Thoughts

A look at lubrication inside an engine, in 1937

Nowadays, when we rarely pop open the hoods of our cars on our own, and the only things we usually worry about are putting in the gas and taking them to the dealer or the mechanic for their scheduled maintenance, we can hardly fathom what goes on inside those modern engines.

This wonderful video, made in 1937 by Chevrolet, shows how a typical engine was lubricated and is guaranteed to amaze you. I bet you had no idea that an engine we think of as primitive, given its almost 100 years of age, is so complex.

At the same time, the video will give you a new appreciation for what goes on inside your car’s engine. I bet it’s even more complex now.

Are you inclined to take your car for granted now? It is a marvel of modern engineering, isn’t it?

If you’d like to see more videos like these, subscribe to the US Auto Industry channel on YouTube.

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Thoughts

The pillaging of Romania’s natural resources

The following are a couple of examples of what’s going on in Romania right now.

Romania’s largest petroleum reserves (famous since WWII) were recently sold to OMV (Österreichischen Mineralölverwaltung Aktiengesellschaft).

Petrom, Romania’s state-owned petroleum company, now belongs to OMV, and every time I fill up my car at Petrom, the receipt says OMV Petrom. I talked to someone today who told me OMV sells roughly 4 Billion Euros of Romanian petroleum every year. And they’ve also got a contract to sell Romanian natural gas, of which they move roughly 2 Billion Euros’ worth every year.

That’s about 6 Billion Euros of sales from Romania alone (they have holdings in other countries and their total annual sales are around 23 Billion Euros per year).

Do you know how much Romania makes from these sales of its own natural reserves, per year, according to the contract drawn up by its own government? 100 Million Euros. That’s an incredibly paltry sum compared to the money OMV makes.

Could Romania have made more? Absolutely. Would OMV have paid more for the right to sell Romania’s oil and gas reserves? Absolutely. I think half and half would have been equitable. Did Romania even need to make a deal with OMV? No.

But when the political environment is such that you can pay a few million Euros to a few corrupt politicians and get the contract drafted with much more favorable terms, of course a corporation will take the easier way. Corporations are out to make money, not to watch out for the common good. Governments are supposed to watch out for the common good. In Romania, the government doesn’t do that.

Here’s another case.

You may have heard about a little region in Romania called Rosia Montana. It’s been famous since Roman times (two thousand years ago) for its gold reserves. It still is.

For several years, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, a gold mining corporation with investors like George Soros, has been trying to get its claws on it. They’ve been promising all sorts of things to the Romanian government and to the local people in Rosia Montana, but they’ve met with unexpected and forceful grassroots resistance against the deal, and rightfully so.

When you look at the facts, the deal they want the Romanian government to sign is this: they get 96% of the finds and Romania gets 4% of the finds.

Someone’s getting thoroughly shafted and I bet it’s Romania itself. The Romanian government is ready to sign on the deal, because they’re thoroughly corrupt and select politicians stand to make millions, but lots of Romanians (and foreigners concerned with the environmental impact of the project) are saying no, so for now, the deal’s hotly debated.

Romania’s own president, Basescu, wants the deal to go through, because the gold found there will supposedly “replenish Romania’s gold reserves”. He’s either a moron or he stands to make a personal fortune if the deal goes through. If there’s “gold in them thar hills”, then for goodness’ sake, get some unemployed Romanian miners in those mines, take 100% (not 4%) of that gold and get it into the state vaults, pronto. What do you need Rosia Montana Gold Corporation for? Say you do need a foreign investor to help you mine the gold? Then make the revenue sharing more equitable! Again, half and half would be the right choice.

Naturally, the Romanian government would disagree, and TV pundits are talking the issue to death on all the news channels. Talk solves nothing. Ever since 1989, Romanian newspapers and independent TV and radio stations have been uncovering corruption after corruption in Romania’s political dealings, and oftentimes, they’ve given clearcut financial proof of the wrongdoings. Have any of the truly guilty gone to jail? No, some of their cronies went to jail, while the real bastards have gotten richer and re-elected. The judicial branch has never been able to convict and send to jail powerful Romanian politicians, in spite of all their corruption, theft of government money, manipulation of government contracts and… the list of crimes goes on and on.

On the other hand, and this is the saddest part, if these contracts with foreign corporations were equitable, do you think all that money would benefit the Romanian people? Do you think it would be used to rebuild Romania’s infrastructure and to spur innovation and small business growth? You’d be a fool to think so. After all, this is Romania, not Sweden, Norway, Iceland or New Zealand. Logic and rational thinking have no place here, nor does equitable behavior. All that extra money, all those gobs and gobs of extra money would likely line the pockets of the same bastards who are screwing the country right now.

I don’t know what’s to be done. Well, I do know, but my solution involves legal superpowers and weapons and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal in the EU and most of the countries in this world…

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Thoughts

Watch "The Energy Non-Crisis"

Please watch “The Energy Non-Crisis“. You can find it on Google Video, and probably on YouTube as well. Draw your own conclusions after you’ve seen it.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3340274697167011147

Regardless of who is really in control of oil, what’s clearly evident here is that our economy is suffering. If there really are such huge oil reserves in Alaska, we should start drawing upon them.

On a related note, I live near Washington, DC and have visited the World Bank. I’ve seen their headquarters, I know people who work for them, and I’m not so sure they’re the ones in control of oil prices, like he says. But that’s not as important as making sure our economy stays healthy, and right now, cheaper oil would help a lot.

Also, there’s the benefit (painful as it may be) of higher prices that can and will be seen in the future through more fuel-efficient cars and better housing. I’ve railed against the shoddy construction practices in the DC area (and seemingly throughout most of the US) for some time. Houses are built like matchboxes, with very little insulation or thought for long-term existence or impact on the environment. As utility prices rise and stay up, people will begin to see the advantage of solid, time-tested building techniques, with proper insulation and solar panels and the like. So I can’t say that higher oil prices are entirely bad.

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Thoughts

I bought gas for $4.45 a gallon tonight

That’s the going price for premium gasoline (93 octane) in these parts (Bethesda, MD). Back when I advocated the use of a heavy gasoline tax three years ago, I had $4-5 per gallon in mind, but I envisioned about $2 of that to be the actual tax itself.

What we’ve got now is a puny 14 cent tax on $4.45 per gallon. I suppose we’ve got our current administration to thank for this fine pickle. Weren’t we supposed to get cheaper oil from Iraq once we invaded liberated them? At least that’s what was sold to us as part of the rationale…

Thank goodness my commute is fairly short. And even though the price for gas is high and will likely get higher over this summer, at least it will encourage certain productive behaviors on the part of some people, not to mention that it will also spur more research into alternative fuels or transportation methods.

If you’ve got another couple of minutes, this guide to efficient energy use I put together back in 2004 is relevant to our situation.

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Thoughts

My take on the fading car culture

2003 MINI Cooper S

As I read through my feeds, I noticed a headline about the fading car culture. It seems a Nissan executive has noticed how interest in cars is waning due to congestion costs, interest in public transportation, and a desire to spend money elsewhere, like gadgets.

I also noticed something disingenuous in that article. It was his response to the 35 mpg mandate by 2020: “It is not an issue,” he said. Really? Is that why Nissan was one of the car companies that lobbied against it? I don’t want to lay the blame for this on Nissan alone, as most of the major car companies lobbied against fuel regulations in the past and some are still doing it. By the same token, the blame for the fading car culture does fall on most car companies, though there are other factors at play.

For one thing, car designs got horribly bad at some point in the late 60s. While cars are made better and they last longer, car designs have lost their soul. There isn’t that visceral response to a car nowadays that one has when they look at a classic car, one that was built to look good, not just function well. Everything is about streamlining nowadays — the wrong kind of streamlining, that is. There are no bold design decisions made anymore. Every great conceptual design gets neutered before it enters the production floor. I’m talking about curves that serve no purpose other than to make the cars more appealing. I’m talking about bold grilles, wooden or metal accent dashboards, gauges and textures that make you want to touch them. I’m talking about classic design elements. Just look at cars made in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

The old Mercedes

Fiat

Tears from the headlight

Stout and solid back

I’m not suggesting these photos are the best examples. This is what I have in my photo library, so that’s what I used. I’m sure there are a ton of great examples out there, and those familiar with car history know what I mean. That’s what I’m talking about. And that’s exactly what you won’t see on the market today. The few companies that might still include classic styling elements don’t do it wholeheartedly. We’ve got most people driving around in boxes nowadays. And they’re supposed to like it?

Another reason is an increase in fuel prices. Let’s face it, it’s no fun to drive around in a car that will put a serious dent in your monthly budget. Who’s to blame? Well, besides things that can’t be helped, like a dwindling oil supply, unstable world conditions and an increase in demand, I can think of a certain group I could finger: car companies. After all, they’ve been lobbying against fuel economy regulations for some time, and they’ve also refused to focus on economical models. Well, that same desire to save pennies on the dollar on improvements here and there is now going to cost them dollars — lots of them, and they’re the ones that have helped to dig the hole they’re in.

What’s another problem? Congestion on the roads. It’s no fun to drive bumper to bumper. Yet, increasingly so, that’s what driving has come to mean for those living in urban areas. When driving equals commuting, and when commuting means teeth-gnashing and extra stress you don’t need, do you really think people will want to drive, or that they’ll associate their cars with warm, fuzzy feelings? With the cost of new roads being so prohibitive, we know this isn’t going to change. If anything, we’ll start incurring more tolls in the future.

Congested highway

There are other costs that are driving this trend, such as car insurance and the high cost of traffic tickets, particularly when they’re falsely given out, which happens quite a bit when police departments want to put some money in their coffers. It happened to me, and that false ticket not only cost me about $150 but a day in court as well, and an extra $700 as well because of an increase in my car insurance. You think someone’s not going to consider public transportation options when driving starts costing them that much, particularly when they did nothing wrong? And what do you think they’re going to think about the crooked police officers that put them in that mess? I tell you, every time I remember what that thieving bastard did to me, smoke comes out of my ears. I hope he gets all that’s coming to him for what he did to me and probably to countless others…

More importantly perhaps is this: public companies react in unhealthy ways to market plateaus. That’s because they’re geared toward constant economic growth. Their market share or number of products sold or profits have to continually increase in order to satisfy the hungry appetites of investors and market analysts. Anything less than an increase on last year’s take is considered a failure. An extreme case of this very screwed up way of looking at things is Intel’s current situation. They earned 45% more in 2007 than in 2006, and yet their stock price dropped when they announced that their projected earnings in 2008 would be about the same as those of 2007. Instead of rejoicing over a stellar performance, our faulty economic expectations want more and more out of a market that’s performing very well.

That puts public companies in a very awkward and hard to sustain position. We’ll leave the microprocessor market alone, since I’m talking about cars at the moment. But do they honestly think that they can sustain (no, increase) their growth rate in a plateauing market? Who are they fooling? The demand for cars is going to continue to plateau, and quite possibly decrease. Sure, China and India are starting to develop, but they haven’t got the infrastructure or the economy to sustain a similar car-per-family ratio that we see in the States or Europe. What’s more, petrol supplies have already peaked. They are now going to start decreasing. Even if their infrastructure and economies could support a lot of cars, the Earth couldn’t, thank goodness. Have you driven in China or India lately? Their urban areas are packed chock full with cars of all makes and 2-cycle scooters already. They’re polluted to high heaven. I doubt we’d want more cars in those places. Add to that the upcoming flooding of the car market with cheap cars (enter India’s Tata car), and you’ve got a worldwide car market in serious trouble.

It seems to me there are a few things that could be corrected:

  • Stop the insanity of always expecting more from the market. Economic supply is not unlimited. Economists that made up that cockamamie idea should be taken out and horsewhipped, and recordings of those punishments should be posted to YouTube… Car companies need to realize that demand for their products will plateau. It’s a given. (Do I really expect public companies and their investors to change their perspectives? Yes, but it’s not going to happen. People are inherently greedy.)
  • Boring designs need to be retired for good. Serious inspiration needs to be drawn from the era of automobiles when the term motoring really meant something. Give people a reason to be passionate about their cars. Look at what Apple is doing with computers. Well-designed cars will sell, but they’ve got to look and feel so good people will drool over them.
  • A true focus needs to be placed on fuel efficiency and alternative propulsion methods. Ethanol-enhanced gasoline or even pure ethanol is not going to be the solution. I doubt it, and only one of the reasons is that corn agriculture cannot be sustained at the levels needed to mass-produce ethanol without turning all of the fields into dust bowls. Read up on soil erosion in agriculture if you want more info on this. Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive and still need oil to be produced. Not viable long-term. Now is the time to really look at other ways, such as bacterially-produced fuels, or steam/other water-based fuels. Electricity, if made through solar or wind power, is infinitely sustainable, and electric cars are already viable alternatives.
  • Car companies could focus on producing efficient, well-made public transportation vehicles in addition to personal vehicles. We know they’re going to be needed more and more in urban areas, and yet very few of the major car manufacturers have focused their efforts on fleets. Buses are still horribly inefficient when it comes to fuel usage, and they’re ugly and non-aerodynamic to boot. They usually get 5-8 miles per gallon, they’re loud, slow, unsafe, and they start rattling after only a few months of usage. They could stand a lot of improvement. The market is there and will continue to grow. Did you know, for example, that the Washington, DC metro cars were made in Italy and are very expensive? While it’s nice to know that DC metro goers ride in Italian-made wagons, why couldn’t they be made here in the US?

These are just a few ideas, but they’re meant to get the discussion started. Want to know what Nissan is doing about it? They’re ready to follow in the footsteps of the Tata car, and are readying their own designs for a cheap car. How that’s going to play out in the large scheme of things, no one knows for sure. But what we do know is that we don’t need more pollution and more congestion…

I leave you with a photo of the car that acted as a catalyst for change back when it was introduced. It can be done again, and in all the right ways. We just need a daring and willing company.

The classic MINI

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2007-09-19

A bit of a health theme to this edition of condensed knowledge:

  • A new CPR technique was discovered. It’s called OAC-CPR (Only rhythmic Abdominal Compression). As its name implies, you only press on the abdomen, eliminating the risk of broken ribs, mouth-to-mouth, and fatigue from pushing so hard. Definitely worth looking into this!
  • Prozac found in the drinking water in the UK. Apparently so many people are on the anti-depressant in England, that it can now be found, diluted, in the water supply, after having passed through their bodies, into the sewers, through the water treatment plants, etc. Although the “experts” are saying there’s no risk, I doubt it. I mean, this is a drug, found active, in the water supply!
  • WD40 turns out to be a great help for bad joints. Despite the precautions written on the cans, rubbing it into the skin was of tremendous help to a man suffering from joint pain. Not sure that I’d recommend this.
  • Aspartame is the behind the spike in suicides for teen and pre-teen girls. Apparently, it’s a powerful mood-changer — it causes depression. Something to think about the next time you buy your children something with Nutrasweet or Aspartame as the sweetener.
  • Exercising in traffic is bad for your heart. Now that’s something I’ve known was wrong for some time. It just didn’t make sense to me when I saw people running on the sidewalk, next to heavy traffic, breathing in all those noxious fumes. When I run, I want to breathe fresh, healthy air, not someone’s nasty car exhaust. I just couldn’t get why they’d put themselves through something that unhealthy. It turns out the particulates from vehicle emissions decrease our blood’s ability to clot, and restrict the amount of blood that reaches the heart immediately upon exposure.
  • Mobile phones are as dangerous as smoking. So reads a recent headline… People have gone back and forth on the safety of mobile phones for years. Now the EU has finally decided to pick a side and take action. The article’s in Romanian, but what it says is that governments are starting to take mitigating action, first by warning people of the risks, and then by looking at ways to minimize exposure to WiFi radiation. They’re recommending that people go back to using wired Internet connections instead of wireless ones.

Now for some funny stuff:

And some economic discussion:

  • Greenspan on Iraq war, oil link. He confirms what I’ve thought and said for some time. In his talk with Matt Lauer, he touches on the housing bubble and the fiscal irresponsibility of the current administration, but he has no compliments for the Democrats, either. Last, but no least, he says the dollar may be replaced by the euro as the reserve currency of choice.
  • Transparent Investing: what your broker doesn’t want you to know. Here’s a site that offers a purportedly frank discussion of index investing. Definitely worth a look.
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Thoughts

China's growing energy problem, and the US policy quandary

Just read an article written by someone at AP and published on MSNBC, entitled “World feels China’s growing thirst for oil“. I wish they’d publish author names as well! This was a very well-written article, and full of insights into the issue.

If you thought China’s energy demands are small still compared to the US, you’d be right, but what you may not know is that they’re growing at a much larger rate than US demands. What this means is that oil companies in China, a country short of energy reserves of any kind other than coal, have been busy bees for the last decade, striking deals all over the world to meet demands.

China is now competing directly with Japan for energy, and indirectly with the US. All of this leads to tension, especially when China tries to strike up deals that lock the oil reserves only for its use, and when they support abusive regimes in countries like Iran and Sudan, undermining US foreign policy.

If you think this isn’t serious, think again. Here’s a quote from president Bush: “Oil — the dependence upon oil is a national security problem, and an economic security problem.” To back up his words, the US has built a strong naval presence in the Malacca straits, the narrow passage through which most of the traffic from the Middle East and Africa moves on its way to East Asia. This concern isn’t partisan. Democrats – Joe Lieberman being one of them – agree with Bush’s characterization.

I recently read through a World Bank report that I can’t share here, which said that China’s energy demands will only grow. They’re exploring many routes, one of which is hydroenergy, most of their energy still comes from coal, and oil needs will continue to increase.

My take on it is this: the problem is that they’re the biggest manufacturing center in the world. Companies everywhere have shifted their production facilities to China because of its cheap labor costs and lax environmental standards. So it’s a bit hypocritical to expect China to regulate its energy use while they’re making most of the products for the Western world.

The point is, the industrial portion of the global economy has to reside somewhere, and China’s the place right now. I don’t foresee a decrease in that sort of energy consumption as a whole – the world population’s increasing, not decreasing. If China decreases its production, factories will have to be built somewhere else to meet demand.

To see how truly complex this problem is, you have to look at the relationship between China and the US. They’re propping up the US economy by investing heavily in our bonds and economy. We also depend on them for various of our manufacturing needs, whether we like it or not. China could easily hurt our economy by withholding investment. We’ve got a Communist country propping up a capitalist country. Do you see the irony in this? We have to plead with them to regulate their currency price in order to add more value to our dollar, and we threaten them with military force (very subtly, but effectively) in the Malacca Straits and other places, like Taiwan, which is another hot button issue. Isn’t it a messed up world?

While all of this is happening, we aren’t getting our act together when it comes to reducing our energy needs and investing in renewable energy. We complain when the price at the pump goes to $3, when we should think about conserving energy, especially when it comes to automobile use. We are still privileged in the US. We enjoy low prices for energy while the rest of the world pays $5 to $7 per gallon. We, the general public, keep blaming the oil companies and calling them our enemies, when they’re trying to help meet growing demand with dwindling supplies. We expect oil to be there when we fuel up at the pump, yet we don’t realize how volatile oil markets can be, for many reasons, political and environmental ones ranking at the top of the list.

We should wake up and thank God we’re so privileged in the US. Most of us don’t realize it. I’m writing this from Romania, where oil prices are around $6 per gallon, and most people make about $200 per month. Do the math and see if you could live with that! It’s time we woke up and started conserving, and it’s also time automobile manufacturers and other equipment manufacturers started making products that are more energy efficient. It’s also time city planners started building cities that are more pedestrian-friendly, with broad sidewalks and short walks to shops and other public attractions. We should do all this before we get into real trouble because of our thirst for oil. I don’t think any of us want global conflict on this issue.

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Thoughts

Microreactor for biodiesel production

From Gizmag: “April 21, 2006 — Another wondrous enabling technology has been announced – a microreactor, about half the size of a credit card that produces biodiesel by combining alcohol and vegetable oil directly, greatly speeding and simplifying production compared to traditional methods. By stacking many of these microreactors in parallel, a device the size of a small suitcase could produce hundreds of thousands of gallons per year of biodiesel — enough to power several farms. The device could significantly reduce farmer dependence on mass-produced petroleum. ‘This is all about producing energy in such a way that it liberates people,’ said inventor and OSU Professor Goran Jovanovic. ‘Most people think large-scale, central production of energy is cheaper, because we’ve been raised with that paradigm. But distributed energy production means you can use local resources – farmers can produce all the energy they need from what they grow on their own farms.’ Jovanovic is seeking to partner in order to commercialize the technology…” Here is the link.

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