2009 - %3, May

Flu Fears

| Fri May 22, 2009 6:24 PM EDT

Even as the story fades, the A(H1N1) flu epidemic is getting more interesting. But the plotlines are scattered so far and wide and of such relatively low impact individually that they masquerade as unalarming. Compiled, however, this drama continues to escalate:

  • It's not a new flu at all. Probably been circulating undetected in the atrocities we call pig farms for years.

 

  • World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan calls A(H1N1) a "subtle, sneaky" swine flu virus and urges developing countries to be prepared for more severe cases.

 

 

  • Meanwhile, other WHO officials admit that most developing countries can't detect or track seasonal flu let alone monitor a pandemic strain.

 

  • With regards to kids: A study from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota disputes the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending annual flu vaccinations for all kids from 0.5 to 18 years old. The inactivated TIV flu vaccine is not effective in preventing influenza-related hospitalizations in children, especially asthmatic kids. In fact, kids who get the flu vaccine are more at risk for hospitalization than those who don't. These results aren't specific to A(H1N1) but they're worth noting in light of A(H1N1).

 

  • US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pledges $1 billion to develop key components for a swine flu vaccine and conduct clinical studies into its efficacy. Will they take into account the Mayo Clinic assessment of kids and vaccines?

 

  • And then we're about to spend all this money just as we learn that people 60 and older have greater immunity to A(H1N1). These are the people most likely to be targeted with a new $1-billion vaccine they may not need.

 

  • A(H1N1) is forcing health officials to rethink the way we classify epidemics and pandemics. It's acting pandemiclike—Japan's blossoming caseload, for example—yet it remains mild enough to avoid the designation. In other words, A(H1N1) is finding a clever and stealthy way to attack our preparedness.

 

So what are we going to do about those atrocious pig and chicken farms that are making our new diseases along with the bacon and buffalo wings? Farms isn't the right world, really. Can we call them concentration camps?

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The Top 6 Ways to Convert Poop Into Electricity

| Fri May 22, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

More than half of the 15 trillion gallons of sewage Americans flush annually is processed into sludge that gets spread on farmland, lawns, and home vegetable gardens. In theory, recycling poop is the perfect solution to the one truly unavoidable byproduct of human civilization. But sludge-based as fertilizer can contain anything that goes down the drain—from Prozac flushed down toilets to motor oil hosed from factory floors. That's why an increasing number of cities have begun to explore an alternative way to dispose of sludge: advanced poop-to-power plants. By one estimate, a single American's daily sludge output can generate enough electricity to light a 60-watt bulb for more than nine hours. Here are the six most innovative ways that human waste is being converted to watts:

Poop-Eating Bacteria
Digesters similar to brewery casks house anaerobic bacteria that eat sludge and belch out methane. This technology is the oldest, cheapest, and most proven poop-to-power method. Even so, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 6,000 public wastewater plants have the digesters; of those, just 20 percent burn the methane gas for energy (the rest simply flare it off). Flint, Michigan, and several other cities use the methane gas to fuel fleets of city buses. The problem with anaerobic digesters is that they only reduce sludge's volume by half and capture a portion of its embedded energy.

Turd Cell Smashers
Destroying the cell walls in sludge—by heating it under pressure, zapping it with ultrasonic waves, or pulsing it with electric fields—boosts its methane production by 50 percent or more in anaerobic digesters. On the downside, researchers have found that some of these processes can unleash nasty odors and even a "chemical attack" on sewage machinery.

Geological Toilets
Last summer, Los Angeles began injecting sludge into a mile-deep well, where pressure and heat are expected to release enough methane to power 1,000 homes. The well also dissolves and sequesters carbon dioxide that the sludge would normally release, removing the equivalent exhaust of about 1,000 cars per year. "This renewable energy project is absolutely electrifying," Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the LA Times. "It will save money and make money."

Feces Ponds
As a cheaper green option, some 50 waste plants in 20 countries have installed versions of UC Berkeley professor William J. Oswald's Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems Technology--large open-air ponds that primarily rely on anaerobic digestion and photosynthesis to break down sludge and convert it into a fertilizer or animal feed of nitrogen-rich algae. The algae in turn can be used as a feedstock for biofuels. Rich Brown, an environmental scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sees an obstacle in the ponds' huge footprint: "For rural areas it’s great," he says. "For San Francisco it wouldn’t work so well."

Gassifiers
Sludge gasification plants are popular in Europe and especially Germany. A low-oxygen reaction transforms the solids in sludge into a carbon-rich "char" similar to BBQ briquettes. Next, the char is gasified in the presence of air to produce a syngas that can be burned for energy.

Poop Pyrotechnics
Last year, Atlanta-based EnerTech built the world's first commercial sludge "pyrolysis" plant in Southern California. Its patented SlurryCarb process converts sludge from a third of Los Angeles and Orange Counties into char pellets that replace coal at a nearby cement kiln; its ash is mixed into the cement.

One Small Poop for Man. . .
With billions in stimulus funds slated for wastewater improvements, is the time right for poop power? Such efforts, which reduce landfilling and emissions, have earned praise from some anti-sludge groups. Caroline Snyder, the founder of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, calls it a "win-win situation."

The EPA says sludge power holds promise, but it's not ready to quit pushing sludge as a wonder fertilizer. This hasn’t deterred the sewage industry, which sees a chance to get into the renewable energy business and put a stop to the stream of health complaints and costly lawsuits. "After almost 40 years of working in biosolids," a sewage industry official wrote in a recent newsletter. "I never thought I’d say this: it is an exciting time for sludge!"

H/T to the State of Science Report: Energy and Resource Recovery from Sludge, published by the Global Water Research Coalition. Photo from Flickr user gtmcknight used under creative commons license.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 May 2009

| Fri May 22, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

This week we have file photos.  The picture of Domino on the left was taken right after the Showdown on the Stairway™ that I featured here last week.  The picture of Inkblot on the right was part of the 10th birthday series of studio portraits that I took a couple of weeks ago.  (Note: "studio" = backyard.)  But hey — they're both good pictures, so why waste them?

Have a nice Memorial Day weekend, everyone.  Don't forget to give your pets an extra treat on Monday.

A Taxonomy of Consumer Credit

| Fri May 22, 2009 2:52 PM EDT

Are credit cards, generally, good things?  Steve Waldman says we have to distinguish between two benefits they provide.  The first is transactional credit, which is simply the convenience of using a card to buy stuff instead of hauling around cash or checks.  This type of credit gets paid off every month.  The second is revolving credit, which is when you deliberately buy more than you can afford with the intention of paying off the charges over time.  It's essentially a preapproved loan available anytime you have an emergency — or merely an irresistable urge to buy a pair of shoes you don't happen to have the money for right now.

Steve is right that transactional credit is basically beneficial, while revolving credit isn't.  In moderation it's fine, but human nature being what it is, it's often not used in moderation, which suggests it might be a good idea to limit its availability.  I'm tentatively on board with this so far, but then things go off the rails:

In fact, while transactional credit provision is a perfectly good business, it might be reasonable for the state to offer basic transactional credit as a public good. This would be very simple to do. Every adult would be offered a Treasury Express card, which would have, say, a $1000 limit. Balances would be payable in full monthly. The only penalty for nonpayment would be denial of access of further credit, both by the government and by private creditors. (Private creditors would be expected to inquire whether a person is in arrears on their public card when making credit decisions, but would not be permitted to obtain or retain historical information. Nonpayment of public advances would not constitute default, but the exercise of an explicit forbearance option in exchange for denial of further credit.) Unpaid balances would be forgiven automatically after a period of five years. No interest would ever be charged.

Let's think about how this would work. For most people, access to various forms credit — transactional credit, auto and home loans, unsecured revolving credit, whatever — is worth more than $200 per year. Although people might occasionally fall behind, for the most part borrowers would pay off their government cards, simply because convenient participation in the economy is worth more than a once-in-five-years $1K windfall. However, people with no savings and irregular income (for whom transactional credit is a misnomer, since they haven't the capacity to pay) might well take the money and run. The terms of the deal amount to a very small transfer program to the marginal and disorganized, and a ubiquitous form of currency for everyone else. People with higher incomes would want more transactional credit, or revolving credit, which they would acquire from the private sector.

I don't really get this.  We already have "Treasury Express" cards: this is basically what debit cards are, and they provide the same benefits of transactional credit that regular Visas or Mastercards do.  Why do we need the government for that?

That leaves us with the problem of limiting revolving credit, which is the same problem we have now.  Do we need firmer rules on interest rates, fees, and penalties?  Better bankruptcy protection?  Bans on things like universal default?  An end to tricks and gimmicks and fine-print-laden marketing come-ons?  More sensible ways of setting credit limits?  Maybe.  Probably.  But unless Steve is suggesting that we essentially ban credit cards entirely — and then create some kind of federal mega-authority to limit every other kind of consumer credit too — those are all the same issues we have now.  I'm not really sure what his proposal would accomplish.

Paying for College

| Fri May 22, 2009 1:18 PM EDT

Robert Reich points out today that the average college graduate today has to repay $22,000 in student loans, a number that's like to continue skyrocketing as university costs go up and state funding goes down.  This forces a lot of grads to shun good works and instead head straight to the highest paying job they can find:

So here's my proposal: Any college student can get full funding from the government, with only one string attached. Once they've graduated and are in the work force, they pay 10 percent of their incomes for the first 10 years of full-time work into the same government fund they drew on to finance their college education.

Now maybe that formula will need to be adjusted up or down to cover all the costs. And surely some people will game the system as they do every other one. But the essential idea is that linking the costs of college to subsequent wages makes college affordable to everyone.

I kind of like this idea.  Maybe instead of a flat percentage it's a sliding scale that starts at 2% and goes up to 20% to take account of rising salaries as grads gain job experience.  Or something.  Sure, you could still game the system, but you'd have to pretty damn dedicated to avoid a job initially because of a measly 2% charge and then keep it up for ten years.

The counterargument, of course, is that college is valuable.  It generally attracts people who already have a lot of advantages, and then provides them with a degree that enhances their earning power even more.  Why should they be subsidized at all?

It's a compelling argument.  In the end, though, I think society benefits from attracting as many kids into college as possible.  I'm no fan of the proposition that we should try to send everyone to college, but I do think we benefit by making it as attractive as possible to the largest feasible set of students who can take advantage it.  Keeping the cost manageable is part of that.

Windfall Profits

| Fri May 22, 2009 12:56 PM EDT

I've written before about the virtue of auctioning off 100% of the emission permits in any cap-and-trade program.  The problem with allocating permits to electric utilities for free is that energy prices will go up anyway and the utilities will reap a windfall profit.  The explanation for how this happens is a little convoluted, but it's very real: utilities in Europe profited handsomely from the first botched phase of their cap-and-trade system.

Several readers, however, have emailed to say that since most utilities in the U.S. are regulated entities, they wouldn't be allowed to raise their prices unfairly.  And that's a good point.  In fact, at one time I had the idea of writing a piece about how a broad emissions program like cap-and-trade (or a carbon tax) would intersect with the fantastically complex, interlocking set of state, local, and federal regulations that govern most power utilities in the United States, but I gave up pretty quickly.  It didn't take long to figure out that I'd probably have to study the subject for years to have any real understanding of how it works.

Luckily, however, Peter Fox-Penner and Marc Chupka, who already have the expertise, have a guest post over at ClimateProgress on exactly this subject.  Their conclusion is that Waxman-Markey does a pretty good job of ensuring that no one is going to get a windfall profit from free emission permits:

The key to W-M’s success in this area is that it is careful to give the overwhelming majority of free utility allowances to the electric or gas retail distribution company, not the generator or the entity that sells wholesale gas or power itself....State regulators, city managers, or coop management boards — who have full access to the accounts of distributors — set distribution charges so as to manage the profits earned by the distributor.  This is a key point.  Unlike some other parts of the utility industry, distributor profits are strictly controlled.

....Each state regulator or manager of a coop or municipal utility must conduct a proceeding to determine how the value of allowances will be treated — for example some of the proceeds might help fund energy efficiency if the regulators decide that represented benefits to retail customers.  But, W-M does not allow the size of individual customer rebates to reflect that customer’s metered energy consumption.

With these provisions, it will be awfully hard for any utility to harvest a windfall from the free allocations — especially a shareholder-owned utility.  Yes, the free allowances given to the distribution utility will be worth a lot.  But the law is pretty clear that the benefits of receiving the free allowance go to the utility’s customers, not their shareholders.

....The important takeaway is that material windfalls are about as likely as the Washington Nationals winning the pennant this year.

There's much more at the link, including a Q&A, if you want to dive into this more deeply.  And I'll confess to some lingering skepticism, since this depends largely on local regulatory authorities keeping things on the straight and narrow.  Still, this is one of those complex areas that I'm just flatly unqualified to judge, so I'm outsourcing my brain a bit.  Basically, if Joe Romm vouches for these guys and their analysis, then I'm ready to believe them unless some contrary evidence comes along.  I'm still not happy with the vast number of permits being allocated under Waxman-Markey, but (a) I understand the political realities that forced this to happen and (b) it sounds like it's not quite as bad as I thought.

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The Guantanamo Quandary

| Fri May 22, 2009 12:12 PM EDT

Here is Barack Obama yesterday on what he plans to do with enemy combatants currently held at the military prison in Guantanamo:

First, whenever feasible, we will try those who have violated American criminal laws in federal courts....The second category of cases involves detainees who violate the laws of war and are therefore best tried through military commissions....The third category of detainees includes those who have been ordered released by the courts....The fourth category of cases involves detainees who we have determined can be transferred safely to another country.

....Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people....Examples of that threat include people who've received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture -- like other prisoners of war -- must be prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can't be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone. That's why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.

Hilzoy is not pleased:

No. Wrong answer.

If we don't have enough evidence to charge someone with a crime, we don't have enough evidence to hold them. Period.

The power to detain people without filing criminal charges against them is a dictatorial power. It is inherently arbitrary. What is it that they are supposed to have done? If it is not a crime, why on earth not make it one? If it is a crime, and we have evidence that this person committed it, but that evidence was extracted under torture, then perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the fact that torture is unreliable. If we just don't have enough evidence, that's a problem, but it's also a problem with detaining them in the first place.

I appreciate the outrage, but this is a genuinely knotty problem.  It was knotty under Bush and it remains knotty under Obama.  For various reasons, some defensible and some not, Obama is right: there are almost certainly a small number of Guantanamo detainees who are (a) unquestionably terrorists and unquestionably still dedicated to fighting the United States, but (b) impossible to convict in any kind of normal proceeding.

At the same time, they aren't American citizens.  They were captured on a foreign battlefield, not U.S. soil.  They are, essentially if not legally, prisoners of war in a war with no end.  So what do we do?

There is no president of the United States who has ever lived who would release such people.  There's no president who would survive doing so even if he did.  It's an impossible situation.

So what do we do?  This is a case where, unfortunately, I think outrage is too cheap and too easy.  We're still left with the question: what do we do?

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald makes the argument against Obama's proposal here.  Big Tent Democrat responds here.

Free Speech in Korea

| Fri May 22, 2009 11:46 AM EDT

The South Korean government has filed fraud charges against some bloggers who inflated visitor counts for the websites:

In a statement released Thursday, Seoul police said the phony clicks could "lead to a distortion of public opinion on the Internet."

....The government has sought to outlaw what it calls Internet rumor-mongering and may seek legislation that would require online posters to use their real names.

Last month, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that fined a man $2,300 for manipulating the number of clicks on a company's website. The move was allegedly a scheme to lift its popularity ranking among domestic Internet portals.

Some of the bloggers allegedly used "sophisticated viral programs" to boost their traffic rating, which I suppose is at least colorably illegal.  At least one, though, is accused of the nefarious crime of placing a coin on the refresh key so it continued to repeat hits on his posting.  Off with his head!

Oh — and one more thing: all four of the arrested bloggers were anti-government activists "who had criticized the South Korean government and advocated protests after demonstrations last May against U.S.-imported beef."  Is anyone surprised?

Palin Takes Principled Stand Against Energy Efficiency

| Fri May 22, 2009 11:31 AM EDT

Sarah Palin stood firm against wasteful government spending today, rejecting $28.6 million dollars in stimulus funds. "Alaskans and our communities have a long history of independence and opposing many mandates from Washington, D.C, " she proclaimed. Well, Alaska has already accepted about $930 million in other stimulus money, so what was the program that Palin found so pernicious?  It turns out that this money would have gone to energy efficiency—weatherizing homes against the bitter cold, that kind of thing.

Alaska, of course, is quite a chilly place, and its inhabitants pay the highest energy costs in the nation. The money will now probably flow to other states instead— Palin was the only governor in the country to reject energy efficiency funds. But as shivering Alaskans worry about their electricity bills this winter, they can at least take comfort in the fact that Palin is keeping her relationship with the GOP base toasty warm.   

Quote of the Day

| Fri May 22, 2009 11:22 AM EDT

From radio host Mark Levin, screaming at a caller who pointed out that Barack Obama had recently transferred a prisoner from Guantanamo to U.S. soil:

"I SAID WHY DO YOU HATE MY COUNTRY! WHY DO YOU HATE MY CONSTITUTION? WHY DO YOU HATE MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE?"

Believe it or not, it gets worse from there.  And this is a man who conservatives have propelled to the top of the bestseller list.