Friday, October 31, 2008

going with the flow....

With the new job, my time has become a little more scarce with a slightly longer commute, longer hours and just more intensity blogging has taken a back burner position. Not to mention this crazy election here in California which seem too reminiscent of my time in Colorado with Proposition Two (which has reincarnated as Proposition 8 here in California in a similarly fervent manner. I fear that history will repeat itself.) In a world where so much is wrong that this much attention is focused on this issue means we've lost all sense of perspective. My semi-libertarian side says leave well enough alone. In short my life is not well packed and time disappears or is burned in other pursuits.

I've been trying to work out more since I've been feeding excessively. I tend to hate buffets not because I like to eat a lot, but I like to try a lot (which ends up being the same thing). The same buffet approach may be how I will take to commuting, I finally was able to try riding my bike to work. I had enough time before my first meeting to get there so I rode in the fog to work and did in a reasonable 40 minutes. Not bad at all. But I tend to work into the dark (note I didn't say late since it's a consequence of the current season more than anything else) So I decided to take the train back to my town, and then ride my bike home from there. This may work if I can become a morning person. I'm investigating.

The point of the post is that sometimes you adjust to the parameters you are given in being green. For instance, using a mug at work for my coffee. It's oddly simple but people don't do it for some reason. Commute would be great but not always possible, so go with the flow but really go with the flow not just the path of least resistance.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Giving back....

As I excavate the depths of my bookshelves, I've started to go through piles and piles of articles I've torn out and meant to read. In that excavation I found this fantastic article about the trains in Oslo, Norway. These trains run on electricity that they get from the grid, pretty standard stuff. What is wicked cool is that all the energy it takes to go fast is reconverted back to electricity and sent back to the grid when they have to go slow. Using regenerative braking, what it taketh it returns. Sort of like a gigantic Prius.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stormy weather ahead....

Today I was watching the weather on the news and it's true. Fall is rapidly running into winter. It's getting darker in the morning and that means rain. So what does that do to a carbon free commute lifestyle. It means break out the rain gear, be it umbrellas for the walkers/mass transit users. It means slickers for the bicyclists. I've got a new job and it means I'm taking my laptop back and forth. Which means, waterproof backpacks and bags are all the more crucial. I normally don't like to call out brands, but for panniers so many of my friends swear by Ortlieb bags.

As I become more exposed to the elements, I realize that cars are little mobile houses, perhaps that is what the appeal of them are. Carrying yourselves in little homes. Places where you are nice and dry. But like houses, you have to keep them maintained and that takes a lot more than you think. And I'm lucky since I'm in a place where the weather when it gets bad is still pretty mild. I was just back on the East Coast and it was getting chilly, I know snow is around the corner.

So what does the weather due to carbon footprint, in extremes it makes it larger. Air Conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. You drive instead of take mass transit or walk. Definitely an adjustment. But do we have a choice? I once read that all of America's cities and suburbs could be placed in an area the size of Wisconsin. I don't have a citation, but if you fly over the country, you do realize how empty a country we are.

For me it's my second week on the job, and I'm understanding my commute option. Wish me luck as I figure out a means to drive less in my new work endeavor.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Now that's inspired....

I'm staying home on a Friday night because I need some CIC time, or just some Charles time to noodle around the house and clean, do chores, cook and just chill. I'm also doing some pruning of things in my place to simplify and just de-clutter. As I look at all the garbage (or things that have become garbage because they are no longer wanted) I thought how much use so many things have. Well that's the thought that many families are having as they go into power garage sale mode in this article. The hardest part is that all these things that at one time meant something or still mean something valuable are now bargains to be had. I have a hard time getting rid of things, partly because I come from immigrant stock, part is that I'm packrat and other times I'm just sentimental. For instance, I stumbled onto a T-shirt that is worn bare from a race I ran over 10 years ago. It's hard to let go since it's one of the few memories I had (there are no pictures). So it is a momento, but there are thousands just like it.

But even the unsentimental can be sentimental, as this art project New York City Garbage by artist Justin Gignac. It's an interesting exercise to make one persons garbage another person's treasure (or art). The project has expanded to some other clever ideas including Wants for Sale which are paintings of things that Justin and his partner want. If the painting sells, they take the amount of the sale (which matches the purchase price of the item pictured) and get that item. They have one for charity called Needs for Sale.

Waste not, want not. Another way to think about it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What is the definition of a city....

One of the benefits of transcontinental flying is that you get a lot of time to catch up on reading (not sure that in any way is an offset to the environmental damage, but perhaps a little enlightenment will come out of this). I was able to catch up on my issue of Wired magazine and read about architect Mitchell Joachim who is reconceptualizing modes of transportation. Imagine cars you walk in and out of. He is thinking of creating cities out of trees, so you don't grow a tree tear it down and move it to another place. Just grow the trees as the buildings. Another smart idea is building cities out of garbage. These are far out ideas that ask deeper questions of what is it mean to exist and consume. How does energy and material flow into and through our lives and why is it so. If you want to see some of his ideas, be sure to check out the website of his firm Archinode.

In the area of small world, the author of the WIred profile is Tom Vanderbilt of "Traffic" fame.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Maybe getting French isn't so bad.

Sorry for the posts being so sporadic, life has been a changing. New job, personal dramas and now I am in NYC for some Car Free bliss. The news this week is that the French have been on a tear, cleaning up on the Nobel prize front (so have the Japanese). The French get a bad rap here in the U.S. but there are some things we can learn from them. Now, I'm not talking Nobel quality stuff, but something more pedestrian and that's the Phone Book. In France, they have had a system called Minitel that has all be replaced the phone book, it seems quaint now with the internet except for the fact that a few days ago while I was doing some email from home, I heard a huge thud outside more door, and low and behold it's my annual paperweight of a phone book. Now I never even look at a phone book anymore, or rarely mostly to find a taxi (ever try to find a local taxi phone number on the internet, it's hard makes no sense) So we have millions of trees being wasted for something where a viable alternative exists.

Question, why is it in the U.S. that the yellow pages not been replaced. The obvious gut answer is economics since it is still a revenue source for the Phone Companies. Not sure that is true. Maybe habit. Someday I would like to see a reasonable alternative to the paper phone book. You can distribute black and white terminals running lynx or some text browser and do ok.

So the French are again the top of the intellectual heap (for this time) maybe it started because they got rid of phone books.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Where Flip Flopping rules.....

It's election season and being a flip flopper is bad, however according to this article flip flops (the shoe kind) are among the most carbon footprint friendly of footwear. Other interesting facts from the article include how to wash your clothes the most carbon friendly way:

The biggest way to cut the environmental impact of cleaning clothes, however, is to stop using a clothes dryer. Drying laundry outside on a line, Tesco says, will cut the carbon footprint of every load by a whopping 4.4 pounds.

Ironic that many new subdivisions prohibit one from drying their clothes outside because, get this, it's impact on property values. Seems like drying the laundry inside is doing wonders for keeping property values up.

Another interesting fact is that refrigeration is the largest contributor to carbon footprint in the brewing of beer. From the article it's not clear whether it's more carbon friendly than drinking milk.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Marketing and the Environment...

This weekend I ran (mostly) the San Jose Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon. A nice race professionally run. These races are increasingly not just athletic events, but marketing events as sponsorship pays a lot of the expenses to hold these events. As I was explaining to my mother who was surprised by the cost of entering that these are costly endeavors given all the roads that have to be closed, the police officers that have to be paid, all the materials, the timing system, etc. The list goes on and on. One of the traditions that has grown over the years has been the "schwag bag" or "goodies bag" where competitors get free samples. It's a way for companies to get people to try their products. And who doesn't like free.

After I picked up my schwag bag I started sorting it out and seeing what was there. Advertising is a tricky business, if you get a 1 - 2 percent take rate on a direct mail company you are doing awesome. Part of what has made Google so successful is that it's take rates are much higher, it is really a more efficient way of advertising for point or sale or research based transactions. (Ironically, this was not invented by Google, but by a company called Overture that was eventually acquired by Yahoo. Similar to how Microsoft did not invent the GUI, but profited more handsomely than earlier entrants. -- Disclosure: I work for a Google competitor). Now if you don't even know you need a product or even such a product exists, brand marketing still is good to "educate" the market.

So goodie bags as advertising have the same pitfalls, how useful or meaningful is this going to be. This year, perhaps because of the economy I noticed that there were a lot of flyers in the bag. Tons of paper for products I'm not going to care about. For instance, I live in the area, so hotels in San Jose don't matter to me. Thankfully most of the consumables actually were of great use, for instance udder butter to reduce chaffing, shaving gel, energy bars, etc. Very pointed. Then Glade(tm) air freshener included a electrical doodad to heat scented oil. My favorite line was "A Free Gift of Glade(tm) for you or someone you love"

Now I have a dilemma, this is the classic "Razor/Razor blade" business model, make your money on the razors. I really have no use for this thing and I'll probably freecycle(tm) it. But for those not using or giving it away it's landfill crap. Never to biodegrade. The dilemma is does someone I love want this thing?

I am real sympathetic to marketeers, it's a tough job that people don't appreciate and loathe. It's a crucial part of our economy, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100+ billion in the U.S. alone. And it's also inherently wasteful. Think about the advertising that you get in your newspaper or your mailbox. Most of it gets thrown away. Don't say you hate advertising, since most everyone subscribes to one catalog or another.

So can we reimagine advertising that disappears. Most advertising is temporal, can we look to publish on other types of paper. Maybe rice paper that dissolves when put in water or bidegrades. How about coupons instead of actual physical products on non-consumables, or non-directly relevant items in goodie bags. The Osars goodie bags are legendary in bling value.

Advertising is a big contributor to landfill, let's rethink what it takes to promote in meaningful ways. There's a win in here somewhere.

Misbalanced incentives....

I continue to watch this financial crisis with morbid fascination. What amazes me is that the incentives to take crazy risks that impact others was so baked into the system. Regardless of the risk I take, I can win out big or at least do ok. But if I win I make out like a bandit. So the executives at Wall Street's firms knew the leverage was OK, from their perspective.

I worry that this is part of our rush to nuclear and other solutions. Executives authorize pollution, we do remember watching "Erin Brockovitch" right? Because they can walk away. We need to work with safe technologies and reductions to deal with global warming. I can guarantee you that if nuclear is approved in the current climate, the executives will be living nowhere near the reactors. You and I will.

As long as upside and true downside for executives are not aligned, the agency problem is going to be gigantic. The only way to ensure that an executive will run a company is well, is that the executive needs to depend on the company to exist for his or her paycheck tomorrow and that they need that paycheck.

This economic clusterBLANK has messed up our money, if we don't address this for the way companies run, it'll be our health (or already is with the Melanine scare -- and note, we have our own scandals here in the U.S. e-coli anyone?)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Institutionalized Self Deception...

A lot has been happening with the Carbon Free universe, and sadly this blogger has been driving a lot and I won't offer a lot of excuses except a whole lot of self-rationalization is going on. I'll get back to that later. The other thing that is happening in the world is that it is imploding with incredible speed in so many ways. The Global Economy (caps intentional) is collapsing on itself from the inside as a whole lot of self rationalization is going on in many places. We've had a lot of self-rationalization the past eight years but we haven't had a lot of of self-honesty. In literature, a common device is the little voice, the angel and devils on your shoulder that absolutely knows what is going on, it is plain sight, slapping us silly, no pummeling our consciences with a 2 by 4 but our emotional armor was able to deflect it. That's the basic theme of this fantastic piece of meta-reporting by Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review asks why as journalists were they focused on all the overly-sophisticated mechanisms of collapse such as MBS, CDO, CDS, etc. But instead asking the simple question, why in pursuing the story that in understanding it, we did it

without pausing to consider the record of extravagant crookedness that underlies it.

The gist of the essay is asking how did our values change, and what assumptions underlie our notion is what is human nature. The past few years have simplified the human model to one entirely driven by self interest, where even acts of anonymous kindness are interpreted in terms of self interest (i.e. I am kind because it makes me better, which when you think about it reduces generosity to some form of masturbatory expression). The fact that we are not questioning it or even evaluating it places it in the realm of philosophy equal to asking a fish about water. It now permeates our internal models. I see this in the ludicrousness of the college admissions process where achievement is confused with learning and education is a destination and not a journey.

The central problem is we've become a third world country not materially, but emotionally. America was built on the idea that you can win by playing by the rules. It brought the best and brightest from around the world (it's what brought me here indirectly through my immigrant parents). If you have ever seen the movie "Rounders" you understand that at some point you want to win "Straight Up" To a country now where people assume the other guy is trying to screw you (even if they do not even know they are trying to screw you -- talk about meta). With that as an assumption, we started acting that way with a wink and a nod. Everyone is basically acting in their own self interest, we've return to a modern day version of hunting and gathering where everyone was responsible for everything in their lives. We've turned our back on what made modernity possible and that is the cultivation of our gifts instead of the cultivation of our survival. Let me explain, progress was made possible when people were allowed to specialize and build on their strengths instead of having to maintain their necessities. I as a carpenter could spend my time building cabinets (or in my case writer/programmer) and not worrying about farming since I could rely on a farmer to do that for me. I could also assume that the farmer is selling me food that is safe for me to eat. With that specialization in that everyone is acting out of humanity, were we able to facilitate exchange and commerce and the market. Because there was an element of trust. Now the irony is that the markets are perhaps the most secular institution that we have (even if the actors in the market may be religious) in that participation in it is an entire act of faith. We trust ourselves to anonymous others in order to function, in effect we trust ourselves to a million gods every day. We have faith that maintenance will be done on our planes before we fly, we have faith that someone is checking the water, we have faith that our food is safe. Lou Reed nailed it when he said "you need a busload of faith to get by" What is sad is that I have friends now who talk of starting gardens, because they don't know what is safe. Now farming is tough, and these are not farmer types. The conditions for civilization are slowly being eroded. We can no longer have any assumption of the ability to outsource any part of our lives. And lest you think that outsourcing is a bad word, every time we go to the supermarket, we are outsourcing.

Now that faith has been abused, we have melanine in our milk (they fucking messed with "White Rabbit" candy, you fuckers are poisoning kids, I grew up on that stuff), our bankers lied, our doctors are getting paid off by drug companies. But I do not think this is the act of bad actors per se, since I don't think people are thinking in those terms. They are thinking in terms of norms, that "everyone is doing it, and if I don't I'll be in trouble." This is the model of our lives even though there is evidence that people do not act exclusively that way. While reading the CJR article, I remember a moment of a ha that happened for me that the real estate bubble was happening.

This happened when a few friends of mine were heading to a concert and as we were driving to the venue the subject of real estate came up and one of the people in the group (I had just met her) was asking about her loan papers in which she had to sign off that she had no other loans obtained for the purpose of this property besides the primary. In effect she was certifying she was contributing 20% down and that she was not subject to purchasing Mortgage Insurance (MI) if she had placed 10% down she would have to have purchased MI. The catch was that she actually was putting only 10% down, she had obtained another loan, what is called a secondary. She was purchasing her home on what was commonly known as an 80-10-10. Now she had a pause and hence asking the question was that right, her realtor said to just sign it otherwise the loan would have to get redone and she would have to pay MI. At this point, another person in the group said that was what she did, and it was just the way things are in the crazy California housing market. In effect, fraud was now a commonly acceptable practice. The question that had to be begged was did the institutionalization of fraud create the crazy bidding wars or did the bidding wars create the institutionalization of fraud.

Now I use the word fraud because it is a strong one and it has nasty yucky connotations. But in effect that was what we being done. Now I don't think this woman thought she was committing fraud. She was buying a home, and if you were to look at her you would never place her as a fraudster. And this is the rub, she is one of the best and the brightest. She was tall and drop dead gorgeous, superbly educated in the way that you dream your resume would look, had an MBA, worked for a major corporate firm. And you know she had a conscience because she asked the question of people she trusted, and they confirmed that this was the way things were done. They acknowledged a culture of corruption, the kind of thing we associate with third world bribery cultures not the U.S. At an intellectual, moral level you can't get around that it's wrong. But at a practical level, like obscenity our markets are governed by community standards. People feared that if they didn't buy now they'd never be able to buy in. The fact that the money supply wasn't growing fast enough to make prices go to the levels they feared really tells me that MBA programs do a lousy job of teaching economics.

Now how does that translate to the environment? Right now we are in a green bubble and there is green washing is everywhere. People are linking products to being environmentally sound. Most personally offensive is the bottled water companies. I picked up my packet for the San Jose Rock 'N Roll Half Marathon and one of the bottled water sponsors is imploring us to recycle the bottles because it's good for the planet as opposed to how about not buying our product. But that is symptomatic of the self deception that is going on about our impact on the planet. Our common sense says this can't be green, but we use green to justify our actions. Back to the subject of bottled water, the creation of a new class of goods to buy in this case aluminum bottles due to the BPA scare. Will we find out that in 10 years that there are problems with those too? We need people to tell us what is known safe as well as what is unsafe.

There are many known things about how to live sustainably, however like the financial mess we are overcomplicating things. And that complication obscures our understanding and makes the self deception that is our nature easier to pursue. It's possible that the voices around us are wrong.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Blinded by the light, but everything is illuminated...

The world does seem crappy these days, in addition to the everyday crap of a bad day at work, your SO screaming at you for leaving your socks by the sofa, the world economy decides to tank and those damn credit card bills start piling on. Oh yeah, then there's that Vice Presidential debate too (oh that's for levity). It's easy to think oh crap we're (BLEEP)ed.

However, all is not lost because we live in an age of tools and imagination. Last night I was at a friend's house for project time. Basically, time spent with other individually motivated people to get stuff done that you cannot get done alone. Not that you couldn't do it on yourself, but the criticalness of my mind is insufficient to play both sides of the argument. Critical thinking is a form of schizophrenia since you are at argument with yourself to seek out the flaws in your thinking. But the bias is to go with your own world view. So in the course of working on something, it's good to have someone to ask and go, I've got this idea or I'm looking into and this is why. What do you think? Often, it comes back that's stupid and here's why. And the retort goes, but I that's wrong or didn't consider that. It's valuable to have an intellectual foil. It's good to have people where yesism is not required and discussion and debate can be healthy. But I digress as I often do....

What gives me hope is my friend's son. Halloween is around the corner (and to a four year old it may seem forever) but he was thinking about his costume and he was looking at an old mailing tube and imagining what he could do with that to make a costume. That is very cool. Because his ideas were not just imaginative, they were plausible. It struck me that we live in a time of plenty. We have lots of raw material, it's called our junkyards. There are motors, and antennas and steel to be found that can be used to construct things. (My god, I went to Ikea and saw that you can by table tops and legs separately. If you wanted you could brink a saw and make a coffee table out of desk and it'd be uniquely yours).

What we also have is a wealth of knowledge in this thing called the internet. Where people publish vast amounts of knowledge, some of it even useful. That's the publishing power of the internet. But it also includes the communications power, you can ask questions and get responses maybe too much some of it suspect, but you get a starting point to assess. We maybe have too much light, but we can also see possible paths.

In this time of chaos, which seems incredibly close and wildly disconnected. It's time to take back our independence by relying on ourselves by seeing the world as we see it, not as the marketers tell us. We have the access to knowledge that others didn't have. While I miss grand libraries, and I miss the mood they set that are conducive to thinking. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. I leave with people more eloquent than I.....

"The most dementing of all modern sins: the inability to distinguish excellence from success." - Playwright David Hare

"Never confuse attention with affection" - Robert Redford

It is those two sins that have led us to where we are.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Inconvenient Truths

My blogging has been intermittent lately because I'm pretty much shell shocked at the state of the world. I feel trapped between a sense that everything is changing and that nothing is changing. The markets are reeling and people are panicking. Yet somehow, that one cup of coffee isn't enough which means it feels like every other day. Yet the nagging feeling goes, we've leveraged ourselves financially and it's finally come home to haunt us. What kills me is that this financial crisis was a matter of when not a matter of if. It caused me to defer my housing purchases for the longest time since I knew that what was going was just nuts. It made no sense. People knew, but they deluded themselves. The current crisis is basically an inconvenient truth of what was going to happen after years of crazy lending.

Another more inconvenient truth or I should say truths are waiting to collapse on us. The first is the energy crisis. Our economic engine is based on cheap oil and we got a shock of oil out of control this past summer. But at some point, the price will not be driven by speculation but reality of lessened supplies. We all know this as a when, not an if. And cries of "Drill baby drill" are not going to change that.

The second crisis is going to that of global warming. We know that greenhouse gases are raising the temperature of the planet on average. Yet we do nothing about it. What is going to happen when we have a greenhouse crisis instead of a financial crisis. It's not clear to me whether there will be a bailout. When things spin out of control, it may be at a rate we cannot handle. This is what we are seeing with the current bailout. We can't do it fast enough, nor know whether it actually makes a difference. The only thing we do know is prevention, but somehow that's called regulation.

There are tipping points in life, and we shouldn't dance around them until we know how tip them back.