Monday, February 24, 2014

Is There Methanol In Your Car's Future?

Suppose that tomorrow you could get in your car, go down to the gas station, and choose between buying regular gas at $3.12 a gallon, or methanol at $2.08 a gallon.  You would know that the miles per gallon you get with methanol is only about 2/3 of what gasoline gives you.  But then you do the math:  if methanol is less than 2/3 the price of gasoline (including taxes), you're ahead mileage-wise.  And sure enough, two-thirds of $3.12 is $2.08 exactly. 

Then you think of all the nice consequences of burning methanol instead of gasoline.  Almost no carbon monoxide comes out your car's tailpipe when you burn methanol.  Other pollutants (including carcinogenic aromatic compounds that result from burning gasoline) are reduced or eliminated, and your carbon footprint per mile is decreased too, because methanol has fewer atoms of carbon per molecule than gasoline.  And every gallon of methanol you burn is a strike against the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC), because in the hypothetical methanol economy of the future, most methanol is made from U. S. fuel sources:  natural gas, coal, or even biomass sources can all be converted into methanol.  Knowing all this, you choose methanol. 

This little tale is more than a pipe dream.  The numbers are based on the hard realities of current gasoline prices at the pump and methanol prices, with taxes prorated according to the miles-per-gallon capability of the respective fuels, which would only be fair.  But a lot would have to change in both technology and the regulatory environment to bring this vision into reality.  In a recent issue of The New Atlantis, author Robert Zubrin promotes the methanol economy as a way of breaking the petroleum cartel enforced by OPEC, which he estimates make gas prices about 50% higher than otherwise.  As Zubrin points out, there are other reasons to adopt methanol besides geopolitical ones, but both technical and legal issues stand in the way of widespread adoption of methanol as a transportation fuel.

Methanol shares with ethanol a difference in chemistry between oxygen-bearing compounds such as alcohols and the purely hydrocarbon nature of gasoline.  Unlike gasoline, methanol is corrosive to the aluminum and steel commonly used in automotive fuel systems, so a new transportation infrastructure would have to be developed before methanol could be made widely available at the retail level.  Fortunately, new "flex-fuel" cars have systems made to handle methanol, ethanol, gasoline, or a mixture of fuels, so there is no longer a major technical barrier to making cars that could burn methanol.  As Zubrin points out, however, there is a huge legal barrier:  the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

For reasons that seemed good at the time, the EPA adopted rules some years ago that prohibit the burning of any transportation fuel with more than a 2.7 percent oxygen content.  Methanol is about 50% oxygen, so the EPA would have to issue a special waiver of this rule before methanol could be sold as a motor fuel.  (It has already done this for the "E85" ethanol-gasoline mixtures available in some locations.)  The EPA also prohibits after-market modifications of older cars to burn methanol, but this rule could be changed as well.

I wish the price differential were greater between methanol and gasoline, because there would then be a powerful economic incentive to lower the legal and technical barriers to adoption of methanol.  As things stand, however, some hidden economic incentives may be pointing the other way.  Zubrin traces lots of money invested in auto companies to holders of vast OPEC-controlled petroleum investments, and speculates that any major move away from gasoline-burning cars by the major U. S. automakers would be squashed by the money-bag guys.  Personally, if I find a situation that can be explained either by (a) a vast secret conspiracy or (b) ignorance and inertia, I'll go for ignorance and inertia every time. 

The main reason we don't have a methanol economy right now is that the gasoline economy we have in place is not in an immediate crisis, and so the red-alert alarm bells that it takes to get the attention of government officials and elected representatives are silent.  The last time this country got really serious about alternative fuels was back in the early 1980s, when the price of crude oil spiked at around $100 a barrel (in 2011 dollars).  That motivated a spate of energy research that faded almost as quickly as the price of oil fell.  We are almost at that same price now again, but since it's happened before and we survived, nobody seems to be very motivated to do much about it this time.

Some readers may recall President George W. Bush's call for a hydrogen economy during his 2003 state-of-the-union address.  That scheme would have had some of the advantages of the methanol economy, including less pollution and less dependence on foreign fossil fuels.  But hydrogen, which is the lightest known gas at room temperature, is devilishly hard to transport and use for transportation, simply because it must be stored under extremely high pressures or liquefied at extremely cold temperatures.  While these measures are practical for exotic applications like interplanetary rockets, they were sufficiently challenging to smother the hydrogen economy in its diapers, so to speak, even if more politicians than the President had gotten behind it, which they by and large refrained from doing.

Methanol is much more practical than hydrogen as a motor fuel, and in fact is used exclusively in many race cars, where its naturally higher octane rating is an advantage.  I think the biggest single hurdle blocking the way to a methanol-fueled transportation system is not technical and not legal.  It's a lack of leadership.  The last time I can recall that a national leader resolved to do something definite and new, and had the support of most of the nation, was right after 9/11/2001 when President Bush said we were going into Afghanistan and whip some you-know-what.  But that state of the national mind lasted about three weeks.  Then Bush himself encouraged people to go shopping and revert to business as usual, and the moment was lost.

Man does not live by bread—or gasoline—or methanol—alone.  There are more important matters than the health of the economy, but you wouldn't think so by listening to most political rhetoric nowadays.  Zubrin's motivation in calling for a methanol economy is not strictly economic or technical.  He sees OPEC as a world-class force for evil that needs to be broken up, and I agree with him.  But there are so many domestic concerns that obsess the political class nowadays that it would take another 9/11-style crisis to get their attention.  And nobody wants that.

Sources:  Robert Zubrin's article "Why We Should Break OPEC Now" appeared in the No. 40 (Fall 2013) issue of The New Atlantis, pp. 19-32.  I referred to Wikipedia articles on methanol, the methanol economy, and fuel taxes in the United States.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Being Green Takes Green: Europe Rethinks Renewable Energy Standards

For the past decade or more, as Al Gore and the majority of climate-change scientists have insisted that the world is speeding headlong toward an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions, European countries have adhered to stringent emission controls in order to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.  And the strictures have been in place long enough to have a significant effect;  Germany, for example, now routinely gets a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources.  But as economist Stephen Moore points out in a recent article in National Review, treading so lightly on one's carbon footprint has a price:  higher energy costs.  A kilowatt-hour in Europe currently costs up to twice as much as it does in the U. S., and European manufacturers who use lots of electricity are starting to take notice.  Companies such as the chemical giant BASF are planning new operations in the U. S. rather than Europe.  As a result, the European Union recently announced that it was dropping its mandatory emissions standards for its member nations, letting them burn more coal and oil, if they can find it.  And one of the places they are most likely to start looking is—you guessed it—the U. S.  New exploration technologies, primarily fracking (hydraulic fracturing), have put the U. S. on track to be a net exporter of energy in the near future, and it looks like Europe will now be a prime customer, their disdain for old-fashioned carbon-based fuels notwithstanding.

Engineers made it possible for Germany to achieve the impressive feat of running a quarter of a modern economy on renewable energy alone.  Engineers also have made it possible for the U. S. to increase its oil and gas production in recent years beyond the wildest dreams of everyone but a few farsighted oil-exploration entrepreneurs.  In the absence of government controls or restrictions, customers for energy will buy the cheapest convenient fuel available.  Everyone agrees that except for a few isolated localities, there are no strictly economic reasons to build lots of renewable-energy sources into a large-scale power grid.  A fossil-fuel power plant is much cheaper to build, its output is more reliable, and the continuing cost of the fuel is often more than offset by the construction, maintenance, and other costs associated with the relative unreliability of wind and solar energy. 

But such a strictly economic analysis ignores a cultural and political factor:  the perceived virtue of using renewable energy as opposed to the use of fossil fuels.  In the moral universe in which many government and science leaders live, burning fossil fuels is as close as you can get to a mortal sin against future generations, and against those living now who may be harmed by the consequences of anthropogenic global warming.  The desire to avoid this sin is so great that, at least in Europe, it led to the European Union's mandatory emissions standards which effectively imposed renewable-energy quotas on its member nations.  But even the bureaucrats of the EU can recognize impending economic disaster when they see it, and as the costs of living with a renewable-energy grid began to pile up, they and their constituents saw the consequences of idealism in their power bills.  And it got to be too much.

This is not the place to debate the truth, falsity, or somewhere-in-betweenness of the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.  What is of more immediate concern is the public's perception of the issue, and how that perception (or rather, spectrum of perceptions) influences governmental policies and laws.  For whatever reason, the EU, with its relatively opaque governing structure and increasingly centralized power over its member nations, responded promptly and vigorously to the perceived threat of global warming with practical measures that had significant negative economic effects.  The fact that the same leaders are now backing off on these measures in the face of rising energy costs says volumes about their real priorities, which turn out to be similar to those of politicians in other parts of the globe.  The slogan "The economy, stupid" was part of Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign that brought down George H. W. Bush's presidency, and while Brussels bureaucrats do not face the same sorts of political pressures that U. S. presidential contenders do, they appear to have more sense than they sometimes get credit for. 

In a free society, individual members can try to live off the grid entirely, or buy three Hummers and take cross-continental trips in them, or anything in between.  But things like national power grids are, by necessity, creatures of politics, policies, and law.  And any society which wants to pay the price for eschewing fossil fuels may do so. 

The problems come when an elite leadership that is persuaded of the evils of fossil fuels tries to implement its expensive energy tastes, however virtuous, on the backs of a populace that has to pay for it.  That experiment has been tried in Europe, and we are witnessing its failure, to a great extent, although Europe will probably continue to rely on renewables to a greater degree than the U. S. does for some time to come. 

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that in good old "ahl-bidness" Texas, where much of the technology of hydraulic fracturing was developed, and where petroleum is regarded roughly in the same light as mother's milk, we lead the nation in wind-power generation.  In fact, on a particularly windy day in 2013, for a short time Texas surpassed Germany in renewables use,  because for a short time more than a fourth of the total electricity being consumed was supplied by wind power.  As in other parts of the world, the growth of renewables didn't happen without a substantial government incentive, namely a guaranteed purchase price for wind-generated electricity that encouraged the construction of huge wind farms in West Texas.  But this shift to wind was achieved without the penalty-laden restrictions on the construction of conventional fossil-fuel plants that the EU emissions standards imposed.

Decades, if not centuries, will elapse before the whole story of fossil fuels, global warming, and all that can be written.  In the meantime, billions of people on this planet want and need, the advantages that cheap, reliable electric power can provide.  Other things being equal, most of them would probably want to save the planet rather than cook it for breakfast, but things are not equal—not economically, not politically, and not culturally.  And in this inequality lies the complexity of the ethics of energy policy today.

Sources:  Stephen Moore's article "Europe's Green Collapse" appeared in the Feb. 24, 2014 issue of National Review.  The record 28% of electric power generated by wind in Texas occurred at 7:08 PM, Feb. 9, 2013, and was reported in the Abilene Reporter News at  The report that Texas leads the nation in installed wind-power generation capacity is taken from the website of the American Council on Renewable Energy at

Monday, February 10, 2014

You Can't See the Doctor, He's Checking Boxes Right Now

Anyone who has seen a doctor in the U. S. in the last few years knows that a laptop or notebook computer is now as essential a piece of medical equipment as the old stethoscope used to be.  The reason is that as of the end of this year, health-care providers will be penalized in the form of reduced Medicare payments for failing to use, and to show that they are using, a certified electronic medical record (EMR) system.  As columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out recently, this quasi-compulsory adoption of software, some of which at least is clearly not ready for prime time, has led to the creation of a new paramedical profession:  that of scribe.  A scribe is a person who follows the doctor around with the laptop or notebook, taking down information that the doctor would otherwise have to enter manually.  Of course, not all practices can afford scribes, but according to Krauthammer, those who can't have to deal directly with endless lists of checkboxes that attempt to fit each unique patient's case into a straitjacket of database characterizations.  And did I mention that many of these certified EMR systems use different words to describe the same conditions? 

Due purely to reasons of economy and efficiency, many doctors and hospitals were gradually converting to electronic medical records before 2009, when the federal government enacted the Health Information Technology For Economic and Clinical Health Act as part of that year's huge fiscal stimulus package.  Among other things, that bill created the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, where one can go online and browse through some 700 or so EMR applications that qualify as certified by the government.  In a perverse way, I suppose this part of the stimulus worked if the real goal was to create jobs, namely those medical scribe positions.  But I thought that the reason to adopt computerized medical records was to make things more efficient.  I suppose that shows I think more like an engineer than a politician.

Let's contrast the way the medical profession is being shoved into the computer age with the way the legal profession did it.  To my knowledge, there are no laws that compel a law firm to use software in its operations.  There may still be some old backwoods lawyer in Tennessee who uses a Dictaphone, and his secretary puts the machine's earphone up to her hearing aid and types documents out on an IBM Selectric.  But if they still want to work that way, nobody's going to exact legal penalties on them—they just won't get a lot of work done. 

Back in the 1980s, one of the first word processing programs to make a big impression on the legal profession was Corel's WordPerfect.  The personal-computer application world was still in its infancy back then, and it was a time when a variety of competing applications were available and shared the growing market.  Somehow, WordPerfect managed to capture a critical fraction of the law-profession market, and the network effect of dominant market share took over.  This happens when a product's output has to be shared among users, as word-processing output often is.  If everybody you work with uses Product X, you are under a lot of pressure to buy Product X yourself, even if you personally prefer Product Y.  So when X equaled WordPerfect, lawyers all over the U. S. began to adopt it as their standard word-processing software, and this remained the case even as the rest of the world dropped everything else and bought Microsoft Word. 

Even as recently as 2011, however, as many as half the law firms in New York City still use WordPerfect, even though it can't do things as elementary as generating .pdf files.  But lawyers have always wanted to be different than everybody else anyway—is there any rational reason that legal documents are fourteen inches long instead of eleven inches, like everybody else's paper?  Not that I know of.  The main point here is not the rationality of lawyers, but the fact that somehow or other, the vast majority of the legal profession adopted electronic legal records with no incentives or penalties from government.  It might have taken a little longer than if compulsion were used, but it happened in a way that didn't give rise to a whole new type of paralegal profession.  Instead, legal secretaries just went ahead and learned WordPerfect.  I'm pretty sure that lawyers now generate more paper with fewer secretarial staff people than in the old pre-computer days.

In his magisterial history of the last half-millennium From Dawn to Decadence, the late historian Jacques Barzun wrote in 2000 that "[t]he point at which good intentions exceeded the power to fullfill them marked for the culture the onset of decadence."  He says this in a passage in which he decries the gradual but nonetheless deadening rise of the power of bureaucracies over the average citizen in the late 20th century.  He wrote that ". . . hospitals. . . suffered the same difficulties as the government bureaucracies.  Those appointed to man them improvised their procedures, and as legislation augmented, laid down rules that filled hundreds of pages, an impenetrable jungle for citizens and officials both. . . . When [the common man] had to thread his way among the gears of an institution, he began a collaboration with an indefinite number of its representatives, amiable or grudging, but all armed with computers, who helped or delayed his rescue from entanglement."  Needless to say, Barzun did not view this as a positive development, but as an antidemocratic move toward tyranny, a tyranny ruled not by one supreme despot but by an army of faceless bureaucrats.

Ideally, engineered products such as EMR and word-processing software should make life better in some way.  "Better" can mean different things to different people, of course.  If you are someone who was unemployed before you got hired as a medical scribe, why, then, the EMR legislation was a good thing, I suppose.  But if you are a doctor who decides that, rather than facing another year of increasingly complex legal mandates, you are simply taking early retirement, then society has lost a valuable contributor for reasons that did not have to be that way.  Yes, even the free market can make mistakes, or at least peculiar decisions:  witness all the lawyers who still use WordPerfect.  But it is by no means clear that the heavy hand of the federal government has produced a net benefit to the health care of its citizens by the mandated move to certified EMR software. 

Sources:  Charles Krauthammer's weekly column appeared on Feb. 6, 2014 on the website of National Review at and was reprinted later that week by many national newspapers.  The statistic on how many New York City lawyers use WordPerfect was cited by blogger Jeffrey Zeldman in his blog at  The quotations from Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence (New York:  HarperCollins, 2000) are from pp. 778-779.  I referred to Wikipedia articles on WordPerfect and EMR (Electronic Medical Records) and the federal government website of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

Aereo Versus the TV Broadcasters: Will David Fell Goliath?

Some of my readers are no doubt familiar with the Biblical story of David, the Hebrew shepherd boy, who knocked out the giant Philistine Goliath with a rock shot from a sling.  A relatively small company named Aereo is trying a similar stunt these days with TV broadcasters by using an antenna no larger than a dime to upset the whole broadcast-TV applecart.  What Aereo is doing has been challenged in court by a coalition of broadcast-TV interests including ABC, NBCUniversal, CBS, Fox, and others.  But because Aereo has designed its technology explicitly to comply with copyright law, so far they have been able to fend off legal challenges, although the issue may ultimately be decided by the U. S. Supreme Court.

As a recent article in The New Yorker points out, more and more viewers are watching video online in various ways, through both stationary and mobile devices.  The networks themselves ventured into this business with a service called Hulu.  But Hulu, with its heavy ad content, has not thrived, and is losing subscribers as other options such as Aereo become available. 

It's always a good idea in situations like this to follow the money.  Over-the-air broadcasters, whose content was originally provided for free in the U. S. to anyone owning a television receiver, make their money by sticking ads into their content and charging advertisers for doing so.  When cable TV came along, the broadcasters sued cable networks successfully, because the courts interpreted what the cable systems were doing with the broadcasters' over-the-air signals as constituting a "public performance."  I suppose the way they judged that was by looking at the way a cable system deals with broadcast signals.  Typically, a master antenna at the cable system head-end picks up big chunks of the broadcast spectrum off the air, including multiple TV channels.  The whole spectrum is shipped down the cable, and selection of the program you want to watch occurs at your set-top box.  The fact that more than one person can access the set of signals that the cable system deals with led the courts to decide it was a public performance, electronically speaking, and therefore subject to copyright laws.  In essence, cable companies were stealing copyrighted content and selling it without paying the originators of the programming for it.  Ever since, the cable networks have had to pay retransmission fees to the over-the-air content providers.  Every so often, the two parties get into a fight and one or the other cuts off a particular service, to the disgruntlement of viewers, until the combatants can agree on a new schedule of fees.  Because most people watch over-the-air TV through cable systems nowadays, these retransmission fees are a big deal to the broadcasters, who are seeing their viewership shrink as other options become available.

Then along came Chet Kanojia, who obtained the backing of media mogul Barry Diller to implement a clever idea to adhere to the letter of the copyright laws while bringing broadcast TV to the online masses without paying retransmission fees.  Everyone agrees that the form an individual TV receiver takes is not at issue.  You can use an old-fashioned tube model (with a digital converter), or a little gizmo that plugs into your computer's USB outlet, or even a system strung all the way from your iPhone to an office building in New York City, as long as everything in it is devoted to picking up a signal you individually want to see.  That's not a public performance; it's only an odd kind of TV receiver, against which there is no law.  So Kanojia designed an entire system to preserve that individuality, all the way from the dime-size antenna picking up the publicly-accessible broadcast signal from the air, through a high-tech transcoder that converts it into a form that can be either recorded on a digital video recorder (DVR) or sent directly over the Internet to the individual viewer, to the servers that provide every Aereo subscriber with their individually selected TV program.  You can see photos online of the antenna arrays, which look like hundreds of peculiar paperclips soldered vertically to columns of printed-circuit boards and set in front of a window facing a TV broadcast tower in the distance.  Kanojia gets by with such a small antenna for each viewer by electronically tuning it to the particular channel in use, and then reassigning the antenna to the next viewer when the first one tunes out.  From a strictly technical point of view, it's a silly thing to do, but laws sometimes make people do silly things.

So for as little as eight dollars a month, in certain areas where Aereo is now available (which are designed to imitate the standard broadcast range of the on-air broadcasts) you can watch or record whatever on-air program you want, through almost any Internet-connected device of your choosing.  That's a lot less than monthly cable charges, and you can use DVR systems with Aereo that skip commercials too.  No wonder the broadcasters sued.

This is only the latest of many situations in which technology has outstripped the ability of laws to keep up with it.  Kanojia says that if it weren't for recent advances in transcoding and data storage, his service would be prohibitively expensive, but costs have dropped to the point that it's technically feasible, and such trends will only continue.  Whether the Supreme Court will shut down Aereo or make it change its ways remains to be seen.  But so far, judges have agreed with Aereo's claim that it is not providing a public performance, but simply hooking up thousands of individual subscribers to their own individual TV systems. 

Of course, broadcasters could mount a rear-guard action to change the copyright laws, and from time to time this type of ploy has succeeded.  But it would have to be federal laws that are changed, and Congress is in such disarray right now that making major copyright-law changes would be a challenge, to say the least. 

So for the time being, it looks like the old-style advertisement-supported broadcast TV folks are going to have to look for other ways to make money as their conventional model gets bypassed by technological advances such as Aereo.  Whether the new style of individual online TV viewing is a good thing in itself is an ethical question for another time.  But it looks like if Aereo succeeds in winning its legal challenges, that online viewing will get easier and cheaper, and the old networks and their advertisers will have to find a new way of doing things.

Sources:  The article "Outside the Box" by Ken Auletta appeared in the Feb. 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.  I referred to the following articles on Aereo:  CNET, Feb. 14, 2012 at, CNNMoney, May 12, 2012 at, and a particularly good article on the technology involved on the website, Feb. 6, 2013, at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Aereo and Barry Diller.