Oil Independence

Last week the United States passed a milestone that is almost unimaginable for those of us who have lived through the “oil crises” of the past.  For the first time in 75 years, America ended its dependence on foreign oil and became a net oil exporter.

shutterstock_360583700-0The transition of America to a state of energy independence has largely occurred because of the huge surge in production of oil and natural gas from shale formations that have been found throughout the country, in Texas, and North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, and even here in Ohio.  Last week there was a sharp drop in imports and a sharp increase in exports that nudged the U.S. into energy independence territory.  And while the production of oil will vary, the amount of oil-producing shale formations will likely keep America in positive net production territory for some time.

What does America’s status as a net oil exporter mean?  The oil boom has obviously produced a lot of new wealth and jobs in the U.S., but more broadly it means that the role of OPEC as a major world player, capable of affecting the economies of oil-using countries with a few pricing decisions — or even worse, embargoes — has been greatly diminished.  In fact, the production from the United States has effectively flipped the power equation, because many of our producing wells are profitable at oil prices as low as $30 a barrel, which is a lower price than is profitable for many OPEC countries.

The American oil boom thus presents OPEC with a serious challenge:  if it tries to enforce higher prices, buyers will turn to American oil and OPEC countries will lose market share — but because Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries need higher prices to be profitable, OPEC can’t afford to let profits fall.  Last week in Vienna, OPEC and Russia announced an agreement to cut production in order to keep prices up.  It remains to be seen whether that agreement will work, given American production, or whether OPEC members will begin trying to recapture market share by selling at lower prices than OPEC is trying to enforce.  In fact, there are signs that the oil cartel is fraying around the edges.  Last week, for example, Qatar announced that it is leaving OPEC.

Imagine:  an American foreign policy that no longer needs to focus obsessively on the Middle East in order to ensure that the oil spigot remains turned on.  That’s just one of the interesting consequences of our surging domestic production.

 

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British Swear Words

Do our polite and refined friends from across the pond curse?  I know they use words like “bloody” when they want to up the emphasis a notch and demonstrate that they are really miffed, but do they ever actually swear?

Apparently they do!  Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s communications regulator — who even knew they had one! — interviewed more than 200 people to determine how they reacted to an array of rude and offensive terms and swear words, and then ranked them in order of offensiveness.  In order to be sure that they covered every form of communication, they threw in a few well-known hand gestures, too.  Words in the mild category include “bloody,” “bugger,” “damn” and “arse,” as well as “crap.”  (It’s hard to imagine someone with a British accent ever saying “crap,” isn’t it?)  “Ginger” and “minger” — which means an unpleasant or unattractive person — were also placed in the mild category.

The medium category then includes words like “bitch,” “bollocks” (which Americans of my age know because of the Sex Pistols) and “pissed,” as well as words I’ve never heard used, like “munter” (an ugly or excessively drunk person) and “feck” (a milder substitute for you-know-what).  From there we move up to the strong category, which curiously has “bastard” in it — suggesting that the Brits find “bastard” a lot more offensive than we do, perhaps of the connotations of the word in a land that still has royalty and nobility — and “fanny,” which seems pretty mild to me.  The strong category also includes a bunch of British slang I’ve not heard of before.  From there, the list moves up to the strongest category, where the queen mother of curses sits, as expected, atop the swear list pyramid.

The list apparently is to be used by the Brits in their communications, with words rated as mild considered to be okay to use around children, whereas most people thought the “medium” and “strong” words shouldn’t be used until after 9 p.m.  The study also found, encouragingly, that the Brits are increasingly offended by words involving race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that the Brits ever say “crap.”

Power Naps

The President Of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has come under fire recently for his behavior during the Association for South East Asian Nations summit.  Duterte is a controversial figure for a lot of reasons, but the latest kerfuffle arises from his decision to skip some of the ASEAN meetings and take a “power nap” instead.

When he was questioned about it, the 73-year-old Duterte responded:  “What’s wrong with my nap?”

That’s an entirely valid question in my book. ASEAN meetings probably aren’t the most thrilling events, and not every meeting with a group of world leaders is a life and death occasion.  Is it really so bad if a world leader plops on a couch and dozes off now and then? I don’t know if President Trump enjoys a refreshing afternoon siesta, but if he doesn’t I think it couldn’t hurt if he adopted that practice.  He’d probably feel better about catching up on some shut-eye, and we might even avoid a few of those ill-advised tweets as a result.

Many of us of a certain age brought towels to our full-day kindergarten and, when the teacher told us to roll them out on the floor after lunch, we stretched out and took a short nap on command.  I don’t know about you, but I really liked kindergarten, and I think the afternoon nap probably had something to do with it.  Unfortunately, we don’t continue with the nap as part of the school routine post-kindergarten, and we certainly don’t build it into the average American workday — as opposed to Latin countries, where the siesta is a key part of the culture, is perfectly timed to coincide with the lull in human biorhythms, and allows for recharge and replenishment.

So President Duterte missed a few meetings?  So what?  ASEAN will soldier along somehow, despite his brief absence, and as long as he didn’t oversleep to the point of grogginess I bet he felt a lot better — and was a lot easier to deal with — after he woke up, stretched, appreciated his chance to rest, and moved forward with his day.

I repeat:  What’s wrong with a nap?

Toilet Technology

Technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds in many areas, but there’s one device that really hasn’t changed all that much:  the toilet.  And in many areas of the world, even the standard toilet found in American bathrooms in the year 1900 would be a huge leap forward.

Proper waste disposal is crucial if the human hopes to deal with disease and health areas in underdeveloped areas that don’t have toilets and sewage systems and water treatment plants and other waste-related infrastructure that Americans take for granted.  So I applaud Bill Gates for taking the lead in trying to spur new approaches to toilet design and sludge disposal, with the goal being to break waste down into its constituent entities, conserve water in areas where potable water is scarce, and deal with the bacteria, microbes, and other disease carrying entities that are associated with human waste.  You can read about some of the new approaches, and the efforts made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in this area, here.

The linked article suggests that advancing toilet technology could save the world more than $200 billion every year.  I’ll let others do the math, but I think the key is to use technology for more than just room-sweeping robots and better selfie quality.  I’m glad to see that people are trying to tackle a basic problem that could produce immeasurable benefits in the quality of life of people who live in underdeveloped parts of the world.

All Beers Are Not Created Equal

Deutsche Bank has performed a useful service for travelers who enjoy a fermented beverage now and then:  its latest Mapping The World’s Prices report includes a pint of beer as one of the cost items being surveyed.  As a result, beer fans (like me) can get a sense of the comparative cost of a glass of suds in 50 different cities around the world.

save-pubs-hed-page-2018According to this year’s report, the most expensive pint is in Dubai, in the Arab Emirates, where the average cost of a cold one is $12.  Oslo, Norway is the only other city to exceed the $10 barrier for a brewski.  The most expensive beers in the U.S. are found in New York City and San Francisco — no surprise there — where you’ll pay an average of $7.70 and $7.40, respectively, and Boston isn’t far behind at $6.70.  The cheapest pint can be found in Manila, in the Philippines, where beer afficionados can slake their thirst for only $1.50.  Columbus isn’t one of the 50 cities on the list, but in my experience the beer costs here are closer to the Manila end of the spectrum — which is one of the many nice things about living in Ohio’s capital city.

But while the Deutsche Bank report is useful for travelers who might want to factor in beer costs to their trip planning, it really doesn’t tell the whole story.  A beer isn’t always just a beer.  To me, at least, whether we’re talking about a lager, an ale, one of those infernal bitter IPAs that seem to dominate beer menus these days, or something else, would make a real difference.  Even $1.50 for an IPA would be more than I would pay.

And the setting is important, too.  I’m guessing that someone coming into a pub from the fiery heat of Dubai might consider $12 for a cold one to be a bargain.  And speaking as someone who particularly enjoys the dark, warm, woody ambiance of a real British pub like the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, I’ll gladly pay $7.20 that is the average cost of a beer in London.

The New Space Race

The old Space Race, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, is on full display in the excellent film First Man.  The new space race doesn’t have the same ideological, future of civilization elements as the old one, and is a lot more multi-faceted, but it’s just as important to our long-term future in space.

And right now, the United States is winning.

wvws_falcon-heavy-demo-2310The new space race focuses on commercial spaceflight and launching vehicles into space.  For years, the United States was playing catch-up to the Europeans, and trailing badly.  The Euros were launching the majority of satellites and vehicles into space, using their Ariane rocket, while the United States was retiring its primary launch vehicle, the space shuttle, without having any back-up in place.  In 2011, when the shuttle was retired, there were no commercial satellite launches from any American spaceports, and for the next few years the launch industry was dominated by the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, launching from government-backed providers.

But now the tide has turned.  America led the way in commercial launches in 2016 and 2017, and 2018 is shaping up to be even better.  The trend is so pronounced that European advocates are afraid that they are falling behind and won’t catch up.

The reason for trend is that the United States has made room for commercial entities, like SpaceX, to enter the launching game.  While the United States government still is a major player in space, SpaceX’s focus on innovation and cost control, through use of reusable rockets, have made it extremely competitive in bidding for launch jobs, whether it is commercial satellites being placed into orbit or missions to the international space station.  And new entrants to the competition, like Blue Origin, are set to participate — which is likely to make the American lead even more pronounced.  The article linked above notes:  “the uniquely American approach of government support and investment in private space is paying dividends, creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort.”

It’s nice to know that American capitalism, and good old-fashioned competition, can still produce innovation and leadership — and now in space.

A Bridge Too Far

Over in the Far East, they’ve just opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge.  Connecting Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese city of Zhuhai, the bridge cost $20 billion and is 34 miles long.  It took nine years to build, involved the creation of artificial islands, dips into a tunnel under a busy harbor area, and is supposed to be designed to withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and collisions with oversized tankers.

551478a8-d1f0-11e8-81a4-d952f5356e85_1320x770_022145It’s an impressive engineering feat, no doubt — but when I read about the bridge I mostly felt relief that I wouldn’t have to drive across it.

I’m not a big fan of driving on those lengthy bridges that span bays or harbor or rivers.  The towering height over the water, the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being penned in as you cross, and the concern that you are putting yourself totally in the hands of approaching drivers who might be hedging toward the middle — or, even worse, trying to take a photo with their phone — combine to make a long bridge crossing an uncomfortable experience for me.  I grip the steering wheel a little tighter as I cross.

I’m not alone in this.  Years ago, when Kish and I once traversed the colossal Chesapeake Bay bridge, we learned that some people simply could not bring themselves to drive across it — so many people, in fact, that there were drivers stationed at each end to help people make the trip.  Perhaps that’s at least part of the reason why most drivers won’t even have the opportunity to drive on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai span in their own cars; they’re required to park in Hong Kong and take a shuttle bus or a special hire car to cross the bridge.

If I ever have to cross this new, world’s longest sea-spanning bridge, I’d be happy to have somebody else do the driving.  A 34-mile-long bridge might be a bridge too far for me.