Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Who Is A Sociopath?

A comment made during an episode of my guilty pleasure, the "Real Housewives of New Jersey," prompted this post. Dina said Danielle is a sociopath.

It triggered distant memories, of one woman who used that term freely, labeling anyone she disliked as a "psychopath" or "sociopath." (According to http://www.youmeworks.com/index.html, "sociopaths and psychopaths are the same thing. The original name for this disorder was "psychopath" but the general public and media confused it with "psycho" and "psychotic" so in the 1930s the name was changed to sociopath. Recently the media again caused a misperception that sociopaths were always serial killers, so now many call the condition "antisocial personality disorder.")

Hearing the term again prompted me to find out: what exactly is a sociopath, and how can you tell who is a sociopath?

I found some very useful information at http://www.youmeworks.com/sociopaths.html

Here are some snippets:



WHEN YOU SAY THE WORD "sociopath" most people think of serial killers. But although many serial killers are sociopaths, there are far more sociopaths leading ordinary lives. Chances are you know a sociopath. I say "ordinary lives," but what they do is far from ordinary. Sociopaths are people without a conscience. They don't have the normal empathy the rest of us take for granted. They don't feel affection. They don't care about others. But most of them are good observers, and they have learned how to mimic feelings of affection and empathy remarkably well.

Most people with a conscience find it very difficult to even imagine what it would be like to be without one. Combine this with a sociopath's efforts to blend in, and the result is that most sociopaths go undetected.

Because they go undetected, they wreak havoc on their family, on people they work with, and on anyone who tries to be their friend. A sociopath deceives, takes what he (or she) wants, and hurts people without any remorse. Sociopaths don't feel guilty. They don't feel sorry for what they've done. They go through life taking what they want and giving nothing back. They manipulate and deceive and convincingly lie without the slightest second thought. They leave a path of confusion and upset in their wake.

Who are these people? Why are they the way they are? Apparently it has little to do with upbringing. Many studies have been done trying to find out what kind of childhood leads to sociopathy. So far, nothing looks likely. They could be from any kind of family. It is partly genetic, and partly mystery.

But researchers have found that the brains of sociopaths function differently than normal people. And their brains function in a way that makes their emotional life unredeemably shallow. And yet they are capable of mimicking emotions like professional actors.

Sociopaths don't have normal affection with other people. They don't feel attached to others. They don't feel love. And that is why they don't have a conscience. If you harmed someone, even someone you didn't know, you would feel guilt and remorse. Why? Because you have a natural affinity for other human beings. You know how it feels to suffer, to fear, to feel anguish. You care about others.

If you hurt someone you love, the guilt and remorse would be very bad because of your affection for him or her. Take that attachment and affection away and you take away remorse, guilt, and any kind of normal feelings of fairness. That's a sociopath.



The big question is, of course, how can you know whether someone is a sociopath or not? It is a difficult question and even experts on the subject can be fooled. If you suspect that someone close to you is a sociopath, I suggest you read both of the books I mentioned and think hard about it. Compare that person to the other people in your life. Ask yourself these questions:

1. Do you often feel used by the person?

2. Have you often felt that he (or she) doesn't care about you?

3. Does he lie and deceive you?

4. Does he tend to make contradictory statements?

5. Does he tend to take from you and not give back much?

6. Does he often appeal to pity? Does he seem to try to make you feel sorry for him?

7. Does he try to make you feel guilty?

8. Do you sometimes feel he is taking advantage of your good nature?

9. Does he seem easily bored and need constant stimulation?

10. Does he use a lot of flattery? Does he interact with you in a way that makes you feel flattered even if he says nothing overtly complimentary?

11. Does he make you feel worried? Does he do it obviously or more cleverly and sneakily?

12. Does he give you the impression you owe him?

13. Does he chronically fail to take responsibility for harming others? Does he blame everyone and everything but himself?

And does he do these things far more than the other people in your life? If you answered "yes" to many of these, you may be dealing with a sociopath. For sure you're dealing with someone who isn't good for you, whatever you want to call him.

I like Martha Stout's way of detecting sociopaths: "If ... you find yourself often pitying someone who consistently hurts you or other people, and who actively campaigns for your sympathy, the chances are close to one hundred percent that you are dealing with a sociopath."



This is an interesting question. Of course most of our purposes are strongly influenced by our connections and affections with others. Our relationships with others, and our love for them, give us most of the meaning in life. So if a sociopath doesn't have these things, what is left? What kind of purposes do they have?

The answer is chilling: They want to win. Take away love and relationships and all you have left is winning the game, whatever the game is. If they are in business, it is becoming rich and defeating competitors. If it is sibling rivalry, it is defeating the sibling. If it is a contest, the goal is to dominate. If a sociopath is the envious sort, winning would be making the other lose, or fail, or be frustrated or embarrassed.

A sociopath's goal is to win. And he is willing to do anything at all to win.

Sociopaths have nothing else to think about, so they can be very clever and conniving. Sociopaths are not busy being concerned with relationships or moral dilemmas or conflicting feelings, so they have much more time to think about clever ways to gain your trust and stab you in the back, and how do it without anyone knowing what's happening.

One of the questions in the list above was about boredom. This is a real problem for sociopaths and they seem fanatically driven to prevent boredom. The reason it looms so large for them (and seems so strange to us) is that our relationships with people occupy a good amount of our time and attention and interest us intensely. Take that away and all you have is "playing to win" which is rather shallow and empty in comparison. So boredom is a constant problem for sociopaths and they have an incessant urge to keep up a level of stimulation, even negative stimulation (drama, worry, upset, etc.).

And here I might mention that the research shows sociopaths don't feel emotions the same way normal people do. For example, they don't experience fear as unpleasant. This goes a long way to explaining the inexplicable behavior you'll see in sociopaths. Some feelings that you and I might find intolerable might not bother them at all.



There is no known cure or therapy for sociopathy. In fact, some evidence suggests that therapy makes them worse because they use it to learn more about human vulnerabilities they can then exploit. They learn how to manipulate better and they learn better excuses that others will believe.

Given all that, there is only one solution for dealing with a sociopath: Get him or her completely out of your life for good. This seems radical, and of course, you want to be fairly sure your diagnosis is correct, but you need to protect yourself from the drain on your time, attention, money, and good attitude. Healing or helping a sociopath is a pointless waste of your life. That is not your mission. It's not your responsibility. You have your own goals and your own life, and those are your responsibility.

In Hare's book, he says before you diagnose someone as a sociopath, he recommends you get a full clinical diagnostic, including an extensive interview with the sociopath by a qualified psychotherapist, plus interviews with the sociopath's bosses, co-workers, friends, and family. Yeah, right. Good luck on that one. I agree, that would be ideal, but if you can get a sociopath to submit to an interview, I would be astonished. So you'll have to do the best you can with the information you can get.

I don't recommend you tell anyone you have diagnosed him as a sociopath. In fact, I strongly urge you not to. I don't even know if it's a good idea to tell anyone about your conclusion. Just get the sociopath out of your life with as little fanfare as you can. The only exception I would make to this rule is if the sociopath is making someone else's life a living hell, it seems wrong to leave her to the wolves while you slink off. I don't recommend you try to convince your friend she is dealing with a sociopath. I recommend that you simply say you got a lot of insight from this or that book or whatever, and let your friend draw her own conclusions. It is not your mission to save your friend, either. Tell her what you know and if she ignores your warning, that's her problem, not yours. Because you said something, she may figure it out eventually.

If this all sounds cold or heartless, maybe you're not dealing with a sociopath, or maybe she or he hasn't driven you to the point of madness (yet). But remember what the solution is; you may someday need it.

And besides, the point of all this dismal information is so you no longer need to think about such negative things and so you can turn your attention to positive, life-affirming, uplifting goals of your own.



Friday, September 26, 2008

What Bernanke and Paulson Can Learn From Sweden's Financial Crash

"A banking system in crisis after the collapse of a housing bubble. An economy hemorrhaging jobs. A market-oriented government struggling to stem the panic. Sound familiar?

"It does to Sweden. The country was so far in the hole in 1992 — after years of imprudent regulation, short-sighted economic policy and the end of its property boom — that its banking system was, for all practical purposes, insolvent."

I came across this article by Carter Dougherty in the New York Times on Tuesday, and found it very interesting.

But before we go on to the rest of the article:

Last night, I attended an debate at Washington State University. One of the speakers in The Great Election Debate was writer and activist Cliff Kincaid, who said more than once that the 700 billion-dollar plan proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Fed Chairmen Ben Bernanke and the Bush White House is not a bailout , but socialism.

Socialism is widely understood to mean state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, including banks.

I grew up in a country that some have called labeled a socialist democracy. In Singapore, the government does own some banks and the like, including a very successful investment company, called Temasek Holdings. With a multinational staff of more than 300 people, it manages a portfolio of about S$185 billion, or more than US$127 billion, focused primarily in Asia. It is an active shareholder and investor in such sectors as banking & financial services, real estate, transportation & logistics, infrastructure, telecommunications & media, bioscience & healthcare, education, consumer & lifestyle, engineering & technology, as well as energy & resources. In 2008, The Economist reported that Morgan Stanley had estimated the fund's assets at US$159.2 billion. Late last year Temasek threw a 5 billion-dollar lifeline to Merrill Lynch.

All right - back to the NYT aritcle. Here's where the Swedish experience does include socialist principles.

Dougherty writes:

"Sweden did not just bail out its financial institutions by having the government take over the bad debts. It extracted pounds of flesh from bank shareholders before writing checks. Banks had to write down losses and issue warrants to the government.

"That strategy held banks responsible and turned the government into an owner. When distressed assets were sold, the profits flowed to taxpayers, and the government was able to recoup more money later by selling its shares in the companies as well.

'“If I go into a bank,” said Bo Lundgren, who was Sweden’s finance minister at the time, “I’d rather get equity so that there is some upside for the taxpayer.”

"Sweden spent 4 percent of its gross domestic product, or 65 billion kronor, the equivalent of $11.7 billion at the time, or $18.3 billion in today’s dollars, to rescue ailing banks. That is slightly less, proportionate to the national economy, than the $700 billion, or roughly 5 percent of gross domestic product, that the Bush administration estimates its own move will cost in the United States.

"But the final cost to Sweden ended up being less than 2 percent of its G.D.P. Some officials say they believe it was closer to zero, depending on how certain rates of return are calculated.

"The tumultuous events of the last few weeks have produced a lot of tight-lipped nods in Stockholm. Mr. Lundgren even made the rounds in New York in early September, explaining what the country did in the early 1990s.

"A few American commentators have proposed that the United States government extract equity from banks as a price for their rescue. But it does not seem to be under serious consideration yet in the Bush administration or Congress.

"The reason is not quite clear. The government has already swapped its sovereign guarantee for equity in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance institutions, and the American International Group, the global insurance giant.

"Putting taxpayers on the hook without anything in return could be a mistake, said Urban Backstrom, a senior Swedish finance ministry official at the time. “The public will not support a plan if you leave the former shareholders with anything,” he said.

"The Swedish crisis had strikingly similar origins to the American one, and its neighbors, Norway and Finland, were hobbled to the point of needing a government bailout to escape the morass as well.

"Financial deregulation in the 1980s fed a frenzy of real estate lending by Sweden’s banks, which did not worry enough about whether the value of their collateral might evaporate in tougher times.

"Property prices imploded. The bubble deflated fast in 1991 and 1992. A vain effort to defend Sweden’s currency, the krona, caused overnight interest rates to spike at one point to 500 percent. The Swedish economy contracted for two consecutive years after a long expansion, and unemployment, at 3 percent in 1990, quadrupled in three years.

"After a series of bank failures and ad hoc solutions, the moment of truth arrived in September 1992, when the government of Prime Minister Carl Bildt decided it was time to clear the decks.

"Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the opposition center-left, Mr. Bildt’s conservative government announced that the Swedish state would guarantee all bank deposits and creditors of the nation’s 114 banks. Sweden formed a new agency to supervise institutions that needed recapitalization, and another that sold off the assets, mainly real estate, that the banks held as collateral.

"Sweden told its banks to write down their losses promptly before coming to the state for recapitalization. Facing its own problem later in the decade, Japan made the mistake of dragging this process out, delaying a solution for years.

"Then came the imperative to bleed shareholders first. Mr. Lundgren recalls a conversation with Peter Wallenberg, at the time chairman of SEB, Sweden’s largest bank. Mr. Wallenberg, the scion of the country’s most famous family and steward of large chunks of its economy, heard that there would be no sacred cows.

"The Wallenbergs turned around and arranged a recapitalization on their own, obviating the need for a bailout. SEB turned a profit the following year, 1993.

“For every krona we put into the bank, we wanted the same influence,” Mr. Lundgren said. “That ensured that we did not have to go into certain banks at all.”

"By the end of the crisis, the Swedish government had seized a vast portion of the banking sector, and the agency had mostly fulfilled its hard-nosed mandate to drain share capital before injecting cash. When markets stabilized, the Swedish state then reaped the benefits by taking the banks public again.

"More money may yet come into official coffers. The government still owns 19.9 percent of Nordea, a Stockholm bank that was fully nationalized and is now a highly regarded giant in Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region.

"The politics of Sweden’s crisis management were similarly tough-minded, though much quieter.

"Soon after the plan was announced, the Swedish government found that international confidence returned more quickly than expected, easing pressure on its currency and bringing money back into the country. The center-left opposition, while wary that the government might yet let the banks off the hook, made its points about penalizing shareholders privately.

'“The only thing that held back an avalanche was the hope that the system was holding,” said Leif Pagrotzky, a senior member of the opposition at the time. “In public we stuck together 100 percent, but we fought behind the scenes.”'

Here's a link to Dougherty's article in the New York Times.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Biden, McCain, Obama, Palin....What The Tickets Reveal

No partisan red meat offered in this post....this is the vegetarian option. (Hence, the listing of names in alphabetical order.)

I really enjoyed two opinion pieces in the Washington Post this weekend. We all keep hearing how the tickets and candidates differ, but in these politically charged weeks, it's nice to take a step back and examine what the Democratic and Republican tickets have in common.

First, David Ignatius writes:

"There's something lovable about the way this year's never-ending political campaign has turned out.

"We now have two presidential tickets that display the American rainbow in all its eccentric colors. It's as raw and real, and as unlikely, as the nation itself: On one side a suave, aloof African American, twinned with a loquacious Catholic whose manner evokes his blue-collar roots; on the other, a certified war hero paired with a young woman from Alaska who looks like the heroine of a country music song and earns her reputation both as a beauty-contest charmer and a political "barracuda."

"Best of all, these four people are each, in different ways, American rebels. They have all made their way challenging conventional wisdom, telling off the know-it-alls, making a place for themselves and their ideas. They all retained their individuality in a political culture that tends to grind down candidates until they are palpable phonies. That didn't happen with these four -- whatever you think of them, they are who they claim to be.

"Stand back a minute and consider what this often shrill and partisan campaign process has produced: The two parties converged toward the center, selecting in Barack Obama and John McCain presidential candidates who promised they would work across party lines to break the gridlock in Washington. The dividers lost.

The victors were a change agent and a maverick. And each of them picked someone who shared his instinct to challenge the status quo.

"It's a refreshingly upside-down composite picture: The African American candidate is the most conventional of the lot, with his Columbia-Harvard pedigree and his elegant Princeton-Harvard wife and their picture-perfect children. It's the gal from Alaska, Sarah Palin, who reminds us of how messy the real world is, with her special-needs child passed from hand to hand, her pregnant teenage daughter and the hockey-star boyfriend/father who looks, weirdly, like he just won the lottery.

"And old John McCain, eyes flashing, tighter than a tick, just like old Gramps when he's about to take a verbal shot at someone he thinks is a jerk. And motor-mouth Joe Biden, who can't stop saying what he thinks, even if it's to applaud how well his rival, Palin, did in cutting up Obama during her acceptance speech.

"I'm sorry, but this is an American family portrait I like."

Here's the full piece, A Tapestry In Two Tickets.

Next, Andrew J. Cherlin makes the observation that despite the candidates' attempts to convince Americans that their families were just like ours, they were undone by a 21st-century reality: There is no typical family anymore.

"In fact, the diversity of American households was the unspoken lesson of both conventions, as four strikingly different kinds of families came into view. First, the Obamas. The Democratic nominee's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, spoke to the Denver crowd, highlighting his biracial family background, dominated by an often single mother and a largely absent father. Obama's wife Michelle also took a powerful turn at the podium, focusing on her husband's biography but also playing up her own high-powered career and modest roots. The Bidens were introduced to a national audience that week as well, a stepfamily formed after the tragic death of the senator's first wife. With the McCains, we see another stepfamily, formed this time after the senator's divorce. Their family also includes Bridget, a daughter adopted from Bangladesh. And the Palins bring to the stage two working parents with five children, including a pregnant teenager and an infant with Down syndrome."

"(N)ever has such an extraordinary range of family histories been center stage."

Here's the Washington Post article.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Really, What DOES a Vice President Do Anyway?

Vice-Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin in July:

From government classes in high school, most of us remember that the only responsibilities assigned to the Vice-President by the U.S. Constitution are:

a) To assume the "powers and duties" of the presidency, should the president die or become disabled while in office; and

b) To preside over the Senate, casting tie-breaker votes in the body when needed.

Regarding a): thirteen vice presidents have gone on to become president, eight because of the death of a president. (The rest were elected to the office.)

So what else does the No. 2 have to do?

Here's some wisdom from someone who ought to know.

Former senator, former vice president, and, of course, the first presidential candidate to select a woman as his running mate, Walter Mondale was quoted in the New York Times on Wednesday:

Whether Republicans or Democrats win in November, “there will be messes on the Hill. And that’s what I did a lot of as vice president,’’ he said. “I spent a lot of time cleaning up messes on the Hill.’’

The second is to act as an early-warning radar for brewing problems – which means having deep connections in the government, with people honest enough to say things they might not say to the president. Ms. Palin, he said, “seems like a lovely person’’ but is so detached from Washington that she is unlikely to serve in that role.

The third, he said, is to “extend the president’s power abroad.’’ When he was vice president to Jimmy Carter, he noted, he spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and dealing with the Chinese. (Under President Clinton, he came back to government to serve as ambassador to Japan, and he played a significant behind-the-scenes role managing the first nuclear crisis with North Korea, in 1994.)

Then there’s the unglamorous part of the job, he said. “Remember, the vice president is the only other officer of the government without a bureaucratic constituency. You have to be able to hear out all sides, and know how what you’re hearing is being affected’’ as members of the cabinet maneuver for more budget, or more authority. Full article.

Clearly, one role all modern vice-presidential candidates must play is in campaigning. In Governor Palin's case, she is helping to motivate the right wing of her party. The fervent applause given after her speech to the Republican National Convention shows that she is well primed for this particular task.

Here are some interesting bits about Vice-Presidents:

Nine succeeded to the Presidency:

John Tyler became President when William Harrison died. Chose not to seek full term.
Millard Fillmore became President when Zachary Taylor died. Sought the Whig nomination in 1852, but lost to Winfield Scott. Four years later, ran and lost as the candidate of the American and Whig Parties.
Andrew Johnson became President when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Sought the Democratic nomination in 1868, but was unsuccessful.
Chester A. Arthur became President when James Garfield was assassinated. Sought a full term, but was not re-nominated.
Theodore Roosevelt became President when William McKinley was assassinated; then was elected to full term. Did not seek re-election. Four years after leaving office, ran again and lost.
Calvin Coolidge became President when Warren Harding died; then was elected to full term. Did not seek re-election.
Harry S. Truman became President when Franklin D. Roosevelt died; then was elected to full term.
Lyndon B. Johnson became President when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; then was elected to full term. Did not seek re-election.
Gerald Ford became President when Richard Nixon resigned; then lost election to full term.

Four sitting Vice Presidents were elected President:

John Adams (1789–1797) was elected President in 1796.
Thomas Jefferson (1797–1801) was elected President in 1800.
Martin Van Buren (1833–1837) was elected President in 1836.
George H. W. Bush (1981–1989) was elected President in 1988.

Previous positions:
Every vice president as of 2008 except John Adams, Chester A. Arthur, Henry A. Wallace and Garret Hobart has served as a congressman, senator, or governor.

There's more Veep trivia in this article.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remember Gorbachev? He Weighs in on Georgia

Today the New York Times has an op-ed piece on the crisis in South Ossetia, from none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, last head of state of the USSR.

"Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction."

A controversial statement, to be sure, yet Gorbachev is still scheduled to receive the 2008 Liberty Medal next month. Said the president of the National Constitution Center: "Awarding the Liberty Medal should not be construed as an endorsement by the center of President Gorbachev's views on the Russia-Georgia conflict."

The former Soviet leader continues:

"It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr. Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter. What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace.

"If this military misadventure was a surprise for the Georgian leader’s foreign patrons, so much the worse. It looks like a classic wag-the-dog story.

"Mr. Saakashvili had been lavished with praise for being a staunch American ally and a real democrat — and for helping out in Iraq. Now America’s friend has wrought disorder, and all of us — the Europeans and, most important, the region’s innocent civilians — must pick up the pieces.

"Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.

"The problems of the Caucasus region cannot be solved by force. That has been tried more than once in the past two decades, and it has always boomeranged.

"What is needed is a legally binding agreement not to use force. Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly refused to sign such an agreement, for reasons that have now become abundantly clear.

"The West would be wise to help achieve such an agreement now. If, instead, it chooses to blame Russia and re-arm Georgia, as American officials are suggesting, a new crisis will be inevitable. In that case, expect the worst."

Read Gorbachev's full essay here.

And this morning we have news of a deal to build a U-S missile defense base on Polish soil, which of course is angering Russia. It's hard to see the timing as anything other than deliberate.

Among the voices denouncing Moscow's occupation is a Georgian who once had a prominent seat in the Kremlin. In the 1980s, Eduard Shevardnadze served as the foreign minister for the Soviet Union. His comments aired on NPR's Morning Edition today.

"For 200 years, we were a Russian colony," he said. "When one gets accustomed to controlling another country, it can be difficult to see that country become independent. Eventually, some people reappear who want to re-create the old order."

Several years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze became president of an independent Georgia. But in 2003, he was overthrown by opposition protests led by Georgia's current president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Shevardnadze said Saakashvili was unwise to try to reclaim the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia by force earlier this month.

But the 80-year-old former Soviet diplomat also had some advice for the current residents of the Kremlin, who have made no secret of their desire to see Saakashvili overthrown.

The more Russia squeezes Saakashvili, Shevardnadze said, the more his authority will grow. That, he added, is the nature of Georgians.

Here's the full story on NPR.)

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman points fingers all over the place:

"If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams."

Read the column here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

(The Other) Georgia on Our Minds

Not knowing anyone from Georgia or of Georgian descent, I was surprised to learn that this country of 4.4 milliion in the Caucusus has a devout fan base in the US.

Ilan Greenberg: "(I)t is hard to overstate the level of passion felt by Americans in thrall with Georgia. Love for Georgia is uncompromising and consuming. To be American and reside in Georgia is to be locked in an endless meta-conversation about being American and residing in Georgia: how Georgian culture enriches, how Georgian politics fascinate, how Georgian cuisine nourishes."

I can only imagine what these Georgia boosters felt when they saw pictures like this.

In spite of the media-heavy Olympics, images of Russian tanks in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia have made big news since forces on both sides engaged on the 7th of August. There have also been clashes in another breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russia also launched attacks on other parts of Georgia. (Russia Invades Georgia While the West Watches. How Did It Come to This?)

Barely a day after the conflict began, President Bush sat a few seats away from Vladimir Putin at the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. But there was no outward sign of tension between the two leaders. Leaning over, Bush and the Russian prime minister engaged in the sort of chummy socializing we've seen between them since their first meeting in the summer of 2001. Back then, Bush said he had looked Vladimir Putin in the eye, gotten ``a sense of his soul'' and found the Russian leader to be ``very straightforward and trustworthy.'' That fall, Putin headed to Crawford, Texas, where the two world leaders again gave all appearances of being the best of buddies.

"The more I get to know President Putin, the more I get to see his heart and soul ...the more I know we can work together in a positive way." - Bush, 2001

But how his expression changed after a few days of continued fighting in South Ossetia.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century." - Bush, 2008

Bush is well known for standing by his bosom buddies no matter what their transgressions (Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, for example.) Yet he was scolding his pal publicly. Is this another sign of America's abiding affection for the former Soviet republic that shares a name with the Peach State? (Why the same name?)

Here's more of Ilan Greenberg's piece in Slate.

"Georgia is something like the Italy of the former Soviet Union, where mothers are considered saints and histrionic displays of emotion are roundly approved, where traffic police refuse to write tickets to pregnant women and grown men worship fresh produce. Television viewers getting their first taste of Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili (Misha to everyone in Georgia), this week are not wrong to detect a surprising emotionalism, volatility, and American-style openness from a leader of a country sandwiched between Turkey and Russia. It is not a stretch to say [President Mikhail] Saakashvili's qualities are emblematic of the nation as a whole.

"I got to know Georgia—and Saakashvili—when I profiled him for the New York Times Magazine. For almost two months I shadowed Misha. In Slovakia for a regional summit, walking next to Saakashvili along Bratislava's cordoned streets, the Georgian head of state hooked his arm on my elbow and offered to trade gossip about his senior staff. In Tbilisi, Saakashvili gave me carte blanche access, not once ordering me out of his office. In a region where governments routinely conflate tribe with nation, Saakashvili pointedly switched languages to inclusively address ethnic minorities. One evening I answered my cell phone to hear the cackling voice of the then 37-year-old president, who called to tease that his evening was more interesting than mine. I had been crank-called by the president. Stockholm Syndrome was inevitable.

"Georgia's charm doesn't end with Saakashvili. Few sights are as beguiling as barrel-chested Georgian men greeting each other on the street with the traditional cheek kisses. Georgian toasting is a triumph of rhetorical theatrics. Then there is Georgian hospitality. The mother of a friend I had visited shined my shoes while nobody was looking. Before arriving in Tbilisi, I called a Georgian friend to ask if I could stay in her three-room apartment "for maybe 10 days." I stayed three months.

"My friend's boyfriend was an important presidential adviser with a late-night pizza addiction. Receiving delivery was an ordeal: The delivery man, schooled in the pre-Rose Revolution tradition of refusing payment from high government officials, would knock on the door, drop the pies, and try to make a run for it. The adviser, dedicated to ending a culture of corruption, usually was able to head him off, money clutched in his fist.

"So there are many reasons to like Georgia. But for the Americans trafficking in Georgia-thrall, enthusiasm for the country of 4.8 million can be extreme. In Tbilisi, the picturesque Georgian capital that is now a precarious 40 miles from the Russian occupation zone, I met American expats—veterans of any number of other-country postings—who quit their jobs rather than accept a new country. Of course, at the government level, assiduous courting of Americans is all part of the plan. Saakashvili has been reaching out to American politicians, especially Republican ones, since he took office. When I spent time with the president, he was obsessive about influencing American opinion-makers in the press, and his chief of staff complained to me he was spending more time dictating responses to articles in American newspapers than governing Georgia.

"For Westerners, Georgian cultural idiosyncrasies can be intoxicating. But for Russians, Georgia is also innerving. The two peoples are badly handcuffed. Russian women falling for Georgian men is a stereotype in both countries, and ethnic Georgians populate the upper reaches of Russian pop culture as celebrated singers and actors. Long before the Russian army rolled into Gori, Russian tourists streamed into the country to enjoy its warm Black Sea coast and to hike its soaring green mountains.

The signature traits of Georgian identity—a romantic, somewhat lugubrious sense of national fate; male machismo; the Orthodox Church; even good toast-making—are claimed by Russians. The two countries rarely resist tormenting each other, and if this week has underscored the lack of equality between the two in hard power, there is an equanimity in national psyche. Both peoples find the cultural aspirations of the other to be intolerable.

American fans of Georgia, a good number of them anyway, have located a far-away dreamscape, a colorful Caucasian people kissing each other on the cheeks and speaking a strange, unique language in a fairy-tale land, where poor men will sell the shirts off their backs to buy a woman dinner. Ironically, a lot of Russians look south and see something similar. Too much love is never a good thing."

Here are more articles analyzing the situation in Georgia:

New York Times: U.S. Watched as a Squabble Turned Into a Showdown

Slate: After The Counterrevolution: Georgia is yet another country where Washington declared "mission accomplished" too soon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Stretch Your Gas Dollar with “Hypermiling”

You know how those EPA fuel economy estimates usually oversell? Well, some people manage to exceed those values, just by modifying their driving habits.

The practice is called hypermiling.

“The terms "hypermiler" and "hypermiling" originated in the online communities of Clean MPG, which is devoted to raising fuel economy and lowering emissions,” writes Nate Chapnick in edmunds.com.

“The actual practice of hypermiling likely dates back to World War II gas rationing; in fact, during the fuel crisis of the 1970s, Reader's Digest published a guide for consumers that included many techniques now commonly used in hypermiling. Today, however, hypermilers are not only more serious about their craft; they also rely heavily on new technology to achieve such astounding fuel economy.”

How astounding?

Try 52 miles per gallon with a Toyota Corolla.

Try 75.6 miles per gallon with a 2001 Honda Insight. (Source)

Bear in mind the typical mileage you get from these cars: according to the US Department of Energy, the 2008 Corolla’s fuel economy is 29 mpg, city and highway combined, and the 2001 Insight is rated 48 mpg in the city, 60 on the highway. (Source: www.fueleconomy.gov).

So how do we squeeze that sort of mileage out of a gallon of gas?

Whether we choose to follow them or not, most of use know the basic hypermiling techniques.

Maintaining an efficient speed is an important factor in fuel efficiency. The optimum speed varies with the type of vehicle, although it is usually reported to be in the range of 35 to 55 mph. For instance a 2004 Chevrolet Impala had an optimum at 42 mph, and was within 15% of that from 29 to 57 mph. (Source)We know that the faster we drive, the lower the fuel efficiency – yet how often do you drive at the speed limit, only to be passed by vehicle after vehicle roaring by at 75 mph, drivers flashing you surly looks? (They ought to look surly – think about how much extra gas they’re burning!)

The national speed limit could drop back down to 55 mph, though. Senator John Warner (R-Virginia) asked Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to look into what speed limit would provide optimum gasoline efficiency given current technology. He said he wants to know if the administration might support efforts in Congress to require a lower speed limit. (more)

Here's a rule of thumb: If you're in a drive-through restaurant/business line or waiting for someone and you'll be parked and sitting for 10 seconds or longer... turn off your car's engine. Why?? For every two minutes a car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go about one mile. Today's cars use electronic fuel injectors, which rigorously control the amount of gas delivered to the engine when you hit the ignition. As a result, virtually no fuel is wasted during startup, and only a thimbleful is burned as the car roars to life.

Research indicates that the average person idles their car five to 10 minutes a day. People usually idle their cars more in the winter than in the summer. But even in winter, you don't need to let your car sit and idle for five minutes to "warm it up" when 30 seconds will do just fine. (More)


Accelerate slowly over the longest possible distance. The slower you accelerate, the more you extend it over time and the less gas you use.

Go easy on the brakes - you used gas to move, but when you brake you're turning that motion (and the money spent on the gas) - into heat. Therefore, the more you move without braking, the less energy wasted.

MORE TIPS from the edmunds.com article on hypermiling. Note that some of the techniques could compromise safety.

Overinflate tires
Larry Singleton, a systems analyst in Phoenix and the owner of a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, overinflates his tires by about 15-20 pounds. "I consider it safe because most of my driving is around town and under 50 miles per hour," said Singleton. According to Singleton, putting less rubber on the road gives him an edge in beating the EPA's rating by decreasing rolling resistance. However, such a practice could lead to uneven tire wear or worse, a loss of vehicle control.

Watch the real-time mileage display
Some vehicles are equipped with readouts that compute your real-time fuel use on a miles-per-gallon basis. Singleton watches the onboard display and adjusts his throttle inputs based on the readout to maximize his fuel economy.

Pay attention to wind conditions
James Cullen, a retired locomotive engineer and Toyota Prius owner, has found that his fuel mileage is significantly impacted by favorable wind conditions. "On long highway rides, having a tailwind has made a big difference in my fuel economy." If you know it's a windy day and you don't have to take that trip, then don't," said Cullen.

Place cardboard over the radiator
Chuck Thomas said that a cold engine reduces fuel-efficiency. How can you warm up the engine faster? Office Depot's silver-colored cardboard. Yes, that's right, cardboard. Thomas covers his radiator with cardboard to block the wind, thus retaining heat and keeping the engine running at a warmer temperature. Cautioning about the risk of overheating, Thomas said, "I'll take off the piece of cardboard if I know that I'll be driving a long distance, say 100 miles, but it's fine for my daily commute."

Of course, a cold engine's thermostat already remains closed until the engine is warm, so the cardboard isn't necessarily really helping it warm up faster but it will make the car's engine run at a higher operating temperature. In cold climates this might promote better fuel economy.

Minimize stoplights and stop signs on your route
Before leaving for an unfamiliar location, James Cullen maps out his route to ensure that his pathway has the fewest stops. "Every time you stop and start, you waste fuel. So it's easy to go on the Internet and map out a route with fewer stoplights and stop signs," said Cullen. If you can't avoid the stoplights, determine the optimal speed for the timing of the stoplights. "Taking this small step has a marked effect on your fuel economy," said Thomas.

Ride the ridge
Riding along the painted white line used to be reserved for road bikers looking for a surface with less friction. Friction decreases your fuel economy by adding drag to the vehicle. However, hypermilers now use this white line to increase their fuel economy, a tactic that's especially useful in the rain when puddles form in the grooves of the road, which significantly increases rolling resistance.

Run without the A/C and keep windows closed
This tip could have you sweating bullets, but just think about all the water weight you'll lose. Alison McKellar of DeLand, Florida, recently purchased a new Prius. McKellar quickly became interested in conserving fuel and said she "found the strategy on a site for Prius owners. I realize substantial fuel economy gains by not running the A/C, so before I head out for a trip, I make sure to bring plenty of ice water to stay hydrated," said McKellar.

Baby the brakes while being "surroundings aware"
With this technique, hypermilers treat stop signs as though they are yield signs — and slowly glide through. Cullen, a Prius owner, said, "If I see no one is there [at the stop sign], then I just roll through it, which keeps the car in electric mode." This technique is especially important for non-hybrid hypermilers, whose vehicles do not feature regenerative braking, a technology that recharges the hybrid's battery, which runs the electric motor.

Driving as if you don't have brakes requires constant anticipation and planning, dubbed "surroundings aware," which hypermiler advocates say promotes defensive driving. But the technique may sometimes require hypermilers to tailgate or take corners at speeds that aren't truly safe, all in the hopes of never touching their brake pedals.

Keep up with maintenance
Even non-hypermilers will find this tactic easy to follow. Keeping your vehicle properly maintained by changing the air filter and oil according to the manufacturer's scheduled tune-ups will have a positive effect on your fuel economy. Hypermilers also recommend regular balancing and aligning of your tires.

Get rid of what you don't need
Hypermilers always travel with the bare essentials. Chuck Thomas said that he never "leaves junk that I don't need in the trunk." He also recommends removing the roof rack when not in use, as it creates unnecessary drag on your vehicle. "The more drag on your vehicle and the heavier it is, the worse mileage you'll get," according to Thomas.

"Potential parking" and "face-out"
According to Wayne Gerdes, winner of the 2006 Hybridfest MPG Challenge, "Park at the highest spot in the parking lot and face out." This technique allows you to exit by rolling forward in neutral without turning on the engine, thereby saving gas. The technique does away with the backing up and braking required by nose-in parking, while also reducing the time the engine runs. This strategy is easiest to use where there's at least one corner of the lot without other parked cars.

"Pulse and glide"
This is perhaps the most complicated technique employed by hypermilers. On a Prius, the optimal speed for this tactic is around 30-40 mph, said Prius owner Cullen. The first step in the pulse-and-glide technique is to pulse, which is to accelerate the vehicle to around 30 or 40 mph. In the Prius, once the speed has reached 40 mph, ease slightly back on the accelerator until no energy arrows appear on the energy monitor, indicating that the vehicle is neither relying on the engine nor recharging the battery. As a result, the car begins to glide. When the vehicle slows to about 30 mph, repeat the whole process again, pulsing and then gliding.

The pulse-and-glide technique improves fuel economy by minimizing use of the internal combustion engine. There is a version of this technique that can also be applied to non-hybrid vehicles, but be aware that it is outlawed in several states because it would require actually turning the engine off, which causes the power-assist for the brakes and steering to fail. If the key is in the off position, the steering will also lock.

Coaxing an "auto-stop"
Similar to the pulse and glide, auto-stop simply involves placing the vehicle's transmission into neutral, turning off the engine and coasting to a stop. This seems innocent enough, but any time a car is moving without the engine running, vehicle control is compromised. Some devoted — and dangerous — hypermilers do this while driving down a hill at rather high speeds, refusing to brake even around corners. Some people might even call this technique irresponsible.

Draft at your own risk
A "draft-assisted" auto-stop involves tailgating a semitruck. By taking advantage of the draft generated in the truck's wake, wind resistance is markedly reduced for the hypermiler's car. "This is particularly dangerous," said Thomas, "as you must travel dangerously close to the 18-wheelers for the technique's full effect."

Read the whole article at edmunds.com.

Regarding drafting: Discovery Channel's Mythbusters, in their June 6, 2007, episode, took a series of measurements where they drove a Dodge Magnum Station Wagon at 55 mph right behind a Freightliner tractor trailer. As they got closer their results ranged from a baseline (no truck) figure of 32 mpg, to 35.5 mpg (11 percent improvement) at 100 feet, and then progressively up to 44.5 mpg (a 39 percent increase) at ten feet, as a result of decreased drag consequent of drafting. They strongly emphasized that drafting a big rig at such close distances is life-threatening and extremely dangerous. They recommended a minimum safe driving distance from a big rig is 150 ft. (source)

For hypermilers, the task of improving their fuel economy is an entertaining game, albeit a serious one. Every drive for this elite group of fuel-sippers is an opportunity to break their own mileage record. They may never stop — literally — in their quest for ultimate fuel-efficiency.


More hypermiling and fuel-saving articles:

First, meet the Grandaddy of Hypermiling, Wayne Gerdes:
This Guy Can Get 59 MPG in a Plain Old Accord. Beat That, Punk. (Mother Jones) Here's another article on Gerdes from CNN.

How to Increase Your Gas Mileage (Washington Post)

Is an Idle Car the Devil's Workshop? (Slate)

Does it Really Save Gas to Roll Down Your Windows Instead of Flipping on the AC? (Slate)

Dallas hypermiler Chuck Thomas demonstrates his techniques (Video, Dallas Morning News)

Fuel economy-maximizing behaviors (Wikipedia)

Note that the Automobile Association of America says hypermiling is dangerous when taken to the extreme.(Article)

Read the rebuttal from hypermilers at Cleanmpg.com.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Guard that Grease! (And Bird Droppings!)

Ever deep-fried a turkey, or had a tempura party?

Great fun, good food. But what to do with that rancid used oil? We're not supposed to pour it down the drain, and it would kill your compost pile.

Thanks to high fuel prices, you might just leave a container of it by the garbage and hope someone steals it.

The New York Times reports:

"Outside Seattle, cooking oil rustling has become such a problem that the owners of the Olympia Pizza and Pasta Restaurant in Arlington, Wash., are considering using a surveillance camera to keep watch on its 50-gallon grease barrel. Nick Damianidis, an owner (pictured above), said the barrel had been hit seven or eight times since last summer by siphoners who strike in the night.

“Fryer grease has become gold,” Mr. Damianidis said. “And just over a year ago, I had to pay someone to take it away.”

"Much to the surprise of Mr. Damianidis and many other people, processed fryer oil, which is called yellow grease, is actually not trash. The grease is traded on the booming commodities market. Its value has increased in recent months to historic highs, driven by the even higher prices of gas and ethanol, making it an ever more popular form of biodiesel to fuel cars and trucks.

"In 2000, yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound. On Thursday, its price was about 33 cents a pound, or almost $2.50 a gallon." "

Well, this is one aspect of the restaurant industry that doesn't get much attention! Grease thieves aside, though, there are several outfits that are well aware of this goldmine.

There are specially-outfitted grease collection trucks available for the purpose.

(Cartoon from Mumblings from a Padded Room)

NWPR's Traffic Manager Laura Hartner was once a grease collector. With dreams of making her own biodiesel, she went from fryer to fryer, asking for their used grease, which they were only too happy to give to her. After all, it meant they did not have to pay for the oily (and sometimes stinky) stuff to be removed from their premises! Unfortunately, Laura wasn't able to realize her wishes, so I put her in touch with a friend of mine, who converts the grease into biodiesel in his backyard. He runs a couple of very nice European diesel cars on the stuff!

I wonder if the price of commercial diesel is going to put a crimp in the fuel line of home biodiesel manufacturers.

The price of oil is also affecting the price of fertilizers made from the black stuff. And that's reviving an industry in Peru, for guano. Bird (or bat) droppings.

Also in the New York Times:

"Guano in Peru sells for about $250 a ton while fetching $500 a ton when exported to France, Israel and the United States. While guano is less efficient than urea at releasing nitrates into the soil, its status as an organic fertilizer has increased demand, transforming it into a niche fertilizer sought around the world."

The guano comes from birds such as these guanay cormorants, found on Isla Asia, one of Peru's guano islands (picture from Bill of the Birds)

According to one guano collector:

"There might be 10 years of supplies left, or perhaps 20, and then it will be completely exhausted,” he said, referring to fears that the seabird population could be poised to fall sharply in the years ahead. It is a minor miracle that any guano at all is available here today, reflecting a century-old effort hailed by biologists as a rare example of sustainable exploitation of a resource once so coveted that the United States authorized its citizens to take possession of islands or keys where guano was found.

As a debate rages over whether global oil output has peaked, a parable may exist in the story of guano, with its seafaring treachery, the development of synthetic alternatives in Europe and a desperate effort here to prevent the deposits from being depleted.

“Before there was oil, there was guano, so of course we fought wars over it,” said Pablo Arriola, director of Proabonos, the state company that controls guano production, referring to conflicts like the Chincha Islands War, in which Peru prevented Spain from reasserting control over the guano islands. “Guano is a highly desirous enterprise.”

Little wonder then, that the Peruvian government restricts guano collection, and station armed guards at each of the islands to ward off threats to birds, which produce 12,000 to 15,000 tons of guano a year.

Read the whole article: Peru Guards Its Guano as Demand Soars Again. You can get a close-up look at Peru's guano islands at this blog entry on Bill of the Birds.

And here's the grease story: As Oil Prices Soar, Restaurant Grease Thefts Rise.