Archive for December, 2007

Hold Your Breath

We’re a few hours from 2008, which is one of those big years bringing big things: an election, February 29th, and the Summer Olympics. Since the election is already nauseating, and I can’t think of Feb 29th topics, I’m gonna talk about the Olympics. Not the actual Olympics, since they haven’t happened yet, and the most entertaining thing about them tends to be the awkward and insensitive color commentary during the opening ceremonies parade, anyway (-“What country is that?” -“They have nice track suits.” -“I guess Djibouti didn’t send a very big team this year.” -“You bet Dji- booty!*guffaw*”). China’s drive to clean up its country and its people in time for the Games is a pretty epic task.

As part of the NYT’s series on pollution in China (specifically, the tenth part), Beijing’s efforts to clear the air are parsed. Since they won the 2008 Olympics in 2001, they’ve been working on cleaning up air pollution in and near the city, increasing the number of official “Blue Sky Days” from about 180 to 245 in 2007. The Blue Sky measurements reflect three air pollutants- nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter- and don’t include important culprits like ozone. They barely met 245 days in 2007– it was their target number- and only strong winds blowing off the smog cover of the last 10 days allowed them to squeak through with a day to spare.

Air quality is a special concern for the Olympics because of the enormous number of people attending, to whom China would like to portray itself as a livable, likable place, and for the athletes themselves, who spend much of their time breathing especially hard. From the NYT,

Average daily levels of PM 10 [particulate matter, ie tiny lung-destroying bits] exceed national and W.H.O. standards. In 2004, the concentration of airborne particulates in Beijing equaled that of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and Atlanta combined, according to the United States Embassy in Beijing. Earlier this year, a report by the United Nations Environment Program concluded that “air pollution is still the single largest environmental and public health issue affecting the city.”

According to measurements by American and Chinese scientists,

Beijing’s daily concentrations of PM 2.5 rated anywhere from 50 percent to 200 percent higher than American standards. Their study, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, also found that ozone regularly exceeded levels deemed safe by American standards.

Now, forget that world-class athletes don’t want to gulp that stuff in for a couple weeks, and imagine the damage it does to the residents of Beijing over the years. The government is promising to clean the skies for the Games, even if it has to shut down factories in and around the city, and outlaw driving for a while. The temporary measures might placate the rhythmic gymnasts, but it won’t solve Beijing’s underlying problems of shoddy public transportation, particulate emissions from the huge construction boom in the city, pollution from inefficient manufacturing, and the increasing number of cars on the road. Let’s hope they view breathable Olympics not as the end goal, but as the first step in a long road to sustainable prosperity.

Go right ahead, buy Africa a Ferrari

International aid charities have set up donation campaigns around Christmas, encouraging people to buy each other livestock or aid for the developing world, instead of say, socks or fruitcakes. At the Oxfam America Unwrapped site, you can donate boats, water trucks, mosquito nets, crocodiles (yes, really), money to start a business, and all sorts of other tools and services for people in developing countries, and save your relatives and the environment from unwanted and wasteful consumption. UK-based education and film-making charity WORLDwrite blames all that for Africa’s disappointing, “demeaning” Christmas haul. Reuters AlertNet and the BBC both reported on WORLDwrite head Ceri Dingle’s objections:

“Nobody’s offering washing machines. I’ve traveled all over the developing world, and people not only know what we have, they want what we have. Helping to make that possible is what development is all about.”

Yes, Ww and Ms. Dingle are upset that we’re not shipping washing machines to Africa. Don’t bother getting worked up at her, Oxfam’s stated the obvious for you:

“To insist on offering washing machines and other white goods luxury items to communities that have neither a plug socket nor a water supply shows complete lack of understanding of the communities we work with…Fifteen litres of water is required for one half-load of washing – the same basic amount that we are trying to achieve for one person per day to survive.”

The Ww slogan is “Ferraris for everyone”, meaning that they think we should help people develop by giving them all the things that rich, developed nations have, now. Put the reliable electric lines, power plants, plumbing, stable monetary system, available jobs, and big box stores on a boat, ship them across the ocean, plop them all down next to rural villages, and everyone will be happy! Before I get carried away into ranting, I’m going to cite a few decent points Ww makes, or at least links to their site (I had to dig for them, but at least I found a tiny basis to all this washing machine nonsense).

In one insightful section of a poorly-reasoned article on Oxfam’s program, one author points out that red tape mandated by the charity conflicts with actual use of the gifts- the need for accountability to the donors and general public causes Oxfam to implement burdensome monitoring procedures. Also, the procedures they use for determining what each community wants (chickens? hoes?) might not be as transparent to the community as they think. Reuters, the BBC, and this article all detail different opinions on this topic, with Oxfam always saying they work with people in the community directly to determine need. Me, I’m glad Oxfam knows what they’re giving and what it’s doing for people, but maybe they could ease up a bit too.

Another decent bit emerges from a completely anecdotal piece on how the Western world idealizes subsistence farming. The author points out that there may be organizations who, for the sake of low environmental impact, emphasize traditional, low yield farming techniques that keep everybody hungry and well, subsisting. Ok, sure, there are a few crazy environmental-type people who might make this mistake, but those people are a) crazy, and b) easily convinced with photographs of starving children that they’re wrong. Besides, not all low-impact farming is low-yield, and there’s no reason these groups can’t advocate good, long-term farming practices based on developed nations’ experience- so let’s champion that. Oxfam is blamed for perpetuating subsistence, since it offers hand tools for farmers, but not tractors. The author doesn’t acknowledge that tractors require fuel and skilled maintenance, neither of which are common in subsistence communities.

So, that’s a couple of things to consider when you buy that passel of baby chicks for your little cousin. Don’t worry about it too hard, but try to pick something entertaining and that won’t cause Ww to whine more. The Reuter’s article I cited above has a great list of non-Oxfam charities with gifts for all seasons- land mine defusing, teeshirts (shirt’s for you, donation’s for Africa), and other stuff (check out the crocodile).

Ww might have some good points, but they’re hidden in all their terrible, useless ideas. Next year, let’s test them: let them buy the farmers a Ferrari, and I’ll send some goats, and we’ll see which gift is more useful after three months. No matter how long you leave two Ferraris in a garage alone, they’ll never create a third Ferrari. And you can dismantle a broken car and sell it for parts, but you can sell a goat for parts (milk! cheese!) without dismantling it at all.

Merry Christmas

bike in lights

And Happy Whatever You Do to you and yours.

See, it’s a metaphor: my ecofriendly transport, wrapped in the inefficient lights. I’m getting better, but I’ve got a ways to go.

Wrap Up

As my early gift to you all, a few stories to help you while away your last workday before Christmas:

The Energy Bill was signed into law yesterday morning, so a decade from now cars will be more fuel efficient, appliances will be more energy efficient, and we’ll be driving more on ethanol. I remain less than thrilled about the final draft, but hey, it’s better than the Energy Bill we used to have. ZDnet reports on what the legislation will and won’t do, and what it means to regular people.

Toshiba is installing one of their tiny nuclear reactors next year in Japan. It would fit in my living room with room left over for a sofa or two, and provides energy for half what it costs to pull it from the grid here in America. They’re billed as “fail-safe” and “totally automatic”, which is always what people say in those sci-fi stories about three paragraphs before the thing fails catastrophically. Before we get all NIMBY (or rather, NIMLivingRoom) about it, let’s take a deep breath and remember that nuclear power is the most inexpensive, reliable, efficient source of renewable energy out there right now, except for that whole thing where we have no idea how to deal with the long-lived and very dangerous spent fuel. Actually, why haven’t I been writing more about nuclear power? It’s pretty interesting. Chew on this, and I’ll have more later.

Finally, click around this Wired slideshow on 2007’s “10 Craziest Ways to Hack the Planet”. In pictures and short summaries, they detail how a few scientists are proposing radical solutions for fixing environmental problems. Not enough agricultural space? Build skyscraper farms. Too much sunlight warming us up? Let’s seed the sky with clouds/shoot giant mirrors into space. Environment not soaking up enough carbon? Let’s invent new kinds of trees or fertilize plankton! Some proposals are interesting in their just-crazy-enough-to-work panache, but a few hit that why-would-anyone-ever-consider-that-ever chord. At the end, the scientists all throw back their heads and laugh maniacally. Not really, but they do end on perhaps the craziest- and only ongoing- world hack of all: our effort to change the balance of the planet by dumping gimongonourmous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

I’ll be away for a while for the holiday, so have a good one.

Update: Tree at Last

LEDsFirst, to establish how dire the LED situation was, this photo of my tree in regular incandescent bulbs and my garland in LEDs:

As you can see, they are decidedly, icily blue. I decided to wrap them around my garland, since they actually look nice there, and to reuse my regular lights for the tree this year. Next year, I know to look early and often for yellow-white LEDs. They come in lots of bulb colors, too, and some have happily tacky shapes, like candy canes or whatever, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find some yellow or gold ones.

garlandSo, my LEDs are now at peace. Christmas TreeAnd my tree is decorated! I forget, every year, how excited this makes me, and how much I always want to just stay home all day and sit with my tree. She’s got red and white glass balls and some gold spangly wire I saved last year, and almost everything else on it was given to me by my mother from our family’s tree- a starter kit. And all the presents you see waiting under it are recycled or fair trade or made from organic ingredients- I did pretty well following my own gift guide this year, and ended up saving worlds of time and money, since I found everything I wanted online or at Ten Thousand Villages. Giant actually had a decent selection of fair trade/organic (FTO) coffees- in their specialty foods aisle, not the coffee aisle- and Whole Foods has a passel of FTO hot chocolate. Thus, my shopping is nearly done, too.

Ok, I’m going to go sit with my tree and drink some FTO hot chocolate, and yeah, turn on Christmas music.

Adeste Fid-eel-es

Roll over, solar: some awesome guy in Japan hooked up an aquarium’s electric eel to its Christmas display.

“If we could gather all electric eels from all around the world, we would be able to light up an unimaginably giant Christmas tree,” Minawa told Reuters Television.

Thanks to Minawa, one day I’ll be charging my ceel phone with my slippery friend, “Sparky”- if he can be spared from his work on the unimaginably giant tree.


Whenever I discuss politics, I tend to overuse terms like “shameful” and “ludicrous”, and to spit while I talk. I don’t know of any way to spit through this blog, so consider yourself lucky while I discuss the shameful and ludicrous decisions those folks in Washington are making on the new energy bill.

This bill has become a catch-all for energy legislation: seems like Mr. Bush decided that “coal” was the future about 6 years ago and Congress hasn’t made much energy progress since then. It doesn’t have a cool name or moniker, it’s just the “Energy Bill”. So we’ve got renewable energy, biofuels, tax increases or tax cut reductions (they call it different things in different articles) for oil companies, and fuel efficiency standards for auto companies all being debated together. There must be some good reason why they lumped it all in, because surely it’d be faster to get meaningful deals on all of these issues if they were debated separately, but maybe I missed that part of the Schoolhouse Rock.

Something, bruised and tattered, limped out of the House earlier this week, shied away from a veto threat, and threw itself upon the mercy of the Senate. Carnage ensued, and now the bloody remains are being sent back to the House to see if they approve (“I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is”, indeed). Basically, what’s left is:

1) CAFE standards. Average vehicle mileage will rise to 35mpg by 2020. Really now, our fuel efficiency standards are at 1975 levels, and even the Chinese have more restrictive fuel efficiency ratings. This raise is not at all a hardship to the auto industry, who fight it tooth and nail and yet advertise their “earth-friendliness” with virescent logos and promises of hybrids and electrics and fuel cell research they could make into cars for us any year now. It’s about time, and I bet in a couple years people will come to see 35 by 2020 as the baby step it is.

2) Subsidies for corn-based and a few other biofuels, with requirements that production of these be increased 7-fold by 2022. Considering how much harm corn ethanol subsidies have already directly caused, I have no idea why this is a good idea. I agree on this point with the Oil industry. It makes worlds of sense to mandate biofuel production, but not to require it from specific sources.

What’s not there anymore:

1) Tax increases/reduction of cuts for oil companies. It’s very precious that Democrats are the only ones making efforts at fiscal responsibility these days: the tax revenue was going to help pay for some of these changes. Republicans will have none of it, because those poor oil companies need every cent of their record profits to look for more oil to sell us to make more record profits.  Dems won’t insist on the flashes of fiscal responsibility, of course- they’re not in a position to insist upon much these days.   I will digress a minute to ask when Republicans lost their ability to make the choices necessary to be fiscally responsible. No, Bush refusing to spend money on domestic issues and writing a blank check to the Defense Department doesn’t count (literally). Claim your party still is all you like, but the way your people in DC are voting speaks louder than you. Come on, reclaim your heritage! Democrats are stealing all your credibility! For shame. Whatever, it’s not like this bill is making expensive, real changes anyway, and I’m sure our credit is still good somewhere. We’ll invoke the money somehow.

2) Incentives for renewable energy development (wind, solar, geothermal, magic, etc.). It’s just a waste of voting time to pass an Energy Bill without these, but apparently the Senate and the White House don’t like the idea. The omnibus spending bill lurching it’s way through Congress does have a little salve for this (what is it doing there?):

The agreement, to be included in a broad government spending bill, would authorize the Energy Department to guarantee loans for various energy projects, making financing far easier.

The agreement would guarantee loans of up to $25 billion for new nuclear plants and $2 billion for a uranium enrichment plant, something those industries had been avidly seeking. It would also provide guarantees of up to $10 billion for renewable energy projects, $10 billion for plants to turn coal into liquid vehicle fuel and $2 billion to turn coal into natural gas.

Ah, so it’s spending on nuclear power and look! There’s coal again! Sheesh. There’s a nod to renewables, at least.

So the bill doesn’t do much good, props up a few bad ideas, is unfunded anyway, and Bush still might veto it. I continue to be underwhelmed, Government.


Update: Concerning Light

I keep promising tree pictures, and then letting you down. I’m sorry. A combination of Indiana, two violent colds, and final exams are going to prevent the tree from being fully dressed for at least another week. We did put up the LED lights, though, so I could at least have something besides a naked tree to look at, but that’s actually caused me a dilemma.

The LED light strings are a very bright, blue-white light. It’s very sterile, and completely unlike the cheery yellowy glow from the regular strands of lights I have used on trees and in classier dorm-room decorating all my life. By the by- the BBC has a helpful story on what LED lights are and some of their promising applications, and they mention this problem of cold, blue-based light. Now, I’ve heard the same complaint about CFLs- they don’t give off the quality of light people are used to from regular tungsten bulbs, I hate the way they look, wah. I used to think these people were whiny. It’s the future! Get a decent lampshade! The white translucent shades and the vaguely yellow tinge of my walls make my CFL glow pretty homey, actually. Lighting designers are working on this, slightly reluctantly. Apparently the bigshot design people love incandescent bulbs– their shape, their glow, their iconic status- and hate the way CFLs shine.  But more and more are playing with ways to make the compact fluorescents appealing (hey guys:  try Ikea lampshades and “apartment complex off-white” walls).  Plus, since they don’t get as hot as incandescents, the designers can put materials closer to the bulb and not worry about combustion.  So that’s exciting for them, right?  Moving into a brave new well-lit world?  Anyway, LEDs are supposed to solve all this because their light comes in lots of colors, depending on the chemicals used (see the BBC article).  My problem now is, they use blue for almost everything, including “white”, and I hate the way they look.  Wah!

I like my gold and red tree decorations, and the old lights made it look so nice.  The LEDs will make it look awful.  Granted, they’d look great with silver ornaments, and blue decorations (Hanukkah people, LEDs are perfect for you!).  And if you mix lots of colors on your tree, then LEDs work fine.  All the stuff I have is red and gold, though.  I don’t want to buy a new set of ornaments just to make my lights look not sad.   Maybe they sell non blue-tinged white LEDs?

So now the guilt sets in.  Use LEDs on the tree and suck up that they’re stupid-looking, or use the older lights and suck up some extra power? I won’t have to buy any new sets of lights- I still have them from last year, and they’re not too tangled.  And there are plenty of other places I can put my LEDs- on the balcony, or the bookshelves, or in my garland.

This is going to take some time to mull over.  Fortunately, I haven’t got time to decorate the tree now, anyway.

Way to go, Iceland!

I’m in Indiana, which is a long story (ok, not really: wedding (not mine)). But it’s cold here, which put me in mind of Iceland, which of course leads me to this NPR story on clean energy technology in Iceland. The active volcanoes underneath the big island provide enough geothermal power to take care of most of their energy needs, thanks to clever government investment mid-last century- what oil dependancy?

There’s a pretty interesting section on “Why Icelanders are more hardcore than other people” involving drilling holes in active volcanoes to make this all happen. While most of the rest of the world does not have a volcano to fiddle with, heat differentials are under everybody’s bit of earth. Iceland is already exporting their expertise to parts unknown (well, not unknown, more like California). I’d be pleased if they’d export some of that volcano heat my way this weekend, but looks like I’ll have to make do with two scarves.

Green Homes for the Ninth Ward

As if a real plan to build new homes for former residents of the Ninth Ward could get better, get this: they’re putting solar panels on top! A BBC story gives a few details of the plan and a little diagram of the house plans with their green features- they’ll also be collecting rainwater, and they have what appears to be a roof or wall garden.  The Ninth Ward was one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and rebuilding has been slower there, due partially to the lower incomes of the population impacted. The new homes will cost about $150,000 each. Families who can prove that they lived in the area before Katrina will be expected to contribute what they can towards the cost of the house.

Unfortunately, the BBC considers the big part of this story to be the fact that Brad Pitt is fronting the project (gratuitous Angelina Jolie picture!), so there’s not much detail (a few more details are at the Christian Science Monitor report, but they’re leading with Pitt, too).  I understand the man is in those talking pictures, and he has a great message, and he’s put up $5 million dollars of his own money in matching funds. That’s nice, especially the donation- that’s 33 whole little green houses! Now please tell me more about the green bits. This is inexpensive green home design meant for mass consumption- this is huge!  Not literally.  They’re building a better suburb.  I’m curious if this concentration of money and talent in pitching and designing and building inexpensive green homes is going to have an impact on the market for solar houses, and how.

There’s a website for the project, “Make it Right”, with a nice little video of Pitt talking, and a lot of information about the bright pink canvas shapes/art installations that stand in the place where the homes will be soon. They do have some of the ecofriendliest swag, though!  Organic cotton teeshirts and recycled pink bags.  Details of the actual homes are less specific, but there’s an interactive feature showing how much some of the house parts cost (solar panels: $25,000) and letting you sponsor bits and pieces.  So my ecocuriousity is not satisfied, but it’s a great project, and bodes well for green architecture and the people of New Orleans.

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