“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)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

But seriously folks...

I was watching "Planet Mechanics" (a mildly interesting show that won't save the world but makes more sense than the silly "Discovery Project Earth" series). While reading Dr. Michael Tobis' latest post in his blog "Only In It For The Gold" during a commercial break, I heard, out of the corner of my ear, a commercial for Dr. Frank's Joint and Muscle Pain Relief." The anecdotal claims being made were impressive, so I listened a little more closely and heard the word "homeopathic." Quoting a famous line from the history of my beloved White Sox, "say it ain't so Joe!"

One of my constant sorrows is the susceptibility of the American public (the only public with which I'm familiar) to the most ludicrous pseudoscientific claptrap. But to see such a product advertised on a network representing itself as educational was shocking.

Delving into the website, I perused the producer's explanation of homeopathic cures and of so-called "homeopathic provings" which they take care to explain are "entirely different than the scientific double blind study methods most people are familiar with." I just bet they are. Allow me to quote further from the site: "Homeopathic "provings" are, in essence, the proof that homeopathic scientists and doctors use to demonstrate to themselves that specific homeopathic ingredients work for specific symptoms" (emphasis mine). Nope, I'm not kidding.

The idea, as I understand it, is that you expose healthy subjects to random substances and see what symptoms are caused. Then you take the substance, dilute and agitate the substance in a special procedure ritual called "succussing" to concentrations as low as one trillionth the original (or even lower). This is then used to cure the symptom caused by the substance in its original concentration. You just can't make this stuff up (though Samuel Hahnemann could).

Of course, the practitioners of this lunacy are immersed in conspiracy theories revolving around the iron grip of "big pharma" and "allopaths" (i.e., real doctors) controlling the media, the research institutions, etc. I haven't the patience to debunk this hooey, though such sites as Quackwatch do an excellent job of it. But it pains me to see people encouraged to send money to such charlatans on an educational channel.

Update: In my noodling around to find information on this bunkum, I happened upon this site. I may have to change my template.

Update 2: Looking at their "Our Formula" page, I note that they claim 10 "homeopathic ingredients." Though there seems to be a mathematical error wherein they think 10^-6 is one ten millionth and they claim that all ingredients are diluted "one trillion times or more," it appears as if five of the ingredients are diluted to one millionth of their original concentration and five were diluted to 1 part in 10^30. Hmmm... It looks like the container holds 40ml of "substance." Considering that Avogadro's number (the number of molecules in a mole of the substance) is about 6*10^23 and a mole of water is about 18 cm^3 (or 18ml) and this is mostly water at 1 g/cm^3, there are probably somewhere on the order of 2.2 moles or 1.2*10^24 molecules in a bottle. For the ingredients being diluted to 1 part in 10^30, this means there's about a chance in 800,000 that a molecule of any such ingredient will be found in a bottle. Seriously.

What's my house worth?

I live in Southern California, an area of the country where by almost universal agreement, housing prices are completely out of touch with reality. But what does this actually mean? What "should" a house be worth? Of course the first answer is that something is worth whatever a willing buyer will pay that a willing seller will accept. Thus, my house was "worth" what I paid for it when I bought it. But no willing buyer at that price could now be found and economists say that housing values are retreating to a "more normal" level. But what does this mean?

Let me start by saying that I'm no real estate expert, nor am I an economist. I'm merely a curious person who likes to read and analyze, particularly with numbers. Now I recall reading, many years ago, an expert's opinion that a house should ultimately be valued at the net present value of the cash flows that would be available by renting the house. I can use this as a starting point and see where it gets me.

So then, what "should" be the value of a house based on the rent assumption? As is usually the case in my blog posts, I have to make some assumptions and estimates Let's assume that a household has an income of $70,000/year and can devote 35% (as is often recommended) of the 65% left after taxes, or $15,925 per year to housing. Let's further assume that this household occupies a house of 1500 ft^2 (neither excessively small nor large). Further, let's assume that the house requires about 4% of its value in maintenance each year and 2% in taxes and insurance. I'll assume that a real rate of return (net of inflation) of 7% is the minimum requirement. Finally, I'll assume that, over the "period of interest," inflation as applicable to the home purchaser is at 4%.

All right, then what amount of money would allow the receipt of $15,925/year less the taxes, insurance and maintenance to result in a return of 11%? Simplistically, the equation is 15925-.06*x=.11*x. Solving yields a house value of $93,676.47, or $62.45/ft^2. I purchased my house for dramatically more than that so, by this criterion, I overpaid. Ah, but our household income exceeds $70,000/year so it's reasonable to assume I'll rent a nicer home with my income. Adjusting the rent by the income ratio (probably a pretty bad assumption) I can estimate that I overpaid by a factor of about 1.8.

Of course, I also purchased the property my house is on, the safety of the neighborhood in which I live, the school system my children attend, etc. It's hard to put a monetary value on these things, but I could rent them as well. This isn't making me feel good, so what about the replacement value? Well, evaluating building a home with the materials in my house, together with the landscaping, hardscaping, etc. might cost about 3/4 of what I paid for the house. Adding the land value gets me somewhat closer to the actual price paid.

So what can be concluded? Well, to start, the fact that the replacement value of my property isn't that far off of what I paid for it combined with the fact that using the rental value evaluation yields a much lower number shows that Southern California housing is out of the price range of "average" incomes even without regard to the "asset bubble" aspects of it. Duh. It also may portend a continuing secular downward trend in residential real estate values. $70,000/year is not poverty level income, even in California, so I think I'd best be prepared for lower valuations.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"18 Kids and Counting (19 now)", "Quiverfull", seriously?

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their 18 children (now 19 with their newest indefinitely in neonatal intensive care) are the central focus of the TLC reality show 18 Kids and Counting. And there's an Evangelical Christian movement called "Quiverfull" whose primary tenet is to eschew any form of birth control and "joyfully accept children as a gift of God" in accordance with God's direction to "be fruitful and multiply." And, in fact, the Duggars are conservative Baptists. That said, two things need to be made very clear before going on: the Duggars claim no association with the Quiverfull movement; and, though covert white supremacy motivations are sometimes attributed to the Quiverfull movement, it appears to be a genuine philosophy of adherence to the joyful acceptance of what members believe to be God's divine direction.

But, motivations aside, what impact do such decisions have? While it's a certainty that the human population does not now and has never grown at a well-defined exponential rate, this is quibbling. The Earth's population has, for the past 100 years or so, exhibited a doubling rate on the order of 60 years. While the actual number is by no means beyond debate, surely we can all agree that there's some maximum number beyond which the Earth's resources cannot support us in a standard of living we'd accept, whether that number is nine billion, 12 billion, or two billion.

This makes the celebration of a bodily function that any gerbil can master not merely inane but harmful. We've seen an increasing number of amoral fame seekers doing "whatever it takes" to achieve a low brow fame by getting onto reality shows (e.g., the balloon boy Heenes, Tareq and Michaele Salahi and the White House party crash, the so-called octomom) It seems clearly destructive to grant celebrity to those who engage in an obviously non-sustainable practice.

Regardless of where you may stand on anthropogenic global warming, carbon footprint is a reflection of energy and resources used and these are indubitably strictly limited, classical economics notwithstanding. And nothing a person can do contributes more to carbon footprint and hence resource utilization (that is, depletion) than having children. And having them in the United States, where we each use energy at the rate of 11 kilowatts is as destructive as it gets.

I remember when "TLC" stood for "The Learning Channel," but a look at their program guide shows that they left that concept behind years ago. I'm sure they did so because the American appetite for actual learning is minimal and more advertising dollars can be gleaned with reality television. This is sad to such as I of course, but I see no likelihood of a reversal of this trend. And I'm by no means in favor of the imposition of top down rules on content. But is it really necessary to celebrate a lifestyle that can hardly be beat for the expediting of the destruction of civilization?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Push lawnmower?

Tim Garrett, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, makes the provocative claim that global warming is unstoppable. It's a very interesting argument and is reminiscent of Jevon's Paradox. I'll have to do more thinking before I post on the crux of Dr. Garrett's main argument, this post is about a minor point in the article linked above.

Garrett opines that conservation and efficiency are useless in the long term with respect to minimizing humanity's primary energy conversion but yet he bicycles to work, line dries his clothes, and uses a push lawnmower. Ah, there's something into which I can sink my meager teeth. Is using a push lawnmower more Earth friendly than an electric or gasoline mower? I'm going to make a guess and then see if I can confirm or refute the guess with numerical estimates. You'll have to trust that the guess is prior to the calculation. My guess is that the electric lawnmower is most Earth friendly, followed by the push mower with the gas mower bringing up the rear.

First, I'll have to state my definition of Earth friendly. I'm going to go with primary energy consumption for all inputs, i.e., for the electric mower it will be the electrical energy used by the mower plus the energy required to generate and transmit the electricity. The gasoline will be the gas used by the lawnmower plus all energy used in extracting, refining, and distributing the gasoline. I won't include gas for the car to go to the gas station since that trip will be added to a fuel trip for the car. For the push mower, it will be the energy used by the person pushing plus the energy used in planting, fertilizing, harvesting (or slaughtering, etc.), and distributing the food providing the energy. I won't include the embedded energy in the lawnmowers, though that may hurt the push mower. Needless to say, there's ample room for error in this analysis but damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Let's set the lawn as follows: 1,500 meters^2 (a little over 16,000 feet^2 or about 0.37 acres). Starting with the gas mower, I'll look at the Honda HRX217K2HMA. It has a cutting width of 21" but I'll use 20", there must be some overlap. Its maximum self-propelled speed is 4 m.p.h., I'll go with 3 as an average. Cutting 1500 meters at 20" requires 1.84 miles of mowing, at 3 m.p.h., that will take 0.613 hours. Sounds about right. The mower uses the Honda GCV190 engine, which uses 1.21 quarts/hour of gasoline. Therefore, it will use about 0.742 quarts or about 0.186 gallons to mow the lawn.

Using the estimates from my previous post, the 0.186 gallons will require a total on the order of 2.84*10^7 joules of primary energy from an oil well. To this I must add the energy required to walk 1.84 miles and using other figures from the same post, this will require 181 kilocalories or 6.4*10^6 joules of primary energy to produce. This is yields a total of 3.48*10^7 joules (Big hat tip to Chris for pointing out the factor of 100 error in my original post).

For the electric mower, I'll use a rechargeable, the Earthwise 20 in Cordless Electric Lawn Mower. I'll reduce the cutting width by an inch as for the gas mower and find that I'll travel 1.93 miles. I'll figure that I'm going a little more slowly, say 2 m.p.h., since it's not self-propelled. Thus, I'll need 0.96 hours or 58 minutes. The specification says that a charge is good for 45 minutes (give or take) so I'll need 1.29 charges. This is for a 24 volt, 17.2 ampere-hour battery that I'll assume we recharge when it's 80% discharged. Thus, a charge uses 1.19*10^6 joules and the lawn takes 1.54*10^6 joules of electricity from the wall socket. Again using figures from my earlier post linked above and assuming some fossil fuel (coal, natural gas) is used, this quantity of energy will require about 5.27*10^6 joules of primary energy to provide the battery charge.

Since the electric isn't self-propelled, I'll be working harder to push it, so I'll estimate about half again the caloric input as for the gas mower, or 9.6*10^6 joules of fossil fuel input to push it for a total of 1.49*10^7 joules total. Note that, by my estimate, it takes more fossil fuel to have me push the lawn mower than to power the swirling blades.

Finally, let's look at the manual, reel, or push mower. I'll use the Brill Razorcut 38 Push Reel Lawn Mower. The cutting width of this mower is 15.2", I'll reduce it by an inch as above and find that I have to walk 2.58 miles. Since I'm doing all the work, I'll assume that I can move at about 1.75 m.p.h. and thus I'll mow for 1.47 hours. This handy page says that, at 180 pounds, I'll burn 447 kilocalories/hour for a total of 659 kilocalories. Again going back to the earlier post linked above, producing the food to power me through this walk will take about 2.34*10^7 joules of fossil fuel energy.

It would seem that my instinct was correct. In increasing order of energetic impact, it's the electric, followed by the manual, and finally, bringing up the rear, the gas powered mower. My original analysis was off by a factor of 100 with respect to the energy contained in the gas mower's fuel burn (blush) so it isn't as bad as I'd first calculated.

Finally, take a look at what is, in my opinion, the best solution. Here's the Epic Cordless Electric Solar Mower Model EP21H. It features 45 minutes on a charge, has a 21" wide cut, and the optional solar panel will recharge it in about three sunny days. This will leave the 9.6*10^6 joules of food energy as the only fossil fuel consumption to mow your lawn.