Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Brynna is 3 months old today. Wow! It was a beautiful day here, very warm and sunny, so after work we all took a long walk and then stayed out on the porch until dark. Brynna also celebrated the day by giggling—definitely, incontrovertibly, but unfortunately only in front of me—for the first time. Alex and I spent the rest of the evening eating the Reese's Peanut Butter cups that were supposed to be for the little goblins, and trying to entertain the baby. This is getting harder, as she wants to be on the go—sitting up, standing up, chewing on things—all the time.

That's right, folks, I am 3 months old! And now I can sit up on my own with a little help from the couch!

Where's my present? Don't I get a present? Is it over here?

How about under here? No?

Maybe over here?

Daddy, do you have my present?

Are you really, really sure that it's not over here?

Yay! Here's my special present from Great Aunt Donna!

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Counting Down

Like the rest of the country, we are very eager for next Tuesday to roll around, so that the looooong election season is finally over. This weekend, we wrapped up our political donations for the year. (We're really talking token amounts, but we like to put at least a little of our money where our mouths are.)

We've tried to focus mainly on state-level races, since we have some big important races right at home. We've given directly to the Minnesota DFL (Democrat-Farmer-Labor party), and we've also supported the reelection campaign of our wonderful Rep Tim Walz. Minnesota also is ground zero for a super-close Senate battle between Al Franken, the incumbent Republican Norm Coleman, and an Independent candidate who is polling around 20%. Alex especially is a bit skeptical about Franken—mainly his ability to transition from a partisan hit-man into a productive legislator—but we donated to the campaign anyway, in the name of the largest possible Democratic majority. I feel better about Franken because I have chatted with and absolutely adore his wife Fanny, so I figure he can't go too far wrong in office or she will whack him upside the head.

We have, however, given nationally for two causes:

1. To the Obama campaign, for reasons that have been thoroughly explored in other posts.


2. To Equality California, a LGBT-rights group that is working hard to preserve California's gay marriage law. This so that other families can have the celebrations and the security that Alex, Brynna, and I have been granted without question. This is so that Brynna can marry and make a life with whomever she chooses when she grows up (except, perhaps, a Yankees fan). We support this cause in honor of our family and friends whose love and commitments are as deep as our own, and so very deserving of recognition and protection.

We're hoping for good news on all counts on Tuesday.

Palin's Big Energy Policy Speech

Didn't hear about it? I'm not surprised. Sarah Palin delivered her second big policy speech of the campaign on Wednesday, this one about energy. Or, rather, a load of waffle and platitudes that all boils down to: somehow, somewhere, we're going to burn our way to the future. Yeehaw!

Let me set the stage: Palin, the former commissioner of oil and gas for the Alaskan government, now the governor, is by extension supposed to be some sort of expert on energy policy. As I have mentioned earlier, knowledge of and reliance on oil and gas isn't nearly enough to inform someone on how to craft energy policy for the next generation. It might have been fine in, say, 1960, before the first oil embargoes and energy crises, and it was sure great around 1973, when the Alaska oil pipeline got the go-ahead. But, hey, it's 2008, and the decisions on energy policy for the next administration need to look forward to what we want to see come 2050, not 1950.

Palin gave her speech at the Xunlight factory in Toledo, which I feel added a certain dose of cognitive dissonance to the whole affair.

The text of the speech I'll be working off of comes from the McCain-Palin website. It starts off well enough:

All who work in pursuit of new and clean energy sources understand that America's energy problems do not go away when oil and gasoline prices fall, as they have in recent weeks. Oil today is running about 64 dollars a barrel -- less than half of what it was just a couple of months ago. And though this sudden drop in prices sure makes a difference for families across America, the dangers of our dependence on foreign oil are just as they were before.

The price of oil is declining largely because of the market's expectation of a broad recession that would lower demand. This is hardly a good sign of things to come, and should only add to our sense of urgency in gaining energy independence. When our economy recovers, and growth once again creates new demand, we could run into the same brick wall of rising oil and gasoline prices -- and now is the time to make sure that doesn't happen. In Washington, we can view this period of lower oil prices as just one more chance to make excuses -- and on the problem of energy security, we've heard enough excuses. Or we can view it as an opportunity to finally confront the problem.

In reality, volatile oil prices are just the most immediate consequence when foreign powers control our energy supplies. They are an economic symptom of a strategic problem. And prices will stabilize only when we have reached the great goal of energy security for America.

Not bad. One could almost hear the same from Thomas Friedman of the NY Times. Then comes the call to action and criticism of the past:
Achieving this objective will require a clean break not just from the energy policies of the current administration, but from thirty years' worth of failed policies in Washington. As in other challenges that confront our nation, we must shape events, and not simply manage crises. We must steer far clear of the errors and false assumptions that have marked the energy policies of nearly twenty Congresses and seven presidents. Some tasks will be the work of decades, and some the work of years. And they all will begin in the term of the next president.

I can give her some credit for calling out the current administration. All the cool kids are doing it these days. Really one could go on for hours about how backward the Bush administration has been on energy. If one counts back seven presidents, though, you get to Nixon, which means that you also include Jimmy "Cardigan" Carter, which hardly seems fair.

Nevermind. She continues into her well-worn in-the-trenches narrative of Alaska, and how qualified she is on energy policy (see my introductory paragraphs), how she took on the oil companies regarding a natural gas pipeline, and:
When the last section is laid and its valves are opened, that pipeline will lead America one step farther away from reliance on foreign energy. That pipeline will be a lifeline -- freeing us from debt, dependence, and the influence of foreign powers that do not have our interests at heart.

While it is true that she strongarmed an agreement to get the pipeline built, it's not like the thing is set in stone. No definitive plans are in place, the deal could still fall through, no approvals have been given, no land purchased, no pipe has been laid, and it'll probably be another decade at least before the thing is actually built. More information here.

The notion that the pipeline will be a lifeline "freeing us from debt, dependence, and the influence of foreign powers" is demonstrably false. Bear with me while I introduce some numbers - they may be tedious, but if the policy-makers ever bothered to check them, we might get somewhere.

The United States consumes about 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. (Because demand has seasonal fluctuations, I'll use an annual number.) We produce about 20 trillion domestically, and import 4.6 trillion; the rest is lost, stored, or exported.

So, right here, we find one fallacy. The US imports only about 20% of the natural gas we use. Of that 4.6 Tcf/yr we import, 3.8 Tcf comes in pipelines from Canada and Mexico, hardly the boogey-man countries that don't have our interests at heart. The rest comes as liquified natural gas - gas that has been compressed and cooled enough to become liquid and put onto special tanker ships. Of the 0.7 Tcf of LNG we import from abroad, 0.45 Tcf comes from Trinidad (of all places, who knew?). If you look at the list of who we get our natural gas from, we do find some sorta-unfriendly places, like Algiers, Egypt, Nigeria, and Qatar. But these still only add up to about 6% of our annual imports, so only about 1% of annual consumption.

The capacity of this new pipeline, whenever it comes online, will be 4.5 Bcf per day, or about 1.6 Tcf per year. So, it will increase domestic production by about 8%. It could, theoretically, offset 1/3 of the natural gas that we import (again, from Canada and Mexico). That ain't nothing, but it isn't all that the governor would like us to think it is. In fact, it is likely that, by the time the pipeline is finished, growth in demand will have already consumed the pipeline's contribution, meaning that not much will have changed.

So, we are neither in the thrall of foreign powers when it comes to natural gas, nor will this pipeline free us from the natural gas we import, mostly from allies.

Let's continue with the speech:
To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of world's oil supplies ... or that terrorists might strike at a vital refining facility in Saudi Arabia ... or that Venezuela might shut off its oil deliveries ... we Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas.

In the worst cases, some of the world's most oil-rich nations are also the most oppressive societies. And whether we like it or not, the money we pay for their oil only makes them more powerful and more oppressive. Oil wealth allows undemocratic governments to crush dissent and to subjugate women. Other regimes use it to finance terrorists around the world and criminal syndicates in our own hemisphere.

By relying upon oil from the Middle East, we not only provide wealth to the sponsors of terror -- we provide high-value targets to the terrorists themselves. Across the world are pipelines, refineries, transit routes, and terminals for the oil we rely on. And Al Qaeda terrorists know where they are.

Here comes another chestnut, partly false, that everyone loves to pull out: we are dependent on the Middle East for our oil. I won't pretend that, if OPEC wanted to flex its muscles, or Al Qaeda blew something up, we wouldn't take a hit at a pump. But it is easy to dispute that we get the majority of our oil from the Middle East. The US consumes about 20.7 million barrels of oil per day. We import about 13.5 million barrels per day, or about 65%.

That's a whole lot, but where is it coming from? Look closer at that table, you'll see we get about 2.1 million from the Persian Gulf, and 1.3 million from Venezuala. But then there's also 2.5 million from Canada, and 1.5 million from Mexico (bless 'em!). We haven't imported any from Iran since the early-1990s. In fact, we import about as much from OPEC as we do from producers outside OPEC. However, being a global commodity, the actions of OPEC impact the price of oil worldwide, so we have good reason to be wary of what Iran or Venezuala does with their oil.

So what should we do? McCain-Palin to the rescue:
In a McCain administration, we will authorize and support new exploration and production of America's own oil and gas reserves -- because we cannot outsource the solution to America's energy problem. Every year, we are sending hundreds of billions of dollars out of the country for oil imports, much of it from OPEC, while America's own oil and gas reserves in America go unused. And take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska: we've got lots of both.

As a matter of fairness, we must assure affordable fuel for America by producing more of the trillions of dollars' worth of our oil and natural gas. On land and offshore, we will drill here and drill now!

I'll remind you here that she's giving this speech in a solar panel factory.

No. No. No. No. No. Drilling isn't the answer either. The simple fact remains that there isn't enough oil domestically to even come close to replacing that 13.5 million barrels we import each day. Even if we decided to drill in ANWR, the first oil wouldn't come online for 10 years. The Alaska pipeline has a peak capacity of about 2 million barrels per day. The North Slope fields used to fill that capacity; now they're down to less than half that. Let's say ANWR oil could pick up the slack, it's still only be about 5% of the oil we use each day, and only 1% of worldwide use. What of the continental shelf? Again, it's 5-10 years out, and still wouldn't be enough to offset our imports. (One interesting tidbit - to get at the continental shelf oil you need to drill very deep, which means you have to explore very deep. It turns out that the deep-drill rigs needed for that kind of work are already booked for years to come.)

Besides, being a global commodity, the oil we produce here wouldn't necessarily stay here, not unless McCain-Palin are ready to inaugurate high tariffs or other encumbrances to free trade. In order to have a real impact on prices at the pump, we'd have to start producing oil at a prodigious rate, something to make a dent in the global demand of about 85 million barrels per day. Even if we could, which we can't, should we? Oh, I forgot, this speech is being given by someone who didn't believe global warming was real.

She continues with a pledge that a McCain administration would put the country on track to build 100 new nuclear plants by 2030. I am ambivalent about nuclear - I don't like it, but find it to be a better and more practical part of a long term solution than, say, coal. Still, it's something that will take years and years to even get started. Bush pushed nuclear pretty hard, too, and new plants have yet to even begin construction. She doesn't address the hurdles to reprocessing or long-term storage that would make it possible, nor the related problems of skyrocketing uranium prices and nuclear proliferation. I'm told that, at least, she managed to pronounce it correctly. Whatever.

Then she launches into a blurb on clean coal, but mostly uses it as a flank to attack Obama and, especially, Biden. When she has exhausted that line of attack, she gets back to her point:
As for our coal resources, America has more coal than the oil riches of Saudi Arabia. Burning coal cleanly is a challenge of practical problem-solving and human ingenuity -- and we have no shortage of those in America either. So, in a McCain administration, we will commit two billion dollars each year, until 2024, to clean-coal research, development, and deployment. We will refine the techniques and equipment. We will deliver not only electricity but jobs to some of the areas hardest hit by our economic troubles.

The thing about it, though, is that clean coal doesn't exist - not in the rainbows, bunnies, and CO2-free way they mean it. We're probably as close to practical clean coal as we are to nuclear fusion. People understand the fundamentals of what needs to happen, more or less. But the devil's in the details, and no one's sure if it can be made to work on a large, cost-effective scale. No full-scale demonstration plant exists, and most attempts to build one have been stymied when people realize how expensive it will be. I have some hope for clean coal; but more than that, I hope we don't base our future strategy on it.

After speaking for twenty-some minutes, she starts winding it down to her conclusion and, finally, mentions alternatives and conservation:
To meet America's great energy challenge, John and I will adopt an "all of the above" approach. In our administration, that will mean harnessing alternative sources of energy, like wind and solar. We will end subsidies and tariffs that drive prices up, and provide tax credits indexed to low automobile carbon emissions. We will encourage Americans to be part of the solution by taking steps in their everyday lives that conserve more and use less. And we will control greenhouse gas emissions by giving American businesses new incentives and new rewards to seek, instead of just giving them new taxes to pay and new orders to follow.

Boooyah! There it is, folks! You came to a solar panel factory, and now is your moment. Don't bask in it too long, though, because this paragraph is the sole token gesture to folks like you. McCain has a sort of mixed relationship with renewables like solar and wind. He thinks they're great, but can't ever provide even a sliver of the U.S. power needs. I would say that lacks forward thinking. I don't want to go on and on about how McCain voted on what and when, because that can get very muddy very quickly. Suffice to say that McCain hasn't been very kind to wind in particular, and renewables in general.

What about increased mileage standards? What about smart grids and electric cars? What about distributed generation and micro-grids? What of stricter building codes? What about mandating LEED certification for every new federal building, and phasing in older buildings over time? What about national requirements for generating renewable energy? What about feed-in tariffs? What about increased federal funding for energy R&D (other than coal). What about expanding Energy Star requirements into more product categories? What about greening the military - the federal government's biggest user of energy? What about expanded long-haul freight and passenger rail? What about cellulosic ethanol and algae biodisel? What about geothermal, tidal, and other nascent technologies? What about loan programs and assistance in weather-proofing and winterizing older homes?

What about, heaven forbid, asking Americans to sacrifice - the thing that Bush and every member of government should have done on September 12th, 2001? No? Nothing? Let's continue...
Again and again, our opponents say that drilling will not solve all of America's energy problems -- as if we all didn't know that already. But the fact that drilling won't solve every problem is no excuse to do nothing at all.

No, we can't "drill our way out of the problem" entirely. But this is America, the most resourceful country on earth, and we can drill, and refine, and mine, enrich, reprocess, invent, build, conserve, grow, and use every available means to regain our independence.

My problem with kind of thinking is that, when you look at the numbers, it's not just that drilling won't solve every problem, it won't solve any of our energy problems. Yet at the same time, it incurs tremendous costs that will have to be repaid for generations. As soon as you make a resource more available, there is an inevitable tendency to use more of it. When resources remain scarce and expensive, people will use less or find substitutes. Gas hits $4/gal, and people rethink their SUVs. If the Republicans are such big fans of the free market, why have they managed to forget the first principles about supply and demand? And if the oil within our borders is so valuable now, won't it be more valuable in a generation or two? Shouldn't we keep it in the ground until our needs are even greater? If we restrain ourselves from thinking that drilling (and mining) is an option, we'll have all the more incentive to do something else - the substantive, long-lasting changes we are going to make now to ensure a better future. It'll be easier and cheaper to do it now than to wait until we have a real crisis.

We are addicted, not only to oil, but to cheap fossil fuels in general. The only place we can get by drilling is to dig ourselves in deeper. In an earlier post about gasoline prices, referring to a local Republican candidate that believes drilling will solve our problems, I said: The candidate's position is short sighted at best, and delusional at worst. But, hey, what can you expect from an addict.... To an addict, there can never be enough. Addicts, when it comes to their next fix, aren't rational about it, where it comes from, how they'll get it, or what it'll cost. One doesn't treat an addiction by looking for the next fix; that only makes the withdrawal that much the worse when the stash runs out. The only way to treat the addiction is to reduce the dependence on the substance.... Instead of dickering over where we can get another million barrels a day, we should be seeking out where we can find a replacement for that million barrels.

If Palin was really so in favor of "all of the above" when it comes to energy, why hasn't she advocated doing more of the above in Alaska? Certainly, with all their oil wealth, now would be a good time to start diversifying their energy portfolio. It is ironic that, although they have access to more oil than they need, Alaskans pay a whole lot more than most for a gallon of gasoline. Where we live, we've recently dropped down to about $2.20. In Anchorage, it's still $3.30. Communities further inland face even higher prices. On the North Slope, where all that crude oil is found, the cost is astronomical. Alaska's problem is twofold: they lack refining capacity to turn that crude oil into gasoline and diesel (crude gets shipped down to the west coast or Asia, then shipped back as refined product), and Alaska's large size and sparse population make for very high transportation costs. Alaska should have long ago been looking for alternatives.

Certainly, Alaska should diversify their tax portfolio; some 85% of the state's budget comes from oil and gas taxes. The Alaskan government is so tied to oil that their tax division website has the daily commodity prices on it. Alaska has no sales tax, no income tax, and is aglut in enough oil wealth to be able to give it's citizens an annual dividend check from the Alaska Permanent Fund. The dividend is about $1000-1500 in most years, but over $3000 in 2008 due to the skyrocketing price of oil and a windfall profits tax enacted under Palin. (See politifact and the Alaska Legislative Digest for more on the Alaskan budget and oil taxes.) But just how permanent will that permanent fund be? Unfortunately, like seemingly all oil-rich places, their myopia cannot envision a future when that wealth is exhausted, and so have done little to plan for it.

Some more platitudes and rainbows, the requisite "God Bless America," and there we have it: the Barracuda's take on what energy policy should be for the next administration and, by extension, the next generation or two. For those of you who were keeping count, she devoted a lot of her time to natural gas, followed by drilling for more oil, followed by coal, followed by nuclear, sprinkled with a lot of talk about how the other guys are all wrong. There was a single paragraph into which she wrapped up everything else - alternatives and conservation. So, in essence, her big policy speech roughly matches the energy consumption of the US today: lots coal, followed by oil and natural gas, then nuclear, and a small amount of everything else, mixed with a whole lot of finger-pointing, and lip service paid to conservation. If that is Palin's idea of America's energy future, I'd say it looks a whole lot more like the past and present.

Pig + Lipstick = Pig

So why have I spent so much time excoriating this candidate and a policy speech that, basically, no one noticed? For one thing, I want to make it very clear: this woman doesn't have a clue. Perhaps it is a moot point, if McCain and Palin aren't elected. Then again, there are some who are already looking to her in 2012. Another reason I have gone on at great length is because, unlike many social and economic policies, there are is no shortage of hard facts and figures to substantiate arguments. It is also a subject that, by virtue of my education, I feel qualified to speak on. I don't need to appeal to common values or hypothesize about the future - it's all in the numbers!

Finally, I feel that this is an issue that is important enough that it requires real action from real leadership, and this just ain't it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Turned Cold

It turned pretty cold two days ago. It was dreary and overcast all day Sunday, started to drizzle, then turned to snow. I hear that the East Coast is currently under this scourge now. Much as I enjoy winter weather and all that comes with it, the speed with which it came on was a little unwelcome.

But, hey, even though the temperatures fell below freezing in a serious way, it was a great chance to try out techniques and clothing we'll use on Brynna when it gets genuinely cold. In addition to her usual outfit was an extra pair of socks, fleece leggings, fleece jacket, knit mittens, hat, and her Dartmouth bunting. Then getting swaddled into the Ergo carrier with Hilary, and a down jacket over the whole setup. Good grief!

The sad part is that, after all that work, for unknown reasons, Brynna started bawling about a block into our evening walk, and Hilary had to take her home. It's possible that a touch too warm.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Overhead Projector

McCain, in his ongoing campaign against government earmarks - $18 billion a year out of a $3 trillion budget - cites Obama's support for a $3 million earmark for an overhead projector. What's up with that? Well, it comes down to what you want to call things, and whether you think funding public education in science is wasteful spending.

This is what you and I would call an overhead projector. Depending on the model, it runs a few hundred dollars.

What Obama requested was money for a new star projector for the Adler Planetarium - kinda like this one:

Image Credit: Peter Maher, Alumni Relations, Wits University

A star projector is a multi-million dollar, multi-ton piece of precision optics and mechanics, combined with sophistocated and powerful computer hardware and other electronics. It is the device responsible for putting stars, planets, constellations, and other objects on the dome of a planetarium. The stars aren't just thrown willy-nilly, either, they are a nearly-exact representation of the night sky as one would see it at any time of night or day, at any location on the Earth. It should come as no surprise that I spent a fair bit of time at my local planetarium when I was growing up. There are a few thousand in the U.S. The Adler Planetarium in Chicago was the first in the western hemisphere, and remains one of the best in the world.

The star projector they are looking to replace has been around for 40 years, and the whole request is part of a $10 million renovation that combines public and private money. Over half of the planetarium's visitors are from outside the state, so federal funding certainly seems warranted. Incidentally, the $3 million request wasn't passed, so the planetarium is still looking for money.

There are many others that have a lot to say on the subject. Here are some links:

The Adler Planetarium's own response (pdf).
Professor Astronomy blog
NPR Talk of the Nation Science Friday segment.
Discover Magazine Bad Astronomy Blog
Comment in the NYT from Professor of Astronomy Andrey Kravtsov.

Fall Harvest

Today is Saturday, so we were at the farmer's market this morning. It's the last day for the outdoor market; they'll be moving inside to the fairgrounds until the spring. Although the weather was chilly (about 40, with wind, and grey skies horizon to horizon), there was still a tremendous bounty to be had. Behold:

We have cider, apples of two varieties, red peppers from several vendors, parsnips, turnips, red carrots, a single enormous sweet potato, spinach, pumpkins of two (cooking) varieties, a small sweet melon, small potatoes, leeks, garlic, red onions, swiss chard, Amish eggs, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and butternut squash.

Brynna's getting in on the act as well, in these belated 12-week pictures:

We have not only what the market can provide, but a bit from our own garden, too. You may recall we had some success with peppers, and tremendous amounts of basil. Here was our garden a month ago:

The first few frosts have ended the growing season, though. Some of the outermost basil leaves were killed off, and the pepper plants started drooping as well. So, out with all of it. I had already made scads of pesto earlier in the summer, and there simply isn't enough bread, tomatoes, and mozzarella to consume all that basil fresh. So, I spent some two hours plucking the useful leaves from the uprooted basil plants, which were then washed and set out on the sunny porch to dry:

I'm not sure if this dried basil will be at all good, but it's something.

I also pulled the pepper plants and harvested what I could. There were a number of tiny bits that were far from ripe, of which probably nothing will come. I was able to get a half dozen decent sized poblanos, one or two purples, and two enormous-but-not-yet-ripe reds, and a whole bunch of other odds and ends.

These are in addition to some I wrote about earlier in the summer, plus about a dozen or so that I just plucked off for cooking with here and there. So, all-in-all, a pretty successful season for a first time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jasper the Mighty Hunter

Jasper, on our daily walks along a bike path next to a small stream, has been known to go charging off after small creatures he finds - squirrels and rabbits mostly, even the occassional goose. Tonight, under cover of darkness, he managed to get far out ahead of us at a bend in the river and at the top of a little rise. When we called him, we were surprised to see one massive shadowy figure charge down the slope, followed by a second, in the dim light of the sodium lamps.

Turns out this night, Jasper has rustled up his'self a deer to chase. The deer had a decent lead on him, and though we heard much crashing through the woods, eventually Jasper emerged without his prey. He didn't seem too put out, but probably wondered why his pack didn't back him up in this elaborate ambush. We could remind him that, though we are indeed his pack, we are not really the hunting type, and would't have been much use in chasing down a deer Besides, we're vegetarians - even if Jasper doesn't know his kibble contains no meat.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Turning Chilly

Well, it was bound to happen eventually, but we had to turn on the furnace this past week. Daytime highs have only been in the 40s and 50s for a while now, with nighttime lows cold enough to generate a little frost on the ground a few times. I hope that we can hold out a little longer before a hard frost, so that we can squeeze out the last few peppers from the garden. Anyway, the house has definitely been cooling off. So, we've had to fire the furnace up here and there. Like many in the upper Midwest, we have forced-air heating run off natural gas. We get some supplemental heat from the glassed in, south-facing front porch. The house is, thankfully, quite tight for one of its age; it was something we specifically looked for when we were buying. Still, we've undoubtedly got a long heating season ahead of us.

Because of my interest in energy and energy efficiency, I have kept track of our natural gas usage month-by-month by pulling a few key numbers from our utility bills. Dividing the monthly energy usage being billed by the number of days in the billing cycle yields an average daily usage. Below is the house's average daily usage for the last 3+ years.

Yup, those big cyclical spikes are the winter heating season, which ramps up during the fall and extends well into spring. The low-level baseline is what we use for our hot water heater, which has little fluctuation.

At the height of winter, when the daytime highs can regularly fail to reach double digits, or even above zero, the house is using around 4 therms of natural gas per day. If a kilowatt-hour is a weird unit of measure for electricity, at least one can trace it back to its fundamentals. A therm is just a made-up unit, which one needs to search around to find an explanation for. A therm is 100,000 BTUs of energy, which is roughly equivalent to the energy content in 100 cubic feet of natural gas. I say roughly because the actual composition of natural gas can vary from day to day and month to month. Sometimes it has more ethane, sometimes more propane, sometimes more butane, each of which has a different energy content. Also, being a gas, it will expand and contract with temperature and atmospheric pressure, so the cubic foot of gas delivered to your house will likely be different than the standard cubic foot of gas they bill by. So, the gas company will multiply the amount of natural gas they have metered to you by the therm factor for that month to determine the actual energy they have delivered to you. Confused yet? Well, at least my gas utility actually calls out these calculations in the bill, even if the definition of the terms isn't given.

Of course, once they figure out the number of therms to charge you for, they then need to figure out the amount to bill you. The cost of natural gas, like all energy commodities, has fluctuated a lot in the last couple of years, trending upward. The market price will also vary a lot by season, since there's a whole lot more demand for it in the winter (just extrapolate the graph of my house to a few tens of millions of households and you'll get the idea). During the winter months last year I paid about $1/therm. This year, projections are more like $1.60/therm or more. I count myself lucky - I hear that the cost of fuel oil, quite popular in the northeast where our parents live, will roughly double over last year's price, and has roughly quadrupled over the last decade.

If ever one wanted to make a case for investing in energy conservation, home heating would be a pretty good place to concentrate. Compared to the cost of heating a home this winter, insulation is cheap. A programmable thermostat, even the highest-quality and more feature-filled model, could pay for itself in a cold month. Heck, even replacement windows start to look affordable.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Snoozy Weekend

My rotation in the emergency department has been keeping me more busy and tired than I expected...probably because the times of day of my shifts change on a daily basis. But this weekend, I finally had a real weekend: two days in a row without going in to work. This is the first one in three weeks. Whew.

Despite my long to-do list, I mostly spent the weekend napping and hanging out with the suddenly voracious Brynna. (Must be a growth spurt.) Here's the general gist of things:

It was also a beautiful, sunny couple of days, so we spent lots of time on the porch. Here's Alex reading to Brynna:

And me reading (I finished one-and-a-half mysteries this weekend) with Brynna napping:

Jasper and I also had two lovely runs, followed by a couple of long yoga sessions for me.

So, it's been a much-needed quiet break.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Visit from Sara

Our very good friend from college, Sara, came to visit Brynna this past week. We also happened to be there, but mostly Sara was here to see our little girl. We're getting used to that.

We ate very well while she was here. Lacking cable, we had dinner at a nearby tavern so that we could watch game 3 of the ALCS, looking on in horror at how miserably the Sox were doing. The following evening we had some pumpkin ravioli, which I made from scratch the day before, with a roasted red pepper and mustard sauce. Aside from the flour and some olive oil, it is possible that all the ingredients for this meal came from the farmer's market. This is my attempt to recreate a decadent dish I once had at the Fresh Pasta Company in Northampton, MA. According to its recipients it was great. The following evening, Thursday, had us back at Nosh. There aren't any TVs at Nosh, but we kept up on another Sox falling apart via my iPhone. Imagine our surprise, upon returning home, to hear that somehow the Sox had tied it up, and went on to win and force a game 5 (tonight).

Alas, Sara has had to move on to her next social engagement. Too bad, because Hilary has her first work-free weekend in many weeks. We are going to the season opener of the Rochester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale. The program is Beethoven's Big Night, which will include the fifth symphony. Brynna will be left in the able care of one of Hilary's classmates. It is possible that this will be the first date that Hilary and I have had alone since Brynna was born.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Leaf Blowers

Leaf Blowers, of all the pernicious creations of man, must be one of the most idiotic. An embodiment of excess and laziness, but ironically also an iron weight that rarely saves us time or effort.

Witness one of my neighbors. I hadn't ever noticed the extent to which he loves his leaf-blower, since I haven't spent long days at home until now. When I saw him use it, or heard the the drone of is ultra-polluting two-stroke engine for, seemingly, hours, I figured he was just using it because it was the weekend and he was catching up on yard work. But, as it turns out, this retiree doesn't consider his lawn care to be just a weekend activity. Three times today I witness him brandishing the long plastic hose to move the leaves that had accumulated on his immaculate 1/8-acre greensward in the last few hours. Not content with merely clearing his lawn, he extends his treatment out past the curb, around the cars of commuters parked there, and around to the opposite curb as well. The fact that he lives on the corner of the block, and thus has twice as much curb-frontage, only makes this exercise more irritating.

Leave aside the ear-buzzing, brain-fuzzing noise for a moment. Leave aside the oblivious, conspicuous, and obscene consumption of energy. Leave aside the fact that, for all the time he spends doing this multiple times in the day, he could have raked once. Leaving aside all else, I ask you:

For f&#k's sake, who cares that much about the appearance of their lawn?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jogging Stroller

Thanks to the generosity of her Aunt Katherine, Brynna has herself a jogging stroller. A really sweet piece of work, a Chariot Cougar 1. She actually had it before she was born, because Aunt Katherine found an awesome deal on eBay. She probably won't be able to use it for a little while still, because she can't sit that upright for long periods.

In addition to the jogger setup shown here, we also have the hardware to pull it behind a bike. That won't happen for longer, because Brynna will need to hold herself up and a helmet, so probably not until next spring. And hey, there are other modes in which she could use it, like with ski attachments, or with a pullbar that turns her parents into rickshaw drivers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Etymology of "Maverick"

As I have already opined, "maverick," like all political cliches, should be made into a profanity and outlawed. However, it is at least worth wondering where the word comes from, and what its original meaning is, compared to the meaning that McCain-Palin want it to mean and apply to themselves.

According to this article in the New York Times, here's the history:

In the 1800s, Samuel Augustus Maverick went to Texas and became known for not branding his cattle. He was more interested in keeping track of the land he owned than the livestock on it, Ms. Maverick said; unbranded cattle, then, were called “Maverick’s.” The name came to mean anyone who didn’t bear another’s brand.

Ok, so McCain wants to see himself as one without a brand. Fair enough. But, as it turns out, the Maverick family, in America since the 1600s, has had a fairly long association with liberal and progressive politics. From the article:
“I’m just enraged that McCain calls himself a maverick,” said Terrellita Maverick, 82, a San Antonio native who proudly carries the name of a family that has been known for its progressive politics since the 1600s, when an early ancestor in Boston got into trouble with the law over his agitation for the rights of indentured servants.
Sam Maverick’s grandson, Fontaine Maury Maverick, was a two-term congressman and a mayor of San Antonio who lost his mayoral re-election bid when conservatives labeled him a Communist. He served in the Roosevelt administration on the Smaller War Plants Corporation and is best known for another coinage. He came up with the term “gobbledygook” in frustration at the convoluted language of bureaucrats.

This Maverick’s son, Maury Jr., was a firebrand civil libertarian and lawyer who defended draft resisters, atheists and others scorned by society. He served in the Texas Legislature during the McCarthy era and wrote fiery columns for The San Antonio Express-News. His final column, published on Feb. 2, 2003, just after he died at 82, was an attack on the coming war in Iraq.

Terrellita Maverick, sister of Maury Jr., is a member emeritus of the board of the San Antonio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas....“He’s a Republican,” she said. “He’s branded.”

I added the hyperlinks. Just so I'm not cherrypicking, there aren't also a bunch of conservative Republican Mavericks in history, here's wikipedia's page on the term "maverick".

Thanks to Da for the tipoff on the article.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Brynna's Boynton Books

We have a wonderful collection of Sandra Boynton board books, which we read to Brynna almost daily.

The combination of her fascination with bright colors and her starting to reach out for objects produced these adorable shots the other day (we are reading But Not the Hippopotamus, for those of you who are Boynton fans):

And here's a cute one from tummy time. I was trying to catch a big grin but couldn't quite time the photo properly. Brynna, as you will note in these photos, is now sporting a bib pretty much 24/7. When she was born, I kept wondering what all the cute little drool bibs were for. Now I get it...all over my arm, my clothes, her hands, her clothes, the Boppy pillow...

Friday, October 10, 2008


Anyone who had cooked with us knows that we like to use a lot of garlic. We have a guy at the farmer's market that we get our garlic from, among other things. He has, through selection and careful tending, been able to produce good-sized heads of garlic that have only 4-7 cloves in them. compare that to store-bought, which tends to have 2-3x as much in the same space. Result? Larger cloves that peel very easily and are more convenient for heavy users such as ourselves. Take my word for it, they lose none of their potency for being so large.

This year, before we had basil, parsley, or peppers, we had some garlic. Unfortunately, I didn't read up on it much beforehand, so we planted the cloves around April 1. As it turns out, in northern climes such as ours, it is best to plant garlic, like other bulbs, a few weeks before the ground freezes. This gives them ample opportunity to become established so that, when spring rolls around, they are all set to roar out of the ground like crocuses. As a result of our very late planting, we ended up with garlic heads smaller than walnuts, with cloves just too small to really use. Bummer.

But, we learn from our mistakes. So, yesterday I planted about 15 of these amazing cloves from the market. I had to sacrifice some of the basil plants to make room, but there's no shortage of them so I account it no great loss. Into the dry soil I turned some wet compost from our food scraps before planting. Although it has turned chilly here, they should have over a month to become established before frost. I'll want to water them a fair bit over the next week, and cover them with some of the mountain of leaves that have fallen. [After I did the planting, and in preparing this post, I found out that one does not generally peel the cloves before planting. I'm hoping that this doesn't make much difference.]

Let's hope for good results come next spring.

A video on the subject, for those who are interested. It's dirt simple to do, even for those not accustomed to gardening.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Kilowatts and Kilowatt-Hours

A recent article in the local newspaper on a solar-panel installation at a local high school reported that "[t]he entire school uses roughly 700 kilowatts per month." This is a mistake that I have seen several times in the media recently: the confusion between electrical power and energy, kilowatts versus kilowatt-hours. It is as jarring to an engineer like myself as confused homophones (buy/by, their/they're/there) likely are to an newspaper editor.

Power is a time-rate quantity – how quickly energy is used up over time. It is analogous to pounds-per-hour, gallons-per-minute, rods-per-hogshead, etc. The difficulty is that, unlike those other rate quantities, watts aren't expressed as per-whatever - the time portion is already built in. In residential electricity, the typical unit of measure for power is the kilowatt (kW, or 1000 W). A 100-watt lightbulb consumes power at a rate of 100 watts, not watts/second or watts-per-whatever.

If you want a more full answer, a watt can be expressed as a per-whatever; one watt is one joule per second second. A joule is measure of energy that makes wonderful and consistent sense in the SI (metric) units system, but isn't something that people have an intuitive grasp of. A joule is roughly 1/1000 a BTU, if anyone knows what that is, and about 1/4 of a calorie (not the calories listed on food packages, which are actually equal to 1000 of these calories chemists care about). More information on this, and an expanded rant about the weirdness of the watt is here.

Note that the "watt" does have this quirk in common with another power unit: the horsepower. If ever there was an anachronistic unit of measure, it's the horsepower. One horsepower is theoretically the mechanical power output of one horse, 33,000 foot-pounds per minute. Yeah, try to wrap your head around that one. And yet, we use it as some sort of measure of the capability of an internal combustion engine, and somehow people manage to understand that. Horsepower will be useful in a explaining a car analogy a little later in this post.

Energy is power integrated (summed up) over time, like total number gallons used to take a shower at such-and-such gallons/minute. That 100-watt lightbulb, if left on for ten hours, would consume a total of one kilowatt-hour (100 W * 10 h = 1 kWh). A kilowatt-hour is equivalent to 3.6 million joules or about 3400 BTUs. The kWh is a convenient unit of measure for residential electricity, because the typical U.S. household uses between 10 and 30 kWh per day, or upwards of 1000 per month. I say it's convenient, because imagine how much more confusing it would be for folks to be billed in gigajoules of electricity.

The electric utility charges customers based on the number of kilowatt-hours (total energy) they have used in a month, not on how quickly (kilowatts) they were used. The going residential rate (around here) is about $0.11/kWh. A typical household, depending on the time of day and the conscientiousness of its residents, needs between zero and, say, five kilowatts at any moment. When people talk about a new wind farm powering so many thousands of homes, they are assuming the typical home is using about 3 kW all the time. (Three kilowatts, 24x7, is actually an obscene amount of power for a home, but that’s another story.) Summed up over the course of a day, the typical U.S. household usage is around 30 kWh, for which the customer is charged a few dollars. H and I have managed to get our typical daily usage below 10 kWh, and we know of people that have achieved about 5 kWh/day.

This power/energy relationship for electricity is analogous to how your car's engine provides somewhere between a few and several hundred horsepower, depending on whether you are idling or accelerating hard from a stop light. That’s power varying in time. If you sum up that power usage over a long while, you can equate it to total energy in terms of how many gallons of gasoline you’ve used. In time, as hybrid and all-electric vehicles become more prevalent in the market, it may become useful to speak of the power rating of the electric motor in your car, in kilowatts, and the capacity of your battery bank, in kilowatt-hours.

So, back to the recent story reporting that "[t]he entire school uses roughly 700 kilowatts per month." That makes as little sense as saying my car uses 200 horsepower/second or 30 mpg/day. Perhaps the school uses 700 kilowatt-hours per month. That's unlikely, since it would mean their electric bill is only about $75/month. It is more likely that the school uses 700 kilowatts during peak hours of the day, and somewhat less during the night. Over an entire month, then, I estimate the school uses something like 250,000 kilowatt-hours. I can’t guess what the cost for that electricity is, because the school district probably pays a lower rate than residential customers, and they probably co-generate some of their electricity on-site alongside their heating and cooling.

Readers of this blog know that I have an interest in energy policy. In order to have meaningful conversations about energy, energy conservation, and energy policy, it is important to understand the terminology. Even beyond the terminology, it is important to have ballpark ideas of what’s reasonable and what’s not. How much power does a home actually use, how much does it need, how much could be saved with simple measures, and how much does this all cost?

These days, I suspect most people could tell you what their car’s mileage is, and how far they can go on a tank of gas, and how much a gallon of gas costs. I am often surprised, then, how few of those people also know how much energy their home uses each month and what the cost for that energy is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Presidential Debate: A Drinking Game

Presidential debates are dull. Especially given that they are not really "debates" at all. So we decided to spice things up by making up our own drinking game.

90 minutes and a quarter of a bottle of scotch later, Alex is cursing John McCain. "My friends" caused him to finish his current Michel Couvreur (aged 12 years in Burgundean caves). I stuck to root beer, given that Brynna was sharing some of the drinking duties.

Our list of catchphrases:
For Obama: "middle class," "Main Street," and "the last 8 years."
For McCain: "maverick," "Obama does not understand" or "is naive," and "My friends."
The polling from the last debate seems to have knocked the "does not understand" thing out of the running. We realized partway through that we should have replaced it with "reference to working with Joe Lieberman as reaching across the aisle"—which simply IS NOT TRUE anymore!
For either candidate: "change"

We thought that some of the questions—prioritize your priorities, what sacrifices do we need to make, what don't you know and how will you learn it—were great questions but unfortunately went unanswered by either man.

Alex would also like to repeat his plea from the last debate: give the moderator the power to switch off the mike when the candidate goes over time.

Obama was a little more aggressive about defending himself this time, though that was in large part limited by the format. We think he won—especially given that this is supposed to be McCain's special format—though we are of course biased in this direction.

Brynna is much more alert and happy now that the debate is over. She and her Daddy are having a deep discussion right now about the neural pathways involved in shifting her weight from foot to foot, as she stands on Alex's lap and grins at him.

UPDATE 2008-10-08 1900: I'll also throw out this one other point - counterpoint, really. McCain asked who was the last President to raise taxes during an economic downturn? Humphrey. Well, actually that's not true, it's just a useful anecdote. More than that, I wish Obama had come back and asked: when was the last time we had massive tax cuts during a time of war?

Monday, October 6, 2008


Brynna's 2-month well-child checkup was today. And she is very well indeed! In fact, the first thing the doctor asked me was whether she was breast or bottle-fed. When I said that I was breastfeeding, he asked how that was going for me. I said "great," and he glanced at Brynna and then her growth chart and said, "and it's certainly going great for her!"

Brynna is now just shy of 13 pounds (5.85 kg, to be exact). She is in the 80th percentile for weight and 60th percentile for height for a girl of her age. (This does not have any bearing on her eventual weight and height as a grown-up...I expect her to gradually come down on the growth curve over the years, until she hits her genetically determined "midparental height" and what will probably be quite an average weight.)

Little B is also meeting all of the developmental milestones for 2 months, and some for 3 months (what a brilliant child!). Of course, right after we described her to the nurse as a happy, smiley child, she had a total screaming meltdown in the office. This was an excellent reminder that the very limited time I spend with my patients, especially the kids, often will not give me a very good sense of what they are like in their normal home environment!

B was awake and chipper in the waiting room, smiling over my shoulder at the other patients and then cooing happily at the nurse as we entered the examining room. She started getting a bit skeptical when we stripped her down to her gDiaper (perhaps she needs to be a bit older to gain an appreciation of naked time?) and the fussing started when we laid her down on the hard, chilly scale and then in the little measuring box. She really lost it while waiting, still undressed, for the doctor to come in. I walked her and jiggled her, Alex walked her and jiggled her, I offered the breast, she screamed louder, we tried covering her with a blanket, and Alex finally reached a tentative peace by carrying her around on her belly, a calming technique that M (B's grandfather) uses with great success. This truce lasted most of the way through the doctor's brief questioning but was broken the moment we laid her down on the examining table.

The doctor was able to listen to her heart and lungs before she really got going with the yelling, but then she rapidly descended into red-faced lobster territory. I had to pick her up and soothe her a bit before the doctor could get a good look in her eyes. This is actually a super-important part of the baby exam because the presence of a red reflex—the same thing that ruins flash photos—is a check against retinoblastoma, one of the few cancers that can present in little ones. He also checked her hips for dysplasia. He has no concerns for B at all.

Then it was time for vaccines. As I have written about earlier, I am a huge believer in vaccines as a cornerstone of preventive care. So is Alex. We intend to do the full complement of vaccines on the regular CDC schedule (Brynna will be exposed to way more antigens just by touching a surface and sticking her hand in her mouth than even the days when she gets eight vaccines, as she did today). So poor little B had one oral vaccine and five shots. She was so upset by the time this process got started that I'm not even sure she noticed the shots...her screaming certainly did not get any louder or more distressed when the poking started! I think the nurse was appreciative that neither Alex nor I got upset, and in fact were fairly useful in holding Brynna still for this unfortunate event.

The vaccines today were for:
Rotavirus (oral drops), which causes severe diarrhea. This very rarely is fatal, but causes a lot of hospitalizations for dehydration. Almost all kids get rota by age 5 if not vaccinated, so we're hoping to spare B some misery with this one.

Streptococcus pneumoniae (shot), which is the #1 cause of bacterial meningitis, which can be fatal. Strep pneumo can also cause pneumonia and ear infections.

Polio (shot). This is an inactivated polio vaccine, not the live oral polio vaccine that is really useful in higher-risk parts of the world but can, in rare cases, cause polio.

Haemophilius influenzae Type b (Hib) (shot). This bug also causes meningitis and other nasty infections like pneumonia and epiglottitis, which can be fatal. Epiglottitis, a throat swelling that can cut off breathing, has almost disappeared since the advent of this vaccine.

Hepatitis B (shot). This is a virus, usually passed through body fluids, that can cause chronic liver damage and liver cancer.

Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (shot). These are all bacteria that can make kids very, very sick. This shot—specifically the pertussis (whooping cough) part—is one of the big culprits in the general fussiness in the couple of days following vaccination, and can in super-rare cases cause seizures or very high fevers. But the risk of getting pertussis—there are outbreaks yearly—is much higher. And the disease itself can cause seizures and brain damage in bad cases, and a lot of misery even in straightforward ones.

By the time we left the office, Brynna had settled a bit and then zonked out. She's never cried herself to exhaustion before, which was very sad. But she's perked up now and seems to be doing just fine. In fact, here she is enjoying some tummy time with her Papa:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Weekly Dose

A weekly infusion of our little Brynna bean:

I promise you there is actually a child in there, somewhere.

Brynna has this Dartmouth bunting that was given to us by good friends. It will be very cozy for Brynna in worse weather. Thankfully that will be sometime in the future, when she can better fill it out. For now, in the moderately cool weather of early autumn, with Brynna not more than two months old, it is still very cozy, but downright comical in its over-size. The tall pinnacle of a hood will continue to be funny. It reminds me Maggie's snowsuit in The Simpsons:

Brynna at nine weeks. I promise that we will not refer to her age in weeks forever (I'll tear up when, at 1140 weeks, she graduates from college). For right now, it's still the most convenient unit. Besides, we've got these really cool signs - why not use them?

Brynna takes the election very seriously. She likes to catch up on her reading while taking in some tummy-time.

Flat Earth Brewing

I saw this at the liquor store the other day - it's from a brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota that's been around for only about a year. That's more or less in our backyard. I bought it on spec, because I was interested to see this new offering. Then I noticed the label and decided it was fate. Does that dog remind you of someone?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

On Leave

Thanks to that ultra-socialist piece of legislation, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (thanks Bill, Chris), I am able to spend the next few weeks at home with little Brynna while H makes her way back into her medical rotations. The FMLA allows an eligible full-time employee to take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for their own medical reasons, to care for a sick relative, or care for a new child. I guess it wasn't quite as socialist as it could have been, because it is unpaid leave, but it's nice to at least have the opportunity to spend lots of quality time with Brynna without worrying about whether I'd have a job later.

I'll be spending that time bonding with our little Brynna-bean. With any luck, I'll also be able to spend some time relaxing: reading, mostly.