You are viewing a monthly archive page.


Oil price speculation

I’m not ready to talk about global warming yet, but in my research I came across a recent session of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce regarding oil prices. As a public service I watched all six and a half hours of this (not always riveting) meeting, and now am here to share with you the results, which as a fairly free-market-oriented fella I for one found rather shocking.

We’ve heard over and over that oil speculators do not have a significant effect on the price of oil — this has been repeated over and over in a “no reasonable person disagrees with this” tone by all the various political and economic talking heads I’ve seen over the past few months.

The premise of these hearings is presented rather early in the video. Roughly stated, it says that speculators, freed by loosening of restrictions on them passed in 2002, have caused the price of oil to rise to almost double of what it would be in a standard supply/demand market. Further, it says that with fairly straightforward regulations, these speculators would be dis-incentivized out of the market, and the price of oil would return to something on the order of $60 per barrel (as I type, it currently sits around $140 per barrel). It further claims that the current dramatic increase is unlikely to lead to increased explorations, because oil producers do not believe that the price reflects the proper value of oil, and believe that exploration based on the current value would turn out to be financially disadvantageous.

Just a quick explanation of the last bit before I launch into how that premise was argued. The other thing is that the earth is not really close to being “out of oil.” The problem on the supply side is that the easily accessible oil is running out. There’s plenty of oil still in the earth, but it’s either in politically inaccessible places (e.g. ANWR, Alaska, e.g. also big chunks of Russia) or in geological formations from which it is more expensive to extract (e.g. the tar sands of Canada). In other words, if oil companies really believed that $140 for a barrel of oil was the stable price, there’s plenty of oil they could find. There’s still much more at $200 per barrel, and so on.

So, my natural skepticism about the ability of regulations on speculators to fix matters melted away as the four panels that testified before the subcommittee in turn made their opening statements and then answered questions from the congresscritters. The first panel consists of four experts — high-level folks that either advise or study the oil industry — including Fadel Gheit, managing director and senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., and Edward Krapels, director of Energy Security Analysis. To a one they all agreed with the premises outlined above. The next panel consists of a few folks from industries that rely on oil (trucking, airlines, etc.), to provide their obligatory whining; it is skipable.

The third panel consisted of one dude — Walter Lukken, acting chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. This is the Bush-appointed guy in charge of overseeing the markets, speculators and all, and was notable mainly for how thinly his contempt for congress was veiled. This slimy little kid (looked no older then me) did everything short of telling the committee members to fuck themselves as they tried in vein to get useful information out of him. The final panel finally had some reasonable people who spoke in defense of speculation, but both unfortunately worked for agencies that directly benefit from the speculation — the market institutions themselves. The panel also had the day’s only university professor, Michael Greenberger of the U. of Maryland, who also agreed with the aforementioned premises.

There are some complications here — notably, oil speculation takes place not just on US markets but also on the ICE (Intercontinental Exchange) market, which while being housed in Atlanta is technically a British institution, making regulating it more difficult (but not as bad as it sounds). Overall, though, the subcommittee members — Democrat and Republican — seemed impressed that they had at their disposal a method to drastically reduce the price of gasoline. This hearing took place on June 23. Let’s see where they go with these findings.

Posted: Tuesday July 22, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]


Weekendly clickables II

OK, I’m going back to read what Gessen thinks of the word ‘twat.’

Posted: Sunday July 13, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [13]


The future of words (on the internet)

First, let’s look at some interesting recent, and not so recent, developments:

  1. Google History. Tracks everything you’ve searched for on Google, and which links you followed. Bear with me.
  2. Google Books. Allows you to search the text of most(?) books ever published. Amazon has a similar feature, and both are somewhat crippled while we get our uneasiness about copyright worked out.
  3. Good Reads. A pretty decent website that lets you track what books you’ve read. Has some unexpected advantages over just keeping a list.
  4. Action Stream/Activity Stream. A running tally of everything you’ve done on the internet (more or less), and by extension potentially everything you’ve read; maybe best explained by looking at an example, in the sidebar of Anil Dash’s blog. Here’s my stream, although as of right now it’s busted.
  5. Zoomii. A visual bookstore interface to Amazon. You zoom in/out, and click individual books for information, to order, or to flip through the book. (This is only tangentially related, but cool enough to include.) Looks like this (but you’ve really got to play with it):

So where’s this all headed? Well, one place I’d like to get to is a search box that works on everything I’ve ever read: books, magazine articles, and web pages. The web aspect should take no more then a little Firefox plugin that creates an index as you browse the web. The book thing would require some clever mashup of something like the Goodreads feed with the Google Books search. I’ll give you odds there’s already an engineer at the Googleplex working on it. The magazines are a little tougher, since not all the text is online yet. But lots of it is, so what you need is a service to track your magazine subscriptions/purchases along with some tricky database work. Maybe when Google’s done scanning the world’s books they’ll start in on the mags. Or maybe the publications themselves will create a system to allow this to happen.

The magazines are the trickiest aspect, but I hope this happens, because some great information is locked away in magazines (and I for one do not want to have all that paper laying around, since about 99% is still completely useless). I give it a year or two before some embryonic form of this exists, maybe five until the kinks are ironed out.

Posted: Thursday July 10, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [7]


Weekendly clickables

Soon to come are little byte-link posts like at the other place. In the meantime, some things of which you ought not to be without:

Posted: Saturday July 5, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]


Don't let's be proud to be Americans

Happy 4th, folks. Don’t fear, I’m going to spare you the list of America’s evils (which in any case have been better documented elsewhere), except maybe to direct you to the Fresh Air interview with Philippe Sands, who makes a persuasive case that the Bush administration committed war crimes, and explains why they have an excellent chance of being indicted at some point in the future.

What I want to talk about instead is patriotism and nationalism. You’re proud to be an American? Why? Isn’t it an accident of birth that you’re here? It’s not really something you get credit for. Why not be proud of being a good person instead? The thing to realize, and really my central point, is that when we celebrate our peoplehood as a nation, we diminish our peoplehood as a global society. This leads to support for dubious wars, unethical immigration policy, and inane arguments against foreign aid on the basis of “there’s hungry people right here in America.” Sorry, but the people starving to death in Africa have no less a right to food then the people starving in America (and possibly more of a right, since their opportunities to feed themselves are likely vastly inferior).

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” said Samuel Johnson in 1775. In Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs, Chuck Klosterman describes reaction to an e-mail he sent to a number of his friends:

Just about everyone . . . viewed patriotism as a downside. I wasn’t too surprised; in fact, I was mostly just amused by how everyone seemed to think extremely patriotic people weren’t just updateable, but totally fucking insane. One of hte mwrote that the quality of “patriotism” was on par with “regularly listening to Cat Stevens” and “loves Robin Williams movies.” Comparisons were made to Ted Nugent and Patrick Henry. And one especially snide fellow sent back a mass message to the entire e-mail group, essentially claiming that any woman who loved America didn’t deserve to date him, not because he hated his country but because patriotic people weren’t smart.

So, that’s just silly, right? Plenty of patriotic people are smart. But when you ease back on thinking of yourself as “American” and see yourself as a citizen of the world foremost, a funny thing happens. You become more interested in the events of the world. You start to care about all humans everywhere, and in so doing come in touch with a more profound aspect of your own humanity. And you become more able to see the flaws in your country and criticize them, which in turn makes you more engaged and in the long term leads to making your country better.

I hope its clear that I don’t have any problem with America. It’s a great country; better then most. What I’m saying here goes just as well for any country in the world. Let’s all be members of the human race, and see national borders as a maybe necessary but increasingly less significant political construct, and let’s all get along. I’ll drink to that.

Posted: Thursday July 3, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [7]


We're not all going to die

We’re all going to die. Just not all together in a couple of months when the Large Hadron Collider is turned on.

Built near Geneva on the border between France and Switzerland, it’s the biggest particle accelerator ever constructed by an order of magnitude. These machines shoot highly-energized subatomic particles at each other in an attempt to see what happens at the very extremes of existence. It all has to do with very esoteric particle physics, and an attempt to understand gravity, electromagnetism, and the other fundamental forces and particles that make up the universe.

It should be fairly obvious at this point that I have no idea what I’m talking about with all this. Of course neither does the overwhelming majority of people who will hear about the project, and that’s what’s interesting about it — never before has a project this huge been so opaque. And I do mean huge: the Hadron Collider is a massive 17-mile long underground tunnel with adjoining facilities. It’s total cost is somewhere around $8 billion in US dollars, funded by numerous governments and hundreds of universities. When it’s running, it will produce 10 to 15 petabytes of data per year (that’s 500 Libraries of Congress). A cross-section of the tunnel looks like this:

Now, here’s the cool part of all this: the Hadron Collider will produce some interesting things, including Higgs bosons, the subatomic particles that give mass to other subatomic particles, strangelets, essentially microscopic quark stars, and micro black holes. And it’s the latter that have folks a bit alarmed, because while we don’t really understand any of this stuff, we know that black holes are, like, bad. They swallow things. Do we want to be deliberately creating them just under the surface of our favorite planet?

The important thing to note here is that all the scientists claim this is all very very very safe, and the Earth is like for 100% sure not going to be demolecularized or anything. They further claim that all these particles are flying through space all the time, and in fact flying through the planet earth all the time, because matter is of course made up almost entirely of empty space. (That much we do remember, right?) The only slight difference is that these particular micro black holes are going to be moving much slower, sort of drifting through our planet in fact. But really, no worries.

Brian Cox, an experimental physicist working at the collider, says, “there are layer after layer after layer of tests and some of them are observational and some of them are theoretical and it turns out that it’s utter nonsense.” Then again, he elsewhere says, “it’s truly a leap into the unknown.”

Posted: Tuesday July 1, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [7]