Humans Are Making Global Warming

For many people the thought that humans are the cause of global warming is unbelievable.  Some refuse to believe, others can’t believe.  I’ve always wondered why.  Sometimes I think it might be a religious issue.  If you believe in God and believe that God takes care of us, why would he allow us to do something this horrible.  Others might think that mankind is too puny to do something so big.  Strangely enough, I think others refuse to believe because the idea was promoted by Al Gore and they won’t let Al be right about anything.  Ultimately, I don’t know why they think this.  To me it’s obvious we all did this to ourselves.  Sure there are other causes, but in the end if society had never industrialized we wouldn’t be having this problem.

I think I’ve finally found the logic to prove our guilt in the new National Geographic Channel documentary “Six Degrees Could Change the World.”  Towards the end of the show they explained that Earth had once been six degrees hotter and also had an earlier problem with too much carbon in the atmosphere.  They reported that it took millions of years for the Earth to sequester the carbon underground in natural stockpiles of coal and oil.  In other words, if this is true, what nature took millions of years to do, we undid in just over a hundred years.  And the irony is we’re scrambling to develop technology to put carbon underground again.

Six Degrees Could Change the World is the most powerful documentary I’ve yet seen to warn us about the impact of global warming.  We should all get a copy and watch it every Sunday morning and contemplate our future.  I do believe we are the current cause of global warning and I also believe we have the technology to reverse its effects, but the tragedy of all of this will be when humans refuse to do anything.

To refuse the blame for causing global warming is one thing, to refuse to do anything about it is something else altogether.


The 50 Percent Solution

    People do not like to change their habits. I’m a fat cat that needs to lower both my calorie and carbon footprints. Like dieting, global warming requires cutting back on consumption, which means changing habits, which means going against human nature. Most people want to wait until the federal government does something for them, but I wonder what I could do on my own. Since the people in the White House have neglected this issue, we’re on our own anyway, and if you read the news many citizens, businesses, state and local governments are doing a lot on their own. It’s quite impressive.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists supports political action requiring cutting green house gases to 80 Percent of what they were in 1990 by 2050, so as to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Many other politicians throw around the 50 Percent figure. This is a complicated issue. If 300 million Americans use 50 percent less, and 2 billion Chinese and Indians start using 50 percent more, is the environment still safe? Ultimately, do we need to decide what the environment can handle and then figure out what to do with our 1/6,765,843,415 share? And that share will always be shrinking until we can reverse population growth.

    What it comes down to is discipline, which I admit is a personal quality I’m sorely lacking. When dieting I’ve discovered I do better with simple concepts – like avoiding products that are mainly sugar or white flour. In this regard I like the idea of the 50 Percent Solution, where I just try to use half of what I was using. Unfortunately that requires math and most people hate math. One half is a simple concept. Since Big Brother knows everything I buy with my credit card, I wish Congress would just pass a law and tell Big Brother to just send me an email every month informing me how much carbon I’ve helped put into the atmosphere during the last thirty days.

    It would also be fantastic if my power company would provide data about how I’m doing. It would nice to have a graph like the DOW Jones average of squiggly lines showing my energy usage back to 1990. And each monthly bill should give me a percentage figure comparing that month against the same month in 1990. For example, December 2007 might say 1.75% of 12/1990. If I work hard for a year it might say next November, 1.31% of 11/1990 and I could dream about the day I reach .80% of 1990.

    For now we can think of a 50 Percent Solution as a temporary goal, and I don’t think we need to wait until 2020 or 2050 to get down to business. How soon can you use 50 Percent less gasoline, or electricity or water, or paper, or any other product? Just pick something you use a lot of and study it. I bought a Kill-A-Watt meter to help me.

    My Dell Optiplex GX620 at work idles at 145 watts, but if I bought a Dell Optiplex GX755 it would idle at 43.9 watts. My job would be done having reached a 33 Percent Solution. However, if I start using sleep mode to its best advantage, I could save even more because in sleep mode the computer would only use 2.8 watts. My GX620 use 8 watts while turned off or in sleep mode. So even with my current computer if I let it go to sleep mode after 30 minutes of inactivity I’m already maybe into a 20 Percent Solution territory, and with optimized new technology I might get down to 4-5 Percent. (As compared to leaving my computer on 24×7 at idle which I used to do.)

    Using an older computer is like having three or four 100w bulbs burning, and some gaming machines with fast video cards are like having eight 100w bulbs burning. Turning them off doesn’t bring about darkness because even off these machines use 15w to 40w worth of electricity. Newer machines ran at the power of a 40w bulb and on idle waste a tiny dash-light of juice. That’s a big step forward. Tech companies are already selling computers that run in the 15w light bulb range. My GX620 uses 8 watts turned off. The GX755 uses .7 watts.

    If you switched to those newer energy efficient light bulbs you hit a 25 Percent Solution with little effort. I guess I use on average 1 gallon of gas a day or 365 gallons a year. I could go buy a Prius and maybe reach a 50 Percent Solution, but how many gallons of gas does it take to make a car? If I drove my old truck for 15 years would that save more resources? This is where things get harder to figure. The government should provide more research and guidelines.

    I’m about to replace my HVAC in my house and it might get me to a 50 Percent Solution, especially if I put in new insulation. And with a few other household efforts, I might actually reach my 50 Percent Solution for my total living within a year. Am I done? Am I free of global warming guilt? It seems too easy? And it is an illusion. How do I do a 50 Percent solution for clothes and food and entertainment?

    My wife now has to live in Birmingham to keep her good job, and commute home on the weekends, vastly increasing her gas usage, plus we now have to maintain two homes, so we’re back to 100 Percent Plus. To achieve a 50 Percent Solution with two homes would require achieving a 25 Percent Solution in each. Even that might be doable, but it goes to show you how energy wasteful our society really is.

    Then we have the problem of relative waste. I have an 1800 square foot house, and a 700 square foot apartment, but some people have 5000 square feet houses and others have 25,000 square feet houses, while some people live in an 8 square foot box. Carbon credits are like rich people paying poor people to stay in their cardboard abodes so they can legally stay in their 25,000 square foot mansions. Is that really fair? Is it ethical?

    I doubt people with five-car garage houses are going to move into my neighborhood, and I’m not likely to move into a one bedroom apartment. Thus I don’t know if the 50 Percent Solution is going to work on every concept.

    In the 1970s someone coined the term Spaceship Earth. It’s an elegant idea. Back then they wanted to suggest that living on Earth had limits – only so much oxygen, food and fuel so it shouldn’t be wasted. Since then rocket designers have moved onto the idea of making spaceships with renewal resources, in other words, reversing the analogy, which is also very elegant. No one knows what the Earth can sustain. Maybe its nine billion people each living in 1,000 square feet of technological luxury. Or maybe its nine billion people living like monks in a cell. It’s quite obvious that it’s not nine billion people with SUVs and their own jet planes, but it may be possible so the rich could keep their 25,000 square foot mansions that have minimal carbon footprints.

    The solution to global warming can’t require us all to live on equal rations because human nature won’t allow it. However, to allow the rich to ethically use more might be justified if they help the less off have more through efficiency. In other words the people of the U.S. might need to help citizens in other nations to have more through technology transfers or other kinds of aid because it wouldn’t be fair to ask some starving person in Africa to take up a 50 Percent Solution. As individuals trying to use less in an abundant society, we might contribute to charities that bring sustainable technology and resource management elsewhere. In other words, help other people to use more, but not in the wasteful way we have done in the past.

    In the long run there is no 50 Percent Solution that will solve all the problems. The problems are too complex. One reason so many people refuse to think global warming is man-made is because no one notices they are putting tons of carbon into the air every year. One graphic way for a documentary maker to illustrate this would be to show a line of people with a pile of sand next to them, with the weight of the sand being equal to the carbon that person helps create each year. A person from a poor country might have a can of sand, while an average U.S. citizen might have several pickup truck loads, and a billionaire might have a hill of the stuff.

    The idea of carbon credits is if you could stand beside your pile and it would disappear because you paid for ten thousand trees to be planted or invested in a solar energy plant.

    Jared Diamond’s book Collapse chronicles several societies from around the world that has collapsed in the past. Essentially these cultures each went full speed ahead with behaviors that lead to their destruction. I wonder did a few of those people on Easter Island preach a gospel warning their fellow islanders to stop cutting down all the trees? Did they introduce a 50 Percent Solution that no one followed? Maybe human nature doesn’t allow for changing direction. Look at that guy in Georgia who uses 400,000 gallons of water per month during the drought.

    Me personally, I don’t know what the solution is. Just to have a challenge, I’m going to try to live with less, but then I’ve been trying to live off fewer calories for decades and haven’t succeeded. It sure would be nice if I could reduce both my calories and carbon footprints, but maybe all those ancient societies Jared Diamond wrote about were populated with people like me – ones who knew better but couldn’t change.







Inventions Wanted #2 – The Solar Power Tree

Update 8/19/11: Kid tests out solar tree collector

I think crystal balls are showing households should become more energy independent, or at least, less dependent on distant sources of energy. The first line of attack on this problem is to just use less energy, but another solution, which for me is a long term solution, is to produce energy locally. This is neither easy nor cheap – $12,000 might buy me a modest system that would supplement my energy needs, but it’s doubtful that it’s cost effective. 12k is equivalent to 60 months of $200 payments, and that would buy a lot more power company energy than I would generate. In other words, generating your own energy isn’t about saving money. At least for now.

Owning my own energy producing system would get me some energy independence if we have blackouts or other failures of the central energy grid and would let me us less energy from polluting sources, or less energy from nations I don’t care to support. My worry is the energy production grids in this country won’t keep up with demand. Producing my own energy would reduce the load on the central systems, contributing to the common good, and give me some electricity when things are bad, contributing to my selfish interests. In other words, if the forecast is for global warming, I want to stay locally cool.

The easiest was to produce electricity at home is with a generator, but that’s not a long term practical solution if we’re talking gasoline generators. Fuel cells may become practical, and most homes are ill suited for wind or geothermal electric generation. The only other solution is photovoltaic panels. Now my house is completely hidden under a canopy of trees, which is a natural way to keep cool in the summer and save electricity to boot. Memphis, the city I live in, has so many trees it feels like the suburbs are really houses built in forests. And I don’t want to cut down my trees. I love the shade and they suck up lots of carbon.

The invention I would like to see is a solar power tree – a photovoltaic collector shaped like a big Christmas tree that I can raise above the tree line – but not look like a big eyesore. It could also serve a dual purpose of being a HDTV antenna or hold a satellite dish. I picture this device sitting on an extending pole that can be automatically raised and lowered depending on weather conditions. All the photovoltaic panels I’ve seen are flat, but flat panels are not something good to send skyward because of their aerodynamic drag. Trees, branches and leaves are a natural shape that’s suited to collect sunlight and handle strong winds.

What’s needed is the maximum surface area to collect energy that can easily shift to follow the sun, low weight, and high strength to handle wind and rain. It will also need to withstand lightning. I have no idea how to build such a thing, but if it was reasonable priced, worked well, and produced a decent amount of electricity I’d want one.

If a variety of solar energy collectors could be designed and marketed cheaply enough, that would have a major impact on society, because how would things be different if every house generated 20-80% of its own clean energy? I think a lot of people fear the world won’t adapt to dealing with global warming because it will require too much change from people. What if the changes required actually benefited people directly? Instead of making sacrifices, you bought something at Home Depot, like buying another appliance and it made your home better, is that such a sacrifice?


Supplemental 11/23/7.  I got to visit the Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC this past October and it furthered my desire for a solar collector shaped like a tree.  All the houses were built with the assumption they would be shaped and lined up for the maximum exposure to the sun.  This isn’t practical for retrofitting an older home, especially one where trees block the sunlight.  I asked about other kinds of solar collectors but didn’t find much encouragement for my proposed design.

Then Nanosolar was mentioned in the December 2007 issue of Popular Science as their Innovation of the Year.  The PowerSheet product is a cheap film-like material sold in rolls as a solar collector that can be applied easier than the more bulkier old-style box collectors.  It’s manufactured rather than assembled making it cheaper.  It’s not hard to imagine that this stuff being produced as solar leaves that could be assembled into three shapes.

Using fractal mathematics its probably possible to design an optimal pattern of leaves and branching that would work with the electrical wiring needed to channel electrons down the leaves, stems, branches and trunk, like the reverse osmosis of sap.  Further, it might be possible, within the need to be energy efficient, to design this solar collecting tree with servo motors that would keep the leaves and branches oriented to the sun.  If a complete system could be sold for $5-10k that produced enough electricity to supplement a normal house need’s then it might be practical for commercial success.

It would not have to have a battery system to be useful.  As long as a local collector reduces the overall drain on the grid providing power during the day, and using grid power during the dark, the overall effect would be to reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce the carbon footprint of the house and improve the reliability of the grid system.

UPDATE 10-28-08

Open Energy Corporation shows off an energy tree prototype.

What Would It Be Like To Be A Kid Today?

    What would it be like to be a kid today? Is the world scarier now than when I was growing up? Are the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers any smarter than that famous generation that made such a fuss and expected the whole world to watch? The 1960s radicals wanted a revolution, the sociologists predicted a social transformation, the spiritual gurus promised a New Age, and scientists extrapolated an array of futures from doom to bloom. Youth from the past two generations have been quiet – when will there be another noisy generation that demands the whole world change for them? The Iraq War feels like 1967 Vietnam – will the 2008 election be 1968 Chicago? Global warming should make the kids of today hate us – when will they get angry? When does the new revolution start? My fellow baby boomers, we are the establishment this time around – should we trust anyone under thirty?

    I began first grade in 1957 just before Sputnik and finished high school just before Neil Armstrong took his stroll on the Moon in 1969. My generation grew up with our parents playing with atomic bombs and going apeshit paranoid over the Russkies. We grew up in three bedrooms/one bath/single carport Leave It to Beaver homes. Our parents told us to go to school, study hard and we’d live in four bedrooms/two bath/two-car garage homes of their fantasies! We replied to their dreams by turning on, tuning in and dropping out. We expected the future to be a combination of a Thomas Jefferson/Henry David Thoreau Utopia and Star Trek – but one that didn’t take a lot of work to build.

    After our tantrums we picked ourselves up, went out and became our parents, bought even bigger homes and cars than our parents imagined. It takes a big SUV to carry a fat-ass baby boomer but we bought them rationalizing that big trucks protects little kids. We didn’t just want our kids to finish high school, we wanted them to go to Harvard and become rich. And we went apeshit over any hint of hoods selling drugs anywhere near our children. No turning in for them. And we were damn sure they wouldn’t drop out.    

    My mother and father grew up in the roaring 1920s, my mother in roarless rural Mississippi, my father in sleepy tropical Miami. They went to high school in the 1930s and then got jobs expecting prosperity to be just around the corner. Instead they got Germany, Italy and Japan wanting to rule the world. My parent’s generation had schools that taught the basics with everyone dreaming Horatio Alger, Jr stories, hoping to learn enough to get a good job with a company that would last a lifetime. High tech entertainment was a radio and dreams came in black and white visions imported from Hollywood. They didn’t want much, just economic security and freedom from Fascism. I think my father was caught up in the romance of airplanes because the joined the Army-Air Corps. I don’t know if he read science fiction but he grew up during the golden age of science fiction pulps. The drug of choice and rebellion for my parent’s generation was alcohol. My mother’s first husband had been a bootlegger.

    My parent’s parents grew up before the automobile and the airplane. My father’s mother became a teacher in a one-room school house. My mother’s mother braved convention when her father shipped her off to Little Rock at the turn of the century to attend secretarial school. She went to work in the big metropolis of Memphis in 1901. I never knew my grandfathers or their dreams. My mother’s father was farmer, and my dad’s dad grew up in rural Nebraska before moving to Miami in the 1920s. I’m sure the transformation from farm life to city life that most of the country was going through was full of excitement and promise. I’m not sure if either of them had twelve years of schooling. I figure they were dazzled by the transformation of the horse into the car, and the bird into the plane but I sure wished I knew what their dreams of the future were like. I assume the drug of choice for this generation was booze, before Prohibition. I know my grandfather, like my father, died a drunk.

    So what are kids today like? What kind of official and unofficial education are they getting? If you listen to the news the school system is in crisis. When I was a teenager I expected the future to be as exciting as science fiction. What can the kids of today expect when all they hear is gloomy forecasts of global warming? I loved growing up in the 1960s because the times were so exciting, although full of turmoil. Present times are shaping up to be just as extreme and challenging.

    I’ve worked at a university for thirty years now, and I haven’t seen anything like the 1960s again. Social and political apathy has reigned over student populations since the Vietnam War. Did ending the draft, enacting civil rights laws, illuminating the injustices done to minorities, women and gays, and strengthening EPA buy off recent generations? In many ways the Iraq war is almost identical to the Vietnam War – so why aren’t today’s kids outraged? Global warming is the ethical crisis of our times but young people haven’t tried to make it their issue. Why? Do they not understand that it’s the great challenges that define a generation?

    Maybe they are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore, but they are shouting out virtual windows and we can’t hear them. When I watch MTV, the youth appear to be trying to define themselves by decadence and money. If I could show MTV to the Puritans or folks from the Great Depression and tell them this is the future of America I think it would have blown their minds and they would have given the country back to the Indians. I know my generation who smoked pot, bragged of free love, grew their crew-cut hair long and refused to go to war, scared the hell out of our parent’s generation.

    My dad called me queer because I had long hair – called me a commie pinko because I was against the war – and called me a hoodlum because I smoked pot. He called me all those names in rage and anger, but I think mostly because my actions scared him. The violence of the current generation scares me, with the school shootings, boy gangs, girl gangs, and attacks on teachers. First person shooter games just make me wonder about today’s kids like my father wondered about me. Beyond their violent lives their indifference to the future freightens me more.

    But that is the TV view of things. Up close the kids of today don’t seem much different from when I was a kid. They tend to have less hair, take fewer drugs but like booze more, seem greedier, and love tattoos and body art. The girls wear skimpier clothes with uncomfortable underwear that shows because they have cleavage in both front and rear. On the whole I’d say they are equally self-absorbed as my generation and equally focused on sexual bonding. I am always disappointed when I talk to them because they have no interest in big issues, no interest in exciting topics like space travel or scientific discoveries, and have zip to say about the future. It truly is a Be Here Now generation.

    The Slashdot crowd are different – they do think about the future and scientific discovery, but then I was a computer geek long before they were, so I identify with them. Maybe modern kids feel they should be seen and not heard. I do see a lot to envy about kids today, especially the Internet and computers, but most kids just use the technology and aren’t cutting edge techno-evangelicals.

    Back in the 1970s when my friends were deciding whether or not to have children some of them said no because they felt the world was too awful and getting worse. Has it actually gotten worse? There were bumps along the way, but this world and time doesn’t suck despite its many pitfalls – in fact I see a lot about growing up now to be jealous. I also assume that kids growing up today find the future scary, but are they pessimistic about having kids themselves? I’ve never heard one say so.

    Of course, in kidworld you don’t see all the horrors of the world; you see the world close-up, immediate, and the things that make you laugh or cry are right next too you – family, friends, pets, schools, games, books, movies, televisions, computers. My parents had lots of great memories about growing up in the depression. I grew up with an alchoholic father that dragged us around the county forcing me and my sister to attend more than a dozen schools and yet I was still happy for the most part. Last night on the news I saw a piece about the lull in fighting in Bagdad and families were out playing in the parks.

    If you study history close enough you’ll find that every generation had their end-of-the-world doomsayers and every generation will have people who will want to get off the genetic train to the future. However, I want to ask: What’s unique about this generation? Sure, Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun, but I don’t think that’s true. Growing up today means being plugged into a world-wide digital nervous system – and that is new! And after hundreds of generations of Chicken Littles screaming the sky is falling there’s always a chance that one generation of soothsayers are going to get it right, and maybe the sky will fall, or a small piece of it. Personally, I think we’re going to adapt and survive global warming but it will take considerably longer and be more disruptive than the world wars of the twentienth century.

    This is going to sound weird but as a kid I rated television as the most important part of my life. I know family is supposed to come first, but when I grew up adults still believed in the old “kids should be seen and not heard” philosophy. And unlike today where kids and parents often interact as friends my parents were very distant. Oh, they loved and provided for me and my sister, and made us behave and learn right from wrong, but they didn’t play with us. Modern kids seem to spend more time with their parents, often as buddies and it’s no wonder that so many want to keep living with their parents late into their twenties.

    The main difference between my childhood and growing up today is the amount of adult supervision kids get. My little sister and I became latch-key kids when I was nine and I loved that. But even before that, as young as first grade I got to walk to school by myself. When we moved to New Jersey when I was in third grade Becky and I got to play in the woods alone or with other kids, and we ventured far and wide. Today’s kids don’t get that kind of freedom. I don’t think our world was safer, but parents back then felt that kids should go outside and play and they didn’t need constant adult supervision. In this regards, as a kid, I’d vote for my past times. If I was a parent I’d vote for modern times as being better.

    Regarding television, I’d vote for modern times because of the hundreds of channels, the high definition big screens, and because of the numerous chances of seeing shows with naked women. When I was little we had three television stations to watch. The screens were so small, and the black and white images were so bad, that even when they showed girls in bikinis it wasn’t that arousing. I pitied my poor father who grew up with radio and the girls just had sexy voices.

    I’d also vote for growing up in modern times when I think about the television shows the kids get to watch today. Modern kids may love Nick at Nite and TVLand featuring shows from my past but 1967 Batman blows chunks compared to 2006 Heroes and Planet Earth in HD is lightyears beyond Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The most exciting shows of the 1960s for me were the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flights. Yet seeing the Earth from space on Discovery HD puts modern kids in a whole new visual dimension of wonder and awe. Modern television is just far more sophisticated as entertainment and many magnitudes better in education.

    I work in a College of Education, so I have a tiny idea about modern classroom life. I’ve sometimes visited our campus school to help them with their computers. My office is near a textbook depository and I flip through them sometimes. I also know a number of teachers. The news is both good and bad. The quality of education various widely from school to school, and from state to state. Growing up I saw a lot of schools in a lot of states. My guess is the quality of education is better today, but there are more problems with discipline and violence, so it may have been more fun to attend school back in my times. I’ve met a lot of people from my generation who says the worse times of their lives were when they were going to school. I think those people would hate now.

    When it comes to toys modern times beats the past hands down. Tinker Toys are nothing compared to Mindstorm Robots. Comparing a Gameboy to a plastic box with a BB is just silly. If you could take a Toys R’ Us catalog back to 1963 all the kids would have wanted to move to the future.

    You know what would really make me vote for growing up in the past? Music. AM radio from 1961-1969 just flat-out out-performs all music before and since. I know that’s probably a prejudice of my times. The kids of today do not having anything close to a Bob Dylan, much less bands like the Beatles or the Bryds. Modern pop music has zero social impact, except for some hip-hoppers and Goth song writers, they don’t even try. Modern music seems to be exclusively hedonistic – but that may my take at seeing the videos that go with it.

    I envy the kids today, living with hundreds of television channels, the Internet, iPods, Gameboys, Xboxes and cellphones. Their lives are more technologically exciting than the science fiction I used to read. John Brunner pegged the bad parts of our time in his 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar but he missed all the fun and exciting stuff. Science fiction never imagined the video games or the World Wide Web and it especially never predicted the naked girls on HBO and the Internet – when I was in eighth grade finding an issue of National Geographic in the school library during study hall with a photo of a topless old women made me famous with all the other boys for the rest of the day. I bet my dad was envious of my generation because we had Playboy magazines – an item I couldn’t afford until after I started working as a bagboy unless we stole them – yeah, in those younger horny years all we had to make do with were the bra and panty ads in the Sears catalogs. Boys today have no idea how lucky they are. Today, any boy with access to Google can see whole vistas of feminine forms.

    I’ve been thinking and talking about this topic with my friends for a couple weeks now. I think the consensus is we had it better in our day and we wouldn’t want to trade lives with the current generation. Our biggest concerns are with the schools and education. I know my parents were impressed with the limited technology of our baby-boomer schools but feared the violence of our times. I think they felt they got a better basic education in their day, and they felt they were more moral. Besides global warming, education is probably the second direst crisis of modern times. And both are issues that the Bush administration likes to ignore.

    There was a very common phrase from the 1960s that’s mostly forgotten today – “the generation gap.” I think the most positive thing I see about the current generation is they communicate more with their parents and parents try to communicate more with them. My father died when I was nineteen and he was forty-nine. I never tried to communicate with him and he never tried to communicate with me. I was too young to understand and he was too much of a drunk and too afraid of what I might say. I know he tried a few times in odd ways. When his long-haired boy started going out on dates with girls he expressed himself by giving me his drinking money and car. Before he died he tried to apologize for his lack of communication skills.

    I think the biggest difference between growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and today would be difference in the relationship I would have with my father. I’m pretty sure we would have talked more if we both grew up in modern times. Who knows maybe he would have taken better care of himself – quit smoking, drank less, and exercised – things they didn’t nag about in his day. I don’t think the generation gap would have been as wide today – and I’d like to think the chasm between us would have been narrow enough so we could have heard each other.

Making PC Users PC – The Green Computer

        Ever since I saw An Inconvenient Truth I’ve been pondering ways to do my part to use less carbon.  Since I work with computers the first idea I had was to stop leaving my computers on 24-hours a day.  That isn’t easy since at work I manage four servers and have two computers for programming.  The best I could do was turn off my test computer when I wasn’t using it.  However, at home I discovered I could save about 20 hours of power a day.  Between those two computers I’m saving maybe 280 hours a week.

        It’s a shame that Microsoft promotes automatic upgrades at night.  Microsoft should tell people to turn their computers off when they aren’t using them and then develop programs that analyze usage patterns and run updates during the day.  Most business just let workers leave their computers on 24×7.  What a waste.  I work at a university and they leave all the lab machines and classroom machines on 24×7 so they can run patches, updates and changes at night.  But that’s wasting 16+ hours of energy a day per machine.  Even with power saving features these machines waste a lot of energy (as do TVs and other electronics that never shut off but go into a mode designed for a quick start).

        Simple solution – don’t run computers if you aren’t using them.  What about reducing the amount of power they consume while running.  I started googling around and found this ultra low-powered PC at Tranquil PC.  Tranquil claims it uses just 15-21 watts running Windows XP Home – about the power of a compact fluorescent bulb.   However, it uses a strange chip, the VIA C7-M that might be computationally low powered too.  Googling VIA C7-M I discovered a whole wealth of knowledge about Carbon Free Computing, a phrase that seemed new to me, which means the idea isn’t that popular since I read a lot of computer mags and websites.  Evidently seekers of the green PC are also aligned with the seekers of a quiet PC and solar power advocates.

        This computer I’m typing on is over three years old and I’ve been thinking about getting a new more powerful model.  The first decision I have to make is whether I should buy a new computer at all.   One quote I can’t locate the source says 80% of the energy related to the lifetime of a PC comes from manufacturing.  If that’s true then it has all kinds of major implications.  To gain the most energy savings means using a computer for as long as possible.  Second, if we want to further reduce that 80% factor, we have to convince manufacturers of PCs to work on lowering energy spent on making computers.  Third, succeeding at this endeavor will adversely impact the computer makers economically and indirectly hurt the economy.  Which is why you don’t see the President campaigning for the U.S. to become the international leader at reducing carbon production.

        Every economic decision becomes an ethical decision.  I have always noticed that the success of our economic system is based on a lot of inefficiency.  If everyone was honest and law abiding untold thousands of policemen and related professions would be out of work.  If everyone spent their money wisely how many people in the credit card industry would be out of work?  And it’s all interrelated.  The microcomputer has created millions of jobs since the 1970s.  Computer use has vastly increased energy needs creating more jobs in the power business and that impacts mining and manufacturing.  Becoming green and reducing carbon emissions means a new kind of economy.  Environmentalists have always countered this problem by saying new jobs and industries will be created, and that overall the economy will succeed.

        Will the world become green?  I don’t know.  I tend to think we will all continue on the same path because people don’t change until they are made to change.  This means our society will continue until it collapses and a new system will form out of the chaos.  To picture this just watch the news about Iraq – even there some kind of new order will eventually emerge.  Students of history know that civilizations come and go.  Personally, I’d rather make the hard choices now and remodel our current civilization so it survives.  However, I’m probably fooling myself.  I can’t even make myself lose weight when I know I’m approaching a health crisis.  Statistics show only one person in twenty, or five percent can lose weight and keep it off.  Does that mean only one person in twenty can make themselves into green people?

        Dieting makes a good analogy to going green.  To succeed we’d all need to watch our calories and carbon for the rest of our lives.  This will require discipline, attention to detail and dedication.  Which brings us back to the question:  Which is better for the environment – keeping my current PC or buying a new Green PC?  The same question applies to cars.  Which helps the Earth more, keeping my 6-cylinder Toyota Tundra or buying a Toyota Prius?  I don’t know.  If 80% of the carbon cost of a PC comes from manufacturing and the figure is similar for a car, then whatever we buy needs to be used efficiently for a long time.  The three year replacement cycle for cars and computers is carbon wasteful.

        Recently PC Magazine ran an article about building a green PC.  The whole focus was to reduce the amount of watts used.  The end results were nowhere near the efficiency of the Tranquil PC mentioned above.  And I have read elsewhere complaints about Microsoft causing increase energy use by pushing its new Vista operating system.  Most reviewers say Vista needs a discrete video card, a feature that often consumes more watts than the motherboard or CPU.  This brings up the idea of whether Linux, Windows or Macintosh operating systems are the best for the environment. 

To be fair, we have to consider use.  A gamer with a high powered rig using 650 watts will hate the Tranquil PC using 15 watts.  We can’t just say gaming is bad for the environment, so give it up.  Like the idea of carbon management and carbon credits, we have to give every individual the chance to save energy in their own way so they can spend it in whatever way they like.  For example, gamers could walk or ride bicycles for transportation so they can spend their energy credits on high-powered games.

For such energy/carbon credit systems to work we’d have to know what our energy allowance is.  I don’t know if anyone knows the answer yet.  Dieting only works when you know your daily calorie target and so we need to know how much energy we use now and how much less we need to use to save the world.  Each person on Earth causes X number of carbon molecules to be released in the atmosphere.  We could count up the total, divide by six billion and have the answer.  Then we decide what our diet should be and know how many carbon units we can use each day.  The trouble is that won’t work because people in Africa create far less carbon than someone living in the U.S.

While the Chinese are speeding along towards using energy like Americans, Americans should be working to use energy like the Chinese used to.  That’s not happening.

Cynical minded people will just say buy whatever kind of computer you want because nothing you do will matter.  Henry David Thoreau sat in his cabin by Walden Pond and saw progress barrelling down the track and knew it was going to crash into Concord.  Walden was the book he wrote warning the people of the time about the future.  No one stepped out of the way of progress.  Thoreau observed that we all have choices we can make in how we eat, where we live, how we dress, the work that we choose, and explained that these choices meant something.  Our times require that we all become Thoreaus, but I tend to doubt this will happen.

I think I’ll hang onto my present computer for awhile and continue to run Windows XP.  I’m going to study the Green PC and maybe build one in the future.  When I do, I think I’ll design it so it will last as long as possible and allow me to swap out parts, or even recycle parts from my present computer.  I’d also like to explore other energy saving ideas.  Is it better to play MP3 music through the computer or CDs through my stereo system?  Can I digitize all my paper using habits?  Are printers really needed?  Besides being green, these are interesting intellectual challenges.


Communicating Across Time

        I just finished reading Timescape by Gregory Benford and Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the two books strike me as a perfect set for a meditation on time travel.  I doubt Henry David Thoreau ever thought about time travel, but any writer that produces a classic book is communicating across time, sending messages centuries into the future.  Imagine if Thoreau had some kind of magical book and we could send messages back to him sitting in his little shack by Walden Pond.  What would you tell him about life in the future and reading his book?  Timescape by Gregory Benford is about sending messages backwards in time, allowing the future to talk to the past.  Unfortunately, Benford tries to stick closely to a theoretical idea in physics which has limited application.  His story is timid by science fictional standards, but wonderfully ambitious by defying the traditions of the genre.

        I often want to communicate with the past.  I’m currently reading The Scarlet Letter and figure it would be great fun to show the Puritans an hour of MTV.  On the surface that sounds cruel, but I keep thinking if we could talk across the ages we’d realize new philosophical dimensions.  Of course we know about the tyrannical nature of religious societies just by watching the nightly news, but it helps to remember that Americans once wore funny religious clothes and treated women like Islamic fundamentalists.  The real test would be to have a time traveler show up today and let us know about the future and how our beliefs and actions are embarrassing to them.  Are the liberated women on MTV a step forward in women’s expression as individuals or are they freed women to act out men’s fantasies?

        The eight hundred pound gorilla in this essay is global warming.  Will the people of the future all lie in the beds at night wishing they could talk to us?  Benford’s story written in the 1970s and published in 1980 isn’t about global warming but another ecological catastrophe caused by the people of the 1950s and 1960s but which kills the people of 1998.  Yes, his future is now our past but that doesn’t make the book dated.  Timescape is #41 on The Classics of Science Fiction list – but it deserves to be higher.  The idea of sending messages to the past is just as original as any of H. G. Wells’ great primal science fictional ideas.

If you read the reader reviews on Amazon you will find most readers giving Timescape five stars but many giving it one star.  It’s a polarizing science fiction novel because it’s not a gee-whiz action story, but a quiet story about science and scientists.  Critics loved it but many fans didn’t.  I assume most adolescent readers would prefer a story about time travelers going back to hunt dinosaurs rather than read about a clever plot based on a theoretical sub-atomic particle called the tachyon.  I can also infer that most page turning readers don’t want to be burden by bad tidings from the future.

In Timescape a few 1998 people desperately try to get a message to a few scientists in 1963 hoping to save their world.  If the people of 1963 had listened to Thoreau message from 1854 the people in 1998 might not have ever needed to send a message backwards in time.  Walden is a timeless essay about paying attention to details and questioning the status quo.  Thoreau might be considered America’s original hippie, but he was a brilliant thinker, as was his friend Nathan Hawthorne who peered with nineteenth century eyes into the seventeenth century with A Scarlett Letter.  There are still puritanical threads woven into our twenty-first century philosophy.  The lessons of history have always been one way – think how dynamically philosophic history would be if we could tune in the future with tachyon radios.

I’m not shunning the Puritans when I mention them, they may have valid messages to send us too, points that we’re missing, and yes we’re still receiving their messages, for example, the current fad of Purity Balls.  The key is to study Thoreau and learn to discern the ecology of our thoughts like he studied the ecology of Walden Pond.  Are the Puritans four centuries away, or merely a few thousand miles?  Scattered across this earth are people living in situations that mirror all the times of history.  Every society might represent a different expression of innate programming to comprehend right and wrong – it may even be hardwired in our genes as Moral Minds suggests.  Classic books may be classic because they show characters at the cutting edge of ethical dramas.

Global warming will be the ethical issue of our times.  To overcome this obstacle we will all have to live life with the spiritual observational skills of Henry David Thoreau.  Science fictional books like Timescape illustrates that every casual decision we make today affects the people of tomorrow.  The emotional dynamics of how we judge our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth is portrayed in The Scarlet Letter.  For years I have contemplated why some books become classics and others don’t.  I’m never sure how to define a classic, but I know if you are reading books that don’t make you think, that you can’t interconnect with the communications across time, then more than likely you are only reading for escapism and that book isn’t a classic.

Scientific American Questions Ethanol

Last summer brought many stories about the success of ethanol in Brazil during the times gasoline prices were peaking in the U.S. My hopes for the future were boosted by those reports, but the January, 2007 issue of Scientific American has brought me back down to reality. Matthew L. Wald reports in “Is Ethanol for the Long Haul?” that the numbers don’t add up for E85, the ethanol/gasoline mixture planned for flex fuel cars. Ethanol made from sugar cane and cheap labor may be economically sound in South America, but ethanol made from corn, expensive labor, and fossil fuels, will probably not be a practical choice. Nor is ethanol made from corn more environmental friendly than gasoline.

Ethanol made from various cellulose sources, including corn stalks, have a better chance of being an economic alternative to gasoline, but the technology has not be perfected yet. It’s a complex issue. If you grow corn just to convert it into ethanol, all the production costs have to be considered in its comparison to gasoline. If you grow corn for food, and then consider the stalks a byproduct, they can play with the books and make cellulose ethanol look like a better value. It takes a lot of fossil fuels to make and distribute ethanol, so the gain in freedom from the Middle East might be a desert mirage. If we used all the corn we grow for ethanol it will only replace seven percent of gasoline usage. There are more sources for cellulose, so it has a better chance at helping us get off the gasoline addiction.

What bothers me is the attitude that we want an alternative fuel to allow us to live in the same manner we do now. Car companies are showing flex fuel SUVs. The real reality we have to face is driving cars very different from what we drive now, and I don’t think Americans are ready for that. Just think, making cars more efficient by seven percent, which is easy enough to do, could replace the whole concept of corn based ethanol. Making cars twice as efficient would stretch oil supplies twice as long. The key immediate solution here is conservation and efficiency – not alternative fuels. Given time we should be able to perfect an alternate source of personal transportation energy, but I don’t think that time will be short.

This is the last day of 2006 and I marvel at living in the future. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought the 1980s was the future, and the years after 2000 would be amazingly futuristic. And there have been lots of amazing changes, but I’m also surprised how so much has stayed the same. There are more people and cars, more technology and wealth, but people and their basic habits seem the same. Our television shows, if broadcast to 1950s TV antennas, would shock the Ozzie and Harriette watching nation, but they would understand everything and recognize the common basic human motivations and instincts.

Real change to help the economy and environment will have to come from leadership at the White House. I think the President will have to ask America to make sacrifices like they did during World War II. And I think making real changes in how we live with the enviornment will eventually bring about a new kind of prosperity. Looking for energy substitutes that allow us to continue living in our energy wasteful ways that hurt the enviornment are not good solutions.

There are thinkers out there that see other solutions, like Rocky Mountain Institute. I’d like to think that by 2027 many of these ideas would be in place, and it would be the dazzling future I expected the future to be when I was a kid.