Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Business Idea

I found out at a green building workshop recently that a company in Oregon sells fake solar panels--although after some procrastinating-at-work googling, I could not find such a company.  Maybe they don't want to advertise this.

Whether such a thing actually exists a not, I could see the argument for there being a (small, novelty) market for such a thing.  Solar Power is Sexy, after all, especially in places like Oregon and California.  It's also expensive, but now you don't have to let the expensive stop the sexy! 

The same person who informed me that dummy solar panels are being produced also mentioned a survey in which subjects were asked about the most effective energy improvement method they could undertake.  The answer:  solar panels.  Now, that's just hearsay information at this point, because he was going off on a tangential soap-box by then and I didn't write the details down, thus the only survey I could find lists solar panels as among the most perceived-effective energy conserving strategies, rather than the most. 

Either way, this prominence goes to show you how strong the idea of doing "something to save the polar bears" has penetrated into our conscious and conscience,  even if the implementation hasn't--because lets face it, fake solar panels are probably a heck of a lot cheaper than real ones.  Yet it's also depressing, because it confuses "reducing energy consumption" with "something that makes energy" and in terms of priorities that gets the cart before the horse so much you need a completely different metaphor.  That's like maxing out the college savings plan before having the kid.  Still a net good thing to have done, but it is a lot more prudent to take care of the things that are just as important and yet less expensive to manage first.

Now that I'm partially in the insulation and energy efficient retrofit business, my colleague and I were trying to think of how to, you know, sell this stuff.  Make people cross that chasm from interest in having us do an energy audit to acting on the areas of energy efficiency improvements we identified.  Some of the common problems we see are pretty expensive, but some of them aren't, and in general energy efficiency saves money in the long run, sometimes considerable money.  We do all kinds of number crunching:  look!  If you upgrade that old water heater you're going to save three hundred dollars a year!  You're going to spend way more money in the long run if you DON'T put more insulation in, even though putting insulation in costs some money right now!  The power company will give you $400 for doing this *in addition* to the money you'll start saving right away! 

But I wonder if throwing financial benefits at people really does much for people who aren't very money savvy.  People may want to save money, but they can do it in other ways, and they want to save energy more because it's the right thing to do.  There are plenty of eco- conscious or energy conscious people out there who would be of the mindset to see why this stuff is valuable and yet a lot of them don't bite.  Yet many of these people want to put in solar panels--that's our crowd.  Some of them actually will pony up that particularly huge investment. We just did an energy audit on a guy's house who had a beautiful collection of photovoltaic panels--and he'd never once set foot in his almost un-insulated attic.  And that's fine, that's wonderful, I'm a solar aficionado myself--but they'd all still be wasting less net energy, burning less net fossil fuels, putting less net tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, etc as their motivations for getting solar panels go, if for example they updated the shit-job insulation in their 100 year old house.  They could have put less money in on a smaller solar system (not to be confused with the solar system) if they'd invested in energy efficiency first. 

But energy efficiency isn't tangible.  You don't get a sexy solar panel to put on your roof.  It makes tons of financial sense but you don't get a wad of cash, you just part with less of it on a regular basis.  There is something to be said for receiving something you can see or touch.

So that's what we ought to do!  That's my big marketing idea.  Any insulation or air sealing job we perform will hereby come with a free fake solar panel.

(We're not really going to do this.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Knowing Something

Sometimes at my new work I spend a great deal of time reading building code and Material Safety Data Sheets.  Surprisingly enough, I actually found that interesting, at least for a certain time span.

It used to be that things buildings- and construction- related were mysteries to me, falling into this realm of mystically un-knowable knowledge that most males all seemed to just be born with, but most females were automatically never to touch.  Not like there was anything overt about that, it was just stuff men knew about and little girls like me didn't.  Any information about these things that I overheard were all carried on by men who I was less comfortable around anyway so why would I want to join in as a shy little girl, plus they all contained references to this whole network of information I just had no access to, so of course couldn't contribute, so of course felt confused by and never particularly confident about these topics when they came up later in my life.

It turns out I just had to have somebody explain to me what the jargon means, what tools exist and how they are used, what practices are followed, etc.  The difference between knowing and not was just that:  taking the time to acquire the information, and most importantly, learning it from someone who recognized that I just hadn't learned it yet, not who assumed I didn't know because I was stupid, or a girl and thus stupid.

If we don't teach girls technical things, then of course they aren't going to know technical things, because you have to learn about something to know about it.  It's not some inherent gender difference, it's not some inborn differentiation of knowledge, it's just whether you bothered to learn or not, and somebody who already knew bothered to help you learn.

Any inborn inherent stuff that might shape this situation could come from gendered tendencies to think differently due to physically different brain wiring, perhaps leading to different levels of interest in the information.  I'm not entirely convinced that that is enough of an explanation in itself, because does interest drive exposure, or does exposure drive interest?  There's more than one way to think through any sort of problem, and while people have natural strengths and weaknesses, we've seen that the brain is plastic enough to get good at many things with practice--as long as you do, actually, have a chance to practice and not just hold the flashlight.  I didn't give a damn about cars and houses when I was little:  I wanted to run into the woods and write stories in my head--although I did also want to build forts and a tree house and I liked my lego set a lot.  So I wasn't exposed to fixing cars or building stuff because I wasn't really interested, and if my dad needed help, he asked me to hold the flashlight.  If I had been pushed into doing these things instead of just passively watching, as I had been pushed into doing other things that I am now confident in my ability to do, would I have been more interested, and thus know more than I do today about them? 

Who the heck knows, and who really cares.  The point is, like I read in a National Park Service pamphlet on communicating science:  "If you don't know how to fix a car, you're not stupid, you just didn't learn how to do it yet."  Don't assume you can't do something just because you haven't learned about it before, and just because there are plenty of other people who have and you aren't like them.  You aren't like them, in the sense that you haven't tried and they have.  So try.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rejection and Learning

There was a period of time in high school when I wrote and polished a flurry of short stories, sending them in regularly to carefully researched fantasy or science fiction magazines, one after another and to one magazine after another, occasionally revising the stories as I realized they needed improvement, etc.

That is the process by which one becomes a writer, so they say, and even at sixteen I did my best to follow all editorial guidelines and prepare all materials in a professional matter as laid down by the standards of the industry.  I have to show for that period of my life a very thick file full of  "dear blank" form rejection letters, with about two out of fifty that bothered to say, in between the usual "did not hold my interest/does not meet our needs", that there was some good writing.

I had a dogged determination to continue no matter if I got enough rejection letters to paper my walls, which can be a flaw if the writing is truly not up to industry standard but is otherwise how, "they" insist, new writers eventually become established ones.  I still have that determination for this particular goal and doubt that I will ever let it go.   That same determination kept me going in my oft-blogged job search, amid a slue of rejections that I found far more punishing than writing rejections had ever seemed to me because in writing, at least, I already knew I was competing against hundreds or even thousands of other submissions that were probably just as good as mine in a world where being up to par is baseline.  In the local job search by contrast I was only competing against fifty or so other applicants for jobs that I had ample opportunity via a resume and interview to convey my suitability for, and so I found that kind of rejection much more demoralizing.

I recently dug into short story writing again, digging up what I felt was the best of those high school shorts, utterly gutting it and rewriting it in the space of a week into something that I am quite proud of, something that I can see--now that I have taken the time to learn and dissect what elements of plot and character make for a compelling story--is really much better than what I, in high school, believed was my best work.  I submitted a query for that story and got a surprisingly quick request for the full manuscript, and, inspired by that success, I pulled out another of my favorites from high school that a professional editor had critiqued and said was something she considered quite salable although not her personal taste, and sent that off too to the next on its list of top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications.

The turnaround on that form rejection was surprisingly quick.  And yes, a little stinging, since that magazine was one of the two which had rejected my high school work with the "there is some nice writing though" note.

That's the industry.  I am surprised that this rejection bothered me more, as an adult, than those piles of high school ones that I had always taken in stride.  But perhaps that is how it happens when one picks up the pieces from an endeavor one left off years ago (you know, in order to pursue a physics degree.)  Or maybe, fresh from the job search and trying to put my best face on those rejections, I just forgot how much it bothered me back then.

I have more to show for that pile of rejection letters than just the letters themselves, after all.  I have lessons in discipline and determination, and critically I have an improved understanding of what it will really take to succeed.  And that is solid, unabashed, unflinching hard work, both by putting in the hours and by being willing to critically analyze what is personal and mercilessly seek improvement.  Outside of the misleading world of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, writing is the ultimate in low-paid labor, we all want it so bad we just do it and do it and one day we'll get paid a few hundred bucks for a short story if we're lucky enough and determined enough and maybe only once we've spent that much on postage.  And that's fine, because although we'd all love to actually have a writing career, money isn't why we do it.

If I had just sat there with a notebook full of finished stories and never traded them with slush editors for two-sentence form letters, I might have never even realized what I still had to do to get to my dream, and I might never have become a better writer.

Friend Chemistry

Sometimes people talk about the get-on-great-together-or-not factor in a romantic relationship in terms of "chemistry."  The term serves to remind us that how people interact has  much more to it than just how well you get along.  It makes one think of volatile reactions or the coming together to make something utterly different than the sum of the parts--depending on your level of pessimism about romance.

I like the term when describing all types of relationships with other people.  Some others and me together are toxic, I just cannot stand how that person relates to others and to the world and that person doesn't understand me either, and misunderstanding can fairly often lead to dislike.  Others I have become fast and committed friends with after just one hour's acquaintance.

The notion of "chemistry" makes it seems like no work is involved, that things just happen when you are together.  This may be a relatively decent description of that magic and fun time at the beginning of a romantic relationship, but if it is going to last, hard works is at some point going to be involved.  No two people are so perfectly aligned or complimentary in inclination, belief, goals, etc, that they won't find something about the other or what they have to give up to stay in the relationship that they must find a way to deal with.

Friendships take work too.  You can't expect your friends to do all the event planning and hosting and calling, and if you're the one who always ends up doing all of that all the time with no reciprocation, you can quickly start to wonder what the heck you're doing it for.  If you're lucky enough to have friends who invite you along on too many things that you refuse, even for good reason, even the most dedicated of friends will stop calling.

Yet going through the friend motions with people I've got no particular "chemistry" with beyond that they're nice and friends of my friends and we do seem to have a base level of superficial things such as race, class, age, lifestyle, in common, is strangely unsatisfying as well.  Even in this situation I can't define "chemistry" precisely except that when I've had it, then even walking to the grocery store together was an amazing time, then I've stayed up all night discussing science, politics and religion, then I've laughed until I cried even when our plans together involved nothing so extraordinarily exciting. People with whom I've had friendship "chemistry" have not necessarily been very much like me, and I've grown from experiencing and understanding very different views of the world.

I've had amazing boss "chemistry" before too, and co-worker "chemistry" (the same as friend, really, except we were also working together, and I can't always work successfully even with people I am good friends with) where the right level of challenge, communication and collaboration have brought enormous success to our collective professional endeavors.  A great sign about my current job is that I seem to have excellent work-together potential with my boss.  Maybe one day that can become "friend" chemistry too.

I'm definitely missing some of the friend "chemistry" of some of my past grand friendships right now.  It's easy enough to try to find friends, at work, in hobby clubs, wherever else adults who are no longer in that bountiful friendship resource that is school go to find their dinner party and night-club comrades.  But friend chemistry like that doesn't happen on command, at least for me, because friendship is work but is more, too, than just going through friend motions with whoever you can find who should work.  Great friendships for me have always been things that satisfied us because we were friends with each other for who we were, and not just because we were available to fill in the role of "friend."  Whether we saw that from the moment we met each other or knew each other for years but only really "clicked" when we had a chance to talk at a party, still, something clicked, and the click cannot be made up and cannot be forced.

*Editing note: I'm sorry the previous version of this was so god-awfully full of errors.  I admittedly don't edit my blog entries very closely, and that is bad, wrong, un-professional, etc.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Doing Passive Solar in a Humid, Sorta Cold Climate

Passive solar design is worth books full of calculations and design principles, and when done thoroughly and correctly can provide up to all of your home heating and cooling--completely and utterly dependent on where you live and how intensely you pursue passive solar design goals.

It generally doesn't provide all, unless you're die-hard about living with nature you'd want a backup anyway, and in what I call the "upper Southeast" (US) climate, you can also very easily mess it up and create a house that is way too hot in the summer.  Many customers at my job are building in this climate and have heard a thing or two about passive solar, so they stick a bunch of windows on the south side of their house and say to themselves "hey, we're passive solar!"

Which is going in the right direction, because to get some benefit you don't have to be all or nothing...but they probably don't realize they're still going to be heating and cooling their houses primarily with a conventional mechanical system, and so the delusion that total benefit requires minimal effort must be dispelled, diplomatically, by me. 

The idea of passive solar design is simply to realize that the placement of your house within its surroundings has consequences, whether you care to think about those consequences or not, so you might as well think about them use them to your benefit.  There is energy floating around out there, solar folks call it "insolation" and it is measured in kilowatts per square meter, and it exists in measurable amounts daily just because of sunshine.  If you don't have a photovoltaic panel it is generally too diffuse to do much with (although plants love it and consequently life on earth up to and including our fossil fuel driven economy can exist), but it turns out that glass too is very adept and letting it pass through in one direction much more quickly than it lets it escape in another.*  This means a glass box can hold heat for a while; indeed, this is why your car gets very hot in the summer, and this is what passive solar wants to harness by thoughtfully placing your windows.  Certain windows are specially designed for this:  two- (or even three-, four-, five-) paned and filled with inert gases to reduce conduction heat flow out, but also covered in coatings on the outside that help radiation heat, that "insolation", come on in.  You put these windows on the south side of your house and put as few windows as possible everywhere else.  Since the sun's arc is always slightly southward in the sky if you live here in the northern hemisphere, facing south gives you the most opportunity for the longest period of direct sunlight.

But passive solar is not just windows.  For one thing, the sun's out longer in the summer than in the winter, and if you got direct sunlight all day long in an already hot summer, your house would begin to resemble that hot car in which dogs and babies die every year.  I've seen a couple who wanted to go "passive solar" stick a south-facing glass room off of their living room, with glass roof as well, and they admitted that in summer that whole wing of the house was intolerable.  You want all that sunlight entering your house in winter only, and this is easy to accomplish with correctly sized overhangs.  The sun's path is much higher in the summer than in the winter--that's why it's out longer, and also the bulk of the reason why summer is hotter than winter. (The variation in our physical proximity to the sun in summer verses winter is too small to have anything to do with it.)  It turns out the more parallel to an energy source you are, the more kilowatts per meter-squared you can intercept.  Like shining a flashlight beam right at you or catching the beam at an odd angle.  In winter the sun is lower, you're not at as ideal of an angle, and you get less kilowatts per meter.  This means less of that "insolation" is around in winter, but still enough to help you heat your house.  So build longer overhangs, long enough to block out the sun when it's high, but short enough not to block the sun when it is low.  The further south you go the longer they need to be; two feet long is ample in the upper Southeast.  (Flip this if you're in the southern hemisphere.)

However, even the right overhangs and the right windows are not enough, especially when the temptation is to just throw in as many south-facing windows as you can.  Witness the couple with the glass room.  An overhang and for heaven sakes a real ceiling would have helped them, but they still might have overheated, because a lot of heat can still pour into those windows in the winter, and after a certain "saturation" point, there's nowhere for more of it to go except to keep hanging out in the air, raising the temperature.  Yet at night, all that glass, which no matter how high-tech is still is utterly pitiful at slowing heat conduction (aka insulating), is sucking the heat right out, and your heating apparatus will work overtime to make up the difference.

This does not have to be!  There are quite a few materials that are excellent at storing heat.  Water is the most amazing and crucial example, since oceans absorbing heat and releasing it at opportune times have a lot to do with the fact that our planet doesn't flip between daytime oven and nighttime ice bath like, say, Mars.  Concrete, stone, brick, or tile are nowhere near as prodigious at heat storage as water but are still much better than air; even drywall is pretty decent.  Passive solar homes will often employ concrete slab floors, either covered or uncovered with tile, build large brick or stone fireplaces in the direct path of the south facing windows.  I've heard of designs where people stick in decorative columns filled with water (just use an aquarium?), but that should be used with caution since one of those failing would have disastrous consequences for the durability of your living room.  These materials absorb the extra heat coming in from the windows and allow the room to remain a pleasant temperature, yet also release the heat back out slowly, well into the night, supplementing the work your fossil fuel heating apparatus will need to do.  You do need to get the ratios right but fortunately physics and engineering have the tools to tackle this problem:  there are formulas and rules of thumb for how much glass, how much "thermal mass", etc. for your climate and home size. 

People who are really crazy about passive solar and green building in general have built houses out of old tires rammed with dirt in the middle (tires and earth are great at absorbing and holding heat), covered their south wall with super high-tech windows, done the correct overhang thing, and eschewed any conventional heating and cooling altogether except for backup.  These "earth ships" work great in the desert Southwest where it's always sunny and huge temperature swings between night and day are a problem.  I've seen a house like that here, but it's a little harder to get right.

Another important component is good insulation in the rest of the house. This is always good anyway, because once you get heat into your house by whatever means you get it there, you're gonna lose it eventually, because conduction always happens.  The "more" insulation (the better the R-value), the slower you will lose heat.  If your heating apparatus is the sun (barring cloudy days, why you still want a backup), it "comes on" at regular intervals you can't control but can predict, and if you can use thermal mass and insulation to time your heat loss within those intervals to remain comfortable, then hey.  That didn't cost you anything in energy inputs.  Obviously there are too many variables to get this perfect, especially considering outside temperature changes and conduction happens much faster when it is much colder outside.  But more insulation pretty much always helps. 

The last important feature in passive solar, which many people don't think of, is the layout of the house itself.  If the south side of your house is warm and full of thermal mass and the whole thing is insulated above and beyond what code requires, still you're not doing much if your house is long and skinny along the North-South axis.   The heat you're gaining on the south side just isn't getting to the other side of the house.

In any climate that gets hot in the summer but cold in the winter, you have to get the balance of heating and cooling features right.  Here, I've noticed, because we must spend about four times as much energy on heating than on cooling, we tend to design to be warm in winter, forgetting that we have to think about how to be cool in summer.  The humidity of this climate makes it worse, because humidity makes even moderately warm temperatures feel miserable.  There is honestly nothing quite like an air conditioner for making a house feel comfortable because it dehumidifies, just as a consequence of how it works.  Humidity is also hell on houses, and mold issues abound in this climate in poorly designed and un-air-conditioned buildings.  There is a growing school of "green" thought which supposes that durability is the most important component of sustainable building, because however energy efficient or non-toxic something is, if it breaks in a few years and you just have to throw it away and keep buying new ones, that's still impacting the environment in a bigger way than necessary.  I agree that houses should be built to last centuries if possible and homeowners should not have to deal with their beautiful passive baby succumbing to terrible mold issues;  some form of dehumidification is critical to a truly sustainable home in this climate.  Since you ought to have a backup anyway that may well be an heat pump/air conditioner system, properly sized to your cooling load, not your heating load, and used minimally in conjunction with other methods.  There are probably ample "passive dehumidification" methods that I just don't know much about, and they might work will with proper design; I  assert that moisture around here is ubiquitous and ignoring it a serious design flawPassive dehumidification endeavors must be an extremely difficult one to get right, and in light of durability concerns an air conditioner for dehumidification isn't necessarily such an un-green choice.

*The physics of this involve the difference between conduction and radiation, but also how the molecules in materials interact with radiation and then release it again.  It's fascinating, but not short.  The thing you should know is that "conduction" is heat moving from hot to cold, as it does, through things in physical contact.  Meanwhile "radiation" is heat associated with wave stuff, which has it's own complex set of rules not immediately discernible from our interaction with the real world in the same way that conduction is.  Anything above 0 Kelvins radiates electromagnetic waves of certain wavelengths, the hotter, the shorter the wavelengths, and infrared radiation coming from both the sun and us is commonly referred to as a form of heat. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Geothermal Situation

A residential geothermal heat pump system is cheaper than I thought.

Oh don't get me wrong, it's still something like 20 grand or so at it's most expensive, from what limited research I'm been able to do, and nobody wants to just tell you a price because it is a case by case thing depending on your home size, location, if you've got the tax liability to claim the superawesome tax credits, etc, and nobody wants to get into trouble by giving misleading information.  I don't want to either, so I'll just tell you I've seen some systems priced at 20 grand but who knows what it would really cost you.

What I should say, I suppose, is that a geothermal heat pump system is comparably cheaper than I thought, because brand new conventional heat pump or furnace systems costs a lot more to install than I thought.  Up to the ten grand and even beyond for larger homes.   The DOE quotes something like a three thousand dollar difference, I suspect it is more like five or ten thousand dollars more expensive than whatever baseline you would otherwise be getting. The thing about geothermal is that is offers considerably operating cost savings over the entire lifetime of the system.

All heat pumps take heat out of the environment around them and put that heat in your house via The Refrigeration Cycle. (It's not magic, it's physics!)  On a cold winter day the temperature underground is still a pretty warm, eh, 50ish, so your heat pump works much less hard if it can take heat from there, rather than from the 30 degree air.  What's worse, when it gets much colder than that outside your heat pump can't grab enough heat to make your house warm, at which point your heating system starts working exactly the same way your electric stove-top does.  If you think taking heat from one place and putting it another is a cool bit of magic, wait till you have to start making it.  If you've ever lived in a house where a manageable electric bill inexplicably tripled during the coldest months, this is partially the reason.   With geothermal, your need to use this extremely inefficient backup method goes way down.*

Back to the money:  it is even quite possible, when building a new home and deciding between a geothermal or regular heat pump, to pay the extra for geothermal, add that extra to the mortgage you're gonna have to take out for the house anyway and thus adding a certain amount extra in payment each year, but realize energy cost savings that exceed the increase in mortgage payments.   So say adding geothermal amounts to $300 more on your mortgage per year, but your energy cost savings from having a geothermal pump are $417 per year.   Earlier today I just ran those numbers for a 1600 square foot house in Cleveland, and in oh-so-specific case you are netting $117 per year, even though you are paying more for the cost of the system in mortgage interest.   Additional things that make this better are the federal tax credit worth a whopping 30 percent of the total geothermal system price, and the fact that geothermal heat pumps and wells last longer than a conventional system.

Of course this is extremely a case-by-case analysis.  Of course that sort of financial benefit doesn't exist for existing homeowners or buyers of a non-custom built home.

But the possibility exists, and some long-term thinking person, somewhere, is benefiting from it.

*My understanding is that this limitation on heat pumps means they aren't used all that widely up north, at least not on old buildings.   Ground temperatures get colder the further north you go, too, but this is less pronounced than air temperature differences.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A partial success!

That story I was working on last week has been partially successful.  At least, my query package, including letter which describes the story succinctly and yet enticingly, and one-page complete synopsis, did their job and the editors have requested the full manuscript.  Since this is how pretty much all new writer fiction novels are sold (often to agents, who then deal with the publishers if they choose to represent you), being able to create a successful query letter and synopsis in the short story market is encouraging.  I am learning how to improve on the "selling myself" part of the professional fiction writing process.  We'll see how the manuscript itself fares.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Debt scares the heebie-jeebies out of me.

If I could go my entire life without ever having to use credit of any kind, I would.  I have so far, in so much as I haven't bought anything myself with credit.  However I grew up in homes paid for on my parents' credit, now live in a mortgage-financed home and pay rent to the homeowner who is my housemate and Significant Other--but spouse he is not, so his debt is not my debt.  (Now that I work in the green building energy efficiency world, I can help him make some improvements that raise the value of the home!)

I have recently come face to face with the prospect of debt of my own, as I've been fermenting and slowly bringing to life my ridiculously ambitious graduate school dream.  Unfortunately not a graduate school discipline that offers much by the way of research or teaching assistantships, and watching my friends finance cars after getting accepted into physics graduate school, those disciplines seem safe and secure if not lucrative. But not the dream, I'm discovering.  This dream is ambitious not necessarily because I am trying to be accepted into an ivy league school, although I may indeed find that was over-ambitious, but because being accepted and actually going would mean going along with ivy league prices.

The only way to cover a fraction of that--because I have considerably savings, but it's still not enough--is with mortgage-comparable debt.  Is my dream education worth that to me?

This world...

Yesterday I sat through an all-day training on things my boss has heard a bazillion times but I'm new enough to to appreciate.  This training gives us a certification that allows our company to appear on a website list of companies who, by virtue of having sat through the training, are supposed to know more than what the average building company knows, which is little, about energy efficiency.

Since we are The Original Green Builder, we'd better know.

There are actually a heck of a lot of construction details that never get done, that are simple to do, that you cannot really access to fix once the building is completed so you ought to attend to them first, that make a heck of an energy efficiency difference.  But more on that later.

One of the speakers was really good.  Knew her stuff, told good stories, linked it together well, explained jargon and acronyms and put everything in helpful context.

The other presenter read off of the slides without elaborating, as if she didn't know what the things she was reading meant to be able to elaborate (probably not true, but how it came off), made no connections between things (because that wasn't on the slides!) slouched and shifted her weight constantly and didn't make eye contact, had a very shaky obviously nervous voice.

I can sympathize with those things, because you do them when you are nervious and don't know better.

I'm constantly surprised, now being in a professional setting, that people don't know better.  I've seen so many poor public speakers, read so many instances of terribly poor and unclear writing.  I recognize that when your job is something else, it isn't always worth your time to pay attention to those things.

But you sacrifice on how you come off if you don't pay some attention.  I'd thought, all while I was desperately interviewing and trying to get my feet through doors, that proficiency in those kinds of things were a baseline,  not the exception to the rule.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Teasers--or Yawn-Factories

One of the lessons thrown at aspiring writers over and over again is the need to sell your story quickly.  Since all editors need sometimes to make decisions is the first line or two in short stories, the first paragraph or maybe page in longer works, you can't wait for the rest of the story to be good enough.  It's got to grab from the get-go.  But especially in the "query" first world, you've got to sell your story without using the actual story, to someone who is slammed with submissions, doesn't know you from Joe, and probably knows a heck of a lot more about the craft and industry than you do.
So you must sum up theme and conflict in one sentence, and it has to be compelling, interesting, and fresh.  And if you work on them too long or look at them too many times you'll go frikkin crazy.

Here are some of mine, short story and novel alike,mostly in the "light fantasy or science fiction" category:

An uprooted man joins a theater to recover from a recent loss, and must delve impossibly far into the world of his character to save the lives of the cast.

Two young people fight for their own definition of true love, despite the decidedly strange physics which stands in their way.  (That one is shooting for the odd genre of science fiction humor)

A storm-followed teenager runs away from home to rebel against her family's destructive secret, and must fight to keep her family and small Appalachian town in one piece.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stories I Hate

To get in the mood to finish this short story up...

Stories with only male characters, stories with only female characters, senseless rambling while vaguely intimating that the Protagonist Is God On Earth (or not, in the case of Children of Dune, which I literally threw across the room, although I liked the first one okay), stories which don't make sense but try to call the nonsensicalness intellectual superiority, utterly any variation of the "Super Smart Scientists/Mathemetician/Intellectual With No Social Skills Who Suffers From All the Mediocre People Who Just Don't Get His Brilliance," any story at all that makes the protagonist Oh So Superior to Everyone Else, yet also protagonists whose faults make them despicable rather than human, stories that just don't go anywhere (books 7-10 of Wheel of Time), anything whose only theme is a commentary on the utter futility of caring about anything (Heard of Darkness, and too much of what is considered "literary" and also "intellectual"), books where all women are weak and "giggly" except for the one female protagonist who is masculine and continually described as an utter rarity (fantasy suffers so, from this, with the very notable exception of Wheel of Time), stories that portray all members of one gender as unworthy or useless end of discussion, stories that end in horror, despair and futility, stories with too much action and nothing else, stories with too much description and no movement...

That's all I can think of for now.

What do I like, then?

Stories with characters I can't help but care about making brave and difficult choices in the face of something that matters, or else learning something about themselves or the world in a way that relates strongly to a compelling and optimistic theme.  I can deal with pessimistic themes on occasion if they're thought-provoking (and NOT in an "oh it all sucks lets just go crawl in a hole and die" kind of a way), but I am at heart a romantic, a believer in right and wrong and the power of human decisions to make the world into a better place, even if it's just one character's struggle for his or her tiny piece of the world, even if "better" is fraught with imperfection.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why I Bike (To Work, Sometimes)

I have such a backlog of half-formed posts.  One thing biking (and running, for that matter, started doing a lot of that also) does is allow time to think through and compose various blogsays.

Mozilla totally thinks that's a word,"blogsays," even though I just made it up.

Right now I am scurrying to finish a major overhaul of a short story I wrote a long time ago for hopeful publication (actually, it's just so that my query letter will in fact have a real story behind it), so the backlog won't be coming just yet.

The trouble with composing while biking is that I mostly compose bike-related posts.

There are three reasons I bike what I think is a considerably distance in considerably traffic to work, and they are not necessarily hierarchical.  One by itself isn't enough, two together make me feel vaguely wistful if I end up hitting the snooze alarm on any given day instead of doing it, and three together are why I do end up doing it.

1)I am concerned about climate change and think I have a moral duty to try to do what I, personally can do to help us reduce our collective carbon emissions by the scientifically-advised amount in the scientifically-advised amount of time.  I hear people argue that what one individual does matters not at all in the face of tons of individuals probably never doing what many individuals ought to to make a difference.  Like my 1 ton less CO2 a year does a damn thing to alter climate change--but to me; the moral obligation remains the same.  If everybody waited for everyone else to do the right thing before doing it for his or herself, then any will or vision to create a world that is better than the world that currently exists would be essentially nonexistent, and that would be a terrible world indeed.  (Is riding my bike to work really that heavy?  Symbolically yes, because the moral imperative of climate change is just that heavy.)

2) I want to reduce the amount of money I spend on gasoline by a noticeable amount.  If I only bike once every now and then, the amount isn't noticeable.  If I do it once or twice a week, I can save about one fill-up a month.  If I do it whenever humanly possible I can save any more, and sometimes I have that goal.  When it's not below freezing outside in the morning.

3)It's frikkin' awesome!  I feel great afterwards.  I'm physically stronger for doing it regularly.  I feel more alive and connected to my community.  And you know, it's just fun, even (with the right gear) when it's not all that warm outside.

Monday, November 15, 2010


One of the unexpected weird things about my new job is that I have to dress each day like somebody who knows how to dress nicely.  Not that I think I ever dressed like a dirty slob hippie before, (I mean, I wore clean clothes without holes) but, I never really put any thought into wardrobe planning, either.  I have a decent collection of business casual, due to planning ahead for this day while yardsaling and visiting the goodwill bins and chiding various department stores for not stocking anything smaller than a frikkin 4 petite--but I really am clueless as to what to do with it.   I feel vaguely fake and vaguley aloof wearing this stuff, and the problem with nice clothes is that it's not always pratical to do much in them, becasue they're nice and you don't want to mess them up.  They're just not me, but maybe the problem is that I still don't really feel like the business world is me.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Are Electric Cars "Greener"?

Potentially, maybe...but generally not so much.

Electricity as it is right now is not very green--though it is somewhat greening, and there is potential to make it more so.  At least, the biggest opponent of more widespread deployment of renewable and nuclear energy is political, not technical.  I have posited before that we are much better at overcoming technical limitations than we are at overcoming political ones, so one can assume that electricity is not greening at such a rate that the average electric car is powered by anything other than batteries charged with coal.

Cars emit a host of pollutants, most notably carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides of various forms, commonly referred to as NOx (pronounced "nocks.)"  NOx 1)contribute to acid rain, 2) react with sunlight to make ozone, which is great for blocking ultraviolet light in the stratosphere, but when produced at ground level not so good for people who like breathing easily on hot summer days, especially people with risk factors like small children, the elderly, and asthmatics.  Ozone levels in the southeast (I don't have firsthand experience with other regions) get so elevated on some summer days that prolonged outdoor exertion is considered unhealthy for most people.

Ground-level ozone is a concern for multiple reasons: high concentrations damage crop and forest tissue, and it's also a much more potent greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide.   

Here in the southeast most electricity comes from coal.  Coal-fired power plants emit carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides SOx ("socks"), and trace other things like mercury and lead.  SOx 1) contribute even more strongly to acid rain, 2) forms a layer of very fine particles suspended in the atmosphere, that are also irritating to breath in for those who are sensitive, and contribute to smog.

The good news is that SOx emissions in particular are declining thanks to a cap and trade program that's been in place since the 1990s.  Emitters buy credits, ones who have made technology improvements such as scrubbers that make their SOx emissions go below required amounts sell the extra ones, and the total number of overall credits available declines each year.  If you felt like speeding that along, you could go buy a SOx credit. (My econ teacher did that, and framed it.) Both NOx and SOx from large emitters are capped-and-traded, but obviously nobody is cap and trading the NOx that come from private vehicles.

So the trade-off between a gasoline or non-bio-diesel powered engine and a car charged with coal-fired electricity is really between more NOx or more SOx.  Carbon dioxide is gonna happen either way.  Certainly there may be a difference in the carbon dioxide released per unit of petroleum verses coal that makes one less absolutely contributory to climate change--but since coal and fuel combustion technologies alike vary strongly in their age and efficiency, and about three different varieties of coal with very different properties are regularly used by the same plants, that is a difficult and largely apples to oranges comparison.  While we're at it I suppose one should also look at life-cycle costs when considering claims of relative greenness:  the energy and environmental costs of finding, drilling for, securing, shipping, refining, shipping gasoline verses the energy and environmental costs of finding, mining, and shipping coal. I'm curious enough that maybe I'll look into that for another post, but still, apples to oranges.

Hybrid cars by contrast actually are greener, because they are tapping into an otherwise unused energy source and charging batteries with something one does while driving anyway--putting on the breaks.  That idea, tapping into otherwise unused sources, is certainly thinking along the right track toward sustainability.  I will note that my fully gasoline-powered Saturn, a product of GM, for goodness sake, regularly equals or exceeds the gas mileage of the first-generation hybrids, although they've outstripped me in recent model-years.

The advantage I do see of fully electric cars is that it takes two huge pollution problems, coal and gasoline, and turns them into one, just coal, which is theoretically much more capable of being supplemented by more environmentally sustainable production methods.  Sometimes simplifying your problems is progress--turning your oranges into apples.  The only apples to apples "green" alternative to gas combustion is biofuel, which is great when produced from used vegetable oil, but actually very un-green if made from palm-oil planted on illegally logged rain-forest.  From a climate change mitigation standpoint, we cannot afford more deforestation, and could really use some re-forestation instead.

Maybe a hybrid biofuel engine is the future.  Or crazy superconducting mag-levs, assuming room-temperature super-conduction is possible, something we have not yet observed but haven't found evidence yet either that it is impossible.

There's also the issue of American driving patterns--which is a lot of downtown, where electric or hybrid cars are doing something, anyway--but also a lot of inter-city.  People generally want cars for both capabilities, getting to work each day, visiting your sister on weekends.  Hybrids can take you inter-city no problem but don't perform much better than regular vehicles when doing so.  Electric cars don't generally have enough juice to go more than one or two hundred miles--although this could be changing.

Light passenger rail would be sweet, but way too expensive right now, and not practical at rural to suburban density levels, most common here.

By the way, your gas is pretty much exclusively 10% ethanol in North Carolina.

Fuel cells?  Still have to work out that hydrogen exploding thing.  Super efficient though, and non-emitting in the carbon dioxide department, although the method of obtaining the hydrogen is probably going to be quite carboniferous.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


My most recently kept-up circle of local (meaning non-Internet, non-distance, as most of my friendships actually are do to this constantly mobile world of ours) friends are quite awesome people, but they are all more extroverted than me.  We used to all be woefully underemployed together, so I had more time to be extroverted with them, but I was the schmuck who got a full-time job first.

I am unabashedly and undeniably on the introvert side of the scale, but can be quite functionally extroverted in the right circumstances.  Incompatible schedules make this very difficult, however.  I want to spend time with just a handful of us, that's fine for them sometimes but sometimes they need more excitement and more people.  Sometimes that's fine for me too but then I have to go home and recharge, and while I'm doing that they are still out finding more things to do and more people to do them with.  There's no reason I should feel like I have to come along on all of that, of course, but I find that new acquaintances and new plans are constantly being made that I might want to join in on after a re-charge but by then it's already too late.  I'll propose plans of my own from a position of being out of the loop and secondary to what is going on, thus I am rarely taken up on them, and I have to remind them to remember to include me on things they are planning that I might love to do after being re-charged.  The whole experience makes me feel somewhat socially breathless, like I am constantly fighting to keep up.

There's a little bit of my frugality entering into this too, because I am unwilling to spend money on several social events in one night or even one week or hell even more than once or twice a month, and while I wasn't working this was especially important and especially damning because I had so little money and yet so much time. All together I sometimes find myself feeling stuffy and prudish and boring, compared to they who are free and fun and infinitely interesting.

Introverted friendships have always served me better:  more depth, more doing the kind of activities I want to do in a group size that is comfortable for me, more commitment to a friendship across distance, since the trend in this place is for young people to be unable to find jobs here and thus leave.  In some ways being forced into more extroversion has been good for me, certainly seeing and understanding differences in other people has been.  But trying to force my friends into a friendship mold that works for me, or trying to force myself into a mold that works with how they work...probably isn't good for anybody.

Well, turns out they're all moving away too as they too, secure jobs that aren't in this jobless town, so looks like I'm in the general market for some more compatible local friends regardless.

Antagonists are Essential

Just like most aspiring and perhaps real writers, I have my spurt non-blog projects that never get finished, I have my great ideas I have to go home and start writing only to abandon a few months later...etc.

Those and a host more problems have got to be fixed (why am I using passive voice? I have to fix them) if I want to do more than just aspire for the rest of my life, and I suspect that fixing these things requires discipline, hard work, and simply slogging through day after day.

The oldest project of mine is something that started off as science fiction, went more of a fantasy route for a while, and I'm now trying to re-route toward science fiction again.  I am absolutely in love with this project, even though I've stalled out about five times on the actual writing since high school.  It has many the things I love about science fiction and/or fantasy:  big-picture ideas of space and time, parallel universes, people and creatures from other places, super-human powers (and the responsibilities and consequences that come from being powerful), characters who I think have great heroic potential because of and in spite of their their human flaws, decent interpersonal and internal conflict.  Romance, of course.

I keep re-working the background stuff to incorporate new ideas, science I just figured out how to twist awry, etc.  And that is a problem, of course, because at some point you have to just write the thing.  And I have never been able to progress, despite how much I love my characters and their world and their strengths and weaknesses and issues.

I think this is because despite all these other fun elements, I never had an antagonist that was truly worth fighting, or who was deep enough to be interesting.  I wrote the bare bones of this story when I was in elementary school--oddly, the first and only time in my life that I wrote novel-ish length stories from start to finish without much trouble.  They have elementary-school quality of course;  my idea of good and evil wasn't particularly refined back then. It was very black and white and very much of 'these guys are evil just because they are", and my bad guys didn't do particularly scary or bad things because...I didn't really understand back then what full range of bad things were possible, and more importantly, what various motivations for bad things might be.  Now that I'm adult I have seen "evil just because not good" done really well:  Joker in The Dark Knight was a really great example of "I'm fucking insane evil  just because I am"--and it worked.  Gave me frikkin goosebumps.  But it gave me goosebumps because of how Joker the antagonist pushed the rest of the story:  spotlighting the heroes who dared to stand against someone so scary and senseless, highlighting the choice between caring for a thinly possible ideal, running in fear, or deciding to "just watch the world burn."

Many more times, however, "evil just because I am" has not worked at all--(example, Avatar.  Well, there was supposed to be a reason, but the reason was so poorly defined that it was pretty much "evil just because") because it didn't' force the main characters to define themselves against it.

I don't know who my antagonist is supposed to be in this story.  I have what my elementary school self created, which is two-dimensional and has no backstory and not much reason for doing what it is doing.  My struggles to re-define all the science fiction or fantasy or whatever else elements of this story have really been trying to re-define what the heck the people in my story are fighting for,  because I'm not satisfied with what was there.  Heroes need something heroic to stand for.  They need circumstances which allow them to choose to be heroes.  That doesn't have to be some dark insurmountable race of aliens, or a hidden smuggling ring or terrorists or whatever.  It is possible to have evil be something more subtle: man pitting various incompatible internal wants against each other, hell, man against bureaucracy or an approaching black hole or a wasting disease, man against all the shit from his past while trying to find his way to a better future.

It's just that heroic fantasy or science fiction tends to have some big, malevolent bad guy or bad organization or bad species.   Fantasy is often a fan of the amorphous dark powerful Satan-like being--I'm thinking Wheel of Time here, which manages to make such a cliche antagonist into something that I did mostly find really enjoyable and interesting because of the various interpersonal conflicts that resulted from having to deal with Scary Evil Force of Nature.  In science fiction it's probably any number of scenarios involving aliens, or various natural features of an inhospitable universe, or humanity's inability to deal with technological advances, or else just a crime mystery novel set in the future.  I like all of those...but I don't know what I want for my story, and I need to know, because everything my lovely characters are going to be doing in their lovely word is irrelevant if it doesn't mean something against some kind of danger or intrigue or high stakes.

I've known all of this for a long time, because I know the kind of stories that have given me goosebumps throughout the years, and I know for all of them exactly why. It is much easier to recognize that in someone else's work than try to figure out how to put it into my own--which is just the skill a writer needs to have, no excuses.

It's the basics that will kill you.

Friday, November 5, 2010

thoughts on a very tough question

Some concerned people, mostly of the politically liberal persuasion, say that the wars this country is currently involved in are wrong, the growth and spread of terrorist groups is largely our fault by being there and creating a class of dispossessed to be lulled into violence, that we should just leave and maybe then they wouldn't have as much reason hate us so much.  The global reach of our policies, our mass consumption of resources, our witness and participation in torture in wrongful civilian death is evil, we have nothing clear and right to fight for, and we need to just stop it.  Plus it's a huge money drain.

Sometimes I have thought this, but as I hash it out I find that I actually disagree.

What we have done as a country, directly or not, has often been harmful to people of other nations. Climate change is the one example I keep coming back to.  It was us who put the Taliban in power, not noticing the ticking time bomb that was, not recognizing or acknowledging or caring that some things that aren't communist are also pretty evil.

We will never fully match our ideals, and I doubt any human civilization ever can.

But we shouldn't forget what separates us from the people we are fighting these wars to stand against. The individual leaders of terrorist glorify in violence in the name of religion, use fear and control among their own people to grab and hold on to power, violently oppress the female half of their society.

I want my country to truly exemplify the ideals I've no doubt had brainwashed into me, and I know that it falls pitifully short of doing so sometimes.  We do seek to spread our ideals into the rest of the world--and you know what I would rather live in a world where a woman I disagree with on pretty much everything can run for vice president and I can just vote against her than in a world where little girls are doused with acid for committing the crime of trying to go to school despite being female.   I don't particularly want to be ashamed of a system that works however imperfectly to prevent violence in the face of a group of people who glorify in it.

If we cut our losses and leave those wars, we'd start being able to make some dents in the deficit, for one.  Our troops would be safe, for the meantime anyway, and pressure on civilians in those countries caught in the middle might be eased.  They could decide on their own then, if they would oppose radicalized Islam or tolerate and potentially be subsumed by it.  It many ways they have the right to that decision.   Perhaps there would be less terrorist recruitment, as war-torn, jobless, angry young men would not so readily be given reason and opportunity to blow themselves up for Al Queida.

But at this point, I doubt our withdrawal would stop any of it.  The leaders want what we hold up as good about our society to burn along with the greed and corruption they so protest.

Does our presence there or not make a different anymore?  Does it make it better or worse for the people living there?  Does it make us safer from terrorism? I don't know what we should do, and I don't know how to fix it.  But I know it's dead wrong to think that if we just leave them alone they'll suddenly stop attacking us.  They probably won't even stop harming the civilians around them.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Traffic Tecnique

This is a follow-up to a post of two days ago where I ranted about the bus system and mentioned I wanted to ride my bike to work but was a little concerned about one dangerous stretch on an otherwise congenial route.

Eh, today I did it.  It was way too hot, because at 44F you really need warmth downhill, but really bake in whatever you're using to get that warmth going uphill, and it's pretty miserable trying to go fast uphill when it's dangerous biking and you're cooking in your own personal oven and have been so for the past 2 miles. It is also awesome; the hard workout and feeling when you're done, that nice little exposure to outside when one is otherwise stuck in an office.

That stretch of road isn't as dangerous as I thought.  I forget that when you are biking you have one huge advantage you forget about when you are driving:  you don't have blind spots* and you can hear cars coming from far off.  Thus all I had to do was wait at a pullout at the base of The Narrows until I couldn't see or hear any cars, then start up it at top speed, staying toward the middle of the lane instead of hugging the curb as one usually does, just to make sure any cars that start coming would see me.  They did, and it was no problem.

There's a lot to learn about safe and assertive traffic-integrated biking, and I would call that a pretty advanced technique.  I've found there are other situations when a biker should, for the better safety of both himself and motor vehicles, take to the middle of the lane, One is in slow-moving downtown type traffic, in spots where there are many consecutive red lights and where parallel parked cars along the side of the road can be a hazard.  In those situations, cars won't be able to drive any faster than you can bike before you'll both have to stop at a light again, and it is more dangerous for both of you to deal with the car trying to pass when you should both be focusing on pedestrians, car doors, and fast-changing traffic signals.

*You have a better field of view, however, looking over one's shoulder should be done with great care. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Cost of Solar

As any kind of renewable energy professional and especially as one who deals with people who want to go off-grid, the top question we get, naturally, is:  how big a system do I need, and how much will it cost?

If you want to go off-grid, meaning, you tell the electricity company to stuff it (minus the few cents per kilowatt they'll start paying YOU, depending on your state regulations) and just live off what you produce yourself, the answer to how big a system you need is: power output must equal your top consumption on the winter solstice if it's been cloudy for a few days.

If you have no idea what you want aside from just "going solar, baby", this is the answer I gave a customer today:

The short answer to your question is:  it depends on how much energy you currently use, and how much of that you want to produce with solar.  Your home size and how efficient is your energy consumption are key variables.  Many times folks find that going complete off-grid with an "average" or larger home is just too expensive.  Energy efficiency becomes very important when you are trying to be unconnected from a utility and every light bulb matters, so it is always, always important to invest money in energy efficiency first if there are opportunities to do so. 

What many folks do is choose to offset a certain percentage of their energy with solar.  To do this they remain connected to a utility, typically purchasing their energy but also getting credit for what they produce.  This makes the cost cheaper (the batteries used to store energy are a significant expense), allows for wiggle room (you don't have to meticulously plan your energy so as not to go over your capacity) and yet still allows you to reduce your emissions and electric bill--the goals of most of us who want to go solar.

To get your first ballpark idea of how much it might cost you, there are some very helpful on-line calculators.  Here is a very basic one; also worthwhile is this one, which is more involved and technical but lets you compare two cost scenarios side by side. To use the calculators you'll need to know your monthly energy costs, and looking at two scenarios side by side can help you see how much energy efficiency can reduce the cost of your system.

Federal and state tax credits are a very important component of what makes solar affordable;  dsire.org has a comprehensive list of all of these available in all areas of the United States.  Some of the calculators try to account for these incentives.  If you find yourself interested enough in solar to move forward I would research your local incentives and talk to a good solar professional who can help you design a system that is the right size for your energy needs--and who can help you work with your energy consumption increase efficiency and make any solar you do install that much more cost effective.

That's probably too wordy and technical for a first pass, so if you have suggestions for clarity, let me know,  because you know, it really is a complicated, individualized-design kind of a thing*.  Which fits in with some of the environmental ideals of holistic understanding of one's living as it relates to energy and the environment.  I'm sure it can also frustrate people who like easy, simple answers--but the truth is that to go off-grid with the typical energy usage of a 2500 square foot home you'd have to have a garage-sized room over re-enforced concrete to house the size and weight of your batteries. (Each is roughly one square foot of volume, eighty pounds of weight!)  But with all the energy incentives up in some areas, like this one, more and more people are throwing up grid-connected systems as a form of investment, and you know what?  That's some progress.

*"Solar in a box" kits do exist--and you're not going to get the most efficient performance out of them, compared to a well-designed system for your individual needs, potentially perpetuating the "solar doesn't work" mindset which is quite far from the truth.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Benefits are Marginal and the Costs are Just Annoying

Every quarter or so I get struck by the inspiration to incorporate the city bus into my transportation planning.  Yay environment, yay the ease and convenience of letting someone else drive for me, and all that.

Every time I do this, I am hopeful of having something remotely resembling the quick, easy, and novel experiences with public transportation that I have had in other places.  I was once pleasantly rewarded when returning after a previous long absence to find that they had finally started announcing when the bus would be approaching the next stop, as well as what the next stop would actually be--since this doesn't coincide with what the maps indicate as often as one would expect.  

Other than that, however, these three things always happen:

1) The bus is at least fifteen minutes late, except for that one time when it was twenty minutes early

2)I get hit on

3)The bus driver is unpleasant to me

(note: number 3) occurs in direct proportion to number 1), but so does passenger irritation, so we're just a whole busload of irritable people)

Couple this with one-hour frequency and a late bus resulting in missed connections at the transit center, and the fact that even without the extra time factored in it still costs me more to ride it than it would to drive, and the obvious question is why the heck would I rationally chose to do this?

Because the commute to my new work is 99% bike-able (flat and bike lanes the whole way, even!), except for that 1% that's on a steep, curvy, narrow road in between two very sharp banks in a location where the speed limit doesn't seem to concern anyone much.  That is incredibly frustrating, because this is about 90% Windowless Basement Office Job and if I can't bike to work then I worry I'm never going to get any outdoor exercise again.  So I was hoping the bus, with its handy snap-em-on bike rack in the front that the city planners keep raving about, could take me across that 1%.  And it can and I care, you know, and really, what's the point in whining about my little annoyances when some folks don't even have a car they have the luxury of trying to leave at home for the sake of air quality, exercise and frugality?

Those three factors still make me not want to do it though--and so I know I won't.  I'll start braving The Narrows instead.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Day with The Man Who Saves Trees

I actually wrote this last week, but I changed the date modifiers accordingly.

Last week I went out with a man whose job it is to preserve forest health in Shenandoah National Park.  He's a very kind, soft spoken man with a beautiful Virginia accent, who I get the feeling really listens to what people tell him--and whose regular mission includes singlehandedly protecting as many trees in one park as he can. From what, you ask?

Well. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Chestnut Blight, an "accidental" from China that decided it loved our chestnut trees so much it essentially "ate" (fungi don't eat as we know it so much as digest, but you get the idea) them all to death.  At 25% of the forest, that was no small feat.  The chestnut story from a tree man's perspective is over and done, but the onslaught of exotic invasive bugs continues.  What we did last week, what Dale does every day in the fall so long as we've had enough rain--is try to save the eastern hemlock.

There is a wooly adelgid (that's a bug in the aphid family, in case that makes it any clearer) that in my lifetime has decimated the hemlock trees of my mountains in a different fashion but similar outcome as the blight in terms of how many trees survive an infestation.  (That's essentially none of them.)   Scientists have determined that eastern hemlock has "no resistance", and bushwhacking through acres of forest with Dale, dead ones did abound.  At only 2% of total mountain forest makeup, you don't see forest-wide effects like we did with the blight.  But it is an important 2:  often growing along stream banks, where the long coniferous branches shade out 95% of sunlight from falling on the water, making the streams noticeably cooler and having important consequences for temperature-sensitive aquatic ecosystems when the shade is lost.

We also saw a few scattered sick ones, and those are the ones we sought:  measuring the diameter, numbering the tree in a book that will eventually go to govn't records of the use of your tax dollars--and getting out our pesticide dispenser.  They tried spraying the trees with all kinds of things, with only patchy success and important consequences for the surrounding forest, but Dale assured me that this treatment works, within months.

We make holes in the ground around the tree, and pump in an ounce in each of what is essentially a synthetic nicotine. (Imidacloprid, if you care).  The tree will absorb the Imidacloprid and become toxic to adelgids.  We treated fifty trees that day, utilizing GPS to tramp through acres of forest that I can assure you start to look alike very quickly with no trail to guide you.  I would not reccomend bushwhacking in the Appalachians unless you know what you are doing--and I didn't, but Dale did, because he wasn't the one checking the GPS, yet always led us straight back to his truck.  Dale can treat thousands of trees a year, has been doing this for quite a few years, and yes, he can turn all of the data into a GIS graphic for taxpayer scrutinizing pleasure.

The hope is to learn a thing or two from the story of the chestnut, to keep pace with unhealthy and human-accelerated forest changes and keep a hemlock gene pool alive.  Perhaps resistance will come with time, or else, like in the case of the gypsy moth, something will be brought in that successfully kills the adelgid without introducing it's own set of unintended consequences.

Every good farmer knows that the war with pests is never really over.  The hemlocks are only a recent wave.  The next big thing, so I've only recently learned, is the "asian long-horned beetle", poised to do damage to the pretty and tasty sugar maples in New England.

 What's interesting about that one is that in preparation "they" have launched a massive public education campation, with TV advertisements and interactive online games!  The public education angle is a largely unexplored one.  We do have legally-required precautions going on in our trade: we fumegate wood products sent outside of the country to kill any hitchhikers, we have customs officers prohibiting Sally and Jim from bringing seashells from Australia into the US for their personal seashell collections. It is largely impractical to undergo any kind of intense regulation of all organic matter trade in a globally connected world, what we do helps, but it still sometimes only takes one missed shipment.

The long-horned beetle public education campaign is an interesting experiment, because simply transporting firewood is a major spreader of many of these bugs into parks and recreational areas, and the same folks who like to have campfires might feel a strong case for having the places they like to go and build their campfires continue to be conserved.  Jim and Sally might not want to add Australian seashells to their collection if they understand they might be releasing the next non-native palm tree fungus into the Palmetto State.  I don't know if "beetle busters" will be effective enough, but in different times, different tree species, we've sure tried many other things, so might as well give this a shot.

Things That Maybe Don't Bother Me

Several times a month I hear some new story or other, probably on NPR (yes, I am one of the ones the pledge drives are lamenting about, I haven't yet contributed despite being an avid listener...you know what, I thought about contributing for real some this morning!), about facebook and privacy, or google and privacy, pandora and facebook and Google and twitter linking up to retain everything about every song I ever listened to and then commented about on facebook...

I hate twitter, but anyway.  I wasn't particularly thrilled with facebook started taking recognizable things I once said I liked and linking them to random advertisements that might affect other people if they wanted to click on said random links--but who really looks at that anyway?  I'm not so much of a facebook user anymore anyway, I'm finding I value the world IRL (that's In Real Life, so the local public radio guy explained) more and more, which, if you knew me in high school, will know that's quite a change of heart. 

In general, all of this information collecting and selling--or not--the deliverance of targeted ads, this ability for some advertising firm to build an entire profile of me, what kind of music I listen to, what links I click on, what I've ever bought ever...

Well, I can see some potentially bad ways that a repository of such information could be used, a la "big brother", and in one sense I think my shopping habits are nobody else's damn business on principle (nonexistent over the Internet, mostly).  But since it happens to all the millions of Internet users all over I can hardly think that anybody will find my dismally tightwad habits particularly interesting anyway, and if all it's being used for is to make sure certain ads come my way instead of others...well, if I'm going to enjoy having my whole life on Google calendar and bringing you this blog (come on Mozilla, you're really going to put a red squiggle under the word "blog?" You really aren't with the 'net, are you?), they've got to pay for it somehow, and since I will take ads I can ignore for free services I would actually rather get ones for things I might actually like.

Hey, now that I have a job, maybe I'll buy a domain and hosting!

Monday, October 11, 2010

350 thoughts

When I went into college as an environmentalist I found out pretty quick that "activism" is sooo not my thing.  I am too timid and furthermore too attached to my rationality to chain myselt to anything, ever, and even asking people to volunteer or sign a petition, much less holding up signs and chanting things, are so not things I relish doing or found myself willing to do again after trying them once. I don't even much like calling my elected officials, but that at least I'll do.  Something about being introverted, I suppose, about not wanting to bother people who aren't asking to be bothered, about self doubt as it relates to having a worthwhile opinion on something, about insisting on a true conversation as opposed to absolutely anything else--even though the supposed point of activism is that nobody will engage your conversation so you've got to find creative ways to bring it into wider attention. 

There have been instances in this country and world where activism has been necessary to bring about change.  I can recognize that, but still, I don't want to be the one to do it.

"Activism" incorporates all kinds of things--it could be trying to have that conversation.  It could be having a bake sale to raise funds.  It could be organizing food drives or river cleanups or fun runs.  Writing letters to the editor.  That kind I suppose I can handle--have handled; have read the names of endangered species to a crowded campus, have written a letter to the editor on an accused friend's behalf, have organized river cleanups and campus energy reduction initiatives.  But even though I care, I don't have much energy for endeavors like this.  I can't let go of my reservations about the whole notion of trying to rally people around something I think is imporant.  I do have strong convictions on right and wrong--and I can't extend those to anyone beyond myself.   To me doing is doing, not trying to get other people to do.

Yet with something like climate change, all I can do is not enough to make a difference.  Yesterday was supposedly a big day for climate action.  I attended a speech by Bill McKibben on Friday night, the founder of 350.org, an organization dedicated to generating activism around climate change, and that was pretty much his thesis. We've tried scientific appeal to reason, we've tried having the conversation, and that hasn't worked, we are still emitting beyond a safe threshold and the climate is still warming.  So maybe people who care, people like me, have to stop just doing things ourselves and start trying to get other people to start doing things too.  If political limitation is the problem--and it is, not technology, not capabilities; that can be found as long as there is will to deploy such solutions, which there is NOT--activism is one way, maybe the only way, around that. 

Some of the things that have been done around the world in the name of "350", which is one scientific interpretation of the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million molecules of air that we need to keep our climate relatively like the one we knew, are pretty inspiring.  Especially considered that one of the ethical issues with climate change is who is projected to feel the effects of a disrupted climate, compared to who is producing the carbon emisisons which change it.  I like reading about this sort of thing, and I want to help.  I want nothing more than to find a solution for this, what I believe to be the greatest challenge that humans have ever faced--but I'm, still not very willing to organize events or do anything remotely like telling other people what to do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Not College

Here's a secret:  As long as it's a topic I care about and even sometimes if it's not, I have always loved writing papers.

When you're writing a paper in school-world, you've got a few weeks.  You may have other homework, but as a student, writing papers is part of your job.  You have libraries of sources and helpful professors and ample opportunity for time management and prioritizing of all of your other projects--at least if you're a hardcore J on the MBTI scale like I am.  You want to write well, and you want to be thorough and correct, because demonstrating good writing, clear thinking and lack of falsehood is what gets you a good grade.  Good grades are the tangible goals that represent those intangible things like learning, developing thought, job well done, etc.

When you're writng the script for a potentailly nationally-distributed internet "podcast" which condenses, explains, and most importantly makes relevant and Not Boring real scientific information about air quality in a national park, you've got a few sources and they are all scientific papers outside of your main discipline.  You have a few days, in the middle of a a real job which has many other demands.  You still really want to write well, demonstrate clear and correct ideas...but for completely different reasons.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

And Eastern Forests Would Never Be the Same

The American Chestnut was once the dominant tree in eastern forests from Mississippi to New York City.  Taller and straighter than its European and Asian relatives--the genus from which it branched after American split off of Europe and started its long collision course with Africa--it provided a sweet nut, too, in reliably sweet droves that had farm and city folk alike marveling at its bounty.  In the early twentieth century entire Appalachian communities like the ones my grandparents grew up in based much of their livelihoods on the wood, bark, and chestnuts.

Then in 1904 in New York City, some chestnuts there looked sick, and started dying.  Tree diseases were no mystery to the forestry of the time, so they sprayed the trees with lime and copper sulfate and waited for recovery.

Recovery did not come.  Within 35 years, the dominant tree of Appalachia was gone; only a few hundred hardy stragglers now remain.  It is estimated that humans watched helplessly while 3 to 4 billion trees died, more than the number of people who existed on earth at that time.

The culprit was a run-of-the-mill fungus, well, run-of-the-mill for chestnut trees in China.  For years scientists feared that a native disease had suddenly gone deadly--and some folktales suggested that the "chestnut blight" was God's punishment for recent sins of mankind.  But the spores were discovered in the living, thriving bark of the Chinese and Japanese chestnut varieties, trees which had been imported to America for their ornamental properties.  The great naturalist Thomas Jefferson even had some growing at Monticello. 

The Chinese and Japanese trees had genetic resistance to the fungus, which had chosen the genus Castenea as its exclusive feeding ground.  American Chestnut, Castenea dentata, now diverged from its Asian cousins by tens of millions of years of isolation, had none, and died in droves at the first assault.  Exotic invasive species to this day wreak havoc on all continents:  Australia has erected a country-spanning rabbit-proof fence to keep at bay the rabbits, imported for a good hunt, that regularly decimate native outback grasses.  Here in the Appalachians, the stiltgrass, mullen, velcro-like burdoch, ornamental bittersweet, and kudzu choke out native plant life and colonize acres of forest for their own.  It is nature being nature, but it is also a potently destructive tipping of the balance-scales that human travel has directly enabled.  And no story has so high a death toll, so grave an alteration of an entire ecosystem, as that of the American Chestnut.

To say that humans watched helpless is not entirely correct.  We watched this icon of the forest fall with dismay, and ardor to act could certainly be mustered.  Unfortunately, it was often misguided, appearing a hubris to the better scientific understanding of our day.  Pennsylvania declared an all out war on the chestnut blight, using a method tried-and-true for diseases which did not spread on the wind by thousands of microscopic spores:  quarantine.  They vowed to cut down every sick chestnut in every square inch of the eastern half of their state, and create a several-hundred mile buffer zone besides in which no chestnut tree would stand to transfer its germs to any western neighbors.  The resulting political battled resembled the way in which scientific subtlety is often trounced for political will today:  the admonishment by leading scientists that such a plan would not work was belied as the dour guesses of men too smart for their own good.  Talking in impossibilities is un-American, they said.  You are only guessing, and one man can guess as well as any other.  But one who has studied something is usually able to form a better guess than one who has not--and although considerable public funding and labor went underway, the quarantine was never finished, and never began to appear successful.  At worst, it may have sealed the fate of the chestnut:  for those few trees that might have possessed better natural resistance, might have made up the naturally-selected hardy survivors of the species, were cut as indiscriminately as the rest.

These days, you can walk a forest dominated by oaks, hickory, and maple, and occasionally see a small sprout on the forest floor.  It reminds one of an oak, with evenly toothed leaves, pointed at each end as white oaks are distinguished from red.  It is a chestnut sapling; does it represent rebirth and renewed hope for the once-majestic species?

American chestnut sapling, located on Hawksbill Moutain trail in Shenandoah National Park.

Alas, it does not, because there are not enough tall trees left to have made this sapling the result of cross pollination.  It is likely a last attempt from a still-living root mass to rise once again, and it will grow to teenage years, and the chestnut blight which has been patiently waiting in dormant phase on the bark of a nearby oak or hickory will gleefully attack once again.  Is there hope that eventually the fungus, deprived by its own fecundity of its food source, will eventually die away, so human-planted chestnuts might tower once again?  There is always hope, but the evidence so far suggests no such thing.  The blight can stay dormant but alive for decades.

There are groups of people who do not want to let the chestnut go.  It was quite a valuable tree, after all:  tall, straight hardwood with an attractive grain, bark full of the tannic acid once used to make leather, and it does grow faster than many other eastern hardwoods.  And the chestnuts themselves, of course.  The American Chestnut Foundation has, for half a century, been crossing American with Chinese chestnuts, hoping according to mendelian genetics to pass Chinese resistance into trees that are otherwise American in characteristics.  If successful they would reintroduce hybrids, 15th/16th American and 1/16th Chinese, into the wild, though now they will have to clear away native oaks to do it.  Even a small corner of the biotech world has jumped to the chestnut's rescue--though I cannot become comfortable with the idea of reintroducing a species which contains man-made genetic material, nor the time and money that must go into trying a variety of genes injected in a variety of places and then waiting a decade to see how the resulting treelet fares.  Probably these trees would become farm trees only, enabling chestnut wood and chestnut fruit to enter the marketplace once again. In truth the dream of returning the mighty chestnut stands to Appalachia will probably not be accomplished by human hands.

Looking at the forest of oak and maple that I only stories inform me are a paltry imitation of the past--I'm not sure we should try.  I grew up in a forest with no chestnut tree, the oaks and yellow poplar are the biggest species I remember.  I do live and work where the chestnut once defined life--but life has moved on now, and what happened is not personal to me.  I am two generations removed.

Yet the other day I was hiking and found a specimen of Castenea dentata large enough to bear fruit.  I saw the strangest spiky green balls on the ground, and I looked up, and there it was:  leaves I was accustomed to viewing with excitement on saplings I nonetheless knew were doomed, adorning a tree of middling height.  It was not a healthy tree, the crown was a spire of dead wood, the leaf-covered branches were short and close to the trunk, which was mottled and peeling.  But it was a tree, not a sprout, and I was mesmerized, confronted with a tiny glimpse of what the forest of my grandparents' time, the forest they tell me of with such reverence, must have been like.

Tree-sized American Chestnut, looking into canopy.  The green balls encase the nut inside; they are quite spiney to the touch.  Toothed leaves grow close to the trunk, one indication that the tree is infected with the chestnut blight.  CCC Dynamite Cabin trail, Shenandoah National Park.

You can't find yourself suddenly face-to-face with a species that is for all intents and purposes nearly extinct, and not feel mesmerized.  Not feel put on trial, not feel compelled to answer the question, how can we do better?  How can we learn from the inadvertent mistakes of the past?  Our understanding of forestry and forest management is much improved from the days of the Pennsylvania quarantine, yet the onslaught of exotic invasive species continues.  The Frasier fir and eastern hemlock both have their devastating bugs from Asia, but treatment has been found for the hemlocks, at least, that can keep a gene pool alive.  The emerald ash borer spreads slowly southward, perhaps there is hope that with education its transfer can be delayed until a suitable control can be found. Biological control in the form of a fungus has done relatively well at halting the gypsy moth's century-long oak ravaging spree.  There is a native fungus that makes the chestnut blight sick, as well--it isn't currently enough to stop the blight, but it might, with time, help tip the balance scales back in favor of a partial chestnut recovery.  There remain challenges, but hope as well.  I am certain that learning from the past is absolutely possible.

Sources:  American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, Susan Freiknel.

The American Chestnut Foundation, http://www.acf.org/

Photos are taken by author, permission to redistribute them but not the text of this blog entry is granted.