Wednesday, May 31, 2006

AIDS history on PBS's Frontline

I made it home, safe and sound. My flight from Raleigh, NC to Memphis was delayed by 10 minutes, but the flight from Memphis to Monroe was on time. I was pretty tired, as I had to get up at 3:30 Central time to make sure I got to the airport on time. Jimmy and Jason were over from Sunday to Monday, which is why I didn't post anything on the weekend.

Last night and tonight I watched the excellent documentary on PBS' Frontline program about AIDS. It was a history of the disease and how it was/is handled. A number of things struck me. Although I remember the early 80s discussion of AIDS, it never hit me at the time how utterly stupid the governments of the world were in handling the crisis. Because the disease struck mostly gays and IV drug users, they figured it wasn't worth dealing with. The gay connection in particular was stupid, bordering on evil. This was a whole group of people that governments were willing to let die off. Jesse Helms was instrumental in getting a bill passed in the U.S. preventing the federal government for paying for health information that mentioned gay sex. As one person said, it was like treating drunk driving without being able to mention alcohol or cars. Helms' law is still on the books.

The idea that the disease would be restricted to gays was incredibly idiotic. The only way that would have been possible would have been if a) AIDS was divine retribution (which many believed) or b) gays were genetically different from straights at the genetic level. In fact, HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — was a simian disease that entered the human population probably from Africans who hunt monkeys and chimps, and accelerated due to shared needles during a polio vaccination program. Once in the population it was transmitted through sex and blood-to-blood contact. It was a largely heterosexual disease in Africa while westerners thought of it only as a gay disease. French teachers from Haiti taught for a few years in Africa, which is why the disease spread to Haiti. It was only a matter of time before it became the scourge it has become. This should have been obvious.

The response by Western governments, particularly the Reagan administration, was criminal. Research was underfunded. Blood supply officials were allowed to skimp on safety measures (this became a huge scandal in Canada, resulting in the Red Cross no longer being in control of Canada's blood supply). Health officials doubted that the heterosexual disease in Africa and Haiti was the same as the gay disease in North America. When the drug AZT was shown to have promise, it was allowed a patent for production that had the drug sell for extortionate amounts of money, even though the drug had been developed with public money.

Conservative morality tainted the response in most nations. In those countries where tolerance and compassion was shown, like Uganda, the spread was slowed. In those countries where intolerance and ignorance ruled, such as South Africa, the disease spread like wildfire.

In the 25 years since AIDS first came to the attention of the world, things haven't changed much. Yes, there is the AIDS cocktail for treatment. Most people in Africa, and the Third World can't afford it. President Bush has put forth a lot of money to spread the cocktail, but it comes with strings attached. For instance, a country can't accept it if they have laws to make prostitution legal. In South Africa AZT was not given to mothers with HIV even though it's relatively cheap now and it stops the spread of HIV from mother to child during pregnancy and child birth. A UN conference on AIDS today saw disagreement between nations, with Muslim nations refusing to sign on to an agreement unless it removed the declaration that gays and prostitutes were groups at high risk for AIDS. Denial is still rampant.

Speaking of denial, South Africa's biggest problem was a president who believed HIV deniers, people who believe there is no link between HIV and AIDS. According to the program this view is preposterous, but it's still out there. In fact, in a stunning coincidence, I followed a link from a miniatures wargame site to Sepp Hasslberger's blog. His Health Supreme blog has a number of "HIV denial" articles. (His other blog,, is full of psuedoscience. In one article he postulates that light is a wave sometimes and a particle other times. Um, Sepp, dear, I learned 21 years ago that it's a wave packet, and it wasn't news then, either. Deal with it.)

As one doctor on the show pointed out, if there is no link between HIV and AIDS, how come drugs targeting HIV rollback the symptoms of AIDS? That won't stop the denial, nor will it stop the politics. Meanwhile, 40 million people have AIDS. That number is expected to more than double in the next ten years. A crisis over the availability of the cocktail is looming. Such a crisis could spill over into violence and terrorism. Let's hope the world wakes up to the scope of the human tragedy before that happens.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Northworst Airlines and Orbutts

I'm sitting in a hotel in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which borders the city of New Bern. Earlier this evening I stood in what I think was the flank of the Union army's force during the Battle of New Bern in 1862. It's hard to tell, as I was standing on the side of the road with a Travelodge and an Outback behind me and a highway off ramp in front of me. I think I found the remains of a Confederate earthwork beside the road; it looks like some sort of narrow water retention pond. There's precious little of the battlefield remaining. It wasn't a particularly well known battle. The Union grabbed a foothold in North Carolina because of it, but they were never really able to exploit it until 1864. By winning the battle, Union Bridagier General Ambrose Burnside was made Major General, resulting in a lacklustre performance at Antietam and a disasterous stint at Fredericksburg and Petersburg (though he did fight well in Tennessee). That's the battle's lasting legacy. Unfortunately, it is all but gone now...

I was beginning to wonder at one point whether or not I'd be getting here at all. My flight, on Northwest Airlines, was to leave at 11:37 am on Sunday. I was due to arrive in Memphis at 12:45 or so and then fly to Raleigh, NC a little less than an hour after that. Instead, I was still in the Monroe airport (after we got something to eat) at 6:00 pm.

The problem was a mechanical fault in a sensor. The sensor said that the air conditioning was overheating, a potentially dangerous situation since it could indicate more serious problems than just an air conditioning unit. They had to fly a mechanic down from Memphis to fix the problem. He showed up on the 4:30 flight.

I'm not peeved at the breakdown. Things happen. I'm peeved that the airline would not let me cancel the flight so that I could find an alternative route out here, even after someone said I could cancel.

The flight taxied out to the runway half an hour late due to weight balancing concerns. It was on the runway that the sensor kicked in and they brought us back to the airport. Alana and Logan had been watching the flight. They came back in and joined me.

After the flight was delayed, I asked at the counter if they had any alternative ways into Raleigh. There's a rule, I remember reading, that an airline has to find you a way to your destination in the case that they goofed. Unfortunately, because the Delta flights to Atlanta were all filled up when I booked the flight, I was flying into Memphis. Memphis shuts down early, so there were no other flights into Raleigh that night (and, as I mentioned, the Delta flights — into Atlanta — were filled). There weren't even connections from other airlines going more roundabout routes. I asked if I could cancel the flight, and the counter agent said yes. He gave me Northwest's customer disservice number.

The first time I called they said I could cancel. At this point I was still not sure what to do. I ended up calling our company president to discuss the situation. He found there were no extra flights available. I then called the number again. They were going to let me cancel, so I could drive instead, but they said I was still showing boarded. They couldn't cancel the ticket at that point. I would have to get the counter people to "take me off the flight". When I did that I called the number again. This time, after talking to a supervisor, I was told that they would not let me cancel. Or, I could cancel and use the ticket any time within the next 10 days, but they would not reimburse me. The reason they gave was because I had ordered through Orbitz, not through them.

(I tried to order through them, but they wouldn't let me. My new company credit card, after the old one expired, hadn't come in yet. Northwest won't let you order tickets online with someone else's card, so instead of phoning them I just went ahead and used Orbitz. It seemed the easiest thing to do.)

Oh, and it took a minimum 20 minutes per phone call! By the time the supervisor gave me the ultimatum, I was fast running out of time to drive and had no time to argue.

So, they couldn't get me to Raleigh on the day I needed to get there. The next flight was Monday morning at 8:35 am. I was going to lose an entire day of training the clients, and yet they still wouldn't let me find alternative transportation. If I had driven, I could have salvaged half a day. No dice. The apparent reason: I had made the mistake of buying the ticket through Orbitz.

Which brings me to the hotel room in New Bern. I missed my flight, so I couldn't stay at the hotel I had reserved (of course). I called to cancel for that night, only to find out that I couldn't cancel... because I had gone through Orbitz. (See a trend?)

I phoned up Orbitz and tried to get reimbursed for the day I missed. I'm not too worried about it, as I got a free hotel stay in Memphis and the client is paying. Still, the client is paying for a hotel that was better than the Clarion dump I stayed in, and since they were losing a day of training they could understandably want a break on the hotel. Still, I should have been able to cancel the hotel.

I phoned Orbitz Sunday night when I got to the Memphis hotel. I was transferred four times, talking to five different people, about the situation. They promised to e-mail me after their "specialist" reviewed the case, but I haven't seen an e-mail. No one would tell me one way or another if they were going to reimburse me for the room I didn't get a chance to stay in.

It was clear, however, that it would have been cancelled/reimbursed if I had ordered through Holiday Inn and not Orbitz.

I should also mention that due to web site problems I couldn't order the hotel room in Raleigh for Friday night. I purchased the rest of the trip, but afterward I couldn't order the Friday night stay.

As far as I can see, there's no good reason to order through Orbitz (or, I'm guessing, Travelocity or Expedia). All the hotels and airlines now have their own online ordering system. The prices are comparable. Since the hotels and airlines treat you as second class citizens if you order through travel web sites, there's a distinct disadvantage to going through travel sites. This is the first trip that had a problem, but it will change the way I book future trips.

As for Northwest, the second last time I flew with them they got me home 6 hours late. Out of all the flights I've taken on Northwest (16, with all the different connections) only three have left on time. The flight from Memphis to Raleigh got all the way to the runway, where it waited for final weight balancing numbers. Then they discovered the plane wasn't balanced and hauled it back to the jetway, where they threw on more weight. These are the first flights I've ever taken where balance was an issue.

I don't know if Northwest is pushing things too much or what. Why leave the jetway without the numbers? Because they were gambling that they wouldn't need to add weight. Why aren't they getting the numbers in time, though? Other airlines seem to manage. I just don't understand...

At any rate, I intend to avoid Northwest in the future if at all possible. I will also avoid Orbitz. This isn't about punishment. This is about avoiding hassles.

I'm due to land back in Monroe Saturday morning. Whether or not I get there on time remains to be seen...

For the record, I got to the client site at 4 pm. I worked until 7 Monday and Tuesday, and I think I've got them more-or-less caught up. I'll know better tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Logan update

I couldn't take time off work today to go with Alana and Logan to have his cast put on. (As with the break on Thanksgiving, they took off the Ace bandage and put the fiberglass wrap around the cotton and splint.) The doctors x-rayed his arm. Of the two bones in his arm, only the ulna was broken, not the radius. The orthopedist believes that it probably didn't heal properly from the Thanksgiving break.

This is a bit of a relief, as we thought he had re-broken both bones. It's easier to believe that it was just a quirk that only one bone wasn't fully healed. If, however, he breaks it again, he's getting a bone density scan.

Logan is doing fine. He doesn't like the cast, obviously, but he's adapting... again. Once again, he chose a camouflage pattern for the colour of his cast.

Missouri town may evict unmarried couple

Back in January I was training a local company. I went to lunch with one of the people I was training, a very religious man. He had one of the local religious stations on the radio (we drove in his vehicle). They were mentioning the Chief Justice Roberts confirmation hearings. He said to me that it was about time the country swung further to the right. As a Canadian I already find the U.S. leaning too far to the right. So do most of my American friends. When the client made his comment, I wondered how much further to the right the country could go.

Well, here's a step further: a Missouri town had denied an occupancy permit to an unmarried couple and their children. Alana sent me this news story:

An earlier story can be found here:

Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray Loving have been together for 13 years. They have three children, ages 8, 10 and 15. The oldest is Shelltrack's child from a previous relationship (not sure if she was previously married). Black Jack, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, has an occupancy law that says no more than three people can live together unless related "blood, marriage or adoption." Because the couple is not married, the oldest child is not related to Loving, so that apparently trips over the law.

This first came to notice back in February, when the couple said they were appealing the law. The town's planning and zoning committee proposed a change to the bylaw, but it was voted down 5 to 3 by the city council.

The family could be evicted, though the lawyer for the town refused to say whether or not that will happen.

So in this country of liberty a city can evict a family from their home because they are not married?

So, if you're not religious and you have no pressing need to get a certificate from city hall, you can be turfed out of the home you bought?

The city ordinance is to make it illegal for people to cram a home full of people they are not related to. Uh, are frat houses really that big a deal? Maybe it's their way of fighting crack houses. Regardless, they couldn't word their bylaw to allow for families? Or is there some other agenda at work; I'm guessing that they wouldn't be at all bothered if the bylaw prevented a lesbian family from moving in.

In Canada, a couple can be considered to be married common law if they reside together for a certain number of years. I think it might be as little as two or three years. I guess there's no such law in Missouri.

I was reminded of Pierre Trudeau's famous statement when I read this story, and back in March, when I learned (again from Alana) that Mississippi had outlawed the sale of sex toys. This ban is in spite of provisions in the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said in 1967 (when he was Justice Minister), "There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." He also said, "What's done in private between two consenting adults doesn't concern the Criminal Code." With the U.S.'s current conservative tilt, I don't expect to hear any American politician in any real position of power saying the same thing any time soon.

First nastygram!

I received my first "nastygram" on my blog today. Someone took me to task for not taking any responsibility for the CVS meds post back in March. I guess I've crossed some sort of threshold when someone who doesn't agree with me, and probably doesn't care much for me, actually spends the time to post on my blog!

Here's the original post, with comments:

I have removed posts from my blog before, but only because they were spam. I make it a point not to censor my blog. Oh, if someone were to post nothing but a stream of expletives or something socially horrendous I will delete it. Insults and such... nah, I can stand criticism.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Logan's arm, and some other stuff

I was doing so good, posting every day for a week. Then it all went to hell in a handbasket last week. Logan, our 7 year old, broke his arm again. Same arm as he broke on Thanksgiving. Same part of his arm. He was walking along a "balance beam" (actually, a squared off log set in the ground) on a field trip to Kiroli Park, when he fell off. He landed on his left arm and it broke.

Poor little guy didn't even cry when he went to the teacher. He was so calm that one of the teachers thought he had just sprained it and needed ice. Then she saw the shape of it. It looked like a shicane from a Formula 1 course. *shudder*

His teacher rushed him to the hospital. He was in some discomfort when Alana and I got there, but he wasn't crying. The only time he really cried out was when they set his arm, and we were — thankfully — out of the room.

The doctors don't seem overly concerned that his arm broke so easily in the same placee. We, of course, are concerned. We'll hopefully know more on Thursday when we see the orthopedic surgeon. In the meantime, Logan is doing okay with his arm, once again, in a cast and sling. He's still been going to his baseball games, to act as bat boy.

We had an extremely long baseball game on Thursday. Okay, long for kids pitching machine league. It ran from 7:30 to almost 10, when they are only supposed to run an hour and a half. The other side insisted on playing three extra innings when the game was tied. They insisted because they were in first place and wanted the win. Well, our team — who have been inconsistent but steadily improving — beat them in the final inning. Serves them right, they should have taken the tie. I was surprised to see how many parents on our team thought the other side was taking it too seriously. Good to see that not everyone is a zealot when it comes to their child's game.

Earlier I mentioned Formula 1. I just realized this past weekend that the F1 season opened weeks ago! That's what happens when you live in the land of NASCAR. No other motorsports exist.

For my 100th post I had a link to the Zombie Brain site. I'm happy to report that I have so far devoured 12 brains. Mmmm, brains! Thank you. They were scrumptious.

Finally, last week, while waiting for Alana to get off work, I printed off a couple of pages from the roleplaying game All Flesh Must Be Eaten. It is a game about zombies, funny enough. It allows you to play out zombie movies, and similar settings. I can't remember what pages I printed. I think I printed a couple of character sheets plus an introductory page. I wanted them double-sided and they actually printed single sided, so I reprinted them and threw the other sheets into the garbage can. This morning there was a note, presumably from the cleaning lady, on one of my post-it notes. It said, "God loves you. Whoever you are." At least I think that's what it said, as it had a little heart on it instead of "loves" and it had a "u" and something that looked like a tulip stem. It's hard to describe. Anyway, all I can think of is that the woman saw the character sheets and/or introductory page dealing with zombies and figured my soul needed saving.

I find that... disturbing. It probably disturbed me more than the zombie stuff she found disturbed her...

Monday, May 08, 2006

No UFOs in Britain

I'm trying to write more frequently. Unfortunately, this weekend was busy and I'm terribly tired right now. So, instead of some deep essay, I thought I'd post this:

A report from the British Ministry of Defence has concluded that UFOs sighted over Great Britain can be attributed to natural phenomena. Some of this phenomena may not be completely understood, but the report doesn't believe that "UFOs" are intelligently controlled vehicles from other worlds.

There isn't a lot of detail in that link. I will have to see if I can find the actual report. Maybe it's available online. I'd like to know what they thought of UFO abductees. I've read a few theories suggesting that "abductions" are the result of incidents while dreaming. There are periods while sleeping when your body makes your body immobile. If you dream during this state you will be unable to move during your dream. If the dream involves a loss of control, perhaps someone tying you down to a bed, it's easy to think you were being abducted by... oh, aliens? The quintessential "alien" (grey, big eyes, slit for a mouth) dates back to the North American TV broadcast of the story about Betty and Barney Hill — abductees and victims of "lost time". The fact that "aliens" were all fairly different in appearance until this TV show suggests that alien visitations are a psychological, rather than physical, manifestion.

The conclusion of this report is kind of sad, actually. Skeptic though I might be, I like the idea of something being a little bit "scary" out there... something that doesn't involve religious fundamentalists and dirty bombs.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Don't know much about geography...

The results of a Roper poll conducted for the National Geographic Society was released yesterday. The survey asked Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 a number of geography questions. 510 people were surveyed. They found the following:

  • 1/3 of the respondents couldn't find Louisiana on a map in spite of the huge Hurricane Katrina coverage

  • 48% were unable to find Mississippi on a map

  • 6 in 10 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East

  • 47% could not find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia

  • 75% were unable to find Israel on a map of the Middle East

  • 6 in 10 did not know the border between North and South Korea was the most heavily fortified border in the world

  • 30% thought the U.S.-Mexico border was the most heavily fortified in the world

  • 2/3 didn't know that the earthquake that killed 70,000 people in October, 2005 happened in Pakistan

  • nearly 3/4 thought English was the most widely spoken native language in the world

  • 14% believed speaking a second language was a necessary skill

  • fewer than 3 in 10 thought it was important to know the location of countries in the news

I'm reading A Beginner's Guide to Evolution by Burton S. Guttman. At the start of the book the author lists similar statistics. From the National Geographic Society survey in 2002, which interviewed people in the same 18 to 24 age group:

  • almost 1/3 could not find the Pacific Ocean

  • fewer than half correctly identified the U.K., France, Japan, or the state of Pennsylvania

  • 3 out of 10 thought the U.S.'s population was from 1 billion to 2 billion instead of the actual number around 280 million

In the same book, the author says that the National Science Foundation's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2000" reported that less than half of the Americans surveyed knew that:

  • the earliest humans did not live at the time of the dinosaurs

  • it takes the Earth one year to travel around the sun

  • electrons are smaller than atoms

The same NSF report said:

  • 29% of respondents could define the term "DNA"

  • 13% could define "molecule"

  • 21% knew what it meant to study something scientifically

  • just over half understood probability

  • 13% knew how an experiment was conducted

It's hard to figure out what to make of these numbers. Most Americans I know are well read and want to know more about the world around them. Yet it's obvious that there's little year-to-year difference in what young Americans know of the world today versus 2002. I don't know if the problem is the country's educational standards or if Americans are just insular (I know that Americans are not stupid), or if it's a combination of the above.

There was a big rush on books about Islam after 9/11. Americans wanted to know why Muslims would want to attack them. It's clear that most Americans didn't think about the Middle East very much prior to 9/11 while there were folks in the Middle East that not only thought about the United States but openly plotted against it.

The book on evolution brings this up because ignorance of science is fueling a huge debate in the U.S. and several other countries. While there is no concerted effort to keep the location of the Pacific Ocean away from Americans, there is a concerted effort to prevent Americans learning about evolution, certain types of genetic research, and an assault on the scientific method. This effort is largely spurred by fundamentalist Christians who believe in a literal view of the bible.

The danger with this sort of ignorance, whatever the cause, is that the world is complex with complex problems. Ignorance fuels those problems. There is an administration in Washington that largely dispels the mountain of evidence showing that global warming is caused by human activity as at best overly alarmist and at worst a myth. There are stories about the administration purging comments about global warming from the EPA's web site. The president defines policy on stem cell research based on the beliefs of a vocal religious minority. NASA's budget for real science with tangible benefits is being slashed in favour of maintaining the shuttle fleet and potentially returning to the moon and heading for Mars. Americans are largely ignorant of other countries even when India and China are reaping the benefits of outsourcing and illegal immigrants from Mexico are depressing wages for low-level domestic jobs.

Some Americans would like to live in isolation, returning the U.S. to its isolationist stance prior to the First World War. Unfortunately for this view the world has "gone global". Americans can't afford to be ignorant of the world around them for long. Soon Americans will have to decide what to do about Iran (and have to decide now about Iraq). They have to decide whether or not they will let Britain, France or South Korea take the lead in the next generation of medicines based on stem cell research. They have to know the implications of global warming, both for environmental reasons and for geopolitical reasons (will Europe sit back if global warming shifts the Atlantic Conveyer — the Gulf stream — south, plunging temperatures in Europe even as the average global temperature increases?).

America's lead in science and technology is at stake. Every world super power has collapsed, usually from internal forces. Could isolationism and ignorance be the force that brings down the U.S.? If it does then it would be tragedy, for this problem is fairly easily solved. We have the knowledge, we just need to teach it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Hurray! and Boo! to the FCC

"Digital divide" was a phrase coined by Larry Irving, United States Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, in the mid 90s. It described the gulf in computer and Internet access between rich Americans and poor Americans, or richer areas of the country compared to poorer areas of the country. The digital divide is set to get wider, if the phone companies have anything to do with it.

Here's an article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from last December:

To summarize, the big telecommunications companies are rolling out fibre optic networks for delivering high definition television and high speed Internet connectivity (at greater speeds than we see today). There is a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) law in the U.S. that requires telecoms to roll out new technology in a non-discriminatory manner. In other words, they have to roll it out to poor neighbourhoods as well as rich neighbourhoods, to urban areas as well as rural areas. There is some leeway, of course. The law doesn't require that if you test market in San Antonio, Texas you also test market on a mountain in Montana. It does mean that the telecoms can't target the rich areas of the country and leave the poor areas without the better service for years or... forever.

The reason for the law is simple: give everyone fair access. It makes sense to wire New York for new technology. It makes less sense to wire Farmerville, Louisiana (an actual place!). It's not as cost effective. The FCC has said, "Tough!" and forced telecoms to give rural and poor neighbourhoods the same access as the rich neighbourhoods. The cable companies have followed this law, to the tune of a $100 billion investment over the years.

Now the telephone companies want to be exempted from this law with regard to these new high speed networks, such as AT&T's Lightspeed. (This is new stuff, this isn't DSL or digital cable.)

Hopefully the telecoms will lose this fight. Living in a poorer area of the country, I know what would happen if they got their way. While in Toronto I could get dial-up speeds approaching the limits of my 56K modem, in Monroe I could never get beyond about 24K. Bell South had no interest in upgrading their voice lines, but they would happily sell you DSL (and this FCC law is probably the only reason why DSL was available so readily in Monroe). If they get their way, they will be able to bypass areas with less population density while they make a mint off the big guys. They could, in theory, avoid rolling out high tech networks for... well, probably forever, or at least until it was cheap enough that they thought it was worth the trouble.

With us, Bell South shot themselves in the foot. They offered highspeed Internet via DSL, but only gave you a really good price break if you took their full package of telephone options and one of their long distance plans. We ran the math and it saved us money to drop our home phone and go with broadband cable access. Now we use our cell phones and don't have a "land line".

So, hurray for the FCC (assuming the law stands). They are the only thing standing in the way of telecom discriminatory practices.

And, boo for the FCC! They just announced that they will start requiring Voice over IP (VoIP) phone companies, broadband providers, large enterprise networks and universities to add mandatory wiretap access to their networks. The cost, if the FCC has its way, will be born entirely by the companies.

The FCC says it is required for their efforts against terrorism (this in spite of the fact that they haven't shown that wiretapping for terrorism reasons has worked with regard to regular telephone lines.)

Whatever your views on mandatory wiretapping, the laws are in place and these networks do need to put wiretapping abilities in place. That's not what's at issue. The issue is the cost. Universities, alone, say that doing this will cost about $7 billion.

The cost will, of course, fall back on the consumer. In the case of VoIP, it could seriously hamper an alternative to the telecoms. At the very least, each of us with broadband access to the Internet will see our bills go up.

If this is part of the "war on terror", why isn't the government paying for it? They could, couldn't they? Oh, that's right... they are too busy spending $100+ billion a year on a war in a country that turned out not to have links to Al-Qaeda, and too busy giving tax cuts to the wealthy.

For more information on this, see:

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Worst president ever

(You really ought to re-read the title of this post using the Comic Guy voice from The Simpsons to get the full effect.)

Alana gave me the URL to a Rolling Stone article written by historian Sean Wilentz. The article does a good job of suggesting that President Bush is the worst president in the history of the United States. (Okay, the title is "Worst President in History", but wasn't Saddam Hussein a "president"? And what about "President-for-Life" Idi Amin of Uganda? Bush isn't as bad as those guys. We'll assume that the Rolling Stone editors just wanted to keep the title short.)

Here is the URL:

You may want to print it; I don't know how long it will stay on the site.

Oh, and the article has a link to an article about Bush from 1999 titled "All Hat and No Cattle". As they say, you were warned. That article has a shorter URL and is found here:

I was reminded of the "Worst President" article while watching The Daily Show last night. The guest was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She described an almost surreal meeting between her and several other former Secretaries of State with President Bush not too long ago. You'd think that the president would like to hear what these esteemed people had to say. Well... not really. It was basically a press release for Bush administration policies. He listened to what the former Secretaries had to say (most of it negative) and dismissed it. This isn't surprising, given that the president was warned by Colin Powell that the troop levels in post-war Iraq weren't high enough, and he dismissed that, too.

There is some obvious liberal bias in the article, but I don't think there's any error where the facts are concerned.

I personally don't think Bush is the worst president ever. You'd have to go pretty darned far to hit the depths of James Buchanan. Buchanan was president during the Panic of 1857, which brought on a depression that wasn't quelled until after the Civil War. He angered Northerners when the Tariff act of 1857 was passed (which hurt the northeast during the depression started that same year). He alienated members of his own party by pushing for an unpopular constitution for Kansas as it was trying for statehood (the people of Kansas rejected the constitution, even though it meant delaying entry into the Union). As tensions between North and South rose to the boiling point, Buchanan did nothing to solve the deepening crisis (and did a fair bit to worsen it). In the end his own party decided he wasn't re-electable. After Lincoln won the 1860 election and Southern states seceded one after another, the lame duck Buchanan didn't lift a finger to remedy the situation. He left the crisis for Lincoln to solve, even though Lincoln had no constitutional authority until after his inauguration and would have only limited power until the first session of Congress. For several months Buchanan did nothing while secession turned to civil war.

Buchanan is my vote for worst U.S. president ever. So far the only civil war Bush is likely to start is in Iraq. He's definitely, in my opinion, in the bottom quarter of U.S. presidential rankings. At least when James Polk (not exactly a widely regarded figure himself, whose image was helped largely by him dying soon after leaving office) started a war on false pretenses the U.S. got California and the southwest out of the deal.

As an aside, the Discovery Channel ran a "greatest American" show last year, a copy of a program that had already run in Britain and Canada (Canada's show was, itself, a copy of the British original). Bush was in the top 25 of "greatest Americans". This was before his poll numbers took a nose dive. The number one American was Ronald Reagan. Apparently Americans forgot that Reagan's poll numbers were no great shakes when he left the White House, and Reagan had the distinction of having the most corrupt administration in U.S. history (by counting the number of indictments and resignations due to scandals).

So, hey, there's time for Bush to reform his image... though it might take dying in office to do it, preferably by throwing himself on a terrorist bomb, to save a bunch of school children, who were present for a speech where he apologized for his handling of the whole global warming thing. Stranger things have happened... like, uh, George W. Bush being elected president to two consecutive terms.


Being Humans blog

Alana came across the Being Humans blog a while ago and brought it to my attention. Since then Alana and I have been reading it regularly. You can find it at

The only real criticisms I have of the blog is that, like me, he doesn't post enough and that several times he's posted something I was going to post, so I didn't bother!

Yesterday's post was pretty good. He mentions a flip-flop by George Bush on the subject of singing the American national anthem in Spanish. Apparently his recent comments, that the anthem should only be sung in English, are in marked contrast to what he said during the 2000 election campaign.

Go to the Being Humans blog and see for yourself.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Stephen Colbert and the White House Correspondent's Dinner

If you had tuned in to CNN's Headline News (during the day, when it's not running "Headline Prime" with that big-haired ambulance chaser Nancy Grace), you would have seen clips from the White House Correspondent's Dinner. This is an annual event where White House reporters get to have a light hearted dinner with the president and several hundred of his closest friends. CNN ran clips from the dinner, almost all of them including the president and a Dubya Bush celebrity impersonator. Well... it seems I actually have something nice to say about President Bush: he has a good sense of humour.

There were two acts that night that got a lot of positive feedback. Okay, feedback, because I'm not sure all of it was positive on the second act (and no one is mentioning anyone else, so I'm guessing most of the speeches were nothing to write home about). The first was the president and the impersonator, the second was Stephen Colbert, the host of one of my favourite shows, Comedy Central's The Colbert Report (pronounced, as always, "reh-pour").

Last night Stephen Colbert, on his show, ran clips from the dinner. Apparently not everyone was laughing at his Hindenberg comment. It's either because they were neocons, or — more likely — they don't get satire. USA Today's Ann Oldenburg said of Colbert's keynote speech, "Colbert's humor was so satirical and silly that left some people bewildered and others tearing up with laughter."

With a little googling, I found a transcript of Stephen Colbert's speech. I could just post the link, but the transcript needed some editing. So, for your reading pleasure, here is Stephen Colbert's keynote speech at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Before I begin, I've been asked to make an announcement. Whoever parked 14 black bullet proof SUVs out front, could you please move them. They are blocking in 14 other black bulletproof SUVs and they need to get out.

Wow, wow, what an honor. The White House Correspondents' Dinner. To just sit here, at the same table with my hero, George W. Bush, to be this close to the man. I feel like I'm dreaming. Somebody pinch me. You know what, I'm a pretty sound sleeper, that may not be enough. Somebody shoot me in the face.

Is he really not here tonight? The one guy who could have helped. By the way, before I get started, if anybody needs anything at their tables, speak slowly and clearly on into your table numbers and somebody from the NSA will be right over with a cocktail. McSmith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Mr. President and First Lady, my name is Stephen Colbert and it's my privilege tonight to celebrate our president. He's not so different, he and I. We get it. We're not brainbacks on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say. "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's because you looked it up in a book.

Next time look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, okay? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the No Fact Zone. Fox News, I own the copyright on that term. I'm a simple man with a simple mind, with a simple set of beliefs that I live by. Number one, I believe in America. I believe it exists. My gut tells me I live there. I feel that it extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and I strongly believe it has 50 states. And I cannot wait to see how The Washington Post spins that one tomorrow. I believe in democracy. I believe democracy is our greatest export. At least until China figures out a way to stamp it out in plastic for three cents a unit. In fact, ambassador, welcome, your great country makes our happy meals possible. I said it's a celebration. I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.

I believe in pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. I believe it is possible — I saw this guy do it once in Cirque du Soleil. It was magical. And though I am a committed Christian, I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be it Hindu, Jewish or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe it's yogurt. But I refuse to believe it's not butter. Most of all I believe in this president. Now, I know there's some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

So, Mr. President, pay no attention to the people that say the glass is half full. 32% means the glass — it's important to set up your jokes properly, sir. Sir pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32% means it's 2/3 empty. There's still some liquid in that glass is my point, but I wouldn't drink it.

The last third is usually backwash. Folks, my point is that I don't believe this is a low point in this presidency. I believe it is just a lull, before a comeback. I mean, it's like the movie Rocky. The president is Rocky and Apollo Creed is everything else in the world. It's the 10th round. He's bloodied, his corner man, Mick, who in this case would be the Vice President, and he's yelling cut me, Dick, cut me, and every time he falls she says stay down! Does he stay down? No. Like Rocky he gets back up and in the end he — actually loses in the first movie. Ok. It doesn't matter. The point is that it's the heart-warming story of a man who was repeatedly punched in the face. So don't pay attention to the approval ratings that say 68% of Americans disapprove of the job this man is doing. I ask you this, does that not also logically mean that 68% approve of the job he's not doing? Think about it. I haven't.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world. Now, there may be an energy crisis. This president has a very forward-thinking energy policy. Why do you think he's down on the ranch cutting that brush all the time? He's trying to create an alternative energy source. By 2008 we will have a mesquite powered car. And I just like the guy. He's a good joe. Obviously loves his wife, calls her his better half. And polls show America agrees. She's a true lady and a wonderful woman. But I just have one beef, ma'am. I'm sorry, but this reading initiative. I've never been a fan of books. I don't trust them. They're all fact, no heart. I mean, they're elitist telling us what is or isn't true, what did or didn't happen. What's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was built in 1914. If I want to say it was built in 1941, that's my right as an American. I'm with the president, let history decide what did or did not happen. The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man's beliefs never will. And as excited as I am to be here with the president, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News.

Fox News gives you both sides of every story, the President's side and the Vice President's side. But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason, they're super-depressing.

And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew. But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions, he's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction.

Because really, what incentive do these people have to answer your questions, after all? I mean, nothing satisfies you. Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg.

Now, it's not all bad guys out there. Some heroes, Buckley, Kim Schieffer. By the way, Mr. President, thank you for agreeing to be on my show. I was just as shocked as everyone here is I promise you. How is Tuesday for you? I've got Frank Rich, but we can bump him. And I mean bump him. I know a guy. Say the word.

See who we've got here tonight. General Mowsly, Air Force Chief of Staff. General Peter Pace. They still support Rumsfeld. You guys aren't retired yet, right? Right, they still support Rumsfeld. Look, by the way, I've got a theory about how to handle these retired generals causing all this trouble: don't let them retire. C'mon, we've got a stop loss program, let's use it on these guys. If you're strong enough to go on one of those pundit shows, you can stand on a bank of computers and order men into battle. C'mon.

Jesse Jackson is here. I had him on the show. Very interesting and challenging interview. You can ask him anything, but he's going to say what he wants at the pace that he wants. It's like boxing a glacier. Enjoy that metaphor, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is.

Justice Scalia's here. May I be the first to say welcome, sir. You look fantastic. How are you? John McCain is here. John McCain, John McCain. What a maverick. Somebody find out what fork he used on his salad, because I guarantee you it wasn't a salad fork. He could have used a spoon. There's no predicting him. So wonderful to see you coming back into the Republican fold. I have a summer house in South Carolina, look me up when you go to speak at Bob Jones University. So glad you've seen the light.

Mayor Nagin is here from New Orleans, the chocolate city. Yeah, give it up. Mayor Nagin, I would like to welcome you to Washington, D.C., the chocolate city with a marshmallow center. And a graham cracker crust of corruption. It's a mallomar is what I'm describing, a seasonal cookie.

Joe Wilson is here, the most famous husband since Desi Arnez. And of course he brought along his lovely wife Valerie Plame. Oh, my god! Oh, what have I said. I am sorry, Mr. President, I meant to say he brought along his lovely wife, Joe Wilson's wife.

Pat Fitzgerald is not here tonight? Dodged a bullet. And we can't forget man of the hour, new Press Secretary, Tony Snow. Secret service name, Snow Job. What a hero, took the second toughest job in government, next to, of course, the ambassador to Iraq. Got some big shoes to fill, Tony. Scott McClellan could say nothing like nobody else. McClellan, eager to retire. Really felt like he needed to spend more time with Andrew Card's children. Mr. President, I wish you hadn't made the decision so quickly, sir. I was vying for the job. I think I would have made a fabulous press secretary. I have nothing but contempt for these people. I know how to handle these clowns. In fact, sir, I brought along an audition tape and with your indulgence, I'd like to at least give it a shot.

So, ladies and gentlemen, my press conference.

[Stephen's audition tape in Apple Quicktime 7 format]

Here's a link to the site that linked to the transcript, which includes a video version of Colbert's speech:

Monday, May 01, 2006

The dirty little secret about mid-grade gasoline

After I started working at my current company I soon learned a dirty little secret of the petroleum industry: don't buy mid-grade gasoline; it's a rip-off.

Mid-grade gasoline (plus gasoline, or whatever it's called in any given location) is usually priced right between regular gasoline and premium (super) gasoline. If regular is $2.99 per gallon, mid-grade is usually $3.09 and premium is $3.19. (I can't remember the split for regular, mid-grade and premium gas in Canadian cents per litre in Canada.)

Mid-grade prices are usually exactly half way between regular and premium, meaning you would get the same price if you filled half your tank with regular gasoline and half your tank with premium gasoline.

Many gas stations create mid-grade gasoline by pumping out of the regular tank and the premium tank, simultaneously. A lot of American stations got rid of their mid-grade tanks in favour of regular tanks back in the 90s when the EPA was cleaning up gas stations.

There are stations that still have a mid-grade tank. Fuel terminals still sell mid-grade gasoline. Not all oil jobbers buy mid-grade gasoline. Some simply buy regular gasoline and premium gasoline and pump it into the same tanker trailer compartment. This is called "splash blending".

As you can see, there's nothing magic about mid-grade gasoline. It's just a mix of regular and premium. That's not the dirty little secret. The secret has to do with the ratio between regular and premium and how it affects the price.

As I mentioned above, the price of mid-grade is usually right in the middle of the price of regular and premium. 100 gallons of mid-grade is the same price as 50 gallons of regular and 50 gallons of premium. That's not the ratio used by most stations. Most stations use 60 gallons of regular to 40 gallons of premium, or even 65 gallons of regular to 35 gallons of premium, depending on the ratio allowed by the state (or, I'm guessing, province). Michigan, for instance, allows 65:35.

In order to keep prices below some artificial — but psychologically significant — price point, stations have sometimes kept to the 10 cent per gallon difference between regular and mid-grade but lowered the difference between mid-grade and premium, meaning that mid-grade is an even worse buy. I have seen gas regular sell for $2.85, mid-grade at $2.95 and premium at $2.99 per gallon in an effort to stop premium slip over the $3 per gallon mark.

If you buy mid-grade you can save yourself some money by purchasing regular and premium gasoline separately and mixing it yourself. You wouldn't be doing anything that the gas stations weren't doing themselves, except at a better price.

[Edit: I was rushed when I made this post. I changed it a little to make it more international (i.e. I made a reference to Canada) and I changed the wording of some of the sentences. Oh, and I changed "by" to "buy". Stupid reliance on spell checkers...]

Gas Prices and Petroleum Distribution in North America

Everyone is talking about gas prices these days, so I thought I'd explain what I know about the petroleum industry since I work in the petroleum industry. (Before you start sending me hate mail, my company sells accounting software to oil jobbers and I train those jobbers. Don't blame me for the price of gas! I'm as far removed from the executives at Exxon as a Dell tech support person is from Bill Gates.)

Crude Oil and the World Market

Petroleum companies in the U.S. have announced record profits. They claim that this is not from gouging customers but from petroleum sales on the open oil market. I tend to believe them. There is a profit to be made on fuel sales, to be sure, but it is nowhere near as large as people believe.

Crude oil is sold on the open market. Corporations and nations purchase crude oil on the market. The oil is refined into fuels, lubricants, and other petroleum products. This is an open market, based on supply and demand. If the nations of the world use a lot of fuel and there is a limit to how much oil is available, the oil producers can ask more money for it. Oil prices are also dependent on what's happening in the world geopolitically. If a war is in the offing, more fuel will be needed. If things are relatively stable and the supply of oil is not likely to be disrupted, there is less reason for companies and nations to stockpile. Also, if the world economy is about to take an economic downturn, less fuel will be used, so the price will drop.

We think of the Middle East as the big oil producers. There are about 68 countries that produce crude oil, but only 10 of those are in the Persian Gulf. Persian Gulf oil is of a high grade and they produce more per nation than anywhere else in the world (so far) but the production of crude from all other sources is greater. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is heavily influenced by Persian Gulf states (though it also includes Algeria, Indonesia and Venezuela). We hear a lot of rhetoric about OPEC controlling the price of crude, but actually they have little say right now. OPEC likes to have the minimum and maximum costs in a certain range, to dissuade conservation efforts and to make certain competitive oils (like oil extracted from Canada's tar sands) economically unviable. They don't have as much influence right now as they used to, because OPEC nations let their excess capacity slip in the '90s when prices were low, and are now trying to play catch-up. Yeah, they are making money hand over fist, but they fear gasoline prices will accelerate the use of alternative energy sources.

So, when Exxon said it made most of its profit based on the price of crude oil and market demands, they are probably stating the truth.

These corporations have to purchase oil for refining. The exploration and extraction business isn't just going to give the oil to the same company's refineries for free when they could sell it to other companies for refining at $70+ a barrel. Even though they are raking in huge profits from selling oil to refineries, they aren't cutting their own refineries any slack, nor are they passing on their oil sale profits to the consumer via lower fuel prices.

For an interesting article on international oil pricing, see this Wikipedia article.

Refining Oil

Crude oil is converted into fuels in refineries through a distillation method. They heat crude oil until it boils into a vapor, and then they push it into the bottom of a "fractioning column". This is a tall column with cool plates. Oil is a hydrocarbon, meaning its molecules are made of chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules. As the petroleum vapor rises, the longer chains are heavier and cool on the lower plates. The lighter "petroleum distillates" (like gasoline) cool on the upper plates. It's possible to take a heavier distillate, like diesel oil, and run it through the process additional times to get gasoline out of it. This is why we sometimes see gasoline prices drop after a particularly warm winter. Refineries will process home heating oil into gasoline (which is easier to sell), thus creating a spike in supply.

Fuel Terminals

Once the petroleum products are refined, they are put in large containers. In North America fuels like gasoline, diesel, and kerosene are taken from these containers and shipped off to terminals. (These are not to be confused with the big terminals at refineries where crude oil is offloaded from supertankers.) Fuel terminals receive their fuel usually through a pipeline but sometimes through other methods. On the Mississippi River, for instance, huge barges deliver fuel to terminals.

The terminal is where the fuel is picked up by tanker trucks. The terminals are often owned by the oil companies, but there are also independent dealers. I believe that there are terminals that are independently owned and operated, though they are affiliated with a particular brand. Several different companies might have terminals in the same place because it makes sense to share the pipeline infrastructure. Some terminals even sell different brands of fuel.

The fuel pumped into the terminal can be from any of the refineries, at least in North America. The refineries put it into the pipeline, and the terminals pump it out without much care as to who refined the fuel. Exxon gasoline may be from oil extracted by Shell and refined by Citgo. The fuel from the refineries are all of about equal quality. What makes an Exxon gasoline "Exxon" are the additives. Each company adds stuff to their gasoline in order to make it more efficient, or make your engine cleaner, or help with fuel lines freezing in the winter. These additives are added at the terminal. Until that point, there is no difference between Exxon, Shell, Petro-Canada, Chevron, etc. gasoline. When you buy branded gasoline you are actually buying generic gasoline mixed with branded additives.

The Oil Jobber

Our company sells software to oil jobbers. Most of our clients deliver fuel to gas stations and other companies (such as construction companies, airlines, and, oh, chicken farms... well, how do you think they kept those places warm? electricity? please!). Some oil jobbers deal only in lubricants, thus they only sell lubricating oils and greases. Most deal in fuel to some degree. Some jobbers will deliver the fuel themselves, while others will simply handle the administration of moving fuel from a terminal to a station, using a freight company to haul the liquid.

Oil jobbers exist because there are economies of scale in purchasing full transport loads of fuel. Most gas stations simply couldn't afford to keep a driver on staff and a truck in good repair (not to mention all the regulatory paperwork needed to haul volatile liquids, and the necessary insurance), so they hire another company to get them the fuel. Insurance liability alone is driving some jobbers to hire outside trucking companies to deliver the fuel for them.

The Gas Station

The gas station is where you get your fuel, ah, d'uh! What you may not know is who owns the gas station and who owns the gas in the station. Some gas stations are owned by oil companies, but most are franchise stores. In the past, oil jobbers owned a lot of gas stations. This is falling by the wayside; a lot of oil jobbers are getting out of the service station market. There isn't much profit to be made on gasoline, so stations have to be managed by someone who knows how to use gasoline to drive in-store sales. This is a lot of work for most jobbers. Many have concluded that it is best to sell off their stations in favour of concentrating on the distribution end of things.

Branded gas stations (Chevron, Petro-Canada, Exxon, Esso Canada, etc.) sell branded gasoline, the stuff with the additives. (They also sell branded diesel, though gasoline is where the big branding effort comes in. Trucking companies are even more price sensitive than consumers.) Discount stations sell unbranded gasoline (without the additives). Whether or not the branded gas is better than the unbranded gas is open to conjecture. Some people swear that there is a difference. Some people swear that there is no difference. Some folks swear they can detect a difference between individual brands, but I personally haven't seen it.

Now I have heard that there is a big difference between cut-rate stores and branded stores with regard to filtering water. Gasoline and diesel are less dense than water, so they float on water. Since fuel is pumped from the bottom of a tank, any water that seeps into a tank will be on the bottom. The pumping equipment has filters to catch the muck at the bottom of the tank and to catch any water in the liquid. I've heard anecdotal evidence that Wal-Mart and several of the discount chains do a worse job of filtering the water than branded stores. I've heard it enough that I suspect it might be true. The only really bad fuel problem I heard about was when a truck driver accidentally filled a gasoline tank with diesel, and that was at a branded station.

The gasoline in the service station may belong to the gas station, but in many cases it does not. It may be owned by the oil jobber, who sells it through the gas station on a consignment basis. In this case they will give the gas station a commission on the sale.

Gasoline Price Volatility

Gas prices are usually the same among all branded stations in a given area. This is because gasoline has virtually no product differentiation. You could argue that the branded stuff is a higher quality due to additives and better filtering. Even so, there's often less three cents per gallon difference between branded and unbranded fuel. The biggest reason for people to go to a specific brand is because of easy credit via a gas station credit card. Other than that, the deciding choice is usually location and a preference for the attached convenience store.

Gas stations have to pretty much sell gas for the same price as their competitors. If they go lower, they run the risk of a gas war where no one wins (except the consumer). It's a fundamental problem with gasoline that you simply won't buy it for even a fraction of a cent higher at one station than another if the two stations are equally convenient. That's why gas in a single area tends to be the same price.

Many people think that's collusion, that the gas companies are conspiring to keep the price fixed among themselves. That's not true. The gas station has to sell it for the same price as the guy across the road (assuming they are both branded or both unbranded), because otherwise people will buy from the cheaper price and ignore the expensive price. That should mean that gas stations are making the lowest possible profit they can. Well, they do, in a given area. I've seen the prices between what a gas station buys the fuel for and what they sell it for. In some cases gas stations are making US$0.01 a gallon. Some cases they will make as much as $0.04 or $0.06 a gallon. Those higher amounts are usually commissions for selling gas on commission for an oil jobber, and often at the higher ranges the jobber is making less profit. This is because the jobber sets the street price of their fuel, which often has to conform with everyone else's street price.

At a cent a gallon profit, buying $30 of gas at $3 per gallon means you've just given the gas station 10 cents. That's not all profit, either. The overhead of an attendant, electricity, building maintenance, lawn care, etc. all comes out of that 10 cents. Don't yell at the gas station attendant for the price of gasoline. The station is often losing money on you unless you walk into the store and buy a candy bar or something.

Oil jobbers make a profit selling gasoline. It's not a windfall by any means. Several of our clients are doing quite well, but they are doing "quite well" in the same way as any small company, be they a printing company, a bakery, a plumbing company, or any number of small businesses. This is a capitalist country. Making a profit is a good thing. Oil jobbers are usually comfortable, but they are not getting rich from the profits. There are big jobbers, but the smaller ones are running at about 5 to 25 employees. They aren't the reason prices are so high.

Jobbers can eke out a profit by making their job as efficient as possible. This involves finding the cheapest fuel to purchase. Fuel is not sold at the same rate at each terminal. In fact, there can be some vast differences in prices at the terminals ("vast" in this case meaning three to five cents a gallon). The jobber has to balance the cost of the product and the shipping cost from one terminal to another. This is one reason gas can be different prices in the same general area. One city may be more accessible from one terminal versus another. One terminal may run out of fuel that day (it happens, and it was a major problem in Louisiana during Katrina's and Rita's aftermaths; one local company was buying gas from North Carolina!), forcing the jobber to buy it at a more distant location. Even if the more distant terminal sells gas for the same price as a closer terminal, the cost of the gas will be higher due to the cost of running the truck to haul the gasoline.

Unbranded stores will drive the price down, particularly if it's a huge store like Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart uses gasoline as a "loss leader". In other words, they don't care if the gas station loses money, as they know statistically that having a gas station increases in store sales by X amount. They cheat because they will flagrantly flaunt certain restrictions. For instance, most Wal-Mart stations are owned by Murphy Oil, a refining company. They run the stations because it gets around a number of regulations, employee and tax issues that would be pretty severe if the station was officially part of Wal-Mart. In Louisiana there is a law about gas stations needing restrooms (I'm not sure what happens if they don't comply). The Murphy Oil stations at Wal-Mart don't have restrooms. The attendants point to the "Wal-Mart" sign on the station and then point to the Wal-Mart store, saying, "The restrooms are in there." So on one hand Wal-Mart says the gas station is separate from the store, and on the other hand the gas station will say it is not separate from the store.

At any rate, since Wal-Mart is seen as selling higher quality gasoline than Spirit, Patriot or Kangaroo (a belief that is frequently wrong), stations near Wal-Mart have to sell their prices for less than they'd really like to. This pushes prices in those areas down a little bit.

Sometimes branded gasoline is cheaper than unbranded. After Katrina it became hard to get fuel. For that reason, the oil companies and their terminals made sure that they could sell as much branded fuel as possible. Since the supply of branded fuel was greater than unbranded (because the terminals sold branded fuel as a priority), the unbranded stations had to fight for what was available, driving up their prices.

The fuel terminals charge prices based on a number of factors, including the price they are charged for the fuel from the refineries, their own overhead, and the amount of profit they want to make. Prices can vary quite wildly from one terminal to another. The prices are not uniform over the range of products, either. One terminal may be cheaper for gasoline while another terminal is cheaper for diesel. Not all terminals carry the same products. Most carry at least two grades of gasoline (regular and super/premium) and at least one grade of diesel (low sulfur clear). Most that sell diesel will also carry dyed diesel, the diesel that is only legal for off road use (there are tax rebates for farmers and construction companies, allowing them to use diesel with red dye in it). Not all terminals sell the cheaper, dirtier high sulfur dyed diesel, and not all terminals sell kerosene.

Price Summary

You'll see that the oil companies have managed to effectively insulate themselves from any charges of collusion. Crude is traded on the open market. I don't know how much fuel terminals pay the refineries, but the terminals themselves do not have identical rates, suggesting that the terminals are competing in a free market. Oil jobbers hide what they charge their customers because competition is pretty fierce. Prices are the same among gas stations in a particular area, but that's because there's no price differentiation and they are probably as cheap as they can go given how much they are charged.

Gas stations make very little money on fuel, even to the point of losing money on it.

Oil jobbers are making a profit, but it's not an unreasonable profit. They can make a fair bit of extra profit when prices are voluntary and trending upward (they know the prices a couple of hours before they go into effect, so they can buy cheap and sell the gas the next day at that day's prices). They have problems when the price goes down. None of the jobbers I've seen are particularly rich or anything, so that's not where the money goes. Some jobbers are having trouble keeping a float because the stations they sell to are collapsing; this is particularly true in rural areas.

I don't know how much fuel terminals make as profit, but it doesn't seem like people are getting rich there, either. Gasoline and diesel fuel are all the same once it gets into the pipeline, so there's probably little price differentiation for the actual product. There could be differences in price for the additives, but I suspect there isn't much of a difference. The amount of money stations make varies little by brand.

We're pretty much at the mercy of whatever price the refineries put on gasoline. As long as they peg that to the price of crude oil (more or less), they can't be accused of price gouging.

What You Can Do About It

This isn't the answer people want to hear. They want to know what they can do about it. I've heard of one-day boycotts on buying gas. That won't work. Even if people could organize, it would only hurt the local gas station owner. Put them out of business and you'll have less competition, not more, and less incentive for companies to drop prices.

E-mails have suggested boycotting Exxon-Mobil, as the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world. There's a town in Texas doing just that. Sorry, it won't work. As I outlined above, Exxon puts its gas into the mix with everyone else. They will still make obscene billions of dollars profit from crude sales and from the gasoline that goes into the pipeline, even if not a drop flows through their own stations. Sure, they'll lose money from the lack of sales of their branded gasoline (basically, from the sale of the additives) and from no one using their credit cards. Their gas will still sell through other stations, and since there would be less competition there is less incentive to lower the prices. Oh, and it assumes that people would be willing to act in concert based on an e-mail.

There is nothing the average person can do to lower the price of gas. All you can do is use less of it. It's not even guaranteed that reducing fuel usage will drop the price, as lowered demand for gasoline in the U.S. could be offset by higher demand elsewhere. At least you would pay less for fuel.

Get used to higher gas prices. Write letters to your local politician telling them that more money has to go to alternative fuel source research. If you are an American, tell them that the increased fuel efficiency standards for SUVs through 2010 is paltry and that more stringent requirements are necessary. When you are in the market for a car, tell the car salesman that you want to see models that get 30 miles per gallon in the city minimum, and walk away if he can't do that. Don't drive so much. Car pool. Cycle or walk. You know the drill.

Oh, and hunker down as best you can. High gas prices will increase inflation. Since we poor sods in the trenches are actually worse off today than three years ago we will spend less on other things as we buy gas to get to work. That will push forward the next recession, which will be exacerbated by a president who cut taxes to the rich in a time of war. I'm sure similar stupidity has happened, or will happen, elsewhere. Make politicians accountable.

Finally, write your version of the above paragraph to your local politician. Tell them that this is the reason you're not voting for them. The only way politicians will help you is if you threaten their chance of re-election.