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Diagnostic post

This is a second diagnostic post, to see how the WordBooker plugin settings work. This is supposed to show up as a status update in my facebook.

November 11, 2011   No Comments

Blogging again?

Yes, this blog has been idle for many months now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have dozens of potential blog posts mulling around in my head. This is my second diagnostic post, to see if the WordBooker plugin works, which is supposed to be a way to post my new blog posts to my Facebook wall. (The first diagnostic didn’t post to Facebook, do it’s been deleted. Sorry if that interfered with your RSS reader.)

November 11, 2011   No Comments

The New Sierra Club Executive Director

A recent (January 30, 2010) episode of Sierra Club Radio begins with an interview of the new executive director, Michael Brune, which was the first I’d heard in detail about him. I found it quite encouraging, in part because of what Mr. Brune said, but more refreshingly, in his tone. The outgoing executive director, Carl Pope, periodically recorded commentaries for Sierra Club radio, which I never really cared for. Mr. Pope’s tone was brash, smug, and confrontational, and his messages were needlessly political: hyping up small or incidental or Phyrric victories, spinning away the setbacks, never allowing that an issue might have subtleties and complications. There were good guys and villains, and the good guys were always winning, most likely thanks to the Sierra Club and its allies. Carl Pope’s commentaries always sounded like a slightly disingenuous pitch. Mr. Brune, by contrast, sounds very much like a thoughtful person.

That I picked up on this contrast is perhaps a bit ironic, as Mr. Brune as an activist was known for a rather confrontational style, as elucidated in a Living on Earth interview, a KQED Forum interview, and in a Grist article. Prior to the Sierra Club, Mr. Brune was executive director of Rainforest Action Network, where his most notorious stunt involved the campaign to get Home Depot to stop buying wood from endangered forests. Sympathetic Home Depot employees contacted Mr. Brune and clued him in to the code for the Home Depot intercom system, by which Rainforest Action Network activists could go into any Home Depot, find the intercom stations, and broadcast messages storewide about the source of the wood products for sale. This campaign worked, although I’m not really sure this is the sort of thing I’d like the Sierra Club to start doing more of.

Mr. Brune made what I think is a salient and subtle point in praising the Sierra Club for “evolving” over the past decade or so, of doing a good job of “holding onto its roots”–protecting wild places and the like–but at the same time “being responsive to the great threat of climate change.” This phrasing speaks to me–it signals an understanding that the environmental challenges we face and our responses to them are not identical to those of twenty or thirty years ago. Urban environmentalists often note a disconnect with what we might call “traditional” environmentalism, manifested as an insistence in saving every tree, and in opposing every development, and in always primarily characterizing the principals involved in any development as greedy, even if the trees that would have to be cleared to make way for a development would enable its future residents to live in ways–without cars, for example–that could drastically reduce their overall environmental impact when compared with what they might need to end up with should the traditional environmentalist’s protests be successful and should the greedy developers choose to build their buildings instead on some further-flung plot of land that’s less dear to said environmentalists. I’m oversimplifying the issue here of course, and I don’t want to presume that when Mr. Brune says the Club is evolving that he necessarily means that it will evolve exactly the way I want it to.  But it does seem to me that Mr. Brune is acknowledging the need to look at environmental challenges in a different way than has been considered traditional.

Two years ago, he wrote Coming Clean–Breaking America’s Addiction to Coal and Oil, published by Sierra Club books. That energy was the topic on the mind of someone employed to save the rain forests is, itself, encouraging. He was interviewed on Sierra Club radio for September 6, 2008 upon release of the book, and this earlier interview is perhaps more insightful than the current one. He struck a thoughtful and diplomatic tone, giving respectfully detailed answers to complex topics. He discussed, at some length, the problems with biofuels, beginning with a remark that the idea of growing your own fuels is, no doubt, very alluring. He concludes that “biofuels can only at best be part of the solution” and further noting that if we were to turn every single last ear of corn produced in the United States into ethanol, it would provide a scant 12% of our fuel needs. He resists the temptation to simply classify biofuels as “good” or “bad,” and he uses a quantitative figure in a proper and meaningful way, which is more than can be said of much of what passes for environmental discourse these days. The urbanist will also note that he also understands that biofuels are an attempt at a solution to what is in many respects the wrong question–instead of asking how we’re going to keep fueling our cars in a post-carbon age, we should also be asking whether we need so many cars to begin with. Brune mentions, several times, that ”we need to promote ways of transportation that are not centered on the automobile.” When asked for ways in which individuals could get involved in breaking our oil addiction, he suggested getting involved with your local bicycle advocacy organization, to get more bike lanes and to encourage office buildings to offer bicycle parking.

It also appears–although not having read his book, I’m not certain–that he wants to play down the role of individuals greening their own lives and instead look towards action for large-scale, widespread institutional change. In the 2008 interview, the host specifically asks him about a claim in the book that individual actions, like turning down your thermostat and changing out your lightbulbs, won’t be sufficient to solve the climate change problem. And although he’s not as polemic as Mike Tidwell’s Washington Post Op-Ed, the sentiment is the same: to make the changes that matter, we need large scale, collective action. And Brune makes clear in the current interview that be believes that there is no organization better suited to lead this action than the Sierra Club.

Brune, I couldn’t help but notice, is only two years older than I am, and is probably as young as one can be to also have enough experience to be considered a reasonable candidate for executive director of an organization with the size and stature of the Sierra Club. Carl Pope, I gather, is a few years younger than my parents. So there really is a transition here, a passing of the baton from one generation to the next. I’m optimistic about Brune, and will watch carefully to see where the Club goes.

February 8, 2010   1 Comment

Making sense of the March Meeting

This year’s March Meeting will be in Portland, Oregon. (See previous blog posts from 2009 and 2008, also here.) The largest of the meetings put on by the American Physical Society, this year it there will be 581 sessions and 818 invited speakers. Most time blocks–from Monday morning through Thursday mid-day–will have a full program of 42 parallel sessions. This is slightly larger than last year, in which most time blocks had 41 parallel sessions, with a total of 562 sessions. There were 832 invited speakers last year, so this year has slightly fewer. As each session can have up to 15 contributed talks–10 minutes each with 2 minutes for questions and changing speakers, or 5 invited talks–30 minutes each with 6 minutes for questions and changing speakers, that means there could be almost 6800 talks all total, but most sessions aren’t completely programmed. This year, I am not giving a talk.

With such a mass of talks going on, planning your time at the conference and deciding how long to stay take some effort. In the past, abstracts for all talks, and the 2000 or so posters that the meeting has each year and were printed in two volumes that resembled phone books, plus a pocket sized book of session titles. These days, one gets a smaller books that lists only the titles of the talks, and of course the entire program is also available online. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve found the layout of the program to be a bit wanting, and so I put together some scripts that parse the schedule and author information to print it out in a form that I find easier to work with.

My scripts and their outputs have evolved over several years, and currently they produce three files. They take as input the Epitome, which is a chronological list of sessions, and the list of invited speakers. At present, both of these must be cut-and-pasted from the meeting website into text files for my program to read. (Maybe next year I’ll have them automatically grab the files from the APS website.)

The first output file is a version of the Epitome more suitable for browsing on a printed page than the materials for APS. It skips the non-talk sessions (like receptions and unit business meetings) and makes sure all sessions of each time block are together on a single page.

The second file serves to give a sense of the structure of the March Meeting: it is a grid of time blocks versus session numbers, with symbols indicating the number of invited talks in each session. It also has a list of room numbers associated with each session number: for the most part, all sessions of a certain number (such as A14, B14, D14, and so on) will be in the same room, but not always.

The third file is a list of invited talks, sorted by session instead of by author last name. Because of the large number of parallel sessions and the high likelihood of schedule conflicts, I think it makes sense to look time block by time block.

Since this year I’ve actually got these files produced well before the meeting, I’m posting them here in case anyone else should like to use them too.

Here are the three PDF files I’ve generated:

Epitome_Mar10

Grid_Mar10

Invited_Mar10

If you like the information but want to fiddle with the formatting, here are the .tex files that generated the PDFs, that need to be run through LaTeX. Because of a quirk in WordPress, they’re all saved as .tex.txt. The APS online information already uses TeX formatting for accent marks in speaker names, and for super- and sub-scripts in talk titles. (There are occasionally errors in APS’s TeX formatting–this year, the title of Philip Anderson’s talk is missing the math mode $ characters surrounding the ^3 superscript command. Despite my efforts to automate everything with these scripts, fixes like this still must be done by hand.)

Epitome_Mar10.tex

Grid_Mar10.tex

Invited_Mar10.tex

Finally, here is the Tcl script that I use to parse the files and write the .tex files. It’s not very good code, having been mucked around with once a year for a few years and in general cobbled together from earlier scripts. It works, provided the settings file is appropriately edited, on march meeting files back to 2006, when the invited speaker list was first published online. The bits that work on the epitome work on 2005, and the epitome format in 2004 and earlier years was different. As with the .tex files, I’ve needed to upload them as tcl.txt files here.

march2tex.tcl

march10_settings.tcl

In a future post, I hope to use the results of the scripts, particularly the grid, to analyze ways in which the March Meeting has changed over the years.

January 31, 2010   No Comments

The city becomes beautiful again

The cherry blossoms have come and gone now: two weeks of blooming and four days at the peak. A few pictures of my son enjoying the blossoms made their appearance on the Matthew Picture of the Day. The blooms are the most dramatic signal of the arrival of spring: there are a handful of other plants that bloom one way or another before the cherry trees do, but the cherry trees go from bare branches to large masses of fluffy pinkish-white rather dramatically.

Now the blossoms have blown away, and trees of every type are getting their leaves, and for a week or so the trees are all decorated in Spring Green. I had known about the Crayola color Spring Green since childhood, but it wasn’t until I was living in Ithaca that, after a characteristically long winter, I really understood what it meant. The very light and yellowish green of the nascent leaves on the trees across the street from my apartment were Spring Green; it was finally spring.

So now we begin the six or seven months in which the foliage and blooms of the plants around us make the city beautiful. This is capped by a month or so of fall foliage, after which nature’s beautification fades, slowly, and the seasonal decoration takes over. 

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, holiday lights make the otherwise bleak city beautiful. Strings of white lights outlining houses and filling in shrubs, some overdone, some very subtle: they compensate for the dwindling sunlight and dormant vegetation. In Ithaca, we got our first snow around Thanksgiving, here in DC it comes much later, usually in January. Snowfall is only very briefly beautiful, when it’s still piled up on otherwise bare branches, and while that on the ground hasn’t been disturbed very much. Then in a few hours, it drops from branches and twigs, and snowplows and other traffic have turned much of it into a dirty grey mush.

One thing I can’t understand is why it is that the holiday lights that made the streets seem so inviting in December look so tacky in the middle of January. The weather is the same, the hours of darkness are much the same, yet holiday lights, and the greens, golds, and reds of Christmas look fantastically out of place. I suppose we’ve been trained by the retail industry to appreciate bold reds and whites, à la Valentine’s day. Is there anyone who actually buys such seasonally-colored servingware from the yuppie housewares catalogs? And after Valentine’s day, as the dreary bleakness of winter presses on, we imagine spring in pastel colors. And then spring happens, like it’s happening now, here in DC.

April 18, 2009   1 Comment

A new time sink

It seems like just yesterday that facebook was, well, the linked online student directory for Harvard. Then for other colleges. And I remember some dust-up when the college kids objected to the plan to let high school kids on.

But now, it seems everyone is on. My wife joined last week, and so I’ve decided it’s time for me to jump on the bandwagon as well.

But I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to using the word “friend” as a verb.

September 20, 2008   No Comments

Long time, no post

It’s really amazing, how once a week goes by in which I don’t post anything to this blog, it’s very easy for the next week to roll on past with no posts either. Sort of similar to the way it becomes harder and harder to reply to an email, the longer it sits in your inbox.

This evening, I saw Amtrak‘s southbound Crescent as it was pulling in to Union Station. Since my schedule is somewhat regular now, I manage to see this train every few weeks, because it’s scheduled to arrive just at about the time I’m almost home on the Metro. Yesterday, on account of an early arrival home, I managed to catch a glimpse of the Capitol Limited, which is a treat because it’s the only Superliner train that comes to DC. Simple pleasures.

Last week I was in Wisconsin, at “The Lake,” the annual gathering of my extended family. I hope to blog about “The Lake” soon. 

I do have other posts in the works: about French Trams, about the way the Brompton has changed my commute, and a review of Outside Lies Magic. I do hope to get around to writing them all.

August 14, 2008   No Comments

My Brompton

Last saturday, I purchased a Brompton M6L folding bicycle. It’s my first purchase of a bicycle since I was in middle school. In about 30 seconds, the bike folds down to be roughly the size of a small suitcase: this means I can take it with me during rush hour on the Metro, when regular-sized bikes are otherwise prohibited.

Brompton, unfolded and ready to ride

(image from bfold website)

I traveled to New York City to purchase the bike, from bfold, a small dealership that occupies a basement apartment near Union Square.1 They specialize in folding bicycles, and keep several dozen Bromptons in stock, along with a few other makes.

Although it’s always good to have a reason to take Amtrak up to New York City, I would have liked to have bought locally. One of the 20 or so nationwide Brompton dealers is around here, College Park Bicycles,2 and although their website suggests you “Come in for a test ride” of a Brompton, they don’t actually have any in stock,3 and they don’t know how long it would take to get one in. 

Through online research, I was mostly convinced that I wanted a Brompton: they have the most compact and elegant folded form of any of the folding bicycles. Notably, when folded, the chain is in the middle of the package, between the wheels. The rear wheel assembly is hinged: when riding, it is held by compression against the main frame, but when the rider dismounts it’s easy to swing the rear wheel under the rest of the bike in order to park it.

A folded Brompton

Top view of folded Brompton

(images from Brompton website).

But still, I wanted to actually see and feel one, and see the folding and unfolding, before the purchase. So off to bfold it was. The folks there–I think there are only two–are great. Talking with the shop owner on the phone, I got the impression that they are folding bicycle enthusiasts who decided to open a store, and not bicycle racers who work in a bike store that happens to sell folders. In the store, we talked about the available options, and they demonstrated the folding and unfolding maneuvers. Talk about elegant! In their hands, at least, the folding and unfolding were very fluid, giving the impression of a very well engineered and built machine. 

The folks at College Park bicycles, who also sell Dahon and Bike Friday folders, did make a few valid criticisms of the Brompton: first, in order to achieve its folded state, it uses several custom-built, proprietary parts. If one of these parts needs replacement, it has to be obtained from Brompton, and if you’re not close to a Brompton dealer, this could mean your bike is out of commission for a while. And a number of these parts are made from plastic instead of metal. I consider myself handy enough to do my own bicycle maintenance, and with several US dealers willing to do mail order of replacement parts, this wasn’t a serious drawback for me.

At 27 pounds, my Brompton is best described as luggable. It’s easy enough to pick up and carry for short distances. It has six speeds, which it achieves through a combination of two-speed derailleur and three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub arranged in a half-step gearing pattern. That is, the ratio of the two derailleur gears is half that of the ratio between the steps on the hub, so that the full range of gears–from 40 to 86 gear inches–is covered evenly with no overlaps. I consider this another touch of elegant design.

By way of comparison, my other bike weighs in at 39 pounds, in its present configuration (with rack, fenders, toolkit, spare tube, pump and lock, but without lights). Both front and rear gears have been replaced several times over the years, such that the gearing pattern is more installed than designed, covering the range of 26 to 92 gear-inches with a theoretical 21 gears, some of which are unusable and some of which overlap. A comparison of gearing:

I’ll write in a future post about the way the Brompton changes my commute. I’d certainly recommend bfold, for anyone interested in a folding bicycle. If you want to seriously evaluate the various makes, and test ride them and so forth, it would be a good idea to call ahead and let them know what you’d like to do and when you’d like to come in: with only two staff and a growing interest in folding bicycles, the store can become quite hectic with only a handful of customers. I also think I should have purchased a model with a rear rack and EZ-wheels, which allows the folded bicycle to be rather easily wheeled about.

 

  1. Rents are high in Manhattan, of course, but with a wide variety of re-purposable spaces, such as the one bfold occupies, small entrepreneurs do have places to start. I don’t know if a similar business could make it in DC. []
  2. which otherwise looks like a really cool bicycle shop []
  3. I realize that small businesses can’t devote unlimited time to their websites, but I also think that lots of long-established businesses just don’t understand how much people like me depend on the web, and how irked we get when websites have misleading information. I much prefer to look at a store’s website than to look them up in the yellow pages and call, and I would guess that for routine questions like hours and products stocked, it takes less employee time to maintain the website than to repeatedly answer the phone. In fact, I hardly ever use the yellow pages anymore. []

June 21, 2008   6 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

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