Sitting under a hornet’s nest

Posted in Society at 10:58 by RjZ

Out of date, now, this was lost in my drafts section. Remember when the now ignored Baker-Hamilton report came out suggesting what we should do in Iraq? I’ve got to hand it to the Bush administration. They got out of that rather well–they simply ignored it. I guess being a lame duck president means that you can just ignore suggestions, public opinion, really anything. It worked for them because the report came and went and no one seems to matter. So while this is a bit silly now, perhaps it serves as a reminder of alternatives, already presented for the quagmire in Iraq. Agree with Rubin or Baker-Hamilton or not, it’s worth considering other ideas.

During NPR’s Talk of the Nation Michael Rubin who is the “resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Former Pentagon policy official and former political adviser to the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad” explained why he refused to participate when asked for his expert advice during the Iraq Study Group’s research. He claimed he felt he was the “token Neo-Con”.

I find it unlikely that there is a shortage of neo-con views in the current administration, but I am not sure we’re missing much, based on his logic. During his discussion he felt that speaking to Syria and Iran, as suggested by the study, was like rewarding and arsonist. He made this comparison while explaining that since Baker and Hamilton were seeking a consensus they would end up like a person confronted with a hornet’s nest. There are just two things one can do in that situation. Either run away, or knock it down and destroy it. Rubin claims that the Baker-Hamilton conclusion would be to sit underneath the hornet’s nest and tap it gently.

It’s a great analogy. I imagine, either Mr. Rubin is so single minded and unable to see alternatives or he’s really smarter than that and he’s misleading us by pretending that consensus is the same as compromise. A compromise, of course, is what his analogy leads us to. Consensus, unlike compromise, doesn’t mean that we meet in the middle of two opposing solutions, rather, that through discussion and debate, we reach a conclusion that we can all accept, even if some of us don’t actually agree.

Mr. Rubin is offering us the dilemma of false choice–just as President Bush did at the beginning of this war when he said nations were either “with us or against us,” ignoring the concept, for example, of neutrality. Mr. Rubin is hoping his listeners won’t notice the logical fallacy with which he makes his argument. Perhaps they teach this at Neo-Con school, because it seems to be a common argument practice among prominent neo-cons. While it might be effective in stirring up the base supporters, it isn’t getting us anywhere.

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All I wanted was a compact

Posted in Travel at 15:55 by RjZ

The travel agent we use for business travel got back to me for a recent trip and explained that she had upgraded me to a mid-size car instead of the compact I had requested. “Between you and me, I think mid-size is really a compact. Anyway, it was only $2 more.” I told her that actually I ask for compact cars because they use less gas. I figured that would be a pretty plausible argument given $4/gallon gas in the United States.

It seemed to work because when the confirmation arrived I noticed that it detailed “compact car” just as I originally asked. When I arrived at the rental counter, I handed over my ID and credit card and said that I had a reservation for the smallest car they had. You know, just a reminder. Of course, the clerk responded with an offer for an upgrade. They always do this, so no surprise. “Only if you plan on paying for my gas,” I responded. He ignored me and went about entering information into the computer. “Space D24,” he finally explained after I had signed all the contracts and initialed all the disclaimers.

I made my way out to space D24 where a beautiful blue Ford Mustang was waiting for me. I asked the help counter and some attendant standing around if there was some mistake, but there wasn’t. I could have made a bigger fuss, it was only going to be a short drive, so I just went on with my business.

Climbing inside the Mustang, I could see why they might have confused the V-6 gas guzzler with a compact. The rear seats are more fashion than function, as most everyone I know actually has legs below the knee cap and there would be no place for them in rear. It’s also hard to see over the bulging hood even with the seat as high as it would go and it wouldn’t matter anyway, because the poor driver is dazzled by all the sparkling plastic chrome trim on the instrument panel.

The thing is, I don’t rent compact cars for gas mileage exactly. I rent them because I really don’t need to drag around extra car for some short business trip. No sense spewing sucking down more oil and spewing out extra gas just because I am not home. I don’t get any extra pleasure driving some luxury or sporty car for a day or two; cars just don’t do it for me. Still, I understand my little environmental gesture is pretty meaningless. The impact of driving a compact car for two days it pretty much wiped out before the airplane taxis even a few feet.

Canvas bags really don’t make that much difference but I bring them to the store. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is even less of an energy savings, but I do it whenever it’s convenient. It’s clear that all these tiny gestures are silly at best, but in combination, maybe they add up to something. And if I do them and people I know decide there’s little stopping them from saving a miniscule bit here and there, then together, maybe we really do make a difference.

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Now more convenient: new Energy category added

Posted in Energy at 20:10 by RjZ

Over the last few years I’ve written now and again about energy. A little before the first post on energy I started working in the power industry and it’s been a fascinating adventure. My instincts for understanding things stem from my physics training and that usually means reductionism. Reduce interactions to as few rules as possible and understanding falls out. When I try to understand businesses my instinct is to apply the rules of capitalism and expect understanding to fall out. But the power industry just refuses to be so simple.

Since I’ve noticed all those posts on energy piling up, it seemed liked they needed their very own category for your reading convenience. Now, all you power industry professionals can sort through book reviews, news comments, political rambling, and travel stories and go right to the powerful stuff. I hope you like it.

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Wind or hot air

Posted in , Energy at 17:05 by RjZ

While discussing the the benefits of offshore wind instead of oil,
In One Ear… Out the other writes “This means the decommissioning of many harmful coal plants along the coast who have the added problem of having to ship in coal.”

Would that that were true. Planting off shore wind turbines doesn’t mean we get to shut down coal–unless everyone agrees to finally turn off extra lights, keep the air conditioner off, and maybe stop having children. Power requirements are increasing and while wind is going to play a part in our future energy mix, hopefully a growing part, it won’t be as simple as the author hopes.

While we’re at it, have an aerial look at Rawhide Power Plant in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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In the center of that scene you can make out their boiler and pollution control equipment (look for the shadow of the stack). There’s the cooling lake, and then the coal yard on the top. In the upper right are four gas-fired combustion turbines used to meet peak load requirements. The power station is rated at 270 MW and can put out up to 285 or more. It’s a middle size power plant. Almost half of the 1400 north American plants are this size or smaller and the rest range to as much as 1300 MW or more.

Now let’s compare to Solar Two.

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This is one of the largest solar thermal plants in the world. It’s inactive now but the technology is being commercialized at Solar Tres in Spain. Nice looking set of concentrator mirrors and, this is on the same scale, you can see that it takes up a bit less space. Unfortunately Solar Two is only rated at 10.5 MW of power (back when it was in service). You’d need nearly 30 of them to do what average ol’ Rawhide does.

Wind is more powerful off shore than it is inland. Still, Texas has some of the best wind in the nation. And it’s home to the worlds largest wind farm Horse Hollow Energy Station.

View Larger Map

Horse Hollow puts out considerably more power than Solar two and almost three times the juice of Rawhide at 735 MW; but only when the wind is blowing full speed. Rawhide runs all day–and all night, of course, but Horse Hollow is admirable just the same. Horse Hollow also occupies 47,000 acres. The portion I’ve linked to is the same scale as the other two pictures, but only a tiny section of the farm. Then there’s the distribution lines to get that power to some place useful.

To be fair, we’d really have to include the size of the mine that feeds coal to Rawhide, and maybe even the train tracks that feed it, but, as I’ve mentioned before, coal is pretty energy dense and the result is, even with all the infrastructure included, fossil fuel plants don’t take up as much room as wind and solar, and while many say we’ve got plenty of space, they always clam up when it’s their back yard we’re talking about.

The point of this exercise isn’t to say wind and solar are bad, but rather to make people aware that there are other trade offs; some as simple as where are we’re going to find all the land. I think Out the Other Ear may have a great question for McCain and others about thinking further outside the box than simply repealing off-shore drilling prohibition, but, alas, it doesn’t mean we’re likely to get to turn off those coal plants any time soon.

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I probably won’t die trying

Posted in Society at 16:49 by RjZ

I’m pretty sure it’s genetic. Or maybe it was my father’s chain smoking while I was young, but I have never been particularly athletic. To prove it, this year I am giving a try at finding out just how much of a wimp I really am. I’m running and biking regularly and keeping track of it all to see if there is any improvement. It’s good for me to be fit either way; it will protect my squished spinal disk and strengthen the probably weak heart I inherited from my father. Six-pack abs would be a bonus. An extremely unlikely bonus, sure, but a bonus.

I hear lots of talk about conditioning and training. How much is too much, rest days, progress plateaus and on and on. For my part, I am glad I have been keeping track of all this activity. I wouldn’t be able to notice any improvement at all if it weren’t for the last decimal point change in some insignificant statistic. But there it is in bits and bytes, damnit! Improvement!

After the 100 mile ride a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of an often overlooked improvement in performance that comes, not from from training, but from overcoming the fear of the unknown. I first noticed it back when I was a lot less wise (read: more idiotic) about hiking. I remember setting out too late on a day trip in the German Alps. It’s gorgeous country and I enjoyed the strength of young legs propelling me from one view to another. Eventually I grew tired and decided it might be time to return. Waiting until you’re tired to turn around seems logical, doesn’t it? A few hours later I was slogging down the mountain trail is fast as I could in the half light of the moon through the trees, doing everything I could not to trip over rocks in the dark and to forget how thirsty I was.

I passed landmarks that I remembered from the ascent and now they were only grim reminders of how much further I still had to go. My ‘strong’ legs were failing me, I could barely see the trail and I was shivering, thirsty, and hungry but there really wasn’t much choice except to keep going. Eventually I returned to my car and started to realize what an idiot I had been.

Except I didn’t learn quite the right lesson the first time. I distinctly remember that I repeated this lunacy a time or two before I gained the experience necessary to plan my trip and bring enough food, water and proper clothes. I did learn something from that first mistake though: that, when faced with the choice of freezing in the night, it turns out I could go much further than I thought!

Since then I’ve found that frequently what limits in physical (and perhaps many other) endeavors isn’t conditioning, but rather just knowing what’s possible. When I finished the century ride and uploaded the data into the computer it was clear that I never really pushed myself that hard. My heart rate was rarely all that high, and yet during the ride, I was wondered at each rest stop whether I was even going to have enough energy to finish! Next time I start a long hike or an endurance ride, I’ll be more prepared for it simply through my experience that, tiring as it may seem at the time, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve done it before; I ought to be able to do it again.

I’ll know more after a few more months, but so far, the statistics don’t lie, I’m no elite athlete and even some honest to goodness training (no really, I can prove it…I am not that lazy) won’t make me one. But it’s not for nothing. Next time I’m riding 100 miles, or hiking a bit too far, I don’t have to be afraid to keep pushing. Just knowing I am not going to die trying can be pretty inspiring.

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Catch up on my reading

Posted in Reviews at 17:21 by RjZ

You’d never know it from my reviews, but I actually have been reading a bit now and then. Here look, I’ll prove it:

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller. Amazingly poetic, raunchy, funny, barely intelligible at times, almost pointless, but quite fantastic. Oh, and you can read this online!

Freakonomics, Stepehn Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Thought provoking. You don’t want to agree with some of their claims but there’s no lack of evidence and discussion to at least concede there might be something to it. A joy for lateral thinkers, likely annoying to everyone else, at least this book reminds us to follow the money, or least the incentive behind facts and figures describing how people act.

How to be Good, Nick Hornby. I enjoy Hornby’s books because they’re just fun easy reading. This too was fun, and easy reading, just not as much as his other books. Which is fine, except it wasn’t as good either. If you’re a Hornby fan it won’t kill you to read this one too. It’s less autobiographical, so we can assume it was more work to write. That’s worth something. Maybe?

Bliss, O. Z. Livaneli. Learn how diverse Turkey is. Learn how Turkish people are filled with pride, but completely torn about being Turkish. Torn between Europe and the Middle Eastern cultures, Turkey can’t decide which one it likes better or wants to be a part of. Learn how scary Turkey can be too. Oh, and feel like that it’s more important than the story for you to learn all these things.

There. All caught up now. Add comments if you actually want to know more about any of these books.

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An invisible obstacle

Posted in at 18:35 by RjZ

Hilary Clinton announced on Saturday, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” The Washington Post thinks that was part of her best speech yet and muses what things would have been like had she played this card, the fact that she’s a woman, earlier in the campaign.

The question really is, was Ms. Clinton not selected as the Democratic nominee because she is a woman, as she implies here, or could it also be that she wasn’t the best candidate? Is it possible that Mr. Obama’s message of change spoke to a few more than Clinton’s concept of hitting the ground running? I can’t know if, in fact, she lost the nomination because she is a woman, but given the number of relative number of women in her audience, it might as easily be claimed that she got as far because she is a woman. And that’s just great! I think it’d be great to have a woman in the oval office. It’s just that my desire for a woman president doesn’t motivate me to simply choose the first one who comes close. The notion is about as ridiculous as voting for Obama because he is black (as, no doubt, many will).

Clinton’s speech, far from being a high point of her campaign, is cop out that I hope the next woman candidate is confident enough to avoid.

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They really are outlaws

Posted in Society at 16:39 by RjZ

I like motorcycles. After all, I learned how to ride a motorcycle before I learned how to ride a bicycle. I had a cooler-than-I-knew Indian (I was five and Indian wasn’t as cool yet, plus it was a really little one.) and a cooler-than-anyone-bothered-to-notice MV Augusta. (Mine was modeled after a real full-size bike and had a one into four exhaust pipe!) I had bikes at such a tender age because my brother raced and my father turned every hobby into a business so he even had a bike accessory shop.

We had real-live one percenters hanging around the shop all the time. They looked the part, alright, but they were still some of the gentlest, most trust worthy guys around. Still, there’s one question I wish I had the foresight to ask then (did I mention I was five?)

What’s with the pipes? Have you heard these? If some (note: not all) of these bikes roll up beside you, you can barely breath from the sonic impact shaking your chest. Still I ask if you’ve heard them because one of the explanations for this noise pollution is that “loud pipes save lives” and that’s just rubbish. I hear bikes all the time, but not when I am in my car, windows rolled up, iPod blasting.

The pipes are the only real complaint I can make about the bikers. Even the hundreds and hundreds that passed me while on some group ride. They passed me while I was on a still gentler form of two wheel transportation—my super-fast road bicycle. I wound up riding to a mutual destination…where they were gathered literally by the thousands…all dressed in jeans and leather jackets, and Harley t-shirts or some similar variation. I couldn’t help but think how silly and clichéd they looked. “Leather is safe, man” people tell me, but how does that explain that halter tops for the women and the lack of helmets for just about everyone. Really, I don’t think they’re a safety conscience lot.

But the fact is, while it’s more likely these folks we’re lawyers and doctors during the week and one percenters only on the weekend, it’s not like I didn’t look equally ridiculous in lycra bike shorts and stiff soled shoes. The very next week I went on an organized bicycle ride and there were some 7000 participants, all dressed just as similar to each other, all riding around some big loop and generally annoying to those who didn’t know there was a ride organized that day.

Except, all 7000 of us together wouldn’t like make as much noise as ten of these bikes. All that blaring, cracking pipe noise is plainly illegal. Laws vary from state to state, county to county, even city to city, but in virtually every one I could find, the 80dB level, that is so easily exceeded by these straight pipes, is against the law.

Except, the law is quite clearly not enforced, and that’s not OK. No doubt, we should have as few laws as possible; I have no desire for a state that outlines every facet of my life. What few laws we have however, must be strictly enforced. To fail in enforcement makes a mockery of our legal system and encourages people to flout them at will. Is it because the police ride bikes on the weekends as well? Are people afraid of the doctors and lawyers who pretend to be outlaws on the weekends? What’s up?

I can’t say why I felt some mix of humor and pity at all these middle aged men and women in their matching store bought costumes and pretend outlaw attitude. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to realize how hypocritical that feeling was,while I’m in my silly biking gear (the tenuous hold I have on my ego urges me to point out that the embarassing cycling clothes actually have a technical purpose, like comfort and efficiency while bicycling your super-fast road bike, but I digress) Meanwhile, I doubt a real one percenter would be caught dead on one of their rides. The ones I remember from my childhood may have had a checkered past, but they were much more considerate!

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Burning question

Posted in Energy, Society at 13:39 by RjZ

General Motors has spent piles of money on it’s questionable advertising campaign “Live Green, Go Yellow” to promote the use of renewable bio-fuels. When I ‘go yellow’ it’s usually a hint that I am not drinking enough water, but whatever. My real question is does using bio-fuel help reduce carbon?

Coal, oil, and other fossil fuels are really just stored solar energy. Hydrocarbon bonds built up in plants with the help of the sun and photosynthesis are dried and compressed into coal, or eaten by dinosaurs first, then compressed into oil. We dig it up and burn it, breaking down those hydrocarbons into CO2 and water, for energy. We get so much energy to fuel our economy and way of life simply because so many years of solar energy is stored in that compressed fossil fuel.

Bio-fuels, meanwhile, are considered renewable because while growing they were busy absorbing CO2 and when we burn them, it’s simply released again—net zero CO2, or so the marketing hype goes. It comes down to this: as long as we don’t burn these bio-fuels any faster than it takes to grow them, we’ll have a completely renewable, and carbon neutral source of energy. An energy source that, by the way, is essentially just solar power stored in hydrocarbons by the plants.

It’s ridiculous to imagine that we can suddenly get by with the solar energy stored in plants (or even algae) when we’ve been burning through our compressed, energy dense fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow! Actually, it takes quite a bit of fossil fuel to grow a plant these days, whether it’s a tree or switch grass as President Bush recommended, there are fertilizers, tractor fuel, and diesel fuel to carry it to the point of use (whether that’s your home or a centralized power plant.)

I’d be unfair if I said there were no advantages to renewables. There is, for example, energy independence and reduced CO2. Using ethanol to supplant oil gives the United States (or any other nation) more political independence to negotiate with countries whose behavior they may not agree with but from whom we’re currently buying critical energy. Using renewables certainly does reduce the amount of CO2 released from all that coal and oil (it was all previously stored, as opposed to being stored slowly over the last season it took to grow the crop—it’s just too bad it will only last a few minutes to extract the energy stored there). Plants are also remarkably efficient at turning solar energy into hydrocarbons, so long as they’re allowed their sweet time to do it.

Unless we can figure out a way to use energy as slowly as the plants did, we’d better keep looking for a real solution, and I’ll leave the going yellow to the bathroom.

Update: It’s worse than I thought. This article sites three folks from three different disciplines; an economist, scientist and environmentalist. They’re not so up on the bio-fuel idea either. I agree with the idea that locally, if it’s sustainable; for example if you’re burning all your bio-waste that would just go into a landfill (which by the way is a form of carbon sequestration!) there might be some point to burning bio-fuels. Aside from that, I am scared of people cutting down forests just to plant switch grass.

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