Monday, December 27, 2010

No More Corn-based Ethanol

I originally wrote the below in response to an article about the USDA urging the EPA to increase the ethanol blend requirement in fuel. The fact that the USDA is urging the EPA to change fuel blend requirements should tell you a lot, but here's the original article

First, the post to which I was responding:
By TomZ on 2/11/2009
It has so many disadvantages:
- lower energy per volume (MPG)
- not lower cost, likely higher cost
- cross-impact on food costs- no CO2 reduction, or maybe an increase
Let's stop the handout madness! Stop Ethanol use today!

And my response on 2/11/2009:

Corn based ethanol is good for drinking (e.g. Bourbon), but it's a terrible fuel. In addition to the above reasons, corn requires huge amounts of water to grow and the increase in corn production for ethanol has accelerated the lowering of the ground water table in the massive Ogallala aquifer.

Corn based ethanol uses up precious farm land, uses huge amounts of water, and only produces about 30% more energy that it takes to produce (and that's considered a generous estimate, it may be closer to break even).

Stop the insanity! No subsidies for corn, corn based ethanol, or cornstarch/HFCS. Tell your congresspersons to end the subsidies on corn, end the taxes on sugar cane, and end or delay the ethanol blend requirements. That will affect the ethanol and alternative fuel markets as well as the sugar and sweetener market and food prices.

The corn growers and corn based ethanol distillers may not like it, but until they can demonstrate a viable way to make cellulosic ethanol, the only ethanol made from corn should be in liquor stores.

Additional notes added 2010-11-05:
The current 10% ethanol blend actually increases our oil consumption. Prior the ethanol blend requirements, a gallon of gas was 85% gasoline and up to 15% MTBE (or ETBE). Now it's 90% gasoline + 10% ethanol, an increase of 5.8%. Because ethanol has a lower energy density than MTBE/ETBE and because current engines do not run optimally on ethanol or ethanol blends, fuel economy has also decreased by 5%-10%, for a net increase in gasoline consumption of about 10%-15%.

Ethanol produced from sugar cane (as is common in Brazil) produces about 5x as much ethanol as the energy spent to produce it, vs the most efficient corn based ethanol production @2.2x, with 1.3x-1.5x typical.

The US government places maximum quotas on sugar from sugar cane & sugar beets on each state that produces those products, with a high tariff on any they sell in the US above that amount (so any excess is sold internationally). At the same time, they pay subsidies to corn growers AND to corn based ethanol refiners.

Growing corn requires a lot of nutrients from the soil, and enormous amounts of water (up to 4000 gallons per acre per day). This is depleting our farm land AND extracting water from our aquifers faster than nature can replenish it.

It's bad policy, it's not "green", and it's certainly not sustainable.

Related articles:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Do the New TSA Security Practices Violate the 4th Amendment?

Let me start by noting that I'm not opposed to airport security, I believe some level of security is necessary and appropriate. I am not a lawyer, so this is not legal advice. However, I can do research. Let's begin by looking at the text of the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution so it's clear what rights we're talking about.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

I found a paper written in 2008 by a law school student, which specifically examines the constitutionality of using the backscatter scanners for airport security screening. Excerpts from this paper. The paper contains full case citations, which I've omitted for clarity and brevity.

The Court stated that evaluation of airport searches should be conducted using standards related to “administrative” searches.
To be valid, administrative searches must meet the standard of reasonableness as required by the Fourth Amendment. To be reasonable, a passenger “screening search must be as limited in its intrusiveness as is consistent with satisfaction of the administrative need that justifies it.” Consequently, valid passenger screening searches at airports must acknowledge a person’s right to decide not to board an airplane and therefore not be subject to the search.
The Court suggested that airports make the options available to passengers approaching screening areas so obvious that someone who decides to board an airplane has consented to the screening. However, at the time the incident at issue occurred, in 1971, “[t]he nature and scope of airport searches were not then widely known.” Therefore, without clear notice of the choice to be screened or not board the airplane, attempting to board the airplane was not necessarily consent.
The Ninth Circuit [court, stated] that under Davis, screening procedures at airports must be reasonable to comply with the Fourth Amendment. “An airport screening search is reasonable if: (1) it is no more extensive or intensive than necessary, in light of current technology, to detect weapons or explosives; (2) it is confined in good faith to that purpose; and (3) passengers may avoid the search by electing not to fly.”

In it's report on the scanners, the GAO stated: remains unclear whether the AIT would have detected the weapon used in the December 2009 incident....

The millimeter wave scanners do not reliably image low density materials such as powdered, liquid, or gel explosives. The backscatter scanners only penetrate about 1-2 mm into the skin, so they don't detect items concealed inside the body, or under folds or flaps of skin. Neither system can actually detect explosives, they merely image the shape and rely upon the operator to detect an "anomaly" in the image. USA Today published portions of a Q&A session they conducted with TSA chief John Pistole, in which he admits to those limitations.

Bomb sniffing dogs and electronic trace detectors, aka "sniffers" are far more effective at detecting explosives than are the scanners. Neither dogs nor electronic trace detectors involve invasive searches or pat downs. The FBI and military use explosive detecting dogs because they're more effective, cheaper, portable, and don't require someone to stop and pose for them to be effective.

Below are my conclusions:
So, we have expensive scanners, that don't reliably detect the very types of explosives and devices that have been used in the attempts that have been made since 9/11. These scanners effectively create and display a "nude picture" of the person scanned, which is clearly an invasion of privacy. These scanners do not make flying any safer than the prior screening process using metal detectors.

As the backscatter scanners are neither the least intensive nor most effective technologies currently available for the detection of weapons or explosives, the use of these scanners is in direct conflict with prior court findings and the established criteria for "reasonableness" for airport screening. Therefore, using these scanners as a primary screening device fails to meet the standard and is a violation of the 4th Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches.
Furthermore, the nature and extent of what is visible to operators of the backscatter scanners and the nature and extent of the enhanced pat down procedures is not yet widely known, therefore, by the previous findings of the court, most passengers may not have consented. I assert that if the TSA where honest with people about how detailed the images are, and how invasive the pat downs are, most people would not consent. When informed of the fact that they don't make flying any safer, I believe very few would consent.

Note, that the author of the referenced paper studying the constitutionality of these scanners arrived at a similar conclusion. He/She notes that the backscatter scanners might pass the test if they're a secondary screening device. However, that point is moot now that the TSA has stated that they intend to use (and in fact are using) the new scanners as a primary screening device.

Burden of Proof:
Given that an "unreasonable search" without a warrant is prohibited by the 4th Amendment, any agency implementing an administrative search is requesting an exception to do something that is explicitly prohibited unless it falls within the strict requirements for an administrative search. That puts the burden of proving that a search (and methods/equipment used for a search) meets the explicit requirements to be classified as an administrative search upon the person/agency performing the search. Thus, the TSA must prove that these scanners meet the criteria set forth above. That they have not done so, and in fact have refused to provide any proof of their effectiveness as compared to less invasive and less intensive methods, means they have not met the criteria for an administrative search, and therefore, are in violation of the 4th Amendment prohibition against "unreasonable search".

The "Enhanced Pat Downs":
The new "en-hands-ed pat downs" as I prefer to call them, are also a gross violation. They feel you all over, including your genitals, butt, and breasts. They're more intensive than the police use when you're arrested, or when you're entering prison. They amount to being "groped" which is a type of sexual assault. That is not acceptable, it's not legal, and we can not allow it to continue.

These "pat downs" are being performed on people who haven't even been accused of a crime, much less arrested or convicted. They're being performed on children, teens, adults, senior citizens, etc. People in a wheelchair and those with many types of medical implants or prosthetics will always receive one of these "pat downs" either because they can't go through the detector/scanner, or because they will always trigger an alert on the detector/scanner.

There is nothing "reasonable" about groping passengers. There is no way this can be considered to pass the "reasonableness" test, given that it must be primary screening method for many people due to their use of medical devices.

This is not a "slippery slope" we're on, it's a steep hill of solid ice, with no way to get traction once you go over the edge. At the bottom of the hill are whips and shackles. We must demand that the government stop violating our rights.

But don’t take my word for it, research it yourself, all the legal citations are in the document I linked at the beginning. For another view, check out this op-ed piece in the Washington Post. It covers some of what I cover above, and it's from a law professor.

I believe it's possible to improve airport security without invading our privacy or violating our rights. There are less invasive, less expensive, and more effective ways to implement airport security. We need to demand that they use legal, practical, sane, and effective security procedures, not these gross invasions of our privacy and illegal searches of our persons. I'll detail some of those methods in my next blog post.

Update 2010-12-08 @ 17:15
Updated to clarify that MMW scanners can't image low density materials and that neither type of scanner actually detects anything, they require an operator to notice anomalous shapes.

Update 2011-07-21 @ 12:15
Added section on burden of proof.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Repeal the 17th Amendment

The 17th Amendment transfers the election of Senators from the State legislatures to the people of the State. To uphold the 10th Amendment (and indeed the rest of the constitution), we should start by repealing the 17th Amendment.

The 10th Amendment states:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The US Senate was never intended to be direct representatives of the people, but rather representatives of the states. The interests of a State will not always directly correspond with the interests of the people of that State. The primary reason each State has the same number of senators regardless of population is so that each State is equally represented, as it clearly does not provide equal representation of the people.

One of the reasons for the revolutionary war was "taxation without representation", which led to the USA creating a "representative form of government" in which all affected parties had representatives. When we ratified the 17th Amendment, we took the representatives away from the States. The 17th amendment weakened the States by limiting their ability to protect those powers reserved to the States (aka "states rights") and shifted the balance of power in favor of the federal government. In doing so, we limited the ability of the States to defend their sovereign powers and to reign in the federal government in the normal course of business.

To correct this imbalance, some people have proposed adding a "repeal amendment" that allows a majority of States to repeal any federal law. Strictly speaking, such an amendment is not necessary. Here is the text of Article 5 of the US Constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

This makes 2 things clear:
1. That 3/4 of the states can effectively repeal any Federal law by calling a constitutional convention (2/3 of the states) which proposes and passes (3/4 of the States) an amendment which nullifies that Federal law. It's a rather slow and clumsy way to do it, but it's possible.
2. That Senators are representatives of the States, not of the people.

Senators are supposed to be the representatives of the states, representing the interests of the State governments. Repealing the 17th Amendment would go a long way toward restoring the representatives of the States, and restoring the balance of power.

That doesn't mean adding a "repeal amendment" has no value. Repealing the 17th Amendment is the first step in restoring the balance of power, but it might not be the only step, especially given the size and power the federal government has amassed in the 97 years since the 17th Amendment was ratified. A "repeal" amendment would simplify the process of state nullification of unjust federal laws, and for that reason, it may be useful. Because an action taken under a proposed repeal amendment would occur by action of the State legislatures (direct representatives of the people of each State), or by the people themselves. In effect, it would be one more check on the power of the federal government.

Look and Feel

As this is a new blog, I'll be experimenting with the appearance and layout over the next few weeks. Right now, it's pretty much a stock design. I'm not a graphic designer, so I'm not planning anything fancy, but I do want to give it some personalization and give it a look that is expressive and easy to read.

Some of the topics I'll cover in computers are user interface design, ergonomics, usability, accessibility, and information presentation. I'll employ my knowledge in those areas as I make design changes. I'm sure you've all seen web pages that were hard to read due to poor color/contrast choices, too small a font, or just a difficult to read font. I promise this site will always be easy to read. Some of the content may be a little technical at times, but I'll do my best to keep it understandable even when the content gets detailed.


Welcome to my blog. I can't promise every post will be of interest to you. In fact, given the range of topics that might catch my interest, it's a safe bet that not all of the posts will interest you. However, I can promise that each post will be informative and/or entertaining.

Most posts will be open for comments, and I welcome your feedback. However, this is my soapbox, not yours. Keep your replies on topic, and keep them civil. I won't delete comments just because I disagree with them, although I may or may not respond to those comments. Comments that are off-topic, advertisements, spam, offensive, demeaning, hateful, or just plan rude will be deleted at my discretion. Repeated offenses of this policy by one person will not be tolerated. If you want a soapbox to express that kind of content, go start your own blog.