Category Archives: Energy

Edinburgh bans SN07 from IDs

This seems odd to me. What will regulators think of next? Will they ban actual snot?

The BBC explains the risk in an article humorously called “DVLA says ‘offensive’ SN07 number plates are snot allowed“.

The change means that cars registered in the capital are the only ones in Scotland not to begin with an S.

A DVLA spokesperson said the decision to change the plates was taken to avoid offending car buyers in the capital.

She added: “It is our policy that any registration mark that can be construed as being offensive to people will be suppressed.

“In this case, the SN07 marks would have been too similar to the word ‘snot’ and, as that could possibly offend some buyers, they were replaced with new TN07 registrations.”

Snot is really offensive to people? Another story by the BBC suggests the opposite, that poetry about snot is a good way to help children learn about health and medicine. Yes, poetry about snot:

North London GP Nick Krasner, has harnessed the fascination for all things “icky” to entertain and educate.

In ‘Oozing Medical Poems’ he tackles the issues of bugs, appendicitis and personal hygiene through 11 poems aimed at seven to 11-year-olds.

How offensive. Well, at least now plates from Scotland will be harder to identify. Wait, wasn’t that the point of the S?

Maybe they should have changed the N instead of the S? Is SP07 offensive to anyone? What about SC07?

Meanwhile, in American news, a federal judge has ruled that the state of Illinois is required to offer license plates with controversial political slogans:

A federal judge yesterday ordered state officials to offer license plates with the pro-adoption motto “Choose Life,” brushing aside claims that the slogan is really a thinly disguised anti-abortion message.

No, that’s not an anti-abortion plate. It’s an anti-war message. Maybe the pro-life lobby will push for a plate that says “If you’re running on gasoline, you just killed a marine.” Too controversial? To be clear the plate perhaps should read “choose life, unless it gets in the way of oil and pride, then shoot freely”.

Former state Sen. Patrick O’Malley, R-Palos Park, another sponsor, said in a telephone interview last night that it made no difference even if “Choose Life” did represent an anti-abortion slogan.

“Does that make it bad?” O’Malley said. “Whether it is or it isn’t you should still be allowed to express yourself.”

O’Malley clearly does not have a problem with SN07 on his ID. I guess he would also support the MPEACHW plate owner who is being asked by the state of South Dakota to surrender her personalized ID. The Rapid City Journal explains:

State law declares motor vehicle licenses plates to be the property of the state as long as the plates are valid. The law also allows personalized plates with as many as seven letters for an extra $25 fee. But it gives DMV officials the right to refuse to issue “any letter combination which carries connotations offensive to good taste and decency.�

Hillmer said MPEACHW meets that criterion. The plates never would have been issued if DMV officials had caught their meaning at the time Moriah applied, Hillmer said.

“This was one that we apparently missed when it came through originally, and we received a complaint from an individual that found it offensive,� she said, declining to identify the individual or provide the contents of the complaint. “I don’t think we ever would have issued it if we’d have picked up on what it was inferring.�

So there you have it. A manual process, perhaps a mere individual, sitting and looking at untold license plate applications and trying to decipher meanings to protect the public from harm. Is that person a trained linguist? A code analyst? Will computers be increasingly used to search a database for offensive patterns? The concept of a state-owned identity that can be personalized presents interesting cross-section of philosophy, security and technology.

Car-2-Car System Risks

I stepped out of my home the other day and saw a man laying on the ground, his new scooter a few feet away on the ground leaking oil. A small crowd had gathered around him as he described his injuries and what had happened. “A woman in a car just swerved from the far right over to the left and hit me” he said as he nursed his left shoulder and minded a scrape to his ankle. The armored jacket and helmet had clearly helped avoid further injury. He should have been wearing boots.

It seemed highly plausible that someone trying to make a last-minute left turn had decided it would make sense to abruptly cross three lanes without signaling and did not see a scooter coming. She might not have even looked at all and thought she could react in time if something appeared. After she hit the man, she apparently told a pedestrian she was going to park and then come back. Of course she never returned.

I immediately thought a vehicle sensor system could have saved this man and his scooter from injury, and perhaps even given him the identification information of the driver who swerved.

On the flip side, what if the car had some kind of positioning radar that showed another moving object within close proximity and therefore gave a warning siren when the driver tried to steer towards it? This is the same basic system as people now have in their rear bumper for backing up in tight spaces, but would be based on more sophisticated in-flight sensors.

The downside to a system like this, I simply couldn’t avoid, would be all the regular privacy concerns. In particular, should the system capture VIN and/or plate information? That would be useful in a hit-and-run scenario. Both of these could hardly be called secret information, but the ability to collect them remotely and compile them raises the risk to our privacy to a whole new level. Credit card security uses this line of reasoning; a person swiping a single card at a time is not a primary concern for data security standards, but a system that reads cards and stores the information is high risk.

I left the scene after helping move the scooter to a safe spot (it had toppled in the middle of a lane) and ensuring that the injured man was in good hands (rescue squad just pulling up).

Now I come to find out that something very similar to what I was thinking is already underway around the world:

The near-collision warning is a demonstration of technology that is expected to be rolled out to all shapes and sizes of cars in the coming years.

It is being developed by the European Car-2-Car consortium and is backed by General Motors, Audi, BMW, Fiat, Honda, Renault and a range of in-car hardware manufacturers and several universities.

The security implications of the system are absolutely stunning:

GPS tracks the position of the car while sensor data from the car – such as speed, direction, road conditions and if the windscreen wipers are on and if the brakes have been stamped on – is monitored by the on-board computer.

A wireless system similar to existing wi-fi technology – based on the 802.11p protocol – transmits and receives data to and from nearby cars, creating an ad-hoc network.

Data hops from car to car and the on-board computers can build a picture of road and traffic conditions based on information from multiple vehicles across a great distance.

Cars travelling in opposite directions can share information about where they have been and so informing each other about where they are going.

Wouldn’t you like to share all that information with a car nearby, especially someone you are trying to get away from? What about spoofed data or non-repudiation? How will this system handle people running secondary boxes to fool nearby drivers?

They say the system will rely on multiple signals, as though from multiple vehicles, but what is to stop someone from running five boxes themselves to get motorists to slow down (e.g. a cranky neighbor who wants cars in to slow while passing by)?

I suspect there will have to be a certificate system at the core of this and that begs the question of who will become the authority to all these devices? The government? Does that make them also the master repository of the information? Driving is said to be a privilege, not a right, so will someone make the case that it is ok to trace and trap the whereabouts of every vehicle at all times? Will code violations and fines be issued based on this system?

Professor Horst Wieker, from the department of telecommunications at the University of Applied Sciences, Saarbruck, said the aim was to create “foresighted driving”.

He said: “This technology allows us to build a short-range and long-range picture of road traffic conditions.

Further research brought me to a similar approach in 2004 at the University of Rutgers.

The intent sounds fine, except for the fact that there is no mention of the security implications of collecting this kind of information. Drivers tend to use and dispose of information immediately. No one at the scene of the accident could remember more than a few letters of the license plate from the car involved. Technology could certainly help, but at what level of new risk? Are people adequately assessing the security trade-offs of data generated by a peer-to-peer system? It does not appear so. I suspect the automobile manufacturers working on this do not have a strong consumer information privacy group or advocate in house. Time to propose another lower-risk way to assess traffic conditions?

Singapore seems to have a different approach that is already working, but they also apparently based their system upon reducing the environmental and economic impact of gridlock and accidents.

BioWillie, Foreign Policy, and the Evidence of Organics

Good news from the singer/songwriter about his support of the domestic production of fuel. Regulation has helped spur his efforts in the northwestern state:

Earlier this year Oregon lawmakers passed a series of bills aimed at kick-starting the state’s biofuels industry, including a requirement that all gasoline sold in Oregon be mixed with 10 percent ethanol after in-state production of ethanol reaches 40 million gallons per year.

A similar production target for biodiesel crops used for biofuel production will trigger a mandatory 2 percent blend in all diesel fuels sold in Oregon.

Naturally, the article includes the usual criticism about converting cropland into fuel and the risk of impacting the food markets. Unfortunately it does not provide any counter-points from folks who know this line of reasoning is poorly founded. Here are a few pointers:

  1. Oil for biodiesel is everywhere, not just crops, and so the plant can operate as a recycling plant to reduce landfill and waste
  2. Crops generally run in surplus with vast amounts of over-production leading to government subsidies to support produce that will never reach the market. This allows a shift of subsidies into innovation and research for fuel alternatives, without impacting availability of food.
  3. America has a long-standing claim that its giant surplus of food should be used for “humanitarian” missions overseas. The reality is that this aid was often leveraged for economic and military interests rather than pure humanitarian US foreign policy aims and can be traced to more global instability, not less.

And so forth…

On the last point, here is an example of the type of propaganda still available from the US Government:

To help consume surplus crops, which were depressing prices and costing taxpayers money, Congress in 1954 created a Food for Peace program that exported U.S. farm goods to needy countries. Policy-makers reasoned that food shipments could promote the economic growth of developing countries. Humanitarians saw the program as a way for America to share its abundance.

In the 1960s, the government decided to use surplus food to feed America’s own poor as well. During President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the government launched the federal Food Stamp program, giving low-income persons coupons that could be accepted as payment for food by grocery stores. Other programs using surplus goods, such as for school meals for needy children, followed. These food programs helped sustain urban support for farm subsidies for many years, and the programs remain an important form of public welfare — for the poor and, in a sense, for farmers as well.

But as farm production climbed higher and higher through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the cost of the government price support system rose dramatically. Politicians from non-farm states questioned the wisdom of encouraging farmers to produce more when there was already enough — especially when surpluses were depressing prices and thereby requiring greater government assistance.

Apparently US farmers reached such levels of efficiency that the US government has been trying different methods of holding back production for over thirty years. Fast forward through the export-crises of the 1980s, when foreign buyers caused farmers in the US to cringe over a lack of demand, and you see even more reason why a jump in domestic demand for crop production makes economic sense.

This is further supported by the issue of farming for food-grade versus fuel-grade crops. Consumers love their perfect looking fruit and vegetables, don’t they. I’ll never forget when I heard Sir John Krebs, the head of the UK Food Standards Agency, suggest that this is why organics are popular:

The organic industry relies on image. […] Sir John said the only people who got value for money from organic food were those who wanted producers to adopt more holistic farming methods. He told the BBC: “They’re not getting value for money, in my opinion and in the opinion of the Food Standards Agency, if they think they’re buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety.

“We don’t have the evidence to support those claims.”

Duh. How sad is that?

First of all, people generally allow pesticides and non-holistic farming methods for the same reason that Sir John notes — consumers seek a particular image. Who wants a worm in their apple? Ick. That was the old image. The difference now is that a “holistic” image includes a measure of broad health risks that were previously ignored or understated. Who would rather have a brain tumor or kids with cancer than find a silly worm and cut it out of an apple? Yeah, that’s the new “image” consciousness about health and security that is far more realistic, in my experience.

Second, I really do not understand how the “don’t have evidence” argument creeps into the public representations of so many of these upper management types. If there is insufficient proof of harm or benefit, should a leader state that there is no risk or reward ahead? On the contrary, more intelligence is needed, not less. They should be calling for research, open dialog and a proper determination.

Here is one example of research results from 2007:

A ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce found almost double the level of flavonoids – a type of antioxidant.

Flavonoids have been shown to reduce high blood pressure, lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Here is another from 2005:

Drinking organic milk has more health benefits than drinking non-organic, a study has suggested.


It showed organic milk has higher levels of vitamin E, omega 3 essential fatty acids and antioxidants, which help beat infections.

The latter example is really good because it has this little nugget from the British Nutrition Foundation:

Even if regular milk is slightly lower in some nutrients than organic milk, chances are you will be already be meeting your dietary needs for these nutrients by consuming other foods.

Or maybe they’ll be sending out pills and injections to help compensate for the lack of nutrition? I’m sure the pharmaceutical companies love that line of reasoning. Why have family farms with useful produce when you can generate tons of tasteless, nutrition-less objects and create a whole industry for supplements? Wonder if they say the same thing about taste: don’t worry about the bland cardboard-like tomatoes, each one will be shipped with a lozenge to compensate by releasing simulated tomato flavor. And a smell market too…the possibilities are endless, in a non-holistic way if you see what I mean.

Rather than feed these substandard food-stuffs to people and try to supplement them with useful additives, perhaps it should be sent to the fuel supply and replaced with more substantive organics? One might argue the price of food could increase, but we should be realistic about actual consumer price index rates, and the greater cost-benefit of food in terms of health risk and nutrition. We should also remember cheap does not always mean the least expensive.

Let the facts roll in, and it should become clear that a domestic source of fuel made from recycled waste as well as holistically grown crops makes a lot of security sense.

Journalist severly beaten after revealing illegal oil sales

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Iren Karman was nearly killed:

Karman, 40, published a book last year on corrupt oil dealings in the 1990s. The book, titled Facing the Mafia, reported on the practice of “oil bleaching� or the removing of red dye from government-subsidized heating oil in order to sell it as diesel at a higher price, according to local and international press reports. The dye was used to identify the oil.

Karman’s investigations, collected both in her book and a soon-to-be-released documentary film titled “Oiled Relations,� implicate Hungarian politicians and police officials in collecting unlawful profits from the scheme, the MTI said. Hungarian media have reported that the illegal profits amount to more than US$500 million, The Associated Press said.

The police tasked with investigating the dye treatment and illegal oil sales all seemed to end up with links back to organized crime, so the prosecution apparently never went anywhere. The unusual thing is that, with her book published and a movie on its way, an attempt to murder her will bring a spotlight to the issue.

The report mentions she has been under threat — her papers and other media targeted in an attack — since last year, but that police “did not make the link” to the subject of her research.

A former chief inspector, Tibor Karancsi, who contributed to her work suggests that she is likely to have put faith in publicity as a form of protection. It is hard to argue with that perspective, when the police and justice system are potentially in the pocket of the accused.

Just a few weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe with her and Istvan Sandor. I told her than that she should take care because people wished her ill. I said, jokingly: “Don’t use the rear-view mirrors just for doing your make-up.” But Iren knew very well that my concerns were well-founded.

Did you expect something like what happened on Friday evening?

It was a possibility, but I didn’t think they’d go that far. I thought publicity would serve as a kind of protection. Back then, five of my colleagues were killed in mysterious circumstances over two years, but nobody died after I brought the affair to public attention. I was threatened, too, I was even beaten, like Iren, in 1997.

At the end of the day you have to wonder why some systems are setup with a clear financial reward to those who cheat, and at the same time offer no protection for those who report on the cheating or who are given the unfortunate task of trying to prevent it from happening.

Also, some economic and political analysis is missing from these reports. Did the demand for heating oil, artificially driven by the diversion of oil to engines, ever have an impact on the availability?

A similar but different scenario is emerging today in India, where coins are illegally diverted to the razor blade industry.

Police say that initially the smugglers took coins into Bangladesh and then melted them down, but as the scale of the operation has increased, more and more criminals in India are melting them down first, and then selling them as razor blades.

Sharp investors? Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The impact of the diversion is creating a whole new set of problems and, unlike the report on Hungary, there are solutions discussed:

To deal with the coin shortage, some tea gardens in the north-eastern state of Assam have resorted to issuing cardboard coin-slips to their workers.

The denomination is marked on these slips and they are used for buying and selling within the gardens.

The cardboard coins are the same size as the real ones and their value is marked on them.

I guess most people would agree it is easier to work around currency shortages, through bartering or apparently even issuing proxy currency, than face an oil shortage. Cardboard coins, eh? Now there’s a system built on trust.

Organized crime clearly will target the things most likely to be monopolistic by design — defense, trash collection, utilities, fuel — and use its muscle to set itself up as a shadow or even backer of the public authority. These stories thus remind me that bio-diesel and other oil recycling systems could radically change that paradigm and produce a whole new area of risk for those proposing alternatives to a petroleum-based economy.