Re: Tipping Points

1

You only get 20mpg? Lame.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:02 PM
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Does anyone here know things about whole the vegetable-oil/diesel conversion idea? I've seen arguments on both sides ("it's a stupid hippie pipe dream!" "it's the salvation of Capitalism and the American Highway!") but haven't figured out who I believe yet.


Posted by: Cecily | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:10 PM
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Aside from all the other issues, living away from family is really going to suck in terms of travel costs. My mom's coming to visit me this summer, and she's taking the train because flying and driving are both more expensive. We're trying to visit shivbunny's family this summer and I think we can swing it, but we're feeling the crunch.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:11 PM
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Yeah, I was thinking the same. 20mpg?


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:11 PM
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We're diesel, and get nearly as crappy mileage as ogged, especially as most of my journeys are stop-start town journeys taking kids to various places. I put some fuel in yesterday - 127.9p/l. That's about USD10 per gallon, isn't it? Certainly makes me think twice before using the car. It's gone up 30p/l in what feels like a very short time (bit under a year?).


Posted by: asilon | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:16 PM
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The vegetable oil conversion is looking appealing ... I was also looking at an LPG minibus the other day - that would be cheap to run, but you have an enormous whatever-it-is in the boot.


Posted by: asilon | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:18 PM
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40 miles / 48 dollars X 12 dollars / gallon = 10 mpg


Posted by: Merganser | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:21 PM
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ttaM and I assumed that ogged is going home, too.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:23 PM
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I think the calculation is based on a round trip, Merganser.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:23 PM
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Um, I was just trying to make ogged look even lamer?


Posted by: Merganser | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:23 PM
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ttaM and w-lfs-n agree with me.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:23 PM
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6- i saw a story about a high school kid who successfully performed the veggie oil conversion. His car was a beater and he worked in the high school cafeteria, which was his source for the oil.


Posted by: asl | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:27 PM
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I can't wait for some enterprising "sociologist" with a column in the papers to make hay with the fact that this ``Millenial'' castigated as lame, that is, fit to be cast socially out, the ownership and operation of a fuel-inefficient auto.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:28 PM
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I was rounding; I get slightly better than 20, but you'll pry my V6 from my cold dead feet. Or from my empty wallet; whichever comes first.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:28 PM
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Better start thinking ahead - word on the street is that the trade-in value of used cars with spectacularly crappy gas mileage is plummeting fast enough that the various price guides can't keep up.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:34 PM
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15- Recently, I began riding my bike pretty much everywhere in DC. It will be a great idea until I get hit by a car.


Posted by: asl | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:42 PM
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I have acquaintances who have had great success with vegetable oil conversion but...

There is simply no way it can be anything more than an individual solution. The whole society can't have food *waste* products as its *primary* energy source. Something has to be feeding energy into the system.

As for growing plants specifically to make biodiesel: we've already seen what happens when energy begins to compete with food for agricultural output.


Posted by: rob helpy-chalk | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:56 PM
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15: Hey, thanks for this. Leaving aside trade-in value, there's still got to be a window of opportunity for ogged people to just sell their cars to hideously gas-guzzling SUV drivers looking to upgrade (or downgrade, depending on how you look at it).


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:56 PM
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Even if all the available waste oil from all the restaurants and industrial food processors in the country were converted to fuel, it would offset less than one percent of US oil consumption, but that's still something like three billion gallons of retrieved waste, so good. (I haven't looked up the figures for non-waste vegetable oil.) The combination of thrift, eco-friendliness and DIY helps to account for the popularity of the stuff around here. One of the Thai restaurants down the street runs its delivery car, a biodiesel-burning Mercedes sedan, on waste oil from the kitchen.

I heard a report about SUV resale values the other day and couldn't help but feel intense schadenfreude.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 1:58 PM
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It's about time someone gave the wind a break.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 3:07 PM
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Now don't you wish you'd taken up cycling rather than swimming?


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 3:09 PM
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I really believe private transportation costs will be the least of our Peak Oil Problems. The pass-throughs and substitutions are only just beginning, at the very beginning of Peak Oil.

We think we can control driving and assorted costs, and some get the schadenfreude and thrills from the SUV vs electric car thing. But when milk hits $10 a quart, plane flights of 500 miles $2000, antibiotics and anti-depressants quadruple in price, and the electric car hits $75k because the plastic and rubber and costs of (electric; from China & Germany) machine-tooling have become insanely expensive, we will approach the tipping point.

And then it will get bad. And still only be the beginning. And then the Wars.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 3:45 PM
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Kimberly-Clark raising al its prices 6-8% in a quarter. If oil prices stay high or increase, I suspect KC will probably go 10-15% higher in the next year at least. Who all, like restaurants hospitals day-care centers...all who use packaging...have to pass through those costs, in addition to their own more direct oil-related price problems? Does that mean 20-30% price increases at the end of the production chain? And how long before workers scream for wage increases to keep up, after having been quiet for decades?

People don't understand peak oil.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 3:57 PM
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Now don't you wish you'd taken up cycling rather than swimming?

To be fair, cyclists (god love 'em) are sterile, and swimming has gotten Ogged to...oh I don't know, but probably second base by now.

I'm still convinced that swim teams celebrate victories by group orgies in the steam room. As you transition into "masters" events, this becomes less enticing.

Also, it occurred to me the other day that I might like watching basketball more if the uniforms weren't so damn ridiculous.


Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:12 PM
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21: It occurs to me that I live near the Chicago River, so if I got a job downtown, I could just swim to work. There would be no harmful side-effects whatsoever.


Posted by: Zippy the Comment Frog | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:20 PM
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You just need to watch out for Zippy the Comment Scorpion wanting to carpool.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:22 PM
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People kayak on the river all the time, but I don't think it's very convenient for entry/exit points.

Actually, someone should figure out how to burn Chicago river water. It must be pretty close to biodiesel as it is.


Posted by: Doug | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:26 PM
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Get it yet? We have had a what low ball tripling in price of oil in the last decade which should and will mean a tripling in the price of everything, I mean everything. Or a corresponding loss in std of living.

Of course the PTB have been trying to delay and disguise this event, because it probably will mean Revolution. Or an oligarchic oppression such as we have never seen in this country.

An oligarchic oppression like we got the last time with Reagan, with the death of unions, asset inflation, flat wages and increasing inequality. Flat wages for thirty years of inflation means how big a decrease in Std of living, security, freedom?

Will it happen again? Whose side is Obama on?


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:30 PM
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Gas has been over $7.00 a "gallon" for years in the UK. Most of it is tax. It makes no difference - people still buy the stuff. Something about price inelasticity.


Posted by: Tim | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:34 PM
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Bob - that logic only holds when oil is the dominant cost (and even then you can only approach the 3x increase), or if the increased cost of oil affects supply of the product being considered.

Housing prices will certainly change significantly, depending on location (decrease in suburbs, increase in urban areas).


Posted by: Doug | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:36 PM
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Sadly, 20mpg isn't particularly low by current auto standards. Fuckers. Our now dead Subaru got 28, 29 up until the end of its rickety life; our newer Saturn? 20, 21. Pathetic.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:36 PM
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29: People still buy it, but they also have these awesome things called "trains" and "buses" which they use, like, a lot. Why, I even hear that it's not at all unusual for college kids to not even have drivers' licenses.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:38 PM
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You're single and you've gotta have a V6? V6s are for soccer moms, V8s are for fat dipshits, V10s and V12s are for utter wankers; single people ought to drive 4s.


Posted by: W. Kiernan | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:42 PM
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26 is really cute.


Posted by: oudemia | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:45 PM
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std of living

Christ, did I read that wrong the first time.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:53 PM
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Life is a terminal STD, man.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:56 PM
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I don't have to argue this because it will become obvious in the next year, for those who don't read Rittholz. Unless KC raising prices gave you a clue.

Bernanke and Paulson and crew aren't delaying the recession. They are doing everything possible to delay the inflation so it lands on Obama's head, either as inflation, Volckering, or both.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 4:58 PM
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I'll pop in for a bit to note that Bob's right.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 5:01 PM
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Life is a terminal STD, man.

Terminal, yes, but not necessarily sexually-transmitted. Think, for instance, of all our friends in the fungus kingdom.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 5:03 PM
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Anymore, shit is getting so depressingly apocalytpic in here. Makes me not want to go out for ice cream now.


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 5:13 PM
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It's never too apocalyptic for ice cream, Sybil.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 5:14 PM
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I don't know, stras. Thinking about the coming wars for antibiotics and birth control by the time my daughter needs it makes me stomach go to lead.


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 5:16 PM
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antibiotics and anti-depressants quadruple in price

What in god's name does the price of oil have to do with the price of antibiotics and anti-depressants?


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:02 PM
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Oh, water moccasin, you just don't get it. THERE WILL BE BLOOD IN THE STREETS! That's what, okay?


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:13 PM
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43: Demand for antidepressants will rise with rising oil prices. Don't know about the antibiotics.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:26 PM
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The idea driving the apocalyptic version is basically that when oil prices go way up and it becomes undeniably clear that the suply will continue to go down, in the absence of our having implemented alternative fuels, the price of Everything (Everything being dependent on fosil fuels for manufacture and transport) will go up. and antibiotics and antidepressants are just two examples of things people might riot over being unable to afford. Right?


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:33 PM
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I should be clear that I am not so sure about peak oil myself, but this is how the narrative goes I think. And everything goes to shit really really fast. IT makes me so depressed that I decided to quit smoking I can barely move. Fuck all of you who buy into this coming apocalypse and yet encouraged me to quit.


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:35 PM
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You can't make pills without petroleum, people.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:37 PM
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On the other hand, exercise often helps with mild depression, so since we'll all be pedaling bicycles, we'll be feeling a bit better.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:39 PM
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the price of Everything (Everything being dependent on fosil fuels for manufacture and transport) will go up. and antibiotics and antidepressants are just two examples of things people might riot over being unable to afford. Right?

Right - except that manufacture and transport make up essentially none of the price of antibiotics and antidepressants; all the money goes to design, approval, and marketing. Indeed, if you were looking for an example of something whose price would NOT go up with more expensive oil, antibiotics and antidepressants would be some of the first things that came to mind.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:40 PM
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On the other hand, exercise often helps with mild depression, so since we'll all be pedaling bicycles, we'll be feeling a bit better.

I bet that the five pounds of aluminum in my bicycle required more energy to produce than all the pills I will consume in my entire life.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:43 PM
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Tornado Guy isn't looking so crazy now.


Posted by: Melvin | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:44 PM
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Aluminum often goes with hydroelectric power, right? I thought part of the issue with the dams on the Columbia river was that they created so much more electricity than there was demand, that a lot of effort went into attracting the aluminum industry.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:45 PM
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Fuck all of you who buy into this coming apocalypse and yet encouraged me to quit.

Come the apocalypse, the healthier you are, the better. Can't be fainting around on the couch if you have to grow beans and lettuce and tomatoes, baby.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:46 PM
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43:1) At least in America the value of the dollar is directly connected to the currency basket price of oil.

2) Antibiotics, like everything else, are shipped. Antibiotics are shipped refrigerated. Airfreighted?

3) Increasing oil costs = higher food costs = weakened immune systems etc, increased demand. More expensive AC. This house just bought a sixpack for allergies.

4) Spent a little time researching industrial growth media, without nuch success. Is it transported? Antibiotics do use organic solvents in the production process. Who makes the capsules?

My point was that everything is connected in this globalized economy. Connected by oil. Oil is not a production factor, it is the fucking economy. In my bedroom community, without oil nobody gets to their jobs. This summer this household has taken twice as many sick & vacation days as last year.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:46 PM
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Come the apocalypse, the healthier you are, the better. Can't be fainting around on the couch if you have to grow beans and lettuce and tomatoes, baby.

Forget it, I don't have a prayer. I am feeling in top form at present, no smokes for a stretch, yoga everyday, and I can still tell you I will not survive any kind of global crisis that precipitates something resembling a collapse in civilization. Not a bloody chance. I am very soft deep down.


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:50 PM
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55: Ah, ok. I thought that there was a chance I might have missed something, but you were just trolling per usual. Sorry, all.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:51 PM
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Oh, the oil apocalypse has a whole lot of versions.

One is that when we see the end of oil we see the end of economic growth. Without secure economic growth and projected growth in aggregate demand the credit economy will turn to shit. The credit economy:Stocks, bonds, mortgages.

Who gets a 30 year morgage in a economy expected to be in recession (negative GDP growth) forever?


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 6:55 PM
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57:tell ya what, water mocassin, you just watch and let me know next year.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:01 PM
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55. This summer this household has taken twice as many sick & vacation days as last year.

Taken twice as many -- ohh, I get it. Because the antibiotics and antidepressants are too expensive, right?


Posted by: Hamilton-Lovecraft | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:26 PM
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60:What's the difference between last year and this?

I know I don't construct pretty & coherent arguments like MY did for the war before he constructed a beautiful argument against the war and I know that the blogosphere is about admiring pretty arguments rather than anything important or valuable so I don't want to be like those showbiz sophists so yeah I am a troll.

Academics, lawyers, economists, journalists. WTF do I expect?


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:33 PM
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Is there some non-rhetorical way you'd have us use language on blogs, Bob? Like writing poetry or isolated phrases disconnected from conversation? What exactly do you imagine people use words for when discussing politics?


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:36 PM
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Aluminum often goes with hydroelectric power, right?

Yup; it's solid electricity. (There's no real reason it has to be hydro except for the fact that hydro is stable and cheap.)


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:36 PM
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in a different kind of apocalyptic vein, how long do we think hard boiled eggs are good in the fridge? teh internet gives me lots of different answer.


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:38 PM
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Meanwhile, Ben Stein continues to be cuckoo bananas, someone that I'm sure the Times is proud to have hired:

We need to turn coal into oil into gasoline, to use nuclear power wherever we can, and to brush aside the concerns of the beautiful people who live on coastal pastures (like me). And we need to drill on the continental shelf, even near where movie stars live. This must be done, on an emergency basis. If we keep acting as if the landscape were more important than human life, we will make ourselves the serfs of the oil producers and eventually reduce our country to poverty and anarchy.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:39 PM
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in a different kind of apocalyptic vein, how long do we think hard boiled eggs are good in the fridge

One way to find out. But make sure to liveblog it.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:41 PM
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Ohmigod, stop whatever you are doing right now and watch this, the most awesome thing ever.


Posted by: Gaijin Biker | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:49 PM
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I bet Sybil can eat fifty eggs.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:49 PM
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There's no real reason it has to be hydro except for the fact that hydro is stable and cheap.

Also, hydro can more or less only be used to make electricity. Coal can be used for heat or chemical purposes (steelmaking, etc), oil can be used for transportation, etc.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:50 PM
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Nobody can eat 50 eggs!


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 7:54 PM
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I have a dream. I also have a terrible cold. Biodiesel!


Posted by: Nápi | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:00 PM
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What exactly do you imagine people use words for when discussing politics?

Words are mostly about tribal bonding and rituals.

I was imagining two scenarios:

1) Well, your innocent client got the death penalty, but damn it was a great summation. Come to dinner.

or

2) Your client got acquitted, but you lied and broke every ethical rule. I don't know you anymore.

I do seem to remember another antiwar/political movement being not quite so interested in the aesthetics or rationality of protest. The draft and other factors created a broader base, I suppose.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:08 PM
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I'll pop in for a bit to note that Bob's right.

Not that there's not significant problems to be addressed, but solar panels are already pushing 22 percent conversion for home systems, and Boeing is producing systems that are at 37 percent, with over 40 percent coming in a year or two. I'll let UNH do the heavy lifting with some of the estimates for using algae produced biodiesel for things like transportation, making drugs, etc.

http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html

NREL's research showed that one quad (7.5 billion gallons) of biodiesel could be produced from 200,000 hectares of desert land (200,000 hectares is equivalent to 780 square miles, roughly 500,000 acres), if the remaining challenges are solved (as they will be, with several research groups and companies working towards it, including ours at UNH). In the previous section, we found that to replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles. Enough biodiesel to replace all petroleum transportation fuels could be grown in 15,000 square miles, or roughly 12.5 percent of the area of the Sonora desert (note for clarification - I am not advocating putting 15,000 square miles of algae ponds in the Sonora desert. This hypothetical example is used strictly for the purpose of showing the scale of land required). That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres - far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.

Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:13 PM
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Bob, I just find your recurrent fantasy that you're doing something non-rhetorical (and therefore somehow "important") with language while everyone else is busy constructing coherent (therefore "not important") arguments to be utterly ridiculous.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:17 PM
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I am just old-fashioned and set in my ways, I guess, but ya know, I try to imagine the leading lights of the blogosphere stting in the dock with the Chicago Seven...

...or Obama with Cleaver, Newton, or Brown. Already answered that one I suppose.

Will this convention allow the likes of Ron Kovic up on the stage?

What is rhetoric for? The approval of your peers is only one possible goal.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:18 PM
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74:You would, wouldn't you?

I don't think I am doing anything important, interesting, attractive, or valuable in my comments.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:21 PM
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Rhetoric is quite ancient, actually. You can't even blame its existence as a study on These Kids Today.

Could you imagine the general chatting public of yesteryear sitting on the dock with the Chicago Seven? I try to imagine the leading lights of the blogosphere, nude, riding giraffes into the Serengeti, but have an equally hard time. Why can't everyone be everyone throughout all time at once?


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:22 PM
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gswift, yes!! Ice cream shop has closed, but I am totally baking brownies.


Posted by: Sybil Vane | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:23 PM
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61: The difference between last year and this is I'm blossoming in my job, got an excellent performance review and that which goes with it, from which I deduce that people all across America are hitting their stride, learning to cope with continuous crisis, and excited to be going to work in this huge throbbing growing economy. That's valid, right?


Posted by: Hamilton-Lovecraft | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:32 PM
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77:Don't be obstuse. I am not talking about the chatting public, I am looking for a radical elite trying to move the Overton Window rather than hoping to be David Broder when they grow up.

Current reading:The Radical Enlightenment as social phenomenon. Those damn Spinosistes were like despised and reviled by almost everyone all the way to the Revolutions, Declarations, and Darwin. And they still aren't give credit.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:37 PM
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Did you see this?: "Old-Style Pumps Balk At $4-a-Gallon Gas, Too"


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:43 PM
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80: And your search is limited to the mainstream blogosphere? You look for gold in toilets and then say there is no such thing as gold in the world?


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:43 PM
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she's taking the train

I've heard anecdotally and at least one 'coming up on NPR' headline review that suggested Amtrak really is the big winner out of rising oil prices. I am casually given to wonder (in a non-sinister, just the engineer in me sort of way) whether it has anything to do with the new but still incredibly minimal security screenings I understand are being done in places. When I took the train to DC last year I was amazed at what a smuggler's paradise it must be.

I'm currently looking at older (mid-to-late '90s) import sedans in hopes of trading for one in the nearish future. I'm trying to convince Rah that we need to get old German cars for each of us, me because I want luxury, him because he would be smoking hot in a Mercedes of some sort.

And Sybil, think of it this way: after the apocalypse, the internet will collapse and we won't have to listen to the apocamongers gloat over any of it any the fuck more and that is genuinely a net plus.


Posted by: Robust McManlyPants | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:45 PM
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I think you have to separate Bob's history of random anti-Obama trolling from his peak oil comments to find that he's actually making a lot of sense here. In fact, in general I tend to find his take on this a tad too optimistic - I read his take to be essentially a Kunstleresque prediction of civilizational collapse, whereas I think peak oil, water scarcity, mass extinction and runaway global warming could transform the earth within a relatively short period of time into a place that can't sustain human life, but we've been down that road before and I'm not feeling combative enough to go another five hundred comments or so retracing old ground. But don't write off what Bob's saying just because he tends to grouse about revolution from time to time; we're running out of oil, and running out of oil is a big fat fucking deal - bigger, indeed, than a spike in gas prices.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 8:55 PM
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I never attacked his position on peak oil, just his accusation that people who write coherent things are necessarily saying things that are "not important."


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:01 PM
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82:Oh, I know they are out there, Chomsky, C Johnson, Counterpunch. I'm reading the book to try to understand the century from Vico getting burned to Franklin & the FF's being pretty open Deists. From Salem to Godwin/Woolstonecraft. The transmission mechanism, ya know?

The feminist blogs are all ok fine. The heterodox economic blogs are mere cri de couers, but they try. The political blogs? If there is even any closet radicalism I can't see the winks & nudges.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:09 PM
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separate Bob's history of random anti-Obama trolling

There's a substantial pre-Obama body of work you're leaving out, though.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:11 PM
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84: He may be right, Stras. But the reaction to his comments is a perfect case study in the problem with rhetorical excess. It's not just that Bob's anti-Obama comments are unhinged; it's also that Bob doesn't care at all what he writes half the time. He just wants to rant about how the blogosphere has let him down, how kids these days are passive ingrates, how anyone who disagrees with him wants to eat the elderly. Well, anyone who expected the blogosphere to serve as the intellectual vanguard for the coming revolution is a buffoon, kids these days are much more interesting than they were a few years back, and the elderly are too gristly to enjoy as a meal (old people jerky, though, is another story).

Honestly, when you write about the coming fall of humankind, I sort-of pay attention. I don't always agree, of course, but I don't just dismiss what you're saying. And, as a result, I learn things or think about things I already know in different ways. With Bob, meh, it doesn't matter if he's right occasionally, because I've just stopped listening. That's what happen when you troll relentlessly and without creativity: people tune you out.


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:14 PM
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83: Perhaps, but it's nice and non-sinister. Board the train. Ride the train. Conductor takes your ticket. No fuss about bottles being mini or TSA agents having sticks up asses.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:14 PM
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Amtrak also still allows more baggage than the airplanes, although from NY to DC and maybe elsewhere on the Northeast Corridor there appear to be few trains with actual checked baggage.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:17 PM
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Look, AWB, I am an idiot and a fool, but like Spinoza, like Darwin, like Kunstler, I know how radical & important political writing would be treated.

It would be called incoherent illogical unfounded wicked nonsense by the mainstream. Now all disapproved writing isn't useful genius, but all really useful genius will be initially disapproved. This is a rule. Proved by Kuhn.

So the ambitious thinker should actively seek to fail peer review. Does this make any sense?


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:19 PM
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It doesn't make sense! Therefore it must be genius!


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:22 PM
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88:Maybe I am trying to make stras look good in comparison. But mostly I don't care what you think, or if you read my comments, Ari.

I am a principled troll.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:22 PM
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ogged is gonna be mad at you guys. I must protect you from hith terrible wrath. Bye.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:26 PM
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92: I tell myself this all the time. Really, I do. It's just about the only thing that keeps me writing.


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:27 PM
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All that is genius drips with despair, all that is useful meets with disdain, and we at last are forced to face with growing horror the real conditions of our lives and are relations with the earth.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:29 PM
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our


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:29 PM
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94: guys s/b guyth


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:31 PM
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94: McManus, The Wrath of Ogged. Is Herzog available? I'm thinking that Aguirre was just trolling God.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:44 PM
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gswift, yes!! Ice cream shop has closed, but I am totally baking brownies.

Good times. Night before a paid holiday is no time for "we're all gonna die".


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:46 PM
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anyone who disagrees with him wants to eat the elderly

To be fair, the elderly are delicious.

Perhaps, but it's nice and non-sinister.

Oh, from what I've read about the new security it is definitely non-sinister and non-invasive and when I rode the train last year it was absolutely the least hassle I have ever faced using commercial transit. Rah and I are talking about it for an upcoming (we hope) trip to DC after I used it last year. To be honest I was less than wholly impressed with the Silver Star but I want to try Business Class on the Carolinian. If rising oil prices made train travel fashionable again I would be really, really happy.


Posted by: Robust McManlyPants | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:51 PM
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The only problem with the route my mother's taking is that it's slower than all get out. I would be very happy if a side effect of the higher gas prices was making the rail system actually convenient, but I'm not optimistic.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:53 PM
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I am a big fan of train travel. Any trip I can make on a train in under 9 hours, I'd far rather do so than take a plane.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 9:59 PM
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That's because the plane travel, door-to-door, is probably going to take at least six, and that's without delays or the plane breaking.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:01 PM
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We used to do Pittsburgh/NY train a lot. If you just put the amount if time it took (and lack of flexibility in times) out of your mind it was great, especially with young kids. (And if you are a fan of interesting and decaying industrial landscapes, the train is the best, leaving Chicago eastbound is a wonderland.)


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:07 PM
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105: Hey we used to do that too! (Insert by between NY & train.)


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:10 PM
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Amtrak IME is also much friendlier WRT to things like ticket changes. My aunt took the train out to Salt Lake from CA in November, and was able to change her departure date a day or two before without getting charged.


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:11 PM
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One year I left Chicago eastbound at night in the winter on the way to DC. It was like an industrial light show.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:12 PM
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Right, the gas flares of Gary, IN. One of the first road trips I took in the US was a drive from NJ to Chicago via Pittsburgh, and coming into Gary in the evening was like the entrance to some kind of Hell.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:25 PM
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I definitely sympathize on the slower than all get out front. The trip to DC on the faster train that passes through the Triangle takes at least two hours longer than driving. Still, way less stressful. I took it on the advice of other commenters here and was extremely glad I did so. I share the fantasy that increasing gas prices cause increased demand for train travel and that Amtrak either adds routes/trains or that someone starts a commercial service that competes with airlines purely on the grounds that it takes little to no more time, is perceived as safer, is less hassle and is more luxurious. I was stunned at how a coach seat on a crowded-assed Amtrak train was significantly more comfortable than a coach seat on a plane.

That said, even at $4/gallon it costs less to get two of us up to DC and back in a car than it does on a train. I have very little intention of driving up there and back by myself, however.


Posted by: Robust McManlyPants | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:25 PM
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If rising oil prices made train travel fashionable again I would be really, really happy.

Likewise. Oil prices and a new administration could mean a turnaround for Amtrak.

I love taking the train. The scenery is almost invariably more interesting along the tracks than along the road. I-5 between Portland and Seattle, for example, is dull, dull, dull, but when you take the same trip by train you go up along the Sound, which is really pretty—and at both ends the stations are steps away from downtown.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:26 PM
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I took the 9-hr train from NYC to Dartmouth last October, right at the height of fall. It shouldn't take 9 hours, but between Massachusetts and Canada, there's only one track, not two, so you have to pull over for an hour and a half, waiting for the southbound train to pass by. Quaint, and very beautiful, but they could stand to repair the other damn track.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:28 PM
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The downside of Amtrak is that they don't own the rails anymore; as I understand it, freight lines own the tracks and Amtrak operates at their mercy. At this point, though, I'm talking straight out my Vicoprofen-taking ass.


Posted by: Robust McManlyPants | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:33 PM
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I was stunned at how a coach seat on a crowded-assed Amtrak train was significantly more comfortable than a coach seat on a plane.

Yes! It really is amazing. Also, the train is more amenable to getting up and walking around when you feel stiff. Plus there's food. I've been getting increasingly impatient with air travel, and the large amount of train travel I've done in the past year has made me even more so. What I wouldn't give for the US to have a train network even half as good as Europe's....


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:35 PM
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Plus there's food.

More likely to be available and of better quality than on planes, is how I should have finished that thought.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:36 PM
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The downside of Amtrak is that they don't own the rails anymore

They never have, AFAIK, so passenger rail has to yield to freight, which helps to account for those notorious Amtrak delays.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:37 PM
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I took several Deutsche Bahn trains last month and Jesus H. McQueen was I reminded what a disaster the U.S. passenger rail system is. I'm thinking of moving to the Triangle and I thought hmm, let's see could the grandparents take a train to there from their town in the next frickin' state to the south. Answer: yes, if they wanted to get on board at 12:30am or so and arrive at four thirty in the morning.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:38 PM
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I love being able to get up and wander around, order a $2 microwaved veggie burger, lay down on the seat, etc., all without getting hassled by some flight attendant. In addition, I'll do just about anything to avoid talking to some stressed-out wackjob on a plane, but I've had fascinating conversations with strangers on trains. Not sure why that is.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:38 PM
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The food on Amtrak that I've had has been rather bad, but at least it's cheap. I cannot bring myself to order a $10 "snack" on a plane, no matter how luxuriously prepared it is.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:39 PM
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Amtrak owns some of the rights-of-ways on the Northeast Corridor, I think, but it was a recent development. Possibly just the Acela tracks.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:42 PM
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Used to take Amtrack all the time to and from college. Still get a little nostalgic. The notorious delays were infuriating. But, yeah, so much more enjoyable than the car.


Posted by: Di Kotimy | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:42 PM
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I took the Trans-Siberian (Trans-Mongolian line, from Beijing) about twenty years ago, and then Amtrak across the US the year after that, and I couldn't help but notice that the Chinese, Mongolians and Russians kicked our asses in rail service.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:43 PM
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Amtrak's cross-country lines are actually in better shape than Canada's. There were a few years where Canada had no Toronto-Vancouver lines, and as of 2003, when I took it, they didn't run every day. One of the train employees told me that they also can't run as fast as Amtrak over long stretches - something to do with the infrastructure.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 10:49 PM
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I have a whole long story about having a room on a sleeper car that went from Moscow to St. Petersburg overnight, complete with surly, open-collared porter and having to go stand in "the smoking place" to smoke, a little enclosure into which snow blew continuously, but the interesting part is that I bought the friendship of four Russian state police or army guys or whatever with 2/3 of a pack of Camel filters and the help of an armed "chaperone."


Posted by: Robust McManlyPants | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 11:03 PM
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I wish the federal gov't would subsidize the northeast corridor heavily enough to improve service & lower fares enough to drive the DC-LaGuardia and Boston-LaGuardia airline shuttles out of business. LaGuardia has the most crowded damn runways in the country; you can't get in or out without a delay because of air traffic control; and when you combine Delta & US Air I think it's something like 60 flights a day. Instead, the Northeast corridor is more expensive than the routes that no one uses. (Why exactly does it cost more to go from NYC to Philly than from Chicago to Detroit, when it takes less than 1/3 as long?)


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 11:16 PM
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83

"I've heard anecdotally and at least one 'coming up on NPR' headline review that suggested Amtrak really is the big winner out of rising oil prices. ..."

I doubt this as Amtrak is not particularly energy efficient and will have increased costs also. Rising oil prices will probably increase the price and reduce the amount of all forms of long distance travel.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 11:18 PM
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On the other hand, they run the train whether it's got five people or a hundred. Their bottom line has to look better when it's a hundred.

On the other other hand, by the same logic high oil prices wouldn't hurt crowded airlines so, you know, I'm on drugs.


Posted by: Robust McManlyPants | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 11:48 PM
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As Katherine suggested, the key is federal subsidies. If public transit had a lobby like the so-called Highway Gang or the automakers, riding the train from Boston to DC or from San Francisco to LA would be nearly free. And the trains would run on time.


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 11:52 PM
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Amtrak is not particularly energy efficient

Compared to cars, you mean? You are mistaken.


Posted by: Bave Dee | Link to this comment | 05-25-08 11:53 PM
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Re: antibiotics and antidepressants

Unfortunately, Bob's right. Much of the sourcing of pharmaceutical starting materials is going to be oil related. For a very simple example, the industrial production of aspirin starts from benzene, which is petroleum-derived. Bulk solvents for chemical reactions (think tons and tons of toluene or isopropyl ether) are going to be oil derived as well.

Antibiotics (as opposed to anti-depressants) may be generated from bacterial fermentation, though. Nevertheless, newer generation antibiotics (fluoroquinolines or oxazolidinones) are not bacterially derived and will be subject to oil price pressures.

It's worth noting that the chemical industry has been working towards moving away from petroleum sourcing, but that's a lot easier said than done.


Posted by: Klug | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 12:20 AM
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129

"Compared to cars, you mean? You are mistaken."

Your reference does not include figures for Amtrak and says:

"In the United States it is claimed that Amtrak is no more efficient than private car trips over 75 miles, ..."

and cites this which says in part:

"Automobile trips longer than 75 miles are about as energy efficient as travel by Amtrak ..."


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 12:27 AM
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Unfortunately, Bob's right. Much of the sourcing of pharmaceutical starting materials is going to be oil related. For a very simple example, the industrial production of aspirin starts from benzene, which is petroleum-derived. Bulk solvents for chemical reactions (think tons and tons of toluene or isopropyl ether) are going to be oil derived as well.

The cost of raw materials and manufacturing in general is a miniscule fraction of the cost of most drugs, as can be seen by the huge difference in price between generics and brand-name drugs, and by the phenomenon that drugs are usually priced by the pill rather than by the milligram. There are exceptions to this rule, but most of those involve hard-to-purify biological compounds (I think Fuzeon was the more recent poster child for this, and Taxol was another example from back in the day).

Also, when a kilogram of cipro currently costs over $2000, shipping costs are also a comparative non-issue.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 12:37 AM
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Amtrak is inefficient because ridership is low, James. Old greyhound buses aren't more efficient because they have more advanced technology; it's because they fill up, because they're cheap. If ridership increases, the train becomes more efficient--whereas an extra car on the road makes traffic worse. Unfortunately, though, we subsidize the most on routes which are never going to get many riders; we subsidize least in the northeast corridor--where ridership & auto traffic are heavy enough that I'd guess it's already more efficient than cars & certainly more efficient than contributing to the national flight delay nightmare at LaGuardia, but the trains still don't generally fill up (I almost never have anyone sitting next to me when I ride it for work, which is pleasant, but not energy efficient.)

This is pretty obvious if you think about it for 30 seconds.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 12:39 AM
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my Vicoprofen-taking ass.

They work better if you swallow them, dude.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 1:10 AM
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134: Yes, but all these people he knows from the internet keep helping him to take them the other way.


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 2:13 AM
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134:Okay.okay. Fuckantibiotics, the linked article says peak oil will price toilet paper & tissue out of reason. Now as a callow youth I used a single hand towel until it would become stiff with my imaginings, but now my unborn promises are disposed more hygenically.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 5:32 AM
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I'm a frequent Amtrak user, DC-Philly, and I'd say it's as crowded as I'd like it. Nearly full.

I take the train to NYC in the summer -- LaGuardia is too prone to shut down over thunderstorms -- but fly in the winter.

I'm not sure how the efficiency scores out, since it's electric.


Posted by: Nápi | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 5:39 AM
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I guess I could have looked at the chart in 129 first.


Posted by: Nápi | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 5:43 AM
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They work better if you swallow them, dude.

This suggests I should more closely question my pharmacist but really, I don't go to him for the expertise; I go for the extremely personal attention.


Posted by: Robust McManlyPants | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 6:20 AM
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Amtrak is slightly competitive with flying, esp on the Bos-Wash line if you're going at a time when there are frequent delays out of NYC (7-10AM, esp in summer thunderstorm season). But if Amtrak had wifi, it would be godlike.

Right after reading gas hikes, I read a NYT article on Paducah, KY being revived by artists. Wild speculation, but part of me felt like an artist's willingness to move far from home somehow depended on an expectation that they can fly out of there pretty easily & cheaply. Which led me to wonder how many people have been willing to settle in far-flung places not just because they could drive cheaply, but because cheap jet fuel meant they could still see their family/friends/business core city enough times a year to stay connected, and their "just a few years" lifestyle became a permanent one. What happens to the people in the middle of their "a few years" decision when jet fuel gets expensive? What happens to folks for whom "just a few years" has already stretched to a decade and a half? And those who might be thinking of doing a "just a few years" stretch?

Anyway, I was just wondering what this portended for settlement patterns large and small. I mean, it's pretty clear that decentralized sprawl will not be economically sustainable, but my question is what might the sprawl resolve into--as high gas costs are the push away from sprawl, what is the pull? Do people just run into the nearest large city? Do they create new small towns in the midst of the sprawl? Will some folks actually be drawn out of the big city center into these new small towns? If they create these new towns, what's the driving forces that lead people to aggregate at point A instead of point B? Charismatic leadership? Organizing the small towns in a way that appeals to like-minded residents (eg--an artistic community that has lots of public art events, vs a sporty community with lots of organized leagues and games vs a religious one). What's the economic infrastructure/natural resources they want (ie, do towns with old train tracks that connect to a main line become more valuable? What about waterways? Water wheels for energy? Is the Erie Canal coming back, or is the age of small-scale manufacture truly dead?)

And a second question is, beyond what sprawl resolves into locally, what kind of migration patterns do we see nationally? Are middle class people less willing to leave the area where their homes/families are and we see long-distance migration becoming again something that, overwhelmingly, only the very poor and very wealthy do? Do some "creative class" types end up in a situation where they had a peninsula that turned into an island (like, say Paducah, KY), and they choose to stay because their peer group/community is much more rewarding than the community they came from? What kind of places would this more likely be? Would we have a new social norm where people make one choice to move in their lives, and that's the community they die in? What's the political ramifications--what are the new issues people organize themselves around, is it similar to the 1890s economic divide? What about socially, are all the conservatives in certain areas and the liberals in others? How does the internet and super-cheap communication fit into all of this, does it pull people into cities, or free them to go out?

Anyway, this is what $12-$20 oil makes me think of (maybe the tipping point is higher, at $50 gal oil).

That, and how much more expensive elderly jerky will be.


Posted by: theorajones | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 8:15 AM
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mcmanus, counterpoint is all over the place as regards good and bad writing and rhetoric, but its overall editor a.cockburn is one of the great written stylists of our age, whatever you think of any given position or argument -- and has long conducted a war on lame political expression (which admittedly the very variable quality of counterpoint the weblog's other contributors rather undermines)

cf eg cockburn's intro to the andrew kopkind collection, "the 30 years wars", his lament for the powerful elegance of kopkind's 60s journalism in particular

(chomsky was also a better stylist back in the 60s than he is today)


Posted by: tierce de lollardie | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 8:25 AM
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what is the pull?

There is still a lot of farming close by here, and lots of land that could be used to grow more. If fuel prices go through the roof, you're going to have to be either rich or malnourished to live in the desert or the mountains, I'd guess. Also, I'd expect a big southward migration, as heating through northern winters gets hard to afford.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 8:25 AM
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Also, I'd expect a big southward migration, as heating through northern winters gets hard to afford.

Depends how quick the winters get milder, and how hot it starts getting down south.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 8:38 AM
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140 -- They just gave me a Verizon card for my laptop, so now I'll have internet on the train. I think flying to NYC from DC just went out the window. Boston, though, is still beyond the edge, I think.

I have to go out to Chicago to be on a panel next month. I wouldn't take the train anyway, because of the timing of this particular trip -- I have to be in DC both the night before and the night of the panel -- but it's out of range anyway, I think.

I'm not sure you could ever make long distance passenger rail make sense outside the NE corridor.


Posted by: Nápi | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 8:39 AM
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And now I'm going to take my car, and my son, to the Civil Warr battlefield where my grandfather's grandfather -- for whom (among others) my son is named -- took a minnie ball in the knee. Later.


Posted by: Nápi | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 8:40 AM
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144: rail from san diego to LA ain't bad, except for the fact that you need a car on either end. High speed rail LA to SF would, needless to say, be great.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 8:42 AM
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I, too, dream of high speed rail in California, but I also wonder if there's any reason to expect that even if we get it, it won't eventually be as unpleasant as air travel. The more people who want to take the train, the more people they'll try to squeeze into the cars, and it'll take just one train bombing before we get all the same security silliness. That said, I did get a lot of good music from Napster before it was illegal.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 10:18 AM
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I, too, dream of high speed rail in California, but I also wonder if there's any reason to expect that even if we get it, it won't eventually be as unpleasant as air travel.

How about the example of Europe? (Then again, Europe does have very cheap air travel as well, but the trains generally seem pretty full without being unpleasant....)


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 10:53 AM
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if Amtrak had wifi, it would be godlike. Just curious, but can you get decent 3G data reception on that line, or anywhere in the states yet? I know the GSM reception is OK at least between Philadelphia and Boston.
I bought a 3G data modem about a month ago, and it has transformed train travel in this country.

Also, all these people complaining that the train journey is too long: are there no sleepers anymore? That is the most civilised way to travel 5-600 miles that I know, especially if you have to work the next day.


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 11:13 AM
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There are sleepers but they're really expensive. The idea of couchettes does not seem to have caught on. I'm hoping it will in the future.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 11:45 AM
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How about the example of Europe?

The fact that Europe can do something sanely gives me no confidence that the US will manage to do the same.

can you get decent 3G data reception on that line, or anywhere in the states yet?

I don't know about train lines, but certainly here in the Bay Area, my 3G phone has been great, and I've been able to tether it to my laptop where I've been without wifi. But even around here, there are some places where it drops back down to Edge, which is usable for tethering, but just barely.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 11:48 AM
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They work better if you swallow them, dude.

That's not what I've heard.


Posted by: mano negra | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 12:00 PM
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Ah, thanks, Ogged.


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 05-26-08 12:34 PM
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Amtrak is an awful mess, because the political forces are stalemated such that it gets just enough money to limp along on life support, but not enough to succeed. And even if it got the money, it would be unlikely to succeed in its current structure.

Worse yet, there is no constituency to make sensible structural changes, like regionalizing the service in a network of high density corridors, and scrapping the long-distance trains. The politics of Amtrak is such that its political support (such as it is) depends on a lot of rural-state Congressmen and Senators, whose support in turn hinges on maintaining service in the middle of nowhere.

Then you have the issue of private sector involvement, where the battle lines are drawn between the union-supported "no, never" faction and the right-wing ideologues who want to privatize it as a way of killing it. The economical solution would be permitting private operations (on a concession basis) while simultaneously doubling down on federal investment in the track, signal, and station infrastructure. There are a few members of Congress who understand the issues, but they are far from a majority, and there are a lot of competing pressures.

And yes, as others have previously mentioned, Amtrak uses the track infrastructure of the freight rails, which hate the passenger trains because they obstruct freight transport, and because Amtrak pays them on a marginal cost basis, so they are effectively subsidizing the passenger traffic. At the end of the day, freight rail tracks just aren't well designed to run modern passenger rail (there are a lot of reasons this is so, but for starters, freight trains have trouble with hills but are OK with curves, while high speed rail is OK with hills but has trouble with curves; then there are issues with grade crossings, overhead catenary versus electro-diesel locomotion, etc.).

A sensible national rail policy would spend whatever it takes to build dedicated high speed lines in the major zones of conurbation, and focus on marketing origin & destination pairs of 150-300 miles. If gasoline does go to $7 a gallon, we might finally see some progress on that front.


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 6:11 AM
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If some future US administration wants to resuscitate Amtrak, I hope to god they learn the right lessons from the total snafu that is now the British rail system. The first lesson would be to use a continental European model instead.


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 6:19 AM
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The first lesson would be to use a continental European model instead.

1. There isn't really a single "continental European model", post-deregulation.

2. The traditional continental European model (national rail monopoly, full integration of infrastructure and operations) is an absolute non-starter in the U.S., and is in terminal decline even in Europe because of open access.

3. The original model of British privatization was flawed for a very specific reason: that it tried to make the rail infrastructure company (Railtrack) into a sort of investor-owned utility, which subsequent experience shows was terribly suited to the role it was expected to play. The British model post-Railtrack has evolved in a more sensible direction, and is in some ways converging with the evolution of Continental European models.

4. Much of what is wrong with the British Rail system is analogous to what is wrong with the NHS: it's legacy assets are in bad shape, and there is too little money for re-investment. If, say, the Swiss had taken the exact same privatization approach as the British, the results would likely not have been as catastrophic, because they have a nice inheritance of assets to cushion the transition, and the application of green-eyeshade techniques might eventually have created self-sustaining efficiencies. Britain privatized a fairly crap network that had massive deferred maintenance needs, and then set it up with a system where all the incentives pointed toward reducing investment even further. The experiment was doomed from the start.


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 7:20 AM
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The first lesson would be to use a continental European model instead.

I meant to use any continental model, rather than the British one. Obviously I'm aware they're not the same.

The British model is further flawed because the public sector investment structure, such as it is, doesn't sufficiently incentivise the operators to provide a service adequate to the number of potential users. For example, Virgin Cross Country bought a lot of new rolling stock, but then halved, literally, the number of carriages on each service, so that it was almost impossible to sit down at any time of day. Their response to the problems created was not to revert to the larger trains, but to raise fares in an explicit attempt to force users off the service, as they expected a better ROI by providing a limited service at high prices than by expanding the service to meet demand. When this failed, because people still had to travel, they attempted to prevent passengers using their trains for shorter, i.e. commuter, journeys, in some cases by instructing their on train staff to tell people they weren't allowed to board, in others by randomly missing out scheduled stops where they thought there might be a large number of people wanting to get on.

None of this affected their profitability. They eventually lost the franchise on the basis of their poor time keeping, and there's no evidence that the replacement company has a more passenger friendly business model.

I don't think this converges with any European model that I'm aware of.


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 7:38 AM
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I don't think this converges with any European model that I'm aware of.

I was refering more to the disposition of the track infrastructure than the operating franchises, but OK, point well taken.

Whatever the flaws of the Virgin Trains franchise, we in the U.S. would gladly trade you Amtrak for it.

(I was just about to push ahead and make the argument for why the absence of empty seats on peak hour trains is a feature, not a bug, but I think I'll let it rest for today.)


Posted by: Knecht Ruprecht | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 9:10 AM
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154 is forgetting the rail shipping interests (e.g. CSX, as embodied in the person of Darth Cheney) who are invested in having Amtrak maintain their long distance routes for them without actually putting many trains on the tracks, so the freight cars may run unimpeded.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 9:16 AM
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159 is totally wrong about what 154 is forgetting, and betrays a distressing inability to read every paragraph in the referenced comment, as well as an inability to get the facts right.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 9:17 AM
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154

"A sensible national rail policy would spend whatever it takes to build dedicated high speed lines in the major zones of conurbation, ..."

Sensible policy and spend whatever it takes are not compatible.

I don't understand the fascination with dedicated high speed lines. They are exorbitantly expensive and don't provide all that much incremental benefit.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 12:22 PM
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I don't understand the fascination with dedicated high speed lines. They are exorbitantly expensive and don't provide all that much incremental benefit.

I don't understand you're not understanding. A high speed line from NY city to DC would probably provide great incremental benefit to some pretty powerful people. In addition the additional speed allows greater capacity.

I would think think that with some actual data and a spreadsheet a math researcher like yourself could graph the point where the high speed line pays for itself.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-27-08 2:53 PM
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