Monday, December 31, 2012

Toyota Settles Class-Action Gas-Pedal Suit

On August 28, 2009, an off-duty California highway patrolman named Mark Saylor was driving his Lexus (made by Toyota) near Santee, California with three members of his family.  Suddenly the car accelerated to speeds of up to 100 MPH, and one of the occupants called 911 to report that they were in trouble and the car “had no brakes.”  Seconds later, the Lexus collided with another vehicle, rolled down an embankment, and caught fire, killing everyone inside.  This was the first highly publicized incident in what came to be known as Toyota’s gas-pedal problem.

On Mar. 6, 2010, I blogged on what had transpired since that and other similar sudden-acceleration incidents had come to light with regard to a variety of Toyota models.  By then, Toyota had already been cited by the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a letter it sent out to owners about the problem which the NHTSA said was “misleading.”  Toyota later paid a fine to the NHTSA for not notifying the agency promptly enough when reports of unintended acceleration began to reach the automaker. 

There were at least two main suspected causes of these incidents.  One, which Toyota admitted and issued massive recall notices to fix, involved a misfit between the gas pedal and certain floor mats that could catch in the pedal mechanism, making it difficult or impossible to slow down.  The second suspected cause was that glitches in the control software that interfaces between the gas pedal and the engine were appearing randomly or in response to unpredictable RF interference, for example.  Toyota has insisted all along that there is no problem with the software.

But now, after a large class-action lawsuit was filed against the company in California, Toyota has offered a $1-billion settlement which has yet to be approved by the judge in the case.  However, it looks like the worst may be over for the car company.

The details of how the settlement breaks down are interesting, to say the least.  Apparently to widen the class of harmed individuals, lawyers in the suit are suing on behalf of anyone who sold or traded Toyotas between September of 2009 and the end of 2010, presumably because the resale value of all Toyotas was depressed by the ongoing bad news.  Under the proposed settlement, that particular class is getting $250 million as compensation.  Toyota has developed a “brake-override” system that will evidently guarantee your ability to stop the car even if you put a brick on the accelerator (which is not recommended in any case).  Some Toyotas can’t accommodate this new system as a retrofit, so owners of those vehicles get up to $125 apiece instead; the rest get the brake-override system installed free of charge.  About $400 million is going for extended warranties on several components that came under suspicion during the investigation:  tail-light switches, onboard computers, and so on.  And the lawyers, without whom this whole settlement would not have been possible, get $227 million. Such is justice in today’s world.

Toyota does not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement, although it is pretty clear that they have decided things are amiss enough to spend a billion dollars fixing them.  To put this amount in perspective, Toyota’s total revenues for the year ending March of 2012 was $226 billion.  So a billion dollars is not a huge chunk of their revenues, though it will certainly cut into their profits, which run a few billion dollars a year when they make money at all.  Nevertheless, the financial world generally looks kindly upon Toyota at this news, because it clears up a good deal of the uncertainty surrounding the cloud of lawsuits arising from the acceleration problem.

The unintended-acceleration problem is a good example of how non-technical factors begin to enter into a problem once it has entered the public mind.  It is possible (though not likely) that a similar crisis could strike any engineering-intensive business with a large customer base of non-technical consumers.  Rumors do spread, even if they are not founded in fact.  One instinctive response that many engineers might take toward such a situation—the spread of unfounded rumors about a technical problem—would be simply to state the technical reasons and results of tests that show the rumor to be false. 

If everyone listening were engineers, this action alone might clear up the issue.  But most people, thank God, are not engineers.  And hearing a bunch of incomprehensible techno-speak will not allay their fears about an unlikely but graphically grisly possibility of something as awful as dying in a car crash caused by a runaway accelerator you are helpless to control.  After a good bit of fumbling early on, Toyota’s public relations and legal departments got their acts together and came up with a settlement that seems to go the extra mile to alleviate not only the technical problems Toyota itself discovered—the gas-pedal-floormat interference—but a range of other issues which may or may not be based in reality:  extended warranties for parts that some people think may be defective, and a new technical fix that will prevent accidents from unintended acceleration even if the driver does something stupid like stomping on the gas and the brake at the same time.

And drivers do stupid things sometimes, no doubt about it.  An investigation sponsored by the U. S. government found that most of the cases of unintended acceleration were due to driver error.  This could mean anything from a loose bottle of shampoo rolling under the gas pedal at the wrong time to a person freezing stiff-legged in terror as the car roars out of control.  But if the new brake-override system really does its job, Toyotas will have an edge over most other cars that don’t have it.  And a brake-override system may become standard on all new cars in the future, which would be a generally good thing, I suppose.

But it’s too bad that the process took so long, cost so much money, and involved so many lawyers.  However, that’s the way things get done in today’s systems of justice, where problems are always viewed with one eye on the bottom line.  Let’s hope that automotive engineers of the future, both at Toyota and elsewhere, will pay more attention to customer complaints and be more proactive when similar safety problems arise.

Sources:  I referred to an article “Toyota in $1.1 Billion Gas-Pedal Settlement” in the Dec. 27, 2012 online edition of the Wall Street Journal at

Monday, December 24, 2012

Caught with the Web: Academic Cheating and the Internet

For the most part, universities have resigned from the business of teaching morals, but with one important exception:  cheating on homework and exams.  While cheating is apparently a fairly widespread practice—recent surveys of college students indicate that between 65 and 80 percent of students admit to cheating at least once—that doesn’t make it right.  As counterfeiting is to the economy, cheating is to grades, which professors sometimes refer to as the “coin of the realm” in academia.  I won’t waste a lot of time here explaining why cheating is wrong.  It combines lying, sometimes stealing (if you turn in someone else’s work), and indulging in flaunting-the-rules behavior that can form a lifelong habit of cheating in other areas besides academics. 

While there have probably been cheaters ever since there have been students, the Internet has provided more ammunition both on the side of the cheaters and on the side of those who try to catch them.  The other day I stumbled onto a website which I will not encourage visits to here by giving their URL.  But believe me, it does exist.  It is a commercial site at which you can submit an essay question or homework problem, and for a fee, you get a finished essay or solution.  Their homepage has some smarmy lingo saying that everybody who’s been a student has thought at some time or another of getting “help” with homework, and we’re just making it easier for you.

They have a “legal” section which is the most hypocritical boilerplate of its kind I have ever seen.  In one part of the text it warned that anything provided to the user was simply “for reference” and should be referenced like any other reference work—as though a student would copy the essay in question and then write, “Oh, by the way, I got this entire essay from a pay-per-assignment website.”  But in another section, the company absolved itself of any responsibility for adverse consequences should you turn the stuff in as your own work, which was clearly the whole purpose of the site. 

If a student availed himself of this type of service, it would be hard to detect if the product is really original.  (In the same legal boilerplate, the cheating site guaranteed that its product would be 90% free of plagiarism, which tells me they allow an internal plagiarism rate of 10%.)  But the Internet, while tempting students to plagiarize sources by copying and pasting wholesale without attribution, also makes it easier to discover such cheating.  I have run across two such cases of plagiarism that I was able to figure out, one with the help of the Internet. 

In one case, two students in a class of mine were turning in letter-for-letter identical homework solutions, which could not have been just coincidental.  The grading assistant pointed it out to me, and I invited each student into my office individually and showed them the evidence.  Each student said they had never copied from the other one, and this was technically true.  But a few hours later, one of them came by my office and admitted he had found a website, posted by the textbook publisher, of solutions to all the homework problems, and both he and the other student were just copying that site, rather than doing the homework by themselves. 

I suppose I was partly responsible for that incident, because I was unaware that the publisher had done such a thing.  If I’d known that a complete solution set to all the homeworks was out there on the web, I would have thought twice about using that textbook.  But the second case of cheating was both more surprising and more blatant.

Because I have published a few papers on the subject of ball lightning, I have started to receive requests from journals to review similar papers in the peer-review process that most reputable academic journals use.  In reviewing one such paper, I came across a passage that seemed both better-written than the average level of the rest of the paper, and rather hard to understand.  I looked up the Wikipedia article on the subject of the passage, and to my surprise, I found that the author of the paper had copied a whole paragraph almost word-for-word out of the Wikipedia article, and had not cited Wikipedia as a source.

The paper had other problems too, but when I pointed out this blatant plagiarism to the journal editors, they summarily rejected the paper.  And they should have, too.  I have come to anticipate a certain amount of that kind of thing from undergraduates who have not learned what plagiarism is, and may have gotten away with it repeatedly at the high-school level.  But I was shocked to find that a scientist would be so careless, although plagiarism and even fabrication of data is not unknown in journal papers.

What is the solution for cheating at the undergraduate level?  While I suspect we will never reduce the level of cheating to zero, the same article (from an American Psychological Association online journal cited below) where I found the statistics on cheating, also cites a study that says creating a peer-level atmosphere that discourages academic dishonesty is helpful.  

I can personally attest to the effectiveness of this approach.  I attended a small private undergraduate school which had a stringent, and largely effective, honor code.  Most of my exams were take-home exams that allowed a specified time for completion, and I stayed within the time limits and to the best of my knowledge, never cheated.  This is not to say “oh, what a good boy am I,” but to point out that if a student knows that cheating is rare and frowned upon both by other students and faculty, it is less likely that whatever pressures are present will push people over the edge into cheating.  And psychologist David Rettinger, interviewed in the APA article, says that “the key is to create this community feeling of disgust at the cheating behavior.”  Sometimes this comes from student-led groups such as Academic Integrity Matters! at the University of California at San Diego, which sponsored a petition drive asking faculty members to be more explicit about what cheating is and what the penalties are. 

As with many other things, the Internet is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to academic cheating.  I think I will be a little more clear to my students in the future about what I consider cheating and plagiarism, and hope that they will take my words to heart.

Sources:  The American Psychological Association online publication “Monitor on Psychology” is the source of the statistics and quotation used in this article.  The article “Beat the Cheat” by Amy Novotney appeared in its June 2011 edition at 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Two Views of Porn, and What South Korea Does About It

Pornography is a big business, something that millions of people around the world indulge in, and while viewing it can get you into trouble if you hold a prominent corporate or political office or if you get involved in the child variety, it’s a private affair and not a big deal most of the time.

Pornography is exploitation that twists and defaces a type of relationship that is the earthly model of how Christ relates to his Church, and it can spiritually damage and enslave anyone who gets involved in it, crippling one's ability to relate to the opposite sex in the way God intended.

Which view do you agree with?  Probably most readers will incline toward the first view, which says that in most cases, viewing porn is a private decision that should be left up to the individual, and the legal system should get involved only in situations for which there is near-universal agreement that innocents are being harmed, such as the production or viewing of child pornography.  But the second view (which happens to be mine, more or less) is rooted in a Christian model of humanity which sees human sexuality as a gift from God, which men and women have a responsibility to use according to divine instructions.  In the second view, pornography exploits those who are involved in producing it as well as those consuming it, and debauches (a nice old-fashioned word) the users, accustoming their sexual responses to images which cannot be approached by the reality of any actual woman.  As such, pornography—especially the online variety, which is by far the most common nowadays—is worth opposing, restricting, and fighting with the legal system, even at the cost of one’s own well-being.

Over the past year or two, my views on the relationship between God’s law and human laws have changed.  When religious conservatives who are in the numerical minority in a democratic country manage to gain access to levers of power, they sometimes indulge a fantasy which goes something like this: “Pass a law against a popular but immoral thing, and people will quit doing it.”  This happened in 1919 when the amendment to the U. S. Constitution prohibiting the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages, which came to be known as Prohibition, was ratified by enough states to become law.  Prohibition was a long-term goal of the Anti-Saloon League, an organization supported by many Protestant churches but with its power base mainly in rural areas.  What did not happen was that alcohol abuse vanished overnight.  Instead, the consumption of alcohol went underground, leading to smuggling, bootlegger gang warfare, and a lowering of the respect for law, all of which finally led to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.  The bottom line of this lesson is that law works better as a mirror of a society’s mores than it does as a bridle that tries to jerk the society in a direction it generally does not wish to go.  That is, laws against a so-called “private” sin such as pornography should be enacted only when a substantial number of citizens in a country think it should be illegal.  So, while I am personally unhappy that online pornography is as popular and successful as it is, my view is that passing lots of laws against it, at least in the U. S., would probably be a waste of time.  But not in South Korea.

According to a recent Associated Press article, a good many South Koreans not only dislike online pornography, they are trying to do something about it.  Making anything illegal on the Internet is a challenge because of the intrinsically global nature of the medium.  But that hasn’t stopped South Korean law enforcement officials from arresting about 6400 people in only six months for producing, selling, or posting pornography online. 

Almost a third of South Koreans are Christians (counting both Protestants and Catholics), which makes it the most Christian nation in East Asia by far.  And Christianity in South Korea tends to be taken seriously by its adherents, who now send more missionaries overseas than many Western countries do, including those which evangelized their nation in the first place.  Many of these Christians make up a cadre of about 800 volunteer Internet “Nuri Cops” who regularly spend time patrolling the Internet for South Korean porn, turning in the results of their searches to police for further investigation and prosecution.

About now, you may be wondering what kind of person would devote their spare time to viewing pornography with the sole purpose of wiping it out.  To some, it may sound suspiciously like a member of the Anti-Saloon League who insists on tasting all the wine and beer before pouring the rest into the gutter.  I would imagine it takes a particular type of person to do this work without being harmed by it, and perhaps no one is totally immune.  But you could compare this type of work to the religious orders during the Black Plague of the 14th century in Europe who devoted themselves to the care of the ill, although many of their number ending up catching the disease and dying of it themselves.

For some readers, this comparison will seem completely wacky.  What possible parallel can there be between caring for the innocent victims of a physical disease like the bubonic plague, and snooping around on the Internet for websites that seem to provide harmless (or at least, not very harmful) entertainment for people in the privacy of their homes? 

It boils down to whether one believes in the soul as well as the body.  If there is the death of the body, there can also be such a thing as the death of the soul.  Enslavement to sin—any sort of sin—is a road that leads the soul to death, and one way to help souls escape death is to make it harder to find opportunities to sin.  That is just what the Nuri Cops are trying to do. 

While I would like to see something like that take place in the U. S., we would first have to have a cultural shift of seismic proportions:  one that would involve a resurgence of authentic belief in Christianity at the highest as well as the lowest levels of society, in the cities, editorial offices, studios, and corporate headquarters as well as the farms and private homes of America.  In the meantime, all I can do is congratulate the South Koreans for acting on their beliefs, and hope that maybe they will return the favor that Western missionaries did for them by evangelizing us some day.

Sources:  The Austin American-Statesman carried the article “South Korea’s cyberporn vigilantes” on pp. F3 and F5 of its print edition of Dec. 16, 2012.  I referred to the Wikipedia articles on “Religion in South Korea” and “Prohibition.” 

Monday, December 10, 2012

National Research Council Gives NASA a C-

The U. S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has just been judged by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the National Research Council (NRC) at the instigation of Congress.  That branch of government wanted an independent assessment of NASA’s strategic direction and goals in light of continuing fiscal constraints and national priorities.  The resulting 80-page report is the best summary I have seen of NASA’s past successes, present ills, and possibilities for improving itself in the future. 

Besides the agency’s spectacular successes, ranging from the 1969 lunar landing on down, NASA has also been the organization behind some of the most famous tragedies in the engineering ethics literature.  The losses of the space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 were both preventable disasters that revealed serious problems with NASA’s management and safety structures.  More strategically, NASA has been perceived by many as a set of solutions looking for problems, and the NRC report confirms this picture.

It’s a cliché to say that if you don’t know where you’re going, it will be hard to tell when you get there or how long it will take.  But that is the picture that emerges from the investigation and analysis performed by members of the NRC panel, who visited ten different sites in the widespread NASA organization and took most of a year to compile their results. 

The good news is that there are patches of well-organized high-achieving activity within the organization.  The unmanned space exploration effort, characterized by projects such as the Curiosity Mars rover, has had notable successes and largely stays within budget and on schedule.  It is significant that NASA carries out a periodic ten-year “decadal survey” of the science communities interested in these projects, and a strategic plan for them is thereby updated with extensive international input. 

But with regard to manned spaceflight, the picture is, if not dismal, at least discouraging.  For one thing, the target keeps moving around.  I happened to be in Washington, D. C. the day President George Herbert Walker Bush called for a manned flight to Mars, way back in 1989.  But President Obama has instead brought up the idea of a trip to an asteroid, without saying which one.  The NRC reports the lack of widespread enthusiasm within NASA for the asteroid journey, and in the meantime, if the U. S. wants to put a man in space for any reason right now, we have to go buy tickets from the Russians. 

In some ways, NASA is the victim of its own past successes.  During the Apollo buildup in the 1960s, expensive new facilities were built purposely in many different states to solidify Congressional support for the space effort.  NASA is now saddled with billions of dollars’ worth of real estate occupied by aging specialized test facilities which in many cases have lots of deferred maintenance needed.  Turning these facilities into commercial operations is a nice idea, and in a few places this has worked, but frankly there are not too many commercial users in need of a test stand for a Saturn-V rocket engine, for example.  About a third of NASA’s employees are government civil servants, not contractors, and there are special complications in shifting civil-servant staffing to meet changing needs.

The NRC report doesn’t simply list NASA’s ills; it contains a list of recommendations as well.  Many of the difficulties NASA has encountered result from trying too many ambitious things with insufficient funds.  The NRC realistically admits that the chances of increasing NASA’s total budget are small, so they don’t see an overall increase in funding as a realistic solution. 

They list three other options as more realistic possibilities.  One is strictly downsizing:  sell off underutilized facilities and lay off or retire surplus staff.  This option might work, but as someone who has lived through an organizational downsizing at a university, it creates a poisonous work environment and there is a possibility the treatment might succeed only in killing the patient.  A second option, which is compatible with downsizing, is to reduce the size of NASA’s program portfolio:  in other words, try doing fewer things well more than many things not so well.  To me, this makes the most sense, and is consistent with my blog of June 20, 2011, which examined a proposal for reorganizing NASA around the model of the U. S. Coast Guard. 

The most interesting option proposed by the NRC is to greatly increase national and international cooperative efforts with other U. S. government agencies, private industry, and foreign entities.  Currently, NASA is already moving in that direction with regard to future manned flight hardware, saying that it will assume more of a supervisory role to contractors, who will have greater freedom in developing spacecraft to go to wherever NASA finally decides to go.  But as other nations continue to develop space capabilities that in some ways outstrip those of the U. S., cooperation rather than competition would seem pretty sensible in many cases.

NASA was born in the midst of the Cold War between the U. S. and the USSR, and without that war that wasn’t a war, it never would have received the massive support for the race to the moon, which it did with almost no help from anybody outside the U. S.  Unfortunately, that “not-invented-here” attitude seems to have lingered on in the institution long after it has outlived its usefulness, at least with regard to major manned-flight programs.  But the result has been the end of the Shuttle program without a viable alternative to take its place.

The NRC report ends with an optimistic call to the executive branch and Congress to do something that will focus NASA on a meaningful strategic plan.  (The current NASA planning document is a fuzzy kind of thing that amounts to mom-and-apple-pie for space.)  Given the ongoing near-chaos in Washington, I am not hopeful that the NRC will get what it calls for, and what the rest of the nation deserves from an agency which still has great talent and capabilities.  But if we don’t get action from Washington that puts NASA back on track, at least we have heard clearly from the NRC about exactly what the problems are. 

Sources:  The NRC report (a draft version at this writing) can be downloaded in its entirety from

Monday, December 03, 2012

Will Wind Power Fall Off the Fiscal Cliff?

If you have driven a considerable distance in West Texas (and it’s hard not to drive a considerable distance when things are as far apart as they are out there), you have seen the slightly Martian-looking sight of a forest of identical white towers, each with a triplet of whirling blades, covering a good part of the whole visible horizon.  Wind energy from huge wind farms has been one of the big success stories in renewable energy by some measures, and Texas leads the nation in the amount of installed capacity per state (over 10,000 megawatts ).  And according to a recent article in the Austin American-Statesman, about 70 firms in Texas supply products or services to the wind-generation industry.  But all this may hit a serious roadblock January 1 if the federal tax credit that has encouraged commercial wind-powered generation for two decades comes to an end, along with a lot of other tax cuts and incentives.  This is one effect of the so-called “fiscal cliff” that will automatically take effect if the U. S. Congress and the President don’t do something to stop it.  The prospective end of the wind tax credit has important implications for what some philosophers call engineering “macro-ethics”:  the engineering ethics of public policy and related matters.

The tax credit is substantial:  anyone selling wind energy commercially can qualify for a 2.2 cents-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit from the government for a period of ten years.  This has led some wind-power producers to give away energy for free on occasion, just to get the tax credit.  And note that a credit is better than a deduction:  a deduction means you pay less tax than you would have otherwise, but a credit means you get a check straight from the Treasury, even if you owed no taxes to begin with.  No wonder parts of West Texas look like the Jolly White Giant has scattered around three-petalled dandelion seeds.

The rationale behind the tax credit, enacted in the last days of the administration of the elder George Bush in 1992, was that a strictly free-market approach to wind energy might never get off the ground, because the vagaries of fossil-fuel prices would discourage private investors from putting their money into it.  Nobody would want to build a lot of wind generators when fuel prices were high, only to see their investment turn to nothing when fuel prices fell and wind became uncompetitive.  So the tax credit gave investors a guaranteed return for ten years, which is a reasonable payback time for a major investment such as a wind farm.

Viewed just from the standpoint of installed capacity, the tax credit has been a major success.  On one (presumably windy) day in October of this year, wind accounted for over a fourth of all the electric energy produced in the ERCOT network (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which is the name of Texas’ largely independent transmission network).  The growth of wind-related manufacturing and service firms has been a bright spot in the nationwide economy, and Texas is not the only state to benefit from the growth of wind farms.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that already, the prospect that the tax credit might end has hurt bookings of new business at wind-related firms and caused concern that new construction of wind farms might come to a screeching halt.  And sure enough, another energy-related technology—“fracking,” which makes abundant new sources of natural gas available—has caused the price of natural gas to plummet.  This means that from a subsidy-free economic viewpoint, anyone wanting to build new generation capacity would be crazy to build wind generators when a natural-gas-fired plant would be cheaper and much more reliable (no wind, no power).  In fact, the free market for energy in Texas and many other states is providing little if any incentive for anyone to build new power plants, despite the ongoing need and the fact that brownouts on hot summer days have become uncomfortably common.

The parties involved in this matter are roughly as follows.  There are people who build and install and own and run wind-generation facilities; there are consumers of electricity (basically everybody) who have various preferences about both price and the nature of how electricity is made; there are government entities, mainly the federal government and the state governments; and there are investors whose money can come into the game as long as they see they’ll get a good return on their investment. 

If the tax credits go away, most investors will walk away from future wind farms, at least under the present circumstances of low natural-gas prices.  We will be stuck with what wind farms we’ve got, though if running the farms becomes unprofitable their owners will let them stand idle at best, and will tear them down if things get too bad.  As long as fossil fuel prices stay low, electricity consumers won’t have to pay a lot more, but they may well run into increasingly serious brownouts and blackouts if more generation capacity isn’t built, or if serious conservation efforts are not made.  And conservation isn’t free:  the largest users of electricity have to justify it on a dollars-and-cents basis, not just because it feels good. 

Back in the early days of networked power in the 1920s, the free market reigned because no legislators had given much thought to the need to regulate electric utilities yet.  After notable abuses such as monopolistic practices by single-owner utilities (among whom was numbered my great-uncle L. L. Stephenson, who was an ice-plant and electric-power mogul in San Antonio until he died in 1929), first individual cities, and finally the State of Texas, decided that electricity was too necessary a thing to be left entirely to the whims of private firms with no regulation.  So in the next couple of decades, the industry came under the supervision of state public utility commissions, and a kind of deal was reached.  The state commissions had the authority to set electric rates, but agreed (“colluded with” would be too strong a term) to allow the utility companies a fixed and reasonable rate of profit.  The best thing about being regulated from the viewpoint of the utilities was the fact that their fiscal environment was largely predictable.  This meant planning and investment, which for electric utilities extends decades into the future, could be made with some reassurance that the plans would work out and investments would not be wrecked by unexpected changes in allowable rates and so on.

A number of things conspired to overthrow this regulatory regime. Both the oil crisis of the 1970s, which introduced unpredictability into the fuel-cost equation, and a spirit of deregulation that extended from the airline industry to the telecommunications business led to the experiment of a free market in electric energy, which has been the case in Texas for many years now.  The prospective end of the tax credit for wind generation would be yet another step towards a totally free market in this regard.  While I think it is a good thing to generate some power from wind, we may soon be seeing the harm that comes from relying too much on legislation that produces artificial incentives for certain kinds of technologies.  But there is also a harm done when anyone, including a government, breaks a promise such as the promise of ten years of tax credits.  Let’s hope governments at all levels move toward providing a somewhat more predictable environment in which to do business, including the business of making electricity from wind. 

Sources:  The article “End of Wind?” appeared in the Dec. 2, 2012 print edition of the Austin American-Statesman, p. A1 and A10.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article “Wind power in the United States” for statistics on Texas wind generation.