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Posts from — April 2008

tracking the abandoned

There is, presently, one railroad line through Ithaca, New York. Freight trains still use this line, taking coal to the Milliken power plant along Cayuga lake and hauling salt from the Cargill salt mine. There were, decades ago, several additional railroad lines which have long since been abandoned. In my last year or so of graduate school, my friends and I took several hikes along these lines, which we were able to find with the help of Hardy and Rossiter’s A History of Railroads in Tompkins County. The tracks on these abandoned lines have been removed, presumably to be sold for scrap, but occasional relics from the railroading era–wooden ties, for example–remained.

An article in this week’s Washington Post magazine, chronicling the quest of Bill Thomas and his friend A. L. Freed to follow old railroad tracks all across the country, brought back memories of our hikes. To cover the long distances over which railroads naturally extended, they take one-way rental cars. This article focuses on a particular expedition in Texas, during which they encounter–as I’m sure they encounter all throughout the country on these trips–the ruins of the railroading past, and also meet a handful of others who share an enthusiasm for trains. 

My friends and I were fortunate, I believe, that the old lines along which we hiked had not (yet?) been converted into multi-purpose recreational trails. Instead, they had decayed in place, offering what is an increasingly rare opportunity to explore something that’s been forgotten, something that isn’t managed by a humorless committee and burdened by rules born from a hypersensitive fear of the word “liability.” The hikes gave us a small chance to discover, to find something that wasn’t calling out to be found. Perhaps someday the state will more formally take over the land, clear out the brush, send to the dump any crossties and other remnants of actual railroading, throw down some crushed gravel, put up wayfinding signs, and then list the trails in any number of Finger Lakes recreation guides. But at least when I was there, none of that had been done. One didn’t need to rely on a commemorative plaque to understand that real trains used to run there; plenty of evidence was still in place.

One particularly striking realization was the degree to which the railroads graded the land to make the path of the trains as level as possible–not an easy feat in the hilly Southern Tier of New York, especially in the era before bulldozers and backhoes and other earthmoving equipment. (And this grading is in part what makes the abandoned lines such attractive candidates for conversion to recreational trails.) If you know what you’re looking for, even the abandoned tracks are clear on topographic maps: compare this turn of the century map, showing the railroad lines (in particular, the two parallel lines heading to the southeast):

1895 map of Ithaca showing railroad lines

with this section of (substantially zoomed in) contemporary topo map:

Section of topo map near Ithaca, NY

the Southern of the two parallel lines is marked on the map, but the Northern one, although not explicitely marked, is clear. Just north of the “Besemer” label the relatively flat graded railroad bed stands out. 

Trails, I suppose, are in general good things–although as someone who hopes for a renaissance of rail travel in this country, I wonder if some of those abandoned lines would be best returned to rail service, and whether trail conversion would make this harder, because nobody would want to lose a trail, or easier, because the route is kept contiguous. But while we still can find the remnants of railroads around, we should find and explore them.

April 27, 2008   5 Comments

Kunstler on painting

James Howard Kunstler–whose The Geography of Nowhere has deeply influenced the way I think about the built environment–has images of a number of his paintings on his website. His approach to painting is the subject of KunstlerCast #11.

Many of his paintings depict a junked up landscape of the car culture–highway off-ramps and fast-food chains–the criticism of which has been a staple of his writing. I had always assumed these to be somewhat ironic, but Kunstler is seriously and genuinely considers himself to be working in the tradition of great landscape artists by capturing the iconic landscapes of our time.

One thing I hadn’t known1 was that the Hudson River School painters of the 19th century apparently lamented the lack of ruins up and down the Hudson River valley, and would travel to Europe to paint the ruins of ancient Rome. These days, however, there are plenty of ruins along the Hudson–remains of factories that have been shuttered for decades, and the like, which Kunstler has made the subject of several paintings.

Kunstler is best, I think, when he is talking about the subjects of The Geography of Nowhere; his recent work on what he calls The Long Emergency is far less compelling. The KunstlerCasts are often a refreshing return to his forte, and this episode was one of the best yet.

  1. I know virtually nothing about art or art history, and have never even taken a class in art history. []

April 26, 2008   No Comments

Scale in the media

I lamented in an earlier post that questions of scale are all too often left out of discussions of environmental solutions. To recent pieces that bring the issue up:

Michael Pollan’s Why Bother?, from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, opens by recounting what for Pollan was the “most upsetting moment” of An Inconvenient Truth: the “immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it.” Pollan defends notions of virtue and the steps, particularly gardening, that individuals might take to reduce their individual carbon footprints, vis-à-vis other responses to the climate crisis such as hopingfor some future technology. He writes: “Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult…. Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food.”

Second, the April 12th Sierra Club Radio podcast has a segment with Bob Schildgen—Mr. Green—promoting his new book, which compiles questions and answers from his column in Sierra magazine. On the question of paper vs plastic (his answer–neither; bring your own bag), he encourages listeners to put things into perspective by mentioning that you likely burn as much petroleum in one trip to the grocery store as it takes to make all the plastic bags you’d use in a whole year. I can’t find his numbers online, but using the figures I wrote about earlier: 330 bags per American per year, 200 bags per gallon, so just over one and a half gallons of oil per American devoted to plastic bags. At 20 miles per gallon, you could make a round trip to a supermarket 15 miles away. Right order of magnitude, but I think you could travel a bit farther on that amount of gas.

This exercise in scale is then thrown out the window later in the interview, when host Orli Cotel asks the heavily loaded question: “For our listners who do own cars or need cars for whatever reason, what tips can you give us, as Mr. Green, to help reduce the amount of gas that we’re using,  besides of course cutting back on car travel?” (As if there’s some secret, magic way to drive without using gas that only the hardcore enviros know about.) Mr. Green goes on to mention that Americans lose about 4 million gallons of gasoline per day because of underinflated tires. Of course, he doesn’t put this into perspective: that’s about 1% of our daily gasoline consumption; we burn through 4 million gallons of gasoline in about 15 minutes.

April 25, 2008   No Comments

Taking data

By trade, I am a physicist; specifically a condensed-matter experimentalist. More so than other scientists, physicists are rather sharply split into two categories: theorists and experimentalists. Einstein and Feynman were theorists, working with equations and making calculations. Experimentalists work in labs and conduct experiments and analyze data.

A day spent taking data, then, is usually a good day: data is, after all, the lifeblood of experimental physics, and if you’re taking data then that means your apparatus is working, which is always a good thing.

I spent today taking data. Even though the process is heavily automated and computer controlled, the apparatus needs constant supervision. As is the case with most of the experiments I run, there is a very short duty cycle for attention: I’ll need to make an adjustment, then let the experiment run for a few minutes, then make another adjustment, and wait a few minutes, and so forth. And although the taking of data is an inherently good and fulfilling process, the time scale that my experiments work on can be frustrating.

The intervals between which my attention is needed are long enough so that, after a while, it’s sort of boring just to sit there and wait. On the other hand, the intervals are too short to get anything meaningful done. I often think that I should be able to read journal articles in these time spans, and I usually have an article or two with me that I intend to read, but this always fails: reading journal articles must be done in large, uninterrupted time blocks. If I do try to read a journal article, and get in depth reading it, then I’d be likely to let the experiment languish, and in the end that’d be a terribly inefficient way to take data.

As it turns out, surfing the web is the sort of activity that can be broken into minute-long chunks, and since the data taking computer is usually also hooked up to the internet, it actually works out quite well to browse the web during the gaps when the computer is doing all the other work.

Most of the data I take measure some sort of quantity as a function of temperature, and typically the experiment cools to it’s lowest temperature, and then the temperature is raised in steps, with a datum taken at each temperature. A large part of the waiting around I do is waiting for the temperature to stabilize. In many experiments, the speed with which the temperature can be changed and stabilized sets the rate at which I can take data. Inasmuch as I’m browsing the web while I’m waiting for the temperature to stabilize, being lazy and being careful can sometimes look very much like one another. To be careful, you really want to make sure the temperature is stable, that it isn’t drifting or oscillating, and generally, this means waiting longer. But waiting longer also means more time browsing the web and less time doing real physics, so if you’re waiting longer than it takes for the temperature to become as stable as your experiment needs, then you’re being lazy.

April 23, 2008   No Comments

March Madness wrap-up

Well, I didn’t place in the top two of the March Madness pool I entered this year, but both my brackets did manage to beat all my other family members’ brackets. As I wrote in my previous entry, I also filled out a third bracket, based entirely on a sophisticated ratings scheme. I entered this bracket in the ESPN and Washington Post tourney contests, but not the pool, as it was too boring to fill out. My loss!

Out of 5898 entries in the Washington Post pool, this third bracket placed 52nd; out of what I think were about 3 million ESPN brackets, it finished 33229th. If I had entered it in my brother’s pool, it would have scored 465 points and won.

Let’s have a look at round-by-round performance to answer some bracket questions.

  1st S16 E8 F4 semi champ PTS
My brackets
pundits 24 9 6 3 1 0 385
Statistics 22 10 5 3 1 1 400
PYTHAG 24 12 6 4 1 1 465
Contest winners
ESPN winner 26 13 9 4 2 1 555
WaPost winner 26 8 7 4 2 1 475
CBS pundits
Denis Dodd 23 11 5 3 0 0 360
Michael Freeman 24 9 4 1 0 0 290
Gary Parrish 23 9 6 3 1 0 380
Brian De Los Santos 23 9 6 2 0 0 335
Gregg Doyel 22 11 5 3 0 0 355
Washington Post pundit
Tony Kornheiser 21 9 5 3 1 0 355
CNN/SI pundits
Luke Winn 24 11 6 2 0 0 360
Grant Wahl 23 10 7 2 1 0 385
Stewart Mandel 23 10 7 3 0 0 380
Seth Davis 20 9 6 2 1 0 345
Kelli Anderson 23 11 5 3 0 0 360
  • How did the sports pundits do? Not very well.1 My brackets beat them.
  • How did the individual pundits do compared to their consensus? Only CNN/SI’s Grant Wahl did as well as the consensus of pundits; the rest had lower scores. Sort of a reversal of the conventional wisdom on groupthink
  • How well do you have to do to win the ESPN or Washington Post contests? You need to nail the elite eight and on out. You need a good showing in the first two rounds, but you don’t have to be perfect. A handful of people in my brother’s pool got 26 first-round winners correct, the same number as the winners of the Post and ESPN contests. The Post winner only had 8 of the Sweet 16 correct, and if it had been an entry in my brother’s pool, it would have been mired somewhere in the middle. The ESPN winner picked 13 of the sweet 16–very good, of course, but at this point it still wouldn’t have been the leader in my brother’s pool.

It would be interesting to see how well the PYTHAG ratings would have predicted the tournament winners in previous years, although I doubt I’ll get around to it this year before my interest in bracket-prediction fades. But I think next year I’ll have to enter a bracket based on it, (and hope that nobody else does the same).

  1. At least for cheap-o non-ESPN Insider folks like me, the ESPN pundits’ complete brackets weren’t made available. They did better picking the final four than the CBS or CNN/SI pundits so perhaps they would have done better. []

April 8, 2008   No Comments

Recently on Sierra Club Radio

Robert Hass, former US Poet Laureate, spoke on this week’s Sierra Club radio episode. When asked by host Orli Cotel about the role of the natural world in his poetry, he remarked that, growing up as a Californian in an era when “all the textbooks were published in Boston and New York,” the natural world as described by, say, Dick and Jane–playing in autumn leaves, and putting on snowshoes–did not capture the weather and landscape that he was familiar with. I was reminded of my realization, after living in Ithaca for a few years, of how much Ithaca seemed so much like the prototypical American town of any number of stories from my childhood. It was perhaps more a realization that Sacramento isn’t any sort of fixture in children’s literature.

The show closes, as it occasionally does, with Annie Somerville of Greens restaurant in San Francisco. In a reversal of the East-coast-centrism that Hass touched on, these segments are invariably Bay-area-centric, as Ms. Somerville invariably speaks about the fresh produce that is in season and available for her restaurant. The Bay area growing season is generally out of sync with the Mid-Atlantic season. Artichokes–this week’s topic–are just now available here, through the miracle of transcontinental shipping, no doubt.

Listening to some other episodes, one of the most fascinating guests to appear recently was UC-Santa Cruz sociologist Andy Szasz, who was given a much-too-short segment in which to discuss Shopping Our Way to Safety, his book with a somewhat counter-intuitive take on green consumerism. He introduces the Inverted Quarantine–instead of creating an isolated space in which to contain, say, a disease, we now find the whole world around us diseased and threatening and buy bottled water and organic products in an effort to isolate ourselves. The consequence of such a building an illusion of our own safety is that we are less involved with efforts to fix the original problems that affect us all. This discussion really should have been longer, because Szasz’s point seems to imply that the whole business of “Green Living Tips“–Jennifer Hattam’s segment on the show–is ultimately counter-productive.

Two governors have recently been on: Charlie Crist of Florida, and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, both because of their respective work on turning away from coal power generation. With Crist, Orli Cotel finally starts asking tough questions. I get the impression that the Sierra Club radio producers are thankful to get high profile guests and consequently lob softball questions and unquestioningly accept claims of greenness from their guests, to avoid offending anyone. On the contrary, I would say that the appearance on Sierra Club radio does more for the guest, by bringing green credibility, than for the show, and that the tough questions should be asked and the credibility earned.

A final recent high-profile guest worth mentioning was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. who speaks about his role in the segment is upcoming IMAX film Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk. The segment’s focus on Kennedy’s outdoor adventures–both in the film and those in his life that led him to his current advocation–is, IMNSHO a little tedious. But at one point, in response to a question about the role that his faith plays in his advocacy, Kennedy gives a brilliant and extended monologue about the central role that a wilderness experience plays in several of the world’s more popular religions. From a secular standpoint, I take this to underscore the importance of wilderness and wild places in the well-being of the human condition, along the same lines touched upon by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language.1

Worth listening to, all.

  1. Specifically, and for example, the patterns (3) City Country Fingers, (7) The Countryside, (25) Access to Water, (24) Sacred Sites. []

April 7, 2008   No Comments

The scale of green solutions

For someone who’s long identified himself as an environmentalist, the rise in recent years of the profile of environmental issues, particularly climate change, is heartening. Much of this attention is the result of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which concludes, as much of the more optimistic reporting on the subject does, with solutions and steps to avert the prospect of catastrophic global climate change.  An often overlooked but absolutely critical aspect of any of these “greener” ways of doing things is an investigation of the way they scale. Two questions that need to be asked of any proposed solution:

  1. Is the idea feasible on a large scale?
  2. If implemented on a large scale, how does the overall benefit compare with the magnitude of the problem that the solution purports to address?

We do need to constantly look for ways to lower energy use, to create less waste, to reduce the release of toxics to the environment. An abiding quest to green and re-green our lives should become a universal American value, in much the same fashion that thriftiness was admired during the depression, or that discount shopping was admired in the 1990s. But at the same time, we must be careful not to fool ourselves: there is a real prospect that, if we do not consider the scale of the problems and potential solutions, we’ll stop short, that metaphorically we’ll change a lightbulb and recycle a soda can and think we’re done.

Consumption of energy is the biggest part of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the biggest environmental problem facing us today. Almost universally, in the popular press, there is a widespread lack of awareness of scale involved, which is both understandable and frustrating. It is frustrating because figures on overall energy consumption are unambiguous and readily available from the Department of Energy, yet understandable because the numbers involved are so huge. Large scale energy consumption is measured in quads, or quadrillion BTUs. The United States consumes roughly 100 quads, or 100,000,000,000,000,000 BTUs, of energy per year. The outline of the flow of this energy is brilliantly presented in this graph from the DOE. On average, this amount of energy consumption is equivalent to a power consumption of 3.3 trillion watts.

As a very crude1 (but illuminating) approximation, suppose that every American, all 300 million of us, turns off a lightbulb and reduces our power consumption by 100 watts. In this approximation, we imagine a bulb which had been on 24/7/365 to now be off. All total, we’d save 30 billion watts. Sounds like a large number, doesn’t it? It’s the output of 30 Gigawatt-sized power plants. Certainly admirable. But it’s just 1% of our overall 3 Terawatt power consumption.

Petroleum constitutes roughly 40% of our energy consumption, to the tune of 865 million gallons per day.23 This turns out to be 10000 gallons per second;  it takes our country about a minute and 40 seconds to burn through a million gallons of oil. Keep this scale in mind the next time you hear about a great way for our country to save a million gallons of oil: wonderful, but hardly the whole solution.

Of this oil, each day we burn 388 million gallons of gasoline and 175 million gallons of diesel fuel.45 It is contemplating these figures that lead us into question 1 above: how feasible are any of the alternate fuels touted as replacements for gasoline?

For the moment, I will just address biodiesel. To make biodiesel, vegetable oil is combined with an alcohol and a strong base to produce a liquid that is similar to petroleum-based diesel fuel. There are serious questions as to the energy efficiency of this whole process, which I will not address in this post. As a reasonable approximation, suppose one gallon of vegetable oil can be turned into one gallon of biodiesel.

The entire annual US production of vegetable oil is about 2.9 billion gallons.6  If all the vegetable oil produced over the course of a whole year were converted into biodiesel, it would displace about 5 days of gasoline and petro-diesel use.

I’ve seen (but can’t find at the moment) a figure that roughly 10% of our vegetable oil production ends up as waste vegetable oil. So if we converted an entire year’s supply of  used french-fry oil, etc., to biodiesel, we’d keep our country motoring for about 12 hours and 22 minutes.

This is why I’m more than a little skeptical when conversion to bio-diesel is taken as evidence that someone or some organization has “gone green.”  To replace all our motoring fuel with bio-diesel, we’d have to scale up production by a factor of 70. Even if we set a more modest target of replacing a quarter of our motor fuel with biodiesel, we’d need to produce 18 times as much vegetable oil as we do today. In this context, discussion about whether one method of producing biodiesel is, say, 20% more efficient than another method, or whether one type of biodiesel-burning engine is, say, 30% more efficient than another is really irrelevant. What’s relevant is the scale.

I’ll close with one final calculation that puts the scale in perspective. Just looking at gasoline, 388 million gallons per day is equivalent to 1.3 gallons per person per day. We can see that it makes sense: it’s what you get if everyone drives 30 miles per day. We tend not to think of the volume of gasoline that we consume because we don’t see it: it goes from a tank underground through a hose to a tank under our car. But aside from water, there’s nothing for which each and every one of us consumes that’s on that scale. For a family of four, 1.3 gallons per day is 36 gallons per week: imagine this volume of vegetable oil, every week. Sound absurd? That’s what the bio-diesel solution would be.

  1. Crude because it mixes primary energy–like coal and gas–with electricity, which is good for order of magnitude, but keep in mind that only a third of the heat value of the primary energy makes it into electricity. []
  2. 1 barrel is 42 gallons []
  3. Equivalent to the volume of Lipsette Lake every two days. []
  4. distillate fuel oil=diesel []
  5. plus 68 million gallons of jet fuel []
  6. See Table 6 of any of the reports. Note that production of oilseed and production of vegetable oil are different things; only part of the weight of the oilseed is oil. Here I use a specific gravity of 0.9 to convert from metric tons to gallons, so about 7 pounds per gallon. []

April 3, 2008   1 Comment

CoffeeGeek podcast

The other coffee podcast that I listen to, the CoffeeGeek podcast, just released it episode 61, its first new podcast since January. Yay!

This episode features Mark Prince, the host, talking solo about a handful of issues. Prince, an enthusiastic consumer (which is to say, he doesn’t earn a living in the coffee industry), generally shies away from insider gossip. Here, he touches on Caffeine awareness month, rhapsodizes about a new coffee techniques book, and offers a personal reflection on the pursuit of the perfect espresso–the “God Shot”–that is inspired by and in response to an article in the Guardian.

The biggest chunk of the podcast is devoted to a discussion of the recent acquisition by Starbucks of the Coffee Equipment Company, which had been making one of the most innovative and noteworthy coffee brewing devices on the market, the Clover. The Clover was an automated single-serving brew-on-demand device that functioned somewhat like a French Press. Although automated, the brew time and temperature would need to be tweaked to coax the best out of each coffee–and this need for tweaking, Prince argues, is why it’s unlikely Starbucks will be able to use these machines to get substantially better coffee than they brew now.

What is troubling about this development is that the existing Clover owners are sort of left hanging, after investing substantial resources in the success of the machines. They weren’t cheap, costing over $10k apiece. They didn’t make great coffee off the bat–rather, the early adopters worked with the company to troubleshoot and improve the machine and its brewing process. And now that Starbucks has bought the manufacturer, the only thing available to existing customers will be replacement parts: no new machines, no tech support, no training. I understand business decision for a small startup to sell, but it just seems wrong to cast all your early adopters adrift.

April 1, 2008   No Comments