March 21, 2008

Can We Please Stop?

Seriously. There is so mush fussing going on now in the media about the words and phrases Obama has used in his attempt to elevate the discussion of race in our nation. After Obama's historical speech this week, the commentators and talking heads have gone absolutely nuts over his frank and honest assessment of attitudes towards race among Americans. They claimed he threw his Grandmother "under the bus" by describing her fearful reactions to black men on the streets. I feel confident in saying that he was merely attempting to describe the sometimes unconscious racial discriminations all people, whatever the color, make from time to time. Then when he explained further that he was addressing the reactions of a "typical white person," holy hell, the shit really hit the fan.

People, can we please attempt to be adults, and begin discussing the issues Obama raises? Can we end this useless witch hunt through his rhetoric for any shade of hypocrisy or contradiction? Lets really start, right here.

So the first step in this discussion. Is there anyone out there who seriously believes that slavery and Jim Crow and "separate but equal" are over? As in finished, no longer relevant. That these elements of American history are just that, history, and thus have no bearing on the current discussion. I would argue that those aspects must be taken into account, and anyone who doubts their relevance ought to voice a credible, logical argument to support that position.

There, ok, we're thinking, we're moving forward. Doesn't that feel better? No more screeching about Obama's campaign being negatively affected by this trivial bullshit. No more indignant calls for him to "address this issue," again. For the 82nd time. Grow up people.

Thats my take anyway.

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Make Me A Better Car!

Automobile fuel efficiency has garnered lots of public attention in the last two years. The public's taste for gas guzzling trucks and SUV's is diminishing as the price of operating these vehicles soars with record gas prices. But are our cars fuel efficient enough? By comparing our fuel economy standards with our peer nations the picture becomes very clear that consumers in America are being taken on a ride (no pun intended) by the auto manufacturers.

Our European neighbors have set a standard of 47mpg for gasoline vehicles and 52mpg for diesel vehicles. Currently the US fuel standards sit at 27.5mpg with a goal of 35mpg by 2020. A look at the number of vehicle models sold in the United States that achieve combined gas mileage of at least 40 miles per gallon actually has dropped from five in 2005 to just two in 2007 — the Honda Civic hybrid and the Toyota Prius hybrid.

Overseas, primarily in Europe, there are 113 vehicles for sale that get a combined 40 mpg, up from 86 in 2005. Combined gas mileage is the average of a vehicle’s city and highway mpg numbers. Adding insult to injury is the fact that nearly two-thirds of the 113 highly fuel-efficient models that are unavailable to American consumers are either made by U.S.-based automobile manufacturers or by foreign manufacturers with substantial U.S. sales operations, such as Nissan and Toyota.

So on the surface it seems that automakers have the ability to push fuel efficiency to the limit but the products are just not reaching the customers. Interestingly enough, Shell, one of the big, bad oil companies holds a competition every year (Eco-marathon) where teams build the most fuel efficient cars they can and have a race on one gallon of gasoline to see who can push their car the farthest. The team from the French technical school St. Joseph La Joliverie went 7,148 miles on a single gallon of fuel...the Shell website is quick to point out that that's "almost ten miles per teaspoon". Wow! Are you kidding me, 7,000 miles on one gallon of gasoline. That should really give you an idea of just how much power there is in a single gallon of fuel. And it should point out how little auto makers are doing to increase fuel economy.

The competition is obviously stretched to the extreme with cars that look more like surfboards with a canopy but the idea is there. I understand why Shell does this, I'm not trying to paint them as saints, but they want to be able to go to the market and say, "hey look what some engineers did with one gallon of our product, don't blame us for fuel costs and inefficiency."

And to tell you the truth I can't blame the oil companies. Although we do need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil (if only for economic reasons if you're not so much into the environmental side of it). Even "X prize" is getting involved (famous for there commercial space flight competition) with a $10M prize "to create a commercially viable car that gets at least 100 miles to the gallon". Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation says, "we're not talking about concept cars...we're talking about real cars that can be brought to market." Even Congress has jumped on the bandwagon issuing a resolution praising the Automotive X Prize. Now lets hope they look on the other side of the issue and denounce the efforts of the big auto makers and make them do something about it.

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March 20, 2008


Justice, in some small measure. I'm surprised it took this long.

Oh man, I know this doesn't even come close to enough, and it sheds no additional light upon the murky clouds surrounding the Valerie Plame Outing and Cheney's Lair Office, but it does feel damn good to see Scooter get some amount of comeuppance.

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Content Slowdown

Its my favorite time of year! March Madness has begun and unfortunately between watching the games, going to work, and blogging something has to give. So for the next few days the blogosphere is going to miss my ramblings. I'll try to put up at least one new post a day, but I'm not promising anything. Gig 'Em Ags!

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March 19, 2008

RecycleBank raises $30M

The most low-tech of clean technologies, recycling, got a boost today. RecycleBank, a Philadelphia-based startup that runs incentive-based recycling programs, has raised $30 million in Series B funding led by the high-profile VCs at Kleiner Perkins, PEHub reports. RecycleBank’s round also included existing investors RRE Ventures and Sigma Partners, who together invested $13.1 million in a Series A financing last year.

RecycleBank seeks to revitalize municipal recycling by incentivizing the program for consumers. The more a customer recycles, the more “RecycleBank Dollars” he or she earns, which can be redeemed for discounts at over 250 different businesses. So by recycling more beer bottles, newspapers and shampoo bottles you can get discounts on Jockey underwear, Starbucks latt├ęs or even PetCo dog food.

The way it works is your recycling container contains a unique RFID in which you can recycle glass, plastic, metal, paper and cardboard. The recycling trucks identify each container and weigh the contents, crediting the household. Customers can track and manage their recycling and rewards through RecycleBank’s web site.

Making the recycling business a profitable one is a tall order. Amid a budget crisis in 2002, New York City stopped recycling glass and plastic altogether because the program was losing too much money (the Big Apple has since resumed recycling). But RecycleBank is all too aware of what a volatile market it can be; it points to the most recent Annual Nationwide Survey of Solid Waste Management in the U.S., which notes that 28 states have seen recycling rates go down since 2001.

RecycleBank makes its money from the municipalities themselves, who pay based on number of household involved. The company also gets a cut from the recyclers, assuming they see a boost in materials coming in.

Early pilot programs turned in some impressive recycling adoption rates. In two Philadelphia communities RecycleBank boosted recycling rates to 90 percent each, up from 35 and 7 percent, respectively.

Now the only real problem I see with this sort of business plan is theft. And to tell you the truth if theft of recycling bins, or midnight runs to steal your neighbors recyclables, is the problem then it means the system is working. I know that my house has started recycling and not many other people really do. I have been by myself many times in the parking lot of Wal Mart sorting through my different recyclables. This is only a good thing, and by the early numbers it really was an incentive that people will get behind and support.

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Reducing Carbon Emissions Could Help -Not Harm- US Economy

Robert Repetto, professor in the practice of economics and sustainable development at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies has put together a website that reviews 25 of the leading economic models used to predict the economic impacts of reducing emissions. And he says a national policy to cut carbon emissions by as much as 40 percent over the next 20 years could still result in increased economic growth.

"As Congress prepares to debate new legislation to address the threat of climate change, opponents claim that the costs of adopting the leading proposals would be ruinous to the U.S. economy. The world's leading economists who have studied the issue say that's wrong -- and you can find out for yourself," says Repetto.

The interactive website, synthesized thousands of policy analyses in order to identify the seven key assumptions accounting for most of the differences in the model predictions. The site allows visitors to choose which assumptions they feel are most realistic and then view the predictions of the economic models based on the chosen assumptions.

Among the key optimistic assumptions are that renewable energy technologies will be available at stable or increasing prices; that higher fossil fuel prices will stimulate energy-saving technological change; that reducing U.S. carbon emissions will reduce economic damages from climate change and air pollution; and that the United States will incorporate international trading of emission permits into its national policy.

Growth rates of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have been 3 percent per year over recent decades. With emissions reduced by 40 percent below projected business-as-usual trends, even under most pessimistic assumptions the GDP would grow 2.4 percent a year, reaching $23 trillion by 2030, according to the website's predictions. Under the most favorable assumptions, GDP would rise slightly above 3 percent a year.

"The website shows that even under the most unfavorable assumptions regarding costs, the U.S. economy is predicted to continue growing robustly as carbon emissions are reduced," said Repetto. "Under favorable assumptions, the economy would grow more rapidly if emissions are reduced through national policy measures than if they are allowed to increase as in the past."

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Bearing Witness: 5 Years in Iraq

Awesome multimedia effort by Reuters for the 5th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion (warning some images are graphic).

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March 18, 2008

"Not This Time"

No matter who you support-wow

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Global Warming, a Piece to a Larger Puzzle

Global Warming has become a hot button issue over the last few years. A vision of huge hurricanes, ice sheet loss, and extreme drought are brought up frequently in the media as the true story of global warming. But to truly understand global warming we must analyze it through the larger scope of climate change, because it is only one mechanism at work in large machine which drives the world's atmosphere.

In 1993 a paper came out detailing how radiation from the sun had decreased by 0.33% yearly from 1967-1986 (Stanhill and Moreshet). This was a little understood phenomena and in the past 15 years has been dubbed "global dimming". Global dimming has the opposite effect of global warming. As pollutants such as Sulphur Dioxide, soot, and ash are released in the air they collect with clouds causing a dense mass to form and reflect much of the suns light. This in turn causes the oceans to cool a bit and changes weather patterns.

A large effect of this was seen in the 1990's in Africa as the waters which regularly evaporated from the Northern Atlantic and brought upon the rainy season on the Sahel in Northern Africa disappeared. In a January 15, 2005 BBC documentary titled Horizon a chilling conclusion was offered: "what came out of our exhaust pipes and power stations [from Europe and North America] contributed to the deaths of a million people in Africa, and afflicted 50 million more" with hunger and starvation.

Scientists believe that Asia may be hit soon with effects from dimming. Every year the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia receive nourishing rains from a "monsoon season". If the evaporative mechanisms which produce these rains are altered the irrigation and sustenance of not only farming ventures but wildlife reserves may be threatened.

Another mechanism affecting dimming is called the "Contrail Effect" where the "condensation trails" of jets are leaving behind remnants that form cirrus clouds which block sunlight but also trap heat. Studies have shown that contrails from just six aircraft can expand to shroud some 7,700 square miles. Just after September 11, 2001 scientists had an opportunity of a lifetime to study the contrail effect as all commercial flights were grounded due to the terrorist attacks. During those three days that commercial aircraft were grounded the days had become warmer and the nights cooler, with the overall range greater by about two degrees Fahrenheit. David Travis of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and two colleagues measured the differences and say the results suggest "that contrails can suppress both daytime highs (by reflecting sunlight back to space) and nighttime lows (by trapping radiated heat)."

In skies usually crosshatched with condensation trails, the only contrails seen in this image from September 12, 2001, were left by the plane returning President Bush to Washington from Nebraska and several escort fighters (image credit: NASA).

In this true-color satellite image shot above northwestern Europe, the contrast between skies with contrails and those without offers a striking sense of the influence these pseudo clouds might have on regional climate.

This phenomena of global dimming is not the hot new issue or the latest thinking about global climate change, it is simply a cog in the understanding of how our climate is shaped and what we are doing to alter its natural cycles. This is the same way we should consider global warming. Everything we throw into the atmosphere is going to have a different effect with secondary and tertiary cascading effects which we may not understand for another 20 years. There are going to be mechanisms discovered which will shift the way we think about global warming and dimming, and that in turn will shape what we know about climate.

Fire and brimstone fear induction should stop now. This is something that is serious and with enough research our scientists will begin to understand the complex workings of our climate. But it is important to realize that we are affecting the world around us and that everyone, whether you are rich or poor, or republican or democrat, needs to agree that right now the Earth provides for us very well and we have to make an effort to maintain our relationship with that equilibrium or be forced to adapt when our safety net of normality is shifted. The reality is that the public needs to be aware that we may face a global crisis very soon because of our interaction with the planet, for millions of years the Earth has shielded our fragile bodies from the harshest of conditions and let us tread on favorable ground. But now we must show the same respect and care that has been given to us, we are a powerful force with the overreaching ability to manipulate and alter our surroundings. Attention must be paid to how we tread and our minds must be open to new discoveries and a shift in the way we think.

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Status Update

Hey Stifled Minds, this is The Dean. I apologize for my recent absence. I started a new job, and I have yet to strike a workable balance between work and blogging. Hopefully as things progress I will find a way to waste a little more of my employers time on this site!

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March 17, 2008

Spain Steps Up To Solar

Spain, my home away from home, has already begun the lead into a solar powered world with two construction companies working in multiple locations around the world to set up solar power stations. Now the Spanish construction giant Sener and Abu Dhabi's Masdar are teaming up in a joint venture called Torresol Energy. The initial investment of €800 million ($1.24B) will be used to construct three solar plants in Spain.

One of the plants will use an array of heliostats surrounding a central receiver (pictured above), which the company says will be its first commercial deployment. Other companies such as BrightSource, SolarReserve, and eSolar are planning to use this same design in future deployments.

This type of technology has been developed at the Sandia National Laboratory since the 1970's and was successfully demonstrated by Solar Two, an installation using molten salt in the central receiver. The surrounding array of heliostats, or sun-tracking mirrors, reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a central receiver, generating a great amount of heat. The design is more efficient because all of the heat exchanging and steam generation take place inside the central tower, but the heliostats are also delicate and expensive.

The other two Spanish plants in the works will use parabolic trough technology, Torresol tells us. Startups like Solel are also using the trough approach, which heats liquid-filled tubes. The hot liquid must be pumped to a steam generator at an energy cost, but the troughs are supposed to be more robust than heliostats. They're hoping to generate at least 380 megawatts of power in the next five years, with a one-gigawatt goal for 10 years out.

Torresol also has some even loftier hopes for its solar thermal technology. The company plans to “facilitate” 500 megawatts of concentrating solar power plants around the world by 2012, in places like the American Southwest, the Middle East, North Africa and Northern Australia.

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How Dumb Is This?

Burn coal to boil water, use steam to spin turbines and run generators to make electricity. Transport this electricity long distances to connect to a coil at the bottom of a tank--to make hot water. Solar hot water panels are just as dumb too, but because they're so simple. Often times they are just a box with a glass lid and black pipes in it; you can even build them yourself. Others, like evacuated tube collectors are more efficient if more expensive.

A solar water heater could save $450 a year and keep almost a ton of CO2 emissions out of the air, multiply that by 80 million American homes. And the technology has been around for a while as Chinese manufacturers are cranking them out. So why doesn't every house have them?

"First, installation can cost more than $5,000 dollars, especially in older houses. Second, new home buyers apparently don't like to see solar water heaters disrupting their roof lines"-EcoGeek.

In Israel its the law new houses have solar heated hot water, and in the city of Fresno rebates and financing is available for those who wish to add solar to their home. And it isn't just for the sunny south either. Solar hot water is the cheapest and most effective active solar power system there is. It leaves fossil fuels and electricity for uses that require a higher grade of heat. Let's put it in the building codes.

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Update: Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Last week I put together a report on the worlds water situation here. This week even more news concerning water shortages as Egypt reports that 6% of their population goes without clean drinking water daily. And new reports shows sewage coming through the water pipes as poor care has been taken with their water delivery infrastructure.

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