Saturday, October 16, 2010

From Canada, with Better Windmills

This article ("Canadian’s spin on windmill design touted as green-energy breakthrough") fascinated me quite a bit. Although I am not expert in the field of energy technology in general (or wind-based energy in particular), this seems credible enough, assuming article itself is accurate in its description of the progress within field. We'll see what comes of it in future.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Good news is news too: thoughts on and by 3 quality nonline magazines

If I have said it once, I hope I have said it a thousands times. This is a fact: americans are pampered by the big, affordable selection of quality magazines. Or at least they should be spoiled if they do read them -- I am still not yet convinced they do, after living in the states for a decade. This abundance of goodness is in contrast to selection of daily newspapers; which are -- relatively speaking -- not that much to write home about. It's almost immoral how much good stuff you can actually read from refined-tree-based non-daily print products, for a very modest fee. My specific selection of such Great Magazines contains three exemplars -- Scientific American, Fortune and National Geographic -- but I suspect I could easily form many more such triplets and still make similar statements. My choice of three is not limited my economics or supply problems, but by time constraints: I can barely keep up with these three, as things are.

But I digress. After being inspired by one of many outstanding articles (it'll be the last one I mention in this entry, so more on that one later on), I thought it be fair to review one interesting and relevant article from all three. So here's Tatu's October 2009 American Magazine Article review.

1. How American Auto-Industry was Put In Its Proper Place

(aka "The Auto Bailout: How We Did It" by Fortune)

Of articles chosen, this is the most close-to-earth one. It's a condensed story of how GM/Chrysler cleanup project was done by the "Team Auto" of the US government. It's easy reading, and outlines how well difficult tasks can sometimes be managed, with combination of good people, right timing and perhaps bit of luck. If you had asked me to predict how well process could possibly succeed -- I mean, all the facts were there, and odds did not look very good -- I think I would have thought it unlikely that end result could be as good as it seems to be. And this not so much based on the story, which mostly explains what was done and how, but based on my thinking of how these things tend to go (with the level of business acumen that a software engineer can possibly possess, whether that's above or below average banker's talent).

I really like Fortune for articles like this: it's not a dumbed down version (there are weeklies that can dumb it down a notch; and then newspaper that take it to almost imbecil level; and finally TV shows that do the retard-a-versions for actual illiterates), but manages to be very easy reading.

But that's not all: Fortune also manages to be a good magazine due to its contrarian spirit. For a business magazine it has very independent spirit, and viewpoints presented are varied and if possible even something I'd call fair. It also tackles relevant and non-easy issues -- it's not just yet another WSJ (which itself actually may be one of few examples of good newspapers; nonetheless, it's much more predictable and thus less interesting with respect to non-daily news; but I guess that's only fair for a DAILY newspaper).

Anyhow: that's a good read, enough said.

2. Living On a Razor's Edge (by National Geographic Magazine)

And just so as not to get too well grounded with day-to-day (or year-to-year) living, it's good to mentally teleport into another time and/or place. National Geographic offers multiple articles for doing that; learning about other countries, cultures, flora and fauna, and all combinations thereof. Picking something to showcase is not easy: multiple articles could qualify.

But all things being equal, reading about Madagascar is always a safe bet for learning something new and unusual. But even within those expectations, the story and especially pictures that illustrate it stand far apart. I mean, how would one even imagine natural constructs like these cathedral-spire lookalikes? And things that live and grow on, around and under them. Whoa. Besides, it's somewhat of an uplifting article too, for once human development is unlikely to directly threaten the thing (indirectly climate change can of course affect it, perhaps destory, but that's still better than gone-in-next-five-years odds many other exotic places are given)

3. The Rise of Vertical Farms (by Scientific American)

(see for more)

And finally this is the article that got me inspired to write about stuff others write about. Article itself is sort of mind-blowing: the idea of having skyscrapers used for growing our food sounds decidedly futuristic, somewhat like the old (and for a while now, obsoleted) future predictions of how everyone by 2000 flies around by a jet pack and eats food pills for energy. But when you read the article and think about it, the first questions should be "would it really work?", "why didn't *I* think about it?" and "isn't that obvious now that I read it?"

I like the creativity aspect of the idea; as well as its immense fashionability. One of more surprising current undercurrents of progressive (and I don't mean politically leftist label here) forward-looking thinking is that agriculture is actually not a thing of the past, declining "industry", but something that is both very essential for humankind and also something that is part of the future and current, as well as past. The only thing that has been declining wrt. farming has been amount of population it employs; but its importance hasn't really reduced over time, nor will it significantly be reduced any time soon. So although there has been steady pace of R&D over the years, it is only becoming obvious now that farming is a big thing; there are lots of things wrong with it, but with all the challenges there are also gigantic opportunities. This along with more mundane trends of organic-food-is-cool, bundled with finally-at-last-here american environmentalist awakening is really making farming Cool with a capital C.

And this is where this idea becomes sizzling hot: hey, not only can you produce fresh food locally (where are the consumers? in cities dummy!), it can be both economically beneficial, good for your health (no, not in the "good vibes" sense of organic food but with regards to actual reduction of use of pesticides, less time for spoiling etc. etc. etc.), AND good for environment (less land used, less water, can recycle waste water and perhaps even solids; less energy for transportation). Oh yes, and also good tasting due to freshness -- fresh produce year round.

4. Common Threads (or Exercise in Deep Thinking by an Amateur Philosophist/-logist)

One more interesting thing about the "Big Three" is that they often converge around similar topics, somewhat aligned thinking, same threads; sometimes it might not be trivial to even know which magazine had any given article if you weren't shown it. And I don't mean this in negative way -- it's not that magazines are identical, or lack identity, but rather that they are varied and topic selection thereby overlaps (but is not lemming-like approach of daily news). Of course, some could call such convergence zeitgeist; different entities talking about similar things, threads that connect things that seem unrelated (like environmentalist/naturalist NG vs. business-talk of Fortune vs Geeky SciAm). And cynics would claim I am just missing weekly-paced groupthink. Perhaps this is part of the thing -- there being thoughts floating in time (as much as I hate the word, I guess I better use it... memes).

But I also think there's something related to sort of national way of thinking (what is the word for that again? Volkgaist?). Beyond temporal similarities (wars are more relevant when they are going on, obviously; significance of most events is time-bound), there is this common solution-oriented approach, and choosing of similarly current topics (not just fashionable, as in discussing stupid crap like celebrity gossip or politician's marital prolems) is something these magazines share. And most importantly: there is always this underlying faith in things improving over time. I suspect this is something profoundly american; something more genuine than stomach-revoltingly-plastic flag-waving variety of americana.

What I mean is that many articles talk about how things could be improved; it is actually quite rare to read an article where the overall tone is negative, much less something where things are pointed out to be hopeless. One could of course claim that's just good business sense (who would pay to read about bad stuff), but that's easily rebuked: selling social porn and doom-and-gloom is the business of TV networks, and quite a profitable plan at that.

Anyway, enough soap-box philosophizing (is that a word? can make it one if not?). Thank you for time. And please consider subscribing to some of these great affordable american magazines, if you don't already. I'd rather they be around during my lifetime, and maybe even my children. There'll be more time to read when I retire. :-)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Hybrid Rocket: hold on to your funky hats

Toyota Prius was THE car I wanted back in early 2001, when I was buying my first car in the US. It was so cool; and back in the day would have been practical enough as well. With at most 3 people at a time to move around, there's plenty of room, and cargo space was functional for food stuff. But most importantly I cared about environmental aspects back when it wasn't yet fashionable (... in the US, that is), and most people around seemed to want something idiotic like a tacky pickup truck or fugly SUV. Whatever.

Unfortunately, 3+ month waiting list for purchases made it hard to even find one instance to test drive, much less drive out of the lot. In fact, the only thing I achieved when trying to do that was to get 2 hour of high-pressure sales schpiel to get me to by a used Toyota Corolla. Nothing against that dependable vehicle, but that just didn't cut it (eventually I ended up buying a cute fiery red turbo beetle -- but that's a whole another story).

But maybe I should consider myself lucky: as detailed in The Flip Side of the Perfect Prius, Prius owners may be in for more "unexpected adventures" than they bargained for. Specifically, it seems prone to some kind of sudden acceleration syndrome (or, as embarrassing if somewhat less dangerous, "total lock-up" episodes). The case of "Prius in a creek" from Colorado looks particularly creepy. And while I could understand Toyota dealers' attitude for individual incidents ("you floored it instead of braking" / "just ran out of gas"), number of incidents, as well as type of people reporting problems suggests there is something more at work here.

That's very unfortunate, for something that in many ways is a harbinger for cleaner tomorrow. I hope the problem, whatever it is, gets resolved.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ecology: Don't have a cow, man (seriously!)

From February issue of Scientific American (yes, they must have a time machine to send this issue from the future), here's another interesting environmental factoid: red meat produces biggie size environmental problems in addition to clogging your arteries:

The Greenhouse Hamburger

(I so wish there was a way to deep-link into the article, but I guess that's reserved for subscibers; or maybe I just haven't yet found the right click path?)

Or rather, what is surprising is the scale of the thing: I was well aware of methane production part of bovine-based agriculture, which does contribute significant punch to the greenhouse effect, along with rice paddies (cows also contribute urban legend pearls such as "Cows produce enough methane to fill a zeppelin each day [or week?]" (patently untrue!) but I digress).

But I did not know that there are estimates that put beef production (or is the whole food production chain? article is ambiguous in this point) at 14 - 22% of TOTAL greenhouse generation, ranking alongside with transportation and industry. Another way to put things into perspective is to consider that pound-by-pound cow meat produces 13x as much green house impact as chicken meat; and the ratio to "Idaho beef" (aka spud) is 57x.

This seems like one good reason to develop further my latest gastrological masterpiece, "Spamofy Half-and-Half pasta". Try it, it actually is pretty good: pasta sauce where protein comes evenly split between Spam and Tofu. Not only healthier for you & planet, but also tasty, and less salty (sodium's dangers are vastly exaggerated, but it does cause bloating if nothing else). :-)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Eco^2 (Economy + Ecology) Rulez Ok?

Let's start with the money shot: here's the link that effected me to write this particular entry:

The reason I really like things like this is that they combine two important but often conflicting aspects: economy of the project, and ecological impact of the project. This is just one random link, but one can't read a respectable magazine like, say, Fortune, without spotting one or two each time. That's awesome.

I have been a closet environmentalist for years, specifically after moving from the western Europe to US in late 90s. That is rather typical: most people who have grown up in a lutheran, reason- and reasonability-loving ("everything in moderation") society should feel similar nausea over this macabre era of McMansions and big fugly cars (SUVs)

But lately -- as in past two years or so -- there has been remarkably change in the air... wind of change, to use a cliche. From around the time of release of that "Al Gore movie", things have finally started moving in the right direction here on the left side of the Pond. Finally! I truly believe that Churchill was right with his witty and insightful quote: "The Americans will always do the right thing . . . After they've exhausted all the alternatives". That was within context of WW2, but it applies equally well to US handling of the global warming, or more generally to pollution as a global problem. And while some see this comment as pessimistic ("do these blubbering idiots always have to try every wrong approach first?"), I view it as optimistic. After all, not everyone does the right in the end, no matter what. Plus, americans as a nation tend to follow through; or at least have with the major undertakings such as, well, world wars. And then, as now, the strongest engine around these parts is the industro-economic one. Let's hope the big wheel will start turning for good.

About the only major remaining obstacle now is the excuse-inducing "we must get all countries to agree to act on this" attitude -- screw that, let's get to work! The rest can follow us, and we can follow, say, Germany, Denmark and Spain.

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