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.