Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

What Really Matters

May 1, 2007

The central issue of the 2004 Presidential election was terrorism and the Iraq war. The first debate of the 2008 election (which I missed – why were there no repeat broadcasts?) also highlighted this topic. But is this what really matters most? Is this what should be getting the money, the manpower, and the attention?

In my opinion, no. The following are what I would choose as the top five issues facing the country and the world today, in roughly descending order of importance:

  1. Global climate change, a.k.a., global warming: This seems like the one that is most likely to make a big difference, up to and including death, to billions of people. If sea levels rise much, big sections of land that people live on will have to be abandoned, and in many cases these are people without the means to start over or even evacuate. In places like Africa there could be devastating and deadly droughts. This could change everything, and probably will. Solving it would also have the side benefit of solving the problem of more demand for oil than the supply can support.
  2. Intolerance: The biggest form of this seems to be religious intolerance: Sunnis and Shias, Catholics and Protestants, Israelis and Palestinians (at least partly religious), religious people and atheists, and so on. Non-religious intolerance includes things like the divisions between gays and straights, Democrats and Republicans, one race and another race, pro-choice and pro-life, and more. When has a war not had intolerance at its core?
  3. Violence and fear: The media encourages us to be fearful, but also to think of violence as a solution (or even the solution) to problems. War and the death penalty is killing done by the government in our names, so it must be okay. Is it?
  4. Politics: Do we have to accept that politicians become corrupt and/or cynical, are beholden to big corporate donors, work harder to ensure their own reelection than they do for their constituents, win elections through mass marketing rather than on the issues, and get elected though voting systems that are unreliable and unauditable? I sure hope not. If so, then it’s much harder to fix the other problems on this list.
  5. Education: The current system doesn’t work very well. Most students don’t work very hard, and their teachers are underpaid, overworked, and the ones who have the ambition to improve things are far too often stuck in an inflexible system. I don’t have a clue what to do about this, but if we keep turning out graduates who have a hard time operating a cash register or understanding the different sides of election issues, we’re in deep trouble.

After that would probably be pandemics (e.g., bird flu and AIDS), and health care availability and costs.

9/11 sucked, but we (the United States) have responded to it so poorly that the cure has become much worse than the disease. And on top of that, the cost and the attention given to it (and especially the Iraq fiasco) makes it impossible to tackle what really matters.

Update: There is a transcript of the Democratic debate here (New York Times).

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Out of Balance and Slumming

March 8, 2007

Out of Balance is a reasonably good documentary about global warming, although its strength is specifically exploring the damage that ExxonMobil has done historically (e.g., the Valdez spill) and recently (e.g., memos showing their role in clouding the global warming debate for about 10 years). It’s low budget and a little strident, but not painfully so, and the subject is a vitally important one. I do wish that the film had not used hurricanes so extensively as an example of the outcome of climate change, because from what I have read that connection is not as clear as many others. But the visuals of the destruction are so good I understand it is hard to resist.

The director was at the screening to answer questions afterwards. Here are a few things I wrote down:

  • The DVD is available on the film’s website
  • The director feels like this is a good followup to An Inconvenient Truth
  • The director is touring the country to promote the movie
  • Someone in Washington, D.C. bought a couple of copies of the DVD, and the director didn’t recognize the name, so after some web searching he figured out that the buyer worked forDCI Group, which does lots of work for ExxonMobil
  • An audience member said that the film scared her, but she thinks we need to be scared
  • exxonsecrets.org is a good web site showing all the connections
  • The director spent about 10 months (12/2005-10/2006) full-time on the film
  • The majority of people now know this is real and serious, finally
  • The director is not sure if he should be hopeful or not
  • Government can rally people, and hopefully the next administration will try

The short shown before the film (The Sparky Book) was simple and manipulative, but affecting. Dogs are good.

My other movie this day was an Austrian film called Slumming. Sebastian and Alex, two of the main characters in the film, would be yuppie Austrian scum, but they aren’t professional (which is part of the definition of the word yuppie). Sebastian has enough money for a fancy BMW, but they do “nothing.” They spend their time amusing themselves by taking covert pantie photographs of women they meet online, and making up life stories of people they see, loud enough that their subjects can hear their insensitive comments. They use the term “slumming” to mean rich people like them spending time in bars and other establishments in much poorer parts of town (Vienna), and they are just as condescending as you might imagine from that description. Their lives intersect with Pia, a school teacher, andKallman, a loud alcoholic homeless poet.

I thought that the film was done very well, with good performances and an engaging visual style. You don’t really like any of the characters, but you can empathize with all of them to varying degrees. I was very glad that I picked it at the last minute to fill a hole in my schedule.

I’ll give Out of Balance and Slumming both 3 stars out of 4 stars, for very different reasons. Slumming is very close to 3.5 stars.

Seen 3/7/2007 at Cinequest.

Electric Cars

January 25, 2007

Back when electric cars were actually available from mainstream manufacturers, I wondered what the big deal was about. It seemed to me that they just moved the pollution from where you were driving to wherever the electicity was generated. How could that help?

But then I heard about Tesla Motors. Now, I have no plans to spend $92,950 on any car, but it’s still a very cool car. And reading their web site I saw their “well-to-wheel” analysis (what it costs starting at the oil well all the way to turning the wheels of a car) of efficiency of electric cars vs. hybrid and conventional cars, and I was convinced that electric is the way to go for a commuter car. For longer range trips, it will require a big infrastructure change (maybe stations where you swap dead battery packs for charged ones), but even today most two car families could get by with one electric car and one hybrid.

If there were any affordable elctric cars to buy, that is.

So what is available today or plausibly soon?

Today you can buy a NmG (“No more Gas”) from Meyers Motors. It used to be called the Sparrow in case it looks familiar. But it has only one seat, a 30 mile range, and costs $24,900. The range is a dealbreaker for me, and the price seems out of line with what you get.

You can buy a Zap! Xebra from Zap. It’s range is only 25 miles and it has a top speed of 40mph, though it seats 4 and has a target price under $10,000. They also say that deliveries are in process and I have read that they have sold 150 or more of them. But again the range is a dealbreaker, and the top speed also means I would have to choose a different route to work.

If you live in England, you can buy a G-Wiz from GoinGreen. The range is 50 miles, the top speed is 45mph, and it costs 7000 pounds. The car is also sold (and made) in India as the Reva.

You can make a deposit on a Tango from Commuter Cars Corporation. They have a Tesla-class (0-60 in 4 seconds) model T600 that sells in kit form for $108,000. They have delivered one to George Clooney, and will be hand-building a few more. The range is 40-80 miles with lead-acid batteries (farther with NiMH). They are taking deposits on the T200 (0-60 in 5 seconds, $39,900, expected in 2008) and the T100 (0-60 in 7 seconds, $18,900, expected in 2009). What I really like about these cars is that they’re narrower and shorter than some motorcycles (they have two seats but they’re front and back rather than side by side). That means they can park in places normal cars can’t, and if they catch on there could be lane sharing on freeways. I’m actually pretty tempted to put down a deposit.

I also looked into electric scooters. GreenEmotor is local (they’re in Santa Clara, CA). From talking to them it doesn’t sound like their current model could handle the climb I have on my commute home, though when they get better batteries, it might work. The Vectrix is much more powerful, but it’s also much more expensive (roughly $11,000), requires a motorcycle license, and it’s not clear if it’s sold in the U.S. yet.

For further reading, wikipedia is a good place to start.

Edit 3/27/2007: Phoenix Motorcars is building an electric truck/SUV that they expect to start delivering in 2007. It has a range of 130 about miles and is expected to cost about $45,000.