“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bottled water

So... I'm walking into my local Von's grocery store. Outside on the sidewalk, on my left is a 6' wide by 8' long by 5' high display of 24-count packages of bottled water. On my right, I see a similarly sized display of another brand of bottled water. When I check out, I notice a "sale" display of Propel Fitness Water. It's being sold for two 8-count packages with 20 fluid ounces of fitness water for $10. I burst out laughing, much to the dismay of the clerk and some other customers. That's $4/gallon for water with a little vitamins thrown in. It's on sale from $5.60 per gallon. And in one way, it is a bargain. Evian is close to $7 per gallon.

Well. I really like water. It's far and away my favorite drink. I drink a lot of it. And I drink it right out of the tap, from the same source (city water) from which a lot of these purveyors of boutique water acquire the elixir. Now and again there's a source of tap water with a small odd taste, but that's quite rare. Our refrigerator at the house and the one at my company have filters. What would possess someone to pay a third more for water than they pay for gasoline? (To be fair, it looks like Evian really is imported from France. That makes it even more decisively stupid in my opinion.)

I often say that if you were to go back in time and tell someone from, oh, say, 1950 that in 57 years water would be put in small bottles and sold at stores for twice the price of gasoline they'd lock you up. The inefficiency and silliness of this water craze is hard to put into words. To draw water from a city supply, filter it, put it in plastic bottles, ship it to stores and sell it is an incredible waste. Then it's drunk and the bottle discarded or recycled using more energy. Well, I'm not going to say it should be outlawed, but my Lord, how can we have hope when such insanity prevails?

Anywhere in the United States, one can turn on the tap and receive tested, safe water for less than 1 penny per gallon. In some cases, way less. So Evian at the equivalent of $7/gallon or Propel at $4/gallon is simply ludicrous. The energy used in plastic, the transportation, etc. only makes it that much worse. When will it end?

Data and Statistics

I've collected data on the fuel consumption of my LR3 HSE since I purchased it in November of 2006. I've missed a couple of fill ups and a few miles when my wife has used it when I've been out of town, but by and large it's a pretty complete data set.

I've driven the vehicle in a way that most people would consider normal in terms of speed, acceleration, behavior at lights and on hills, etc. and I've more recently driven it in a way that most would regard as extreme with respect to such matters. It's obvious on the surface that my fuel economizing techniques are effective, I need only look at the graphs. But what do the statistics say?

I keep track of mileage at the most recent fill up, as well as three tank, five tank, and ten tank moving average. I track the standard deviation of the mileage (separately for before and after resumption of fuel economy maximization). The "before" data consists of 35 points, the "after" of 21 points. Surprisingly, the standard deviation of the "before" data is 0.66 m.p.g., that of the "after" is 1.20 m.p.g.

Standard deviation is a measure of "central tendency," that is, of the tendency of a data set to be clustered closely to the mean (the mathematician or statistician's term for average), or scattered far from the mean. For a so-called "normally distributed" population (that is, a population that when plotted exhibits the classic "bell curve"), about 68% of the data points will lie within plus or minus one standard deviation of the mean, about 95% within two standard deviations.

We're actually looking at an experiment here though, the question is how accurately does the mean of my mileage calculations reflect the actual gas mileage I've achieved? What we're looking for is the standard error of the mean. It's the standard deviation of the population (as computed above, itself an estimate) divided by the square root of the sample size. So, for the pre-economizing driving it's 0.66/sqrt(35)=0.11. For the post-economizing driving, it's 1.20/sqrt(21)=0.26. This latter number means the true mean gas mileage for this driving methodology, vehicle, and driving regime has about a 95% probability of being within 19.61 +/- 2*0.26 m.p.g. Or, there's about a 5% chance that the actual population mileage is outside of this range, that is, there's a 2 1/2% chance it's less than 19.09 m.p.g. and a 2 1/2% chance it's greater than 20.13 m.p.g.

This is far higher than the EPA estimate, and the graphs of my mileage show the improvements leveling off. Well, I can probably begin to make deductions based on the data I have regarding what can be done.

Behind the Power Curve

As I've mentioned previously, I'm a pilot. There's a concept in aviation called being "behind the power curve." It's a situation wherein induced drag caused by a high angle of attack means that going slower requires more rather than less power. The only way out is to lower the nose.

I've also mentioned that I'm philosophically aligned with libertarianism (small letter l). My core beliefs involve personal choice, personal responsibility, freedom, and right to privacy. Thus, I don't typically look to government to solve societal problems. However, I think that it's possible that we've reached a situation analogous to being behind the power curve, where it's going to take more unified and possibly directed action to get through the next few years without the societal equivalent of an aerodynamic stall.

What I mean is that the changes in infrastructure and industry that will be required to succeed in the establishment of a new paradigm for energy conversion have a huge energy requirement of their own. This need becomes more and more difficult to supply in light of the (possible) passing of so-called "peak oil" and the ever increasing demands on fossil fuel from the developing nations as they compete to achieve what we in America regard as (to paraphrase Dick Cheney) our non-negotiable birthright to the American lifestyle.

I love the American lifestyle of flat screen TV's (we have two), a vehicle for everyone of driving age (we have three for two people), a nice house (four bedrooms for four people), a swimming pool, and my Piper Saratoga. So what am I doing talking about saving energy and government action? And more poignantly, how do I reconcile this lifestyle of profligate energy expenditure with my attempts to squeeze a few extra miles per tank full from what is, after all, a fuel-guzzling, oversized SUV?

In a way, this is the reason that I'm afraid governments will need to step in. I have these things and live this way because I can and I like it. There are millions more like me. By the time the free market makes it impossible for me to continue to live this way, it may well be too late to matter. The market is very good at sending signals in some circumstances - it's certainly sending some clear signals about our trade deficit and our export of jobs that actually create things with the price of a dollar in Euros or Canadian Dollars. But the market seems ill equipped to send a signal that will cause us to take actions that will cost us in lifestyle and whose payoff is years into the future. Unfortunately and in contradiction to my philosophical inclination, I'm afraid that government intervention is the equivalent of putting the nose down.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The effect of "philosophy" on the interpretation of factual information

I like to listen to all viewpoints. I listen to KPFK, Pacifica Radio's Southern California outlet, for the farthest left point of view, and to KRLA, Salem Radio's Los Angeles area station, for the right point of view. The other day someone asked Michael Medved, an afternoon host on KRLA, about peak oil. Medved said "it's nonsense." Now, listening to him, one realizes he's an intelligent man and must be capable of understanding facts. What would cause him to say such a foolish thing?

I've concluded that Medved and many, many others (both on the radio and in "real life") decide what the facts must be to fit their viewpoint. They read books and articles and listen to people who will "confirm" the facts that support their philosophical beliefs. They form a self-reinforcing feedback loop of confirmation. I believe that talk radio, blogs, etc., have exacerbated this phenomenon. Thus, for example, people with a conservative outlook now believe that the peak oil phenomenon is nonsense because Medved said so, and he's a smart guy with a radio talk show.

The potential for disaster is huge. In my opinion the only chance, and it's a slim one, that we have of avoiding really very large trauma in the way we live our lives is the sort of single minded, participatory, nationwide goal-oriented behavior that we last exhibited during World War 2. As I've mentioned several times in my blog I have a libertarian orientation philosophically, but I don't see how we're going to get through this with everyone acting in his or her own enlightened self-interest. Nor do I see how growing population, growing energy use, growing "standard of living" (when measured in standard terms) can continue. And the denial of this will hasten and worsen the crash.

So, back to the question at hand. What can be done to help seemingly intelligent individuals to objectively evaluate facts rather than bend the facts to fit the way they think things "must work?" Unfortunately, I see a stronger tendency for this behavior from the conservative hosts on Salem Radio than from the liberal (actually liberal is far too weak) hosts on Pacifica. This saddens me, as I don't align myself with Pacifica's point of view in general. I'd like to feel that conservatives deal with facts, but this is not the case.

For another example, EVERY conservative host I know of is a "global warming denier." Now, I will definitely concede that there are intelligent climate scientists who argue that global warming caused by mankind's release of greenhouse gases is not yet a proven fact. There are many, many more who disagree. But Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, et al, will hear none of it. This is a sad commentary on their ability to deal with reality.

I wish peak oil were nonsense, I wish anthropogenic climate change were a myth, but as I had to learn as a child, wishing won't make it so.