Fracking and the Feds

We all know that the federal government was responsible for the development of the internet. But Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus tell another story of government R&D today that's a lot less familiar. It's about the development of fracking technology that's opened up massive amounts of natural gas in shale formations:

The breakthroughs that revolutionized the natural gas industry — massive hydraulic fracturing, new mapping tools and horizontal drilling — were made possible by the government agencies that critics insist are incapable of investing wisely in new technology.

This will surprise those steeped in the hagiography of George Mitchell, the tenacious Texas oil man who proved that gas could be drawn from shale rock at a profit. The popular telling has Mitchell spending 20 lonely years pursuing the breakthroughs to tap the Barnett Shale, an underground expanse.

Read the rest for the whole story. This doesn't really take anything away from Mitchell, who really did spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to develop the technologies that finally cracked the shale code. But as Elizabeth Warren says, people who make a lot of money do it with the help of huge amounts of public infrastructure that make their businesses possible. Likewise, lots of scientific breakthroughs are done with the help of huge amounts of basic research that are funded and/or run by the federal government. Fracking is just the latest example.

Which is worse?

  • Openly espousing viciously racist sentiments.
  • Systematically turning a blind eye toward viciously racist sentiments from others for both profit and political advantage.

Genuine question. Which is more repellent? Background here.

UPDATE: In comments, Thersites makes an eloquent argument for Door #2:

Both are repugnant but I'll go with B as being more repugnant.

My wife and I had some ugly experiences in our former home in outer suburbia.

The people who called my wife a n****er pissed me off. But we knew who they were, and where they were coming from.

The "good" people who pretended that the incidents didn't happen, or made excuses for the perpetrators, they pissed me off, broke my goddamned heart and made me deeply ashamed of my community. We finally got the hell out of there but the bitterness will last a lifetime.

So yes, the "good" people who turn a blind eye, for any reason, are far more repugnant.

Turning a blind eye to racist sentiment is, obviously, far more common than overt racism these days. But as Thers says, that very fact can sometimes make it even worse. After all, everyone already knows that the world contains a few virulent assholes. In some cases you can shrug that off. But learning that lots of people who otherwise seem perfectly decent are willing to tolerate it? That can be pretty disheartening.

Still and all, lots of us fail to do the right thing sometimes because we lack moral courage. Ron Paul's failings go quite a bit further. He didn't tolerate the racist views in his newsletters merely because he didn't have the gumption to put a stop to it. He actively let it continue because the newsletters made money and because he was hoping to appeal to a paleocon constituency beyond his small libertarian base. That's pretty repellent.

Ending Medicare

Today's outrage of the day is PolitiFact's announcement that the 2011 Lie of the Year is the Democratic claim that "Republicans voted to end Medicare." This was a reference to GOP support for Paul Ryan's budget plan, which would have changed Medicare from a government-run program to one that provides vouchers for seniors to buy insurance on the private market. Those vouchers would have increased in value very slowly, which means that within a couple of decades seniors would probably have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket in order to purchase Medicare policies.

Does this count as "ending Medicare"? Matt Yglesias, former philosophy major, parses it this way:

Mitt Romney, for example, lauded the plan as reflecting "the need to fundamentally transform Medicare." If friends of the plan describe it as fundamentally transforming the program, can it really be wildly illegitimate for its foes to describe it as ending Medicare? That doesn't make sense to me. According to Mitt Romney, we're fundamentally transforming Medicare. According to the DCCC we're ending Medicare and replacing it with a fundamentally different program. This is a hair-splitting disagreement, not a gaping void of factual error and deliberate deception.

I guess I wish we lived in a world where it was possible to believe multiple things at once about highly charged subjects. Should PolitiFact have chosen this as its Lie of the Year? Not a chance. Ryan's plan was an existential change to the current program, which guarantees essentially unlimited medical coverage to all seniors in return for a nominal annual premium. Ryan's plan doesn't, and describing that as an entirely different kind of program is perfectly legitimate. Hell, even some conservatives agree that PolitiFact made an elephant out of a mouse.

But does that mean Democrats were justified in describing the Ryan plan as "ending" Medicare? I know we all have our tribal loyalties here, but come on. There's no question that this is intended to mislead people into thinking that medical coverage for seniors will literally go away entirely. But it wouldn't. Ryan's intention is that growth caps plus privatization will lower costs so that his vouchers will remain sufficient to purchase coverage similar to today's. Meanwhile, low-income seniors would receive subsidies if they couldn't afford the premiums even with a voucher. It's a terrible plan, with virtually no evidence to support its central idea, and it would turn Medicare into a far stingier program than it is today. You can quite accurately say that the Ryan plan "privatizes" Medicare, that it "eviscerates" Medicare, or that it abolishes Medicare's guaranteed coverage.

But ends Medicare? No. This means that there are two things to say about all this. (1) PolitiFact made a ridiculous choice. They elevated a real but modest rhetorical difference into the biggest lie of the year, and it just isn't. (2) Nevertheless, Democrats shouldn't say that Ryan's plan "ends" Medicare. It doesn't, and there are plenty of short, punchy ways of making the same point more accurately.

In theory, any woman 17 or older can buy the Plan B emergency contraceptive over the counter. Younger teens can't, and the Obama administration's recent decision on Plan B keeps it that way despite the unanimous recommendation of an FDA panel.

But at least 17-year-olds have easy access to Plan B, right? Not so much, it turns out. In a new study published in JAMA, researchers posing as 17-year-olds called pharmacies to see if they could get Plan B that day. As Aaron Carroll reports, about 20% of the time they couldn't:

It gets worse. If they did have the drug available, which occurred 759 times, once callers revealed they were 17 years old, almost 20% were told that they couldn’t have emergency contraception. Legally, of course, they could have. But they were “misinformed.” Further analysis looking at the relative income of people living near the pharmacy found that people who lived in poorer neighborhoods were more than 60% more likely to be incorrectly told they couldn’t have the drug because they were too young than people who lived in more affluent neighborhoods.

So let’s recap. Plan B is either unavailable or “hidden” in 20% of pharmacies. When it is available, people at the pharmacy are misinforming 17 year olds that they can’t have it anyway 20% of the time. They seem more likely to do so in poor neighborhoods, where a disproportionate number of teen pregnancies occur. All of this would be improved if the drug were just known to be available over-the-counter for everyone.

This is just pesky "evidence," of course. I imagine there's no need to give it any kind of serious consideration.

Andrew Samwick says the Republican presidential candidates have been almost invisible in New Hampshire this year. He's got a few possible explanations for this, but even so, I find this pretty interesting:

It is surprising how little role that money is playing in this contest. The top candidates are not spending money on large media buys. Television advertising has not been overwhelmed by political ads. An unmet need to raise money has not been a reason for candidates to drop out of the race and focus the remaining candidates on distinguishing themselves from each other. More generally, we are in the low-fundraising, low-spending equilibrium in which candidates are responding to weak campaign efforts by their opponents by conserving their own resources, including their time and travel. That won't continue to be the case later in the primary season, but it is certainly the case now.

Fundraising has been pretty sluggish for all the Republican candidates this year, and apparently that's not changing. What's more, Iowa seems to be sucking up everyone's attention to a surprising degree. For the first time in decades, nobody cares about New Hampshire.

James Pethokoukis writes today that Mitt Romney has a problem: his tax plan isn't crazy enough to convince Republicans that he's really one of them:

He would keep the Bush tax cuts, eliminate investment taxes — but only for those making under $200,000, kill the death tax, and cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. Solid but kinda “meh.”

Romney's plan, Pethokoukis reports, needs to be much friendlier to the rich and much more infused with supply-side voodoo. The glut of nutball flat-tax plans from the rest of the GOP field has raised the bar, and merely endorsing $5 trillion or so in tax cuts just doesn't cut the mustard anymore.

Yet More Patent Idiocy

Looking for yet more reasons to feel an all-consuming contempt for software patents and the POS companies that try to enforce them? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Apple Computer's jihad against the rest of the world's smartphone makers:

The case decided Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touchscreen to call a phone number that is written inside an e-mail or text message. It also involves the technology that allows you to schedule a calendar appointment, again with a single tap of the finger, for a date mentioned in an e-mail.

There you go. A single tap is clearly such a singularly brilliant innovation that no one else on the planet should be able to use it. So instead HTC and others will have to use a double tap. Or a swipe. Or a tap and a popup menu. Or one of the other dozens of butt obvious ways to do something like this.

The field of finger gestures on touch screens is a microcosm of the entire farcical realm of software patents: obvious ideas getting tied up forever by whoever happens to be the first guy to write them down. If we had any brains at all, software patents would be consigned to the ash heap of history, where they belong.

Earlier today, having nothing better to write about, I wondered how many people believe that it's warmer in summer because the earth is closer to the sun. In a highly unusual display of how the blogosphere is often alleged to work but usually doesn't, Michael O'Hare provides an answer. Or close to an answer anyway: Back in 1987, a documentary filmmaker asked 23 graduating Harvard seniors why summers are so hot, and 21 of them thought it was because the earth was closer to the sun than during winter.

The cynical among you might figure that if 9% of Harvard seniors get this right, maybe the general population would clock in at something more like 20%. But probably not. Most likely, it means that 5% or less of the broad public has any idea why we have seasons.

Interestingly, Mike then brings up an analogous scientific question that I was going to mention because I got it wrong for a very long time myself. Namely, how does an airplane wing work? I had long been under the impression that it had something to do with air traveling faster over the top surface, thus producing a vacuum and generating lift. But just like the orbit of the earth, which is quite obviously not a good explanation for the seasons since it's summer in Australia at the same time it's winter in London, this is quite obviously a lousy explanation for lift since planes can fly upside down.

I felt less bad about this, though, when I realized I was wrong and went looking for the correct explanation. It turns out it's fearsomely complicated. As Mike says:

Unfortunately, a real model of lift involves some very hairy differential equations. If you calculate the pressure difference between the top and bottom of a conventional wing from Bernoulli’s equation, and the implied velocity difference, you do not get the lift on a unit length of wing; you get a meaningless number. The simple model allows something that looks a lot like science (it has an actual quadratic equation!), but this teaching convenience requires students to build a wall between what they know to be true from real observation and what’s expected on the exam.

If you're curious, go here for the common but incorrect (or at least woefully insufficient) explanation of how a wing works. Then go here for a long, but nonmathematical, version of the correct explanation. Oddly enough, both come from the same site. Alternatively, you can watch the video above, which has almost comically exciting Michael Bay-esque production values but is sadly no more accurate than your typical Transformers flick.

Another example of an incorrect but common scientific model is the Bohr atom, in which electrons are treated like planets in orbit around a nucleus. Unfortunately, as wrong as it is, it has some genuine pedagogical usefulness, and I find myself occasionally resorting to it because I know that trying to explain what electron orbitals really look like is just a hopeless task in a casual conversation. I once had a chemistry textbook that showed the shapes of the first dozen or so orbitals on its inside cover, and I wish I still had it. Those pictures are handy, and I've never found them in a convenient place anywhere else.

But does any of this matter? Mike thinks it does:

Very few people have occasion to intervene in aeronautic design or planetary motion [or quantum mechanics –ed.], but there’s a lot more science, like heat transfer in and out of your house, that can hurt you if you don’t really get it, and still more, like climate science, that will hurt all of us if we go on voting in profound ignorance. Teaching science like religion is a practice embedded both in the curriculum and the pedagogy, not to mention how easy it is to test without, like, having to find out whether any actual learning has occurred.

I wish I agreed with this. And of course, I do agree with it. Sort of. But the plain fact is that most of us know virtually nothing, and we've been voting in profound ignorance for a very long time. What's more, I'm aware of very little evidence that a better educated electorate produces better overall governance. But I sure would love to see some. It might restore some of my faith in democracy.

Next up: why do cats always land on their feet?

Quotes of the Year

Fred Shapiro, associate librarian at Yale Law School, has released his sixth annual list of the year's best quotes. Enjoy.

  1. "We are the 99 percent." — slogan of Occupy movement.
     
  2. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for." — U.S. Sen. candidate Elizabeth Warren, speaking in Andover, Mass., in August.

  3. "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress." — Billionaire Warren Buffett, in a New York Times op-ed on Aug. 15.

  4. "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." — Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman in an Aug. 18 tweet.

  5. "Oops." — Presidential candidate Rick Perry after unsuccessfully attempting to remember the third federal agency he would eliminate during a Nov. 9 debate.

  6. "When they ask me, `Who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?' I'm going to say, `You know, I don't know. Do you know?"' — Then-presidential candidate Herman Cain in an interview by Christian Broadcasting Network on Oct. 7.

  7. "I am on a drug. It's called `Charlie Sheen.' It's not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." — Actor Charlie Sheen in a February interview with ABC News.

  8. "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' last words on Oct. 5, as reported by his sister Mona Simpson in her eulogy.

  9. "I can't say with certitude." — Then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner on June 1 when he was asked whether a lewd photograph was in fact him.

  10. "Instead of receiving the help that she had hoped for, Mr. Cain instead decided to provide her with his idea of a stimulus package." — Lawyer Gloria Allred on Nov. 7 discussing Herman Cain's alleged sexual harassment of her client. 

The lightbulb industry is upset over Republican efforts to halt the new energy efficient lightbulb standards:

Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them....Manufacturers are worried that the rider will undermine companies’ investments and “allow potential bad actors to sell inefficient light bulbs in the United States without any fear of federal enforcement,” said Kyle Pitsor, the trade group’s vice president of government relations.

I have multiple reactions to all this:

  • This law was surely accompanied by the worst PR campaign in recent human history. How many people know, even now, that it didn't ban incandescent bulbs and force us all into a Stalinesque hellscape of flickering, antiseptic CFLs? That all it did was set new efficiency standards for incandescent bulbs? Practically no one, judging from the endless wails on the internet.
  • On the other hand, I confess that the unanimous support for these standards from the lighting industry gives me pause. Industries only support laws that will improve their profitability in one way or another, so I assume that this law does exactly that. This is, obviously, not inherently good for consumers.

But put that aside for the moment. Here's what I really want to know, but can't seem to get a firm grip on no matter how hard I try: were these new energy efficient incandescents really going to be available for mass consumption by January 1? Philips EcoVantage bulbs seem to have gotten positive reviews, though they're expensive and it's not clear just how widely they're available. But what about the others? Here's a brief paragraph from LEDs Magazine:

The legislation will initially impact lamps with 1700-lm output (typical of 100W-incandescent lamps) beginning in January, requiring 30% more efficiency. Incandescent lamps would not likely meet those guidelines, making LED-based solid-state lighting (SSL) or compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) the primary consumer choice on store shelves.

What's the real story here? Can anyone tell me? If the new bulbs were on track to be available from lots of manufacturers at a reasonable price, then delaying the new law is probably dumb. But if they're not, then delay was probably justified. Here in the real world, what's the skinny?