Friday, December 21, 2012

Best Posts of 2012

Best Posts of 2012
All of these posts can be accessed from the archive list at the left margin, and some have hot links.
Is a Cat Microbe Changing Your Behavior?  Mar/5/12  Is an ancient parasite controlling our brains?
Are Bar Flies Just Sex-starved Males?  Mar/23/12
Electric Car Battery Cost  Apr/19/12
1493, by Charles C. Mann   May/6/12  The Cat's book review--this is a must read.
U.S. Debt Not a Problem. Jun/25/12
What They Won't Tell You About Farm Bills.  Aug/4/12  The secret success. For eighty years, American Farm Policy has actually been astounding success.  But it's a success that its architects dare not take credit for, as this would require them to disclose what the goals were. No American government will ever do this.
How Ancient Builders Moved Things.  Aug/12/12
Oil, Imperialism, and the Real Causes of WWI.  Sep/18/12  A review and synopsis of Wm. Engdahl's book,   A Century of War.   A must read.
When Computers Were Reliable.  Oct/14/12
The Germs That Make Us Us.  Oct/22/ 12
The Ethicization of Religion.  Nov/20/12  The Long Shadow of Zarathustra.
An Optimist Looks at His Future. Mar/28/12  A grimly whimsical look at modern life.  Are you the type who always finds the worst case scenario?  No, you're not!  Not compared to me.
The Real Housing Crisis.  Feb/4/12  A view from the epicenter of an economic disaster. Probably my best post, it is also the longest. It's  an insider's view of what happens when the job market and housing market in a whole region completely collapses around you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gasoline Price Explained

           A few weeks before the election in the U.S.,  gasoline prices began to drop a bit.  Now, everyone knows that voters are more likely to re-elect the party in power when prices are stable--and less likely to do so if prices, especially fuel prices, are high and rising.  So everyone had a theory as to who was manipulating  prices for political purposes. The right wing pundits suggested that Obama was secretly releasing oil from the strategic reserve to buy votes.  My own theory was that the oil barons, although they do not particularly like Obama, realized that the alternative to his being re-elected was to actually have Mitt Romney as President, a prospect which scared the hell out of them.  And so they were trying to beat down the gas price to prevent Romney's election.
            But after sober reconsidering, I realize that no person or agency was manipulating anything at all.  What happened is that in the northern temperate zone, where most of the world's cars are,  winter fuel blend is not the same as summer fuel.   About mid-October, the refineries briefly shut down and re-tool to make winter blend gasoline.  This fuel is lighter and will vaporize at a lower temperature. Back when we used engines with carburetors, this lighter fuel was absolutely necessary for cold weather starting. But in extreme cold weather, even cars with modern fuel injection systems may require a lighter mix to run well.  So about mid-October, we all start buying a different fuel.   The oil companies love this because this lighter blend of hydrocarbons weighs less per gallon, and they can get a few more gallons per barrel of crude oil.  But by dumping more gallons on the market, this bids the price down. 
            And of course, we consumers are delighted to have a lower price.  But nowadays,  a lot of cars are equipped  with a digital readout on the dashboard with gives an instantaneous estimate of fuel consumption in miles per gallon.   And as soon as you start burning winter gas, you notice that the gas you paid 10% less for will also give you 10% fewer miles per gallon.  Why?  What happens is that fuel consumption per pound (or per kilogram) remains exactly the same, but there are fewer pounds per gallon ( grams per liter).  If fuel were priced per pound instead of per gallon, the price and gas millage would have remained unchanged.
            This change in mass density of the fuel would itself have explained a 10% drop in price.  But by today, the total price decrease in my area has been about 14%.  The additional 4% is due to the fact that in cold weather, people drive less.  If you live in the "frost belt", there aren't many things to do or places to go in cold weather that would actually be a pleasant experience, so people stay home as much as possible.  And with fewer gallons of gas sold, normal supply and demand factors have depressed the price.
            When we feel miserable, we try to put a face on our problem.  We look for an "oil executive in the woodpile".    We like to identify some particular individual or institution to blame for our misfortune.  But sometimes our fortunes are tied to the impersonal forces of supply and demand.  Do not think I am championing the value of "free markets."  Having watched market forces all my life, I can assure you that except perhaps for John Maynard Keynes, no man ever lived who had a lower opinion of "the market."  Schumpeter believed that markets cause "creative destruction."   He was partly right.  Market forces are almost always destructive--but not always creative.  When we say we have free market forces, that is merely a polite way of saying that we have  chaos.  There was a time when Saudi Arabia could control the price of crude oil. And there was a time when the US, acting as the world's largest consumer, could also dictate the price of crude. In the 90s, the U.S.  broke the price of crude oil simply by using less.  But with China entering the market, those days are gone. Today, no one controls the market--it's simply chaos.  But with chaos, at least no one is in charge of it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ingenious Old Boilers

           I just helped cut up an old steam boiler--a 1913, Kewanee 300 hp coal fired, fire tube, low pressure steam boiler.  This is the boiler which originally heated the building where I now reside.  I live in an abandoned school building.  Not a cute little one-room school, but a three story brick building that once held classes for grades 1 thru 12.  As larger farms replaced small farms throughout the 20th century, rural areas such as the one where I live lost population, and many schools were shut down as the districts were re-organized.  My building was last used as a school in 1961, and I obtained it about a decade later.  I carved out a small apartment, about one fifth of the total square footage, which I then heavily insulated, and which I heat with a small LP gas furnace.  So since 1961, the old boiler has just sat there rusting.   A good thing, since it burned 300 tons of coal the last winter it was used.  The carbon footprint of operating such a monstrous teakettle (about the size of a small railroad locomotive) would be absurd.
            The thermal efficiency of coal boilers has improved since the days of the old fire tube boilers.  A modern "water tube" boiler in a coal fired power plant can yield over 90% efficiency, whereas the old fire tube boilers were lucky to get 15%.  So I was surprised to discover that these old boilers still showed some ingenious engineering. For instance, the thickness of the iron plate walls was not uniform throughout, but each area was only as thick as it had to be.  The main boiler walls were 1/2 inch thick, but the crown plates were only 3/8th".
              My boiler  was a "scotch boiler" design, but perhaps I should  digress a bit to explain exactly what that means.  A "straight through" boiler is simply a heavy walled horizontal barrel with a "crown plate"  welded or riveted across each end.  About 72  three inch tubes run through the length of  the barrel and through 3" holes in the plate, and then end. The tubes are secured and sealed to the plate around the outside of each tube, so that fire can flow through the tubes, but steam cannot get out of the chamber which surrounds the tubes.  The reason that the crown plates could be thinner is that the 72 tubes fastened to it would reinforce it.   A "straight through" boiler simply had a fire box at one end and the flames went through the boiler tubes to the other end and up the chimney.  The barrel, laid horizontally, had to be heavy enough to withstand the pressure of the steam, and long enough to allow the fire to travel far enough for the heat to be absorbed by the water and steam.
            But with a Scotch boiler,  the whole barrel is only half as long, but the flue gasses travel the same distance.  This is done by having the hot gasses first travel through only the lower 36 tubes, then be directed back through the upper 36 tubes.  So the fire goes through the boiler twice.  But this means that the last 5 ft before the fire goes up the chimney, it goes right over the fire box where it started. That means that the barrier between the fire box and the steam chamber is a flat plate that forms the roof of the fire box. So at that point, the steam chamber is a "D" shaped space with its floor as the ceiling of the fire box, and the ceiling being the top of the outer hull. So although the roof of the fire box was flat, it had steam pressure above it. But being flat, it did not have the strength of cylindrical walls found in the rest of the boiler.   To compensate for this, a forest of  3/4" iron rods connected this flat plate to the arched walls above.  When I discussed this with my brother, a former Navy boiler man, he explained that these rods would not only reinforce the walls, but also conduct heat.  And the fire box itself had double walls on three sides, with water circulating in between. Any heat which escaped from the fire box would still be heating water. Yet these walls, being flat,  also had to have 3/4" iron rods between them.
            Those who built boilers one hundred years ago did not have the sophisticated technology that we have today--but they were certainly not fools.
Note:  If this kind of post interests you, I have another post called, Ingenious Old Windmills