SocraticGadfly: 2/22/15 - 3/1/15

February 28, 2015

Mu to free will vs determinism 5 — living in the past

Yes, you and I all live in the past, all the time, without fail, without exception.

To be precise, our conscious selves live 80 milliseconds in the past.
"What you think you're seeing at any given moment is actually influenced by the future," said David Eagleman, lead author of a study in the current issue of Science. "This doesn't mean the brain is clairvoyant, however." 
He compared the timing of conscious perception to the broadcasting of a live television show, "which is actually not live. The show is delayed by about three seconds, so it can be edited if something happens. The brain does the same thing." 
Using a visual illusion known as the flash-lag phenomenon, Eagleman and Salk Professor Terrence Sejnowski showed that the human brain appears to construct conscious awareness in an after-the-fact fashion, which they term postdiction. Their findings counter a leading hypothesis that visual awareness is predictive, extrapolating ahead of perceived events. 
"In fact," said Sejnowski," it looks like the conscious mind is just catching up on past information."


And, I like the TV analogy. The idea behind that, the idea of "editing," also correlates with Libet-class experiments, conducted years after Benjamin Libet's original They show a delay, albeit longer yet, to "censor" action that's not consciously willed.

Scientific American had more on this here.

And, that's only the tip of the iceberg that David Eagleman has brought to the field. Eagleman, as show in this New Yorker profile, is a very interesting person. His new idea of a middle ground between theism and atheism doesn't totally jazz me up, but, I'd not reject it entirely, and certainly not with the vitriol that the likes of a Sam Harris does. (Nuff said there.)

I do think Eagleman needs to lose his wide-eyed optimism over Obama's BRAIN project, and along with it, his optimism about how well neuroscience will spill some secrets. As I've said before, I think it's still in the Early Bronze Age, and will be for some time; I'm sure Eagleman would disagree.

In turn, all of this corresponds to another idea of mine.

That's the idea of free will as a confabulation deriving from a spandrel.

One way it would have adaptive value is with a rise in teleology in general and goal-directed behavior in particular. The belief that there was some "I" behind certain goals, and especially, an "I" freely choosing such goals, would increase the energy investment in pursuing them.

Then, due to evolutionary pruning, whether more biological or more cultural, what goals were better to attain and easier to attain would be selected for, as would better and easier strategies for achievement.

February 27, 2015

So what if the Department of Homeland Security runs out of money?

Other than the invidious, but theoretically necessary-to-fly screenings by the TSA, I think it would be kind of cool if the Department of Homeland Security runs out of money Friday. "No big gummint" Republicans are always talking about "let's close this cabinet department"; they could get the chance to see it play out. Civil libertarians will breathe a small bit easier. Hispanics seeking unauthorized entry from our southern border will love it. Schadenfreude lovers will love it, because those uninvited trekkers, and President Obama's attempt to deal with them, are why House GOP wingnuts have put riders on Homeland Security funding bills. What's to lose?

Now, because Dear Leader likes to spy on people as much as do the Rethuglicans, of course, something like this would never happen in reality. But, we can always dream, can't we?

Anyway, Democrats, tell the national security wingnut division of the GOP and the suaver White House version to take a hike, and call the bluff on all GOP wingnutters who want to "shut down" Obama's executive action on illegal immigrants. Don't even try to struggle to pass any stopgap bill that gives in one iota.

In reality, the Border Patrol will be expected to come in and work, even if they don't get paid, if there is a shutdown.

Dudes and dudettes, I got one word for you: "Strike." Or, if you want two words, "blue flu," or "khaki flu," or whatever you call it.

If you pay attention to politics, you've seen how wingnut the current GOP is. What if there's no bill for 2, 3, 4, weeks? Are you still going to work without pay?

Unfortunately, Dems ultimately caved for a week of kicking the can down the road, even as Havana Ted Cruz says:

I "did not spend enough time explaining the specific strategy to elite opinion makers.”

Of course, maybe a few Democrats, in the next seven days, will learn the strategy of "growing a pair," with the backup strategy of "holding on to a pair."

February 24, 2015

Obama vetoes #KeystoneXL bill — what's next?

President Obama's veto of the KeystoneXL bill from Congress isn't surprising. And on narrow grounds, of Congress trying to dictate foreign policy, it's the right move. That's doubly true with Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to address Congress coming at about the same time the Keystone bill passed.

But, barring a more in-depth veto statement, it's possibly not the best big-picture move.

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that Obama should make such a statement, pledging to pass a similar bill if it were tied to a carbon tariff and carbon tax.

Today's announcement story explains why:
Last year, an 11-volume environmental impact review by the State Department concluded that oil extracted from the Canadian oil sands produced about 17 percent more carbon pollution than conventionally extracted oil.
There's the justification for a carbon tariff, which would require a domestic carbon tax.

The AP notes that Obama's veto was without fanfare. Well, per my angle, it should have had some fanfare indeed.

That said, as I also noted in that previous blog post, the State Department has said that Alberta tar sands oil will be sold — and delivered — somewhere, somehow, with or without the current pipeline. Work is underway to build an all-Canada pipeline to Quebec; work is struggling to send another pipeline west to British Columbia. And tar sands oil is already coming into the U.S. by rail, claims of some environmentalists to the contrary notwithstanding, as well as by more circuitous pipeline routes.

Beyond that, environmentalists with brains know not to pin too much hope on Obama.

His "all of the above" hydrocarbons strategy has bent, folded, spindled and mutilated the Endangered Species Act, as with the dunes sagebrush lizard.

And, at the same time his administration expanded protection in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it announced plenty of drilling leases in the Arctic Ocean, as Greenpeace notes.

And, note the "no fanfare" in the AP story link.

In other words, President Obama can often be an "on the one hand" environmentalist.

And, as I noted in my link from my previous blog post, he's also not a "big picture" president. Of course, that's neoliberal incrementalism in general.

So much for 'liberal' Austin; drop-dead proof it ain't

Everybody in Texas, especially those who live there, and lot who live outside of Texas, likes to talk about how liberal Austin is.

Well, for some time, I've said that by New Deal or Great Society types of measures, that ain't so true.

And now, the Austin American Statesman agrees, in lots of detail.

Let's start with this:
The metro area’s elevated levels of income, education and occupational segregation combined to make Austin the most economically segregated large metro and the third-most segregated among metros of all sizes, the study said.
Followed by this, that also applies to Silicon Valley, Massachusetts’ Silicon Corridor and other similar areas:
Denser and more populous metro areas tended to post higher rates of economic segregation, the authors said. Yet a series of studies by the institute suggest that a large creative class tends to exacerbate those divides even further.
That said, even compared to other techie areas, Austin didn't do so well.
By one of that study’s key measures, Austin’s upward mobility rate trailed only three other Texas metro areas — Dallas, Killeen and Waco — and it lagged well behind the tech-savvy hubs in Silicon Valley, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
So why is this?

My theory? This is connected with that New Deal and Great Society issue, especially that second paragraph.

Techsters think that supporting gay rights or nth-wave feminism makes them liberal, even as they ignore widening income inequality, first.

Second, their incomes let them buy their way into economic segregation that feeds educational segregation, too. It's called the suburbs, or unincorporated county areas. You know, like Westlake.

Indeed, the story goes on to note that the influx of tech workers increased the economic segregation.

That said, I've heard people in the past talk about either "the city of Austin" or "old vs. new Austin."

On the first? Austin the city itself was segregated long ago. Double-decking I-35 reinforced that, but it didn't cause that.

On the second? When did you start living in Austin yourself? Have you ever lived in South Austin, or in vicinity of MLK or Caesar Chavez streets?

Just visiting Fifth Street as a hipster doesn't qualify.

And, finally, why is this worse even in Austin than in Silicon Valley?

Because, as the story reminds us, this is Texas:
“While this isn’t unique to Austin, economic segregation is magnified here along race (and) ethnicity lines,” he said. “Our severe disparities in educational attainment according to race (and) ethnicity give our economic segregation in Austin a particularly pernicious quality.”
That’s why.

And, until the techsters that came to Austin from out of state admit that, they're part of the problem, not part of the solution.

But, but, Austin's so liberal.

Well, if we take metro Austin to be coterminous with Travis County, maybe not.

In 2012, Travis County, in the presidential election, went 60 percent Democratic. Before that, it was 64 percent in 2008, 56 percent in 2004, 42 percent (and 11 percent other, presumably almost all Nader) in 2000, and 52 percent (with 8 percent other) in 1996, per its City-Data page.

Sounds liberal for Texas, doesn't it?

You know who does better?

El Paso. Per City-Data, here's El Paso County's totals:

2012 — 66 percent
2008 — 66 percent
2004 — 56 percent
2000 — 28 percent
1996 — 62 percent
I guess Bush's Spanish was enough to sell El Pasoans in 2000; no other clue as to what was up.

Beyond that, though, it's clear, that El Paso is more liberal than Austin. And why? A large minority, specifically Hispanic, population is a fair reason why. But, minorities can be good neoliberals, not New Deal liberals, too. Just ask Dear Leader. Or, not too far from Austin, just ask the Castro brothers.

In El Paso, part of that is also traditional blue-collar jobs, including smelting and things like that. Union jobs. The types of jobs that techie neoliberals (or proto-libertarians in "transition") sneer at.

Austinites might say, "But, Austin is weighted down by all the 'red' outlying areas."

Well, pseudoliberal apologists, I had just Travis County on the links above. I didn't include Williamson County. And Austin itself makes up almost 90 percent of Travis County. If I had included Williamson County, which is red, but less red than the state's average, it would have been far different. Austin Metro would be about 53-54 percent Democratic.

El Paso is a smaller percentage of El Paso County, and it has the conservative military presence of Fort Bliss, to boot. And, if I expanded Metro El Paso to include Doña Ana County, New Mexico, which is bluish, those voting percentages would only drop about 2, maybe 3 points.

And, while smaller in size, places like Laredo (Webb County) and elsewhere in the Valley are even more blue than El Paso.

Techie Austin? It's white (with some Asians), and libertarian, not liberal. El Paso is real liberal Texas, along with Hispanic areas in the Valley.

And, that, connected with the problem of getting Hispanic voters to turn out, outside of presidential elections, is why Battleground Texas was clueless, as well as sucky, when it wasn't just grandstanding and patting itself on the back.

And, as for the rhetorical questions I asked above, about "where did you live in Austin"? That applies if you moved to Austin 5 years ago, 15 years ago, or 25 years ago, or if you were born there 40 or more years ago.

There's nothing wrong with support for gay and lesbian, or transgender, rights, or other "interest group" liberalism, of course. But, if you're focused on that without income equality, labor organization and other things, you're not really that liberal.

February 23, 2015

How long before oil supply hits equilibrium?

That is, of course, a major question right now.

Besides particular wells in various "tight" oil formations, like the Eagle Ford in South Texas, the Wolfberry in the Permian Basin and the Bakken in North Dakota, that will continue to produce because they've already been drilled, the other big controlling factor is a place called Cushing, Oklahoma.

That's where a nexus of North American oil pipelines meet and empty their content, if it doesn't have a different immediate final destination, into a complex of storage facilities.

Storage facilities that are filling up rapidly because those already-developed oil wells continue to produce, and at a high initial rate, like most shale oil wells.
"With total crude stocks now about 425 million barrels and Cushing north of 46 million barrels, WTI is looking increasingly mispriced high above $52 per the April contract," said Jeffries Futures analysts in a note to traders.
Indeed, the note says that some commodities futures traders will probably bet on oil going higher with another drop in the rig count.

Folks, that means nothing, for the reasons just noted; we still have excess supply in current production, and that's probably not going to change for a few months. Meanwhile, producers in the US are scrambling for other storage facilities as Cushing nears being filled to the brim, currently at about 80 percent.

Unfortunately, people who write for websites like Slate, which should be hiring or retaining people that know better, someone like Daniel Gross, who puts himself out as a brainy business and investment consultant, is clueless about oil production, as shown here in Slate, believing (I guess, it's hard to tell for sure), that you just shut off a well, like a light switch, after it starts producing, ignoring the problems with capping and respudding, especially in shale oil, and also ignoring the problem with "lease-to-drill" issues. Admittedly, those are more punitive, or have been, with gas rather than oil, but can't be ignored in either sector.

The fact is that oil and gas, as vital commodities, are non-solids. One can stop digging at a coal mine (or an iron ore mine for steel) quite easily. One does not just "shut off" an oil or gas well.

Of course, many speculators are betting they can sit on this crude long enough to wait out the continued surplus, and then sell at higher prices.

Probably not. West Texas Intermediate, currently in the low $50s, won't rise more than $10/bbl for six months, maybe longer. And other storage facilities may also be full by then.

Gross then shows even less understanding of the oil patch with this:
What we’re seeing, I’d argue, is an example of yet another type of American business exceptionalism.
No, it’s nothing of the sort. That said, some oil companies are gambling that they can use this to force new market efficiencies in their production of tight oil, and thereby stay even with the Saudis.

I’d bet, just as much as futures speculators are betting on being able to round up adequate storage at Cushing or elsewhere, that both Daniel Gross and said oil companies would be wrong. As rain.

That said, I have little sympathy for oil futures speculators who may well be betting wrong, unless they get a very favorable, and long, lease contract.

I discussed some of this (with less detail, and with skepticism about President Obama's backbone) two months ago.

That said, per the graphic at left, right now, it's definitely unprofitable to mine for tar sands. And, contra former Texas Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, and perhaps contra claims that $45 is the break-even point here in Texas, as I previously blogged, right now, it's borderline unprofitable to be producing oil here in Texas, unless it's what's left in conventional plays.

That graphic comes from "the letter O" in an A-to-Z encyclopedia of the current oil situation from Canada's newsmagazine, Maclean's. The whole encyclopedia is well worth a read.

So, Daniel Gross? Even if US producers squeeze a full $10/bbl of "efficiencies" out of shale oil production, it will still cost them more than Mexican oil production. They could squeeze out $15/bbl and it would cost as much as Libyan oil production.

They could squeeze out $20/bbl in "efficiencies" (which no way is happening) and still cost more than the OPEC average, and still cost more than $10 a barrel more than the Saudis' average cost.

So, Daniel Gross, and others who think like him? Buy.A.Clue.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency expects crude prices to average $55/bbl for this year, and not to get above $70 for some time. Oh, and $100 oil? Not even on its current horizon.

The IEA story is worth a read right there. Going by Brent prices, which it expects to only get to the low-mid $70s by 2020 (yes!), this is not a one-year slump, it's potentially a multi-year readjustment.

And, the IEA is right to be concerned. Its U.S. counterpart, the Energy Information Agency, says current stockpiles are at an 80-year high for this time of year.

So, major new shale field work is likely just going to have to wait until current shale wells play out. That said, given predictions that both the Eagle Ford and Bakken might peak by the end of 2016 (which the current supply glut has probably pushed back a year or two) by 2020, things may pick up more and more. In the meanwhile, the US could be facing the biggest slump since the 1990s era after the end of the Iraq War.

Cheaper fracking sites may be profitable if $45 is indeed a break-even point, but newer exploration isn't going to happen in any great amount, if the IEA is right — because there will be no demand for it. US EPA gas mileage requirements will continue to rise. Older cars will come off the road in Europe and the US. Driving miles will remain flat in both countries. To the degree emerging economies buy cars, it will be inexpensive, economy ones with better fuel mileage than ever.

As for geopolitics? Russia as we know it can't live in $70 oil. Yes, it is still technically profitable at that point, but with the national budget highly dependent on oil revenues, that's not high enough, not if it's lasting 5 years. Either Putin finishes the move to full dictatorship, or he's thrown out of office well before 2020. More thoughts on this in a future post.