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Letters

Letters from our readers.
February 19, 2008

Biofuels
As David Rotman states in his article on biofuels, the conversion of biomass to liquid fuel is energy intensive–just like the conversion of coal or any other solid fuel to liquid fuel (“The Price of Biofuels,” January/­February 2008). That implies that the quantity of liquid fuel from biomass and the carbon dioxide released in the production process strongly depend upon the energy source used in the conversion process.

Each year, the United States could produce about 1.3 billion tons of renewable biomass for use as fuel. Burning it would release about as much energy as burning 10 million barrels of diesel fuel per day. If converted to ethanol, the biomass would have the energy value of about five million barrels of diesel fuel per day. The remainder of the energy would be used by the biomass-to-­liquids conversion plant. If a nuclear reactor or other energy source provides the energy for the ­biomass-­to-­liquids plants, the equivalent of over 12 million barrels of diesel fuel can be produced per day. If our goal is to end oil imports and avoid greenhouse-gas releases, we must combine biomass and nuclear energy to maximize biofuels production.
Charles Forsberg
Corporate fellow,
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Oak Ridge, TN

John Hockenberry and NBC
In “You Don’t Understand Our Audience” (January/February 2008), former Dateline correspondent John Hockenberry writes that he called NBC’s parent company, GE, in early 2002 to request help in obtaining an interview with the family of Osama bin Laden. Mr. Hockenberry writes that he was rebuffed by a “senior corporate communications officer.” I handled this issue for GE. While it’s possible I got a call from Mr. Hockenberry, I don’t remember one.

Nonetheless, if he did call, he would have received the same answer he says he got: “No.” GE does not and should not involve itself in the news-gathering process of NBC. I am surprised Mr. Hockenberry believes otherwise. More to the point, he was certainly free to pursue this interview without GE’s help. Other journalists got to the bin Laden family on their own. For example, NBC’s Matt Lauer won an Emmy for his interview with Osama bin Laden’s brother.
Gary Sheffer
General Electric
Fairfield, CT

John Hockenberry responds:
I’m sorry Mr. Sheffer doesn’t recall speaking to me. Anyway: it seems hard to maintain that GE has no role in the editorial content of NBC when GE executives regularly agree to appear on CNBC and MSNBC. Presumably, GE executives believe some public interest is served by their appearances. I applaud Matt Lauer’s 2004 interview, but surely it would have had even more value in January 2002. Mr. Sheffer apparently believes no public interest would have been served by helping facilitate such an interview four months after September 11.

John Hockenberry’s excellent essay has a small error. Edward R. Murrow’s wartime reports from London were sent across the Atlantic by short-wave radio, not cable. Telegraph service was available by cable at the time, but the first cable for voice traffic was TAT1, completed in 1956. The error caught my attention because in 1958, as a student, I worked at the U.K. Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, London. TAT1 was a joint effort by the post office, AT&T, and Bell Labs; the engineers in my department were happy to educate me on their achievement.
Bruno Vieri
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

Digital Buildings
Some architects may be using new ge­ome­tries to build exotic buildings (“The Building, Digitally Remastered,” January/February 2008), but like the fins of a 1959 Cadillac, many new buildings’ most prominent features will in time become laughable. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to send architectural monstrosities to the wrecker.
Sherwood Stockwell
San Francisco, CA

Norman Borlaug
In his article about the work of Norman ­Borlaug, John Pollock describes the reasons for the Green Revolution’s failure in Africa as “complex” (“Green Revolutionary,” ­January/February 2008). Actually, they are pretty straightforward. Pollock describes some of them: lack of irrigation, very unproductive soil, corruption, and poor roads. But there are more: malaria and AIDS, poor education, lack of navigable rivers, and lack of elec­tricity. It’s the solutions that are complex.
Mike Quinn
Austin, TX

Quants on Wall Street
Bryant Urstadt’s very interesting article about the role of quantitative financial engineers in the summer’s troubles on Wall Street misses a point (“The Blow-Up,” November/December 2007). As automatic securities trading increases its share of all trades, all the “quants” will be doing is modeling each other’s models. The only way out of such infinite recursion is social: manipu­lation of prices by an elite whose techniques will resist regulatory supervision. Such gaming of prices via buried signals has already been seen in airline ticketing.
Gregory P. Nowell
Niskayuna, New York

Correction
The Price of Biofuels” (January/February 2008) should have stated that nitrous oxide (not nitric oxide) is produced in the cultivation of corn.

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