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Of Man and Nectarines September 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, food, football, transportation.
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I love nectarines. They’re delicious. Especially when they are just before ripe and the flesh breaks off the pit cleanly rather than making a sticky mess. I am not a big fan of peaches, however. It’s not the fuzz. It’s the taste. Something about it nauseates me. For a while, this nectarine/peach dichotomy didn’t bother me because I believed that they were two different species of fruit. Specifically, I thought that the nectarine was some hybrid of a peach and a plum. You know, like a pluot/plucot/plumcot/Dinosaur-egg is a hybrid of a plum and an apricot. As it turns out, the nectarine and the peach belong to the same species, with nectarines classified as a cultivar. The nectarine’s smooth skin is simply a recessive trait. Peach fuzz is dominant. To use a politically incorrect analogy—is there a better kind?—caucasians are nectarines, mongoloids are peaches, and peach fuzz is the epicanthal fold. The analogy breaks because I like mongoloids and caucasians equally well. But it works otherwise.

Nectarine season is over. The last batch I bought was crap and I couldn’t finish it. We have now officially entered the two-month dead zone between nectarine season and orange season—which is roughly equivalent to the two-month dead zone between the football and baseball season. To commemorate, I thought I would write a philosophical/environmental post about man and nectarines. You see, the parallel between humans and nectarines are downright creepy. Humans come in several cultivars—some fuzzy, some not—same for nectarines. Humans bruise easily, so do nectarines. Humans are delicious—probably—so are nectarines. Humans were not meant to fly. Neither were nectarines.

Segue alert!

If Darwin wanted humans to fly, he would have made us descendants of bats rather than apes. Mechanical flight is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and one of the true game-changers of the industrial age. It’s also one of the lynchpins of climate change. There is nothing that blasts out CO2 like flying. A round-trip from Washington, DC to Seattle emits about 2,000 kg of CO2 per passenger. That’s as much as the average non-hybrid passenger car emits in a year! Washington, DC to Chicago is 580 kg. Washington, DC to Paris is 4,140. Washington, DC to Wellington 9,800 kg! Visit atmosfair.de to find out how much CO2 your next plane trip will cost the world.

Now, I understand flying to Paris. Paris is probably amazing and you should definitely see it once or twice if you can—I haven’t yet, but I plan to. Same for Wellington. Chicago on the other hand is a different story. Chicago is cool, but the O’Hare Hilton is not. And I personally have done somewhere on the order of ten day trips from Philadelphia to a conference room in Chicago O’Hare. Ten day trips and 5,800 kg of CO2. Ten day trips and 5,800 kg of CO2 that could just as easily have been replaced with ten conference calls. Hmmm. I would never tell people to travel less for vacation or pleasure. Seeing different places is an incredible experience and one of the true benefits of our advanced civilization. But I have no problem telling people to travel less for business or quasi-business. Business travel is one of the banes of humanity.

Segway alert! Man, I am on an absolute roll when it comes to making jokes at the expense of deceased people. Anyways, from now on, the term segway will be used to describe a segue back to the original topic. Run with that.

The Whole Foods on River and Dorsey sells nectarines from three originations—from Pennsylvania for $1.99/lb, from Washington State for $2.99/lb, and from New Zealand also for $2.99/lb. I buy the ones from Pennsylvania. Because I am a cheap-elitist-bastard—a cheap-bastard shops at the Giant, a cheap-elitist-bastard is the kind of person who shops at Whole Foods but buys the cheapest stuff there, it’s an important distinction—and because it pains me to think of nectarines flying from Washington to Washington, much less Wellington to Washington. That’s a long way for a nectarine to fly. A good-sized nectarine weighs about four ounces. The average 180 lb. man is the weight equivalent of 720 nectarines. Using the same atmosfair calcluator, dividing by 720 and carrying the one, a one way trip from Wellington to Washington, DC spews out 7 kg of CO2 per nectarine. Emissions-wise, buying a nectarine from New Zealand is the same as driving a non-hybrid for day! Buying 720 nectarines from New Zealand is the equivalent of flying to New Zealand yourself or driving a non-hybrid car for two years! Now, I have bought at least 720 nectarines this summer. I may have bought 1,720. I said they’re delicious didn’t I? Happily, all but perhaps 20 of them were from Pennsylvania. Sadly, the ones from New Zealand are superior. Smaller, but with more tang. However, my atmosfair experiments have taught me a valuable lesson. Next time I am jonesing nectarines from down under, I should just fly there myself and eat them there.

P.S. What am I doing in a conference room at the O’Hare Hilton? Attending program committee meetings, of course. For the unwashed, a program committe meeting is a meeting held on a Saturday in a conference room at the O’Hare Hilton—or at the Hyatt if the Hilton is booked—in which 30 men and women gather to decide which 40 of 200 research papers submissions will appear in upcoming technical conference X. Physical program committee meetings—in which the committee is physically present in one room—are the biggest wastes of CO2 I can personally think of. Virtual program committee meetings—in which the committee is physically distributed and communicating by phone—are far better environmentally and likely result in technical programs of equal quality. Why are virtual program committee meetings not used more frequently? Is it because you have to flush them on context switches?

P.P.S. There are many things to admire about professional athletes—their talent, the time they must have put in to work on their bodies and on their games. There are a few things to despise also—the fact that they can get away with vehicular homicide. Add another to list number two. As part of rookie hazing, Roy Williams of the Dallas Cowboys took the entire team out to a fancy dinner and left the bill with disrespectful rookie Dez Bryant. The total? 54 large. That’s right. $54,000. On dinner. There are 53 players on a football team. That’s $1,000 per person! Roy, you want to make a point without looking like an LEED silver a-hole? Donate $54,000 dollars to charity and stick Dez with that bill!

P.P.P.S. On second thought, this isn’t a reason to hate professional athletes, just the the Cowboys! E! A! G! L! E! S! EAGLES!

P.P.P.P.S. The Vegas line for Eagles-Redskins has moved from 7 points to 6 in the last two days. Still solid for a division game. 24-13 Eagles.

Hardy Har Har September 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, economy, football, politics, society, taxes, transportation, war.
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The GOP is always good for a laugh. Regardless of how it’s pronounced, the party’s House leader spells his name Boehner. They gave us tea-bagging. And Sarah P. And wiccan-cum-Palin Christine O’Donnell. And now, just in time for the midterms, they’ve given us the Pledge To America. Yes America, congressional Republicans have an actual agenda other than filibustering Democratic legislation!

What is this agenda? Why are you asking me? Download and read it yourself! Don’t let the 10 MByte file size or 48 pages put you off. Text doesn’t take up much file space—one or two bytes per character—a 10 MByte document has to contain a large number of pictures. And in fact, PTA has 15 full pages of pictures! Of the Statue of Liberty, the Deepwater Horizon Rig, Mount Rushmore, Montcoal, the White House, Gitmo, the Capitol, K Street, House Minority Leader Boehner, Christine O’Donnell, main street USA, prison USA, a cowboy silhouetted against a sunset, Tony Romo, three old dudes at a supermarket beef counter, a CAFO, soldiers, caskets. Pictures that make you proud sick to be an American! There are also nine pages of content tables and titles like “Checks and Balances” and “Speak Out!” Plus two pages of figures for the sake of figures, including a nice one of Obama-spaghetti-care. That leaves you with only 22 pages of text. Still too much? Not to worry, the text itself is in large font, 1.5 spaced, and has huge margins. I banged it out on my iPhone between Tenleytown and Metro Center. And if this is still too long, there is the handy pocket card. Perfect for parties, or just around the water cooler! Alright, enough boilerplate and lace. Let’s briefly go over the “contents” of this bad boy, shall we?

Theme I: “shrink the government, reduce spending, and cut the Federal debt.” End TARP! Privatize the mortgage industry! Cancel the stimulus bill and reclaim all unspent Recovery Act funds! Return government spending to pre-bailout/pre-stimulus levels! Excuse me, but not even Sergey Brin is this rich! TARP was expensive, yes, but TARP also prevented a complete Wall Street meltdown and saved several US financial giants. The Fannie and Freddie bailouts were also expensive, but they did keep millions of American home “owners” temporarily afloat and the housing market from spiraling even more than it did. And yes, the unemployment was 7.7 before ARRA and 9.5 now, but what would it be now without the recovery act? And where would Philly Bluejay swim? Philly Bluejay currently swims at the sparkling Wilson Aquatic Center, proudly built using ARRA funds! But back to my point. All of these programs were and are expensive. And government spending was lower before they were enacted. But all of these programs were necessitated by Republican-led de-regulation of the financial and mortgage industries! And do you know which government programs were and are even more expensive? That’s right, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Strangely, no mention of canceling those in PTA. In fact, the only mention of Iraq and Afghanistan in PTA is in an item related to Iran. Which brings us to …

Theme II: “make America secure at home and abroad.” Protect our borders! A stronger visa program! Don’t let anyone out of Gitmo! Clean troop funding bills! Tough sanctions against Iran! A fully-funded missile shield! Let’s put the borders/visa/hate-of-Mexico/love-of-waterboarding issue aside for a minute and focus on the last three points. “Clean troop funding bills” essentially means a blank check from Congress to the Pentagon. Yes, that will definitely help to decrease spending! Tough sanctions against Iran because … well … Iran hates us and they will have nuclear capability by 2015. Actually kids, Iran will go nuclear before Passover and “tough sanctions” have as much of a chance of getting Ahmadinejad to back down as a personal plea from Philly Bluejay. Please Mahmoud, please dismantle your nuclear program. I promise not to make fun of your height or use your name and Kim Jong Il’s in the same sentence any more! That work? No? Bummer. And so what will definitely work against mini-me—oops, I did it again—Korean mini-me, and any other vertically-challenged-head-of-nuclear-state-gone-wild is a missile shield! The same missile shield will also stop hijacked planes, bombs in the New York subway system, IEDs, cyberterrorism, and attacks on our energy and water infrastructure. And it won’t blow the budget. Much. And also, to defeat attacks from the sea, the US coast will be patrolled by ill-tempered seabass with frikking lasers! A missile shield? Seriously? Do you know what would be far more effective against Herve Villechaise and Nelson de la Rosa—shame on me, I’ve just made fun of three dead dwarves in the span of 100 words—and far cheaper than a missile shield? About 50 F-16 Falcons and 10 B-2 bombers! A missile shield? A missile shield? Why not just run on “We will build a Death Star?”

Theme III: “no more Federal funding for abortion.” Ah, the abortion card! Apparently, they are saving the stem cell card for later.

Theme IV: “increase access to domestic energy sources.” Does this mean offshore wind farms in the North Atlantic and solar in Arizona or lifting the offshore drilling ban and opening up Alaska? I’m confused. Actually, I’m not. Of all the ludicrous statements in PTA, this might be the worst. I guess the fact that DC was buried under three feet of snow this past winter proves that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by Liberal scientists and that an ice age is coming! Drill baby drill!

Theme V: Two items Philly Bluejay supports: “make the Bush tax cuts permanent … for all Americans” and “oppose any carbon ‘cap-and-trade’ system.” These are solid proposals. Payroll taxes should be reduced. Even tiered income tax systems discourage people from working while doing nothing to curb massive consumption at the top. Meanwhile, cap-and-trade is complicated, provides the government with uncertain income, and doesn’t cover a sufficient number of sectors. The US needs to gradually reduce payroll taxes and combine those with a gradually increasing economy-wide carbon tax—payroll taxes should decrease by 1% per year for the next 10 years and CO2 emissions should be taxed by an additional $10 per ton per year over the same period, maxing out at $100 a ton. Think that’s high? It’s actually pretty pathetic—only about $34 per barrel of oil or $0.80 a gallon. Either way, Philly Bluejay salutes you, GOP! These two planks alone are enough to make Philly Bluejay forget about the rest of your nonsense, move to Delaware, and vote for Christine O’Donnell!

P.S. Philly Bluejay’s temporary new employer, US DOE/EERE—United States Department of Energy/Energy Efficiency and Renewables Division for the TLA/TLA/FLA impaired—has some cool programs like CYES (California Youth Energy Services). Philly Bluejay is not personally involved with these programs. Philly Bluejay is only involved with double-secret (i.e., obscure) programs.

P.P.S. Philly Bluejay’s namesakes—the Philadelphia Phillies—just wrapped up their fourth consecutive division title as for all practical purposes the number one seed in the conference. Good job, men! Red October 2010! Woot!

P.P.P.S. More “baseball news.” A California jury found Andrew Gallo—the drunk driver who last summer killed Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two 20-something female friends—guilty of three counts of second-degree murder. Gallo could spend the next 50 years in prison. Gallo is no doubt a LEED Platium moron, but his biggest shortcoming is not being a NFL player! Less than a month before Gallo’s unfortunate accident, then Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth killed pedestrian Mario Reyes in a drunk driving accident in Miami Beach. Stallworth was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, spent 30 days in jail, another two years in house arrest, and came to an “undisclosed” financial settlement with the Reyes family. He was subsequently signed by the Baltimore Ravens! Oh, the hypocrisy! Philly Bluejay wonders what the sentence would have been had Stallworth killed Adenhart.

P.P.P.P.S. In other Philadelphia sporting/avian news—week 2 of the Michael Vick era and the Eagles sit atop the NFC East! This weekend, prodigal son and recent cast-off Donovan McNabb—just “recent cast-off” is not specific enough—returns to Philly. Oh, the drama! Opening line from Vegas? Eagles -7! Whowouldathunkit?

P.P.P.P.P.S. Still more football news. Philly Bluejay major icon and fellow Bethesda resident Gregg Easterbrook had absolutely nothing to say about the Andy Reid/Kevin Kolb/Michael Vick/Donovan McNabb love-hate quadrilateral in this week’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Although TMQ did have a funny piece about acronyms disowning their full-word namesakes. Perhaps Philly Bluejay will shoot Easterbrook a text and ask! Perhaps Philly Bluejay will also shoot Easterbrook a text to ask about licensing the name “Tuesday Morning Third-String Emergency Quarterback” or perhaps “Wednesday Afternoon Practice Squad Safety.” Although perhaps TMQ stands for nothing, in which case no text is necessary. Starting this weekend, Philly Bluejay will be known as WAPSS.

Nuclear Football September 20, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in football, politics, transportation, war, weird.
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It’s football season. And I couldn’t be happier. Well, until the Eagles lost their opener plus four starters to injury anyways. But hey, Dallas lost also! Football is a game of war metaphors. Football players are “warriors.” Quarterbacks are “field generals.” Linemen play in the “trenches.” Quarterbacks get “sacked.” Running backs get “blown up.” “Bombs” get “intercepted.” It’s like the Middle East! With cheerleaders!

Three weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi “Benjamin” Netanyahu met with Fatah leader Mahmoud “The Tall One” Abbas in POTUS Lightning “Barry” Obama’s house for what was described as a hopeful opening round of peace talks. They met again this past week in Egypt accompanied by SOS Clinton. And they will continue to meet every two weeks thereafter. Until either a two state solution emerges. Or until next spring when when Mahmoud “Napoleon cum beard” Ahmadinejad wipes them both off the map with a nuclear warhead.

Most experts agree that Iran is about six months away from joining the nuclear club. The recent freeing of hiker/alleged-spy Sarah Shourd does not mean that Mahmoud suddenly gives a pigeon’s ass about what the West thinks. If it did, her male companions would be freed as well. It doesn’t even mean he has respect for women. If he did, there wouldn’t be this. Ahmadinejad sees twin openings in the Middle East/Central Asia and in the world of Islam and he is ready to pounce on both simultaneously. From a geopolitical standpoint, he is determined to make Iran a major world player—on par with the US, Russia, China, and the European Union, most of whom he repeatedly and deliberately thumbs his moustache at. From a religious standpoint, he sees an opportunity to leapfrog Saudi Arabia and to make Shiites the dominant Muslim sect. Nuclear armament is a quicker path to the first goal than social and economic reform. And it’s a quicker path to the second than decades of brainwashing-by-madrasah in Pakistan. And what a grander entrance to the world stage, holier ascension to the throne of Islam, and more absolute show of force and the will to use it than to eradicate the enemy of Islam—to finish off what the Holocaust couldn’t. It’s as if he’s trying to recreate the scene from Episode IV where Darth Vader forces Leia to watch as he tests the Death Star on her home planet—”Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station!” Actually, given that it’s Ahmadinejad, it would be more like Dark Helmet from Space Balls, but the fate of Alderaan would be the same. Ahmadinejad is six months away from the Muslim nutbag end zone. He’s at the 35. 30. He’s in the clear and he’s starting to high step it. 25. 20. He’s looking at the Jumbotron and holding the nuclear football over his head. 15. 10.

Some experts believe that Israel has a good tackling angle on Iran. That it is ready to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities the same way it took out Syria’s in 2007 and Iraq’s in 1981. Israel—itself unofficially nuclear for at least 35 years—has never let an Arab neighbor get to the end zone. And they are about to go Don Beebe all over Iran’s Leon Lett. The Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg’s has literally kept a running column/blog about this. It will happen. The world has enough problems without a nuclear Iran. The US is probably not going to take military action on its own—there may be a limit on the number of Arab countries that can be attacked in one decade—although it should. The world will applaud. And Israel’s other Arab neighbors will not protest. Saudi Arabia knows that once Iran is done with Israel, Riadh is next.

Which brings us back to the biweekly—bimonthly?—Israel/Fatah talks. Long term, an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank is a necessary component of any stable configuration in the region. Israel cannot keep barricading and illegally settling the West Bank indefinitely nor will it accept 2.5 million Muslims into what is at core a Jewish state. But until the Iran situation is resolved, Palestine 2.0 is a distraction. Peace with Fatah will not significantly change Israel’s security situation. Fatah is already not a security threat to Israel proper—as opposed to Israel improper, the Jewish settlements within the West Bank—neutralized partly by the wall and partly by its leadership. Hamas to the south and Hezbollah to the north operate independently of Fatah and will remain intermittent threats whether a West Bank Palestinian state is established or not. And so perhaps this is a misdirection play—Israel making the world look in the backfield while it sends fifty F-16s deep. Then again, if recent Israel has anything in common with Iran it’s that it doesn’t seem to care much for world opinion. Perhaps this is all political cover for POTUS Lightning. Israel needs to make nice with Lightning—it can’t wait until 2012 and hope that a militant pro-Israel anti-Arab Republican lands in the White House.

Disclaimer. Most of Philly Bluejay’s readers already know this, but I started out as Petah Tikva Starling—there are no Bluejays in Petah Tikva, but plenty of starlings. From what I can remember. This—and cousins—gives me more skin in this issue than the typical American bird, not to mention more cred. Ahem. Of course, I became Philly Bluejay at the age of eleven, never served in the Israeli army, and never lived in Israel as an adult during wartime or Intifada—I spent May-August 2000 in Haifa and the Second Intifada started that September. This gives me significantly less skin and cred than anyone who had actually spent significant time in the .il as an adult. My general stance is pro-Israel, but pro-Israel is not the primary criterion by which I judge US or other non-Israeli political figures. I’m glad we clarified this.

P.S. Sherley, you must be joking! I’m dead serious, and don’t call me Sherley!

P.P.S. Ummmmm … wow!

P.P.P.S. I love the DC Metro—never more than a three minute wait, never less than 80% full. Apparently, the feeling is not mutual. At approximately 8:50am this past Friday, at the Metro Center station, the Orange Line to New Carrolton grabbed me by the right ankle and refused to let go! Isn’t the door supposed to open automatically if it feels an obstruction? Fellow passengers tried to pry the door open but failed. Isn’t the door supposed to release if it feels people pulling on it? I was about to channel Aron Ralston, but I didn’t have my trusty Leatherman with me as it will not go through DOE metal detectors. Instead, I slipped off my shoe, used it to brace the doors while pulling my foot free, then turned it 90 degrees and pulled it through. Next station, Federal Triangle! Philly Bluejay 1-Orange Line 0! This morning, the Orange line to New Carrolton was waiting with doors open as I was heading down the escalator. Rather than run and risk another incident—why don’t train doors have the same countdown timers that most streetlights have these days?—I let the train go and waited three minutes for the next one. Buck, buck, brawwwck! Philly Bluejay 1-Orange Line 1.

P.P.P.P.S. Pastor Jones, how about this for a compromise? You call off the Koran burning and return James Hetfield’s moustache, and we move the planned Cordoba House mosque from Ground Zero to the Dove World parking lot. Haven’t you done enough damage?

P.P.P.P.P.S. What’s the first thing you learn in baseball? No, not “There’s no crying in baseball”—that’s the second thing you learn. It’s “When you get into a fight with a drunk, you don’t hit him with your pitching hand!”!

Forty Five Minutes To Where? August 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, transportation, Uncategorized.
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It’s summertime. And Philly Bluejay is living it easy. And also has sporadic internet connection other than his iPhone. It’s hard to bang out multi-line email responses on an iPhone, much less 1,200 word blog posts! If only Philly Bluejay was a teenager during the dawn of texting, he would have developed the thumb dexterity necessary to conduct all of his online business on a 2.5″ by 4.5″ touch screen. Alas, club-thumbs relegate Philly Bluejay to the laptop set.

Anywhos, here is a SmartPlanet—not to be confused with SmarterPlanet®—blog post about vactrains. What is a vactrain? It’s a maglev (magnetic levitation) train that travels in an airless—or at least highly depressurized—tube. Because there is no friction with either the rails or the air, vactrains can presumably achieve very high speeds while using relatively little energy. China is currently developing a vactrain that will travel at 600+ mph. That is more than twice as fast as the fastest maglev train—the 268 mph Shanghai line, more than three times faster than the fastest conventional train, and even slightly faster than a jet! Second- and third- generation vactrains could break the sound barrier and reach speeds of 4,000 mph! NY to LA in 45 minutes!

Okay, so a train going 4,000 mph along a relatively straightshot 3,000 mile tube is probably not going to happen—not even with eminent domain—but even a train going 600 mph along a 300 mile tube would be a useful thing. Here is a CNN.com piece about high-speed rail projects in the US. The most interesting parts of the piece are the actual projects as well as the criticisms. The most prevalent criticism is that high speed train travel is less energy efficient than traveling in a small car and that it is not sufficiently faster to forfeit door-to-door convenience. This is a false argument. The competition for high speed trains is not cars—it’s regional jets. Regional jets are the least energy-efficient form of transportation. Jet travel in general is hard to make green because batteries cannot achieve anywhere near the energy density of kerosene-based jet fuel. But regional jets are worse than long-haul jets because they have larger vehicle-to-payload weight ratios and because they fly at lower altitudes where air resistance is higher. When Philly Bluejay and eighteen other people take the 6AM Embraer 170 to Boston—this happens!

Regional jets are ripe to get picked off by high speed trains. Train travel is as convenient as regional jet travel if not more so. There are no long security lines at train stations—although security at train stations should be increased. And most inter-city train stations are located in downtowns—at the hub of the local train system—whereas most airports are not. Philly Bluejay would much prefer to take the 6AM maglev-Acella or vac-Acella—actually, vac-Acella sounds too much like a disease—to Boston and get to the train station at 5:45 than the 6AM United-Express and get to the airport at 5:15.

Which gets us back to the US high-speed rail projects. Most of the projects—northeast corridor, California coast, Miami-Orlando—are sensible. There is a lot of regional jet travel along these routes. But some are pure pork. Is there significant regional air traffic between Cincinnati and Cleveland? Between Milwaukee and St. Paul? High speed track—especially maglev- and vac-tracks—is expensive. From a climate-change/renewable-energy perspective, it only makes sense if it can displace a significant amount of air travel.

P.S. Speaking of the 2.5″ by 4.5″ magic portal, Philly Bluejay recently discovered the rationale behind these magical dimensions! I’m sure you’ve heard of the classic Microsoft interview question: “why are manhole covers round?” The real answer of course is “Duh, because manholes are round and the cover needs to fit the hole!” but the answer Microsoft expects is “So that it can’t fall in.” Well, the reason the second smallest dimension of an iPhone is 2.5″ is so that it doesn’t fall through a sidewalk grating when someone bumps into you while you are trying to take a picture.

P.P.S. If you travel in computer science circles—and who among Philly Bluejay’s four readers doesn’t? except for my mother, hi mom—you know about the recent buzz surrounding the central question of the field—whether P=NP. About two weeks ago, Vinay Deolalikar—a mathematician working at HP—published a 100+ page proof of the widely believed but still not formally proven result that P≠NP. Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, there are 1,000,000 reasons—or maybe 1,166,666.66 now that Grigory Perelman refuses to collect after resolving the Poincare conjecture. After much prodding and pulling on the WordPress-sphere, it now appears that all has been for naught and that Mr. Deolalikar will not be collecting after all. Well, Philly Bluejay has recently proven a somewhat less known but no less important result—sources tell me that it was ranked 1,530 on the list of millenium challenge problems—specifically that YP≠MP. Follow closely. You≠me∴your problem≠my problem. QED. Now, where is my 1,166,666.66 USD?

P.P.P.S. Anyone know the HTML code for the QED “tombstone?”

P.P.P.P.S. A few weeks ago, Baghdad recorded an all time record high temperature of 126 Fahrenheit—it’s a dry heat. Then just this past week, the last US combat troop pulled out of Iraq. Coincidence? Perhaps the US/West strategy against Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran should revolve not around military action but rather around climate change! Humans can’t tolerate prolonged exposure to temperatures higher than 120 Fahrenheit. If we can raise the average summer high temperature in the region to that level—it’s currently about 108 Fahrenheit—I bet the locals would get a lot less feisty. Come on, we can do this!

P.P.P.P.P.S. Philly Bluejay also has a plan for long-haul trans- and inter-continental jet travel. With the shuttle program now retired, NASA needs to develop hybrid jets that fly both in the atmosphere using conventional forced-air jet propulsion and above it using stored oxygen. These hybrid jets would take off from commercial airfields, climb through the atmosphere like conventional jets, transition to shuttle mode, travel the bulk of their route in zero-drag conditions while discharging waste gas outside of the atmosphere, then reenter, transition back to conventional jet mode, then land again at a commercial field.

The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief June 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Africa, books, China, clean energy, climate, economy, energy efficiency, environment, society, sustainability, transportation, water efficiency.
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I just finished Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. It’s an account of what we’ve already managed to do to the planet (just frightening when you stop and take stock), what changes we are already locked into (nauseating), and how we can cope with this new planet (alternatingly depressing and ispirational). It’s called “Eaarth” because it describes a planet substantially different than Earth. Personally, I would have named the book “Eartch”. First, it’s Earth + c. Get it? If not, never mind. Second, Eartch sounds like vomit whereas Eaarth just sounds—or at least looks—Dutch. Then again, if anyone knows something about living with climate change and dealing with a rising sea, it’s the Dutch. I still prefer Eartch, though. If there is one talent I have it’s naming things. Whether it’s giving people nicknames. Putting a name on a project. You name it. Actually, I name it. Bill, you should have consulted me!

A few things about McKibben. First, he looks remarkably like someone I used to know—Boyd Multerer, who’s now the GM of Xbox Live. Second, he—is—almost—as—fond—of—m-dashes—as—I—am. —. Third, he uses colloquial phraseology like “Whatever, dude!” and “get real.” Fourth, he pokes fun of Tom Friedman in a loving kind of way. Which is great. Famous people need to rib each other more in print in this way. Just so they don’t start taking themselves too seriously. One of my fears is that I will not be famous enough for someone to rib me in print. That’s actually my third biggest fear—right behind climate change and alligators. The really great thing about McKibben poking fun at Friedman is that he is a lot like Friedman. Except that he is primarily an environmentalist rather than foreign affairs journalist. And he lives in a small town in Vermont rather than in an 11,000 sq. ft. house in Washington, DC. And he doesn’t have an awesome moustache. Now that the NFL draft is over, McKibben may take a spot on Mt. Crushmore, alongside Gregg Easterbrook, my mother, and POTUS BO. Tom Friedman can be Crazy Horse.

Onto Eartch. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and read it. There is no excuse not to. It’s not very long, you’ll finish it in a few days. If you don’t have a copy and don’t want to buy one—good for you for repressing your consumerist instincts—I will lend you mine. If you don’t know how to read, have someone who does read it to you. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like what this book has to say. But it will change the way you think. And maybe the way you live too.

So what is it that makes this book different than other climate change books? Basically, it has a different—and sadly much more realistic and grounded—arc. It doesn’t paint some speculative dystopian future, and then turn around and say “if we all stop driving right now, we can stop short of the cliff.” The basic message is that there is literally no way to avoid going off the cliff at this point. Society as a whole—and Western society specifically—is going to end up in a lower place than it was. What we do from here on and how quickly we do it will determine how low we go and how gentle the decline. It’s a bitter message, but it’s strangely reassuring. It feels like the fifth stage of grief.

Let’s start with denial. Americans tend to discount climate change because few of the extreme weather events that are its supposed signatures have happened in the U.S. And if it doesn’t happen in the U.S., it doesn’t actually happen. But stuff like this does happen. On a fairly regular basis these days. Eartch doesn’t prognosticate or speculate. It mostly talks about things that have already happened or are currently happening. There is no need to extrapolate or at least not to extrapolate very far. What’s currently happening is bad enough. And the worst thing about it is its unpredictability. Society is largely built on predictability. No predictability, no society as we currently know it.

If there is something to be angry about right now it’s that we’ve wasted the last 30 years. 31 years ago, POTUS Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he laid out his vision for America’s—and the world’s—energy and environment future. No more dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuels. Conservation. Personal responsibility. Coal. The speech was delivered from the Oval Office, a few dozen feet underneath the White House solar panels. We should’ve listened then. We didn’t want to hear any of it. 18 months later it was “Morning in America.” The solar panels came down. Everything was de-regulated and we started off on a 30 year oil-fueled growth bubble that only exploded 18 months ago. Our last good chance to avoid the cliff was 1980. There is no avoiding it now.

Bargaining. Good luck with this one. To quote Leonard Nimoy on “Fringe”: “physics is a bitch.” And it’s not the only one. Chemistry and biology are too. For a long time, the accepted “safe” level for atmospheric CO2—”safe” meaning supporting stable hydrological cycles that bear some resemblance to the current cycles—was 450ppm. Guess what? That number is actually closer to 350ppm. And guess what else? The current concentration is over 390ppm and even stopping it at 450ppm is going to be extremely. On second thought, I think we are going to have to skip this stage and go right to depression.

There is a lot to be depressed about. Climate change means the end of stability and the likely end of meaningful economic growth as we’ve known it. The social pyramid scheme which is economic growth has gotten too top heavy and the earth is collapsing under its weight. The end of economic growth means a reduced aggregate standard of living as we have come to define it. Fewer choices. Fewer material possessions. Less mobility. If there is any justice in the world—and that’s a big if—Western standards for these will need to drop substantially if those for developing countries are to rise to humane levels. We need to accept this.

Acceptance is a strangely liberating thing. Would a society in which we consume fewer resources and have fewer material possessions as a result be a bad society? Would a society in which we traveled less, lived a more local life, be a bad society? Would a society in which some aspects of globalization were reversed and some of our choices were limited by our geographical location be a bad society? Would a society without substantial economic growth, half of which benefits the top 1% anyways, be a bad society? To para-quote Po Bronson, “Freedom is not having unlimited means. Freedom is the knowledge that you can live whatever your means.” We need to re-calibrate our mindset. To redefine success—you know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed.” We need to redefine prosperity and progress as something other than economic growth. If we do that, it will be easier, mentally, to buckle down and get to the enormous task at hand. And maybe if we do that, we will have Eaarth rather than Eartch.

Thanks Bill.

P.S. How stupid do you have to be to take out a loan at an 85% annual interest rate? Full credit if you answered Eddy Curry. Partial credit if you answered Antoine Walker.

P.P.S. Another Bluejay sighting. But this one wasn’t in Philly. It was in Columbus Circle in DC.

NASA’s New Missions April 20, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, geo-engineering, science, sustainability, technology, transportation.
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Bluejay’s idol, ideal, role model, template, and Platonic form is TMQ by Gregg Easterbrook. In fact, Bluejay likes to think of itself as TMQ 0.1 minus the football analysis, deep insight into politics and economics, fancy graphics, and pictures of cheerleaders, but with third person self-references! TMQ thinks of NASA as a giant pork barrel rather than an actual federal agency. TMQ likes to post pictures from the Hubble space telescope—and these are cool, although not as cool as pictures of lightning from the Iceland volcano ash cloud—but otherwise takes a dim view of the shuttle program, the international space station, the Constellation program, etc. TMQ thinks NASA’s real core mission should be to develop techniques to protect earth from large asteroid strikes.

Apparently, Bluejay’s other idol/ideal/template/Platonic form POTUS BO agrees with TMQ’s assessment of the shuttle program, essentially forcing the agency to scrap it and to delay Constellation by five years. At the same time, however, BO is promising NASA’s a $6,000,000,000 grant to fund a circa 2035 manned mission to Mars. For the record, this is about one third of NASA’s annual budget. Here is a conservative reaction to this plan.

Bluejay is nothing if not idealistic and Platonic and thus follows the views of TMQ and POTUS. Bluejay does have something original to add to the conversation, however. Maybe. Bluejay doesn’t know what purpose the ISS serves and therefore what purpose the shuttle program—which apparently exists to supply the ISS—serves. Bluejay wonders what a manned mission to Mars will prove and/or contribute to science and society. Bluejay sees two pseudo-realistic possibilities. One, POTUS hopes that a manned mission to Mars will result in the development of medical technology for human hibernation and for sustainable power,oxygen, and food generation from fixed resources. Two, POTUS understands that the global political will to enact meaningful climate change mitigation actions doesn’t exist and is scouting Mars as a potential future home for the human race. Amen to both!

But Bluejay has an alternative suggestion in the form of alternative mission statements for NASA. Specifically, in addition to protecting earth from asteroid strikes, solar flares, and prawns, NASA should be developing two other capabilities. First, planes capable both of taking off from and landing at conventional airfields and low-orbit rocket-propelled flight. Doing this will not only cut flight times for long flights, but will also reduce the enormous greenhouse gas footprint of airplane travel. Second, NASA should develop capabilities to launch and position giant solar shields in geosynchronous orbit. As masterfully described in the previous post, we will likely need such shields to help avert dangerous climate change “tipping points” we have already locked ourselves into due to a century of action followed by nearly half a century of inaction. If NASA succeeds in developing and deploying these two technologies, solving a large part of our transportation problem and helping to head-off potential climate disaster, TMQ, POTUS BO, Bluejay, and the general public may come to view it as an albatross in the sky rather than as an albatross around the neck.

P.S. Bluejay is not a big comic book guy. Never was. And isn’t a huge fan of most comic-book-derivative movies, having seen the classic Christopher Reeve Superman trilogy and all three X-Men movies, but only the original SpiderMan, three of the 28 Batmans, and skipped several other singletons, like DareDevil, altogether. Bluejay’s favorite superhero movies of all time are IronMan—IronMan 2.0 is greatly anticipated but is sure to disappoint—and The Incredibles. Well, the duo has become a Troika.

P.P.S. Bluejay will resume its more traditional and less obnoxious first-person self-referential style tomorrow.

Scaling Up North Carolina April 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, energy efficiency, politics, society, sustainability, transportation.
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North Carolina is a brilliant state. One all states should strive to emulate. They have Duke. They have a mini-Silicon valley. They have NASCAR giant deep-fried turkey legs. They sent noted racist and segregationist Jesse Helms, who once held a 16-day filibuster to stop the institution of the federal MLK holiday, to the US Senate for five terms. Now they are sending Kay Hagan, a Democrat! A red state turned blue! Also, I have many friends who live down there. And did I mention the giant deep-fried turkey legs and greased pig races?

One of the things we can learn from NC is how to better utilize resources, specifically by time-multiplexing them in extreme and novel ways. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle area is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Roughly 20 people move to the area every day. One of the results is that schools are overflowing and the county can’t build new ones fast enough to meet the growing demand. Their solution? Cut the school year into continuous 12-week chunks. Kids go to school for nine weeks and then have a three-week break. Now chop up the classes into four and rotate such that at any time only three-quarters of the kids are going to school. The overcrowding problem is solved or at least pushed back. And school facilities aren’t sitting around idle during the summer months. Brilliant! Of course, this creative solution creates problems for working parents, who now can’t send their kids off to summer camp for months at a time but rather have to occupy them somehow for three-week periods four times a year. But guess what? A whole cottage industry has sprung up to fill in this gap.

Which brings me to my point. And yes, it usually takes me 250 words before I get to my point. Why don’t we apply this strategy much more broadly to improve utilization and reduce peak load on all sorts of resources? Why don’t we spread out and stagger work and school schedules, at any granularity–in the course of a day, during the week, or during the year as NC does–to a greater degree than we already do? Middle-schools, high-schools and elementary-schools start and finish times are already staggered so that the same fleet of school buses–by the way, why aren’t school buses hybrid?–can run triple duty. Why aren’t more things staggered this way or some other way? Specifically, why isn’t the entire American workforce staggered this way?

Hear me out. What if all businesses moved to a rotating nine-week-on/three-week-off work schedule, effectively furloughing one quarter of their employees every three weeks? If every business did this, i.e., effectively operated at three-quarter capacity, there would be 25% less commuting traffic, 25% less peak load on electricity, and so on. Of course, everyone would get paid 25% less too. But before you say “I don’t want to earn 25% less”, wouldn’t you agree to do it if you could also work 25% less? I would! I understand that I live comfortably above the poverty level and a 25% reduction in income for me is not the same as a 25% reduction in income for someone below 2x. But if you are furloughed from one business 25% of the time, there won’t be anything to stop you from filling that gap at another business.

Of course, there would be 25% less economic output also, so I am not really suggesting this. And this is where the second part of the plan comes in. Forget about 25% less traffic and 25% less peak electrical load. We have to give those back. What if to ramp back up to full capacity, every business hired 33% more workers? Wouldn’t you agree to earn 25% less if you worked 25% less and lived in a country with essentially no unemployment? I would!

I’ve never run a business, and I can see some downsides. The ratio of benefits to salary would increase. It would, but not as much as one might think, and even less if health insurance reform goes even further and costs go down. Employer taxes and contributions to retirement plans are proportional to salary. Any maybe a nine-week-on, three-week-off rotation would create too many project disruptions. Maybe if you are that kind of business, you could furlough at a finer granularity, rotating one quarter of your workforce out four out of the five weekdays. Either way, the upside seems much bigger–a healthier, better-rested, and more productive workforce.

If I started a company today–and I am not–I would try to run it this way. And since I am not, perhaps I will just start doing this in my current place of business. See you in three weeks!

P.S. Not to make an inappropriate soapbox out of tragedy, but 25 people would never be killed by a wind turbine or solar panel explosion.

P.P.S. What a shame. Republican pundits are calling Stupak the first casualty of Obamacare. But that’s ridiculous. Stupak is not a casualty of Obamacare. He’s a casualty of the mindless anti-abortion movement which doesn’t realize that what Stupak actually did was force an executive order to enforce the current restrictions on abortion coverage on the passed health care bill. The anti-abortion movement should hold up Stupak as a hero. If not for him, Obama would have gotten someone else on board without the abortion language amendment. All this shows is that, again, the abortion issue in this country is primarily a tool for political evil wielded by the right. That is all.

P.P.P.S. Thank god Stevens waited to retire until there was a Democratic congress and president! Thanks, J.P. It’s a great last act.

Flight of the Penguins March 15, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, society, sustainability, transportation.
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Have you seen the movie “March of the Penguins?” You should. If anything, it will convince you that the last animal you want to come back as in your future life is an Emperor Penguin. After the penguins mate and females return to the sea, the males are left for five months to incubate the eggs in the only safe and semi-warm place they have–on the tops of their feet. What did you think I was going to say? The temperature is -70 (what’s the HTML for degree?). I don’t know whether that’s -70 Celsius or Fahrenheit, but does it really matter? To maximize warmth (and I am using that term loosely), the penguins huddle together in a big circle and because it’s warmer on the inside of the circle, they rotate perimeter duty. If the egg should fall off the feet during the rotation, the male has about 4 seconds to pick it up before it cracks and the chick inside dies. Needless to say, unless you’re the Penguin equivalent of David Beckham, you’re toast (or the anti-particle of toast). And you should see the look on a penguin’s face when this happens. You would think that it’s difficult to express anguish if you have a beak instead of a mouth. You would be wrong. Of course, female penguins don’t exactly have it easy. They have to march out 100 miles back to the ocean on those tiny little penguin feet and come back with “food” for dad and baby. Mostly for baby. Should something happen to the mother along the way–oh I don’t know she gets eaten by a sea lion–dad and baby die. It is really difficult to believe that a species would go these evolutionary lengths just to avoid competition. Yet there they are.

I find all birds fascinating. Can you tell by the name of this blog? But I find penguins especially so because they gave up the ability to fly. They had it. And they genetically “decided” they were better off without it. They were better off standing in -70 degree weather for five months with an egg on the tops of their feet than flying. And so are we. Well, not the -70 degrees part. Or the egg on the feet part. But we are better off not flying. Or at least flying less.

I read an op-ed in the NY Times recently in which the writer complained that airlines are alienating their primary constituency and only true cash cow (the business traveler) by charging for erstwhile free “amenities” like checked luggage, extra leg room, and in-flight meals. Business travelers–many of whom have to fly on the cheapest possible ticket and cannot expense upgrades–are now choosing to drive routes they would otherwise fly. I think the example was Boston to Pittsburgh, i.e., something long-ish but certainly road-trip-able. My response? Great! Way to go airlines! Go airlines go!

Aside from owning and operating your own cement plant or CAFO, flying is about the most environmentally unfriendly thing you can do. Flying is the most energy-inefficient mode of transportation. This is especially true for short-range low-altitude flying which must burn more fuel per mile to overcome higher air densities. Here is a page that shows that driving any reasonable car alone over pretty much any distance produces less CO2 than flying in a full plane over said same distance, with the relative advantages of driving increasing the shorter the distance. Presumably, the crossover point is Boston-Sydney. In that case what you should do is drive from Boston to Tierra del Fuego, take the slow boat to Perth, and then rent a car and drive to Sydney.

I’m being intentionally ridiculous because the whole argument of business flying versus business driving is ridiculous. What about business Skyping? The norms of business travel developed in a pre-high-bandwidth-Internet world. Why is so much business travel necessary in the current world? A few weeks ago, I was at a technical program committee meeting at the O’Hare Hilton. 44 of us flew in for what essentially was a 10 hour flame-session to decide which 42 of 245 submitted papers would appear at a conference in June. How different would the set of 42 papers have been had we done a conference call instead? 5%? 10%? By definition, they wouldn’t have been more than 57% different, because 18 of the selections were effectively decided before the meeting. And so what if the final set was 10% different. Trust me, it is just as likely to have been 10% better as 10% worse.

Who would actually fly these days unless it was either absolutely necessary or to some exotic destination like the O’Hare Hilton? Almost everything about flying is a giant pain in the ass. Flying itself. TSA checkpoints. Airport parking. Even buying a simple ticket on Orbitz requires clicking through 28 screens to decline everything from cancellation insurance, to rental car, to rental car cancellation insurance, to attraction tickets, to attraction tickets cancellation insurance. I predict and hope for a future in which we fly significantly less. And when we do, we will be forced to go through security naked, through a -70 degree airlock, balancing a egg on our feet.