Russell's Blog

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Killing the watts

Posted by Russell on November 25, 2007 at 11:11 p.m.
My mom has been interested in energy conservation for a long time. She's managed to take a pretty considerable bite out of her electricity and gas usage by taking some very simple steps. Below, I've plotted her energy use over the last couple of years. I was only able to find a handful of bills, but it's enough to see the trend. The first big reduction is just from minor adjustments in habits -- turning the lights off when she leaves the room, and opening the blinds to use natural light in the daytime. The second big reduction is from installing compact florescent bulbs. That doesn't sound very exciting, but it cut her electricity use by 50-70%. If you've been doubting that those sorts of changes make a difference, seeing is believing.
This is, by the way, without any new appliances. She's still got a washing machine and dryer that are almost as old as me, a non-EnergyStar dishwasher, and a massive professional refrigerator that predates EnergyStar altogether.

The most obvious place to start, of course, is the refrigerator, which I estimate to be sucking down between 2.5 and 5 kwh per day. Or, at least, that's what it would have used when it was new, so it could be as much as 20% more than that. To maintain that nice downward trend, I've advised her to trade up to a Sun Frost RF16, which absolutely crushes the competition, using less than half a kwh per day. The most efficient models from big brands use about three times as much. Also, they're built right here in the USA, in Arcata, California.

The cost-benefit analysis for washer, drier and dishwasher isn't quite as stark. The main reason for swapping those out are to save water and gas. For gas, the easiest savings can be had by replacing the water heater, and she's already got an awesome tankless water heater. For water, toilets and outdoor watering are the main culprits. She has a couple of dual-flush toilets on order, and a there are a bunch of rain barrels staked in the driveway. They will be hooked up when the new rain gutters are installed.

When that's all done, she'll be ready to push the trend line the rest of the way down to the axes. Ultimately, solar is the way to go in southern California, but as long as panels cost a couple of dollars per watt, you'd be crazy not to do the easy stuff first. In any event, she wants to have some excess capacity in her photovoltaic system. Someday, she swears, she's going to have an electric car.

Tales of the surge

Posted by Russell on November 23, 2007 at 6:19 p.m.
Tuesday, the New York Times ran the latest in the series of bizarre articles claiming that the troop surge in Iraq is working. The premise of the article rests on perhaps the weakest justification for optimism I have ever read, anywhere.
The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.
Mein Gott! Days pass without a carbombing! Let us rejoice! The article parrots this sickly good news, which is the best news the chefs at the Pentagon can cook up from the year's putrid harvest. Need I remind you that the New York Times is once again reporting Bush administration numbers as if they were fact. That hasn't worked out so well for the Times in the recent past, but here they are, doing it again.

Much of the fall in violence can probably be explained by successful ethnic cleansing throughout Baghdad.

Why are they buying this pitiful, slightly-less-awful picture? Simple. They can't speak Arabic. Juan Cole offeres a more complete picture of what's going on in the region, a picture he is able to express thanks on an amazing ability called "bilingualism." Actually, Cole is fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads some Turkish, according to his CV. Evidently, the New York Times can't be bothered to make itself aware of what is reported elsewhere. What sort of picture does Cole see in the Arabic media? It still looks like a full-blown civil war to me.

Presidential forums with awkward names

Posted by Russell on November 20, 2007 at 3:31 p.m.
On Saturday, I decided to head to the VA complex next to UCLA to watch the Global Warming & America's Energy Future Presidential Forum. I guess you could include it among the unending barrage of presidential debates we're suffering through. Having caught just enough of the last Democratic debate on CNN to ruin an otherwise enjoyable dinner, I was was pleasantly surprised that this forum turned out to be rather interesting.

The panelists asked sharp questions, but there was no attempt to "get" the candidates. There was a refreshing absence of false dichotomies, litmus tests and provocations. They just asked difficult, technical questions. For example, Edwards said that we ought to essentially ban coal, but that coal miners should not be made to bare brunt of this economic realignment because the problem is not their fault. He was asked the obvious follow-on question : That means compensation. How do we pay for it?

And then something astonishing happened. Edwards answered the question directly, and the panelists let him. He'd already explained that to reduce emissions, we need some kind of carbon tax. It's estimated that such a system would raise about 20-40 billion dollars a year, depending on the details of implementation (which is up to Congress). This block of money would be divided among three goals; remediation of environmental damage, research, and helping people in "dirty" industries get new, better jobs.

The audience was very enthusiastic throughout, but the enthusiasm crested highest on the occasions when the panelists, candidates and moderator insulted CNN, particularly Tim Russert. I guess this reflects the fact that the only thing less popular than Congress is the Media. If Wolf Blitzer had walked onto the stage, he would have been booed out of the hall. Child molesters are more popular than the Media.

The candidates don't have to use FOX or CNN as their forum. There are lots and lots of nonpartisan issue-oriented groups that would happily host debates. The questions will be less stupid, and the format won't be designed to maximize catfighting. Issue-oriented groups will listen to answers longer than 15 seconds without getting bored, assuming the candidates stay more or less on topic.

The biggest surprise, for me anyway, was that I felt a lot more confident about Hillary after hearing her speak without an idiot media stooge nipping at her heels. She made it very clear that she understands the issue of climate change, and that she understands the need for bold action. She has some specific proposals, but they aren't really unique from what Edwards proposes -- not that I fault her for that. It's pretty obvious what needs to be done, so all the serious proposals will tend to look about the same. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, because her intelligence has never been in question.

The trouble I have with Hillary is not concern that she would make a good president. I think she would do a pretty good job. At least as good as her husband did, and probably better. She is smart and capable, and her priorities are pretty much right. The problem I have with her is that I think she would make and awful leader for the progressive movement. She represents a view -- "The perfect is the enemy of the good" she said during the forum -- that is immiscible with philosophical leadership. She would be a competent administrator. She would work hard and push for the right things. But I can't see her galvanizing a new progressive coalition. She would leave the Democratic party in the same state her husband left it; hollowed out and fractured.

The electorate is crackling with a punishing voltage of dissatisfaction, and it isn't any mystery what is pissing people off. There are very real, terrible problems facing our country. People have a whole menu of issues to be pissed off about -- climate change, our inept counterterrorism policies, income inequality, health care, a hostile international community, our diseased financial system, the trade imbalance, Iraq, and more. And Washington is doing nothing to fix this stuff. Nothing.

On one terminal, we have three hundred million Americans who like to get shit done, and on the other terminal, we have a few hundred politicians in Washington who aren't doing shit. The system has been charging up for a very, very long time. We need a president who will be a big fat wire between these two terminals. We need a way to pipe our collective dissatisfaction into Washington until its denizens either get to work or vaporize from the political scene. I can't see Hillary doing that. She is a natural insulator; her natural instincts are to mediate and compromise. That's very admirable, and in a different situation would be highly desirable. But if someone doesn't hook the terminals up, eventually the whole thing will short out and we can kiss democracy goodbye.

Maybe I'm wrong about Hillary. A lot of people are enthusiastic about her, and that's a good sign. It would be nice if she stopped undermining the progressive part of the party, and started beating up on the GOP for keeping Washington paralyzed.

Also, I think a lot of people fail to appreciate what a great thing Dennis Kucinich is doing for the party. First of all, he's not undermining the Democratic part by running in a third party, like Nader did. Second, by running boldly to the left of the pack, he is flanking the other candidates, making them harder to attack. It's safer for them to take liberal positions because they will still be moderate on any scale that includes Kucinich. This something that happens frequently in Republican primaries -- there is an unpopular fascist thug, and the other candidates look nice and moderate by defeating him. Not that Kucinich is an exact mirror of that picture. He would probably be a center-right candidate in most functioning democracies. This highlights how important it is for the Democratic party to have people like him.

Now, if we had a few actual Communists in Congress, like most democracies, then moderate liberal politicians would have lots of maneuvering room. The Democrats could hold up practically any serious proposal, and it would look conservative when contrasted with the lunatic position from the Communists. Single-payer healthcare? Look, it's better than Communism, don't you think? You don't want Communism, do you? Great, so vote for our plan.

Anyway, I'm pretty disappointed that Barak Obama didn't come to the event. It was very unfortunate.

The noble throne

Posted by Russell on November 03, 2007 at 5:52 p.m.
Something to think about next time you're sitting on the can: 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet.

Next time you get into a seat up/down argument with a co-inhabitant, why not settle the argument by recognizing how lucky you are to have a toilet in the first place? Donate a few bucks to the World Toilet Organization.