Monday, September 28, 2015

NYT: "Shell Exits Arctic as Oil Slump Forces Industry to Retrench"

Royal Dutch Shell ended its expensive and fruitless nine-year effort to explore for oil in the Alaskan Arctic on Monday in another sign that the entire industry is trimming its ambitions in the wake of collapsing oil prices. ... At a time when global markets are glutted with oil, it also confirmed major oil companies’ increasing willingness to turn their backs on the most expensive new drilling prospects in the Gulf of Mexico and suspended plans for new projects in Canada’s oil sands. Shell spent more than $7 billion on its Alaska venture.

When oil was selling for $100 per barrel, drilling in the Arctic likely made sense. Since oil has hovered around $45 per barrel -- West Texas Intermediate crude closed today at $44.47 on the NYMEX -- it is not viable.

What this decision by Shell tells me is that economists inside Shell -- and likely inside other oil majors -- now believe that crude oil is likely to stay under $50/bbl for a long time, perhaps several years. If they believed that in 2016 WTI crude would be $90 or $100/bbl or more, they would be willing to drill for oil in remote places today, even with the price much lower. It is the fact that they don't believe oil is going up in price in the next year or two that is causing them to stop drilling in marginal locations.

The industry has cut its investments by 20 percent this year and laid off at least 200,000 workers worldwide, roughly 5 percent of the total work force. At the same time, companies have retreated from less profitable fields in places like the North Sea, West Africa, and some shale prospects in Louisiana and North Dakota.

What's interesting about the oil bust is how it negatively effects certain oil-reliant economies and that in turn depresses demand for other market goods and thus harms global growth. I had never contemplated that until this bust. What I was well aware of is that, when the global economy is going strong and demand for oil outpaces supply and oil prices rise dramatically, the result is harm to ongoing growth, even enough to cause a recession. The money that would otherwise be going into more consumption, housing, savings and investment ends up going to pay for higher priced oil, gasoline, airplane fuel, diesel, etc.

In between -- I am not sure the exact number -- there must be a healthy price of oil, where it is high enough for the producing regions to profit and spend, yet low enough that it is not draining the income of the consumption regions of the world. At $45/bbl, the price is too low and the effect is harmful to demand. 

And a low oil price is likewise a sign that demand is generally weak for all products. At established levels of production, consumers just cannot buy up as much oil as is being produced. So the price will fall until producers stop drawing so much crude from the ground.

United States oil companies have decommissioned more than half of their drilling rigs over the last year, and production is beginning to drop in the United States. Even exports from Saudi Arabia are beginning to ebb because of a glut in its Asian markets. “The decision by Shell to abandon its Arctic drilling program for now primarily reflects the realities of lower global oil prices,” said Michael C. Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, who advises oil companies and investment banks.  “When prices go down the oil industry shortens their list of projects in development by removing the most expensive ones.” This year, industry executives expressed hopes that the oil price, which has fallen more than 50 percent to below $50 a barrel since last summer, would recover before too long. But in recent weeks, a growing number of executives have warned that the downturn could last well into 2016 and perhaps beyond, especially if the Iran nuclear deal leads to a flood of new oil on world markets. With demand dwindling, the current 94 million barrel a day oil market has roughly 2 million barrels in surplus supply.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Year of SDPD body cameras yields surprises"

After having police officer body cameras in place for one full year, the San Diego Police Department has issued a report regarding how the technology affected police behavior and activities. This comes from a story in the San Diego Union Tribune:
San Diego police officers outfitted with body cameras have received fewer complaints from the public but have also used more force — a finding that surprised department leaders. ... Complaints against officers fell 23 percent between July 2014 and June 2015 and instances of force increased 10 percent in the same time period, the report said. ... A 2012 study of the Rialto Police Department, which was at the forefront of the body camera trend, found there was a 60 percent decrease in use-of-force incidents after cameras were deployed. ... That was not the case in the San Diego study where use-of-force instances increased 10 percent between July 2014 and June 2015, compared to the year before. ... Although use of force climbed, the report found that both complaints against officers and allegations made against officers fell after body cameras were put into use. A complaint can include more one allegation. Complaints fell 23 percent, while allegations fell 44 percent. ... The report revealed a sizable drop in the number of allegations that weren’t sustained, from 19 to 3. With the help of body cameras, investigators can more easily determine what happened during an officer’s interaction with a citizen, which is good news for everyone, Zimmerman said. 

My suspicion is that having body cameras will result in fewer bogus complaints by citizens against the police and fewer bogus reports by cops. Perhaps the reason that use-of-force incidents increased in San Diego is that, prior to having body cameras, some cops were using force but not reporting it, because they were unsure if it was justified.
It seems to me no bad (other than the expense) can come from having cameras in place. The questions seem to revolve around what to do with the videos after the incident. Should the general public or the media be able to see these videos in every case? Should the cops see the videos before they write up their reports?
My view is that the police officer involved and his superiors and the civilian interacting with the police officer should always have the right to see the video. And if the civilian involved does not object, the public should have the right to petition to see the video, just like in a public records request.
A side issue--which is discussed in the U-T article--is how officers can better deal with civilians suffering from psychiatric issues. I would think those are among the hardest for any cop to resolve; and often, because crazy people can become violent, the most likely to result in deadly force if things escalate. I don't know the answer to this issue. The use of body cameras won't solve the psychiatric interactions for cops. However, employing mental health professionals to work with the police on these cases--as most agencies in Yolo County are now doing--seems like the best approach to me.
Along those lines, Chief Zimmerman is quoted in the U-T article saying, “This first year of data all seems to suggest that (body cameras) aren’t the end-all solution to all social issues. We are going to need to enhance other current strategies that are effective, such as our psychiatric emergency response teams … our homeless outreach team … and our crisis-response team officers.”

Monday, September 7, 2015

"The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues"

This blog post in the Washington Post well describes a phenomenon of parents, hoping to give their kids the best chance in life, controlling their kids so much that the children fail to learn the social skills and leadership which comes from free time, where children play with each other, make up their own games and parents are out of the picture.
What Angela Hansom describes about her relationship with her daughter, where she was overbearing and pushy with regard to academics--after all, what parent does not want his kid to be best in his classroom--is equally played out with parents who are obsessed with making their kids into sports stars or musical geniuses or beauty pageant queens:
Like many other American parents, I had an obsession: academic success for my child. Only, I was going about it completely wrong. Yes, my daughter would later go on to test above average with her academic skills, but she was missing important life skills. Skills that should have been in place and nurtured during the preschool years. My wake-up call was when the preschool teacher came up to me and said, “Your daughter is doing well academically. In fact, I’d say she exceeds expectations in these areas. But she is having trouble with basic social skills like sharing and taking turns.” Not only that, but my daughter was also having trouble controlling her emotions, developed anxiety and sensory issues, and had trouble simply playing by herself! Little did I know at the time, but my daughter was far from being the only one struggling with social and sensory issues at such a young age. This was becoming a growing epidemic. A few years ago, I interviewed a highly respected director of a progressive preschool. She had been teaching preschoolers for about 40 years and had seen major changes in the social and physical development of children in the past few generations. “Kids are just different,” she started to say. When I asked her to clarify, she said, “They are more easily frustrated – often crying at the drop of a hat.” She had also observed that children were frequently falling out of their seats “at least three times a day,” less attentive, and running into each other and even the walls. “It is so strange. You never saw these issues in the past.”

As far as I know, this sort of thing did not exist when I was a kid. But once it gets going, it creates a momentum of its own for all parents (save perhaps poor parents who are often far less driven in this manner). If the neighbor kid is getting special coaching in baseball, and your kid wants to play baseball, your kid will be disadvantaged if he also does not get special coaching. Likewise, if dozens of children at your child's school are taking extra classes and getting help from tutors and so on, how will your kid be able to keep up with the others if he too does not get that extracurricular help? Because so many kids are now pushed in one respect or another to excel in a specialized area, it seems very tough to remove this parental behavior from our culture.

Friday, September 4, 2015

"The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees"

The Washington Post has an excellent story regarding the poor performance of the wealthiest Arab countries when it comes to the plight of Syrian refugees:

The world has been transfixed in recent weeks by the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe, an influx of migrants unprecedented since World War II. … A fair amount of attention has fallen on the failure of many Western governments to adequately address the burden on Syria's neighboring countries, which are struggling to host the brunt of the roughly 4 million Syrians forced out of the country by its civil war. … Less ire, though, has been directed at another set of stakeholders who almost certainly should be doing more: Saudi Arabia and the wealthy Arab states along the Persian Gulf. As Amnesty International recently pointed out, the "six Gulf countries -- Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain -- have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees." 

The nearest neighbors--Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon--have in fact accepted many thousands, though far short of what Turkey has done. However, it's not clear those countries were being humane or generous. It's more the case that they could not control their borders and had no choice as thousands of people flooded out of Syria.

With regard to the oil-rich Gulf states, it does not surprise me that these emirates would not help their fellow Arabs. Kindness and accommodation do not seem to be a part of that culture. Even if they consider a foreign Arab a brother or a cousin, their willingness to really help him seems to be very limited.

The story of the Palestinians would seem to contradict that conclusion. In the late-1940s, tens of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in the wake of the pan-Arab war against Israel. The Palestinians ran to other Arab countries and were taken in as refugees. By having very large families, those tens of thousands are now several million people, third, fourth and fifth generation refugees.

It's been nearly 70 years since Israel became an independent Jewish state, and yet those Palestinians who fled to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab countries are almost all still living as refugees. They have rarely been integrated into the host Arab land and made normal citizens. Despite the fact that they speak the same language, are mostly of the same Muslim faith and have similar traditions in terms of family structure, food and other cultural values, they have been left to rot in ghettoes called refugee camps. 

While the rich Arabs could have given them a leg up and funded a program to integrate the refugees, so they would not be dependent on U.N. handouts, as most still are to this day, the Arabs have largely exploited the refugees as a symbol in their ongoing war with Israel, rather than treating them humanely. The idea is to maintain the fiction that thousands of Palestinian refugees, living in camps in Kuwait, for example, will some day return to Palestine, once the Arab nations collectively destroy Israel. But that fiction cannot be upheld, if the Palestinians, nearly 100% of whom were born in other Arab lands, like Kuwait, were allowed to become, say, Kuwaitis.

And a consequence of that discrimination has been a profound hatred of the host countries by the Palestinians who have not been allowed to integrate. This was seen in the coup attempt against the King of Jordan by Yassir Arafat in 1970, when Palestinians and Jordanians were attacking one another savagely. It was seen again during the Lebanon civil war in the 1970s, culminating in the mass murder of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians, who viewed the "refugees" as disloyal. And it was seen again when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Palestinian "refugees" sided with the Iraqis. Once the U.S. drove Saddam back to Baghdad, the Kuwaiti response was to kill hundreds of "disloyal" Palestinians and expatriate most of the rest.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A close encounter of the worst kind

On Monday, August 31, I was riding my bicycle southbound on Old Davis Road when a speeding car came at me in a very unsafe manner.

What I gather was taking place was a stunt for a photograph. A young man, maybe 20 years old, was squatted on the road's center line, aiming his camera south. Two brand new muscle cars of some sort were racing at him. One of the northbound cars was in the northbound lane. The other was (illegally) driving north in the southbound lane.

They were skilled enough to not hit the photographer, as they raced by him at high speed--maybe 90 miles per hour. However, just as this stunt was taking place, I was riding my bicycle southbound in the southbound bike lane. That meant the fast-moving muscle car illegally driving north in the southbound car lane was headed almost directly at me. Had he hit me, I would be dead or in the hospital and would not be posting this blog entry. I would guess he missed me by 3 to 3.5 feet.

So it was not an extremely close call. However, it was close enough to scare the crap out of me. And it made me mad. I explained to the photographer, as I came up to and passed him, "you guys are fucking assholes!"

It is always risky for a driver to leave his lane in order to pass a slower vehicle going in his direction. It is downright stupid and highly dangerous to pull that maneuver when a bicycle or a car is approaching in the other direction.

A sensible driver who crosses into the oncoming lane in order to pass, and then sees a bike or a car coming the other way, will slow down and get back into his lane until it is safe to pass. Unfortunately, a lot of drivers are not sensible, particularly when a bicycle is riding in the oncoming lane. (Part of the problem may be that some cyclists are hard to see at a distance. That is part of the reason cyclists, for their own good, should wear visible clothing and use white-front and red-tail lights when the ambient light is not bright.)

Sadly, there was an incident yesterday north of Winters on Road 89, where a driver died making an unsafe pass. This is from The Davis Enterprise:

An unsafe passing maneuver left one man dead and another with major injuries Wednesday night in rural Yolo County, according to the California Highway Patrol. CHP reports say the as-yet-unidentified driver who died was passing another vehicle on southbound County Road 89 near County Road 31 north of Winters and struck a third car head-on at about 10:30 p.m. The passing vehicle, a Ford, then left the roadway and caught fire.

Many times on my bike I have ridden into Winters from the north on Road 89. It becomes Railroad Ave. in town. I know that intersection with Road 31 very well. There is almost no shoulder along that southbound stretch. So if a bicycle is ever there when a stupid driver tries to make an unsafe pass like this now-dead fellow did, the cyclist will be riding in the car lane and he will almost certainly be killed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Soaking up carbon dioxide and turning it into valuable products"

There is a seemingly exciting story up on Science Daily, reporting a breakthrough which suggests we may be able to capture carbon and convert it into usable products:

A molecular system that holds great promise for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide has been modified so that it now also holds great promise as a catalyst for converting captured carbon dioxide into valuable chemical products. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have incorporated molecules of carbon dioxide reduction catalysts into the sponge-like crystals of covalent organic frameworks (COFs). This creates a molecular system that not only absorbs carbon dioxide, but also selectively reduces it to carbon monoxide, which serves as a primary building block for a wide range of chemical products including fuels, pharmaceuticals and plastics.

What is unclear to me is just how much carbon can be captured with this method and whether doing so makes any economic sense. If it is the case that this would capture a tiny fraction of atmospheric carbon—or even CO2 which is now escaping power plants—it probably does not mean much. Likewise, if it is extremely expensive compared with say, producing power by clean methods, there would be no reason for anyone to want to do it.

The story, unfortunately, does not address these questions.