Saturday, February 18, 2006

"America is addicted to Oil"

Every now and then, I fee like debating political issues; issues that affect our current and future lives. We all know these debates are based on personal beliefs and interpretations of current news and often degenerate into ideological babble (a la religious fanaticism) where people want to hear themselves more than others. And we all know that the expense of energy, squandering of tempers, raising of voices, challenging the "adversary's" cognitive faculties and citations of highly questionable results and personal opinions as sound evidence is all for naught. The sun will still rise the next morning and the politicians will do as they please, completely oblivious to the tensions thousands of miles away in a 600 sq. ft. apartment. But, it is fun. Or as Aditya once referred to it: "mental masturbation".

I just read Aditya's current post about
India's reliance on foreign oil imports and how nuclear energy might offer an alternative. I posted a reply but thought I should post it here as well.

-------Begin post

As always, a well researched post... but here's my take on it: yes, we need alternate sources of energy, but the nuclear option is not it.

By making nuclear option civilian and disabling our nuclear research apparatus, we will ensure that we become completely dependent on countries that currently possess the know-how to build and run these. Not a politically strong position. (We’ll need to throw tenders, they'll give the best deals/ bribes and they'll win)

Also, nuclear-power leads to a very profound by product: nuclear waste. Unlike C02, methane and other "organic" by-products of burning fossil fuels, the disposal of nuclear waste is a very very big problem. it has a half-life of a few billion years and is an assured way of causing cancer if ingested (alpha emitters).

The state-of-the-art disposal technique vitrification and burial is clearly an invitation to accidents and hence a persistent threat to present and future generations.

Even if we do inhumanly decide to go this route, we (India and the rest of the world) will need land fills that are isolated from human population; not just by distance, but including any and every environmental conduit such as jet streams, underwater flows, tectonic shifts and the like. With these many constraints, any piece of land seems to be a prized property (the moon and the sun now actually sound reasonable). And by the laws of supply and demand then, the cost of access to this property (since all nations will want to go there to be guilt/ litigation free) will be fairly high.

What then is the alternative then? An energy solution that is cheap and effective in its entirety: acquisition, transportation, storage, access, consumption and disposal. And we don't have anything competitive to fossil fuels. Not yet.

The one true driver for the entire energy cycle of our planet is the Sun. It has been around for at least 4 billions years (the earth's age) and is expected to remain around for at least as much. We all know that the earth receives enough absolute energy each day to solve all our problems.

However (and this is a huge "however"), the current state-of-art in solar cells is in the teens in terms of efficiency (acquisition problems).

The Sun shines the brightest in the deserts (once a day) and in space (365/24/7) which are not usually where people consume energy (transportation problems).

Related to this is the issue of energy density. To be useful in vehicles such as an 18 wheeler or a commercial airline, batteries are a bad idea. We need something with better or comparable energy density than fossil fuels (storage and access problems).

Disposal is almost completely undefined for this situation as it depends immensely on the techniques used to address the challenges in the prior categories.

Hence, for long term self-reliance, our focus should be on the Sun (tackling individual problem areas above). Invest in solar research and stocks.

bottom-line: "nucular" helps a handful of companies/ people, and may potentially harm us more

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Want your voice heard? Pay up!

here's giving freedom of speech a whole new twist: if you want your voice heard, you should be able to pay for it.

came across this article: "Postage is due for Companies sending email"

now the naive thinking is "So what? I don't have to pay, it's the companies." Please think again: who does business with the companies: we, the consumers. Each company exists for a sole purpose: to provide some service to some consumer. And in this day and age of the Internet, email notifications, confirmations and transactions are more mainstream than ever before. So like the sales taxes, if a company has to pay some extra fees to deliver the information we need to us, guess who's going to pay for it finally.

And this has serious complications as well. Like entropy, the monies collected by the companies will never reduce, making them richer and more powerful on the Net. If they are able to exercise a level of control this strong already, imagine what they'll be when they are orders of magnitude richer.

The analogy given by Yahoo and AOL is that we already pay for posting stuff through snail mail, so why not this? But before we go into that, lets read between the lines. Why do AOL and Yahoo now want to charge the companies for this?

Answer: they maintain mailboxes, mail-servers, mail-applications and the like for millions of accounts for free. Free for the user, that is. Someone obviously pays for it. Right now, its either the company itself or advertisers who foot the bill (a la GMail) or other paying users. Users paying a yearly / monthly fee (Comcast, Yahoo, AOL, MSN etc.) for connectivity get free email accounts from that company, and some of that fees can pay for the other "free" users.

They are concerned that they aren't getting enough benefit from the free accounts: the users aren't clicking on the ads enough or simply aren't paying enough. But they don't want to look as the bad guys forcing users to pay because that's simply going to cause millions of users to not have accounts with them and move to some that still have free accounts, or worse, retreat from the Net altogether. Each scenario leads to shunning of the Net and bad bad news for all these Net companies.

So what's the option? Like sales taxes, charge the service providers/ businesses. They will pay and then charge their clients for it! Brilliant!

To support their argument, they also claim that this will help curb spam as spammers will have to pay for everything they send out. Well, the people who stuff your snail-mail-boxes with junk mail sure pay the post-office, but does that stop us from getting junk mail? Truth be told, junk mail figures out you've moved faster than legit mail. I believe this argument is simply to get users on board.

So coming back to the original question: why not pay for this the same way we pay for snail-mail? Because it hampers business. Though it seems that for the short term the companies involved will make a whole lot of money, prices on the net will generally increase, leading to lower number of transactions. In short, the same detrimental effect of a monopoly (or oligopoly, cartel if you will).

Plus, we as consumers already pay for connecting to the Net. So why should it matter if we connect to one server versus another when it is already paid for? I certainly am not in favor of paying more.

So if I have to bet money on the future of this debate, where would I put it? Well, honestly with Yahoo and AOL having their way and charging, of course. We, the consumers are free to dissent. As long as we pay for it.