage here has been quite extensive.

I liked this Slate article on corporate personhood - I think it gets the metaphysics right, so to speak. And this article, also from Slate, points out the principal-agent cluster**** at the heart of all of this. If people bought their health insurance directly, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood would not be in court today. But companies buy insurance on behalf of their employees, and so you have the government telling the companies what kind of insurance you have to buy. Hardly what you would call a clean, well-designed arrangement. When A and B are at loggerheads over how to treat C, and C barely gets a word in edgewise, chances are slim the result will end up optimal for C.

Which brings up this: Have you seen a single comment from a Hobby Lobby or Conestoga employee about any of this? I certainly haven't, and if Google has, its search function certainly isn't letting on. You would think that the people at the heart of all this would have something to say. Apparently either they don't, or no one's interested in listening.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

 What the religious right really thinks of birth control. 

 Dots connected: Chesapeake Energy's $5 billion shuffle.

At the end of 2011, Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation’s biggest oil and gas companies, was teetering on the brink of failure. ...
In the months that followed, Chesapeake executed an adroit escape, raising nearly $5 billion with a previously undisclosed twist: By gouging many rural landowners out of royalty payments they were supposed to receive in exchange for allowing the company to drill for natural gas on their property.

Video of the week: It's St. Patrick's Day weekend, and The Browser has a link to a lovely appreciation of Shane MacGowan, so really, the only question here was which Pogues' song to pick.

Friday, March 14, 2014

I saw the light

Normally, when I fall asleep, I don't notice myself doing it. I'm lying there getting sleepy, then the next thing I know, either I'm in the middle of a dream or the alarm is ringing the next morning. I think that's the way it works for most people. The transition isn't a transition, it's a gap.

The other night, though, I woke up about 4 a.m., a good three hours before I wanted to. Couldn't get back to sleep. Tried listening to the radio, finally started feeling drowsy. Then I noticed I was seeing a spinning spiral-checkerboard pattern, black and white, rather like a spiderweb. Felt as though I was falling into it. Knew my eyes were closed. Couldn't open them, in fact. (I tried.) The checkerboard pattern faded to black, and I saw a pale white light in my center of vision, toward which I continued to fall.

"Huh," I remember thinking distinctly, "I'm falling asleep. I'm actually experiencing it, instead of just doing it."

I also remember thinking, "This looks a lot like those near-death experiences that people sometimes have. I guess this is what things look like when the conscious mind shuts down. Too bad for the people who think that white light down there is the afterlife."

Then after awhile I was in a dream, and I knew I was dreaming, which was good, because I was in an old car in a swamp in the woods, and there was a dead body in the passenger seat I had to get rid of.

Lucid dreaming is a thing, and I've had a couple of lucid dreams in the past, without trying, but I can only remember one other time I fell asleep lucidly. I was maybe around 10 or 12, and all I remember is that I knew I was falling asleep. I don't recall any visual effects that time. No spiderweb, no pale white light.

All of which, if nothing else, is at least enough excuse to post this video:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Weird stuff on the Internet, part the bajillionth

So today I paid a visit, as one does, to the website of the Madhya Pradesh State Biodiversity Board, an organization charged with conserving the flora and fauna of Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India. The site has a panel that cycles through a series of nature montages; here's one of them:

Well, that image is certainly bio-diverse, I'll grant them that. That buzzard better watch out, though. He follows through and bites down on whatever that giant chipmunk is holding, and he's toast.

Seriously, though, if you're the graphic designer, how do you look at that juxtaposition and not say, "Hm, maybe we should rethink this?"

I also find it curious that an agency of a state with 75 million inhabitants has to go with a Yahoo account for its email address.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

● I graduated in 1984 and don't have kids, so I need reminding from time to time how nuts our high stakes test-driven education-like system has become. 

● Everything you always wanted to know about the insanely dysfunctional fragmentation of municipal governance in Pennsylvania. I know, it's a real eye-glazer of a topic, but it matters, and the linked article is a great overview. (3,228 separate pension plans!)

● Noah Smith's comparison of the U.S. with Ming-dynasty China is way too glib (and I expect he knows it), but it's fun to read, and this paragraph hits the mark: 

We tell ourselves robotically that we have "the best health-care system in the world," when in fact it underperforms most other rich countries. We gape and gawk when we first travel to Japan or Switzerland and find that all the trains run perfectly on time — not to mention the fact that there are trains in the first place. We ignore our sky-high infrastructure costs and grumble about potholed roads, never pausing to wonder why West Europe and East Asia don't have these problems. We tell ourselves that we're the "land of the free," ignoring the fact that in Japan you can drink a beer in the park without getting arrested. We say that anyone in America can get rich, ignoring the fact that economic mobility is lower here than in almost any other rich country.
 Conversely, you can go too far with the America-as-dystopia trope. As far as I can tell, it's not Mad Max territory out there, but don't try telling that to Wayne LaPierre. Jeezus. 

Video of the week: I found out this week that my cousin, John Stuhldreher, is making a feature film. Very cool! Here's the preview - check it out. (Sports fans will like the name of his production company.)  

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Bakken and Eagle Ford shale plays are visible from space. Is the Marcellus?

If you get a chance, take a look a Phillip Longman's article in Washington Monthly, "Oops: The Texas Miracle That Isn't." Not only is it a good article, it features a great picture, namely this one:

What you're seeing is a section of a huge NASA composite satellite image of North America at night, taken in 2012, showing all the lights burning away in cities and towns. And not just cities and towns! That curved smattering south of San Antonio, as the labeling makes clear, is gas flaring from the Eagle Ford Shale.

The picture caught my attention, because I'd previously seen a similar one showing the Bakken Shale flaring, taken from the same NASA composite satellite image. Here's the image with both shales labeled:

What I'm curious to know is, can we see any flaring from the Marcellus Shale? There's certainly flaring going on, but I've never seen anyone identify it in satellite photos. Is it there?

In a draft version of this post, I initially said I couldn't see anything definitive. Maybe I'm seeing flaring, maybe I'm seeing rural towns. I just don't know. But then I took a closer look, and ... well, see for yourself:

I'm not going to swear I'm right about this, but there just shouldn't be that much light up there. I think those are gas wells. I think the Marcellus, like the Bakken and the Eagle Ford, is visible from space.

Do you agree? Here's a link to a high-res version of the NASA image all this is drawn from. Take a good look. Zoom in. Let me know if you think I'm right or not -- I'd genuinely like to know.

Addendum: And I have to say, I'm starting to wonder about those two lines of lights flanking Pittsburgh and extending southward ...

Monday, March 3, 2014

A pirate's wages

 Brian To / WENN
Left: Worth an estimated $350 million. Right: Broke.
Made the most of this past Sunday by catching not one but two Oscar contenders in the runup to the evening's telecast: American Hustle at the local second-run theater, then Captain Phillips on DVD.

I was more than a little disappointed that American Hustle didn't win anything – I don't care how strong the competition was, that movie was amazing – but it's Captain Phillips that I want to discuss, because it has such a curious behind-the-scenes story.

The movie depicts real-life events,* the 2009 capture by Somali pirates and eventual rescue of the title character, Capt. Richard Phillips, who was commanding the Maersk Alabama container ship. Many Americans remember the dramatic resolution of the crisis, when Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the four pirates through the tiny windows of the lifeboat the Somalis had commandeered. A fourth hijacker, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, was captured and is serving a long sentence in U.S. prison.

Muse is played in the film by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who was so good in the role that he received (and deserved, in my opinion) an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. According to an article in the New Yorker (paywalled), he was driving a limousine for his brother's company in Minneapolis when he answered a casting call seeking Somali nationals for the movie.

How much did Abdi earn for going toe-to-toe with one of the top-grossing actors in the world and giving as good as he got? $65,000.

The New Yorker:
After filming, he went back to work for his brother, selling mobile phones at his shop in a Somali-run mall in Cedar-Riverside ...  On the day of the premiere, he quit.
When Abdi is in Los Angeles to promote the film, he subsists on a per diem, good at the Beverly Hilton, where the studio likes to put him up. The town car is available only for official publicity events. His clothes are loaners. 

Given that Captain Phillips shows a fair bit of sympathy for its villains,** I find it curious that no one at the studio has thought of showing similar sympathy to Abdi and revisiting his financial deal. It would seem to be worth doing, even if only from a PR standpoint.

I couldn't find any firm figures on Hanks' fee for the movie, but it had to be a few million dollars. The movie as a whole cost $55 million. Abdi's $65,000 isn't even a rounding error.  

So you make a movie about a clash between the wealthy, powerful, technologically advanced (and white) First World and the desperately poor, hardscrabble (and black) Third World, and your production's pay scale basically mirrors the incredibly unjust situation you're depicting? It doesn't seem right. 

True, Hanks' value stems from his whole career, not one performance, and certainly it's his name on the marquee that sells tickets, not Abdi's. Or is it? It was at first, but once the movie opened, I have to think at least a few people recommended it to friends on the strength of this unknown Somalian's electric performance.

I know creative accounting is more Hollywood's thing than common decency is, but it would be nice if they made an exception this time around. 


*As Hollywood movies go, it takes relatively few liberties with its source material, the real Capt. Phillips' memoir, but whether the memoir can be trusted fully is another matter.  

**Early on, it depicts the grinding poverty of their home village and the menace of the local warlords, and toward the end, Phillips and Muse discuss, non-judgmentally, the desperation that drove the latter's actions. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Saturday grab-bag

● Marc Andreesen thinks the future of journalism can be "the best of all worlds." 

● Will Bunch thinks the future of journalism is rich guys with axes to grind

● Thomas Piketty via Matt Yglesias: On a net basis, the U.S. has no public debt

● Rebecca Goldstein argues that philosophy isn't going away (and shouldn't). 

Video of the week: My favorite act by a wide margin at Lancaster Roots & Blues was David Mayfield Parade, but none of the videos I can find convey anything of the intensity and brilliance of David's live show. Jeff Thomas' All Volunteer Army was darn good too, however, and with their videos I at least feel I'm watching the same band I saw at Tellus 360 on Saturday. So here they are: