Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Does Driving Cause Obesity?"

On the Freakonomics Blog, there is a post covering the correlation that in places where car use is prevalent, people are fatter. There has been little evidence that there is a cause and effect in play until now. The post is so short and succinct, I quote it below

People are significantly fatter in countries, states, and cities where car use is more common. Mass transit use, on the other hand, is correlated with lower obesity. But there has been scant evidence that public transportation actually causes widespread weight loss — until now. A study of residents in Charlotte, N.C., found that users of the city’s new light rail system were 81 percent less likely to become obese, and reduced their Body Mass Index by an average 1.18 points — the equivalent of 6.45 pounds for a person 5’5″ tall. The study appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

My own personal experiment of the past few months corroborates this, I definitely and thinner (though weight is only nominally less). Interestingly, increased mass transit use has also reduced my appetite for some reason. Perhaps there is something about transient exercise that moderates appetite as well?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fifteen years and counting...

As I ride caltrain back from a screening at yerba  buena I realize the tradeoffs of life sans car. Three hours of transit for 97 minutes of movie. Of course the difference is really one hour. It probably would have taken two hours by car. I will get some reading done after this post so that helps. We live in dimensions and scale dominated by transit.

I just realized that my bridgestone mb5 has been used for over fifteen years. I am trying to think of any car of mine that has lasted that long. Looking at used cars I worry about the failures ahead. With a bike it's all frame. You are good to go.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Is being green sexy, well not if it's frugal.

Ron Lieber in his NY Times "Your Money" column asks How to Be Frugal and Still Be Asked on Dates which has sparked a bit of interest in that it's been emailed a bit and a few comments on the Bucks personal finance blog section of the Times.

I think it is a really interesting question, because it asks a lot about what people are looking for in a relationship, and assuming you are willing to establish a partnership with that person, what you want. The premise of the article is basically can frugal be sexy? And like a good deconstructionist text, the word frugal is pregnant with meaning, and much of that meaning can be tied to the same tenets that govern green living.

The general meaning associated with "frugal" for better or worse is cheap. And people don't want to date a tightwad or a miser. Which often are associations with frugal that can be negative. The other connotation with "frugal" in the dating game is that the date is "poor"

On the flip side, some other connotations of "frugal" are "simple" and "basic" which depending on your perspective may not be sexy or attractive. However these are less negative. Many individuals leave simple lives but are incredibly classy. There are basics that never go out of style. A good example of that is the Patagonia line of clothing, which are basic but incredibly well made. Now does that constitute frugal? In my mind it does, since it is a focused on value and sustainability.

Now what does being green connote. It does seem to suggest simple living, not being ostentatious, living within one's means. Saving and not being profligate, which oddly are the same things that being frugal entail. Yet green does not seem to entail the same negative connotations, but it does have others such as being "crunchy" and not showering.

What is interesting is that green and frugal both represent value systems, and dating is the pursuit someone with values that resonate with you (ok, and perhaps a nice set of legs too). So how does the negative perceptions of frugal relate to the dating marketplace values?

Looking at it from an economics or evolutionary standpoint, dating is an evaluation of signals of prospective partners. Frugal is an implicit inferred signal. It can mean poor or it can mean simple. People tend to take it as poor. (Which is odd since the people who I know who adhere to a simple lifestyle have the highest net worth). So frugality commonly signals poor, it can also signal self control but not usually.

So what is the opposite of frugal? Spendthrift is probably the most accurate linguistic opposite. This oddly does not have the same negative connotations. People who are spendthrifts tend to be looked at with some degree of sympathy, perhaps most people can sympathize with the urge to spend more that they have. People like nice things, so when looking for someone they can related to that. Very few people can relate to people who don't have the desire to go shopping all the time, and many can't relate to people who are in control with their finances. They can't imagine it for themselves, and perhaps fear that those who are in control are some sort of robot.

Spendthrifts tend to signal they have a lot of resources, which implies they are providers to the lower part of our minds. Again this is implicit and suggested. since the invention of mass consumer credit has made outward signs a very unreliable signal. It is amazing how much resource signaling is not very environmentally friendly. Think SUVs, constant changing of clothes to meet the latest fashions, huge houses that cost a lot to maintain. The act of waste is a positive sign for resources!

This concerns me, because there are few more power drives than the desire for companionship. The maxim is that in the course of human history, no sexually transmitted disease has been eradicated comes to mind.

So if green living overlaps so much with actions of frugality, and those actions manifest themselves with negative connotations. Will it be possible to get people to live more green because they feel it will put them at a disadvantage? Buying a $4 tomato doesn't signal well since a tomato is a tomato from the outside. That Whole Foods bag however does signal. Guess, greenies who want a date should start getting those Tesla Roadsters.

So if you need more space for your bike than a Roadster will provide, then perhaps the solution is to get a Prius and let's work to reclaim frugal to its original meaning "living without waste" and making everything you do count.


Ahh the trials and tribulations of being green.

In the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, cartoonist Scott Adams has a humorous and depressing piece on the challenges of trying to create a green home. Between the ignorance and the outdated policies in our building codes, he finds out that it's very hard. Which unfortunately jives with other recent studies this week.

I use to be a big fan of Dilbert, but stopped reading when it became to nihilistic and hitting close to home, it's great to point out that things are F'ed up but you have to somehow go further. However, humor is often a good palliative to the craziness of this world. Adams in the article breaks down that the issue of being green is often in contradiction to our aesthetics (Bauhaus excepted) and simple physics. It is also a mess that getting information is full of conflicts and ulterior motives, the money quote for me was:

Heating and cooling are the biggest energy thieves. And roofs and windows matter the most for heat transfer. Focus your research and budget there. Most of the information you find will come from manufacturers who have a financial interest in misleading you, and also of course from cartoonists who write opinion pieces after being misled by those same manufacturers.

It's a jungle out there to be green. Onto more positive things, given the fact that we are clueless about saving energy, it was good that Techcrunch referenced about about the recent energy knowledge survey didn't just highlight the survey, but analyzed and told us what to do. The best way to reduce your impact in every day ways are as follows:

Here are five of the most effective things you can at home to lower your energy consumption:

1. Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs
2. Weatherize your home with caulk or weather-stripping (80% of older homes are under-insulated)
3. Install a more efficient heating and/or air conditioning unit
4. Install or upgrade attic insulation and ventilation
5. Adjust your washing machine settings to warm, or even cold, water

Environment Magazine has a fantastic article on energy use. Single largest use of energy by individuals. You guessed it. guessed it: Private Automobile.:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Human nature and driving.

The problem with driving is that it combines high attention, monotony and habitual behavior in a life threatening activity. The consequences of mistakes are incredibly high running in the tens of thousands of deaths a year. It is the single most dangerous activity that people do in their lives. Deaths by car accident are no longer tragedies but statistics.

Add to that the increasing number of distractions in our lives (such as blogs - guilty) and you do have a recipe for sadness. Kevin Tofel of GigaOM discusses a study on fleet drivers and their gadget use while driving.

"You can hide from the truth if you want to, but you have to know it first" - John Ostrander

Uh Oh! Confusing Wants and Needs again....

Ezra Klein has a blog post discussing a Pew Research survey on "necessities".

Klein highlights that the centrality of cars as a necessity means it is going to be difficult to price carbon well. He's not kidding. If you look that most people consider clothes dryer and home air conditioning as necessities you realize that role of high energy use use cases (try saying that three time fast) in our lives. Though apparently, the economy makes a big difference in people's thinking. In 2005 at the peak of the boom, clothes dryer, air conditioning and microwave were at their peak in perception, while in 2010 each dropped about 20% points. Necessity indeed. So maybe there is hope.

However, the car line remained pretty much flat, which is not surprising. Our city planning necessitates a car and changing our infrastructure in response to the economy is a lot more challenging. It may even get worse since road projects are often a favorite of stimulus projects.

Though if you have to have a home air conditioner, it's good to hear that McMansions are on their way out. Halving your home volume will make cooling it easier.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Carjacked: Have we been taken for a ride?

I went to the library the other day and while perusing the new books section struck upon a book that was up my alley, Carjacked: The culture of the Automobile and Its Effect On Our Lives by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez. One an executive, the other an Anthropology professor at Brown. I have only started the book but have been amazed at the plethora of facts about the role of automobiles in American society and how it took such a central part of our lives. The suburban sprawl was not a result of market forces but a deliberate set of choices that we are now all locked into.

The collection of statistics is mind boggling. I'll try to share some notes as I go through the book. Things like the Drive Through, parking lots, cul de sacs etc are direct manifestations of cars. This book looks like it's going to look at the flip side of car culture and bring to the surface the externalities that are inherent in our way of life. Good reading.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Go to Free Parking! Do not pass go, do not collect $200

Because you already got the money in the form of free parking. Tyler Cowen in this week's NYT's Economic VIew brings up the subject of "Free Parking" that was already covered in Slate that I blogged earlier.

I'm glad to see that the New York Times is picking this up as well. Cowen's article is interesting in that he highlights the role of regulation in determining how much parking we should be assured. The relationship between regulation, taxations and market economics is very convoluted in the United States. More often skewed by rhetoric and polemic than a real analysis. In any case, it usually make hypocrites of us all if we actually adhered to our stated philosophies. (Note I am including myself in this morass). Most suburbanites who abhor taxes, probably think that this mandatory parking is a good idea. It definitely makes life easier at the big box store, even though it is an implicit tax or subsidy. Free parking further distorts the real price of driving.

Professor Cowen is also well known for a blog know as Marginal Revolution and he has a brief comment about the Islamic Center planned in Lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center. In the post he has the observations:

I fully support letting the NYC mosque proceed for reasons well articulated by Sullivan, Krugman, Yglesias, and others; if nothing else, this episode shows "politics isn't about policy" but rather about the relative status of different societal groups. We should think more seriously about how we might give Islam, and Muslims, higher status in the United States and elsewhere.

We tend to think of societal groups in terms of race and religion in the U.S. But there is another way of looking at the different societal groups and that's through a class lens. The suburban class due to its numbers has a lot of influence not just for the U.S. but for the world, They structure our society and cars make up a lot of the structure.

Before we leave thinking that autos are all about fun and games, the tragic accident in Southern California. What shocks me is how dismissive the spectators were to the risk and how close they were to the cars. As a bicyclist, I am fully aware of the risk cars pose to unshielded pedestrians. Cars have become so common place that we forget they can be dangerous. It's sad when fun and frivolity end like this, often we forget that when we play with the dragon's tail it can bite.

Lessons learned in my second cycle.

It's been a little over two months since I went car free unintentionally since my accident. I have to say that it's not been as hard I as remember, and there are some real benefits to self locomotion for commuting as Arduous shares on her blog. But it hasn't been easy. The things that have made this stint of carfreeness work are the following:

1) You have to have very sympathetic friends. Now most of my friends consider me a bit of a nut case, with my crazy rules, beliefs and causes. But they are also have sympathy for me and are willing to shuttle me around to be able to participate in social activities or else choosing venues that are close to mass transit.

2) My work and stores are all within mass transit distances to make it possible. If I lived where my brother lived when he lived in the Portland suburbs or back in Colorado where office parks are isolated from the town, as as shopping centers. This would not be possible. Density provides options. Lack of density restricts engagement to those with cars only. An interesting note is that people has asked me how I do grocery shopping? And it's actually pretty easy since I have a Safeway that is about 2.5 miles from my places and most of it is available via bike paths should I choose. I take side streets and bike paths for efficiency. Bicycle panniers make it easy to bring food back and forth. And aside from a break up induced stupor to my Trader Joe's for some scotch. I've been doing pretty well getting food as I need. Also fortunate is that there is a neighborhood market about 10 minutes walk away from me which helps a lot.

3) I have autonomy with my schedule. If I was to get bumped from a train and did shift work that would be a problem.

Even when I had a car, my driving was less than the California standard of 15,000 miles a year. I will probably get a car for the exceptions as I shop for a used Priur. While it is definitely possible to live car free, it is dependent on city planning to enable it. I am worried about Caltrain cutting schedules, and the more I research the High Speed Rail initiative it seems a boondoggle to fund jobs. We really need to spend those monies improving regional transit where it'll make mass transit competitive with driving. For all those who point to other countries high rail systems between cities, they forget to mention that these countries also have excellent regional mass transit systems too. Let's not put the cart in front of the horse. Supporting the common case is more important than the exciting case.

The experiment continues.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A DIY bicycle movement in NYC

Crunchgear has a really interesting article about how some hackers in New York City have created a do it yourself bike sharing system. What's really amazing is that instead of having custom bikes, their system is able to put on standard bicycles and convert any bike to a bike sharing system. You check out bikes using an iPhone application. It is really amazing that there are technology components that can enable the grass roots to create such a solution.

Well ingenuity alone won't get them going so they are entering a Pepsi Contest to fund cool ideas with seed money. So if you think this is a good idea, you might cast a vote for them.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

At some point, it does seem silly doesn't it.

The grey lady has on the Coffee Connundrum and the rise of Single Coffee pods. Are we really so lazy that we can't just use a french press or drip coffee. Now I've used the K-cups and thought are these biodegradable. Well the answer is no. I really have to sympathize with the cause of Fake Plastic Fish. It does seem that the disposability crusade has gone too far. Convenience has a cost, it always has a cost. The fraud is that we are trained to value our time as if every moment we use is precious and can have better utility. Well maybe. But maybe the time is what gives the pleasure, the wait, the process. It's like having a rushed tea ceremony, what's the point. My favorite quote is:

Still, Ms. Hoover wonders whether there is a simpler solution to the waste question. “At some point you have to ask, ‘But do we need this product enough that we need to be trying to find all these different solutions for the components of it, or can we just go back to the old way that we used to make coffee, and was that good enough?’ ”

If you really want a nice fix, check out one of these or if that's too costly, check out this one\. The grounds go in the garden.