Saturday, July 31, 2010

Troubled Waters: How Oceans Die

Harvesting dead fish floating on the water's surface
It's said that we know less about what's in the depths of the ocean than what's beyond our solar system.

But what we do know is deeply troubling. Quite apart from the Deepwater Horizon BP monstrosity, our oceans are in a precarious state. The populations of the ocean's largest predator fish, including tuna, swordfish, cod, halibut and marlin have declined 90% since 1950:
"The impact we have had on ocean ecosystems has been vastly underestimated," said co-author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University and the University of Kiel in Germany. "These are the megafauna, the big predators of the sea, and the species we most value. Their depletion not only threatens the future of these fish and the fishers that depend on them, it could also bring about a complete re-organization of ocean ecosystems, with unknown global consequences."
As over-fishing has decimated the ocean's food chain from above, human-caused climate change is destroying it from the bottom-up:
Concentrations of phytoplankton in the world’s oceans have decreased 40 percent since the 1950s, according to a new study. Using nearly a half-million sources of oceanographic data from the last 60 years, researchers at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia concluded that the decline of the microscopic organisms correlates with an increase in sea surface temperatures, which leads to increased thermal stratification of the oceans. That stratification limits the upwelling of nutrients from colder waters that feed phytoplankton. Since phytoplankton form the foundation of the aquatic food chain — providing the major source of food for zooplankton, which is a critical part of the diet for larger species — scientists say this trend poses a threat to marine ecosystems worlwide.
It gets worse.
World map of ocean dead zones

Not only are we destroying the life of the oceans, we are destroying the habitat for life as well--from ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide absorption and from agricultural run-off:
A new NASA map illustrates the significant expansion of the world’s marine dead zones, deepwater regions where dissolved oxygen is so low marine species cannot survive... In 2008, a study found that dead zones had spread exponentially since the 1960s, affecting more than 400 ecosystems and a total area of more than 152,000 square miles (245,000 square kilometers).
Puget Sound, its abundant sea life, and all that depend on it, are in mortal peril. Will we deny and delay until everything is dead?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Of Beer and Bicycles: Fat for the Whole Family

Tour de Fat event poster
The Tour de Fat comes to Seattle--tomorrow at Gas Works Park!
Yes folks, the Tour de Fat will once again be meandering and pandering through 13 western cities spreading the good word about the positive societal offerings of the bicycle. Along with our exceptional ability to roust a city's inner-cyclist, in 2010 we hope to drive our message even deeper by bringing you the biggest, most enjoyable traveling bike festival that we know of.
New Belgium Brewing makes many fine brews, including the preferred house beer here at Chez Leyerle--Fat Tire Ale. Not only is the beer excellent, but it is great to support a brewery that takes sustainability seriously.

The Tour de Fat is "a Bicycle Festival with beer, not the other way around" but fortunately fine beverages will be available.

The fun officially begins at 10:00 tomorrow, July 31, but if the past is a good guide, it would be smart to arrive quite a bit earlier than that. The entertainments (apart from the attendees themselves!) are scheduled to include musicians, comedic couples, vaudevillians, and perhaps some rental zombies. If I still had a unicycle I would ride it there, although I'm not sure how well they attach to the front of the Metro buses...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Banking or Hoarding?

Scrooge McDuck
This makes no sense.
If all the commercial buildings in the U.S. that exist as of 2010 were retrofitted to be more energy efficient, the country as a whole would save over $41.1 billion a year in energy bills.

The cost?
To energy retrofit all 79 billion square feet of commercial real estate that Pike Research estimates exists in the U.S. as of 2010, property owners would collectively spend about $22.5 billion a year in upgrades over the next 10 years.

Investments in energy retrofits would pay off in less than one year. So every commercial building owner is doing these as fast as they can, right? Sadly, no.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, the "Stimulus Bill") allocated a mere $4.5B for energy retrofits in federal buildings. But the money isn't reaching businesses that would use it for efficiency efforts, and which would create jobs in the process.

Meanwhile the banksters have no money to lend for this. If they won't lend for something this low risk and with this fast a ROI, for what what will they lend money? The returns are guaranteed, and still they won't lend. They're not lending for much of anything.
New loans guaranteed by the federal Small Business Administration fell off a cliff in June, dropping 66 percent to their lowest level in at least two years, according to agency data. The value of new loans in June -- $647 million -- is less than the total in February 2009, the month before the Obama administration's stimulus plan eliminated some fees on the taxpayer-backed loans and increased the federal guarantee on some of them to 90 percent, an incentive which has since expired. June's total loan figure was also less than half the total lent in September 2008, the flashpoint of the financial crisis.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to Save Paper and Ink

This is a repost from the Hydrovolts blog, originally posted on 10/15/09.

Atmospheric carbon needs to be back below 350 ppmMinimizing waste has been an interest of mine since the 60's.

Green Print is a great piece of software that can really help on the Reduce part of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I've been using it on my laptop and home computer for more than a year. Exactly as it promises, it saves lots of paper and ink.

It also provides a really simple way to turn documents into PDF so you don't need to print them at all.

It installs as a printer driver which makes it really easy to use; just pick it like any other printer. When you print to it, it creates a preview screen that allows you to choose which pages not to print. For programs that have a print preview this is perhaps not as useful, but it's indispensable for printing stuff off the web (like boarding passes or travel receipts) that often print these maddening extra pages of advertisements or are completely blank except for a header/footer. The program can even be set up to largely strip these automatically.

This saves money, of course, but it also is a small step to reduce the impacts fueling climate change. The program not only tracks how many pages you've saved but also how much less carbon you've put into the environment.

Do you care about climate change? Then do something. This could be a good step. Or you could do something more.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Networking Made Memorable through Storytelling

Relating to different people by sharing stories
Another networking opportunity
Did you know I once slept in Elizabeth Taylor's bed?

Why have I never told you that story? Perhaps you have a great story too that you've never told me?

The indispensible Scott Adams wrote a stimulating blog post with the amazingly boring title Active Listening. (Important though the concept is, a title like that usually makes me tune out.) Most of the post is basic Dale Carnegie stuff (seek first to understand and only then to be understood, etc.) but there is a nestled gem lurking in the penultimate paragraph:
Most people have at least one good story in them. And you can usually find that story by asking where the person lived and what their parents did for a living.
Networking is much much more fun when you can get people to talk about unusual things. It's always more interesting precisely because it's unusual, and who doesn't like things that are more interesting? It's also more memorable and, as Adams points out, it leads to deeper and more meaningful connections with people.

What's interesting? Well...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Have They No Grandchildren?"

Contrarian hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham in his July letter to investors (via):
Conspiracy theorists claim to believe that global warming is a carefully constructed hoax driven by scientists desperate for ... what? Being needled by nonscientific newspaper reports, by blogs and by right-wing politicians and think tanks? I have a much simpler but plausible ‘conspiracy theory’: the fossil energy companies, driven by the need to protect hundreds of billions of dollars of profits, encourage obfuscation of the inconvenient scientific results. I, for one, admire them for their P.R. skills, while wondering, as always: “Have they no grandchildren?”
He also makes the excellent point that the costs of not acting and being wrong far outweigh those of the relatively modest steps to prevent a (possible) disaster:
Pascal asks the question: What is the expected value of a very small chance of an infinite loss? And, he answers, “Infinite.” In this example, what is the cost of lowering CO2 output and having the long-term effect of increasing CO2 turn out to be nominal? The cost appears to be equal to foregoing, once in your life, six months’ to one year’s global growth – 2% to 4% or less. The benefits, even with no warming, include: energy independence from the Middle East; more jobs, since wind and solar power and increased efficiency are more labor-intensive than another coal-fired power plant; less pollution of streams and air; and an early leadership role for the U.S. in industries that will inevitably become important. Conversely, what are the costs of not acting on prevention when the results turn out to be serious: costs that may dwarf those for prevention; and probable political destabilization from droughts, famine, mass migrations, and even war. And, to Pascal’s real point, what might be the cost at the very extreme end of the distribution: definitely life changing, possibly life threatening.
The precautionary principle applies. See also this video I posted a year ago.

Precautionary Principle cartoon

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Zephyr Lands

Zephyr UAV
Zephyr has landed.

It was in the air, powered only by the sun, for 336 hours, 24 minutes, more than 10x the previous record for an un-refueled UAV.

Jon Saltmarsh, project lead on the "eternal plane" announced that it was ready to begin its operational life:
We have proved the concept; we have proved we can provide persistence; we have proved we can put useful payloads on to it that will actually do things the [Ministry of Defense] has a requirement to do.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Damning with Faint Praise

Seattle has the country's least miserable economy.
Seattle residents can claim the least miserable economy in the nation, according to one straightforward measure: the misery index, which combines inflation with unemployment.

The misery index in the Seattle area currently stands as the lowest in the nation, according to data compiled by the Bloomberg news organization.

Year-over-year inflation in Seattle is pegged at a negative 0.5 percent. The unemployment rate of 6 percent gives Seattle a misery index of just 5.5 percent.
The misery index is a great political sound bite, but not a very useful economic indicator. If you're unemployed the inflation figure is not one of your top worries, while if you do have a good job you probably don't worry too much about the unemployment number.

A new definition of the misery index

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Limits of Shrill

Clown Senator James Inhofe
I've posted in the past about how many conservatives treat science in general and climate change in particular in a way which is, well, not very conservative. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Some conservatives (but not nearly enough) are starting to get it. 

Conservative Jonathan Kay has penned an excellent op-ed in Canada's quite conservative National Post that calls out how many of his fellow conservatives have lost touch with their own principles:
In simpler words, too many of us treat science as subjective — something we customize to reduce cognitive dissonance between what we think and how we live.

In the case of global warming, this dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism — and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned — is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement. The global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally.

The appropriate intellectual response to that challenge — finding a way to balance human consumption with responsible environmental stewardship — is complicated and difficult. It will require developing new technologies, balancing carbon-abatement programs against other (more cost-effective) life-saving projects such as disease-prevention, and — yes — possibly increasing the economic cost of carbon-fuel usage through some form of direct or indirect taxation. It is one of the most important debates of our time. Yet many conservatives have made themselves irrelevant in it by simply cupping their hands over their ears and screaming out imprecations against Al Gore.

Rants and slogans may help conservatives deal with the emotional problem of cognitive dissonance. But they aren’t the building blocks of a serious ideological movement. And the impulse toward denialism must be fought if conservatism is to prosper in a century when environmental issues will assume an ever greater profile on this increasingly hot, parched, crowded planet. Otherwise, the movement will come to be defined — and discredited — by its noisiest cranks and conspiracists.
It's already happening.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

An Electric Decision: My Next Car

Electric Smart Car
Electric Smart Car
I am never going to buy another gas-powered car.

My next one will be a plug-in electric, although I am not yet sure which one. Several new models are coming out in the next few years, and while most of the press is fixated on purchase price, not enough attention has been paid to battery life and the cost of replacing batteries. At $10,000 or more for the batteries alone, this is a potentially more gob-smacking expense than an engine rebuild of a conventional car.

Because I prefer to take public transit and do so whenever I can, most of my driving is between my house and the local park-and-ride. People fret about electric vehicle maximum ranges, but most folks drive well less than 40 miles per day. I drive less than 5 most days, sometimes 8-10 and occasionally I 'll drive to Seattle or North Bend or Kirkland or Renton, and might rack up 30-35 miles.

Here's a good general comparison of many of the current and projected offerings.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"But This Ship Can't Sink!"

Course correction neededThis is a repost from the Hydrovolts blog, oringially posted on 3/22/09.

Climate Progress is, without exception, the best source for factual information on the science and politics of climate change.

However, Joe Romm, the former Department of Energy official who largely is Climate Progress, says we shouldn't call it "climate change" anymore, since that is too unalarming a euphemism for the dire future that will arrive later this century:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 15°F over much of the United States
  • Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Widespread desertification — as much as one-third of the land
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — 50% or more of all life
  • Unexpected impacts — the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
  • More severe hurricanes — especially in the Gulf
Read the post. It's an excellent and succinct summary, with references. The consequences of not stabilizing atmospheric carbon levels are growing more severe. The costs of mitigation are today still relatively modest, but increasing; the costs of adapting in later decades to a changed world and coping with multiple failures of economic systems, the environment, and public health will be substantial.
Now if only the scientific community and environmentalists and progressives could start articulating this reality cogently.
If only.

The problem is that the timescales are enormously long compared to the attention spans or even the planning horizons of most people. We live in times that emphasize the short-term in everything. Quarterly earnings reports. This year's model. Spring fashions. Low teaser rates. 90 days, no interest. How do you galvanize people to respond to an emergency they can't see and which takes decades to wreak its havoc? I am reminded of a scene from the movie Titanic, after the iceberg has struck and gashed the hull: the naval architect, Thomas Andrews, breaks the bad news to Captain Edward J. Smith and Cunard White Star Line honcho J. Bruce Ismay:
Thomas Andrews: ...As she goes down by the head, the water will spill over the tops of the bulkheads at E deck from one to the next. Back and back. There's no stopping it.

Smith: The pumps... if we opened the doors...

Thomas Andrews: [interrupting] The pumps buy you time, but minutes only. From this moment, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder.

Ismay: [incredulously] But this ship can't sink!

Thomas Andrews: She's made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can... and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.
Meanwhile the passengers continue on, unaware that their current experience is not their future--the ship is doomed. The lights are still on, the music is still playing; to them, the ship looks just the same. The fleeting concern of the moneyed and comfortable is quickly allayed by those for whom reassurance is their job. Steward: "I shouldn't worry ma'am. We've likely thrown a propeller blade, that's the shudder you felt. May I bring you anything?" While it is yet level, anyone hurtling about the deck screaming that the ship is sinking would be ignored or dismissed out of hand (as Ismay does: "This ship can't sink!")

This Titanic scene is a parable for us passengers on the Earth. For the most part, everything looks OK, but we are taking on water. People with expertise, who are knowledgeable on the particulars, are sounding the alarm, and urging response and preparation. Others, who may be experts in their own fields, insist that nothing is amiss. Maybe in our case we can buy enough time with the pumps, and the repairs, and the ship needn't sink. Denial and delay, however, ensures a steep plunge, and an ugly lifeboat exercise where none of money, status or morality will hold much sway.

Ismay's incredulous outburst, "But this ship can't sink!" comes from his belief, not his expertise. He lacks the understanding of engineering and physics to make such a statement of fact; instead it is a desperate attempt to arrest the vanishing permanence of a state of mind: too much would change or be lost were it to happen, so the ship can't be allowed to sink. But of course, it can, and it does.

The biggest impediment to acceptance of, and action upon climate change, the sinking of our ship, is the inchoate belief that it is unsinkable.

Update: Corrected Titanic's ownership

Monday, July 19, 2010

Buildings with Integrated Wind Turbines

London England's Strata Tower
Work is complete on London's Strata Tower, the world's first residential building with integrated wind turbines:

The so-called Electric Razor, or the Lipstick, is architecturally striking to be sure. It is "the kind of heroically stylised building, you would expect to see in some 1930s sci-fi movie: the perfect place for a hero and a villain to have a rooftop showdown."

One could picture Christopher Lee on top, shouting incantations.

At £113.5M to build it's also a pricey symbol of London's urban redevelopment.

The developers continue to claim the turbines will generate 8% of the building's power needs. However, I am skeptical. We'll know in about two years. They weren't turning at all on a recent day despite the wind. According to a woman involved in the overall redevelopment of the Strata's Elephant and Castle neighborhood:
That's because the people in the upper flats have complained about the noise and vibration, They'll probably never be used.
Meanwhile, there's another building with attached wind turbines:
Bahrain World Trade Center

According to wind tunnel tests at scale, the sail-shaped towers funnel any winds within 45 degrees of the prevailing northerlies to blow perpendicularly through the turbines. The three 225kW turbines are expected to generate 1.1 to 1.3 GW per year, between 11% and 15% of the building's energy needs.

Although the turbines were first switched on in 2008, I cannot find data of actual generation.

The viability of building-mounted wind turbines appears poor. They're eco-bling.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Price of Government

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, struggling vainly against his smirk, says that there is "no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue." The GOP has become the party of all tax cuts all the time; no matter the economic ailment or situation, tax cuts are always the right policy.

The laughable Laffer Cruve
Such a doctrinaire certainty accords poorly with both its economic underpinnings and with common sense. The intellectual basis for tax cuts as stimulation is so-called supply-side economics, and specifically the Laffer Curve. The core concept is that there is an optimal tax rate where revenues from tax collection are maximized. The problem (true in too many economics graphs) is the axes are labeled minimally, if at all. Obviously a tax rate of zero will produce no revenue, and a perfectly confiscatory tax rate of 100% will likely produce little revenue either, whether by disincentive or by noncompliance. These are the easily numbered endpoints of the curve. But where does the "revenue maximizing point" lie on the x-axis? The typical Laffer Curve graphic is symmetric, suggesting perhaps a tax rate of 50% is optimal, but no one truly knows, and I doubt you would find many politicians of any party advocating such a number.

McConnell and his sycophantic elephant herd clearly assume that current tax rates place us on the right hand side of the Laffer Curve, in the "region of declining revenue" so tax cuts increase revenues. Economists of all political stripes agree that the available evidence suggests instead that we are in the "region of increasing revenue" and that cutting taxes will decrease rather than increase revenues.

It's not hard to see why an unrelenting belief in endless tax cuts is bad economics. Politicians who run on a platform of ever more tax cuts will, at length, run up against the lower bound, a zero tax rate where there is no tax revenue at all. Long before that time revenue will shrink with the decline in tax rates. Asymptotically, advocacy of blind tax cut orthodoxy will run into empirical reality long before. Then what? It is a reductio ad absurdum and we are already breaching the absurd.

The slogan of running government like a business has been around for years, but I don't see this as more than a facile nostrum. Government and businesses have different purposes and different governing structures. What products and services they provide, and how they do so, is not the same. For example, pricing a product or service involves weighing many factors. The amount of revenue generated is important, but not the only consideration.

In pricing government, i.e. in establishing the price (in taxes), what business purpose is government trying to achieve? Providing value for the money? Building brand loyalty? Expanding market share? Driving competitors out of business? Being the lowest cost provider? There is doubtless disagreement about the purpose, and democratic government, unlike business, virtually never operates under one coherent strategy embraced by all its employees. It is pointless, however, to evaluate what government does, or to modify its policies without being clear on the objectives.

McConnell lies. The real reason for endless tax cuts is not that we can afford them, but rather precisely because we cannot. Deliberately increasing the deficit forces either a retreat from tax cuts or increasing cuts in spending, and Americans don't tolerate retreat in any context. Today's deficit scolds are the policy heirs of Grover Nordquist, and his ilk: to shrink government enough that it can be drowned in a bathtub.

A business can survive declining revenues by cutting costs and by borrowing--to a point. Eventually, the business must have adequate revenues to continue as a going concern.

What business is governed by a board and run by executives relentlessly determined to shrink revenues until the business fails? Today's GOP, with their antipathy to taxes irrespective of history, economics or reason, reveal their true agenda as political nihilists. I would never hire them for any business of mine. Would you?

Saturday, July 17, 2010


News not reported as widely or with the significance it deserves: An airplane powered only by solar energy has flown for more than a week:
The UK-built Zephyr solar-powered plane has smashed the endurance record for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The craft took off from the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona at 1440 BST (0640 local time) last Friday [7/9/10] and is still in the air. Its non-stop operation, day and night, means it has now gone four times longer than the official mark recognised by the world air sports federation.
Zephyr on a test flight in 2008
Project manager Jon Saltmarsh, a spokesman for QinetiQ, the developer of the craft, says they plan to fly it for another week before landing. "Zephyr is basically the first 'eternal aircraft'," added Saltmarsh.

The company's web site touts the craft:
Zephyr is recognised as a world leading Solar Powered high-altitude, long-endurance UAS. Its goal is to provide a persistent, stable, high altitude platform for surveillance, communications and rapid delivery to forces in the field.

The aircraft uses state-of-the-art solar cells to recharge its equally advanced extremely high power lithium-sulphur batteries on a continuous day/night flight cycle, allowing the UAS to fly for weeks without landing.


This Zephyr represents a leap forward from the aircraft flown in 2008 and 2009. Significant company investment has gone into proving the reliability of the latest version. Zephyr is now 50% larger than previous iterations to better accommodate the vital equipment it needs and with a 22.5m wingspan its over 4m longer. It also includes a new integrated power management system, has an entirely new aerodynamic shape and a ‘T’ tail design.
While this success breaks records for unmanned flight its significance is far broader.

The purpose of the Zephyr project is enhanced military surveillance. We have had decades of spy satellites, equipped with sophisticated imaging equipment watching wherever and whatever their owners want. However, satellites zoom by; they cannot monitor one spot continuously. Having UAVs like those the Zephyr presages changes the capabilities of the surveillance society. Who among us will now have any expectation of privacy?

On a more positive note, Zephyr shows that it is possible to create something like a perpetual machine, that can run indefinitely, limited only by maintenance needs.* The Zephyr is relatively light at 50kg, and unmanned, but the energy needed to keep it aloft, carrying its lithium-sodium batteries and payload equipment, is large. It should be possible to scale it larger still, and carrying more weight, including people appears likely. In addition, there is no reason that the combination of technologies that makes this triumph possible cannot be extended to other kinds of machines than ultralight airplanes. The cost may be high for some time, the technology esoteric, and the weight-minimization requirements demanding, but there is no reason in principle that such an approach could not also work for other kinds of transportation such as trains, or even cars.

* Not truly perpetual of course; the laws of thermodynamics have not been repealed. But within the remaining lifetime of the shining sun, another 10 billion years or so.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Where to Go for Coffee

Uptown Espresso in Seattle's Belltown
I had coffee with a friend this morning at Seattle's Uptown Espresso in Belltown. As we waited on the barista he remarked how much he liked the spacious and uncrowded feel of the place. I had to agree. Far too many espresso shops are cramped and sterile, especially many of those branded by a local, ubiquitous chain. They aren't a third place; instead they come in last in any ranking of places I'd care to linger.

The Uptown also has a good selection of comfy chairs and even a small separate meeting room. Best of all, it has some of the fastest internet in the city--for free. This morning was cool with low clouds so it was glassed-in along the sidewalk. In warm weather they open it up widely, merging street scene and cafe. The bus stops right in front. The coffee is good, the atmosphere inviting. Is there better anywhere nearby?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Laissez Failure

BP oil platform burns in the Gulf of Mexico
This is a repost from the Hydrovolts blog, oringially posted on 5/2/10.

The slow-motion ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is horrifying.

The oil slick is now the size of Ohio, and growing by the hour. Edges of it are now reaching land and all along the Gulf coast residents wait with deep foreboding and growing anger as the dimensions of the disaster become clear.

This is not an oil spill, but an oil spilling, as more ruptures from the sea floor, surfaces, and spreads its devastating reach towards shore. 40% of the coastal wetlands in the United States are under threat, as are the majority of the country's oyster and shrimp fisheries. Local fishermen have moved quickly through the 5 stages of grieving as they face the imminent destruction of their livelihood, economic security, their way of life, and their future.

Emergency response began quickly and broad efforts at mitigation are underway. The Obama Administration formed a National Response Team, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is mobilizing the state's National Guard, and locals are taking to their boats to deploy booms to intercept the sprawling slick. Dealing with the immediate crisis is paramount now, yet soon hard questions must be asked, and honestly answered. The critical questions are:

Why did this happen? How do we prevent it happening again?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Brian Solis social media 'flower'
In starting this blog I wrestled a bit with the problem of scope--what should I write about? A blog is part of the social media landscape and that's been changing rapidly--not just the channels, but also the content.

Today I attended the Northwest Entrepreneur Network (NWEN) workshop on social media, given by Andy Boyer and Xavier Jimenez, co-founders of Lots of great material, useful references and actionable ideas.

I asked about the increasingly blurring or even disappearing line between business and personal content: many of us have a LinkedIn profile that describes our professional experience, relationships and expertise. Many of us also have Facebook pages or Twitter feeds that we share with our friends. Until recently I largely kept these separate, with my business contacts in LinkedIn and my friends and family on Facebook. But over time this doesn't really work. My friends are often part of my business network. Business colleagues find me on Facebook and want to connect. Different social media platforms are much more effective when linked together. Twitter feeds into Facebook. Plaxo and LinkedIn status updates are synchronized. Links to new Youtube videos and blog posts are broadcast on Twitter. And webpages have links to all of them.

So, it's time to bust down the Chinese Wall. While our business selves may want to write primarily about our areas of subject matter expertise, it's OK, even necessary, to also pepper it with other pieces that paint a fuller picture of ourselves, even beyond our business personae. Andy made a great point (which I paraphrase):
Be a SME (subject matter expert)--yes--but more and other kinds of content is necessary too. If someone is going to not hire me because of social comments, that's OK. You can't hide. The more authentic and transparent you are, the more confidence people have when seeking you out.
Andy added that much web content is now consumed through filters--Google Alerts, aggregators, Twitter searches, NetVibes, and the like. People mostly see what they're looking for, which might be only snippets of all the content one generates.

So, the upshot? I'll write about what interests me without worrying much about whether this blog follows some carefully circumscribed theme. So I expect to post on energy technology and policy, climate change, the future, the dismaying and ongoing attacks on science, the shocking decline in critical thinking by our media, self-appointed pundits, and so-called leaders, occasional humor, and thoughts arising from experiences I've had as a manager, as an entrepreneur and as a business consultant.

Pick what you like. Ignore what you don't. Better still, make a comment, post a link, start a conversation.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Road Trip

I got back home this afternoon from a 3-day trip to Washington State's wine country--the Yakima Valley. My wife and I were celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary with some sun, food and wine. Of course, this required some field research!

The Bonair Winery tasting room
At the Bonair Winery near Zillah, WA

There are dozens of wineries and tasting rooms between Yakima and the Tri-Cities, so there was time to visit only a few. Some of our favorites are the Barnard-Griffin near Richland (check out the Syrah Port), the Hyatt in Zillah (try the amusingly named Zillah Gorilla Zinfandel) and the Bonair, also in Zillah (maker of a scrumptiously buttery Chardonnay.)

On the drive home we saw several trucks carrying wind turbine parts to a new installation west of Ellensburg. It was visible from I-90 along the first ridge north of the highway. Only one crane was visible:

New wind farm construction west of Ellensburg, Washington
Wind farm under construction west of Ellensburg, WA

Mount Stewart dominates the range in the distance. One of the most beautiful hiking areas in the Northwest, the Enchantment Lakes, lies just beyond. We need to go back since it's been ten years since we were last there, and the beauty of the larches turning gold in September is worth the length and steepness of the trail.

In the meantime, however, I'm catching up on my reading, and enjoying meeting with friends and colleagues in Seattle and on the Eastside. Soon enough I'll be hard at work again, but for now let's grab coffee...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Recycling Brick

The Return Brick robot turns rubble into brick, suitable for new buildings:
What if there was a machine that could automatically collect rubble from torn-down buildings and transform the material into new bricks? That’s exactly what designers Youngwoo Park, Hoyoung Lee and Miyeon Kim are proposing with their “Return Brick” recycling machine, which could help keep construction materials out of the landfill. The little robotic machine would search for small fragments of brick and concrete, grind them up, and reform those pieces into new Lego-like bricks, which are easier to stack and build with.
Return Brick robot
Recycling of many materials has become the norm in much of the developed world, and economically viable materials such as aluminum are routinely recycled into new products. Other materials can be recycled, but often are not, either because the virgin material is cheaper or because the recycling stream has too many impurities.

The economics are changing, however, because of increasing transportation expense and as overall life-cycle costs, once externalized, undergo greater scrutiny. Shipping raw materials between continents will become increasingly uncompetitive with locally sourced alternatives. Recycling and reuse also become more economically viable as the true costs of a throw-away mentality become clearer. As every homeowner and business knows, waste disposal is getting more expensive.

What else can we avoid putting in landfills? How about brick? According to Yanko Design, creator of the Return Brick, 89% of construction waste is brick and concrete, and much of it now ends up in landfills.

The machine works by finding and picking up brick fragments which are then pulverized. This powder is then mixed with water and a "hardening agent" and compressed. Finished bricks are ejected to the side of the machine.

The idea of a robot trolling around a construction site seems challenging based on sites I have seen. Apart from the rubble the machine would want to find, there is much equipment, uneven terrain, old coffee cups, nails, bits of plastic and many other contaminants strewn about. A traveling robot is probably less practical than a stationary machine into which the debris is fed. There are already ways to reuse brick, tips for recycling and a market for brick chips.Still, the idea to create fresh bricks, rather than uniform fill, has merit.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Green traffic light
I was the co-founder in 2007 of Hydrovolts, Inc., a maker of micro-scale hydropower turbines, and, until last week, its COO.

You can find the posts I wrote for the company's blog here.

Now I'm looking for a new challenge, ideally in a leadership role at a small-to-midsized entrepreneurial company. You can learn more about me from my LinkedIn profile, or contact me on Twitter or via Facebook.

I expect to continue posting here about some of the same things I wrote about while at Hydrovolts: renewable energy, climate change, politics, policy, and our energy future. In addition, and unlike at the Hydrovolts blog, I will likely also post about other startups, including Enerdyne Solutions, a provider of thermal management solutions for electronics, and on whose Board of Directors I serve.

There will probably be other things from time to time, including perhaps some observations along the way as I explore what I'll do next.

This will be more fun if you join in. Leave a comment. Make a suggestion. Let's get the conversation started!