Monday, December 12, 2011

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I'm told I'm kind of a buzzkill moviegoing partner for the enjoyment of most movies:  I get infuriorated by trope characters and stupid science and most especially by plots that fall apart under close examination, a problem that is pretty common in many mainstream movies and is in fact kind of the point of many of them.

Take, for instance, Moon,  which I watched with SigFig on Friday.  It's an engaging science fiction movie with a compelling enough plot and an interesting enough premise, so it's a good story and worthwhile if you like science fiction movies.  I didn't mind passing my Friday night watching it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Three Gender Messages That Bother Me

One:  A couple of weeks ago I was climbing with some friends, and one made a heckling comment at the other along the lines of "well at least I'm not a girl."  All in good fun among old friends of course, but since I've started mentoring young girls with low self-confidence, I couldn't help but speak up in an equally friendly and heckling manner:  "It's not an insult to call someone a girl."

I do know it's just a good-natured and non-serious poke at someone's masculinity as occurs as a bonding mechanism between male friends, but it is also a message that is prevalent in our culture, that it's kind of an insult to be female, that being female is inherently kind of inferior.  That this is only true for men but that it's somehow not an insult for women to be women doesn't make it okay because that doesn't even make any sense.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Give the Gift of Science and Gender Policing

A recent series of blog posts at Scientific American criticizes a company's offering of extremely gendered science kits for kids, including thirteen perfume and makeup related chemistry investigations for girls and six rocket, outer space, and slime related editions for boys, all complete with pink and blue wrapping as appropriate.  What is especially interesting is that it there is actually much of the same stuff going on in both versions of these kits, minus some extra rocket and space stuff for the boys :soap-making, slime analysis, crystal growth.   Yet the girls' are exclusively about beauty, while the boys' are all about shenanigans and grossing out your sister.

So while you're giving your child the gift of budding Scientific Curiosity this Christmas, you can wrap it up in a nice layer of gender policing, because you know, girls have to be beautiful while boys just want to make things explode!

Naturally, I find the very concept so all kinds of wrong that it gets my blood boiling, from the insult that pink and sparkly helps girls be interested in something to the subtle yet toxic reinforcement that if you are a girl it's only normal after all for you to care about being beautiful and all of the shit that does to one's self-image later in life.  Whenever you say "hey look, we changed this up so that your can do this too even though you're different!" you are subtly implying that all those things that make you different are set in stone and sort of bad for you but we know you can't help it.  Or, as the post author put it:

"In tandem, the messages conveyed by these kits seems to be saying:  you can like science without transgressing the boundaries of acceptable feminism--but those boundaries are important, and you would do well to learn to stay within them."

However, this whole charade of reaching out to young members of each gender differently is a subtle, subtle affair, because there are girls who really love pink and sparkles, who like to be pretty and smell good, who might also actually like science.   It is insulting to dumb something down to make it acceptable--but it is also hugely insulting, and a whole separate load of gender-related baggage, to assume that a girl who likes pink and sparkly is also dumb and not also totally into science of her own accord.  Pink and sparkles are neutral, not an indication of inferiority.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong in liking to smell good and look good or in liking slime and to watch things explode...within reason. (Clearly I'm talking Mythbusters here, not terrorism.)  It's is just when you start wrapping things in contrived narratives that tell kids that because you are a girl, you should like to be beautiful (and when you're an adult you'll find that if you aren't beautiful then you aren't desirable and if you aren't desirable than you are a failure), because you are a boy you should like to blow things up (and when you're an adult you'll find out that if you don't like violence then you aren't masculine and if you aren't masculine then you are a failure and possibly gay or a woman and that's even worse) that we get into what's actually a really toxic and mean present to give to some unsuspecting little kid.

There is an incredibly fine line between "oh, you like to be pretty, well there's some science you can learn about that, too!" and "you're a girl so you must to like to be pretty (even if that doesn't mean you can't do science.)" I doubt the creators of those kits intended anything like the last message, and probably meant all the best, but I'm not convinced that the second message isn't what they've ended up selling anyway.

This is not a new trend in children's toys, but science is really something it is worth just keeping all the gendered crap out of.  We don't need all of that baggage.  What's masculine or feminine about looking through a telescope, envisioning a deep sea creature, collecting interesting rocks or shining light through a prism, anyway?  What has to be so masculine or feminine either about launching a rocket or making soap?

Age and Experience

It turns out when your levels of work-related stress go up, your bloggin' mojo goes way down.   And I'm still young enough and inexperienced enough that small changes induce heavy stress. I'm looking forward to being so weathered and calm in my professional self that most everything leaves me un-fazed.  But then, I might get bored.

When I look at my co-workers and see that they are mostly twice my age and hear their stories of living in tents or otherwise wiling their lives away in a direction-less stupor when they were my age, I start to wonder. If I didn't hit all that like I was supposed to at this point in my life, does that just mean that phase is coming?  Does having it mostly together when you're young, aside from continually feeling clueless but stumbling through anyway, mean you're going to burn out and hit a midlife crisis when you're thirty-five?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Social Skills Require Practice

EnergyVanguard's post about Nerd Verses Geek verses Dweeb got me thinking.

There is the stereotype of the brainiac with appalling social skills, often who suffers in lonely sadness because he just can't get the girls.

The sad truth is that for someone with poor social skills, it's not just lack of potential mates one has to worry about, it may also be lack of meaningful friendships and community, the absence of which can be very damaging to self-esteem. If only very or mundanely brainy but not MIT brilliant, in reality poor social skills often translates to a lack of meaningful job opportunities as well, because despite all our claims at being meritocracy, if you can't get yourself liked and noticed by the people who recognize merit, well, your merit probably won't get recognized.

Comments on US Solar Company Collapses

The bankruptcy of not one but several U.S. companies producing solar electric modules has generated speculation about whether the entire solar industry itself is on the brink of collapse.

Some details, then, are in order:

1. Both Solyndra, that company that went bankrupt despite all of that stimulus funding, and Evergreen Solar, our most recent bankruptcy addition, have a product that, depending on your point of view, could be seen as "highly innovative" or as "unproven technology."  The workhorse of the solar industry is monocrystaline silicon cells, arranged into rectangular panels. The process uses the highest quality silicon, and the efficiency of these panels can't be beat by anthing currently in large-scale production.  Both companies were producing something off of this beaten track.

Solar Panel Prices

This article echoes my own experience recently with photovoltaic cell prices:
In April 2010, a PV system cost $8 a watt.
Now for 2011: the latest prices we've been getting for PV are $4,500 per kW before tax credits. It's dropped 45% since last year.
I had an eerily similar experience. I made a preliminary budget for our zero energy home solar array and assumed $7 a watt. But then I spoke to a local solar contractor we work with about this pie-in-the-sky pet project of mine and he had to laugh when I told him how much I'd estimated. He explained to me that huge increases in production capacity solely in the last few months have dropped the price dramatically, down to $4.50 a watt.

If it stays this way, the implications of this are fairly important. The link author says it better than I could:

It means we're not far off from PV being the cheapest source of electricity you can buy everywhere in the whole country, even in the parts of the country with access to cheap and toxic coal electricity. Is that time five years away? Ten years away? It doesn't really matter; either one is a very short length of time, and we should get ready for that and pay attention.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Barrier to Green Building

The biggest barrier to growth in new green residential construction is not technological, and it's not even cost anymore, not directly anyway.  The existence of a green building and home energy rating industry to date have demonstrated that while there are plenty of customers who wistfully wish for a green home then complain about how much extra it will cost them, there are others who will pay for it, too, and those people can help bring the cost down enough to start encompassing more and more of the people in that first group.  It is very possible to build a moderately green home at a very modest 2% cost premium.  What's more, for all those builders who complain about the extra work or the hard sell of the extra cost, there are those whose livelihoods have been made on the differentiation of being green builders.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Greenwash of the Week

"Greenwashing" is the practice whereby a moderately green or even completely un-green product is given some variation of the name "eco" and marketed as the one and only choice you need to make to live lighter on the planet, you hippie.  Like whitewash on a fence, something greenwashed might look green from far away, but flakes of green veneer start to peel away upon closer analysis.

Building Green makes a good list of the many types of greenwashing:  which can take on the form or outright lying, specious arguments, claims that are simply poorly researched, making compliance with environmental law sound like something totally awesome and groundbreaking (no ozone-depleting chemicals!), highlighting one green aspect while ignoring a fatal flaw in the sustainability of the entire product, etc.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are Solar Panels Just "Eco-Bling?"

This article and the subsequent comments (ignore the usual contingent of off-topic jerks and their environmental straw men) has generated some very excellent discussion about one of the fundamental questions in green building today: is renewable energy or energy efficiency more important?

The answer is "both!", of course,(but then you could get into an argument about whether any of it is worth it) but that would be an answer that denies the practicalities and subtleties we encounter in the field and in the preconceptions of our customers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fire or Ice or Ecominic Turmoil?

One thing we environmentalists often get criticized for is our proclamations of a doom and gloom filled future.  We recognize some problems in the way humans do things and often conclude that we can't keep doing them without consequences, and we want to understand what those consequences are and if it's important to avoid them even and especially if avoiding them has negative consequences for us now.  If future consequences will be worse, we think it is really quite rational to take action now to lessen them.

The problem is, although models can be pretty predictive, while cause and effect rationality combined with observational data can make for good scientific papers, still, nobody has the entire biosphere and global economy worked out to the level of solvable equations--and nobody has a crystal ball, either.  And most folks just get fed up with too many downer predictions about the future:  it's far away, hard to get emotional about, and why does everybody have to be so pessimistic anyway?


Breaking News!

Okay, so I'm technically a physicist, so technically that means I can comment on this whole European-Scientists-Found-Faster-Than-Light-Neutrino thing, right?

Except I'm not much of a particle physicist, so I don't really have any idea--I'll try to find the paper and make some more intelligent comments later.*  However, anybody proposing to have found this would have to be hella sure (like, sure times 10^27) that they didn't just forget how to add somewhere along the way, because the entire scientific community is about to try it's damnest to tear everything they did to shreds.  As it should.

As for violating OMG UNBREAKABLE LAWS...there are some problems with modern physics that means it doesn't fit in with quantum physics, and vice versa, and we're still trying to sort that out.  Did that leave the possibility open for something going faster than the speed of light?  Err, no, actually, that part was pretty settled.  If this doesn't turn out to be Whoops Guys We Made A Really Embarrassing Mistake, it's actually probably the biggest deal that physics has seen since...Feynman?  That's exciting, but personally, I haven't got my fingers crossed.

*If I get around to it and if it's not behind the content wall.

Sutble Little Things About Climbing Rocks

When I mention that I'm breaking into lead climbing but I'm still uncomfortable with it, it's worth clarifying that I'm uncomfortable with it in a kind of fear-paralysis-let-me-verbalize-how-terrified-and-upset-I-am-every-second-that-I'm-on-the-rock kind of a way, not in any kind of stoic way.  I pause interminably at tough points, I still often give in to the temptation to hang on the rope as soon as I get to a point where I can clip in, I yell at myself, I curse, I cry, sometimes I even say things like "I'm gonna fall ahhhh!" even though I'm not at that moment falling, which is a really uncool thing to do to your belayer, who stands to have a pretty rough experience as well if you do actually fall while on lead.

I've gotten that down a bit, but it's still a pretty lame show of self-challenge. Improvement comes slowly: last time on real rock I merely paused at the one hard part for a minute, called myself an idiot about ten times, then pushed through without even crying.  I even lead an overhanging route on the outdoor wall at the gym without having to verbalize or pause at all, although I was shaking the whole time. 

But most significantly, I'm still uncomfortable with it enough that I never try to lead on routes anything like my actual climbing ability, I'm still uncomfortable with overhangs (even though they are actually safer for lead falls) and I'm still pretty much unwilling to lead a route that I haven't ever climbed before on toprope.  Which means I don't reach my limits, physically or mentally.  Which means I don't know if I particularly want to reach my limits or not.  I think I do--at least--I want to know what they are, and I like to think that shouting and crying Lead Me is not a real limit but just a layer of immaturity that has to fall away.  When you push your limits you find out who you really are, and I don't want that to be who I really am.


Last night at the gym I fell about 10 feet, right at the top of a bouldering problem. There's about a foot of springy padding on the gym floor, so although did feel a kind of slight head rattle, I think I was mostly shaky after that because I hadn't expected to fall and had been surprised by it.  Which highlights a problem with climbing: you're supposed to climb until you fall, meaning all falls should be more or less a surprise.  You aren't supposed to climb until you reach something you aren't sure will work so you give up and go back down--because then how will you ever get to practice the moves that challenge you?  You might be aware that in this move a fall is kinda likely, but if you don't even try because a fall is possible, or, if you try something crazy without at least some mentality of "this IS going to work," you are missing out on some crucial steps that lead to improvement.

I usually do give in to the temptation of "I don't see this working so I'm going to get off the wall and think some more," but this time I didn't.  There were a lot of people watching, one guy in particular giving really good advice, and I thought hey, I'll try that move, I bet it's possible..and hello air.  (That guy really should have been spotting my head, though.) Just like that, I made a conscious decision to do something that I knew was risky but also knew was likely possible--a decision I don't normally make but somehow found the power to do this time. That the surprise made me shaky highlights how I need to take risks more often, so that safe falls are not something jarring but something I'm used to.  
Split-second hesitation is so, so easy, while the alternative requires unwavering will. These are beginner lessons--and yet they keep coming back. It's not that anything suddenly gets easier, is that you grow enough to be more equal to the challenge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

(Not) Outward Bound (Yet)

This week my reading list has featured several classics in the theme of yearning for the outdoors:  first Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and now Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston, the guy featured in the recent movie 127 Hours.

Into the Wild is about a twenty-four year old idealist in the way of Tolstoy and Thoreau who went into Alaska in 1992 in order to live his greatest dream an in living off the land, "become lost in the wild."  This culminated a 2-year odyssey of hitchhiking and migrant working, undertaken abruptly after a stellar academic career at Emory without a word to his family about his whereabouts.  Four months after entering the wilderness, moose hunters found his remains.

This happens with some frequency in Alaska, as this country produces no shortage of those dissatisfied with modern life and yearning for simplicity, while actual knowledge in living off the land or the luck to survive the learning curve in order to succeed at doing so is pretty rare.   This story is noteworthy because the young man (my age!) did survive reasonably well for four months by hunting small game and gathering roots and berries, and ended up dead only because of two very small mistakes. He also left behind photographs, letters, and journals, giving us a glimpse into his trials and tribulations as well as the soul-searching that led him to seek the adventure that only by misfortune proved fateful.

I saw the documentary about Aron Ralston many years before the movie came out, featuring actual footage Ralston took with his video camera during the days he was stuck in the canyon, arm pinned immovably to the wall by a fallen boulder.  (In case you haven't seen the movie or don't know the story, he stayed in that cave until he ran out of water and knew there was no hope of rescue, then decided to and succeeded in sawing his arm off with his pocket knife, applying a tourniquet and hiking 5 miles back to the safety of civilization.)

The theme here is of course the call of the wild, the simple life, the rawness of adventure and hardship in the face of nature's uncaring rules and consequences.  You choose your level of risk but danger is an accepted part of the attraction, the experience isn't real if it isn't real.

I'm skipping through some of Ralston's many interludes into descriptions of his many other adventures climbing peaks about 14,000 feet in Colorado--but both books are very interesting to me, perhaps because I know just enough about the call of the wild and the harsh reality of nature without having had nor sought anything near the intensity of experience of either men.

And I don't want to go try to live off of the land in Alaska, and I sure as heck don't ever want to have to choose to cut my arm off in order to survive--but I do like to wonder if I were in such impossible situations, how would I respond?  I test myself with lead climbing and open water swimming and I barely even come close to real limits on my physical and mental ability because I still don't want to. I'm uncomfortable enough with those experiences even as comparatively mild as they are.

Maybe it's not the best theme for me to be pursuing when I'm on the cusp of turning a temporary job into a permanent affair, one full of awesome opportunity, playing to my skills, located in a place I want to stay located--but done mostly from a desk in front of a computer, far, from the quiet of the woods and the majesty of the mountains, and limits these soul-filling opportunities to weekends.

It was hard to pull myself away from my sojourn in Shenandoah to come here and start on this path.  Professional development and career opportunities and all the security that entails may in fact have nothing on the kind of less secure jobs and less secure lifestyle that allows one a richness of experience outdoors.  I wonder, when I look back on my life, will I be satisfied with the experiences I've had?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gender Identity Okay

I'm okay with my femininity even if I'm not very feminine.

Femininity as strictly defined as things women do that men don't--mostly in relation to appearance--has actually always been difficult for me, or just never worked for me.  My hair was a mess of untamed frizz, my face was a mass of pimples, I had hair in places I shouldn't that just grew back faster and thicker when I tried to shave it, I would sweat profusely and easily even without having to do too much exertion.  (Those things are all still true.)

There is makeup and hair-taming products and laser removal and intense medication to fix all of these things--but I was also unwilling or unable to spend the money, wake up the extra hour(s) early, stop the physically exerting things I enjoyed doing.  I think if achieving the correct standard of femaleness had been easier to attain, I would have bought into all of it happily.  I wanted to be pretty, and sexually desired, and accepted.  I hated how ugly I felt, how dirty, how disappointed my mother--despite her otherwise progressive tendencies--clearly was by my lack of propensity to get those details right.  But it all felt so hopelessly unattainable:  there were always new pimples, always more hair to shave, always curls sneaking back into being out of the straightness I used various irons and greases to fry into my hair.  I also quickly came to wonder why it was all so important anyway, and I hated feeling bad about myself so much that I decided not caring was so much better.

I was reminded of all of that teenage angst a few weeks ago, when I had to dress up to high femininity for a family wedding.  My mother vetted my dress--not hiding her concern that I couldn't quite be trusted to pick out something appropriately normal on my own-- she begged me to shave my legs for my aunt's sake, and not-quite-hinted that makeup would improve things dramatically, as well.   No big deal, really, I can do it for a day, but it reminded me how alien to me are some things that many, perhaps even most, women do all the time.

Yet despite my distaste for artificial appearance enhancers and many other feminine pursuits, I don't feel like I'm not a woman.  I don't want to be anything other than a woman.  Okay, yeah, I envy men their physical strength and the body types that make them such good rock climbers--but that's pretty much where it stops.  Even though I don't feel particularly feminine I am very attached to my self-identity as a "she"--whatever exactly that means.

For better or worse--and I think mostly for better--I am accustomed to the cultural implications involved in being female.  The negative ones sure do suck.  Getting cat-called or leered at by strangers is the one that really bothers me the most, but those are just social problems, not problems inherent to being female. (And culturally, it's not all rosy for men, either.) At the same time that I recognize some disadvantages in being female, I see so many things to love. I love the way I  maintain my family and my social circle, and I devote a typically female energy to my relationships. I love how I can bond very quickly with other women, I like long hair and being slender and graceful and even feeling "pretty" wearing a skirt once in a while.  I love that I am mostly rational but allow passion about things that matter to enter into my equations at appropriate times, that I am adept at seeing things from other peoples' point of view, that I can follow and understand social nuance, that I can cry if I need to without feeling like I've lost a huge piece of myself, that I can come to understand the strength in feeling and processing emotions rather than keeping them bottled up inside.

Intellectually I am very much not a fan of a cultural gender binary that says men are one way and women are another.  I and most of the people I associated with do a lot of things completely outside of it. It is a gross oversimplification of human behavior, meant to be descriptive but that ends up becoming prescriptive instead.  It is extremely destructive to the self-esteem of people who can't fit themselves into it's rules without sacrificing something crucial about their identity.

But I really I like being who I am, and who I am is inexorably wrapped, in some cultural and biological ways that I can't all sort out, with the particular set of chromosomes and genital arrangement I received at birth, and the acculturation I theretofore received telling me that I was a girl.  And I am fine, more than fine, with that.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Please Consider the Environment

At the bottom of a lot of many emails in this new professional world, I see quite a bit of that little wingdings picture of a landscape with mountains and a tree, made large and in green font, next to some variation on the words "Be Green! Consider the environment before printing this email!"

Maybe this is to be expected considering that I do work in the green building world.  Yet apart from my department of our company, the rest of what folks do has a lot more to do with selling things than with thinking about how green they are--and somebody has to sell the stuff, and I'm sure glad it ain't me.  I find it funny that the largest relic of "greenness" among the rest of my company that I can observe is a little note telling me not to print my email.  (Which also happens to help the company spend a little less green on printing costs.)

And while I don't suppose that note is "greenwashing," per say--among the people who use it, their heart is probably in the right place--it does strike me as bizarre, and utterly irrelevant toward actual environmental protection.

There are two things I don't like about it.  The first has to do with making something very small and maybe not something you were really inclined to do anyway seem like that's it, you did your part. Or maybe I just live in a subset of the world where most people don't really print their email--or maybe I just get more or less irrelevant email--but I don't know that many folks are really all that compelled to print their email anyway.  But even so, most of sustainability has more to do with widespread systematic problems than whether or not you print ten copies of an email about your friend's dog. 

The other problem is the nag factor.  It's a nice friendly little reminder, but sometimes nothing grates you more than friendly little reminders about things! Especially if it's there in your signature line on every email that you send! I've posited before that this aspect of sustainability is one of our greatest challenges:  personal responsibility is personal after all, is internally motivated, so sometimes friendly reminders just piss people off even if well-intentioned and they shouldn't get so uptight about it and you were just trying to help gosh. Adults don't like being told how they should do something, even if, when they considered it themselves, they might agree that the suggested way has more benefits.

In light of gripe number one, I suppose I'd rather not waste people's nag tolerance on something so trivial--or even bother people's nag tolerance at all.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Spark Plugs

I changed the spark plugs in my car today, with my trusty Haynes manual and a friend who had "done it once before on his car" as my guide.

I take a kind of gender-role-defying pride in doing simple work on my car myself, just the easy things like changing the oil and rotating the tires, and occasionally more tricky things like tightening the emergency brake cable and changing the transmission fluid.  Sometimes doing the labor yourself saves money and what I do pick up in understanding how my car works give me confidence in driving it if not any actual real tangible skills with cars---but I think I mostly do it out of a continuing determination to be just as self-reliant as the boys. I actually am really claustrophobic and pretty much hate every moment I spend staring up at my transmission and hoping this isn't the moment an earthquake strikes strong enough to shake my car loose from the jack stand, hand groping for the oil filter.

The spark plug thing took about three times longer than I'd planned--mostly because every time I undertake anything like this I am always surprised by how divergent are the experiences of theory and practice.  In theory, you just pull the spark plug wire out at both ends and snap the new one in.  In practice, the damn thing's screwed into some weird plastic housing whose access is frustratingly obscured by some damned other hose, so that getting a hand or a wrench in there, much less doing anything with it, takes a lot of physical forbearance.  In theory, you just screw in the new plugs to the requisite torque--in practice, the little tool extension you use to get the spark plug down into the engine stays stays stuck in when you try to take the torque-wrench out.

A physics professor of mine once cracked the joke, "I think I'll go into theory" after he picked up a transparency projector by it's thin neck only to cause the top to break off.  (you know, those big boxes with the light and the mirror that teachers used to use to project dry-erase markers written on transparent 8.5 x 11 sheets).  I don't feel that way necessarily but I sure do remember that setting the damn laser up to shine through the diffraction grating had carried it's own, unexpected frustrations, just as irksome as working out the locations of the bright parts of the interference patterns of theoretical laser beams shining through any number of different theoretical slits had been.  Manipulating the physical world in ways you don't get much constant practice with can require surprising amounts of time and concentration--which really makes me respect the work of pioneering experimentalists like Hertz and Tesla and Marie Curie even more.

My car's been put back together and is running fine--better now, with new equipment--and at the end of it all I found a huge cache of petrified acorns sequestered in a cavity perfectly inaccessible to human hands, just above my front wheel well. Maybe next time I go groping for that oil filter, I'll find I have some company.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Reading List

I am totally copying Atomic Nerds here and succumbing to one of those chain blog trend things.  So feel free to skip.  But I can hardly call myself a Science Fiction enthusiast and not comment on NPR's list of of top sci-fi and fantasy reads, the one's I've read, anyway.  The ones I haven't I just removed from the list.

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Here's something embarrassing: I read this purely because the kid I had a crush on in 7th grade was reading it.  But more than that, my best friend at the time and I both had a crush on him, and we were both racing to see who could read it first and make it the most obvious to him that we happened to be reading the same thing that he was reading ooh look how much we clearly had in common.  It was pretty ridiculous, but had the happy result of exposing me to a genre and series of books that I really liked it at the time. (I wasn't really all that new to fantasy, but Tolkien is one of those "gateway" books in the genre.) I didn't like it quite as much when I went back for a re-read (something I do with ALL the books I really, really love), mostly because there are essentially no female characters at all, and because, you know, it is a long and drawn-out epic.

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Always a classic.  I recently actually made it through the series, all the way to So Long and Thanks for All The Fish after stalling out halfway through in high school.  As far as plot goes--there's really not much, so don't expect one--as far as wit and classic British Humor goes, it's great fun.

3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I actually haven't read this, but apparently should be shot for admitting that, so suffice to say it's on my list so I can rant about it or rave about it soon.

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert

I liked the first one all right, but I got so tired of Look How Glorious Is My Protagonist And How Am I Frank Herbert For Writing Mystical Nonsense That Sounds Oh So Smart that I did, in fact, no joke, throw Children of Dune across the room in disgust.  And that's the last I had anything to do with that.

6. 1984, by George Orwell

High school reading requirement.  A diverting read, worth having done once, but pretty much way more pessimistic about human nature that I'm willing to accept, which is true about pretty much everything I was forced to read in high school.

10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

I didnt' finish this.  I didn't dislike it, I just didn't get sufficiently interested in it.  I liked the imagery and mythology a lot, and the main character was an interesting and compelling guy, but I just didn't feel like we was going anywhere.

12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan 

I admit to being a fan, as a result of a different 8th grade crush--although by that point it's because he recommended it to me as one fantasy lover to another.  A decade later, and it seems like we might be seeing the last 1000 page installment coming out soon. This really is the Series That Goes On and On and On, and plays the Isn't It So True That Women And Men Are Just Different From Each Other theme really hard, which is a theme I really don't agree with. But he does it in a way that works with the story and isn't meant to be degrading of either women or men in the slightest, and his world and his physics and the intricacies of the plot are oh so cool that what they heck I just think it's great.

14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

I read this and even used to own it, but I couldn't tell you a thing about what happened in it and what is was about.  Some kind of heist or something, maybe. Whatever it was, I clearly did not find it very memorable.

16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

I did my 10th grade literary paper on this, and I went through a serious Asimov faze.  In general I prefer character driven stories while these more situational, set up to hypothetical ethical questions about the future.  Yet they are intellectually engaging, and I like Asmov's optimism.  If you're up for some short stories they are good and thought-provoking entertainment for short sitings.

22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I really hate books that take the "Lady or the Tiger" approach and don't explicitly tell you how they end.  As a literary artifact, I think that tactic more of a cheap ploy than an actual show of literary skill.  Also, back in my radical feminist days I wanted to write a book like this without knowing one already existed--and I'm glad I'm a lot wiser now than I was then about human nature.  Don't read this if you don't like being depressed.

27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

I just read bits and pieces of this when I was really young and don't remember much except that I liked it.  It's probably worth picking up again as an adult.

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

Early in high school I went through a phase with this where I joined some Internet groups that did some fanfiction-esque writing and art following the rules of Anne McCaffrey's Pern.  I stumbled upon that before I had actually read the books, and before I realized she really didn't want her fans to be doing what we were doing because of copyright concerns. The books themselves are pretty good if you your like science fiction and fantasy elements heavily influenced with the plot structures of romance novels--which I did, in high school--although I stopped after about the first four books, because they were getting somewhat similar.  Also a little too heavy with the Female Protagonist Is So Much Smarter and Braver And Stronger Than Other Women and thus Rocks while all other women are Stupid Shallow Flakes meme.  In high school, of course, I was into that, and wanted to be That Woman--but then I grew up and realized that people are, thank goodness, so much more complex than that.

38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys

This is one of my favorite books, and one of the best science fiction books I have read.  It has complex and interesting characters doing intellectually interesting and morally relevant things that matter to them in ways that make you really care about what happens to them.  To bad it's also a very sad book.

40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

These were too weird and too masculine for me. Steriotypical I Am So Awesome and Manly Protagonist (And I'm Not Particularly Nice Either But You're Supposed to Like Me Anyway), engaged in Battles for Royal Throne Succession in a setting that can really only be described as one continous acid trip.  Intrigues among siblings that don't make sense and change on a dime, and women who prety much exist to be ornaments.  No thanks.

42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

When I read this I was probably way too young to read a book that had this much sex in it.  Which of course meant I devoured it with no small measure of "people do THAT?" and was all kind of confused as to how this mideval sexuality was supposed to translate into this sexuality thing in the modern world.  That's one of the things that parents would probably rather not know about their kids' fiction.

46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I tried, I really tried.  But I didn't get very far.

47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White


48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

This is the one by him that I did read all the way through.  It was 'aight, although I don't know what's really remarkable about it.

50. Contact, by Carl Sagan

I really liked this, for no particular reasons that I can put my fingers on.  I thought he had good characterization and managed to pull of intellectual depth and the magical cool mystery of the universe and mathematics all that in way that was REAL, not in the Look At Me Not Making Sense And Trying to Pass It Off Like It's Just Too Deep For You to Understand way that intellectually superior authors like to do.  This book is like the perfect antitode to people who really like the univese but hate The Misunderstood Genious meme.  Also props for a female protagonist struggling through the politics of being a minority in physical science.

62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind 

Read it and some other pieces of this series, and no.  Just not quite deep enough or interested enough or un-cliche enough.

69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

Yeah this was pretty good but this was about the time I was getty really weary of epic fantasy, and it gets pretty epic.  I trudged through the long parts (and I did skip some) just because I really, really wanted to know what had happened to Verity.

70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger 

Another book that should come with a warning label for containing generous amounts of sex.  I liked it a lot up until the ending, which I thought was kind of a cop out, not really a satisfactory ending at all.  But I don't really know how you'd end a book like that any other way.

Now, what books weren't mentioned that YOU think should have been on that list?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ripples In The Life Of

Even when things are going great, a friend noted sagely just last night over a great dinner in a cool late-summer evening, we always find little pockets of imperfection in our lives to obsess over. 

Which is too true.  My latest obsession was having a big enough social life--which I think I can say I've satisfactorily obtained, so now it's time to find something else, I guess.


My cousin just got married and I danced the whole night away in celebration.  He went to the bahamas for his honeymoon and had to evacuate because of Irene.  Meanwhile, on the way back, my parents once again pulled their periodic "we think we might up an move somewhere really far away" moments, the hypothetical of this Cycle-Of-Painful-Indecision being Louisiana.

There's a lot of childhood and only-child baggage associated with all of this--but the short of it they're adults and I'm an adult and I've got to remember that they can darn well do whatever they want with their lives, even if I think what they are doing is wrong for them and stupid.  That's what parents have to do with their kids, after all.  See you every few Christmases, I guess.


Meanwhile, Significant Other's father just came over and announced he needs a couple more volunteers whose pulses he can take as part of training for his acupuncture classes.  Once a week.  Every week.  For eleven months.  That's a lot of (not yet and who knows, maybe not ever I'm not ready to think about marriage yet)) In-Law time, that I really can't even promise, but somehow I agreed anyway.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Open Water Swim

I competed in a 2-mile open water swim last weekend. Someone at my work said he was doing it about a month ago, and I decided I needed an extra challenge in my life. By the time I worked out getting a pool membership again, I had about 2 weeks to train. But hey, I used to swim distance events on the high school team, I've done plenty of 1-mile swims in the lake at scout camp without feeling particularly exerted, and I've been feeling like I'm currently in the best shape of my life.

Scout Camp Swimming Lake is not in the same league as Real Big Dammed Up River Lake--not at all. And open water swims are not like swimming in a nice little pool. I knew I needed to add a certain percentage to my pool time to account for flip turns and a lack of a straight line to stare at, but I couldn't really have prepared for the psychological aspect of being--not all alone, because there were lots of other swimmers, and kakayers and motor boats patrolled the swim lane--but still, pretty much alone in your own little world of murky water with flashes of rocky shore or open water caught during breaths in between. It became disorienting extremely quickly: nothing under you, everything around you too far away to really see. It was also very hard to swim in a straight line. I had to interrupt my stroke constantly to steal a glance ahead and line myself up off the next buoy. It probably would have been easier if I had enlisted a personal kayak escort, as some swimmers had done--just line up off your kayaker and forget everything else.

I'm not saying all this to imply that I didn't love it--because I did. I loved the immersion, I loved the extra mental challenge to go along with the physical challenge. Actually, I pretty much hated feeling disoriented and had a very painful air bubble to boot, and by the end I really, really had to pee, but looking back, these are of course the moments we live for. To be challenged, and to push.

After all, open water swimming is kind of like lead climbing. You are there, you are exposed, and you are in a position of commitment because you can't just stop when it gets hard and find immediate relief from this state of challenge. In lead climbing, you've got to get to the top first, or at least to a place where you can put in your next piece of gear if you are really sure you want to bail and don't care that you'll have to leave a really expensive piece of equipment behind in order to do so. In open water swimming, it's not like you can just grab the side or touch down. You can wave to your escort boat and they'll probably be able to get you in a pretty timely fashion--but they aren't all that close to you, and you still have to wave for help before you are really in trouble.

I finished the event way faster than both I and my parents thought I would (1 hour, seven minutes, 56 seconds. I came in 14th place overall out of 61 swimmers and was the 4th placed female to finish. Not bad for 2 weeks of training!) I couldn't even find them when I got out because they were still out in a motor boat on the course following someone much slower who it turned out wasn't me at all. Another thing about these swims is that with matching yellow swim caps, we all look the same from far away. "Good job!" My dad said, "I'm really proud of you. I was really worried you were in over your head when you told me you signed up for this event, and I was worried we couldn't find you and you'd be stuck in the back and discouraged." Gee thanks for the confidence, Dad. But it's true, I'm really not who I used to be, physically, but maybe especially mentally.

I'm kinda getting really into this stuff. Being afraid and uncomfortable and having to really trust myself--and the confidence I gain by being my own, strong, decision-making island. Really pushing my personal fitness by doing physically exerting things in exotic settings. Not saying I'm about to go swim the English Channel or lead climb El Capitan--but you never really know what your limits are until you push them.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

All In Good Order to Help the Planet and Save You Money While Reflecting Heat from the Sun

I have a large backlog of unfinished environment and green building related blog posts--maybe one day I'll get to them.  Some of my writing "mo-jo" has been strained lately by an ongoing work project to ovehaul our company website.

The thing is, I don't have a degree in marketing.  I have one in physics.  So I'm not trusted to write technical information in a way a layman could hope to understand, thus we hired a content writer, who interviewed us and took the pages of "this is what this term means" and "use this picture" documents that I created to write up some web-copy.

The result was a monstrosity, a veritable Frankenstein of cobbled-together copy.

As it turns out, you can either talk about what something means directly--or you can do elaborate workarounds to avoid talking about it in order to avoid scaring your audience away from the frightening technical nature of it. But! If you use the technical words anyway and yet use them incorrectly because they are just words someone fed you and you don't know yourself know what they mean, then you are writing utter nonesense.

So now it's my job to go back and re-write the stuff we originally hired the copy-writer to write for us. 

The trouble I have with the general marketing philosophy we have taken of "speak to the lowest possibly education level" is that, although it is really important to explain in non-engineering terms what the advantage of your product or service is, all too often this is not done well. Instead we get deliberately vague language that people can tell is not the whole truth, with a healthy dose of the overused claim that "Science Says So!" all linked unsatisfactorily to vague, repetitive, and frankly untrustworthy promises to "save you money."  And I have long held that tackling even technical things head on is preferable even for non-technical people, if you can find simple examples that make sense to daily life, rather than just skipping technicality all-together because that shit scares people off. The goal is to not contribute to the idea that it's scary, but make it less scary by making even a tiny piece of it genuinely accessible.  Or maybe I just suffer under the illusion that people generally are smarter than they actually are, which I think is at least more, I dunno, helpful, than assuming that people generally are dumber than they are in reality.

But what do I know?  I'm a scientist, not a marketing professional.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I was one of those girly-girl soo-not-into sports when I was a kid.  P.E. was my worst nightmare.  I had terrible hand eye coordination (still do), I wasn't fast (still am not that), and I was too frustrated by those failures to stick with anything long enough to gain endurance.  I was one of those kids who swung the bat and missed the damn ball over and humiliatingly over and over, the one who ran halfway across the soccer field and then collapsed in exhaustion, the one picked last on the intramural whatever-ball team.

When I swam on the swim team in high school, I did okay but I was weak and the chlorine eventually made me sickly and I floundered in sameness while everyone else around me improved dramatically, and I got frustrated and depressed by that.  I started to find my swimmer's calling in the long-distance events , but chronic chlorinated-air induced allergies drove me to choose to just quit while I was ahead.

Yet now, in my adult life, I'm coming into my own with sports in a way I never could before.  Regular rock climbing is one of the greatest joys of my life (don't need hand eye coordination or speed so much, so hey) ,and if I'm no professional I can see myself make steady improvement.   I'm playing ultimate frisbee with peers and keeping up and contributing to team success and loving it.  I'm able to run 5k events and miles in the woods each week, where before I couldn't even run a mile without stopping to walk.  I'm building my way up to longer and longer bike rides on steeper terrain.  This week I started swimming again for the first time in years, and I'm nearly reaching my racing times at distance events like the 500 freestyle and the mile swim.  I love how strong I have become, how great I feel to perfect movement and complete challenges of endurance.

I wish I'd felt this way earlier in my life, but I'm glad this world is opening up to me now.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Scientific Inquiry in Action

I hung out with my 18-month-old cousin this weekend.  Like they are at 18-months, he was curious and loud and busy and looking at absolutely everything like a puzzle to be investigated and solved.  Which involved a lot of begging to be picked up and brought to the wall so he could switch the ceiling fan on and off.

His mama and grandmother, my cousin and aunt, both have smart phones.  And buddy, what could be more interesting to an 18-month-old than this shiny thing that makes lights and noises and that mama and grandma seem to really want to keep away from you?  Right--sooner or later, the kid's gonna get to play with the smart phone.

He may or may not understand the concept of "phone" yet or the fact that a smart phone can be used as such, but he's got touch screens figured out.  He knows how to "slide to unlock."  He knows how to move through the menus of little icons and touch the pictures that make things pop up that he wants to see.

This is completely unsurprising considering how it is that kids that age learn things---by trial and error play and by watching and imitating adults.  But I still find it kind of fascinating that he already figured all that out.  What does that say about the future life of his generation, grown up inseparable from touch screen technology?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Focus and Efficiency

There is one particular bouldering problem in the climbing gym that I had been working on for months to no avail.  The last move is the hardest of all, requiring pull-up strength on a slight overhang with a handhold that slopes rather than jugs, with foot placements that are small and precarious.   It is a move I can complete on it's own, but in the course of doing the entire route, the previous three moves before it also are not easy and require a lot of arm-hanging, so I was failing at the last move from sheer exhaustion each time.

One of the things that makes you tired on an overhanging route is when your feet peel off and you're left hanging by your hands.   Sometimes you have no choice but to do this to complete a route, so it is part of a good climber's repertoire.  But doing it when you don't need to is costly, because while with decent upper body strength you can pull your feet back to the rock, that takes precious energy away from later moves. Every second spent hanging from tired arms in prepartion for a lung forward also costs energy.  So much the better if you can keep your feet glued to the rock in the first place, so that you don't have to spend a second more hanging than you have to and so that you don't have to exhert massive energy to recover your foot positions after a swing.  Keeping your feet in place involves strong core muscles--the more overhanging the route, the more core you need, because you'll have to use your arms like crazy and if you depend on only them, you're completely done for.

Turns out another trick for keeping your feet from flying off the wall is just to pay attention to them.  A common beginning climber pitfall is to overgrip with the hands while failing to use the feet at all--you can get away with that when the wall isn't very hard, but you'll fail miserably at anything difficult for all the reasons I mentioned above.  I wasn't overgripping but I was focused very intesely on the sequence of moves for my hands, and every time my feet would peel, and I'd just treat that like part of how I needed to do the route, recover, and try to plow through anyway, only to tire out on the very last move. 

Then another climber approached me and said "can't you stop your feet from coming off?  Just focus on them instead of your hands."

So I did.  Even though I still looked at my hands, I brought my attention to what my feet were doing--and then it really was that easy to keep them from pulling off until I brought them in a controlled manner to the next placement. I could feel my core muscles engaging to do so.

You reach a level where climbing starts becoming about efficiency--a base level of flexibility, upper body strength, and core strength, lets you muddle through some things, but real technique involves deep understanding of movement.  I finally completed that problem from start to finish today, with a combination of focosing on my feet at the critical moment to do so, and refining that sequence of hand movements that had previously been stealing all of my attention in order to cut two moves out of it.  Both reduced the energy drain that was keeping me from finishing the problem.  Although I am still at the stage where I get stronger from regular climbing, it was nevery a matter of lack of strength, it was only a matter of technique.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Steps to Workplace Success

1.  Ask questions.  Especially ones you think are stupid.  There is the cliche that somebody else is probably wondering the same thing--which is probably true, but it is also really inefficient to not ask something when the opportunity arises and then do elaborate workarounds on the parks you don't know.

But don't just ask factual questions, ask perspective questions too.  What does it look like to you?  How did you arrive here?  How do you see it?  This helps you learn from other's peoples successes and failures, which is way more efficient than trying to have all of those experiences yourself.  When you are new somewhere, you don't have time to have all those experiences yourself, and need to understand the experiences of your teammates to be effective working with them.

2.  Set your goals in both concrete and abstract terms.  Self-imposed deadlines are crucial for getting stuff done, but it's not just what and how much you complete, it's what do you want to accomplish, what are the benefits of accomplishing it, and what do you envision as the ideal outcome of what you are doing?

3.  Don't make stuff up, admit you don't know.  And go back to item 1.  Really, knowing you know something is so much better than knowing you don't and trying to work around it without letting on to anyone else that you don't know.  As silly as it seems, this can come up time and time again, no matter how long you've been working.

4. Clarify.  What is going on, what you think other people mean, what you mean, what you need in order to get past an obstacle.  Really, it is so much better than not doing it and letting things go, but the thing is, it also comes across as helpful, competent and confident, even if you think you're just clarifying something other people already know.  Adults really suck at paying attention and listening if you let them get away with not doing those things.

5. Follow up.  This is similar, but frustrates the heck out of endeavors if nobody does it.  It can also be intimidating, because one hates to feel like a broken record or breathing down someone's neck when the follow up is just checking to see if somebody else has done something yet--but things get lost in some crazy vortex sometimes if you don't do it.  Sometimes if you don't bring up something from a past encounter directly, other people will never mention it again, no matter how important it might be.

6.  If the time is right, ask bold questions.  Question even the most basic assumptions, how things are done and why.  A lot of times things are this way Because That's The Way They've Always Been, and sometimes that is a good thing, but sometimes that is an extremely idiotic thing and somebody needs to do something about it.  Do learn how to differentiate these situations, however.

7.  Want it.  Want what you are doing.  Care about it, a part of it anyway.  Otherwise you won't do as good a job as you could, and you'll know it, and a part of you will hate yourself for it, and you'll feel mediocre and miserable.  You don't have to, and probably never will, love absolutely everything about your job.  There may be parts of it you really don't like.  But you have to want the big picture, or at some part of the work that makes up for the part you don't like, or you'll never end up being very good at it because some reaches of your brain will be elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Societal Clothing Strangeness

It would have been impossible for me to have the life experiences I've had, from counselor at boy scout camp to physics major to young woman in a professional world dominated by the good ole' boys, and not be a feminist.  I am unabashedly a feminist, despite the fact that some feminists are flat out nuts or just haven't matured in their thinking.  Can't throw the baby out with the bathwater, you know?

Western women fought long and hard to wear pants because pants made things like walking, running, climbing, and riding more practical, and it was only a myth of the upper class that women didn't need to do physical labor in order to survive. Maintaining a cultural ideal that one class of people shouldn't do physically exerting things is utterly impractical in itself, but I digress.  It's been a long time now that it has started to seem silly to us to have one gender wear one type of clothing and another a different type just because That's How We Do Things--and pants won out over skirts as the clothing item for all because they are easier to do more things in while still keeping those taboo parts covered up.

We still reserve the right for women to wear skirts or pants as they desire, a privilege which I used to refuse adamantly on the grounds of practicality and also wanting to display myself as un-feminine as possible under the mistaken assumption that anything female is automatically inferior to anything male.  (I called myself a feminist even then, yet I believed this.)  Entering Dirty Hippie College, and then the professional world where what constitutes acceptable women's dress is complicated, I changed my tune somewhat.  Since shorts aren't acceptable professional dress for anybody but skirts don't have to be floor-length to be professional, hot summer days at the office actually favor loose skirts made of light material.  They are far cooler, and because not tight-fitting, far more comfortable.

Yet whenever I wear a skirt, my hippie, socially awkward and hyper-practical Significant Other always points out that it's not fair because he can't wear one too.

And I admit, my first temptation is to retort in a feminist rage with all the things that used to and still do suck more for women and so if a man can't wear a type of clothing of limited usefulness, too frikkin bad, while my second temptation is to retort that he can wear one if he wants, no one is stopping him.

But both of those responses are wrong, firstly because taking the attitude of "your complaint doesn't matter because it's worse for me" doesn't acknowledge the fact that we'd all be better off if we just said heck with all things that suck and didn't keep score on who they sucked worse for, and secondly because social pressure is real and powerful even if it sometimes dumb.  Aside from Dirty Hippie College and certain social clubs and Power Puff events, there isn't and probably won't ever be a concerted effort to make men + skirts not unacceptably deviant, partially because skirts are generally less practical than pants, but mostly, I believe, because according to a majority of men (and also to my high school self), the worst social faux paus of all is to seem to be like a woman.  He'd risk being shunned, laughed at, fired, and potentially being the victim of street violence if he wore a skirt, so yes, actually, plenty of people are stopping him.

It really is a small thing, compared to all the many other problems in the world, compared to the remaining things that are unfair for women in society as well as compared to the other things in society that don't do men any favors. I'm not even sure he tells me this because he wants to wear a skirt and is sad he can't, I think he's just good at noticing and railing against rules that don't make any sense to him.  For those limited times when skirts do make more sense, it is pretty ridiculous that they are off limits to men because That's How We Do Things.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Green Building Roadmap

“Green Building” is an advancing and mature industry--although as I've said before, "sustainable" is a more accurate term than "green,” which is a color that has been hijacked over the years to also mean "less bad for the environment."  Notice I did not say "good for the environment," which is what is what most marketing departments (including ours) who brandish the word "green" would kinda hope you think they mean.

The green building industry exists because environmentalists and otherwise concerned citizens have recognized that there are problems we need to address with modern buildings.  Most every building built in this post-modern era, even the self-described “green” ones, actually create net degradation of the environment:  we take a plot of land that was home to myriad species of plants, insects, even wildlife, and turn it into an environment for just a few of members of the single species Homo sapiens, and maybe some dogs, cats, and goldfish.  That is not a problem in itself, as Homo sapiens need habitat too and since we’re generally bigger we ought to have a larger space for ourselves, but it is an increasingly artificial one, and one that has grown in size 37% since 1980 while dropping in occupant density by 10%.  (Yes, and 99% of statistics are made up on the spot...)  Yet we also build that house using an host of materials that were extracted from some other environment somewhere and combobulated into what they are now with the help of much fossil fuels, often imbued with synthetic and potentially environmentally-toxic and human-toxic chemicals that may affect the environment long after the building itself is gone.  Throughout the life of this building, we will be taking further from the environment:  using clean drinking water and spitting it out much less clean, poisoning insects and plants that try to re-encroach, consuming electricity and maybe burning a fossil fuel for heat.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, burning fossil fuels to travel from this building each and every day to all the other buildings in which we have business, maybe multiple times a day, maybe regularly to buildings that are very far away.

So when I say a "green" home, or even a sustainable one, I'm talking about a home that does all of these things in a way that is less bad, from an environmental perspective. Moving from a "green" home and onto a "sustainable" one, the absolute ideal would be one that does all this in a way that is somehow calculated to be environmentally neutral--sustainable, after all, is defined as something that can be continued into the future without degradation of the resources available to make this happen for everybody who might want a home for themselves.

Attacking this room for improvement is how companies like mine thrive:  a market of customers exist who want this stuff because the environment matters to them, and so people like me and my colleagues put research and work into finding ways to make that happen.  By experimenting and doing we create more alternatives for the entire industry on how to do more things "less badly."

There are different levels of commitment to these alternative ways of building.  Not all "green" homes are created equal, and most “green” homes are not yet truly “sustainable.”

Level One:  Look Ma, I Got Solar Panels

These homes have something conventionally “green” about them:  maybe they have some solar panels; maybe they hooked up some rain barrels to their gutters; or used recycled aluminum roofing or low-VOC paints and finishes.  Perhaps a whole smorgasbord of such things.  And these hearts are in the right place—but there remains an important environmental elephant in the room:  maybe the house is also 4,000 square feet even though only two people live in it, or is 40 miles from work and the nearest grocery store, or they installed an awesome solar hot water kit but end up paying tons in energy bills anyway because they skimped on insulation.  The owners made some choices that were “green” because it was something they knew about or were concerned about—but they also made other choices having to do with entirely different motivations, and some of those motivations had no consideration for the environment. Overall, the environmental picture may be better than if no thought had gone into it at all, but the picture is decidedly piecemeal.

Level Two:  An Energy Star Home

Energy Star is not just for appliances anymore--now there is an extensive certification program for houses themselves, put together by our own EPA.  Anyone building a new home can elect to certify it as an Energy Star home by following a very detailed set of guidelines aimed at reducing energy consumption by a certain threshold.  A certified professional will inspect and test the home to verify that all the guidelines have been followed.   Since operating a building involves ongoing electricity and heating fuel costs, and those costs persist throughout the multi-decade life of a building, come what may in terms of oil embargoes or carbon regulation, energy efficiency is a great place to start purely from a financial standpoint, as well as from an environmental one.

There are many things that can only be done when the house is built that will affect the energy efficiency of the home throughout the entire life of the home--small details, often, that are missed simply through lack of intentioned attention to those details because of lack of knowledge on the part of the builder or of insistence on the part of the homeowner.  Energy Star uses several decades of forward-thinking builder experimentation and academic research in just those things to make sure that a few more of them get done than are done in typical construction.

Building a house to Energy Star standards requires a little bit more work and a little bit more up-front cost, but also has a very good payback for the homeowner.  It's a smart way to get an incrementally higher quality house for not such a load of extra effort.   And it's a really smart way for builders to differentiate themselves from rivals.  One of my biggest successes in my job has been to develop and implement our process for easily allowing our houses to get this certification, for those customers who want it.

Level Three:  A LEED Certified Home

LEED is so well-known now that most people recognize as having something to do with green building.  Its parent non-profit organization is also getting sued for false advertising because some early LEED homes did not deliver the energy performance advertised--but that's a different story.

LEED is very similar to Eenergy Star in that it is a voluntary certification program that interested builders can earn by following the guidelines of a vast amount of checklists (ever been in scouting and earned a merit badge? The process is similar, although on a much larger scale), and having all of that work verified by a LEED-certified professional.  The main difference between LEED and Energy Star, besides the fact that the former was created first by an independent organization and the latter was created later by the government, is that LEED addresses more than just energy efficiency.  The energy efficient section of LEED has requirements that look a lot like the Energy Star requirements.  But then there is the water efficiency section, the materials and resources section, the job-site protection and restoration section, and the indoor air quality section.  LEED is harder than Energy Star because you have to pay attention to far more aspects of the building than just the energy efficiency.  

Level Four:  A Net-Zero Home

This is another of my projects:  designing a prototype Net-Zero home for my company. 

A Net-Zero home is not a current market item, like a LEED or Energy Star home is.  It is a future market item, anticipating a world where energy prices continue to rise, climate change drives further environmental awareness, and countries get serious about curing carbon dioxide emissions.  That's the advantage of a company with a sustainability department--we're the ones with our ears to the ground about the future, supporting company sustainability as well as environmental sustainability of our practices.*   Net-Zero prototypes and communities are popping up all over the U.S.--but most people don't live in a Net-Zero home yet.  To continue to differentiate ourselves, we can hardly call ourselves "the original green builder," as we do, and NOT have a net-zero prototype to show. 

So what is Net-Zero?

It is moving past "less bad" and on to "so less bad it is in fact neutral."  A net-zero home uses no more energy than it produces.  With current technology that necessitates on-site renewable energy, but it's not so simple as sticking up an array of solar panels and calling it a day--because super-rich hippies can do that but not too many other people can, and if this really is the next market and one that can help society be more sustainable at that, it has to be attainable by a larger swath of potential homeowners.  

Completely self-sufficient living by renewable energy is not a new concept—but it is not a mainstream one.   Net-Zero tries to make sustainable living more mainstream--and it does so by a compromise between many considerations, a balancing act.  While not a tiny solar cabin in the woods, a net-zero home will be on the smaller side:  none of that man-cave in the basement plus formal living room and dining room with media room to boot suburbia trend--but it will be designed to still feel like a normal house.  It will also have double or triple the amount of insulation, passive solar design where possible, extremely efficient heating and cooling, will manage electrical loads in an intelligent way, and it will be designed to be affordable.  Not typical-house-affordable, because that is right now impossible--but as affordable as it can be.  As more builders make their net-zero prototypes, we learn more about what is possible and bring more and more of these ideas into the mainstream at lower cost.

Notice that net-zero is neutral from an energy standpoint only—and only neutral when it relates to site energy at that.  It does not touch the relative efficiencies of electricity verses other forms of energy and of getting it to the house to begin with, it does not touch all the energy it took to manufacture all of those state-of-the-art energy efficient technologies, and it doesn’t touch other aspects of environmental harm, like LEED does.   But that so many prototypes exist shows that it a very achievable step, coming, perhaps soon, to a neighborhood near you.

Level Four-A: A Passive Haus

Passive House, or Passive Haus, since it is a German invention, is another independently developed building certification program.  Not quite a separate level on its own, Passive Haus is sustainable building for the truly nerdy among us:  the spreadsheets, the little scaling factors and time-dependent solar radiant calculations… Passive Houses share the goal with Net-Zero houses of neutral energy consumption, but where as Net-Zero tries to accomplish the goal while balancing cost and "conventionalness" of living, Passive Haus accomplishes the goal by a nerd-out, all-stops-pulled, putting-sustainability-before-any-other-consideration approach.  As a nerd myself, I love it.  Its also an incredibly tough standard. It uses very basic, low-tech ideas, but takes those ideas and engineers them ad nausium. Many of those non-energy-related but still important environmental factors, such as water use and site-restoration come into play just by this intense design approach, although they are not strictly evaluated as part of the standard.

The Next Level: ?

As you can see, the green building industry is about movement:  from conventional practices to less harmful ones, from practices that reduce energy consumption to ones that do that and are less toxic too, or consider life-cycle energy costs as well as just energy use, to processes that are also water efficient, etc.  It embodies the idea of better living through iterative refinement.  So the next step after “less bad” and “neutral,” is…”good for,” or “improves upon.”  Since actually achieving neutral is what’s on our horizon now, and is only generally neutral as it relates to site energy, we have a very long way to go and a lot of details to fill in to get to the “makes better” road marker.  

I believe climate change will throw an interesting wrench in all of this—as keeping our habitat safe and comfortable will get much more difficult in a world of deeper weather extremes.  In addition to asking our homes to provide shelter and comfort while also not hurting the environment too much, we might also have to start asking them to provide increased levels of self-sufficiency, as more frequent heat, drought, floods, and storms will change and reduce the reliability of our existing infrastructure.  Disaster resilience may be the net big green building boom.

* In my future, we will either put up the money to build a prototype net-zero home and try to market the heck out of it and my work for the next couple of years will be really rewarding and interesting--or we won't, and the notebook will sit on my boss's desk for an undetermined amount of months and years.  Such is the whim of the economy.

Climbing Accident

This weekend at Rumbling Bald an experienced climber died when he rappelled off of the end of his rope.

This was an entirely avoidable mistake that is nonetheless all too easy to commit in a moment of complacency, made by an experienced climber. There are a handful of safety measures to take while rappelling that sometimes we slack off on because we are sure we are in control of the situation, or else are in fact not exerting the level of control of the situation we need to but are not particularly worried about it because we've done this so many times. That razor-sharp clarity of attention to detail is hard to maintain on 100% of a day out on the rock.

I'm not dead yet, so I haven't made the exact same safety mistake this unfortunate person made. I do check safety pretty obsessively. But I have probably had moments of equal complacency, and even if they were just moments that I recovered from, if it's the wrong moment, one moment is enough.

But that is the risk that climbers take, because not taking the risk would be a denial of possibility. Despite public perception, climbing with proper attention to safety is less dangerous than a lot of other activities: swimming, driving or riding in a car, skiing...That is because although defying gravity inserts an automatic level of danger, circumstances remain more in control of the climber than they do in other activities that are dangerous. Climbers choose their level of risk and the equipment when properly used is very good at minimizing it. You just have to make sure you are maintaining that control of the situation, that you fully understand what you are doing with the equipment, constantly, and never move forward when you are less than 100% on it just because that's the flow.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Battlestar Galactica

Since I sprained my ankle a handful of weeks ago, I've been limited in my usual enjoyment of outdoor activities this time of year. Since I can't climb I almost welcome the heat wave, since it seems here to stay anyway, and can only hope it kills all my grass soon so I don't have to keep mowing it.

To occupy the time in a truly deadbeat and un-productive fashion, I signed up for Netflix--only to discover that the franchise doesn't give a damn about linux users and works pretty terribly on at least one windows machine as well, but did finally get it to work patchily (but not on linux)-- and have spent the past few weeks going through the entire re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series, which I'd only caught late Friday-night glimpses of before.  

I am a very picky consumer of television, and a pretty picky consumer of science-fiction as well, yet this is a refreshing dose of my kind of story.  I'm not finished yet, and from what I read of the plot summary it sounds like it does sort of "jump the shark" a bit at the end, but even if it does, the whole effort is still incredible.

The premise comes from the original version of the show with some distinct twists:  robots created by humans have decided that they are in fact far superior to humans and launch a campaign to completely wipe out humanity.  In a strange twist, the robots are religious, believing that it is God who deems them less murderous and more deserving than humans, and has thus tasked them with our destruction.  The robots, called Cylons, almost succeed, using nuclear weapons to destroy most of the human population on twelve colonized planets.  Only a scattered 50,000 humans survive on a fleet of ships that just happened to be in space at the time of the attacks, and that by faster-than-light "jumping" to a pre-arranged new set of coordinates every time the robots come after them.  The only aspect of the human military left is a retired old "battlestar" space ship, similar in function to a modern air-craft carrier, and the only aspect of the pre-existing government is the Secretary of Education who had been 43rd in the line of succession to the Presidency.  The President and the commander of the Battlestar Galactica struggle to defend the survivors and bring them to a home of hope and legend that some don't even believe exists:  Earth.

The first twist comes when we learn that Cylons have been experimenting with biological engineering and have created several models that appear human, even under intense medical examination, and those human-seeming robots are infiltrating the human fleet.  Anyone could turn out to be the enemy.  One of the main characters in fact does, although tragically she has been programmed to think she is just as human as anyone else.

A substantial change in the re-imagined series and that had many fans of the 1970's version fuming is the main thing that makes the show work so well:  two of the all-male-club heroes were written as women this time around, and not just minor characters for the sake of political correctness, either.  As a female sci-fi lover, my response is "about 'fracking' time."  Re-imagined Battlestar Galactica showcases the strength and vulnerability of characters both male and female alike, how men and women work together on strong teams in a truly co-ed culture, that leaves behind all together so many of the typical troupes about women who do masculine things--making them norms, not exceptions, and in the process making  designations like masculine and feminine far less important than simple humanity.    The produces of the show got that interesting drama can take place by virtue of people being people.  There is inter-gender drama and also romance, but it is nuanced and based on the personalities of the characters involved, not on Woman-ness in conflict with Man-ness.  (Yeah, there is that wearying super-sexy Cylon woman hallucinated into being by a disgustingly weak quasi-antagonist main character, but even if that was dreamed up for the visual gratification of male fans, she has a story-central explanation and is herself quite nuanced.) Everyone, even the minor ship-repair-women, ends up being "three-dimensional," and that is so amazingly refreshing. 

Also refreshing is that the show isn't afraid to have an intricate plot.  Plotting like how a novel is plotted, which story arcs that grow and change and involve keeping up with what happened in what order.  That made the show hard to watch while it was airing, because if you missed one show, you were perpetually lost, but makes it as addictive when watching now as reading a good book.

I have my points of criticism:  sometimes individual episodes get a little hokey, as science fiction often does, and the evolving elements of mysticism/prophecy are starting to feel a little bit like cheating narrative ("Who are the Final Five Cylons! Who will be The Chosen One to look upon Their faces!") and it sort of pisses me off that the sniveling, weak, narcissistic hallucinating antagonist I mentioned earlier does seem to be turning out to be the chosen instrument of a some higher power. Also, (minor spoiler alert) it gradually dawns on you that this Earth we are looking so desperately to find is not the original home of humanity that we've been away from so long that we've forgotten about, it is actually supposed to be our own planet some many millennia ago.  That does stay self-consistent throughout the entire plot, and is consistent with some of the central themes ("all this has happened before, and all this will happen again"), but it is a little technically jarring that our supposed ancestors would dress, look, speak, write, and have recognizably identical technology such as telephones and dry erase boards, to modern Americans, the only spoken differences being that some of them have British accents, and they use the swear-word "frack" instead of our own version.

A Place of Better Performance

I'm short.  I'm female.  I am naturally a reserved person and an introvert,  thus to me listening, observing, and thinking about a situation involving other people are important activities to undergo before reacting. 

As someone short and female and also as someone who seems to look younger than I really am, I'm not the first person to receive notice in a group unless I step forward and demand attention. As an introspective and reserved person, stepping forward and demanding attention or taking control of a conversation is not my first inclination.

I have found that I can do it when I choose to; however. I'm not entirely sure what changes, except that I understand my objective and I communicate what I need to clearly, I know how to project my voice so that people hear me without me having to yell.  I even find I react to things differently while in this "zone:"  while my normal inclination would be to ponder and think through the best choice when encountering the unexpected, I find I am reasonably able to make quick decisions. 

The biggest difference though, is that in this zone I feel fully present in the role, and am truly confident.  No background worrying or fretting or considering my performance or my competence or just how I am coming off.  I am evaluating those things for effectiveness in the moment, but not in the apprehensive kind of way that I normally do, and not even particularly consciously at all.

I have learned to do this in situations when I need to command attention, which has mostly been in front of a group, through a combination of theater training, occasionally-brutal summer camp counselor experience, ropes course facilitator experience and my experience giving interpretive programs as a park ranger intern.

Still, all those natural factors make me an absolutely non-ideal candidate for a sales assignment, especially considering I am a young woman selling a product/service in a traditionally "good ole boys'" world, especially considering I am not particular motivated by the prospect of just trying to convince people to give me their money.  I care much more about the theoretical geeky details of the insulation than whether this person buys their insulation from company A or company B but oh wait I work for company A so I'd better represent them.

When I re-cast the experience as a personal challenge:  I know this is not what I care about nor is it my skill set, but I want to do the best I can and learn about how this unfamiliar set of skills is used, then I at least don't mind trying.  Usually afterward I find I did about a zillion things wrong and still came off as someone with little experience, because I am a person with little experience, for now.  I'm getting better about looking at each building like a problem to be solved, trying to provide the best solution based on the needs of the building and on the needs of the customer, and summoning "the zone" to give me the power to go forward and ask questions and command respect through feeling competent. This is not the largest part of my job and it is hopefully not a permanent part, but for now I absorb the experience from an extremely intellectual standpoint, and being able to do that is in some ways a product of being able to make a choice to be in a more confident state.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Effective Communication

Today at work, a small miscommunication was handled by an entire chain of people yelling at people who then went and yelled at someone else, and by the time the "ahh angry" telephone game was done everybody had a slightly different idea of how it was going to be fixed anyway.  Needless to say this was neither intelligent nor productive.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Double-Slit Experiment As Explained by Famous Physicists

As you start journeying down the rabbit-hole into quantum mechanics, you are presented with the famous "double-slit" experiment, in which you must confront what it means when a single particle, say, an electron, is given the option of two slits to choose from and yet seemingly does not choose at all, but rather acts as if it went through both slits at the same time.  (If you are scratching your head right now, see if this helps.)

Madness!  Luckily, great minds are here to explain, in order of increasingly accurate personality approximation:

Newton: No no no, you must have done it wrong, this is impossible! The electron must pass through one slit or the other, as everyone knows it is nonsense to think a particle can dividing itself or otherwise being in two places at once.

De Broglie:  But actually the electron is a wave, so this is not a problem.

Einstein:  God does not play dice! This experiment reveals something about the electron of which we are utterly unaware and perhaps unable to determine.

Born:  No, see, this is a result of an altered probability of where the electron will land, a probability which is determined by it's wave-function, which interfered with itself in the double slit.

Feynman: Forget that.  The electron really did go through both slits at once, and also went to the moon, and also up your nose, and also out to lunch and back.  This violates possibly every law of physics that we know including the inability to go faster than light speed and also the inability to suddenly be two places at once--but you've got to accept that nobody understand quantum mechanics.

Greene:  If you go even more deeply then we'll ever be able to prove then you'll find that the electron and slits both are really a vibrating string and by the way isn't the universe so incredible!

Physics is at the point where oftentimes "what actually physically happened" becomes a meaningless concept, or at least very difficult to tease out from the models we impose to understand things.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Environmentalism and Question I Don't Have Answers To

It seems that most environmental policy involves regulation by a governing body, and most environmentalism on a personal level involves self-sacrifice.  If we are going to get serious, really serious, about the issue of climate change, is it inevitable that we adopt heavy-handed government mandates to get our emissions under control?

As environmentalists, do we just have to accept that human nature is to fail to grasp environmental consequences until bad problems result, and so helpful actions must be externally enforced to have a hope of being implemented effectively?

I'm not sure that I know enough about economics or sociology to intelligently answer this question--but it is an important one, because it cuts to the heart of some of the political difficulties with environmentalism.  Because on the other side of the argument is the Rand-ian elevation of individual rights and the critical importance of personal liberty in allowing creativity and innovation. In this view government regulation only stifles our potential, and individuals doing things for the greater good or against inclination is not just silly, it's immoral, in part because who has the right to define "greater good?"

There is plenty of evidence that lack of oversight is detrimental:  Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons is a great place to start. But does that oversight have to come from the government?  And is regulation from the government in the name of curtailing our own tendencies toward destruction really such a bad thing?

I find it extremely hard to believe that X Large Manufacturing Company That Happens to Have a Polluting Process, absent any environmental regulation, is going to add any environmental safeguards just cause hey that's the right thing to do.  The employees might have the same desire for clean air and water that we do, but if all the competitors of X aren't doing it, X would go out of business if it chose to raise it's overhead cost in a way no other competitor was bothering to do, and the employees of X would also like to have jobs.  But if the playing field has been made level to the point that all of X's competitors must treat their sludge and scrub their smoke stacks, that becomes the cost of doing business.  Sure, I the consumer pay a higher price.  But you know what, the price I would otherwise pay is chloride rivers and asthma, and honestly a higher price for a good is a bargain in comparison.  It's not just that clean air and clean water are pretty and endemically valuable in themselves, although they are that, it's that the doctor's bill for asthma costs a lot of money, it's that chloride rivers might contaminate my drinking supply without somebody ensuring it doesn't, it's that if I ever wanted to start my own business using that river that wouldn't work if it were chloride, well that's just too bad.

In other words, clean air and water regulations have to be the cost of doing business, because otherwise, dirty air and dirty water are going to be the costs of having an economy--but only an economy which allows for dirty air and dirty water activities.  Personally I'd rather have a diverse economy and clean air and water too.  I've seen economists argue that these things are still luxuries when compared to the basic necessity of employment in order to gain sustenance, and sure, when our grand economy developed, we didn't have those things.  And we realized how bad an idea that was, and consequently we are not Haiti.   As for clean air and clean water verses money to eat--one will kill you sooner yet too much of the other may well kill you later, but either way, life's better if you can have both.

That leads me to climate change, because we've sort of mostly figured out how to create a decent balance of clean air, clean water, and economy, but we're still at a loss about how and even if to do something about carbon emissions while maintaining an economy and standard of living that depend deeply upon emitting carbon. There is no other way to describe this unique situation in history except to say that it royally sucks. And it looks like most of the feeble solutions we've come up with are full of imperfection on many fronts, heavy-handed government intervention and the necessity of mass personal sacrifice being high among them.

Two ideas, both of which are politically dead as dead can be, match two common economic strategies for dealing with "externalities," which in economic terms are bad consequences caused by an entity which don't directly penalize that entity, resulting in little incentive within the market structure to do much about it.  One could call climate change the largest externality our global economy has ever created.  One proposed solution is a tax on carbon, getting everybody who uses it, which is most of us, to pay per unit of use.  When the price of something goes up, demand goes down, so that would force reductions somewhere along the way.  Since people use carbon as a matter of necessity for things likes getting to jobs that give sustenance and getting the sustenance to stores too, that is going to have bad consequences for those who can't afford the higher price, the counter argument being that none of us can afford climate change and this way we are, at least, fairly paying according to our contribution thereof.

Another dead solution is a carbon cap and trade scheme, which mimics what we've already done with decent success to get other air pollutants under control.  This seemingly puts the cost on large-scale polluters but will really put it on us too, because anybody providing a service whose costs go up must of necessity raise their prices all the same as if we'd all been taxed.  The advantage, in my mind, in this kind of approach, is that it allows companies already doing better at reducing their emissions to be rewarded, and in general leaves more room for innovating in order to comply with the rules.

Both of those involve heavy government intervention--but they are still market solutions, far from "this must be this way" laws.  Yet both of those were politically killed dead by most Republicans and not a small number of Democrats, see once again "wow this situation sucks" and the fact that no matter what we choose, some people are going to be burdened. 

Other solutions:  "investment in the green economy."  I don't think this will work without further clarification of intent, because what is the "green economy" really? "Green jobs" seems to mean jobs for people who go out and install solar panels and put insulation in your attic--but somebody's got to be buying those solar panels and that insulation first--does the average homeowner have money for that? I sure as heck don't, and my observation is that despite everyone clamoring about how great that economy will be, these "green jobs" are largely a myth at the moment.  Maybe Science! will give us new renewable energy and nuclear technology that will be awesome, but we need workable solutions now already, and have quite a few at least workable technologies already, with only economics and rapidly only politics standing in their way.

Ron Paul, as one example of the opposition to governmental intervention in all things environment, when he's not calling climate change a hoax, insists that removing oil subsidies and letting the price be what it is will go a long way to fix the problem naturally--again, not without pain. George W. Bush shared this sentiment, and sometimes attempted to structure policies this way while he was in office.  It seems to me that doing this would at the very least solve a few birds with one stone:  cut deficits though perhaps not substantially, have the same effect as carbon tax without having to actually tax people and deal with the associated bureaucracy, and would likely work to reduce carbon emissions as well as any other idea.  And it may well severely staunch our recovery by damaging the oil and gas industry which even now employs millions of Americans.

None of these fixes are what I would call socialism, and have been shot down for economic reasons, rather than philosophical ones.  Yet a rising timbre in American political discourse pre- 2012 election calls for reduced business regulation and also a symbolic return of rugged individualism to the tune of Ayn Rand, and this does not seem to bode well for fixing an externality associated with a large swath of our individual behaviors.  And so with all proposed solutions so far struck down and a new sentiment a'brewing, this raises the philosophical question:  are there any solution to climate change that don't involve unprecedented self-sacrifice where it's willing and social engineering where it's not?  Do all practical environmental solutions equate to accepting some incremental new level of socialism, and is that always such a terrible thing?