What I'm Reading
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Wednesday, August 31. 2005
On the heels of Hurricane Katrina's, oil prices have been rising because the hurricane damaged a lot of oil infrastructure in the area. To help increase the supply of oil, President Bush announced that he would release oil from America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
This reserve is quite interesting. After the OPEC oil embargo against the West, America created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to keep the nation going in the event of a short-term disruption in oil supplies. They spent approximately $4 billion in the 70s constructing the reserve. The reserve was designed to store enough oil to last for 60 days. Right now, about 700 million barrels of oil can be stored in the reserve.
All this oil is stored in salt caverns underground. This government website explains:
Salt caverns can be used for oil field waste disposal or for hydrocarbon storage. Caverns are appropriate for drilling wastes because they can readily accept wastes that contain excessive levels of solids. The surface footprint and chance of surface-related problems are greatly reduced from that of a land treatment or landfill operation. Wastes are placed deep underground in an impermeable and self-healing matrix of salt. No leaks or releases have been observed from the limited number of caverns used for disposal. Since salt caverns are essentially impermeable, they are ideal for storing large quantities of high pressure hydrocarbon.
[From the wikipedia: "The decision to store in caverns was taken to reduce costs; the Dept. of Energy claims it is roughly 10 times cheaper to store oil below surface with the added advantages of no leaks and a constant natural churn of the oil due to a temperature gradient in the caverns."]
The wikipedia has an interesting article about Bush's plan for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve:
On November 13, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the SPR would be filled, saying, "The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an important element of our Nation's energy security. To maximize long-term protection against oil supply disruptions, I am directing...the Secretary of Energy to fill the SPR up to its 700 million barrel [111,000,000 m³] capacity." The highest prior level was reached in 1994 with 592 million barrels (94 million m³). At the time of President Bush's directive, the SPR contained about 545 million barrels (87 million m³). By redirecting a certain amount of imported crude oil to the reserve, some think this effectively raised oil prices by 28 cents per gallon (7c/L). Since the directive in 2001, the capacity of the SPR increased by 27 million barrels (4.3 million m³) due to natural corrosion of the salt caverns in which the reserves are stored.
On August 17, 2005, the SPR reached its goal of 700 million barrels (111,000,000 m³), or about 96% of its now-increased 727 million barrel capacity.
I'm sure people grumbled back in 2001 about Bush causing oil prices to go up because he wanted to fill up the reserve to maximum capacity. However, it was probably a good move since that extra oil will come in handy now especially since the hurricane did so much damage to the energy infrastructure. The wikipedia reports that "Katrina had shut down an estimated 95% of crude production and 88% of natural gas output in the Gulf of Mexico. This amounted to a quarter of total US output. About 735 oil and natural gas rigs and platforms had been evacuated due to the hurricane." Oil prices dropped because of the extra oil being released into the market from the reserve. Oil prices could have been much worse. Kudos to President Bush on this one. The Department of Energy's website says that the oil can be released to the market in 13 days after a Presidential order is given.
Interestingly enough, the Chinese government has seen the wisdom behind a strategic petroleum reserve, and China is building their own reserve. It's probably a good idea, but it'd be super expensive to fill it these days. The reserve will hold 100 million barrels of oil.
Monday, August 29. 2005
As time progresses, more and more interesting stories from the Cold War become declassified and made public. I find these previously secret exploits quite interesting since a lot of the war was waged in secret, and there are many unsung heroes. There's a saying I heard that relates to this: if your intelligence service does something, and no one has a clue that they've done anything at all, then they're doing their jobs right.
Today's article is entitled, "Soviets Burned By CIA Hackers," from Wired Magazine:
Thomas C. Reed, a former secretary of the Air Force and special assistant to President Reagan, detailed the stunning story in At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War.
According to Reed, the Reagan administration faced a choice in 1981 when it "gained access to a KGB agent in their technical intelligence directorate" and discovered that Soviet theft of American technology had been "massive."
"In essence, the Pentagon had been in an arms race with itself," Reed said in a phone interview.
Rather than arrest everyone they could to try to close the operation down and halt further espionage, CIA director William Casey and National Security Council staffer Gus Weiss cooked up a better plan: They turned into hackers.
"(Soviet agents) stole stuff, and we knew what they were going to steal," Reed said. "Every microchip they stole would run fine for 10 million cycles, and then it would go into some other mode. It wouldn't break down, it would start delivering false signals and go to a different logic."
The most spectacular result of this hacking, according to Reed, was a massive explosion during the summer of 1982 in the controversial pipeline delivering Siberian natural gas to Western Europe.
Soviet spies stole software needed to operate the pipeline, not knowing that "it had a few lines of software added that constituted a Trojan horse," said Reed. "They checked it out, it looked fine, and ran just fine for a few months. But the Trojan horse was programmed to let it run for four or five months and then the pumps and compressors are told, 'Today is the day we are going to run a pressure test at some significantly increased pressure.'"
He continued: "We expected that the pipeline would spring leaks all the way from Siberia to Germany, but that wasn't what happened. Instead the welds all blew apart. It was a huge explosion. The Air Force thought it was a 3-kiloton blast."
From another article entitled, "CIA Slipped Bugs To Soviets":
"In order to disrupt the Soviet gas supply, its hard currency earnings from the West, and the internal Russian economy, the pipeline software that was to run the pumps, turbines, and valves was programmed to go haywire, after a decent interval, to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to pipeline joints and welds," Reed writes.
"The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space," he recalls, adding that U.S. satellites picked up the explosion. Reed said in an interview that the blast occurred in the summer of 1982.
"While there were no physical casualties from the pipeline explosion, there was significant damage to the Soviet economy," he writes. "Its ultimate bankruptcy, not a bloody battle or nuclear exchange, is what brought the Cold War to an end. In time the Soviets came to understand that they had been stealing bogus technology, but now what were they to do? By implication, every cell of the Soviet leviathan might be infected. They had no way of knowing which equipment was sound, which was bogus. All was suspect, which was the intended endgame for the entire operation."
The entire ploy was quite brilliant in my opinion. Since the communists were stealing technology from America, we might as well let them steal faulty technology. This wouldn't be a bad strategy against a certain big communist country that happens to be stealing our technology these days.
If you're interested, a more detailed article about this exploit by the CIA is available in this article, "CIA Slipped Bugs To Soviets," which comes from the Washington Post.
Saturday, August 27. 2005
I was talking with an accomplice the other day about paying for tuition at university. He told me that he couldn't qualify to get money from the government's student loan program because his household makes too much money; therefore he does not qualify. The government assumes that his parents help out somewhat with paying for tuition which wasn't the case. So, when he couldn't get a loan from the government, he looked to other sources.
To my horror, he told me that he used his credit card's line of credit to pay for tuition. I'll break this down later, but I'll say that keeping debt on a credit card is one of the most dangerous things ever.
I asked him why he didn't go to a bank and get a student line of credit instead. He answered, oh the banks charge even more interest than my credit card. This is NOT true at all.
Let's do the calculations. (I'm pulling all my numbers Royal Bank). To keep the calculations simple, I'm assuming that no payments will be made during the span of a year.
Case #1: Student Loans via Credit Card
Amount in debt: $2,500
Annual Interest Rate: 18.5% (assuming a student visa card)
After first year, interest payment amount: $462.50
Total Owing after first year: $2,500 + 462.50 = $2962.50
Total Owing after second year: $3510.56
Case #2: Student Loans via Bank's Student Line of Credit
Amount in debt: $2,500
Annual Interest Rate: 5.25% (prime rate + 1%)
After first year, interest payment amount: $131.25
Total Owing after first year: $2,500 + 131.25 = $2631.25
Total Owing after second year: $2769.39
The formula used for each year's total owing is:
(Amount In Debt) x (1 + (Interest Rate / 100))
($2,500) x (1 + (18.5 / 100)) = $2962.50 (Year 1)
($2962.50) x (1 + (18.5 / 100)) = $3510.56 (Year 2)
As we can see, by going with a bank's student line of credit, the interest payments are much much less. My accomplice could save $331.25 in the first year by ditching the credit card debt and going with the bank's line of credit. Three hundred dollars can go a long way! That could be enough to buy about a hundred tacos for example. We can also see that a credit card's interest rate is obscenely high, and that is why one should never hold credit card debt.
I'm generally opposed to the idea of even holding debt, but sometime's there's no choice. In those cases, one should at least borrow money wisely and do some research. It makes a huge difference of how quickly you can get out of debt.
Wednesday, August 24. 2005
Today we will be looking at an article from the Washington Post entitled, "Asians, Americans Show Perceptual Divide," which talks about a study done on how we look at the world. Let's begin with excerpts from the article.
Asians and North Americans really do see the world differently. Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene, according to University of Michigan researchers.
"They literally are seeing the world differently," said Nisbett, who believes the differences are cultural.
"Asians live in a more socially complicated world than we do," he said in a telephone interview. "They have to pay more attention to others than we do. We are individualists. We can be bulls in a china shop, they can't afford it."
The key thing in Chinese culture is harmony, Nisbett said, while in the West the key is finding ways to get things done, paying less attention to others.
And that, he said, goes back to the ecology and economy of times thousands of years ago.
In ancient China, farmers developed a system of irrigated agriculture, Nisbett said. Rice farmers had to get along with each other to share water and make sure no one cheated.
Western attitudes, on the other hand, developed in ancient Greece where there were more people running individual farms, raising grapes and olives, and operating like individual businessmen.
So differences in perception go back at least 2,000 years, he said.
Aristotle, for example, focused on objects. A rock sank in water because it had the property of gravity, wood floated because it had the property of floating. He would not have mentioned the water. The Chinese, though, considered all actions related to the medium in which they occurred, so they understood tides and magnetism long before the West did.
Nisbett illustrated this with a test asking Japanese and Americans to look at pictures of underwater scenes and report what they saw.
The Americans would go straight for the brightest or most rapidly moving object, he said, such as three trout swimming. The Japanese were more likely to say they saw a stream, the water was green, there were rocks on the bottom and then mention the fish.
The Japanese gave 60 percent more information on the background and twice as much about the relationship between background and foreground objects as Americans, Nisbett said.
In the latest test, the researchers tracked the eye movement of the Chinese and Americans as they looked at pictures.
The Americans looked at the object in the foreground sooner, a leopard in the jungle for example, and they looked at it longer. The Chinese had more eye movement, especially on the background and back and forth between the main object and the background, he said.
Reinforcing the belief that the differences are cultural, he said, when Asians raised in North America were studied, they were intermediate between native Asians and European-Americans, and sometimes closer to Americans in the way they viewed scenes.
I personally wouldn't read too much into the study, but it does bring out some interesting points. My favourite quote is, "the Americans would go straight for the brightest or most rapidly moving object." So mental note, North Americans like shiny objects, that will be their achilles heel, muahaha j/k.
I think the whole concept that Chinese society is built on harmony because our farming system required that no one cheated .... I think that's a bit far fetched. I think any successful civilization requires a certain amount of harmony to prosper and survive. In addition, I think it's human nature to cheat when it comes to scarce resources. On the other hand, I think everyone has the capacity to strive for peace and harmony. I think it's universally true and not limited to a certain culture.
Good and evil is inherent in all humanity.
Tuesday, August 23. 2005
A few weeks ago, one of my co-workers showed me this awesome piece of P2P music piracy propaganda.
The saying goes, "when you pirate MP3s, you're downloading communism, a reminder by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)." As you may know, the RIAA has been waging a bitter war against music pirates.
Friday, August 19. 2005
Today when I got home, I noticed that there was a letter from the Provincial Ministry of Finance in my mailbox. At first, my soul groaned as I thought, crap, more taxes to pay. I opened the letter and to my surprise, it was a cheque for a few hundred dollars!
A few months ago, I blogged about getting my Medical Service Plan (MSP) payment reduced. I took the steps outlined in that article, sent in a form, and a few months later, I've got results. It appears that I've been paying TOO much on my healthcare this year so far, so they've refunded a portion of that back. In either case, I encourage you, if you make less than $28,000 a year (net income), then you qualify to get your public healthcare payment lowered.
If you're wondering what net income is, it's the amount you make after all the deductions you do on your taxes. You can find out what your net income is by looking at your Notice of Assessment that the government sends you after you file your taxes. There should be a row called net income.
Anyways, horray, this nice chunk of change is going into the computer fund.
Wednesday, August 17. 2005
Normally summertime is plagued with re-runs on television. At the beginning of summer, I was searching for shows to follow as many of the shows I watched had concluded. The options were reality shows or syndicated sitcoms. During the search, I came across quite a number of interesting documentaries on PBS and KCTS, both publically funded television stations. I was shocked, they had some fairly decent primetime material. Usually I assumed that those channels had those dang antiquing shows, as exciting as they were. I'm quite happy that public television channels don't have commercials in the middle of the show. They leave the commercials to the end of the hour which is quite nice (usually).
In either case, I came across the best reality show ever called Spy. It airs on KCTS (channel 19) every Thursday at 9:00pm.
The premise of the show is that they selected the best eight candidates out of thousands of applicants, and they put them through spy school and missions. The school is run by former members of various intelligence services such as the American CIA, and the British MI5. They teach the candidates a number of spycraft skills such as blending into crowds, passing secret packages, creating cover stories, surveillance, resisting torture, infiltrating buildings, social engineering, recruiting agents, counter-surveillance, use of eavesdropping devices and electronics, and passive observation. Each week they are taught a skill, and they have to complete several missions to demonstrate what they have learned.
One of the first missions they had to accomplish was using social engineering to pursuade people to do things for them. This first test is used by the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, in real life to test their new trainees. The mission was to go a designated apartment complex, and get one of the tenants to let you into their house and onto the porch. Once on the porch, you had to be seen by your teammates drinking water with the tenant. In the mission, you weren't allowed to use physical force to pursuade someone to let you in, and the police must not get involved. There was also a time limit of five minutes for this mission. Pause to consider how you might pull this off.
It's interesting how the candidates prepared for the mission. They had to consciously decide what to wear, and create a cover story. The way you dress greatly affects how much people trust you. One of the candidates was a black guy, and he decided to wear a toque, and a heavy puffy winter jacket. So, he looked like a stereotypical gangster which isn't the best idea. He then knocked on the door of one of the apartments, and a young single college girl answered the door. The guy just asked if he could come in and have a look around. The girl kind of panicked and quickly ended the conversation as she was kind of scared of him, and shut the door on him. Another candidate dressed up in a suit, and knocked on one of the doors. A girl answered and he told her that he wanted to have a look inside because he was considering renting a suite. The girl said no, but the guy was pushing and insisted to come in. The girl panicked and decided to call the cops on him. That was pretty funny, the guy was escorted off the property by police officers. One of the more novel cover stories used was that someone pretended they were on a reality show, and the task was to get on the balcony sipping some water. The candidate promised to mail the tenant a cheque for $1,000 if he won the contest. This person accomplished the mission by exploiting man's greed. Clever.
Last week was probably the best episode yet. They had to do static surveillance on a house full of students. An informant lived in the house and gave the candidates a map of the inside of the house, and left doors and windows unlocked so that the candidates could break into the house. So this was a team based mission where the spies had to work together. One team decided to use the back of a van as an observation post to spy on the students. This was insane in my opinion because they had to be in the back of the van for four days straight. There was very little room to move, and the van wasn't sound proof so they had to whisper the entire time. Even worse is that the van didn't have a washroom, so they basically used a bucket as a toilet. The team consisted of two men and a woman, so using the facilities must have been awkward. If they had to suddenly flee in the van, the bucket most likely would have tipped and spilled. Gross.
Anyways, the mission was pretty cool. They tagged the students' car with an electronic beacon that tracked the car using GPS. This allowed the spies to figure out where the students were driving to. This allowed the spies to figure out how much time they had before the students returned to the house. The next task was to break into the house, and replace a speaker with a replicate speaker that had a video camera and microphone in it. They used that to listen in on conversations, and identify individuals.
One of the teams was stupid. They had a team member break into the house when no one was home in broad daylight. A neighbour was passing by and saw someone in the house, so the neighbour knocked on the front door. The spy then answers the door and tells the neighbour that he was just installing a speaker. The neighbour thought this was odd because the spy was wearing a suit and rubber gloves. Who wears rubber gloves except home invaders? A day later the neighbour drops by the house and asks the students why some guy was in their house installing a speaker. The students looked at the speaker, and noticed that there was a hole in their speaker. They discovered a camera inside the speaker and called the police. The whole cover was blown. The spy team had to flee urgently. Stupidly they left behind a backpack full of documents of who they were, and detailed notes of conversations that the students were having. The teams got yelled at big time by their tutors back in spy school.
Anyways, the show is quite interesting, and I'm learning quite a few things about espionage. The show attempts to paint an authentic picture of what intelligence and espionage is like, which is nothing as glorious as James Bond for example. It requires a lot more patience and careful thought rather than women and martinis. I am quite intrigued.
Spy shows on Thursdays on KCTS, channel 19, 9:00pm. Check it out .
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"The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it; and so in great calamities, it sometimes happens that light and frivolous spirits recover their elasticity and presence of mind sooner than those of a loftier character."
--Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), Missionary, Philanthropist, Musician, Doctor
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