Friday, May 30, 2008

Is Gasoline Really Getting More Expensive?

It might seem like a ridiculous question, but it's not. I'm only talking about the average price of gasoline in the U.S. The price of gas has been surprisingly high for decades when expressed in equivalent purchasing power of the dollar (in other words, accounting for the impact of inflation). Gas in 1920 cost about $3.00 per gallon in current dollars. It went through a long slow price decline in the decades between 1920 and 1980, then there was a sudden spike back to $3.00 per gallon in current dollars. This was the era of OPEC and lots of oil intrigue. Then surprisingly, gas dropped all the way back down to $1.50 in todays dollars for most of the 90's. It started trending back up after 2000. Gas hitting three dollars a gallon is a recent memory for most of us. However, now that gasoline has shot past $4.00 a gallon we are really in new territory. In constant 2005 dollars gas is by far the highest it has been during the history of widespread automobile usage in the U.S. Furthermore, in just a few years it has rocketed from the equivalent of $1.50 a gallon to the current prices. Here is a graph of prices from 1920 to 2005 .

We have the highest price in real dollars following a decade (the 90's) of the lowest price in real dollars. This time, gasoline truly is getting far more expensive!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pondering How I Will Vote

It has occurred to me that I vote a lot more often than I had realized. Of course, it is election season here in the U.S. and that has me thinking about voting. However, I thought about all the other ways I vote, moment by moment, day by day.

Every time I purchase something, I am casting a vote: Yes, I want this coffee shop to be on this corner and I approve, or at least I am willing to tolerate, how they conduct their business. Ditto for buying something in a Walmart or at a Safeway. Businesses generally cannot survive unless enough people vote for them with their money.

I can vote with my actions, but also with my inaction. Passivity in the face of tyranny or oppression is a vote for continued tyranny and oppression. Keeping quiet when the truth must be told is a vote for dishonesty. My vote may not be enough to effect immediate change. Perhaps it seldom will be. Is that any reason to vote for things I hate?

I vote with what I think to be very private thoughts, including those I am not conscious of. Even the very best poker players have "tells": tiny little motions that indicate whether they have a good hand or not. Most of us maintain nothing like a poker face. A grimace, a small smile, a glance, or a nod, can all indicate how I have voted in my mind. No matter how hard I try to mask my feelings, my tone of voice, the length of pause before I answer, a slight stiffening of my back muscles will betray my vote to those who are aware such things. Most of us are much more aware of those signs that we realize. Often it is not conscious, but we factor them into our appraisal of any situation.

Are such tiny things as facial expressions really votes of any import? Yes. Of course they are. We may have a hard time explaining how we know the difference between a condescending smile and a smile of approval, but our lives can be changed by one or the other. A job interview or a marriage proposal may heighten our sensitivity. However, even a stranger's glance at our clothes may impact us. And even if it does not impact us greatly, it will still be one of many small impacts that influence the course of our life.

Vow, devotion, and vote all share etymological roots. We speak of personal vows, private devotions, and secret votes. However, even then, our words, our posture, and most certainly our actions will announce our intentions to the world.

The greatest teacher the world has known advised us as follows: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." Will I say "Yes" with my eyes, my money, or my time while saying "No" with my mouth? Far too often that is exactly what I do. I am a hypocrite. It would be hypocrisy to proclaim otherwise.

May God grant me the grace to vote for that which is good and vote against that which is evil. May he conform my mind to the mind of Christ, so that I will say "Yes" or "No" with all my heart and all my soul. May God forgive me for the foolish votes I cast. Each has an eternal impact. Only God can redeem them.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More Things That Should Have Killed Me

Earlier today I had a chat with a friend. She was with her teenage son. We talked about driving and safety. That launched my mind on a survey of various dangerous things I had done. I wondered if they were already included in my post entitled 50 Things That Should Have Killed Me Already . Nope. No mention there of the time I explored an abandoned manganese mine with my brother and his wife (under a mountain in the desert, long descents on old wooden ladders down very deep shafts while two of our three headlamps went dead). No mention of driving across Death Valley in August at 3 in the afternoon (MG Midget, 90 mph, no air conditioning, 130 degree sun). Those were both in the same week! Surely I must have included my first snow camping experience (also my first time on cross country skis, backpacks, 10,000 ft, miles from nearest road, stove wouldn't work, wind collapsed the tent during middle of the night blizzard conditions). Nope. My mind reeled on and on. I thought of more dumb things I had done and survived. Like the time a coworker was tormenting me at the machine shop, I walked over and kicked him in the ass while he stood at his machine, even though he was 6'10" and about 280 pounds. Our shift ended at 3 a.m. and I walked briskly to my car, feeling very alone and vulnerable.

I find myself wondering, "Did I really do all this stuff, or am I just exaggerating?" Well maybe exaggerating a bit, but I am pretty sure that the basic facts are correct. For example, I really did have a pet rattlesnake in a glass jar. However, he was a little one. I found him, but I talked some other kid into getting him into the jar. I probably only tried to feed him a grasshopper once before I realized that lifting the lid was a bad idea. I was driving in a light rain at 50 or 60 mph on a curving back country road when my Camaro slid off the road into a ditch and a telephone pole. But I slid for a long way and spun around before hitting anything and was probably doing less than fifty when I hit the pole. So yes, I may make things sound more dangerous than they really were. Still, it seems that out of a long, long list of those, at least one would have at least put me in a hospital for a while. Well, o.k. I was in the hospital for a couple of hours after trashing the Camaro, but I walked out and made it to a meeting that I had to lead. Mostly I didn't get even a scratch from this stuff. I suppose one day I will look the wrong way again while crossing a street (it's easy to do where they drive on the left) and perhaps that time a coworker will be unable to pull me away from an oncoming bus. I am thankful I lasted this long. I hope to make good use of whatever time I have left.

Looking For Trouble

When I was a kid, the phrase "looking for trouble" was often used in reference to someone who was inserting themselves into a situation where it was likely that bad things would happen. For example, you are "looking for trouble" if you tell someone their baby is ugly. You are "looking for trouble" if you park your Ferrari on a back street of a rough neighborhood. When I said that someone was "looking for trouble", it basically meant that they were showing poor judgement and would suffer as a consequence.

Unfortunately, it seems that "looking for trouble" is a global pandemic. I have confessed elsewhere that I watch my site meter to see how people happen to find my blog. A large portion of the visitors find a link to one of my posts while doing a Google search. One search has been done by people in at least a dozen countries from all over the globe. It is a Google image search with the term "arthroscopic". When I do that search myself, I find dozens of images of various joints before, during, and after arthroscopic surgery. There is a rather gruesome photo of my knee in my blog post titled Ouch. There are several dozen images that rank higher in the search than my photo. However, it would appear that a surprising number of people carefully comb through the images until they find a photo of my knee looking like it has been beaten with a baseball bat. The pain and bruising I had following arthroscopic surgery are quite rare. Even among images that someone bothered to post on the Internet, it is rare. And you all know how much geezers like me like to show off their injuries. It is a second childhood version of "look at my owie!".

Do you suppose that the person doing the search usually says "Oh, thank goodness, even among Internet posts, a picture of a nasty looking result is rare!" Not likely. Perhaps a common response would be "Oh no, look at that. Look at what can happen. Man that has to hurt. I didn't know it could go that badly!" That is because the person doing the search is "looking for trouble". They may think they are looking for balanced information, but they are drawn to images of the surgery gone bad like moths to a flame.

This is not a phenomena peculiar to the Internet. Think about what we call "news". We pay people to scour the earth for the worst possible happenings, and then we fill a periodical or a broadcast with the worst of the worst. Some of those may be important for us to know: the hurricane in New Orleans, civil unrest in Kenya, or an election in Russia. However, a great deal of it caters to our depraved fascination with sad happenings. Britney Spears' personal problems. A man who keeps his daughter in a dungeon. The woman who leaves her dead mother's body in their house, decaying for months. The time we spend informing ourselves about such things is very much disproportionate to their importance. We are actually following those news stories for entertainment, not information.

Some weeks back I realized that every time I read or watch a story about Britney Spears (for example today's big headline: Britney Spears has another car crash ) I am casting my vote for more reporters and more media to give me more of the same. Ditto for story of the man who keeps his daughter in a dungeon or the woman who neglects her mother's remains. I am wasting some of the time God has given me on this earth. I am cycling my emotions and polluting my imagination to no good purpose.

Years ago I read the newspaper daily. I listened to National Public Radio while commuting to work (about an hour a day total). I often spent another hour each day watching local and national TV newscasts. Add in some time for reading "news" magazines. Let's not forget the time spent discussing such things in the hallway at work or during a family dinner. I shudder to think how many votes I cast for garbage. I wince when I consider the time I have wasted studying and discussing garbage.

I want to stop "looking for trouble". I want to be informed, not simply titillated. I've made some progress. I hope you will join me, simply because I want the best for us all.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Growing, Making, Doing

I have often been adjured to think globally, but I confess that I seldom do so. The world is so very big and complicated. However, I wanted to calibrate myself on how the world spends its money. The most common measure is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) , which is the total amount spent on all goods and services. Various organizations take a stab at estimating the GDP for the whole world (GWP). Here is some data from the CIA world fact book:

GWP (gross world product): $65.82 trillion (2007 est.)

GDP - per capita (PPP):$10,000 (2007 est.)

GDP - composition by sector: agriculture: 4% industry: 32% services: 64% (2007 est.)

I knew that the amount spent on agriculture was smaller than what is spent for manufactured goods and for the service sector. I was astounded to see how small it really is. Worldwide we spend about $42 trillion paying each other to perform services. We spend $21 trillion dollars to make manufactured goods. We spend less than $3 trillion dollars to grow food.

Granted, three trillion dollars is a lot of money. However, it amounts to about $500 per year per person. That's for corn, wheat, rice, beans, meat and other food (from Asparagus to Yams). And those crops are listed pretty much in order of value. I know for sure that corn is by far the biggest crop worldwide. Wheat is number two. Rice is a distant third.

Oddly, a large portion of the corn is used to make non-food products. That is not just since the move to biofuels. It has been true for many years. Large portions get turned into all sorts of things. Here is a list I found in a school lesson about corn usage:

batteries paint cosmetics
cardboard crayons explosives
detergents insecticides photographs
ethanol wallpaper ink
film plastics trash bags
fire works deodorants mouthwash
lotions golf tees adhesives
paper glue shoe polish
lubricants rayon soap
packing material

So what's the big deal about ethanol? The big deal is that rich countries are spending many billions of dollars to prop up ethanol as a fuel. It can't compete without subsidies. There is hope that some day it could, but making ethanol from corn uses so much energy that it is a long shot.
An even longer shot is turning switch grass or other non-food crops into ethanol economically.
I'm not saying it won't ever happen. I am saying that it is crazy to try to spend enough tax dollars to make it happen. Spending money to make something cheaper!

It is also obvious that agriculture is a low priority for the people of the world. Remember, about 96% is spent on making things or performing services. Only 4% is spent on growing food.

Here is another way to put things in perspective: A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds. Even at record high prices that is about 10 cents a pound. And corn was only about 3 or 4 cents a pound just a couple of years ago.

One last thought. If ethanol had to be subsidized to be profitable when corn was $2 a bushel, how profitable to you think it will be at $6 per bushel?

The biggest change in world grain markets in the past year has been rich countries turning on their subsidized ethanol production in really big volumes.

Food Prices: The UN Chimes In

I seldom turn to UN bureaucrats to get a clear read on what is going on in the world. So I was really surprised by this article:

So the UN and I agree. Biofuels efforts will cause millions to starve. Rich countries subsidized biofuels (that means they took money from tax payers to give to biofuel companies to help them look profitable despite non-competitive technology for creating biofuels.