Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Footnote on the ICC

As I read Anthony Flint’s 2009 book "Wrestling Moses, How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City", I kept thinking of our own battles to defeat the Intercounty Connector (ICC) in Montgomery County, Maryland. During the 1950s and 1960s Jane Jacobs managed to stop road projects (including the Lower Manhattan Expressway, AKA Lomex) that would have destroyed Washington Square Park and surrounding neighborhoods. Robert Moses held vast powers over New York’s roadways and parks from 1930's through 1970's. Moses used those offices and various questionable tactics to get his way in building roads through NY parks and neighborhoods. As these highways were planned the communities lost value in anticipation of pollution, noise, and shadowing, which were realized when the highways were built. Mrs. Jacobs engaged her neighbors, local leaders, and newspapers and ultimately prevented Mr. Moses from destroying Washington Square Park and the neighborhood.

There are parallels with our situation and differences. The biggest difference is that Jane Jacobs was able to stop the Lomex and many other bad projects, but the ICC is being built. However, Montgomery County planners are eying even more roads and road "improvements" such as widening the Beltway and I-270. By learning the lessons of these past battles, we can improve our odds in preventing future travesties.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Do It the Hard Way

There are many easy and natural ways we can weave exercise into our busy lives.

A short piece I read many years ago "Do it the Hard Way", extolled the advantages of swimming against the tide of "energy-saving" conveniences, tools, and vehicles we take for granted. I don't recall the specifics, but they were along these lines:
- Take the stairs instead of using an escalator or elevator
- Walk or bicycle instead of driving. (especially walk with your children to school instead of driving them)
- Use a push lawn mower instead of a power lawn mower.
- Use a rake instead of a leaf blower.
- Incorporate exercise into recreation (think skates and skateboards instead of motor bikes; paddle a canoe instead of driving a power boat; active sports instead of a simulated virtual sport)
- Think active human powered sports instead of spectator sports.

The interesting thing about the above ideas is that they are also environmental choices. Each results in less air pollution by not using fuel or electrical energy generated mostly by burning coal; each is quieter.

The other is that these alternatives frequently do not take extra time or cost, unlike a trip to the gym. (For example, I bike to work; because I take a shortcut path, it takes about the same amount of time as driving.) Even just parking at the far end of a parking lot can save time compared to searching for the closest parking space.

Opportunities for exercise are everywhere; just do it the hard way.

A Long Ride Up

I’m one of those ex-New Yorkers, with excess energy and no patience to just ride the Washington DC Metro escalators. On a recent night, I was returning home. I had just gotten off the train at Wheaton and was rushing to its very long escalators, when I noticed a man in a wheelchair (I’ll call him Will) in the throng. Not wanting to be delayed, I walked in front of him, and turned to ask: “Don’t you want to take the elevator?” He replied that it was out-of-service and he knew how to use the escalator. I did recall seeing a yellow barrier in front of the elevator at the fare gate level when I was going a few hours earlier. (I knew that Metro would provide shuttle service from a nearby Metro station, but Will clearly was going to use the escalator.) I told him that I’d stand behind him.

Will certainly knew how to do it as he maneuvered onto the escalator, leaned forward, and firmly grabbed the moving handrails. I grabbed a back rail of the wheelchair. As the escalator began its ascent, it was clear that front wheels were a step above the back wheels. To get better leverage, I stepped back one stair. With each wheel on a level stair, we did not have to apply much force to stay steady.

As we ascended, others below asserted the unofficial rule of standing to the right and walking up on the left. As they realized the situation we of many races and nationalities became a community – with shared understanding and respect. However, one man whom I’ll call Harry was in a hurry. He insisted on being allowed by despite our protests. Will released his left hand, Harry squeezed by, and the chair held steady. (I can picture the chair pivoting left, rolling off the steps, falling down, and …) About a minute later, we reached the top and rolled off. As Will thanked me, he remarked that although he was confined to a wheelchair he still had the will to live life fully.

As I walked back to my car, I recalled that on the way to DC that very evening, I had badly needed to use a restroom. I chose Metro Center, as I needed to change trains there anyway. At one entry the station attendant told me that Metro had no public restrooms. She insisted that as a Metro employee she knew better than I. I could have told her that I have been riding Metro since taking it to Carter’s inauguration. Instead, I went to another entry where I found a more accommodating attendant, whom I thanked profusely. Perhaps Harry also had an urgent need.

I drove to the Wheaton station that night largely because Metro bus service is not as good as I would hope. My local bus, the Z2, no longer runs after 9:30 AM and before 2:30 PM or after 7 PM. Too often, a scheduled bus does not arrive at all. Poor bus service makes life especially difficult for those who depend upon transit buses.

I have the utmost appreciation for Metro for its essential services and dedicated employees. I also realize the stresses it is under, with recent accidents, a decrease in passengers due to the recession, and an unbalanced budget. For that reason, a few weeks ago, I attended a community meeting chaired by a member of the Metro board and John Cato, Metro General Manager. The issue at hand was (and is) that Metro is hurting financially and what should it do about it. The PowerPoint presentation showed among other things that MetroRail riders nearly pay their costs, bus riders pay about half their cost, and MetroAccess riders pay only a very small fraction of their costs (close to $40 per ride). (MetroAccess transports people, whose disability prevents them from using regular transit services.) During the public comment period, I suggested that MetroAccess as a social service should be supported by each of the local jurisdictions. The board member informed me that law clearly made it Metro’s responsibility. That may be, but Metro's new budget is already squeezed. It would be profoundly unfair if bus riders are left in the cold to pay for an important service that we are all responsible for.

My long ride up made me even more appreciative of Metro and its diverse clientele.

Mars Madness

As anybody within reach of television or newspapers knows, it’s been 40 years since humans stepped foot on the moon – a remarkable achievement. Looking back, Tom Wolfe (7/18/09 NY Times) notes that mankind has not done anything comparable since. For Mr. Wolfe the obvious solution is shooting for Mars. Surely civilization, science, and technology have progressed to the point that such an adventure is doable, as well as inspiring.

Going into outer space is like extreme sports. If cross-country skiing is exhilarating, downhill skiing is more so, and skiing from a high glacier via helicopter even more so. Perhaps we can even start and try to outrun an avalanche to really get the juices flowing.

Having begun my engineering career working on the Saturn rocket ground support computer, later integrated circuits, software, computer systems, medical devices, and now energy efficiency, I have witnessed, understood, and helped the accelerating pace of science and technology. (The Saturn rocket launched the moon missions.) That early ground support computer typically employed 4 to 8 transistors on each circuit board. It would be no exaggeration to state that a modern laptop with its almost billion-transistor chip has far more processing power than the roomful of boards, racks, and cabinets of that 1960s computer. While we have seen remarkable progress in other areas of technology, none of these have been nearly as dramatic. In particular powerful rockets needed for space exploration are limited by basic chemistry – there has been little progress or even prospect of progress in this area, as we used liquid hydrogen and oxygen then and now. It could be argued that the older Saturn-based space vehicles were better than our much newer and soon-to-be retired shuttle spacecraft and perhaps even than the spacecraft we are planning now.

We can certainly try to get there, although it would be much harder than getting to the moon. We went to the moon, explored and returned within about 2 weeks. A Mars mission would have a much narrower launch window, go more than 100 times farther, and take over two years. That’s about 50 times the duration meaning 50 times the supply of food, oxygen, and other life-support supplies. We know that in the absence of the earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field, radiation is a real threat. We would either ask our Mars pioneers to sign a waiver on that (as well as zero gravity conditions and other hazards) or send along heavy shielding or other countermeasures.

Considering that the federal budget is running a trillion-dollar deficit and a manned Mars mission would add trillions more, cost better be an important consideration. A Mars program could also worsen our international balance of payments deficit.

To succeed, we would have to move the Mars mission ahead of down-to-earth needs, such as fixing our ailing infrastructure, addressing global terrorism, drug abuse, heath care, energy, and global warming. Firing off rockets to Mars could only exacerbate climate change.

Beyond Mars, there are no other accessible planets and moons to visit. Where would we then go for our space adventure addiction?

The answer is simple; we needn’t go there. All of humanity (not just the chosen) can continue to delight in the far safer, satisfying, and cost-effective virtual reality of robotic space missions, while taking time to enjoy and revere our wondrous blue planet.

Smart Grid, Stupid Grid

Note: The following article will appear in the April / May issue of the Chesapeake, the newsletter of the Maryland Sierra Club.

Smart Grid technology addresses many of the key challenges with electrical power generation, distribution, and consumption including:
  • Mitigating environmental damage
  • Controlling costs
  • Improving reliability

Key attributes of smart grid technology are:

  • Time of day and day of week pricing
  • Smart meters to record and transmit detailed usage information including when power is used.
  • Real time consumer feedback showing rate of usage
  • Detailed information on incipient problems that could lead to outages
  • Flexibility to deal with shifting loads
  • The ability to reduce loads when the grid is straining under high loads
  • Some electrical energy storage, such as advanced batteries or compressed air
  • Capability to absorb power from on-site energy generation (such as solar power)
  • Support for electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles by methods such as scheduling charging for off-peak hours

Peak power usage occurs during the hottest part of summer days just when there is the most sunlight. Power companies strain to provide adequate electricity during those times. As power lines become overstressed and overheated, electrical resistance increases leading to more heating and energy loss. Sometimes these heated lines stretch and sag touching trees and causing massive outages.

Smart Grid technology addresses this issue by lowering peak demand. Homeowners can receive a monthly rebate by volunteering to let power companies shut off their air conditioners during peak hours. Industrial power control devices provide similar features on a larger scale. For example, I am employing an electrical lighting controller at an auto repair facility that reduces electric lighting loads when daylight is strongest, times that coincide with peak usage hours.

People and businesses that employ solar photovoltaic power reduce their power needs when sunlight is strongest – again times of peak usage. As utilities charge for usage by time of day, they encourage users to employ energy storage that shift usage from peak hours to times of lowest usage, such as midnight to 5 AM. They may use thermal storage systems that employ less expensive off-peak electricity to freeze ice at night; as the ice thaws the following afternoon, it cools the building cold with minimal electrical power.

In addition, the Smart Grid holds the promise of substantial carbon reduction.(1) The Pacific Northwest Laboratory recently reported that Smart Grid technology could lead to carbon savings of 12 percent if the grid is fully implemented by 2030.

In contrast, let’s call the older and antiquated way "Stupid Grid" technology. It seeks to build expensive and massive power lines to provide ample power, regardless of the energy source, costs, or environmental effects. The proposed PATH(2) and MAPP(3) power lines in our region are excellent examples of this approach. These power lines would bring coal-fired power from dirty power plants close to the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky to east coast areas. This is sometimes referred to as coal by wire. This approach exacerbates air, water, and land pollution as well as global climate change.

To ensure that Maryland follows the Smart Grid path (not PATH), Delegates Roger Manno (District 19) and Sue Hecht (District 3A) introduced House Bill 522, which would require the Public Service Commission (PSC) to analyze and report on the state’s long-term energy needs. In preparing the report – a blueprint for action, the Commission would have to solicit input from other state agencies, such as the Maryland Energy Administration and the Department of the Environment, as well consumers and environmental organizations. The plan would have to consider cost, reliability, and environmental laws and goals. Particularly because the PSC and utilities oppose this bill, you may wish to contact your delegates in support of this bill and your senator to support companion senate legislation.

(1) Sweet, B, "Smart Grid Promises Substantial Carbon Abatement", 2/14/10
(2) The Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) is a joint venture of American Electric Power (AEP) and Allegheny Energy to build a new high-voltage interstate transmission line.
(3) The Maryland, the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway (MAPP) is a joint venture Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO), Delmarva Power and Light Company, and Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (BGE) to build a new high-voltage interstate transmission line.

Points of view on rampaging professor

Amy Bishop, as a professor of biology at the University of Alabama Huntsville, with a doctorate from Harvard would seem like an unlikely criminal. Yet on February 13, 2010 she killed 3 of her colleagues and wounded 3 others at a faculty meeting.

In reading a blog about her (see: it is apparent that she can be seen through many lenses.

As a bully, Ms Bishop sees herself as a victim. This "victim" "rightfully" strikes out against her "oppressors". A poster to the above referenced blog supposes that her brother sexually abused her, justifying his murder. A very few feminists assert men’s historical dominating position and greater physical strength are relevant in this case. A professor did not give her Ms Bishop her rightful grade, possibly "justifying" a mail bomb. Another mother at IHOP received Ms Bishop’s "righteous" fist for taking the last booster seat at IHOP. And most recently her professorial colleagues at UAH "wrongfully" denied her tenure, leading to her ultimate act of violence.

As a creature, her actions are determined by the output of her brain, which can be viewed as advanced biological computer. The brain is a product of its genetic makeup (including chemistry) and experiences. (Since men are generally more violent, testosterone can play a role.) By analogy, a computer’s output is a function of its physical construction, its programming, and its input. By this model, Ms Bishop is no more responsible for her actions than a wayward computer. Some posters to this blog with a better technical appreciation of these influences name psychological diagnoses of her state and cite aspects of her makeup and history that led to her actions.

Viewing Ms Bishop as an evil person, a believer might say that she did not follow a Godly path; she was smitten by the devil. The believer may assert that yet even she has the grace of God.

Many, if not most of us, view her simply as a very bad person with cunning and guile. Her path of destruction seems to have begun with her brother’s apparent murder (although it may have began earlier) and led ultimately to her killing or wounding six colleagues at UAH. (It must be noted that these were or are wonderful people within their communities and their families, which makes this tragedy especially poignant. Of course, murder and mayhem are always tragic.) There were people in her past – enablers, including parents, a police chief, prosecutors, judges, and her husband – who did not stop her earlier. Clearly she must be stopped now.

I, as many of the others, feel that her actions merit a severe punishment. This has the logic of deterrence, balance, and justice. It prevents her from causing future harm. However, mostly it just seems right and appropriate.

Someone’s new geothermal system raises some interesting questions.
See: Looks Like a Hot Deal, by Christopher J. Gearon, Washington Post, Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Synopsis: With various govenment incentives, Gearon equipped his 4,400 sq. ft. home with an expensive geothermal heating and cooling system.

Several economic and technical questions arise from the article:

  1. Gearon states that his new tankless water heater is more efficient than a conventional water heater. While tankless water heaters don’t have losses associated with stored hot water, those losses are relatively minor. One could only determine which water heater is more efficient by comparing specifications or tests on the competing systems.
  2. Do the incentives, tax breaks, and grants that financed 60% of the cost of Gearon’s new system, make sense for the general public? I.e., Do these benefits bring a reduction in pollution that is commensurate with the amount of money being doled out?
  3. Gearon could have gotten some of the tax benefits from a more conventional, but highly efficient system (e.g., a condensing oil furnace). These would lower the cost of those competing systems.
  4. If Gearon is using wind or another alternative source, he didn’t state that in the article. If he uses coal-fired electricity, his claim that his heat is fossil free doesn’t hold.
  5. When touring a LEED building, an energy engineer asserted that the heat transfer between the downward and upward pipes in a vertical well ground system, are more significant than the transfer to the ground. Thus he asserted that there would be little or no benefit from the portion of the well below several feet.
  6. Because the ground is cooled in winter and heated in summer from the geothermal well, temperatures around the well will fall in winter and rise in summer. These temperature changes will make the system less efficient as we get into the respective heating and cooling seasons.

Several of these items would require detailed analyses.