ethanol from corn is a bad idea

it was apparent from the beginning that using corn as a feedstock for ethanol was a bad idea. with a global food crisis happening, it is becoming apparent how bad. that and agriculture protectionism / subsidies. from an article in the washington post yesterday:

The food price shock now roiling world markets is destabilizing governments, igniting street riots and threatening to send a new wave of hunger rippling through the world’s
poorest nations. It is outpacing even the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-75, when world food prices rose 78 percent. By comparison, from the beginning of 2005 to early 2008, prices leapt 80 percent, according to the United NationsFood and Agriculture Organization.
Much of the increase is being absorbed by middle men — distributors, processors, even governments — but consumers worldwide are still feeling the pinch.

[...]

“If you didn’t have ethanol, you would not have the prices we have today,” said Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics and the director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University.
“It doesn’t mean it’s the sole driver. Prices would be higher than we saw earlier in this decade because world grain supplies are tighter now than earlier in the decade. But we’ve introduced a new demand into the market.”

housesitting

i am housesitting while my friend shaun hikes up the big mountain chirripo. it’s an awesome place she designed and has the only bookstore in the vicinity on the first floor. there are blue crabs who slowly inch over to anything that drops into their corner of the yard, before sinking claws into the object and scurrying back to their holes.
i have opened the store the last couple of days, which has been fun. i am sure that every book nerd has entertained the thought of working in a fantastic bookstore, and this one, up off the main road about 300 meters into the jungle, surrounded by tropical plants and flowers, does not disappoint. if you ever make it to puerto viejo, you should definitely stop by echo books and enjoy this place too.

i am going to make an effort to post more often about life here in puerto. i got chided a few times while i was in the states to blog more frequently, so i apologize for dropping the ball.

strong dollar policy is BS

former secretary of the treasury paul o’neill says aloud what we all know is true: the stated US “strong dollar” policy is bullshit.

“When I was Secretary of the Treasury I was not supposed to say anything but `strong dollar, strong dollar,”’ O’Neill said today. “I argued then and would argue now that the idea of a strong dollar policy is a vacuous notion.”

The U.S. currency today fell to a record low against the euro, and has declined 15 percent against its European counterpart in the past year.

“The markets actually have control over those relationships. When people say strong dollar, if they don’t mean that `we believe intervention can work and we’re prepared to intervene,’ then `strong dollar’ is ridiculous.”

(via big picture)

eco-everything

i haven’t been in the US for three months, and one observation i have is it seems like the number of companies advertising their products in association with some kind of social or environmentally-conscious cause has exploded. mind you, it seemed like it was on the rise before, but my impression is that american marketers and advertisers are greenwashing practically any product, no matter how obviously inappropriate. how did people become so desensitized to doublespeak?

google trends and stock market trends

paul kedrosky has an interesting post up comparing a chart of CROX’s price, and another chart from google trends showing that the number of searches for the product “crocs” peaked and headed south about 3 or 4 months before the stock began a precipitous decline. i wonder if anyone over at google is looking into trading on the basis of realtime data they have coming into those search boxes. it seems like information arbitrage, being able to see certain trends before anyone else can.

warning: searching google trends can be a little addictive.

philosophy

i thought i had posted this but i guess not…

according to a nyt article today, philosophy is enjoying a resurgence of popularity on US campuses. i was a philosophy major in school, and i have been saying a lot of the things mentioned in the article in defense of what is often regarded as, in the charitable terms of the writer, “a luxury major”. some of my favorite bits below (i have bolded particularly relevant points):

But Ms. Onejeme, now a senior applying to law school, ended up changing her major to philosophy, which she thinks has armed her with the skills to be successful. “My mother was like, what are you going to do with that?” said Ms. Onejeme, 22. “She wanted me to be a pharmacy major, but I persuaded her with my argumentative skills.” [...]

Once scoffed at as a luxury major, philosophy is being embraced at Rutgers and other universities by a new generation of college students who are drawing modern-day lessons from the age-old discipline as they try to make sense of their world, from the morality of the war in Iraq to the latest political scandal. The economic downturn has done little, if anything, to dampen this enthusiasm among students, who say that what they learn in class can translate into practical skills and careers. On many campuses, debate over modern issues like war and technology is emphasized over the study of classic ancient texts. [...] “If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy,” said Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, who majored in mathematics and statistics. “I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow.” [...] David E. Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, a professional organization with 11,000 members, said that in an era in which people change careers frequently, philosophy makes sense. “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,” he said. [...] “The discipline as we see it from the time of Socrates starts with people face to face, putting their positions on the table,” he said. [...] Barry Loewer, the department chairman, said that Rutgers started building its philosophy program in the late 1980s, when the field was branching into new research areas like cognitive science and becoming more interdisciplinary. He said that many students have double-majored in philosophy and, say, psychology or economics, in recent years, and go on to become doctors, lawyers, writers, investment bankers and even commodities traders. As the approach has changed, philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy. Some, like Ms. Onejeme, the pre-med-student-turned-philosopher, who is double majoring in political science, see it as a pre-law track because it emphasizes the verbal and logic skills prized by law schools — something the Rutgers department encourages by pointing out that their majors score high on the LSAT. Other students said that studying philosophy, with its emphasis on the big questions and alternative points of view, provided good training for looking at larger societal questions, like globalization and technology. “All of these things make the world a smaller place and force us to look beyond the bubble we grow up in,” said Christine Bullman, 20, a junior, who said art majors and others routinely took philosophy classes. “I think philosophy is a good base to look at a lot of issues.” Frances Egan, a Rutgers philosophy professor who advises undergraduates, said that as it has become harder for students to predict what specialties might be in demand in an uncertain economy, some may be more apt to choose their major based simply on what they find interesting. “Philosophy is a lot of fun,” said Professor Egan, who graduated with a philosophy degree in the tough economic times of the 1970s. “A lot of students are in it because they find it intellectually rewarding.” Max Bialek, 22, was majoring in math until his senior year, when he discovered philosophy. He decided to stay an extra year to complete the major (his parents needed reassurance, he said, but were supportive). “I thought: Why weren’t all my other classes like that one?” he said, explaining that philosophy had taught him a way of studying that could be applied to any subject and enriched his life in unexpected ways. “You can talk about almost anything as long as you do it well.” Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive. “That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.”

if you aren’t angry, you have your head in the sand.

i am finding it difficult not to get sucked into politics while i am here. two things that i read and saw this morning particularly resonated for me. one was barack obama’s explanation of his comments at a fundraiser about the bitterness of voters in places like pennsylvania, the other was a post by robert reich regarding the spin surrounding the comments.

and robert reich:

Listen to this morning’s “Meet the Press” if you want an example. Tim Russert, one of the smartest guys on television, interviewed four political consultants – Carville and Matalin, Bob Schrum, and Michael Murphy. Political consultants are paid huge sums to help politicians spin words and avoid real talk. They’re part of the problem. And what do Russert and these four consultants talk about? The potential damage to Barack Obama from saying that lots of people in Pennsylvania are bitter that the economy has left them behind; about HRC’s spin on Obama’s words (he’s an “elitist,” she said); and John McCain’s similarly puerile attack.

Does Russert really believe he’s doing the nation a service for this parade of spin doctors talking about potential spins and the spin-offs from the words Obama used to state what everyone knows is true? Or is Russert merely in the business of selling TV airtime for a network that doesn’t give a hoot about its supposed commitment to the public interest but wants to up its ratings by pandering to the nation’s ongoing desire for gladiator entertainment instead of real talk about real problems.

We’re heading into the worst economic crisis in a half century or more. Many of the Americans who have been getting nowhere for decades are in even deeper trouble. Large numbers of people in Pennsylvania and across the nation are losing their homes and losing their jobs, and the situation is likely to grow worse. Consumers are at the end of their ropes, fuel and food costs are skyrocketing, they can’t go deeper into debt, they can’t pay their bills. They aren’t buying, which means every business from the auto industry to housing to even giant GE is hurting. Which means they’ll begin laying off more people, and as they do, we will experience an even more dangerous downward spiral.

Bitter? You ain’t seen nothing yet. And as much as people like Russert, Carville, Matalin, Schrum, and Murphy want to divert our attention from what’s really happening; as much as HRC and McCain seek to make political hay out of choices of words that can be spun cynically by the mindless spinners of the old politics; as much as demagogues on the right and left continue to try to channel the cumulative frustrations of Americans into a politics of resentment – all these attempts will, I hope, prove futile. Eighty percent of Americans know the nation is on the wrong track. The old politics, and the old media that feeds it, are irrelevant now.