Thursday, February 21, 2013

Inflation and Prices


I went and looked up the inflation factor on “Dollartimes.com/inflation factor” for the interval from 1958 to today (Wednesday 2-20-13).  It was 7.7 to 1.

I remember the 1958 price of a 6-ounce glass bottle of soda pop from a vending machine.  It was 6 or 7 cents.  That would equate to 12-to-14 cents for the 12-ounce serving typical of today.  (Hmmm.  Serving size of a sugar-water drink has doubled.  Do you ever wonder why we have an obesity epidemic?  You shouldn’t.) 

Corrected by the inflation factor,  those 12-ounce serving price figures correspond very closely to the typical $1.00 per can from a vending machine today.   Given the many choices and competing companies,  there is little doubt soda’s price is controlled by supply-and-demand forces in a freely competitive market. 

I also remember the 1958 price of a loaf of thin-sliced white sandwich bread:  25 cents.  In today’s money that is near $1.93,  a figure quite close to those in today’s grocery stores for the same kind of product. 

Again,  there are many competing companies and product choices.  The price of bread is very clearly set by supply-and-demand forces in a freely-competitive market. 

I also remember very clearly buying regular-grade gasoline for the lawnmower in 1958 for 25.9 cents per gallon.  I carried the gas can to the local store on my bicycle,  so I could mow the lawn for mom and dad.  Inflation-corrected,  that would correspond to $1.99 per gallon (for today’s unleaded regular). 

OK,  so call it $2.00/gallon.  I just this morning filled up at 359.9 cents/gallon (essentially $3.60/gallon).  Gasoline hasn’t been as low as $2.00 a gallon in a very long time,  excepting one brief transient just as the economy and market crashed in late 2008 into early 2009.  It’s high,  and it’s been skyrocketing higher each day,  for the last month. 

The news reporters have been parroting press releases that blame it on “some refineries not being open”.  I did hear the word “speculator” on the radio in that pricing context,  this morning,  finally.  But no discussion of it.

There’s only a tiny handful of giant oil companies (4 giants and some small fry),  all of which have been “on-board lock,  stock,  and barrel” with OPEC,  ever since they noticed the truly enormous windfall profits to be made,  during the original 1973 Arab oil embargo.  How “competitive” is that?

There’s only one fuel (gasoline) to buy for a gasoline car.  Likewise,  there is only diesel to buy for a diesel car or truck.  There’s no significant competing product we could use.  How “competitive” is that?

Our demand is very inelastic:  we still have to drive to work and to the grocery store,  no matter what they charge for the fuel.  We can’t cut back driving very much,  so we cannot affect their prices enough to matter very much at all.  How “competitive” is that?

I’m sorry,  but oil products like gasoline (and the other engine fuels) are not priced by actors within anything resembling a freely-competitive market.  The $3-4/gallon prices we have been paying for several years (when they should be $2) clearly show the noncompetitive nature of this market. 

We are seeing speculator bubbles superposed upon OPEC punitive pricing (for “meddling” with our wars in their middle east affairs,  affairs which include sending terrorists into our midst to kill us).  Those are superposed in turn upon the basic supply-and-demand effects (which actually are there,  but buried). 

The $1.60 per gallon difference between the $3.60 per gallon price I paid this morning,  and the $2.00 per gallon that it should be,  goes to reward those who are raping us economically in a huge oligopoly organized over the decades specifically to do that. 

“Oligopoly” is “monopoly”,  just with more than one pirate at the top of the heap.  Everybody else is an economic slave.  Kinda shows,  don’t it?

Myself,  I like the freely-competitive market.  It’s why bread and soda pop are not ruinously expensive the way vehicle fuels are.

Don’t you wish we had a freely-competitive market in fuels? 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For those who are interested,  I have written articles before about this,  and multiple closely-related topics.  These are listed below by date,  title,  and some indication of content.  Some of these contain plots of inflation-corrected prices for gasoline,  stretching back decades.  Correlating those trends with then-current events can be very revealing.  There is a by-date and by-title navigation on this site,  at the left.
Date      Title  / how related?
9-25-12 On Economic Depressions and Public Policy
              related discussions
3-8-12   Iran,  Oil,  and Economies 
              latest price plots
2-4-11   Oil Prices,  Recessions,  and the War 
              earlier price plots
3-4-10   Addiction,  Monopolies,  and the Oil Price Weapon 
             earliest price plots
1-25-10 To Fight the War on Terror, We Really Need to Know Our Enemy 
              related discussions

Friday, February 15, 2013

On the Two Dangers From Space Friday 2-15-13



The most amazing coincidence happened Friday 2-15-13:  this planet was menaced by two different bodies approaching it from two different directions,  at two wildly-different speeds.  One hit us,  the bigger,  more dangerous one,  did not (quite). Update 2-16-13:  fireball without blast seen over North Carolina Friday night for a third one!  Update 3-6-13:  asteroid 2013ET will pass by about 2.5 lunar radii on Saturday 3-9-13;  having been discovered just days earlier.  This one is football-field size,  which would have been a huge threat as an impact.  The short warning (few days) is a little ominous,  don't you think?  Effective deflection may take years to accomplish.  We may not know in time to do anything but duck and cover,  when one of these finally hits us.  Too bad there is no warning network.

Asteroid 2012DA14 flew by on the predicted path at the predicted speed and at the appointed time,  without hitting us.  All was just as predicted for the early afternoon of that day,  central time.  It was discovered last year,  so we had several months warning to track it and determine that it would miss,  as it did.

Asteroid 2012DA14 was an object about half the size of a high school football field.  Had it struck us,  the explosive yield would have been similar to a multi-megaton nuclear weapon,  causing total destruction over an area hundreds to perhaps a thousand miles in dimension,  a very serious event indeed. 

The meteor that damaged Chelyabinsk in Russia earlier in the morning central time,  was about the size of a city bus,  and was not observed before it struck.  Its explosive yield was in the tens-of-kilotons equivalent,  similar to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki long ago. 

That explosion took place low in the atmosphere,  but not down on the ground,  when the meteor broke up explosively.  The shock wave that it trailed,  plus the shock wave from the explosive breakup,  are what did the damage.  Many separate pieces are already known to have rained down.

News reports by Friday evening fortunately list no dead,  but upwards of 1000 injured,  mostly by flying glass.  Apparently,  one factory suffered a roof collapse.  This could have been very much worse. 

All of the experts agree:  sooner or later,  one of the bigger ones is going to hit the Earth.  If it is big enough,  it does not have to hit a city,  or even the ground at all,  to kill millions of people.  The really large ones cause blast,  fire,  debris fallout,  and all sorts of pollution effects,  that are entirely global (which is exactly what is thought to have killed-off the dinosaurs long ago).

On paper,  there are at least three ways (and perhaps many more) that we might deflect such a threat,  but only if we have enough warning to reach it in time.  In practice,  we have absolutely nothing but an underfunded effort to find and track as many of these things as possible. 

There is not one single funded effort anywhere in the world to try out any of these theoretical means of deflection.   Nor does any country on the planet possess a spaceflight capability that could reach one of these things in time to do any good,  not even the US. 

The probability that we will be wiped out by such an impact in the next few years is pretty close to zero,  but in the next couple of centuries,  pretty large.  But that is only probability:  it could happen tomorrow,  or two-or-more centuries hence.  All we really know is that sooner or later it will happen,  and the consequences are pretty much unthinkable,  far worse than a general nuclear war. 

I cannot think of a better rationale for a government space program than developing the high-energy space travel and asteroid deflection technologies required to protect us,  against the time this disaster actually looms.  (A side benefit of such a capability is the ability to make far faster exploration voyages to places like Mars.) See also the post "On Asteroid Defense and a Good Reason for Having National Space Programs" dated 4-21-09.  Nothing has changed since I wrote that one,  except the Russians got "hit" by a small one. 

Back to the coincidence of two unconnected events happening on the same day:  both dangers from space.   I think that somebody (God,  Mother Nature,  whatever you might believe) is trying to tell us something.  It might be wise to listen.

Footnote:  the UN is looking at the problem of how to warn the world if somebody somewhere spots one of these threats coming at our Earth.  Right now,  there is not even a way to reliably pass the word "duck and cover".  

Update 3-6-13:  there are 3 comets headed our way,  too.  One should be putting on a show to see about sundown a few days from now,  no threat of impact.  There's another like that in November.  And in October,  there's another one that could possibly impact Mars.  We really do live in a shooting gallery. We just didn't know that until recently.  

Third North Korean Nuclear Test


Recent news reports of a third underground nuclear test in North Korea have quickly faded from the news.  Digging behind the scenes,  I see some indications our intelligence community is trying to find out whether it was a plutonium or uranium bomb. 

Last December,  the North Koreans launched a satellite into orbit more-or-less successfully (see the earlier article dated 12-13-12 and titled “On the 12-12-12 North Korean Satellite Launch”,  and also the article dated 4-6-09 and titled “Thoughts on the North Korean Rocket Test and Beyond”).  While the satellite itself was apparently dead-on-arrival,  the rocket worked just fine,  for the first time. 

In principle,  any satellite launcher is also an intercontinental ballistic missile,  the only difference being the details of the flight path one commands.  The range as a missile just gets shorter as the payload gets heavier. 

That satellite (around 220 pounds) was far smaller than a first generation (crude) nuclear weapon (around 9-10,000 pounds).  A second or third generation weapon would be far smaller,  and would fit that rocket much better.  See also the article dated 3-10-12 and titled “On Iran and the Bomb”. 

A while back,  I ran some crude calculations with the scarce and contradictory information available about their rocket,  the Unha-3 (that’s the 12-13-12 article).  These numbers indicated that their rocket might reach the continental US,  if they can get their bomb down to around 2000 pounds or less. 

That would still be a fairly low-yield weapon:  several tens of kilotons,  perhaps.  It will take them only a few years of bomb test work to do that,  same as it took for us long ago.  You can bet that they have very bright people working on it.

There’s more to a real ballistic missile system than just the rocket and a bomb that fits it.  Hitting cities requires very precision guidance (that the “any orbit will do”-satellite doesn’t really need).  The bomb must survive hypersonic atmospheric reentry ,  which means it has to fly stably at such speeds,  and it must have a heat shield. 

There’s no evidence that they have any of these other things yet,  so the smaller,  lighter bomb may not be the pacing item for a North Korean “city-busting” capability against the US.   But,  is that the only mission they might want to do?

Consider a different way of damaging the US (or anybody else),  not by the blast and fire,  but by the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of a very high-altitude detonation.  Even with a small bomb,  this is known to destroy electronics,  and damage the electricity grid,  over a very wide area,  far larger than any city. 

We first seriously encountered this effect from the July 1962 “Starfish Prime” test above Johnston Island in the Pacific.  That warhead was about 1.4 megatons,  detonated about 250 miles up.  Quoting from the 2-14-13 version of the Wikipedia article on this test:

Starfish Prime caused an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which was far larger than expected, so much larger that it drove much of the instrumentation off scale, causing great difficulty in getting accurate measurements. The Starfish Prime electromagnetic pulse also made those effects known to the public by causing electrical damage in Hawaii, about 1,445 kilometres (898 mi) away from the detonation point, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and damaging a telephone company microwave link. The EMP damage to the microwave link shut down telephone calls from Kauai to the other Hawaiian islands.

For an EMP mission,  there is no need for a stable reentry vehicle with heat shield,  or precision guidance.  The blast point is at,  or above,  the very edge of the atmosphere.  All they need is the rocket,  and the smaller bomb to fit it,  and the effect is so widespread no precision guidance is needed. 

A rocket and a bomb to fit it are exactly what the North Koreans have been working on! 

The same is true of Iran!  They have not yet tested a bomb,  but they have launched two satellites,  and they are known to be enriching uranium with centrifuges. 

Does plutonium versus uranium make a difference?  Maybe.

It is easier to build lighter and more compact weapons with plutonium,  once you have mastered the difficult triggering technique.  The plutonium is bred from natural uranium in a nuclear reactor,  so you need some of those in operation,  and they are easy to spot.  

The trigger technique is much easier for the slightly larger and heavier uranium bomb.  For enriched uranium,  you do not need a reactor.  The key to that process is the gas centrifuges,  which are easy to hide.   That,  too,  is what Iran is doing,  and if the North Koreans are also doing it,  we have not spotted it. 

If I had to guess,  I’d say the Iranians are headed for a uranium EMP weapon to ride their rocket,  which they intend to reach Europe,  as well as Israel and their other neighbors.  They just haven’t reached the warhead test stage yet,  nor have they begun figuring out how to make it lighter to fit their rocket.   With the somewhat shorter range requirement as compared to North Korea,  their bomb need not be quite as light,  anyway. 

Also my guess:  the North Koreans are headed for a plutonium EMP weapon to ride their rocket that must cross the Pacific.  They’ve begun warhead testing already,  and will soon figure out how to make the lighter version to fit their rocket:  which just successfully flew for the first time last December.

For both North Korea and Iran,  their nuclear weapons will be able to do more damage as EMP weapons than as direct blast and fire weapons.  That choice eliminates the need for stable entry vehicles and heat shield designs,  and the precision guidance.  

Just shrink the bombs,  and they are ready to hurt other folks very badly. 

And it’s only a small handful of years off ……

“Sweet Dreams”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Real Problems with the Proposed Gun Control Legislation Items

(one bad number corrected below,  2-6-13,  red text color)


I have a real problem with the proposed (so-called) “assault” weapons ban on two counts:  

(1) We tried it before for 10 years,  without any effect on the statistics.  It didn’t work then,  why do it again?

(2) Calling semi-automatic weapons “assault” weapons is a convenient political lie for those with a disarmament agenda,  because it calls up visions of military machine guns.  

This vision is simply wrong:  an AR-15 may look like its machine-gun military M-16 cousin,  but it has operational and use characteristics identical to an ordinary deer rifle.  It is a semi-automatic weapon,  meaning “one trigger-pull,  one bullet”,  not many bullets.  

“Semi-automatic” merely means loading the next bullet is automatic,  you don’t have to work a bolt or lever.  No army in the world today would bring an AR-15 to combat,  they would be completely wiped out by an opposition armed with real machine guns.  

Banning certain guns just because they look like machine guns is the analog to banning certain kinds of cars just because they look “sexy”.  There can be no beneficial effect,  in either case.  

Clip Size Limits?

I have a problem with limits on clip size,  because it is so easy to change clips.  In a crowded room like the Connecticut school,  you can shoot as fast as you can pull the trigger,  without aiming,  and still hit people.  

That’s about 3 or 4 trigger-pulls per second (call it 3.5).  It takes about 2 seconds to change clips,  if you are well-practiced.  

At that rate,  a 10-round clip empties in about 2.9 seconds,  for a total fire-reload cycle time of 4.9 seconds.  In the typical 5-minute minimum police response time,  you can cycle through about  61.2 clips,  and about 612 shots,  maximum possible.  

A larger 30-round clip empties in about 8.6 seconds,  for about 10.6 total seconds fire-reload.  In the same 5 minutes,  one cycles through 28.3 clips,  for 849 shots,  maximum.  849 is only 39% more than 612!  

It’s not enough of a difference to significantly affect the death toll,  as other circumstances in the scenario (such as the actual population of the room,  or a gun jam) will act to limit total shots fired in any one room.  And,  it takes time to find another room.

In a less crowded situation like a shopping mall,  or out on the street,  every shot fired from a semi-automatic weapon must be properly aimed to hit anything,  quite unlike the machine gun.  It takes someone very well-practiced a minimum of 2 seconds to aim between trigger pulls.

A 10-round clip at 2 seconds per shot empties in 20 seconds,  plus 2 to change clips,  for a total 22 second cycle.  In the same 5 minutes,  one can cycle through 13.6 (was incorrect at 16.6) clips for 136 shots.  

A 30 round clip at 2 seconds per shot empties in 60 seconds,  plus 2 to change clips,  for a total 62 second cycle.  In 5 minutes that’s 4.8 clips and 145 shots.  

145 is only 6.6% larger than 136,  which is almost no difference at all!  

The Real Problems Have Nothing to do with the Hardware

I hope you noticed that the real driver here is response time!  Typical towns have a 5 to 10 minute response time,  some as long as 30 minutes.  Rural areas can take even longer.  That’s a lot of shots in any scenario,  and no politician can legislate a solution to that.  

One of the questions we face is why do politicians love doing ineffective things like “assault” weapons bans or clip size limits?  They typically insist on doing useless things like that,  instead of doing something with real effect,  such as fixing background check loopholes or properly defending declared gun-free zones.

Politicians like to do things that are very public,  but without significant real effect,  simply because they like to have something reliably “favorable” to point at,  for the next election.  Doing something of real effect could affect their record negatively,  if it doesn't work right.  

A Regulatory Change That Could Help

The only regulation or lawmaking item that make sense to me is stopping the quite-evident leaks in the background check process,  but I still oppose any federal database associated with it,  as both a Second Amendment abridgement objection,  and a Fourth Amendment unreasonable-search objection.  

We need something that triggers a deeper check,  when the seller is uncomfortable with his impression of “how-right-in-the-head” is the buyer.  That alone would have denied or delayed Gabby Gifford’s shooter.  

Such a deeper check should look at ongoing treatment for mental problems,  not just a court decision of insanity.  It cannot plug the leak entirely,  because such folks would then go to the black market,  so there will always be a problem.

Something That Does Make Sense

The only other thing that makes sense is,  that if you're going to have a gun-free zone,  then you must defend it.  Otherwise it is a publicly-advertised defenseless concentrated targetthe very thing wackos,  criminals,  and terrorists are looking for.

We had a very successful model for this in the American "Old West",  a model with nearly a century of demonstrated success.  Towns became gun-free zones,  which stopped a lot of dueling in the streets,  and a lot of drunken gunplay in saloons.  But there are three facets to that modeltwo of which are always forgotten todayWithout all three,  it does not work.

Facet 1no guns within the zone (city limits in the Old West).  

Facet 2:  you check your guns with the town peace officer, and come on in - no access restriction (plus,  your guns are safe,  and immediately available to you as you leave).  

Facet 3:  the gun free zone is protected by armed peace officers on a very short response timeabout 60 seconds.   That's because towns in the Old West were under two modern city blocks in dimension,  so that an armed deputy at a dogtrot was always less than 60 seconds away.

Now,  that model worked just fine.  But you need all three facets to make it work.  In today's larger communities,  you need peace officers on patrol or on station,  widely dispersed,  so that one is never more than 60 seconds away.  Most response times today are 5-10 minutes,  some over 30 minutes.  That's unacceptable,  and,  not amenable to a legislative solution. 

And you note I said "peace officers".  Those armed protectors do really need full peace officer training,  because they will be handling all sorts of cries for help,  not just defense against armed attack.  

That's why arming teachers (with concealed-carry training only) in a school won't work.  Besides,  you don't want their guns inside the actual classrooms,  right there with the kids.  

Having armed campus cops very close by,  with real peace officer certificates,  will work.  And,  it would have worked in Connecticut! 

CONCLUSIONS

It makes no sense at all not to do what worked so well before:  properly defending gun free zones.   

It also makes no sense to do things that can’t,  or won’t,  or didn’t work:  most of the things proposed today,  upgraded background check excluded.