Blog

Why biofuels make no sense

There’s been so much hype about biofuels which are a technology that cannot at present make even a dent in our fossil fuel usage and put enormous pressure on both the ecosystem and food prices. It’s time to inject a dose of realism by demonstrating the scale of the issue, so here are some facts and figures all of which are freely available.

The numbers around biofuels are easy to calculate and clearly show that they are not a replacement for fossil fuels. Let’s look at jet fuel in the US to start. Biological Jet fuel comes mostly from oilseeds like Rapeseed (aka Canola), Peanuts, and Soy as well as other plants like palm and coconut. Although palm and coconut have higher yields per acre than oilseeds they cannot be grown in quantity in the US so this example will use Rapeseed which has the highest yield of oil seed crops at 102 gallons per acre. According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics the US uses about 13 billion gallons of jet fuel per year, and at 102 gallons per acre that means we would use about 130,000,000 acres of cropland to supply Jet fuel from biological sources. The US has 406,000,000 acres of cropland so it would take a whopping %31 of all US cropland to supply Jet-fuel needs alone! In 2007 the US used 44 billion gallons of Diesel which uses the same feedstock plants as Jet fuel, so using the same yield figures that would take 431,000,000 acres of cropland to supply, that’s 106% of US cropland.

So in order to supply Jet and Diesel fuels from domestic farming in the US would take %37 more cropland than the US posesses, and that’s before we even touch Gasoline and Avgas use which by the way is 136 billion gallons per year. Since Ethanol only has 80% of the energy density of gasoline we will need to grow enough corn for 170 billion gallons of Ethanol to replace gasoline. Corn yields 390 gallons of Ethanol per acre, so we will need 436,000,000 acres of land to grow enough ethanol to replace gasoline, which is 107% of US cropland.

In other words we would need 2 and a half times more cropland than we actually have to grow enough biomass to replace our transportation fuel use. Even if we turned over every single acre of cropland we have to biofuel production we would only supply 40% of our transportation fuel needs and we wouldn’t have anything to eat!

The ecological concerns of biofuel productions are worth mentioning as well. Indications are that the US is already overfarming available land, and the result is topsoil loss and more critically in many areas water resources are becoming exhausted. This means that in the mid to long term the US will have to farm LESS, not more to be sustainable.

If we push biofuels as a solution to fuel imports we will drive up our food prices dramatically, and also reduce the surplus food that is used to help feed the world’s hungry. As the world’s population continues to grow there will be more and more pressure on farming to keep food on the table, and I for one am not willing to have kids starve so I can have supposedly “green” fuel!

We cannot supply our transportation fuel needs using biofuels as there simply isn’t enough land and fresh water to grow the biomass needed to supply fuel and feed the population, in fact we can’t even make a dent in our fossil fuel use. I’m not anti-biofuels, there should be a place for them in our fuel economy, however we need to do so in such a way that they will not take food from hungry mouths and drive up food prices. Like it or not the reality of the situation is that we will be putting fossil fuels in our airplanes for a good while yet until substantial research and development produces viable green energy solutions. Food first, fuel second!

Swine flu – It’s better than dying (I think)

Having swine flu is like being doped up, then locked in a sauna and beaten up by angry French-Canadian separatists armed with oars. It’s that fun. Somebody kept sticking knives in my lower back and twisting them, and this same vicious bastard also turned up the gravity to 6 timer Earth-normal so I couldn’t move and do anything about it. Not fair! Oh yes, let’s not forget that my throat was constricted so breathing was difficult, and my nose was running so much that what space there was left in my windpipe was being closed off by a torrent of mucus. Yummy!

The only positive is that it hasn’t lasted that long. 2 days of 104 degree fever, agonizing pain, and extreme discomfort has been followed by 2 days of much lower fever, dull aching, and major discomfort. Now my only complaint is being a bit weak and having a nasty cough, whoo-ho!

Some would say about an experience like that “I wouldn’t wish that on my own worst enemy”. Well why not, it’s perfect! Hideoous discomfort but extremely unlikely to be anything more than a really bad experience, it’s just what I’d like to see my worst enemy experiencing, except of course I don’t have any that I know of. Maybe if I had enemies I’d think differently. unfortunately far from my worst enemy getting it exactly the opposite – my 16 month old son Joshua’s got it as well, poor guy.

The gummi bear attack – now I’ve officially heard it all

One of the great things about working in the network and security arena is that it is constantly evolving. There’s always a new story to either educate or amuse, today it’s a story about a brilliant use of gummi bears.

Now thought I was fully versed in the uses of gummi bears. Was I not the instigator of the imfamous Bronx Science last school day gummi bear stick-a-thon, where we managed to cause $15,000 dollars of damage to one of the science labs using nothing but a jumbo bag full of those candies?
Of course not! That was simply a joke. I have no idea how that incident happened! I certainly didn’t discover that a gummi bear would get sticky enough to adhere to ceiling tiles when thrown, I certainly didn’t demonstrate these capabilities to my classmates, and I most certainly didn’t spend the next 30 minutes in wanton gummi-bear destruction, sticking them to ever surface that we could. Like I said, I have no idea how that happened, we had all left when our teacher hadn’t shown up.

Anyway, let’s just say I know about gummi bears and how they can be used to disrupt schools, but this story is a new one on me. It appears that some Australians are using them to aid truancy by spoofing the fingerprint systems in charge of taking. These enterprising young people have discovered that the gelatine has the same capacitance of human skin and have made replica fingerprints. They have their friends go to school and log them in using these replicas fooling the system into thinking that they are present.

Now besides this story being hilarious there are some security implications:
– This shows how easy it is to fool a fingerprint scanner. It’s been known for some time that fingerprint scanners can be spoofed however the sophistication of the attack had been much higher. This shows that a teenager with some gelatine, time, and a hatred of history class can easily fool the system.
Note that this attack requires a willing participant. You couldn’t use this type of attack to grab someone’s fingerprints without their knowledge, I mean who wouldn’t be suspicious of someone saying “hey there, would you mind sticking your right index finger into this pot of jello for me?”
– There’s no substitute for human inspection. Have as many automated systems you want but if someone wants to they can trick the system. Technology is not always the solution to the problem, or at least it’s not a complete solution.
– 2 factor authentication is not a solution when there is collusion. Having a pin as well as a fingerprint would be useless in this system as the student swiping the fake finger would have the pin as well. 2 factor authentication is only useful when the user has a vested interest in keeping it secret

Refactoring, Renaming, and version management

I’m using the netbeans IDE to write my Java and overall I think it’s excellent. It’s a completely different experience to perl coding where my idea of version management is to save-as a different filename. If I want to rename something in Perl I do just that. With modules it’s a bit more involved but not that tricky.

I was writing a Java program to interface with a SQL server. This program morphed into something completely different so I decided it was time to rename it. Now what?

I discovered refactor->rename. Brilliant! rename to something else, job done. I re-compiled and ran it and got this:

NoClassDefFoundError:sql_test1/Main

Wha? sql_test1 was the old name, not the new name. The files had all been changed, what’s the deal? ok, google: java netbeans NoClassDefFoundError after refactor . Now sort through the results. No joy. I found that the project.properties file had the old name for main.class. Haha! Changed it to the new name. Then I got the same error except with the new name. What gives?

Eventually I found an article here where I found the answer: A) don’t use Main, your program to something else and B) The class must be capitalized! That’s what tripped me up, I had it in lower case. Once I renamed my class to be capitalized it all worked fine.

My conversion from Perl to Java

About 10 years ago I picked up a bit of Perl out of necessity. I’d had some basic programming instruction, literally basic, then a bit of pascal, then a semester of C in college so I had the vaguest of ideas what I was doing but that was all. So when I had to re-write a perl script that someone else had done it was all pretty new to me. Over the next 10 years I gradually built up my perl programming experience from basic scripts to automate network management to writing my own modules and large scripts of several thousand lines interacting with SQL databases and excel.

Am I a perl “expert”? No, but I am a decent hack and my coding skills have served me very well over the years. Perl is an amazingly flexible language, it’s been described as the duct tape of computing but I don’t think that does it justice. It’s more like the Legos of computing, you can do anything with it and there’s add-ons for everything imaginable. It may not be pretty but it works.

So why learn Java? To write mobile apps. Perl is very command line, it’s not meant to build interfaces.

I’m starting this blog thread to record my experiences trying to convert from Perl to Java as others may have similar problems.

Wok to Walk – I’d wok elsewhere

I was walking through Soho in London and I came upon a noodle bar called “wok to walk” on Brewer street and thought I’d get some takeaway noodles for lunch. The place certainly looks promising with a trendy look and feel, organized and clean cooking area, and 3 step menu. There’s 2 types of chili sauce on the tables along with your standard asian restaurant accompaniments It’s all fresh and made to order in front of you and service was quick. I decided on udon noodles with chicken and broccoli with Thai coconut sauce as it has a couple spicy-looking symbols next to it and I like some heat. The portion size was disappointingly small for my £6.35, nevertheless I headed back to work with a sense of optimism which was unfortunately misplaced.

Overall the food was pretty disappointing. Although the noodles and broccoli were well cooked the chicken was dry and there wasn’t nearly enough of it and the broccoli to warrant the cost of the food. Still, a good sauce would have made it all worthwhile but sadly the Thai Coconut I chose because of the 2 fiery heat symbols next to it on the menu was devoid of both spice and flavor. I got a hint or two of lemongrass but no fish sauce or lime, none of that tongue-coating sweet-sour-salty wonderfulness you would expect from even a moderately good thai sauce and there wasn’t even a hunt of heat. I know that there’s a big difference between what I and your mainstream human consider hot but I can tell you with absolute certainty that no chili has been even brought into the vicinity of that poor excuse for a sauce.

Whomever created Wok to Walk spent plenty of time on the look and feel of the place and not nearly enough on the quality of the food. I didn’t come in because they had trendy-looking white-on-orange signs, I came in because I wanted some good food. If I’d paid half the price I did I still would have considered it a waste of money and at the price I paid it’s highway robbery. Do yourself a favor and go to Wasabi or Samurai instead. It’s not made to order but it’s much better value for money.

Review – “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy is a haunting story of a dying man trying to save his son in a world blasted of all life and hope after an un-named apocalypse, empty of all but the “lucky” few survivors scrabbling for the precious few remaining cans of food in the burnt ruins of the world. The only reason he hasn’t used his only remaining bullet to end his own suffering is his desperation to get his young son he loves far enough south to survive the coming winter.

There is very little reminiscence in this novel, you don’t learn much about this man or what happened to the world because it truly doesn’t matter. The starving people in this story are down to their rudiments both in mind and body, almost all personality and emotion leached out of them. They are as grey as the landscape.

The author manages to maintain an undercurrent of desperation, fear, and hopelessness in this novel in a way that is completely immersive and convincing. The author states that he got the idea when in Texas with his son, and to me this seems like an outpouring of the fear every father has about his children, only amplified. The detailed way he narrates the day to day struggle of the characters and the man’s hopes and fears tells me this is a story about the author and his son, that this is a vehicle for him to vent his worries about the future. I’m a new father and this really connected with me in ways hard to explain which is one of the reasons I find this book so compelling.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it’s certainly one of the darkest. I highly recommend it but it is not for the faint of heart.

baby songs and desperation are a bad combination

My baby is almost 6 months old and in the squirming while being fed stage. Sometimes it’s so bad it’s impossible to get the bottle to his lips. When he’s like that the only way to get him to settle down is to sing to him. Switching tunes makes him stir so I have to keep on the same tune no matter how long it takes to feed the little guy. I’ll tell you after 15 minutes “the wheels on the bus go round and round” gets a bit old, and sometimes I make some verses up out of sheer boredom. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes I wonder how corrupt my mind is to be coming up with this stuff.
“the brakes on the bus go squeak squeak squeak” – well, in London they often do at least. Your mileage may vary
“the wipers on the bus go swish swish swish” – yep, good. Neutral and sounds cool to a baby
“the driver on the bus goes swear swear swear” – huh? Where’s that come from? I’ve rarely heard one swear, if they do it’s on the inside
“the hoodies on the bus go stab stab stab” – whoah! bad bad bad, re-enforcing negative stereotypes about poverty and youth! Usually they just sulk and play crappy music on their mobile phones, it’s when you make an issue about it that they stab you.

Old macdonald also gets the same treatment.
“and on that farm he had a rat” – I guess it’s plausable, they never say that he wanted a rat or even knows he had a rat on-site so I guess we can keep it.
“and on that farm he had a moose” – wha? What farmer has a moose? Clearly came up with this at 3am.
“and on that farm he had agricultural subsidies” – well, larely true unfortunately for the developing world. It’s topical and current, but what infant cares about politics? think baby Greg, think baby!

My take on the US healthcare debate

I’m an American living in the UK for the past few years so I have a unique perspective on the US healthcare issue that I wish to share. I’ve experienced both the US private insurance based system and the UK state-run healthcare system and I do feel that people in the US are missing the point and that the arguments for and against miss some very important facts.

I’m an IT contractor, I do network engineering, security work, plus some coding and perl scripting thrown in. I’m the director of a limited company which hires me out to difference companies on short-mid term contracts. In the past I have had a several permanent jobs both in the US and UK. In the US one of the primary concerns anyone has is healthcare for themselves and their family. When chosing a job one of the big questions is the provider and policy the employer offers. Insurance is a huge concern for those who are self-employed and in many cases the costs involved for private coverage are exhorbitant enough to prevent people from starting their own business. And if you lose your job you have the unenviable choice of either paying way over the odds to keep your old policy or taking a huge gamble and going without. I know American Ex-pats who can’t move back to the states because they have pre-existing medical conditions and would be denied health coverage. Can you imagine being barred from your own company because you have diabetes or MS? What does that say about America?

In the UK it’s completely different. If I lose my job I don’t have to worry about being covered until I get a new one. When looking for a job I don’t have to think about insurance, I can chose the best job for me. I can start a business, quit work for 6 months and write a book or iPhone apps all without a second thought. I pay into the system so I’m entitled to the benefits.

Some people are saying that state-provided healthcare makes one less free, but that couldn’t be farther than the truth. For me it’s given me freedom from worry and the freedom to pursue my own career goals.

Some of the arguments against state-run healthcare make me crack up because they actually support the case more than they damage it if you look past the emotionality:
– “There will be a department of doctors who decide what care people get. They’ll decide who lives and who dies!” OK, so how does this differ from private healthcare companies? They have whole departments which have the whole purpose of deciding how they can give you the least care possible. They also have whole departments tasked with denying people care they are entitled to so they can save money. Which would you rather have, a system which is trying to save its stockholders money or a system which is trying to save your money?
– “There will be huge lines to see the doctor!” Why? Are people going to go for the sheer novelty of it? I spend as little time as possible at the docs and I suspect others would be similar. In the UK I don’t wait any longer to see a GP than I would in the states, why would I? What’s the basis of this statement?
– “I’ll have to pay for other people’s coverage!” I hate to tell you but you already do. You want to know what people without coverage do in the US? They go to the emergency room where they can’t be turned away. They get treated because it’s illegal and unethical for the hospital not to. And guess who pays for it? You do either through taxes or in your insurance premiums. So you pay either way.
– “yeah, but it will cost me more because they’ll all use it more!” Better people see the doctor for a minor condition than go to the ER with a major condition, it will cost less. I know a guy with no health insurance and no money who had chest pains and had a quadruple bypass. He didn’t pay a thing because he had nothing to give them. That cost the hospital, and therefore society more than $300,000. He hadn’t seen a doctor in years because he didn’t have insurance and couldn’t pay. If he had he would have been diagnosed with heart problems years before he needed surgery and received preventative care which would have cost a fraction of emergency care. All these people going into the ER with acute conditions cost the system about the same as if they could go to the doctor before things get that desperate.

It seems that some people think that if we adopt socialized medicine in the US that the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse will appear, the sky will fall, and time itself will end. Get a grip! In the US we have a state-funded education system that goes from nursery through grad school, we have state funded roads, parks, water supplies, waste removal, and social security amongst many other state-funded systems. We are better off for all these things, so why not healthcare? What’s the big deal?

I love being a dad

My son Joshua is 3 and a half months old now and I’m so glad we decided to have a baby. Holding him in my arms is one of the joys of life and I can’t wait to see what comes next. He’s going to be a handful I think as he’s definitely got brains! I’m going to have to watch out or he’ll run rings around me. It’s not all fun, it’s hard as hell sometimes but it’s so worth it.