Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Trading Liberty [?] for Security

A more-conservative-than-I (except when he's more-progressive-than-I) co-author, whose opinion I respect, agrees with The Solitary Leaker - NYTimes.com
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things...

He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed. Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else.
Wow. And also...hmmm..... Well, I'm not going to take the time to think seriously about this, but I will note things I've seen lately, such as the Economist's Surveillance: Should the government know less than Google?
LET'S get the most contentious point out of the way first: Edward Snowden made the right call to make public the extent of the National Security Administration's surveillance of electronic communications. The American people can now have a debate about whether or not they consent to that level of surveillance in order to prevent terrorist attacks, a debate that we were previously denied by the government's unwillingness to disclose even the broad outlines of what the NSA was doing. There may be some slight risk that knowing more about the breadth of NSA surveillance will lead terrorists to take better precautions in concealing their communications. But that risk seems manageable, and is of far less importance than the ability of Americans, and the rest of the world for that matter, to finally have an honest discussion about how much we think our governments should be able to see of our online behaviour.

So how much access should governments have?...
I don't entirely agree with that, in that what we're supposed to have is a representative democracy in which things can legitimately be kept secret from us by our elected representatives, as long as there's a Constitutional justification for it. But mostly I agree and I think that's moot at the moment anyway because that's obviously not what was happening either, even if it should have been. Sooo....Then I would want to think about Bruce Schneier's Government Secrets and the Need for Whistle-blowers
The U.S. government is on a secrecy binge. It overclassifies more information than ever. And we learn, again and again, that our government regularly classifies things not because they need to be secret, but because their release would be embarrassing.

Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal -- or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law -- but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we're living in a police state.

We need whistle-blowers.
And mostly, with some reservations, I would agree with that, too. And I would want to consider Arnold Kling's Comments on NSA Snooping
5. The issue is an uncomfortable one for libertarians, because I think that most people believe that the government is snooping in their interest. The majority may even be right about that. I myself have less of a problem with the snooping per se than with the secrecy of the programs. In my view, it is the secrecy, along with an absence of strong institutional checks, that is bound to lead to abuse. ... ... ...

Maybe the key point is (5). Government officials will argue that what they do must remain secret. They cherish secrecy. They claim that it is for our own good that we do not know what they do. I would say that such claims are often made and rarely true.
How shall we decide between the views? Well, I would look at the data, including the video 'Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?'. That looks like a very straightforward question, with verbal emphasis on "any" and "at all"...the question received a straightforward answer from NSA Director Clapper. At the moment, my understanding (reinforced by Clapper's later statement on what he really meant) is that the answer was a simple and straightforward lie. The White House said White House: Clapper was ‘straight and direct’ in testimony on NSA:
As a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden had been briefed on the NSA programs, but publicly led Clapper in a line of questioning that would either require him to disavow knowledge of the program, or to answer truthfully, breaking the law by revealing classified information....

“So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer”...

Clapper sought to clarify his remarks on Monday, telling MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he meant to convey that the NSA doesn’t “voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' emails.”
If that's what he meant to convey by that answer to that question, well...ummmm....no. Sorry, I do not believe him at all.

Like Kling, I'm worried about secrecy rather than by intrusiveness: about "the secrecy, along with an absence of strong institutional checks, that is bound to lead to abuse." If I were inventing a government for the information age, it would have much more liberty and less privacy than our current government...and there would be no long-term privacy for anything done with public funds, because most public employees are almost certainly Good People but we know that Good People sometimes do Bad Things to The Enemy, which dishearteningly turns out to simply mean the Other, all too often. And of course there are always the two-legged cockroaches, but I believe them to be a smaller problem. Conservatives and Progressives and Libertarians are all too trusting...they trust different people for different things, but actually nobody is fully trustworthy even if almost everybody is moderately trustworthy. The Constitution is all about not trusting anybody completely. (Today I'm more of a Classical Liberal. It's Tuesday.)

What I see, in the context of Clapper's straightforward response to a straightforward question (from a member of the intelligence committee which has the responsibility of oversight), is a breakdown of the Constitutional relationship between the executive and legislative branches. Perhaps that breakdown indicates a basic inadequacy of the Constitution. Perhaps it  indicates Executive overreach. Perhaps it merely indicates a personal felony on Clapper's part, or even on Wyden's (if he had prior knowledge of the system, presumably that was under some non-disclosure oath.) In any case, the breakdown looks to me like it's real. and if Snowden actually cares about the Constitution, then he should have done exactly what he did even if he personally approved of the NSA data collection...process is more fundamental than outcomes.

Or then again, maybe not.

(1) I should also note, I suppose, that I still consider terrorism to be an over-hyped nuisance in the short run but an existential threat in the long run. That naturally changes my perception of the conversation we ought to be having.
(2) My remark about two-legged cockroaches was probably unclear; I think any time you create a "public" position and say "we'll fill it with someone trustworthy and trust that person without watching what they do," whether priest or politician or policeman or prosecutor, you are creating an incentive for would-be abusers to seek that position; you are building a feeding station for cockroaches. John 3:20, and that's all I have to say about it because I actually think people who think they're doing Good are far more dangerous.
(3) We live in Ham Sandwich Nation, a world of so many laws that everybody is violating something (and ignorance of which law is no excuse), where a prosecutor (with personal legal immunity) can prosecute almost anybody for something -- and I expect our data collection to expand from just-for-foreign-terrorism to just-for-terrorism to anything-involving-children to... Well, that's pretty much anything. So it's the prosecutor's personal choice: figure out who is Bad, and then look up what they're violating.

But then again, maybe it just magically won't happen.

update 2A more blunt view of the effects of Ham Sandwich Nation, at interfluidity » Tradeoffs
The stupidest framing of the controversy over ubiquitous surveillance is that it reflects a trade-off between “security” and “privacy”. We are putting in jeopardy values much, much more important than “privacy”.

The value we are trading away, under the surveillance programs as presently constituted, are quality of governance. This is not a debate about privacy. It is a debate about corruption.
update 3Arnold Kling notes No One is Innocent
I broke the law yesterday and again today and I will probably break the law tomorrow. Don’t mistake me, I have done nothing wrong. I don’t even know what laws I have broken. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that I have broken some laws, rules, or regulations recently because its hard for anyone to live today without breaking the law. Doubt me? Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

Harvey Silverglate argues that a typical American commits three felonies a day. I think that number is too high but it is easy to violate the law without intent or knowledge.
Of course that means that we go back from government-of-laws to government-of-men, specifically whoever influences a prosecutor's discretion.
I don't think we can fix this by avoiding surveillance, but maybe as a short-run palliative we should hinder surveillance somewhat. In the long run we have to fix the law.

Or then again, maybe not.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Median Hyper-Partisan

So, we still have a Republican House (a bit more so), a Democratic Senate (a bit more so), and Obama as President (a bit more so?). Things are as they have been, except that the fiscal cliff (more detail here) is closer and both sides' tendency to refuse to negotiate has been reinforced. (update: by this I meant simply that each can say "I won the election; my voters want me to go on with what I was doing.")

I'm wondering about the incentives that have created this situation, and there's an interesting theory expressed at Barack Obama's re-election: A country divided | The Economist. Basically the columnist here is saying that there are two forces involved.

1. The Median Voter Theorem -- if parties A and B want to catch the median voters, they should move towards the center. The incentives are strong, and that should bring the parties together -- and in real policy terms, it does: "Realistic arguments over policy take place on relatively narrow terrain: they are arguments over a top marginal tax rate of 35% or 39.6%, over a health-insurance system with guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions but with or without a mandate, and so forth." Actual radical solutions are simply not part of the discussion, even if academically preferred (e.g., forget the income tax altogether, it's a bad idea: tax consumption instead.)

The Republicans and Democrats are, in practical policy terms, much much closer to each other than either would ever consider being to someone like me. They've come together towards the median voter. Yes, but we also see

2. Media promotion of exciting stories. "...both mass-media analysts and private social-media contributors are rewarded for sharply divisive characterisations." I would generalize this: the effective politician is an entertainer, and he and his team (or she and hers) are also rewarded for generating exciting stories. The most basic story to be told is about Good v. Evil, and even while you're adjusting policies to capture the median voter, you want to be generating stories about Our Friends and Our Enemies; these work just as well on high IQs as low. The divisions here have something to do with policy, but not a great deal... I recently saw a Youtube video of someone going around asking Obama supporters for their comments on "Romney" policies such as the drone strikes, and naturally getting "That's EEEVIL" as the usual response -- but these were actually Obama policies. Interestingly, some of the respondents said they'd have to rethink their Obama support -- but I predict it won't make a lot of difference. And I'm sure it would work just as well in reverse, on Romney supporters.

Of course this means that my own obviously sensible policies have no chance of being enacted. What worries me more than that, though, is that I think the emotional manipulation by both sets of manipulators is increasingly successful. I see intelligent good people on both sides who do not want to know why intelligent good people would be on the other side. That's scary.

As the Economist says,
...Over the next four years, legislative battles are going to continue to be savage and hard-fought. Neither conservatives nor liberals are going to change their minds en masse about fundamental issues of political philosophy. The top priority is for Americans to figure out a way to keep these divisions from dividing the country into two hostile armed camps that are incapable of talking to each other.

Or then again, maybe not.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Educational Mistakes

Well, education (at least mine) is what mistakes are all about. I am not giving up on this blog, but it was becoming increasingly an educational-issues-relating-to-the-future-if-any-of-my-local-school blog, and all my energy that isn't code or family seems to be going into the Hamilton Central Options site, which I am hoping to reorganize as a data collection incorporating the Hamilton Central Options blog, which is much more general and miscellaneous but also much easier to add to daily. Or then again, maybe not.

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Saving Teachers with Natural Gas

I'm cross-posting this, so to speak, at a site for local school discussion; I'm not sure that will go anywhere, but I think it's worth a try. Anyway....

Back on January 25, the Syracuse Post-Standard said that Hamilton officials discuss proposed natural gas utility with school district officials, residents:

The creation of a natural gas utility in the village of Hamilton could save the Hamilton Central School District close to 50 percent — or $160,000 — on its annual heating costs, officials said Tuesday. The savings are equally substantial for the community’s two other main power users — 56 percent for Colgate University and 39 percent for Community Memorial Hospital.

That's two teachers who don't have to be cut -- year after year after year. Maybe three teachers. It's a big deal.

I'm adding this page on March 29th, because there's a Gas Utility Meeting Tonight | Radio Free Hamilton

There will a discussion of the village's proposed natural gas utility tonight at 7 p.m. in the large group instruction room at HCS. It will begin with a presentation about the planning that has taken place to date, and then be opened to questions and answers.

Natural gas is not a very-long-run option; it's a fossil fuel. It will run out. In the very long run, you're probably all going to do it the way I do it: there's a compressor in the basement below me, and when the thermostat behind my head says "Brrrrrr..." that compressor starts pumping heat out of the ground, using electricity (from Niagara, from windmills, eventually from solar panels attached to the wires now buried in foam insulation under my roof -- but also, for now, from coal). I take 50F water out of the ground and put it back in the ground 10F colder. In the summer, to a lesser extent, I take 50F water out of the ground and put it back in the ground 10F warmer, as the basis for air conditioning. You should do that too -- if you're building a new house. It was expensive to add to an old heating system, though; I'm not sure my system will pay for itself in my lifetime.

Natural gas can be a "bridge fuel", serving my kids but probably not my granddaughters. As Scientific American put it summarizing an MIT report, Natural Gas Could Serve as 'Bridge' Fuel to Low-Carbon Future

A cushion, but not a complete answer... Gas is an option for cutting power plant emissions and addressing global warming in the short term. But the researchers warned that the gas cushion shouldn't distract policymakers from addressing the need for nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology for coal-fired generation. "Though gas frequently is touted as a 'bridge' to the future, continuing effort is needed to prepare for that future, lest the gift of greater domestic gas resources turn out to be a bridge with no landing point on the far bank," the report says.

Still, it's what we have for now. There is a local controversy about this, based on a list of concerns which I think deserve a serious hearing, but which don't, I think, turn out to be correct. The list has been circulating as "The Dirty Dozen", and I've received copies as email forwards and by door-to-door handout. I'll put one below, with my responses above. In the end, though, as Jim Bona put it, Natural Gas Utility for Hamilton is Green:

You can choose to go with natural gas and be green at the same time. It is a big decision with long lasting effects. I will vote to give the project the green light.

My summary, sent by email and edited here: I sympathize, but I mostly disagree. This is stuff I've thought about, as the geek on the Southern Madison County Natural Gas Landowner's Coalition steering committee (how's that for a mouthful? A few hundred parcels, mostly farmland, maybe 30-odd square miles. I don't expect to make any money personally, but I think it's a good thing to do.) As the Colgate guy mentioned at the village meeting, there was a Howarth study at Cornell that claimed shale gas was dirtier than coal, last year and it seemed perfectly respectable but turned out to have made a bunch of assumptions that nobody else agreed with. My take:

  • The endgame is necessarily about sustainability...it won't include shale gas;
  • Shale gas is a lot cleaner than coal, and is getting more so;
  • Natural gas doesn't kill nearly as many people per terawatt as coal which doesn't kill nearly as many as oil (solar and wind are better still; nuclear, oddly enough, is best of all)
  • Gas is a big help as a "bridge fuel" towards a wind/solar/biogas future;
  • Nothing's perfect, and neither companies nor regulators should be trusted.
Well, let's look at cleanliness; I hope everybody realizes the uncontroversial part:
Natural gas produces far lower amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides than any other hydrocarbon fuel (fossil fuels).[42] Carbon dioxide produced is 117,000 ppm vs 208,000 for burning coal. Carbon monoxide produced is 40 ppm vs 208 for burning coal[citation needed]. Nitrogen oxides produced is 92 ppm vs 457 for burning coal. Sulfur dioxide is 1 ppm vs 2,591 for burning coal. Mercury is 0 vs .016 for burning coal.[43] Particulates are also a major contribution to global warming. Natural gas has 7ppm vs coal's 2,744ppm.[44] Natural gas also has Radon, from 5 to 200,000 Becquerels per cubic meter.
And I think everybody agrees that you gotta watch that radon, whether it's in your basement or in a well. As Secretary Chu has pointed out, a coal power plant disperses more radiation per watt than a nuclear plant (by a factor of 100, actually.) But you gotta watch it.

Now, the controversy...but the controversy in this letter is not, so far as I can tell, really much of a controversy. The Howarth study is not well-regarded by the sources I've read...Scientists still feuding over natural gas 'fugitive emissions'

A study by Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, found that the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas could be twice as bad as coal over a 20-year timeframe and comparable at a 100-year timeframe. A fellow Cornell professor, Anthony Cathles, has been going back and forth refuting Howarth since the initial release of the study last year.... "There really hasn't been that much of an uproar about it, I believe," Malcolm said. "Mainly because, I believe, so many of the conclusions that were drawn from the report were patently ridiculous and the data that was used in the report was false." A number of studies have refuted Howarth's report, including information published by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a Carnegie Mellon study partially financed by environmental organization, the Sierra Club.

Lots of links available; Google is your friend, if you care. :-) Is there a real controversy, about real problems? YesYesYes! The real controversy has to do with drillers making a mess on the surface, or with drillers failing to seal their well casings correctly so that natural gas flows up the outside of the pipe and mingles with groundwater, or drillers being careless about pockets of gas near the surface (in the water table; people have been lighting up their tap water for a century or more, even with no gas wells...). Also drillers taking huge amounts of fracking water (heavy on brine, mainly, but also containing toxic stuff, mostly natural but who cares?) and trying to find some gullible municipality to accept it. Many bad things. Trust No One. The Truth is Out There. The reason for coalitions like the one I'm in is that you want to have lease terms that keep the company from doing bad stuff (and from paying too little, but "pay me enough" doesn't take much of a 60-odd page lease). And you also want to have regulations that keep the company from doing bad stuff; NY has been working on that, doing I think a pretty good job.

Okay, on with my second item, overall safety. It's absolutely true that natural gas is dangerous, and so is everything else, especially trying to get along without energy. (Of course energy usage should be minimized: we put in spray-foam insulation all over the place here. A nuisance when the electrician drilled into some wires he couldn't see, but definitely worth it.) We still need energy; to stop energy production would hugely raise the death rate. So, we want to compare sources of power: Snapshot of deaths per terawatt hour with recent reports on deaths from coal, oil and natural gas

Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China 278
Coal – USA 15
Oil 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas 4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass 12
Peat 12
Solar (rooftop) 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro 0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao) 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

Coal is bad stuff. Let's not use more coal than we have to. (You may think that coal is not killing anybody near you. Well, maybe not. Coal Pollution Will Kill 13,200 Americans This Year & Cost $100 Billion in Additional Health Care Bills ...New York takes third with 945 dead from coal pollution.) Oil is bad stuff. Ditto. Replacing them with anything is a wonderful idea. Can we replace them with the safest option, namely nuclear? No, because the worst-case scenario for currently commercial nuclear is not acceptable. It may become acceptable with pebble-bed, thorium, etc reactors, but we should not be working with nuclear reactors that melt down if unattended or if the backup power goes off (as at Fukushima). Good reactors are possible, and this is an interesting subject, but it's not the subject of this summary. Our endgame for the moment does not count on local nuclear ever being safe; for the moment, we figure on the nuclear reactor that's 90M miles away, i.e. solar and wind and hydro. (We also figure on biogas methane, as a small thing we're learning how to do. Poop Power! It might be a pretty big thing someday, using your grass clippings and leaves and garbage as well as sewage to generate perfectly "natural" gas. And we'll certainly use that 50F year-round heat source/sink a few hundred feet down, and maybe, as drilling technology improves with natural gas experience, maybe we'll start using the much higher temperatures a couple of miles lower down, about twice as far as we now go for shale gas. But that's not a currently available option.)

So, how quickly can we move to solar and wind and hydro? Umm, well, hydro can be expanded somewhat, but maybe not much; we've been trying. Solar and wind do in principle provide enough power for everything. But they have problems, partly that they're expensive which is being cured slowly, but it's harder to cure that they're erratic and that we need electricity when the sun doesn't shine, even if the wind doesn't blow. So we need either

  • an alternate source of power, one that can be turned on and off easily, or
  • storage for solar/wind power, or preferably
  • both.
It happens that natural gas generators can be turned on and off much more easily than coal or nuclear or hydro (these are suitable for "baseload power", but they don't deal with variations all that well.) So solar and wind become more cost-effective simply because their gaps are plugged by having natural gas available. What about storage? Well, energy storage is a hard problem, but one of the things being worked on is "Compressed Air Energy Storage" where you push air in when you have extra energy and then let it push its way out when you need it: Compressed Air Energy Storage
Fast start-up is also an advantage of CAES. A CAES plant can provide a start-up time of about 9 minutes for an emergency start, and about 12 minutes under normal conditions. By comparison, conventional combustion turbine peaking plants typically require 20 to 30 minutes for a normal start-up. If a natural geological formation is used, rather than cavern air storage (CAS), CAES has the advantage that it doesn't involve huge, costly installations of creating the cavern in a salt dome. A depleted natural gas reservoir already contains the space required, in porous rock. Moreover, a CAES project used in conjunction with a gas turbine requires 66% less natural gas to create the same amount of power. Accordingly the emission of green house gases is substantially lower than in normal gas plants.
So using natural gas naturally leads towards wind power stored in CAES, first because it will increase the efficiency of the natural gas usage, and then because the depleted wells will be used for more CAES...and without CAES, or _some_ effective power storage mechanism, wind and solar can never be more than a small fraction of the total because we can't count on them to be producing when we need them.

and finally, rather than expound on points like banks not wanting a mortgage on leased property (a very good thing to think about if you're thinking about signing a lease, and a reason for land-owners to join coalitions like ours rather than signing company leases, but not really part of this discussion), or points like "no benefit" (no benefit? BTUs are cheaper. That's a benefit!) or points like "NOT intended for local use" (the pipeline already connects from end to end, and is already being sold for low prices to homeowners in the areas that do have connections, in fact in much of the US -- 62 million homes?)... I simply pass on to

my final point: Trust No One. Well, I already said that. Don't trust companies or regulators or activists or me. Each of us lives largely in a world of our own invention, having limited contact with any "real" world that may or may not be out there. And that's okay.

And in fairness, here's the point of view with which I'm disagreeing; I've edited nothing except formatting, inserting <br/> elements.

The Dirty Dozen (received as email forward)

1. Shale gas is NOT green. The Village Board tells us shale gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels, and that piping it into the heart of town will reduce our carbon footprint. But shale gas is just another highly polluting hydrocarbon. It's dirtier than oil and dirtier than coal when you add the environmental cost of the huge amounts of (imported) oil needed to explore for it, drill for it, hydrofrack it, process and transport it, then store and/or treat the wastewater. Further, methane, the chief component of shale gas, is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
2. Shale gas is NOT safe. The Village Board tells us shale gas is extremely safe, and that its distribution has an excellent safety record. But Tennessee Gas Pipeline, one of the Texas-based corporations the Board is considering for gas transmission into the Village, is responsible for one of the deadliest gas transmission pipeline explosions in US history. And in Feb 2011, one of TGP's pipelines shot flames 200 feet in the air that were visible for 40 miles. In Nov 2011 two more of TGP's pipelines exploded. This past Jan there was a major leak in a TGP compressor station that caused nearby residents to evacuate.
2a. Shale gas is NOT safe. Methane bonds with naturally occurring radium (R226) in the Marcellus Shale. The gas, along with the radioactivity, will run through the pipelines into the Village. The pipeline itself will be constructed of heavy duty plastic to deter corrosion by the methane. In Germany, plastic pipe is allowing benzene, a proven human carcinogen for which there is no known safe level, and other hydrocarbons, to diffuse through the plastic pipe itself.
3. Shale gas will NOT create local jobs. The Board says this project will employ local residents, but pipeline construction will employ out-of-state workers with special expertise. A portion of their money will flow into the community for rent, food and gasoline, but the bulk of it will benefit their home states, keeping local unemployment high. Dominion Transmission, the second Texas-based corporation the Board is considering for gas transmission into the Village, has a history of importing workers from Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Louisiana to work on local Marcellus Shale projects.
4. The shale gas industry is ABOVE THE LAW. The Village Board tells us shale gas distribution is a highly regulated practice. In fact, the gas industry helped to shape those regulations and is exempt from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Law, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986.
5. The Village of Hamilton may become a gas hub. The Board tells us there will be "4 or 5 city gates" positioned throughout the Village. Gas coming into the Village from a larger pipeline will enter via a "city gate," where pressure is tamped down and the gas then flows through a smaller pipe to users. New York City, with millions of residents has six city gates (NY Times). Why would our Village need four or five of them if it were not intended to be the "hub" for several incoming and outgoing pipelines? In fact, we are surrounded by gas-leased properties (and existing wells) ready to use us as a transmission hub.
6. Many banks REFUSE TO GRANT MORTGAGES for properties with gas leases on them - even for properties adjacent to leased properties. (NY Times) And many insurance companies will not insure leased properties, or else substantially raise their premiums. We are surrounded by such properties. What will you do when you can't get insurance, or when you can't sell your house?
7. Shale gas may NEVER be available to Village residents, small businesses and agricultural users. The Board admits that aside from the Airpark, Community Memorial Hospital, Hamilton Central School and Colgate University, the rest of us will only be connected "as resources allow," perhaps not for 20-30 years. And since the US Geological Survey has slashed its estimate of the amount of gas in the Marcellus Shale by 80%, residents, small businesses and agricultural users may NEVER be connected.
8. Shale gas is probably NOT intended for local use. The Tennessee Gas Pipeline stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to New England. Once we are connected, it's possible to transmit Marcellus Shale gas to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there to Europe and Asia, where the price of gas is four times what we pay. If you were the gas companies, where would you sell the gas?
9. Shale gas has been kept "secret." The Village Board has been planning a Municipal Gas Utility for over two years, but only in Feb of this year notified residents. In addition, the Board has spent $50,000 of taxpayer money to pursue the creation of this utility without voter notification - or consent.
10. Shale gas delays the use of renewable energy sources. While the Village Board agrees there is an "urgent need to explore and develop sustainable energy sources," they propose using shale gas as a "bridge" fuel. According to MIT, this will suppress the market for renewables - by 20 years! By taking the "easy" way out, the Board is neglecting to prepare a landing on the other side of the bridge. Why spend money on a gas delivery infrastructure and retrofitting buildings when they will soon need to be replaced? Why not save money now by using it to fit the Village for renewable energy?
11. Shale gas may NEVER pay off. While the Board says there will be no cost to taxpayers (aside from the $50,000 already spent) because the project will be financed by $2.5 million to $6 million in municipal bonds, where is the benefit? Any proceeds from gas bills paid by the airpark, the hospital, the school and the university will go to pay the bond holders first. How long will it take for the Big Four users to pay up to $6 million in gas bills, in particular, when the university will only retrofit approximately one-third of its buildings for gas?
12. Once we vote to allow the issue to go forward WE HAVE NO FURTHER SAY in the matter. When an Environmental Impact Study, and other studies, are conducted we have to trust the Board to do, what in their judgment, is best for us. Even if these studies have a negative outcome as far as we, the residents, are concerned we will have no say in what happens to us, our environment and our community as a result. And while the Village Board says they're not taking a position on hydrofracking, their actions endorse it. At the last meeting of the Town Board, the Mayor told its members that the Municipal Gas Utility would use hydrofracked gas. When the Town Supervisor asked how a gas utility would benefit Town residents living outside the Village, the Mayor said they'd be connected "as resources allow." If Village residents may have to wait 20-30 years, Town residents will have to wait much longer. There is no benefit for Town residents, and very little, if any, for Village residents. In reality, the creation of a Municipal Gas Utility will benefit, primarily, the transnational gas corporations doing the hydrofracking. If you wonder where all this is leading, please check the Mid-York Weekly for a schedule of free showings of Josh Fox's film "Gasland" at the Hamilton Center for the Arts. And please register to vote ASAP at Town Hall, 16 Broad St. You need to have lived in the Village only 30 days to be eligible. New York is a home rule state. Don't give up that right. You are the Village. You are sovereign. On April 17, just vote "NO!"

Well, I think I sympathize with the motivation here, but I think their facts are wrong. The political material at the end looks rather odd -- I don't believe our local politicians are that easy to buy. (I admit I haven't tried.) Still, there is always a risk of things going wrong; I believe natural gas is less dangerous than propane because it's lighter than air and won't slowly accumulate in your basement, but the explosions they talk about are real. Still, they're  rare -- and I don't think they're random. I think natural gas explosions mostly come from (a) old installations, placed and corroded long before safety was taken as seriously as we take it now, and (b) incompetent installers/maintainers. I think our village utilities people take their jobs and safety training seriously, and I think they're competent. I expect to vote "YES!" -- and maybe save a couple of teachers' jobs, as well as helping attract businesses. Helping some neighbors save money sounds good, too.

Or then again, maybe not. :-)

update: I may have been taking this too seriously; at the meeting, some of these issues were raised but they were dealt with very simply..."five city gates? No, we'll have one gate that steps pressure down to get gas from pipeline into our distribution system, and a few pressure regulators." "Use us as a transmission hub? No, we're putting in low-pressure plastic-only pipe, which physically can't be used as a transmission system -- that requires plastic-coated steel, and compressors, and federal regulation." And so on. And we had Bob McVaugh of the Village planning board expressing enthusiasm about the fact that new developments based on gas heat won't keep raising our electricity rates, which are among the cheapest in the nation but only as long as we keep it down. Natural gas heat is slightly less expensive than electric resistance heating, even here -- my heat is a whole lot cheaper still, but only if I ignore capital cost. (sigh)

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Consolidation Notes -- 12

Well, it's almost a year since I wrote on School Consolidation that

My Upstate New York village has had a school for quite a while; it may not have a school for much longer.
Later I listed some Consolidation links, and some more, and then some data about Upstate NY Demographics and School Consolidation, and more Consolidation News. Then I thought about Khansolidation as an alternative, but more Consolidation News kept coming from many states. Then New York passed an actual budget and I wrote a few Budget Notes; here and in other states there's a connection between Budgets, Consolidations, Charters. The budget looked very bad for 2011, but Colgate helped: Colgate v. Consolidation -- maybe. For now. And then in fall we had an author come talk about it, and my reaction was Consolidation and "Hollowing Out the Middle".

Since then we've had a few months with no particular merger-movement, but that's over: on Wednesday this week we saw School Boards Meet to Discuss Merger Study. They met at the Morrisville Stadium's Hospitality Center, which (as the tour video says) has "kind of a sports bar feel to it"; an amusing choice. For someone like me, it's a choice to prompt meditation on education as a consumption good, at least as much as it is a source of skills and knowledge (and a status good, and so on). The main purpose of the meeting, it seems, was to go around and around the table of superintendents and school board members, asking for questions to be addressed by the study: by the time nobody had any more to ask, there were 31, and then the same people were asked to prioritize the questions. "You have 40 points; choose one question that gets five points, and apply the rest of your points as you please except that you shouldn't give more than five points to any question."

Questions included a variety of topics -- I don't have the phrasings right because they were edited as I scribbled, but there were items resembling "How does merger affect transportation?", "Would class size change?", "How will state aid affect the new district?", "What will be the impact on the community's voice in governance?", and "How can we get the community to feel involved?"

The questions as questions were not objectionable, but it wasn't really the way I'd do it. I'd like to start with a list of basic assumptions about the next 10, 20, 50 years, like declining upstate population and enhanced technology and; for each of these assumptions we'd have a list of uncertainties. For example, Colgate's baby boomers, my generation whose kids are mostly grown, are retiring and being replaced with younger families -- the nursery school is turning kids away and we may be at the bottom of enrollment rather than locked into continuing decline. But that's not certain; all we know is that each of us has some assumptions, and it would be good to list them and list the questions about them. (Will Dodd-Frank, and other factors pushing finance-industry bonus packages downward, result in a permanent decline in state aid?)

Then I'd have a list of the groups of affected people, starting of course with current students and current teachers and their subdivision into overlapping subgroups. (E.g., athletic groups overlap with theatric groups overlap with Model UN; at the same time we have farm kids and local-business kids and academic's kids from Colgate and from Morrisville, and in "Hollowing Out The Middle" terms we have the kids who are likely Leavers and the kids who are likely Stayers and....) For each group, I'd like a list of what they put into the system, if that's distinctive, and what they get out of it; then for each of these a list of descriptions of how this may change if there is a merger, and how it may change if there is no merger. And I'd throw in the effect of uncertainty: does merger circumscribe future flexibility, or enhance it? (I suspect the merger, as a multi-million multi-year commitment, would necessarily make it hard to make future choices, but I could be wrong. I usually am.)

In effect, we want voters to have two crystal balls, one showing the after-merger view and the other the after-no-merger view; we can't quite do that, but we can try. And then I'd expand the choices a bit: what if we set up a charter school? A STEAM school (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics)?

One which tried to use...well, never mind. We'll see.

Or then again, maybe not.

update:Our Superintendent reports at The Consolidation Fesibility Study Begins.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Afghanistan & The Drake Equation

I spent last weekend in NYC at the singularity summit, listening to very bright geeks of various kinds talking about recent/near-future changes in technology, in the rate of change of technology, in the funding and organization of technology, and thus how everything may soon (unknown but likely-small number of decades, say) become very very much better/worse. (See listing here.)And a few speakers, notably cosmologist Max Tegmark, talked about the Drake Equation and how the fact that we haven't heard from other civilizations, even though we now know that extrasolar planets are common, means there's a roadblock somewhere: either the evolution of life and intelligence is unusual, or there's something up ahead of us that civilizations tend not to survive, like maybe the Singularity itself. (I think he's oversimplifying; I'd call the roadblock theory highly probable but it's not the only explanation for silence.) Then I came back to Hamilton in time to walk up the hill to listen to journalist Kim Barker talk about Afghanistan and how the "good war" went bad...how she filled a notebook, some years back, with interviews and background with seventeen people and as of this year, they're all dead, and the Obama announcement that we are definitely out by a particular date means that counter-insurgency can't work. (Copies of her Taliban Shuffle book were stacked up in the back of the hall, but the last time I bought signed books at a Project Afghanistan lecture the author was killed soon after and well, I dunno, I didn't feel like doing that; so I downloaded the Kindle version and started reading it on my phone, while waiting for the lecture to start. Maybe I should have asked her to sign my phone.)

For me, there really is an existential threat in here. I can only repeat what I wrote almost five years ago:

The situation is bad. Still, I don't think we're in trouble yet. Trouble is when we have half a million or so dead Americans and a tens of millions dead around the world. Big trouble is lots, lots worse than that. You don't think it can happen? You think terrorism is an overhyped nuisance? Well, I sort of agree: it can't happen now, at least I don't think so, and terrorism now is in some ways an overhyped nuisance. I'm talking about a timeframe that probably doesn't start for ten years, and might not start for thirty. But it will start. In the thirty-one years since I started working on my PhuD in computer science, Moore's Law has increased computer bang-for-the-buck by a factor of approximately one million: 20 doublings. People haven't changed. In the next thirty years, technology will go on getting more so, and up to a point (past which I have no predictions) people will go on not changing. That's the problem.

And Gaddafi was killed this week; probably a good thing, just as Hussein's death was probably a good thing, but not exactly a guarantee that tomorrow in Libya will be a better day than yesterday. I'm glad that Obama has continued Bush's Big Bang of disrupting dictators, glad that our investment in drone technology is paying off, really worried about his promise to get out, really really worried that (apart from such promises) we're in Bush's third term in the bad ways as well as the good ways -- in particular, attacking troops and citizens of a foreign country without Congressional authorization and pretending that it's not legally a "war", apparently on the ground that he's not putting troops on the ground. Yeah, right. And it also won't be a war when vastly improved drone tech spreads to many countries including Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, etc., up to the point when some descendant of Sunrise I in the air or perhaps Spray in the water ( Underwater Robot Makes History...Spray has a range of 6,000 kilometers, or about 3,500 miles, which means it could potentially cross the Atlantic Ocean and other ocean basins...) pays us a return visit, with payload upgraded far beyond what Pakistan's nukes can now do.

Near the start of the Singularity Summit, PayPal founder/billionaire Peter Thiel was worrying about the slowdown in innovation in the "developed" countries, about the way that so much of our (very real, really excellent despite current difficulties) global improvement statistics simply reflect copying of our tech into China and India and others. And I was thinking that this is worse than he thinks it is, because it's not just about economics: it's about the fact that the (moderately) liberal democracies have a technological edge which we need them to keep. And maybe they will, maybe they won't. Thiel believes regulation is holding us back, that a lot of what we now depend on is stuff which we wouldn't be legally able to develop now if we hadn't already developed it -- well, I believe that too. Will we keep the edge we need? Maybe.

Still, I have here an actual physical copy of Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and it does suggest that maybe my statement above that "People haven't changed" is oversimplified. Even with WWI and WWII, and the Nazi and communist slaughter+starvation of scores of millions, people in the 20th century were several times less likely to die violently (that's counting starvation-by-government as violent death, as it should) than the people whose bones tell us about life and death thousands of years back, or the hunter-gatherer societies we've studied more recently. (See Will Wilkinson's commentary, which I pretty much trust.) Of course Neolithic violence was not an existential risk; the 20th century brought us lower means but higher standard deviations, so to speak. We needed Petrov to be there, doing his job; that did not apply to any previous century. If things are getting better, maybe we can survive without future Petrovs, or maybe there will always be one around when we need him (or her).

Or then again, maybe not.

Footnote: I said above that the "roadblock theory" wasn't, I think, the only explanation for interstellar silence in a galaxy of many planets. Clearly one possibility is that species with enough "aggressiveness" to proceed to interstellar activity have enough real aggressiveness to destroy themselves. I'll list four others; I'm sure there are many. First, most attractive in a way, would be a moral dynamics sort of explanation: the species which develop morally (to the point of non-interference with primitives like us) are exactly the ones which don't wipe themselves out. Next would be a physics explanation: expansionist species discover physics which we haven't found yet, physics which lets them create bubble universes that it's easy to expand into so they never bother with the actual galaxy. Next would be a simulation-version of that: expansionist species wind up discovering that they can simulate the universes they want, and upload themselves into the simulations...same thing. And finally, for now, would be the now-familiar notion that we are in a simulation -- there are no other species not because we're bound for destruction but because we're the one being simulated. (And as I was typing this, my daughter came to say she'd finally finished the Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke; we're probably in one of his universes. Should that be a reassuring thought? "Cancel Programme GENESIS"..."Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."..."The crusade will reach the vicinity of Earth about the year 2050." So it goes.)

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Consolidation and "Hollowing Out the Middle"

The logic of rural school consolidation is pretty simple, I think:

  • Conventionally-structured public schools don't work well at small sizes (e.g., my daughter's in Latin 3, with fifteen students. Will there be at least ten for Latin 4? If not, it won't be offered. Advanced science courses, same deal...etc.)
  • Rural small towns are getting smaller, so what used to be big enough isn't any more, or won't be soon -- I've already talked about demographic projections for my own area.
There are good reasons for the shrinkage: as Ryan Avent of the Economist notes in a Kindle book (location 618) "doubling county-level employment density raises productivity 6%...over half of the variation in output per worker across US states can be explained by density." Other economists find higher figures, especially for "skilled cities", i.e. places that high achievers tend to go. But take the 6% as a conservative estimate -- Madison County, NY is more than 500 times less dense than Manhattan. That's nine doublings, and 9*6% is more than a 50% increase in productivity, as if you'd added a couple of decades to a career. Quite an incentive, usually expressed in the simple form of job opportunities found mainly in the cities. It's a fundamentally intractable problem -- or is it? There are several responses possible:
  • Go with the flow: consolidate, at least for high schools where the advanced-course shortage is an issue.
  • Tinker around the edges: merge some administrative functions, some transportation costs, maybe kill the art class, hope that we can last a few more years (until my daughter graduates, perhaps -- she's my youngest, and my elder granddaughter just started preschool in NYC.)
  • Look at unconventional structures; after all, the limiting case of smallest size is home schooling, and it doesn't seem that home schooling needs to be academically harmful, e.g. this week's research word from Canada is that "Structured homeschooling may offer opportunities for academic performance beyond those typically experienced in public schools". I doubt that home schooling would work outside a self-selected group, but it indicates that small size in itself need not kill academics, and I've noted before that in various states recently, consolidations and (mostly smaller) charters have seemed to go together. I like the charter idea; somewhat looser rules enabling a number of things like Khansolidation. Or maybe
  • Push back against the demographic trends: figure out why these towns are shrinking, and get them to grow again -- that's the path suggested by Carr and Kefalas' Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. That's what this post is mostly about: Carr and Kefalas have various suggestions, and Carr will be in town this week.

On August 31, our school superintendent, Dr. Bowers, blogged that New York State Releases Money for the Merger Study; in a meeting that same day she spoke about the Hollowing-Out book, so I promptly downloaded the Kindle edition to read on my cell phone (I've really started to like having a few books always with me.)

I don't think that there's much resemblance between the really-truly-rural community of "Ellis" in the book, and the semi-rural village I live in where the major employer is Colgate University, followed by the hospital where my daughter was born -- a lot of our kids are the children of professors, doctors, administrators of various kinds, and so on. There's some resemblance between Ellis and us, though, and it's crucial to the consolidation issue: both are shrinking and aging as young people, especially the "Achievers" and "Seekers", go away at the end of high school and mostly don't become "Returners", i.e. they don't come back except on holidays. How to fix this?

Carr and Kefalas note as they close that "The policies and programs for saving small towns run the gamut" but are not sufficient...

  • they want small towns "to equalize their investment across different groups of young people and to tie education and training for Stayers more closely to...technical computer-based skills."
  • They want small-town high schools to "avail themselves" of community college programs, which should reduce their focus "on those students who are likely to pursue an academic track" and do more about wind energy and welding.
  • There's an important note in the middle of this, which I want to emphasize:
    graduates...mostly flock to metropolitan areas because of the higher returns on education found there, and because this is rational behavior, we should not try to stop them.
  • Instead, they want to emphasize the human capital represented by those who are not Achievers. Specifically,
  • education should be transformed to funnel young people into vocational and preprofessional training that will fill the holes in the countryside's labor force.
    (These holes are in "accounting, business, nursing and medical technology...and computer science."
  • They want to encourage immigration, but with "tighter oversight by state and federal regulatory bodies" along with advertising campaigns to reduce bias and segregation.
  • Finally, they want federal money for infrastructure/clean energy/organic farming.

Well, that's the plan -- there are parts of it that I could partly get behind, I guess. One problem is that the first items sound like they're describing the BOCES service, which we already use:

An example of programs that BOCES might offer are Academics Support, Auto Body Repair, Auto Technology, Building Maintenance, Business Computer Technology, Carpentry, Computer Repair and Networking, Cosmetology, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts, Early Childhood Education, Electrical Wiring Technology, Forestry & Conservation, Gas/Diesel Mechanics, Life Skills, Medical Careers, New Vision Health, Nursing Assistant, Practical Nursing, Small Animal Care and Visual Communications.
The school we might merge with does it more the way Carr and Kefalas recommend, with BOCES supplemented by dual-credit community college coursework which can indeed be very "practical." One of my sons took BOCES courses. Another took Colgate courses, but those were in ancient Greek -- not a Carr&Kefalas recommendation. Both now live in NYC. I have no objection to these recommendations, but this is what we're already doing. I don't see the evidence that it works to prevent "Hollowing Out." I do favor substantially increased immigration on various grounds, and I'm disturbed by its recent shrinkage, but that's not something a small community can do a lot about. Infrastructure, ditto. I think I'll skip the clean energy and organic farming issues. Overall, I don't see much help here.

Well, maybe there's not much help to be had. I do think there's some reason to expect that telepresence (in medicine as I've written before, in education, in manufacturing, in getting things done generally) will reduce the difference between Here and There for employment purposes, and that will make cheaper locations with better scenery more attractive. But not for some years -- an unpredictable number of years. Meanwhile, I'm thinking about possible ways to restructure schools, and I suspect that this would require reformulation as a public charter.

Update: Well, I've heard Carr speak (as did my daughter's class, earlier in the day.) He commented that this village is more "robust" than the ones he's worrying about; he commented on the central role of the school in small-town existence, and what a disaster a school's disappearance can be. I was surprised by the extent to which it turned into an anti-college talk, arguing that college graduates are overqualified for a large fraction of near-future jobs and that pushing everyone towards college is doing them a disservice. He said that average college debt was $50,000 (and he gave the same figure to my daughter's class, so I don't think I misheard.). This really startled me so I looked it up and find that Consumer Reports says

The average total of debt per student in the class of 2011 will be $22,900.
There is some confusion here; CR agrees that it's rising (but still a good investment), but earlier figures from the NYT say Average College Debt Rose 6 Percent to $24,000 in 2009 - NYTimes.com. I think the difference is that CR is reporting actual average debt per student (for all students) whereas the NYT had been reporting average debt per student-with-debt (a majority of all students, but by no means all.) I'm not sure of that, though. I am, however, reasonably sure that Carr's figure is quite drastically wrong, which doesn't help his credibility. (My credibility is absolute; I never make mistakes, which is why this blog does not exist.) I do think some of what he said is good: if a region-based training program with certification can connect new high-school graduates with employers, or even encourage employers to move in, that's great. BOCES is a good thing. Welding is a good thing. But robotic welding is growing fast, and I don't think that a career as a welder is a good bet any more. Robotic health care is not as far along, and Carr also talked about certification in health care. Mostly, though, I expect that these certified workers are going to find jobs in higher-density areas...how many certified health-care workers is a small town going to absorb? Overall, when it comes to disappearing schools, I don't think that "Hollowing Out the Middle" has much help to offer. A little, especially for states that don't already have something like BOCES, but not much. Too bad. Some of my daughter's classmates apparently summarized his talk to them as "don't go to college, stay at home until you're thirty, work at McDonald's" -- they simply didn't believe in the jobs he spoke of. That's a little unfair, but I'm not sure that it's a lot unfair. I don't believe in those jobs (as local jobs) either.

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