Monday, January 18, 2010

The color of love is green?

The New York Times has an amusing article about therapists reporting an increasing in marital strife over whether one's partner is green enough. As expected, women tend to be more in the green camp than men who are in the economic analysis or self determination camp.

I guess that it's that women tend to worry about the welfare of their children more than men, and they worry whether there will be a planet for their grandchildren. Men less so, wonder why. Sting had a song during the cold war called "Russians" where the refrain was

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

So presumably men love their children too. I see this dynamic in a couple who are good friends of mine and the split is identical as the analysis. I think part of it is that men tend to look at concrete measurable things (i.e. this heater will have a break even when?) vs qualitative measures. This is not a bad thing, especially when there is so much green washing going on.

Whatever the reason, ultimately it comes down to priorities what do you and your partner envision as a lifestyle you want:

Still, Robert Brulle, a professor of environment and sociology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said he had seen divorces among couples who realized that their values were putting them on very different long-term trajectories.

“One still wants to live the American dream with all that means, and the other wants to give up on big materialistic consumption,” Dr. Brulle said. “Those may not be compatible.”

America is a very status conscious society, and there are very few ways of signaling status and one is the material possessions one has. (I won't explore the role of debt distorting that signal) so I think it's going to be hard to change. This is very much the case in that many women choose men of high status and rely on those signals. The contradictions abound!

Now are we missing the point?

The BBC has a blog called "Ethical Man" that can be amusing. In this particular post where he wonders what is the most efficient transportation available with respect to carbon emissions and he comes out with some surprising conclusions. Flying is not that bad because it flies a lot of people, walking turns out to be very carbon intensive due to our food supply chain and cars with more than one people are more efficient than mass transit.

Some of the arguments are canards of course. We really don't eat food to move around, we eat food to live. So it's going to happen anyway. As for automobiles, the issue ends up being that we create carbon intensive architectures to support the car. Towns and metropolitans were smaller when people walked and took mass transit. Now we live on roads, and roads (in particular freeways) are incredibly costly. But since we as a society fund it collectively we don't notice it. Jet travel poses it's own problems (and given my line of work have two choices, fly or be unemployed).

The question is how de we redefine our economy to be more effective. The internet may solve some of those problems. Videoconference is now how I keep in touch overseas. Hybrids will offset some our emissions, but it won't solve the issues associated with manufacturing a car. Dirty secret, things built to last reduce consumption since you don't have to replace them. One of the amazing inventions of our age is the infusing everything with a notion of fashion in addition to utility. Do you really need that new shirt, well not functionally, but because it is out of fashion. And we all know we are judged by how we look.

Malthus really understood the challenges of population growth, he wasn't wrong we just are able to extend the curve out but we haven't been able to change the shape of the curve. Modern economics plays on a deep understanding of our psyches, our competitive drives. I can't find the source, but in the course of modern medicine we have never eradicated a sexually transmitted disease. The urges and desires are too strong.

So what is the point of this digressive post. The goal is not arguing which is the better form of transport. The question is how do we look at our lives in time and space to work to our urges as opposed to fighting against them. And it's not going to be a simple cost benefit analysis. How much space do we need to live, how long is a reasonable time to wait for transport (can we design a mass transit system based on average wait time), can we figure out zoning to make it possible to get a quart of milk without having to get in your car.

These are the more important questions than which is the better transport.

Monday, January 11, 2010


A reader submitted some background on the case of the motorist vs the bicyclists in the Brentwood hills. The two articles are here and here and the evidence seems that the driver may have had a history of aggressive driving in the past.

What is most interesting is the dialog that is happening in the comments. There are those who are condemning the driver, citing his aggressive stance and other criticizing the cyclists for either provoking the driver by not being courteous riders or for following too close (which technically is correct, if you are a vehicle you are suppose to stay far enough back to be able to stop if necessary, and cyclists have to observe the same rules of the road.)

The thing that is most disturbing is that the dialog is very polarized, most are accusatory on both sides. The debate is a winner take all attitude. If I am 49% wrong and you are 51% wrong then you take all the blame kind of discourse. Of course sentencing is suppose to address the nuances. The sentence of five years at first seemed excessive but visiting the Bureau of Justice Statistics five years seems about average as quoted here.

Felony convictions

State and federal courts convicted a combined total of nearly 1,145,000 adults of felonies in 2004. Of these felony convictions, an estimated 1,079,000 adults were convicted in state courts and 66,518 were convicted in federal courts, accounting for 6% of the national total.

In 2004, 70% of all felons convicted in state courts were sentenced to a period of confinementconfinement in a state prison (40%) or a local jail (30%). Jail sentences are short-term confinement (usually less than 1 year) in a county or city facility. Prison sentences are long-term confinement (usually 1 year or more) in a state facility.

Prison sentences handed down by state courts in 2004 averaged almost 5 years .

and given the intent to harm and the use of a weapon (car) based on an internet definition below

A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he or she attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another or causes such injury purposely, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life; or attempts to cause or purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon. In all jurisdictions statutes punish such aggravated assaults as assault with intent to murder (or rob or kill or rape) and assault with a dangerous (or deadly) weapon more severely than "simple" assaults.

The felony sentence seems appropriate.

Unfortunately this case has polarized more than resolved issues. Our network of roads, streets and paths are signs of a civil society. Maintained for the citizenry for the benefit of all the citizenry. Our tax distribution and allocations really exemplify that our support for cars is first and foremost. And this allocation of resources only reinforces that cars are special. More balanced spending on different modes of transportation would go a long way to removing the subconscious notion that cars and mechanical transportation is normal. It may be our norm, but it is definitely not natural. And since it is not natural, we can shape our own norms. It's time that we do.

Mass Transit Death Spiral

This is very troubling, the various mass transit agencies in the San Francisco are in a death spiral as they lose ridership and revenue, they have to cut service which in turn causes more riders to abandon mass transit leading to more cuts. The article focuses on the cost of mass transit versus owning a car, but even better it talks about the cost in time and the differential in transit time because of the frequency and routes of mass transit in the bay area.

I actually timed it that it was faster for me to ride my bicycle 11 miles to the airport than it was to take the local light rail. Note that my light rail is even within walking distance away. The mass transit for me getting to the airport was 10 minute walk, 10 minute light rail trip, 5 - 10 minute wait for the next train (sometimes even longer) and then another 10 minutes on another train, and I'm not done yet. I have another 5 - 10 minute wait to get to the shuttle to the airport.

The fail is that in most US metropolitan areas there is really no center. Contrast this to London where I can take Heathrow Express to Paddington and then London is at my feet to tons of other trains. It is faster than car. Even faster when you can check in your luggage at Paddington and skip the airport. Wow!

This illustrates the challenges of mass transit in the American Metropolitan Model. I love mass transit, took it for two weeks in New York. I actually don't think that the transit time is the issue, it's the frequency and wait time that kills most people.

These two articles (one and two) suggest that there is a certain zone where mass transit will work and where it doesn't. If you can't fund it that way or even out the balance between mass transit and the surface transit system. Mass Transit will be for those who don't have a choice.

And that's no choice at all.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

righteousness on all sides, everyone loses.

A friend of mine forwarded me an article about the case where a doctor was convicted of assaulting some bicyclists when he abruptly applied the brakes to his car to "teach them a lesson". Two of the cyclists went into the doctor's windshield.

The case reeks of he said, he said. The driver claims that the bicyclists were being aggressive and rude, and the cyclists said the driver was driving hostilely. It is likely that the drive was excessively impatient and the cyclists got riled up and tensions escalated.

Bicycle advocates have written letters and appeals that the driver be given a harsh sentence to serve as a warning to others. However well intentioned the appeals, what seemed lacking in the coverage was the following:

1) The cyclists appeared to be recreational cyclists. They have every right to ride on the road, but my experience in the hills I live locally that many roadies who like hills, share the same traits as BMW drivers. Not a perfect indicator of aggressive rude behavior, but not a bad predictor either. Was attitude involved.

2) Recreational cyclists tend not to be commuting cyclists. In addition to drivers being reminded that bikes are legal vehicles on the road. Governments need to appropriate revenue for making bicycles first class citizens for all integrations. Part of the danger of cyclist automobile issues is that bikes are so rare relative to cars. In countries where bicycles are commonplace, cars are less freaked out by bikes. Recreational cyclists need to advocate for cycling as part of civic life not an afterthought.

3) Cyclists are the best ambassadors and enforcers for cyclists. If cyclists see bad behavior from their fellow cyclists they need to call it out.

Lest I be blamed for blaming the victim in this incident.

1) Drivers need to realize that they are operating a hazard. They are licensed for a reason. Trying not to miss a phone call and not missing a pedestrian or cyclist is not a balanced world view.

2) Drivers have to wonder, can a world structured for cars be sustainable. Taking a moment to get out of the car and trying alternative transportation such as cycling would foster empathy. The most likely response will be this sucks, I'm going to drive. But if one continues to drive, one can appreciate what cyclists are experiencing. Not everyone who rides their bikes has the same choice.

Righteousness is great in a perfect world, in a world of tradeoffs, perhaps a little mutual understanding could have avoided this unfortunate incident.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

2009 Recap: trials and tribulations.

2009 was a year of mixed success of the green front for me. It's a questions of engagement or engagement. The Silicon Valley is a very intense place and to be an active participant in one's work life and social life is a question of time and distance and the relationship between the two.

I ended up putting a lot more miles on in 2009. Both automotive and aircraft. A new job slightly further away made it difficult to ride my bike to work, and the hours and scheduling of meetings made it tricky to rely on mass transit. When I was able to plan ahead it was quite easy, when I lived and just in time next step scheduling, it was much more difficult. A a creature of least resistance, let's say the path was obvious. The main lesson of the year is scheduling and location dictate greenness. It's that simple. Density facilitates a reduced carbon existence.

The architecture of our work and life needs to radically change. In NYC I spent about 10 days and the difference was huge. I walked everywhere. I commuted to a remote work site by mass transit. The only problem is the architecture of our lives wasn't create overnight and it's not going to change overnight. It'll take enlightened leadership of the type that created our interstate freeway system to build a greenway system of equal magnitude. The first was created in the prosperity of the 50s, the question is can this one be created in poverty on teens?

The other area of green life I was more successful and that was the reuse and recycle route. 2009 resulted in the discovery of sharing and buying used. Garage sales and thrift stores provide saving not only in finances. Replacement items are not transported long distances, no new packaging material is used. And for many things, you can get new items second hands. As many individuals receive unwanted gifts, it's good to see the gifts find a wanting home. My only wish was that hardware companies opened up the drivers of old technologies so that new uses for old technology could be found.

So 2009 in brief:

1) Being an active participant in society the way our society is structured is carbon unfriendly, changing the architecture will take time. We have working templates.

2) Technology and resources to make sure things get used effectively are getting possible. You can avoid buying new and still have a good life.