Archive for June, 2008

A Battery Prize

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

As the British Empire was expanding its reach both for military supremacy and trade, navigation at sea was a limiting factor. Latitude, the angular distance from the equator, was relatively easy to determine in the sixteenth century. It could be measured by the angle between the horizon and the North Star or by the sun’s angular position at noon coupled with tables of solar declination.

Unfortunately, determination of longitude was more difficult. In principle, it could be calculated astronomically or with a sufficiently accurate clock. The necessary astronomical observations, though useful on land, were impossible to make from a bobbing platform of a ship. The most accurate clocks relied on a pendulum as a timekeeper. However, the motion of the ship and the large changes in temperature rapidly degraded such a clock’s accuracy.

The British were painfully reminded of this inadequacy in 1707. After a victory over the French, four British warships were destroyed when through a longitude navigation error they struck shoals around the Scilly Islands, and thousands of sailors perished. Clearly dead reckoning based on estimated speed was not sufficient for navigation.

This prompted the British Parliament in 1714 to offer the Longitude Prize, 20,000 pounds for a practical method of measuring longitude to within 60 nautical miles. In the popular book Longitude, Dava Sobel, artfully describes John Harrison’s three-decade pursuit of the prize through the steady improvement of his clocks. Sobel’s story explained Harrison’s very human struggle. It took decades to effectively claim his prize. The Longitude Board established to adjudicate the prize always seemed to keep moving the threshold for the prize. Harrison finally claimed the balance of his prize in 1765.

Now in response to rapidly increasing oil prices, Senator John McCain has suggested that we might mimic the success of the Longitude Prize with an $300 million prize for anyone or group that can produce a battery with “the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

It is hard to argue against the offer of such a prize, not as substitute for additional action, but as away to draw attention and excitement to the technological challenge. Certainly, there is little cost to the prize unless its challenge is successfully met. Under those circumstances, no one would begrudge the prize.

There is one important lesson we can apply from the Longitude Prize. During his efforts, Harrison was granted stipends from the Longitude Board for promising innovations. If the government ultimately offers a Battery Prize, it should offer intermediate awards for important, but incremental steps along the way. This would maintain interest and keep monetary awards within reach. For example, there might be a prize for an alternate battery chemistry with higher energy density, that might still be more expensive than a conventional battery.

Innovation does not always occur at large institutions with large budgets. Indeed, “out of the box” thinking is hard to nurture at large research establishment and private companies. A Battery Prize might be just he motivation for a break through. There is certainly little downside.

Cars and Freedom

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

A important notion inherent in the Conservative political perspective, often incomprehensible to Liberals, is the intimate link between money and freedom. Money, as a broad measure of economic wherewithal, provides choices. With money a person can decide where to live, what to wear and eat, where to travel to, what recreational and educational activities to engage in, and even what opportunities to provide children. The more money the broader the scope of choices in our lives. Money is so important that most of us willing trade the precious commodity of time for money in our jobs.

Personal transportation is also a measure of freedom. Sure there are some people who take special pride and interest an automobiles or manage to travel from place to place via public transportation. However, for the most part, a car allows ordinary people to control their lives like few other possessions. Cars permit us broad discretion in where to live. We are not limited to high-traffic corridors that may be serviced by mass transportation. Cars have made possible for many the achievement of the American dream of a house and yard.

Cars allow us to plan our day more independently of the schedules of others. We can on a given day, deviate from a work-route to pick up a child from baseball practice or purchase groceries.

Cars also provide a sense of possibility. One can spontaneously choose to simply jump into the car and visit grandma in the next state. One can tour and view the country more intimately from a car. The freedom of the open road underpins much of our culture and literature from the TV show Route 66, the movie The Open Road, and the book Blue Highways.

No one wonder Americans are in love with their cars. No wonder car use has increased in European countries, even those with significant mass transportation alternatives. No wonder that as both China and India have become more affluent, the population has raced to own and drive cars.

The recent tremendous increase in gas prices has robbed Americans both of a measure of both economic and transportation freedom. People feel pressure but their scope of choice as been reduced and Americans are apprehensive that it might be reduced further.

The salient political point to understand is that Americans will embrace solutions that allows them to maintain their transportation freedom. There are some on the Left who are smugly happy with high prices because they feel Republicans will be blamed and because they believe it will push people away from cars. Americans will resent this loss of freedom, even if the Left believes it is for their own good of people

There are many possible ways to alleviate the current problem including: the movement to higher mileage gs automobiles, substitution of hybrid and electric vehicles for solely gas powered cars, improving the road infrastructure to reduce eneregy-wasting bottlenecks, and increasing oil production. All will likely play an important and necessary role. However, the option to use high prices to ween people from their cars will not be politically sustainable over the long term. If the Left attacks personal freedom, they will ultimately pay a price. For example, banning offshore oil drilling can be popular when oil is $22 a barrel, less so at $130 a barrel oil.

Cat’s in the Cradle: Father’s Day Thoughts

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

In 1974, folk singer Harry Chapin released the song Cat’s in the Cradle.  The  song told the story of a father who, despite his best intentions, never seemed to have enough time for his kids. There was always something more pressing, a priority more urgent. Of course, over time the father implicitly taught this lesson to his children. Later when he noticed that his son now embraced these lessons, the father mournfully realizes that his “boy was just like me.”

It would convenient to leap to the conclusion that the best measure of a father is his children, especially easy for me because of three children of whom I am very proud. Unfortunately, I know of some children who turned out wonderfully in spite of their parents and others who are continuing problems despite authentically interested and giving parents. Nonetheless, on a statistical basis the more parents of a society and culture care for their children, the better they will likely turn out.

Children who are read to will enjoy reading. Children who are viewed as a source of happiness rather than a burden are likely to be happy and not burdensome. Children who are told the truth will embrace truth. Children who live in the warmth of family will likely have warm families of their own. Children who are loved will learn to love. Children who are shown compassion will show compassion. Children who enjoy the high expectation of their parents will expect much of themselves.

There is no greater reward than to be content with the observation that your children are just like you, and perhaps just a bit better.

Energy Schizophrenia

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

One problem with trying to engage Democrats on energy issues is that they are irremediably schizophrenic. In 2006, when gas prices were substantially lower than they are now, Democrats ran on a platform of reducing the price of gas. On April 19, 2006 the then minority leader Democrat Nancy Pelosi said, “Democrats have a plan to lower gas prices…join Democrats who are working to lower gas prices now.”

Whatever approach they have implemented certainly has not been successful in reducing gas prices. Indeed, aided and abetted by Republicans, the government’s mandates for use of ethanol have managed to be a failure in lowering gas prices but wildly successful in increasing the income for corporate farmers and food prices.

Regardless of the success or failure of the Democratic plan for reducing gas prices and for whatever reasons, it was clear in 2006 that lower gas prices was a prominent Democratic goal. On the other hand, the presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama now seems somewhat sympathetic to high gas prices, suggesting that it will push Americans toward the use of hybrids.

But how does reducing gas prices square with other goals of the Left: decreasing in carbon dioxide emissions, increasing the use of public transportation, and reversing suburban sprawl?  Accomplishing these goals will require pain and increased gas prices are the quickest and most direct way of applying the necessary discipline. If by some miracle, all the cars in the country got twice the mileage, the pain of oil prices would be reduced by a factor of two and Americans would likely drive more than they do now. However, the goals of greater use of public transportation or less suburban sprawl will be thwarted.

Thus lies the current contradiction of Democratic energy policies. They are anti-oil, but wish to make gas cheaper. They rail against the middle-class suburban sprawl, but object to the pain in gas prices that mitigates sprawl. Like a dog trapped in a yard, the are really only for action, action, action, direction is unimportant.

One of Many

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Perhaps there should be a special category in books stores for tell-all books by former members presidential administrations. Let’s face it. A book in praise of a current administration will likely end up in a discount bin soon after release or probably not be published at all. A critical book draws attention. The recount of behind the scenes conversations are hard to document so controversies quickly degenerate to he-said-he-said arguments. without resolution.

David Stockman was the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Ronald Reagan and a point man for a much of the budgets cuts the Reagan administration implemented. When Stockman left government he cashed in on his public service with the memoir, Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, which was highly critical of the Reagan economic plan. Of course, the book was hailed as the product of honest reconsideration of Reagan’s policies and the media just lapped it up. A couple of decades later, most remember Reagan and his time positively and only political junkies remember Stockman. Stockman has had a checkered career in finance since then.

When Georege Stephanopoulos,  President Bill Clinton’s Communications Directory retired,  he wrote  All Too Human. It describes the mental summersaults required for otherwise discerning and perceptive people to sustain the suspension of disbelief required to protect the President. Stephanopoulos’s key insight is that the ferocity and devotion required to support the political fight consumes so much intellectual and emotional energy, there is little strength left for doubt. The Clinton Administration was none too amused. However, Stephanopoulos has managed to maintain his prominence as a pundit and ABC journalist.

Now Scott McClellan has written a tell-all book about his time a press spokesman for President Bush with the not so clever title What Happened. Those not inclined to support president quickly seized upon the book.  Unlike other Bush press spokesman Ari Fleischer or Tony Snow who were respected by the press even while acting as vigorous spokesman for the president, McClellan not particularly well-respected for his competence. The book has a air of desperation about it.

This controversy will pass and only avid partisans will remember much about McClellan. However, McClellan will not be much respected by Conservatives and the Left will ignore him after he ceases to be useless. McClellan will fall into obscurity unless he moves further to the Left. It will be interesting to see what path he chooses.