Spider Webs 

Laws are like spiders’ webs: if some light or powerless thing falls into them, it is caught, but a bigger one can break through and get away. Solon

It has been reported and discussed, but I can’t let it go by. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, perjured himself in front of a Senate committee, and he is going to get away with it.

On March 12 of this year Clapper appeared in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the following exchange occurred:

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR.): “This is for you, Director Clapper, again on the surveillance front. And I hope we can do this in just a yes or no answer because I know Senator Feinstein wants to move on. Last summer, the NSA director was at a conference, and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, ‘The story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.’

“The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Director of National Intelligence JAMES CLAPPER: “No, sir.”

SEN. WYDEN: “It does not?”

DIR. CLAPPER: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

SEN. WYDEN: “Thank you. I’ll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.”

Since then we have seen the revelations by Edward Snowden, a former employee of Booz-Allen-Hamilton and the CIA, which completely contradict this. Yes, in fact, the NSA has been collecting all sorts of data on essentially every American.

Clapper didn’t have to lie. Senator Wyden had given him the list of questions in advance and offered him the chance to modify his answers afterward.

Clapper himself admitted to lying on national television. “I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying no.” “Least untruthful” means “untruthful”, which means he lied under oath to the Senate, which is a crime, as follows.

False Statements (18 U.S.C. 1001)

I. Except as otherwise provided in this section,

II. whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive,

     legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States,

III. knowingly and willfully—

IV. a. falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;

      b. makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or

      c. makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any

      materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry; shall be fined under this title,                   imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.


In theory, Honest Jimmy is facing up to 5 years in federal prison. Well, if you or I confessed to perjury on national television, it’s likely we would be facing up to 5 years. James Clapper, DNI, however, is a powerful Washington insider. He’s more likely to win the Powerball.

It reminds me of an incident a few years ago when President Bush said on national television that he had authorized 30 cases of warrantless wiretapping. If an ordinary person had admitted to participating in a conspiracy that involved 30 cases of warrantless wiretapping, that person would be looking at prosecution.

And, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes points out, Snowdon and Glenn Greenwald get vilified for leaking, while journalists who peddle government sponsored leaks get a pass.

It’s not about national security or rule of law. It’s just about power.

Spider webs.


An administrative note: I now have a Twitter account, @MinorHeretic. I swore I would never get one, but, well, it’s complicated. The @MinorHeretic account is the diametric opposite of this blog. So far I seem to be posting oddball things I see in passing, animal pictures, and trivia. Pure amusement value. Everyone needs a break.



Solar Winning 

I just found a couple of studies about projected installations of power plants over the next few years. One, by Gerry Runte of Greentech Media Market Research, predicts that there will be between 78 and 91 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity installed worldwide between now and 2020. That accounts for projects with a probability between 10% and 90%. The most probable number is 84 GW.

According to the research firm IHS, 2013 should see the installation of 35 GW of photovoltaic (PV) systems worldwide, up from 32 GW in 2012. The IHS projection through 2017 is that the PV market will rise to 61 GW annually, with a 2013-2017 total of 242 GW.

(Click image to enlarge)

If we project that the 2010-2017 average growth rate of 17.6% continues, annual PV installation would reach 99GW in 2020, for a 2013-2020 total of 497 GW, 413 GW more than nuclear.  Of course, sheer capacity isn't the whole story. Not every power plant runs 100% of the time.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry average capacity factor for nuclear power plants is 86%. That is the comparison between how much energy they actually produce in a year and how much they would theoretically produce if they ran 100% of the time. In reality they have fueling and maintenance outages as well as unscheduled shutdowns.

The capacity factor of photovoltaic systems varies according to the local climate. In the continental U.S., the output of a 1,000 watt system might vary from 1,100 kilowatt-hours annually in Seattle to 1,700 kWh in Dagget California, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Given 8760 hours in a year, this is a capacity factor of between 12.5% and 19.4%. Call it an average of 16%.

Apply that to our projected 497 GW and in 2020 the 2013-2020 PV installations would be producing 79.52 GW-hours annually. Meanwhile, that 84 GW of nuclear at 86% capacity will be producing 72.24 GW-hours annually. That is, if there is enough nuclear fuel at an affordable price. I imagine that the sun will still be shining in 2020.


The Marginal Barrel 

I just read an interview with an oil industry analyst named Steve Kopits. He’s the guy who pointed out that 4 of our last 5 recessions happened just after our national expenditures on oil reached 4% of GDP.

Kopits talks about a concept that is new to me – peak oil price.

When we think about supply and demand, we generally think in terms of a simple relationship with price. All other things being equal, if supply goes down, price goes up. When price goes up, demand goes down. Of course, there is such a thing as price elasticity. That is, if you are truly dependent upon something a 10% price rise won’t result in a 10% fall in consumption.

Oil has shown itself to have a very elastic price. Oil cost $25 a barrel back in 2000. Now it costs more than four times that much (Brent price $110), but you don’t see a drastic drop in consumption.

Enter the marginal consumer, the marginal barrel, and carrying capacity. The marginal barrel is that highest priced barrel of oil that blends in with the rest of the world supply and holds up the world average price. The marginal consumer is the world’s poorest consumer, or the consumer for whom there is a less appealing but plausible alternative to oil waiting for use. Carrying capacity, in Steve Kopys’ thinking, is the maximum price that a particular country will tolerate before cutting back on consumption.

According to Kopits, the U.S., Europe, and other western industrialized nations hit carrying capacity at around $110 a barrel. China has another $10 or so to go before it starts losing its taste for the stuff. Some poorer countries have hit their limits already.

The upshot is that although supply is constrained, the price has hit a wall. Enough people, countries, and industries will grudgingly conserve or switch to prevent oil prices from rising drastically. Here in the U.S. gasoline consumption is down 3% from last year. This could be partly due to the recession, but partly because we have hit our carrying capacity.

By Kopitz’s estimation, just as world oil production has hit a bumpy plateau, so too has the price of oil. It will come to rest north of $110, but this will make more consumers retreat from the market.

Nota Bene: Increasing wealth, increasing efficiency, and inflation will all tend to raise the nominal carrying price of oil. The price will creep up along with our efforts to be more efficient, simply because a mile of driving or a day of 68F in a house will cost the same.

This is when, paradoxically, the most energy efficient economies become the greatest users of oil. (The formal term is Jevon’s Paradox) It is a huge advantage. Oil is an unparalleled commodity, as both energy and chemical feedstock. The city, state, or nation with the highest efficiency, and therefore cost tolerance for oil, will be able to take advantage of its conveniences after other entities have been forced to use lower quality compromises. The same holds true for any other energy source.

I’d like to see my home state of Vermont put more emphasis on energy efficiency. Right now we are the fifth most energy efficient state in the U.S. I’d like to see us beat out Massachusetts for the top spot. Then I’d like to see us pour it on and open up an unbeatable lead. It would put us in an enviable economic position as all energy sources approach their limits.

(Just in case you are interested, I now have a Twitter account, @MinorHeretic. Nothing serious, just photos of the natural world and minor absurdities. A break from all the grim stuff.)


Now I have actually heard everything 

This is trivial, but we all need a break from grimness.

A couple of nights ago I had just gone to bed when I heard an odd noise. It was a kind of repetitive high-pitched whining. (When I described it thus to a friend, he said, “But you don’t have a girlfriend right now.” Rim shot.) It sounded like a slightly guttural squeaky toy; “eeee-urngh, eeee-urngh, eeee-urngh.” It was just loud enough to be annoying.

I sighed the sigh of the sleep-interrupted, donned boots and a coat, grabbed a flashlight, and went out on the front porch. A quick scan around the driveway revealed a porcupine standing just behind my car. It eyed me with that cold, irritated look that porcupines have, spread its quills, and ambled off into the woods.

The sound continued. It seemed to be coming from my car, so I shined my light underneath. Lo, there was another porcupine. My car being a low-slung compact, the porcupine was wedged in flatter than I had ever seen an animal, at least a live animal. It seemed to be distressed. Whether it went under there to escape the other porcupine, or whether the path under my car was simply the shortest line between two points, I can’t say.

I went back in the house and grabbed my semi-proverbial five-foot pole. I gently prodded the porcupine to see if it would move. It emitted the sound of an outraged squeaky toy and stayed put. The animal was stuck, either physically or emotionally. The whining continued uninterrupted. I would not be able to sleep with this animal under my car. Aside from the sound, I was worried that it might find some residual salt on my tires and have a snack, as porcupines sometimes do.

I noted that it was facing the rear of my car, quills pointed forward. I went and grabbed my car keys, started the car, and half-inched it forward a few feet, listening intently for the sound of porcupine anguish. By the time I got out and looked around, the porcupine had run off.

I neglected to record the sound, but this link will give you an idea of what I was listening to. Imagine the last few seconds of the recording repeated endlessly. Having listened, you will be one of the elite who can identify the sound of a porcupine in distress. You’re welcome.

(YouTube being what it is, here is a domesticated porcupine being cute.)


Senatorial Clout 

A bill requiring background checks for people buying firearms at gun shows and on the internet was defeated in the Senate last Wednesday. The vote was actually positive, 54-46, but it lacked the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. Whatever you think of this particular legislation (and 85-90% of Americans seem to approve of it) it shows the fundamental dysfunction in the Senate.

The filibuster has to go. It’s not in the Constitution, it’s not in federal law, it’s just a Senate rule from long ago days of collegiality in that body. In theory, senators representing 13% of our population could kill a bill or a nomination by filibustering.

Looking at the votes for and against this bill, and the percentage of the population represented by those senators, I calculate that 37% of the population was enough to beat 63%. In fact, if we generously assume that all the no votes are from senators representing overwhelmingly Republican states, those least likely to approve of gun control, we find that only about 12% of Republicans oppose universal background checks. That means that only about 4.4% or less of their constituents opposed the measure. Somehow, less than 5% of the population managed to out vote the rest of us.

Beyond the filibuster, there is a wide differential in the political clout of a California citizen compared to a Wyoming citizen. Both states have two senators, but California has over 38 million people, where Wyoming weighs in at 576,000. I was intrigued by this, so I created a spreadsheet and worked out a Senate clout ratio by state. California has a clout ratio of 1, with just over 19 million citizens per Senate seat. Texas, with 13 million per seat, has a clout ratio of 1.5. Your Texan citizen has one-and-a-half times as much political clout as a Californian. It gets much worse. Once you get past the big states such as New York, Florida, and Illinois, the ratio goes past 5. The citizens of Oklahoma get ten times as much influence for their votes as Californians. The smallest 20 states all have ratios over 12. The champion is Wyoming at 66, with my own Vermont second at 61. In a way it is gratifying to know that my vote is worth that of 61 Californians, or ten Tennesseans. But really, is that fair?

Even back when the framers of the Constitution were figuring this out it was considered a half-assed compromise. James Madison, in The Federalist #62, lamely excused it as the best that could be done, with no real political or philosophical principle behind it.

“But it is superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all hands to be the result, not of theory, but "of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable." A common government, with powers equal to its objects, is called for by the voice, and still more loudly by the political situation, of America. A government founded on principles more consonant to the wishes of the larger States, is not likely to be obtained from the smaller States. The only option, then, for the former, lies between the proposed government and a government still more objectionable. Under this alternative, the advice of prudence must be to embrace the lesser evil; and, instead of indulging a fruitless anticipation of the possible mischiefs which may ensue, to contemplate rather the advantageous consequences which may qualify the sacrifice.”

How unfair was it in the late 18th century? Using numbers from the 1790 census, the maximum clout ratio was between Virginia and Delaware, at 11.7 in Delaware’s favor. Most of the original 13 colonies had clout ratios under 3.

Here’s an idea: After each census, take each state’s population as a percentage of the whole country and round it to the nearest whole number. That’s the number of senators it gets, with each state getting at least one. California would get twelve, Texas eight, New York and Florida six each, and four each for Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Virginia would get three each. Another ten would get two each, and the rest would get one. That would result in 108 senators, 110 if we gave Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico some kind of representation.

The clout ratios would plummet. Most would stay within 15% either side of 1. Once we get down the list to New Mexico and other states with two million or less inhabitants the ratio goes over 1.5. Instead of topping out at 66 with Wyoming, the Cowboy State has only a 5.44 advantage. We of the Green Mountains come in at 5. While those in Tennessee might whine that they lost their 6:1 advantage over Californians, they can take comfort that Vermonters no longer lord it over them by 10:1.

That’s constitutional amendment, and therefore a less than slim possibility. I propose the concept more as an illustration of gross unfairness rather than a practical pursuit. It illuminates the unfairness stacked on unfairness that is the filibuster. Right now, I’d settle for an end to that idiocy.