Monday, December 10, 2012

The Role of Public Infrastructure

NPR has a story on the role of Amtrak in getting people to the oil fields of North Dakota and Montana. Amtrak is a weird service because like the post office, it really doesn't have the right to cherry pick routes like private services and hence loses money. What's really interesting about this piece is the tortured relationship many have with public infrastructure. The following exchange in the story captures the contradiction, and hopefully this will lead to others to re-evaluate the role of public infrastructure.

STEVEN MCDUFFIE: The new Amtrak slogan should be: Well, you're paying for it anyway. So, you know, that's the way I look at it.
BOYCE: Washington state resident Steven McDuffie travels through Montana to get to the Bakken too. Politically he's libertarian. He's pretty much against the idea of government supported transportation. But, he's been riding the Empire Builder every two weeks since February. And some of the stereotypes about riding Amtrak, he says they hold up.
MCDUFFIE: This is the first time that the train left Edmonds, Washington on time and it's the first time where we're actually scheduled to get into Williston on time since I've been taking the train.
BOYCE: Overall though, he says his gripes are pretty minor. And, again, it's cheap.
MCDUFFIE: I know this is ironic because I'm - philosophically I'm opposed to public transportation, but yet here I am having a pretty good time on the Amtrak train.
BOYCE: And since there's no sign of the Bakken oil boom slowing down for decades, Amtrak can probably count on a lot more people realizing the train is the best way to get there. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Helena, Montana.

The whole picture....from recycling to compostable (my addition)

The New York Times has an article in the "Your Money" section this past weekend exploring the efficacy of individual recycling and how the act of recycling impacts individual behavior for better or for worse. It's a good read since it explores the real risk that recycling is a token gesture for a "get out of jail card" for consumerist behavior. The article tries to explore both sides in the typical "balanced" approach to journalism these days. Sadly the data is not definitive as to whether recycling programs reduce landfill and total energy use.

While recycling is getting its due, the new black these days is "compostable" as the free pass. Silicon Valley is full of companies offering free meals, and in the cult of efficiency many offer a huge amount of disposables for use. The pass these days is "it's ok, it's compostable" but that assumes a lot of things. The first is that it will actually compost, the argument is that the fork is "bigdegradable" but just because it can degrade does not mean it will unless in the right conditions. But even if it was degrading, that neglects the greenhouse gas impact of the lifecycle of the plastic fork or paper plate. 

There is energy in producing the materials that will compost, it's classic thermodynamics. Looking at the energy equation in isolation misses the whole picture. Is it better than the alternative, probably. But it's not a total pass.

The environmental discussion is rationalized in so many ways, oh I should do X instead of Y because that's where the real energy savings are. True, but if you can do Y still why should you not do Y. The logic is I shouldn't murder because that a real bad crime, and I'll not do that instead of armed robbery. You probably shouldn't do both. 

It's easy to get cynical about recycling and stop, so the environmental challenge is a spectrum and continuous. Or as Billy Beane (well Brad Pitt) said in Moneyball, "it's a process, it's a process, it's a process" 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The friction free existence....

Felix Salmon has a provocative post on how smart phones are making our lives more dangerous because it makes us less aware as pedestrians. To that, I have to plead guilty as charged. The productivity cult is really pervasive in our society and we feel that we have to be active or stimulated at all times, lest we miss something (like the bigger picture). Given the cultural imperatives it's easy for everyone to get swept into the do it now mood.

Salmon, talks about how we become less aware and cognizant of our surroundings, that we become less aware of our world. He feels that it's the absorption of ourselves in an alternate world (infospace perhaps) that makes experienced with realspace. I don't think it's just about alternate realities, but the attempts to eliminate friction in our transactions. The question is does the lack of friction actually reduce any energy expenditure, or just hide it.

Putting all our media in the cloud, do we actually save the energy of not having a DVD and shipping it, or do we simply hide and it move the energy cost to the cloud as well at a higher expenditure. Out of sight out of mind.

 Is having our world in our phones, just another way of having our heads in the sand?