Monday, August 17, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

One of the most talked about "green initiatives" passed so far this year has been the Cash for Clunkers program, aimed at getting people to trade in their old gas-guzzlers for more fuel efficient cars. There has been a lot of bashing that the efficiency-improvement requirements to get the cash incentive are too modest (22 mpg min. for new car, 4 mpg improvement for $3500 rebate, 10 mpg for $4500). However, according to the Freakonomics Blog, most people are upgrading more than the minimum.
The average vehicle being traded in gets about 15.8 miles per gallon (6.33 gallons per hundred miles), and the average new vehicle that replaces it gets about 25.4 m.p.g. (3.94 gallons/100 miles).
There is substantial fuel saving in this. As Fat Knowledge has pointed out (and Edward Glaeser agrees),
The jump from 10 to 20 m.p.g., for example, saves more gas than the one from 20 to 40 m.p.g. The move from 10 to 11 m.p.g. can save nearly as much as the leap from 33 to 50 m.p.g.
Mr Glaeser goes on to say that this is better than high-speed rail because the savings start immediately. But it reinforces our car dependent way of life. And as the Wall Street Journal points out, it's really expensive.
In a nutshell, getting older cars off the road and substituting them with more fuel-efficient models appears to cost about $365 for each ton of carbon-dioxide emissions that are saved. ... The government estimates of the cost of carbon emissions ... are in the neighborhood of $28 a ton. So, Mr. Knittel asks, could the program ever actually be cost-effective, environmentally-speaking? Sure—if all the clunkers had stayed on the road, racking up mileage and emissions year after year for 60 years each, then it actually makes sense.
Buying more fuel-efficient cars does "save money" for the drivers, but the bill only benefits people who can afford to drive. Since in general, people that drive to work are wealthier than those who take public transit, the Cash for Clunkers program, in general, does not help the people that need it most. One even greener rider for the bill that would help the less wealthy would be to allow the $4500 credit to be used for mass transit passes.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sexual Predators

Many vocal conservatives get mad whenever sexual predators are given the least bit of leeway, so there are many laws passed that severely restrict the lives of the convicted. As NPR reports, Miami bans "sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, bus stops and anywhere that children congregate." So not only does this effectively make it impossible for released convicts from using public transportation, it also leave very few places in the city where they are legally allowed to reside. There is one increasingly popular option, though.
"They told me that I had to live up under the Julia Tuttle Causeway," says Barclay. "I said, 'How come I have to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway?' They said, 'If you want to go home, this is where you got to go.' "

Barclay has a driver's license issued to him at the time of his release. His address is listed as Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Like many of the sex offenders on supervised release, Barclay is required to be here between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. During the day, many of the felons leave for jobs or to visit their families.

Bill O'Reilly can rejoice that in Indiana, however, there's one less predator on the streets. One Mr Daniels was arrested during a "meet-up", thinking he was going to score big with three girls, only to find that all of them were undercover cops (who didn't know each other).

And maybe parents need to listen to the advice of an ex-pedophile to protect their children.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I know that this blog is in no way a travel blog, but I just returned from a trip to Crete, and share some of my observations of that island.

Geography and Climate
Apart from some coastal plains that stretch not more than a mile inward, Crete is solid mountains. This makes for some pretty complicated road engineering to reach the little towns that seem flung throughout the hills.

Most communities are small, and spread across the island's many fields of olive trees and orange trees. Many of the coastal plains are full of greenhouses for tomatoes, cucumbers, and other veggies. The crop that "covers" the greatest part of the island is also one of the least noticeable: honey. Even in the rocky crags far above the habitat for trees, bees from apiaries seek out flowers from wild thyme and other high-altitude shrubs.

The soil is often rocky, but the farmers have one benefit from Crete: the weather is extraordinarily consistent. From December to March, it will rain about every second day. Otherwise, it is completely dry and for the most part sunny. Many farmers have cisterns that fill with water during the wet season.

Religious Buildings
In addition to churches and a few mosques and monasteries, two notable additions to religious structures in Crete are the ubiquitous chapels and shrines. The chapels are gathering places for 5-20 people, often in geographically interesting (i.e. cave) or remote (i.e. the top of an 860 m mountain) places. They're usually dedicated to a specific saint, and used just a couple times a year. Shrines look like miniature chapels and seem to be every couple km on every road on the whole island.
What is this? A center for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read... if they can't even fit inside the building?


Given Crete incredible amount of sun, it comes at no surprise that some forms of solar power are used. While I didn't see a single PV panel, almost every building had solar water heating, either in the form of a big black tub on its roof, or the standard off-the-shelf heat pipe variety. It works so well that most places just have electric "backup" for hot water and rely mostly on the sun.

The other thing to notice in the left picture is all those metal rods sticking out of the roof. That's because this building isn't "finished". Oh sure, it's occupied and there's all that water infrastructure on the roof, but the owners are still "planning" to add another floor. The tax laws in Crete state that a building that is not "completed" is assessed at a lower value or subject to a lower rate (I'm not sure which). Either way, the taxes for an "unfinished" building are less. Therefore, it seemed like 3/4 of all 1-3 story residential buildings are "designed" to be one story higher, complete with extra-long reinforcing members, but then stopped for some reason "part way through".
One renewable electrical source being used is wind. I saw two wind farms on top of ridges and a third being built. The turbines probably have a pretty good capacity factor if the consistency of wind is anything like that for sun.

Ancient Crete
I stayed near ruins of the ancient city of Falasarna, built in 335 BC. The city had a fortified harbor, and the rest of the buildings were built up a steep hill and protected by a stone wall. These defenses held up for 300 years, but were no match for the Roman fleet that destroyed the city after it became a haven for pirates.

But even without the Romans, Falasarna would not have remained a thriving port forever. You may have noticed that there doesn't actually seem to be that much water around these buildings. That is probably due to a big earthquake that actually raised the land elevation 6 meters, bringing all the docking infrastructure high and dry. The left picture shows the long peninsula on which Falasarna was built. On the right, the dark lines on the distant cliff show the previous level of the water.
On the horizon in the left picture, you can just make out another land mass. This is the island Antikythera, home to 44 people. Apart from being the 2nd least populous district in Greece, the island is most famous for a sunken ship that was found nearby. Scientists found on this ship the Antikythera mechanism, that clock-like device that kept track of planetary movement
The device is remarkable for the level of miniaturization and for the complexity of its parts, which is comparable to that of 18th century clocks. It has over 30 gears. When a date was entered via a crank (now lost), the mechanism calculated the position of the Sun, Moon, or other astronomical information such as the location of other planets. Since the purpose was to position astronomical bodies with respect to the celestial sphere, with reference to the observer's position on the surface of the earth, the device was based on the geocentric model.
As Wikipedia says, the mechanism is many centuries ahead of its time. Therefore, many people, such as Erich von Daniken, have claimed that it's proof of alien interactions.

The device was clearly a navigational instrument used in alien spaceships, which "tells us how little we know about the wisdom which the gods whispered into the ears of their darlings".