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Thursday, April 30, 2009

First sighting of new Honda Insight!

I took this picture with my cell phone. It was in the parking lot of a private school. This is really good news. For years, kids were being dropped off here in $65,000 Toyota LandCruisers and every other kind of expensive car you can think of. Nowadays the relatively inexpensive Prius is the most common car found in this lot, which may be the first time in American history where a car has attained status based on its gas mileage.

Anyone who follows my rants knows I'm not a fan of supply side energy solutions. Efficiency gains are vastly superior from both cost and environmental perspectives than trying to pump up supplies of energy with things like new coal plants and agrofuels.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Be sure to click on the above image for the full effect (photo credit BK59 via the Flickr Creative Commons license). I just put together a simple spreadsheet that will calculate how many pounds of coal any given electrical appliance in your house will burn depending on how long it runs and wattage. Feel free to save a copy (guaranteed virus free). Here's a link that has run the numbers for some common appliances.

According to Green Car Congress, a study just published in Nature concludes "That to limit global warming to 2 °C, less than 25% of proven fossil fuel reserves can be burnt between now and 2050."

I'm looking for ways to motivate myself to use energy more efficiently. Would you be shocked to realize that the two 100-watt security lights you leave on every night burn almost 600 pounds of coal annually? I was. Swapping those bulbs out for a couple of motion sensors with curly bulbs would knock that down to few pounds.

For me, cost isn't a strong motivator. Energy is relatively cheap and buying new technology that will let you use less of it is not so cheap. But monetary cost isn't the only thing that motivates us. If that were not true, we would all seek the least expensive car and home we could get our hands on. What we tend to do instead is get the most bang for the bucks we have available. We buy the fanciest (highest status) car and home we can afford.

But essentially, the most bang for your buck is also the definition of efficient energy use. The difference is that you can't easily display your energy bill and wall insulation. If a falling tree makes no sound when there is nobody to hear it, status does not exist if nobody can see it. If the peacock's tail were invisible, it wouldn't do him any good. Now, I don't seek status and I know you don't either. Only other people do. If only there were a way to make home energy efficiency something the cool kids do so that everyone else would want to emulate them. Maybe that is where solar panels will finally pay off. They are highly visible and everyone wishes they had some.

I recently listened to a very interesting book called Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. My home was built in 1918. Part of my basement was used as a coal bin for a coal fired furnace. A few blocks from my home stands Gas Works Park where coal was gasified and piped to my house. The pipe still protrudes from my basement wall. My mother used to tell me stories about how my grandpa would gather up coal that had fallen off trains (knocking a little off the train car while he was at it) to heat their home. My mother-in-law once told me that it was the job of her brothers to shovel coal into the furnace every morning. I remember looking at my high school sweetheart's family photo album, which contained pictures of relatives in open caskets, all killed in coal mining accidents. Her parents had grown up in Kentucky coal country.

I have another book sitting on the shelf called Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future by Jeff Goodell. I don't think I'll ever read it because I suspect it is a diatribe. All industry is cut from the same cloth, Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Biofuel, Big Aerospace, Big Agriculture. Preventing abuse in the name of profit is and will forever be an ongoing battle. Corporations are essentially an extension of human nature.

It is time to take energy efficiency to another level. We have the technology to do it. It is entirely possible that we may never need to build another coal-fired power plant. Where there is a will, there is a way.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Internet Baboons

(Photo credit: patries71 photo stream Flickr)

Several years ago, the Easter Bunny brought my youngest daughter a pet rabbit. She immediately jumped on the Internet to learn about care and feeding. One site told her that rabbits were social animals and that they should be kept warm and dry in the house, preferably in the kitchen where they could participate in more social activity. Another claimed the breed was derived from wild stock that lived in northern climates. They thrived in cold temperatures and should be kept outside all winter. This was her first lesson in finding the wheat for the chaff. Her bunny has happily lived outside  for nine years and counting.

Like baboons, we are social primates and have a strong propensity to grapple for hierarchical position (stature) inside a troop, even if that troop is a virtual one on the Internet. Most Internet debates would be better described as pissing matches between two males. Neither will ever cede the argument but that isn't the point. The point is to convince or educate the audience.

There are five primary layers of credibility in a typical Internet debate:

  1. The guy who never provides links to sources.
  2. The guy who provides links that turn out not to support his argument because he didn't bother to read past the headline he found with a quick Google search.
  3. The guy who provides links to stupid websites like The Institute for Creation Research.
  4. The conspiracy theorist  ...big whatever runs the world.
  5. The guy who makes claims and provides multiple links to peer reviewed science journals and respected sources of journalism.

Speed-read past #1. He is the chaff amongst the wheat. People will say the damnedest things from behind the safety and anonymity of their firewalls. Most if not everything this person says has the potential to be complete bullshit.

You will not know that guy #2 is simply passing along vested interest talking points and Internet urban legends unless you follow at least some of his links back to their sources. Take everything this guy says with a huge grain of salt. He may make a living from one of those vested interests (corn farmers tend to be very pro-corn ethanol). We are all susceptible to a phenomenon known as subconscious rationalization bias.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."--Upton Sinclair

Lies come in many flavors. Self-deception is very real and very common. We are all susceptible to it to varying degrees. Once you believe what you are saying is true, you can't really be called a liar. I suspect that most televangelists fall in this category. That is what the scientific method tries to do--short-circuit the tendency to self-deceive.

It is important to follow links and give them at least a cursory glance because people will sometimes provide links with headlines that appear to support their case just to make themselves look more legitimate, assuming most people don't follow links anyway, which is true. It's amazing how often people will provide links to articles that upon closer inspection actually hurt their argument. Right click on links and open them in new tabs to check later.

Guy #3 is not very bright and deeply ignorant. Steer clear unless you want to be misinformed.

Guy #4 ...conspiracy theorists are all at least a little bit insane.
Guy #5 may be wrong in the end but has the highest probability of being correct. He has done his homework and has actually read and evaluated the sources found at the end of his links. It helps with his credibility score if it turns out he is motivated by something other than his paycheck.

Zeroing in on the highest probability argument isn't very difficult if you follow these rules and assuming you have a choice. Many Internet debates are just a couple of baboons arguing and neither one have a clue. It is uncommon to find truly knowledgeable individuals going at each other. When you find two guys throwing links at one another you have no choice but to follow the links and evaluate them if you want to know which one is the idiot.

I think it was Vladimir Lenin who said, "A lie told often enough becomes truth." As a nation we recently witnessed this phenomenon when the Bush administration managed to convince most Americans that Iraq was involved with the 9/11 terrorist attack. It actually works. Politicians from both sides of the aisle use this technique to great effect.

It can work in a debate as well. Watch for the guy who repeats the same points over and over even after they have been exposed as false.

Calling your opponent a shill for big whatever is not only stupid, it tends to backfire badly when it turns out your opponent is in no way affiliated with big whatever. On the other hand, it can be very effective if you can prove your opponent actually is a shill for big whatever. Ignore all further comments from guys who have made accusations without evidence.

Once a guy slips into the ad hominem attack mode, calling his opponent a liar, a shill, and other assorted names, skip over all comments he makes from that point on. Guys are emboldened to say things on the Internet they would never dream of saying to a dude sitting on the next bar stool.

Be wary of the strawman argument. This is where you insinuate your opponent said something absurd or blatantly false or just plain stupid and and tear him apart for it (even though he never did).

The conspiracy theorist is only too happy to provide lots of links to sources. There are literally dozens of books published every year about things like UFOs so there is no shortage of sources to cite. Now, of course, people do conspire, but these guys take it to another level. The moon landings were faked, as was the Holocaust, the twin towers were bombed by Bush, and on and on. Did you know that prohibition was really a conspiracy to crush ethanol production for cars? Rudolf diesel was found dead floating in the Ocean because he wanted to burn peanut oil in his engines instead of diesel. Once recognized, you can safely skip past their posts as well.

The Internet is an unprecedented media for the exchange of information and ideas but you have to learn to find the wheat for the chaff.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Overpopulation number one problem?

(Photo credit: Ollie Crafoord's photo stream Flickr)

The population issue has recently raised its ugly head again. There are 6.7 billion people, thanks in part to the efforts of the Catholic Church and other anti-choice religionists. On the other hand, considering that there are roughly 40 million pregnancy termination procedures performed annually around the world, and given Italy's low fertility rate, some argue that the Vatican has had less influence than claimed.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge and at this point the entire overpopulation argument has boiled down to providing women with the education and means to voluntarily plan family size and timing. Obama's removal of Reagan's gag rule may have done more to protect the planet and improve the lives of poor women and children than all the Priuses and solar panels in the world. Roughly half of all pregnancies in the richest country in the world, where birth control and sex education are ubiquitous, are unplanned. Extrapolate that to the rest of the planet.

There were three articles in particular that caught my eye. The Times On Line ran a story about David Attenborough's decision to became a patron of Optimum Population Trust. It's your classic newspaper article with opposing viewpoints and the journalist's personal bias being expressed in a deceptive manner. Much of it talks about the oversimplified theories of some obscure, deeply religious reverend by the name of Malthus, who nobody has ever heard of before…

Some architect by the name of Austin Williams, author of a recent book called The Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability called Attenborough stupid, which IMHO makes Williams an idiot (being hierarchical social primates, we engineers elicit endorphin releases when we mock architects).

Umbra Fisk, best described as an on-line advice columnist for people too lazy to do their own Google searches, threw in her two cents. It is about giving women the ability (choice) to choose family size and timing. Which, in a nutshell is all the overpopulation issue has finally boiled down to. My right eyebrow raised precipitously when, in an attempt to rationalize the fact that she has seven children, or possibly to sooth a guilty conscious, she told us that all seven work for Environmental Defense--call it a carbon offset writ large.

Turns out, she was being sarcastic (i.e. she doesn't have seven kids) and was counting on the idea being so preposterous that the sarcasm would be obvious. I know from experience that sarcasm can be hard to parse from generic stupidity when expressed in print, having been on the receiving and giving end more than once.

We all do selfish things. It's a matter of degree. I could, and sometimes do make excuses for them. Having seven American kids would make a person with seven Hummers look tame. In fact, having just one American child makes owning seven Hummers look tame (I have two… kids that is).

Finally, there was this strawman argument in Yale's Environment 360 by Fred Pearce, which I parse out below:

This is a terribly convenient argument — “over-consumers” in rich countries can blame “over-breeders” in distant lands for the state of the planet.

… It is the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint.

That "convenient argument" does not exist. I have never heard anyone "blame only" the poor people in Africa and India and Asia for obliterating the biosphere. It is universally recognized in environmental circles that every one of us does our share of damage, including the poor subsistence farmer, but especially wealthy Americans. And nobody "blames" the poor farmer for trying to feed his family.

Even if we could today achieve zero population growth, that would barely touch the climate problem.

The effort required to slow the degradation of our biosphere is greatly exacerbated by the sheer numbers of people competing for resources. Having said that, however, I may have to eat my words if we can't put the biofuel Jeanie back in its bottle:

…carbon dioxide will likely rise in poor countries for some time yet, even in optimistic scenarios. But that is an issue of consumption, not population.

…Overpopulation is not driving environmental destruction at the global level…

Wrong: (consumption per person) X (# of people) = (total consumption). You have two variables and because they are both growing, you have an exponential result as opposed to an arithmetic one.

By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution…

Give hominid social primates enough wealth and they will use it to display their status. Given the opportunity, a poor subsistence farmer would own a mansion, a few extra vacation homes, and a stable of SUVs (not to mention a harem). He does not have that opportunity so he instead grows his cattle herd as large as he can. Livestock is a status symbol for pastoralists all around the planet and have been for many millennia. To protect that herd he has to kill predators.

This dog-eared mantra from the seventies that the expression of status via display of material possessions is a uniquely American cultural phenomenon is utter bullshit. The main difference between an American and an African pastoralist on this count is the amount of wealth at their disposal.

In my book (and that is not a plug) I propose we find ways to express that instinct in environmentally benign ways, rather than continue to deny its existence. As we have found ways to express sexual urges without creating a baby with every act, we need to find ways to display status without putting trophy heads on our walls. Works of art meet that definition, as does the high mileage of the Prius, and on and on. It is our responsibility to blaze the trail, to show the world how to live sustainably. We certainly can't ask the poor of the world who are just trying to stay fed to do that research.

Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance.

The above is a good example of what I'm talking about. Meat consumption in China and everywhere else people can now afford it is going ballistic.

I do not deny that fast-rising populations can create serious local environmental crises through overgrazing, destructive farming and fishing, and deforestation. My argument here is that viewed at the global scale, it is overconsumption that has been driving humanity’s impacts on the planet’s vital life-support systems during at least the past century.

With the exception of global warming, all overpopulation issues start out "local." Think of the Earth as a giant peach. A mold spot appears, then another, they merge, and before long your peach is rotten. Visualize the world today with 6.7 billion people on it, all living the life of an African subsistence farmer. Would the world be better off? It just isn't that simple. First, there would not be 6.7 billion people. Without the industrial revolution, childhood mortality, warfare, pestilence, and starvation would still rule population growth. And if there were 6.7 billion subsistence farmers, there wouldn't be a tree or elephant left on the planet. The elephants would have been eaten and the wood burned as fuel. The bushmeat trade, tiger, rhino, and elephant poaching have poured gas on the extinction event. It all adds up. The planet is bleeding to death from 6.7 billion cuts.

This blame game does not work for me. All human beings are driven by the same instincts, subconscious urges.

According to a report issued by the FAO last year, livestock (much of it owned by the poor) accounts for roughly 18% of global warming. This chart shows how that impact is distributed, which is driven mostly by land use changes. Soot accounts for about 18% of global warming. Here is a recent article in the New York Times discussing where much of that soot is coming from. Deforestation accounts for about a third of global warming, which is being driven by demand for meat and wood by people rising up out of poverty as well as biofuels. Who is more to blame? The poor person logging the lumber or the rich person he is selling it to (and both would do the same if their role switched)?

In my book I use an analogy called prosperity osmosis. Think of nations, which tend to have amoeba shaped arbitrarily defined borders, as cells with membranes. Canada, the United States and Mexico represent three cells that bump up against each other. The highest pressure against the membrane is at the border with largest wealth gradient.

He didn't touch on the topic of immigration so I will. Russia, France, Italy, Japan, and just about every developed nation that has a population growing top heavy with older people (the result of a population growth rate that was too high for too long) have programs to cajole their blond-haired blue-eyed or black-haired brown-eyed women as the case may be, to have more Russian, Japanese, French (or whatever) babies to pump up the work force.

Racism and nationalism prevent them from tapping the rich resource that surrounds them--motivated, smart, hard working immigrants. There is no better tool for global poverty reduction than properly regulated immigration into already thriving economies that need labor, given that nobody seems to know how to create thriving economies in all countries.

If they want them to be fluent in their language and culture fine, set the standard but use it. Stop with the attempts to breed more Frenchmen. It is not well-understood how a Mexican citizen, or any number of citizens from other impoverished countries, can simply cross an arbitrary boundary and suddenly become a hard working upwardly mobile member of a growing economy and by crossing back suddenly find himself immersed in poverty again.

I realized many years ago that when it comes to saving the planet, the best bang for my charitable buck is Planned Parenthood and The Nature Conservancy.

And so ended a long article all built upon a strawman.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pimp My Ride

That's a picture of my Hybrid Electric parked next to an especially stupid looking Hummer. Dark tinted windows make it impossible for cyclists to make eye contact with drivers. You're playing Russian roulette when you cross in front of a car that has them. I noticed that this particular Hummer would not move for days at a time when gas prices were high last summer.

A commenter wanted me to post an update on my Hybrid Electric bike. Specifically, he wanted to know how the cheap mountain bike frame was holding out. The answer is just fine. My only complaint is that that the cargo rack has to cantilever from the seat post because it can't connect to the rear wheel axle on a loose tail mountain bike. This minimizes shocks to the controller but puts a lot of stress at the base of the cantilever.

There isn't much to update. I have not made any improvements to the bike for some time, which is a sign that the design is pretty mature. I thought I'd include a picture of my charging station. It normally hangs on the garage wall but I occasionally take it with me on long trips. It is designed so two chargers can fit in each pannier bag. With the flip of a switch I can charge the batteries or draw power from them.

I rode too far on a trip last week and had to limp home without using my batteries. That's the beauty of a hybrid system. I'm not sure how the all-electric car thing will work out because people will over-extend now and then. I suspect companies will spring up to assist electric car drivers with quick charges or cheap tows--part of the new green economy.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Six things you probably didn't know

[Update: Take a gander at the comments on this NYT article published on 5/8/09. Commenter # 43 was called on the carpet by the Times journalist for not divulging his relationship to an ethanol company.]

  1. I have always voted Democrat.
  2. A 10 percent blend of ethanol in your full tank of gas will use enough corn to feed an adult for 40 days.
  3. Obama wants to increase the amount of corn ethanol in your tank to 15 percent (enough corn to feed a person for two months).
  4. The world population is expected to increase by about 50 percent (ten times the present population of the U.S.) in the next forty years.
  5. The number of chronically hungry human beings is approaching one billion souls for the first time in human history (over 3 times the population of the entire United States).
  6. At least eight peer-reviewed studies published in the last two years have found that today's food-based biofuels are worse for global warming than the fossil fuels they replace.

I took the above photo with my cell phone while filling up our Prius. Your elected politicians are forcing you to fuel your car with food. Why aren’t you morally outraged?

The above cartoon was created last summer by Michael Ramirez. And he wasn't the only cartoonist covering the topic. There were food riots in over thirty countries that summer. Big Biofuel tells us their product had nothing to do with it, but think about it. Although the corn ethanol lobby would happily do so if they could get away with it, no sane politician would back a plan to turn all of America's corn and soybean crops into biofuels. Doing so would starve millions of impoverished children around the world and wreak havoc on our food system. If turning all of it into biofuels would wreak havoc, turning a quarter of it into biofuels (which we just did last year) wreaks one quarter of that havoc.

Photo:toddehler via Flickr

Attempts to get consumers to use corn ethanol as a fuel have a long history in our country. It has been marketed under the names Alcoline, Agrol, Gasohol, and finally, E-85. Gasohol, which is a 10 percent blend of ethanol, was sold in the eighties. You got to decide if you wanted it or not and most people decided they didn't as the above picture attests. The ag and biofuel lobbyists got together with our politicians and found a way to fix that. They simply blend it into our gas without our permission and charge us an extra dollar a tank to subsidize the biofuel industry that is forcing this crappy fuel down our throats. I say crappy because, in so many words, that is what Consumer Reports concluded it was when they tested it.

Five bills are pending in Oregon to to scale back ethanol use. Now, why would you limit use of a fuel that exacerbates global warming and hunger in the third world, costs taxpayers an extra dollar per tank of gas, an extra 12 9 billion in food costs and over 10 billion dollars in lost gas mileage annually? [Update: A commenter pointed out an error in my calculations.]

The ethanol complaints tend to come from Republicans, but three of the bills have Democratic supporters. The politicians said they're hearing widespread complaints from voters.

The stereotypically well intentioned but math, science, and logic challenged local vocal environmentalists want to keep the ethanol blend. They think another 30 years of government support for this fuel will finally lead to a biofuel that isn't quite as destructive.

Just last week I met, along with two other people, with a local politician to lobby him to drop his city's use of a 40 percent blend of food-based biodiesel. He finally perked up when someone mentioned that dropping the biodiesel would save the city $350,000 annually. There was potential political gain to be had. As a politician, his next step should be to determine if banning of the biodiesel blend would make more political enemies than it would gain. The mayor of this city is a huge biodiesel proponent and the employee's retirement fund of this city invested ten million dollars last year in the largest biodiesel refinery on the West Coast, which is now on the edge of bankruptcy. All of the congress people in this State are huge proponents of biofuels.

A word of encouragement for this politician, as Washington State's King County Executive, Ron Sims stopped use of biodiesel in King County vehicles last year citing budgetary concerns. That move certainly didn't cost him any political points. He is now deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Maybe taking the moral high ground on this issue will be the politically smart thing to do in the future.

These fuels cannot make a dent in our fuel imports. Only high mileage cars and mass transit can do that. It took an area equal to all of the cropland in Indiana (almost a quarter of our corn crop) to replace a mere 4% of our fuel supply last year.

The real question is, will the Democrats cede that moral high ground to the Republicans?

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