Roadrunner

This haiku celebrates a roadrunner we encountered on a recent trip through New Mexico.

      roadrunner run fast

      or fly now across the road

      or be run over

Monsoons

Living in the desert means sometimes getting sick of sunshine and pining, deep down, for a rainy day. The rains that will last a day or more usually come in the winter or spring. Not often, though.

In the summer we go through the months of May and June with very little precipitation. In July we get our predictable, seasonal rains. We call them monsoons, but they bare little resemblance to the storms that batter Asia.

These are hot summer days, with humidity occasionally building to a climactic thunderstorm. Here in Phoenix, we get a lot of teasers. No rain, just a dust storm, maybe with enough precipitation to make it stick to your car and windows. But, when we do get a good cloudburst, it’s a sight to behold.

In the picture above, you can see a trash-can come rain barrel that Wen-Ling employs to catch the roof runoff. A half-inch of rain is usually good for filling a barrel, since we are catching the rain from the southern facing portion of our roof.

Peachy Green’s Analysis of Ethanol Assumes Some Myths

Until recently I have generally thought that alcohol as a biofuel is a bad idea.  However, after reading David Blume‘s Alcohol Can Be A Gas I have become excited by the prospects this fuel has to offer.

I had accepted a number of positions on alcohol fuel because I had not heard some of the countervailing arguments.  Today I came across a blog posting from Peachy Green that attempts to explode some myths.  However, I found that while they were able to debunk some myths about alcohol, they contribute to other existing myths.

I will take on each of the five myths that Peachy Green discussed, with some counter-arguments obtained from Alcohol Can Be A Gas.

1.  Corn-based ethanol is a “green” alternative to foreign oil.  Peachy Green says, “False”.

David Blume makes the argument that using corn to produce ethanol is a poor choice because of the fairly low yield of sugar/starch produced per acre.  Using corn to produce ethanol can yield about 200 to 250 gallons of fuel per acre.  There are a number of other crops that can be grown that yield far more.  For instance, sugar beets can produce about 1000 gallons of fuel per acre.  Cattails can produce up to 7000 gallons of fuel per acre.  So, in that sense, David Blume would probably agree that corn-based ethanol is not a green alternative to foreign oil.

However, Peachy Green focused their arguments on resource inputs vs. energy outputs.  They are basically arguing the points of David Pimentel.  David Blume shows how Dr. Pimentel’s research is bogus.  You can read a short summary of his argument here.  Blume points out that fossil fuels have the negative return on energy.  The argument presented by Peachy Green assumes that fossil fuel energy will be used to produce alcohol as an alternative energy.  Blume argues that in a permaculture-based economy, where biofuel inputs are used to produce biofuel outputs, “the ratio of return could be positive by hundreds to one”.

2.  The new pressure to produce corn-based ethanol  is correlated to high food prices.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.  Here they are in agreement with Blume.  They identify a number of factors leading to high food prices.  They did fail to mention that the pressure to produce corn-based ethanol comes, in part, from surpluses of corn in North America, and a need to dispose of it profitably.

3.  Corn-based ethanol is cheaper than fuel from refined oil.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.

Peachy Green says, “In August 2008, ethanol sold for about $2.40 a gallon wholesale. Currently, gasoline is about the same cost, and may go lower.”  However, they fail to identify many of the hidden costs of oil.  Oil production is heavily subsidized by our government.  Many of these costs are passed on to you, but not necessarily at the pump.  For instance, the war in Iraq was basically to secure middle-east oil.  That has cost us trillions.  Then there are the environmental costs.  As well as the tax breaks that big-oil has enjoyed.

Blume argues in his book that alcohol comes out ahead of oil based on cost.  We can either subsidize alcohol production to the same degree that oil is subsidized, or we can remove the subsidies enjoyed by oil.  In either case, alcohol will come out ahead.

Peachy Green also says,

Notwithstanding the fluctuations in gasoline prices, ethanol yields about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly. That means that you will have to re-fuel more frequently. Over the long run, gasoline is less expensive than corn-based ethanol.

 Blume goes into great detail in his book on the merits of gasoline vs. alcohol.  (If you like chemistry and physics, his book is an awesome read.  If you don’t, he presents these topics in laymans terms so don’t be intimidated.)  There are many facets to a comparison of alcohol vs. gasoline.  Just one argument shows where Peachy Greens argument comes up short.

It is true that gasoline contains more energy per gallon than alcohol.  However, more of gasoline’s energy is converted to heat.  Alcohol fuel actually provides more motive force.  Less of its energy is lost as heat.  Under certain conditions alcohol will provide less mileage than gasoline.  But, it is a complicated topic and I would refer you to Blume’s book for a complete discussion of the facts.

I will also point out that all engines currently in use have been optimized to run on gasoline.  However, when you begin to consider the optimizations that can be made for alcohol fuel, the idea that alcohol provides less mileage falls flat on its face.

4.  You will have to convert your vehicle to run on ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is “mostly false”.  They are mostly right. 

Where they are wrong is in arguing that money should not be spent on a flex-fuel engine to run higher concentrations of alcohol so that the money could instead be put to the purchase of a hybrid.

Alcohol is a renewable form of energy.  Electricity can be generated renewably.  I am all for solar- and wind-generated electricity.  But, in all likelihood, your hybrid is burning coal or nuclear fuel as a trade off for lower gasoline inputs.  And, in the end, it’s still a gasoline-burning engine.  So, while hybrids are better than most non-hybrids, they are not better than a vehicle that burns a renewable alternative to gasoline.

5.  There will be less global warming as a result of fueling our cars with corn-based ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is false.

I disagree after reading Blume’s book.  First, Peachy Green’s argument is very narrowly focused on corn-based ethanol.  Second, they are presenting the arguments of Dr. Pimental, which Blume thoroughly debunks in his book. 

Peachy Green quotes an article stating that, “corn-based ethanol would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, compared to fossil fuels. This is due largely to the effects of cutting down trees which absorb CO2 emissions in order to grow crops.”

Blume shows how a permaculture-based economy, which he has demonstrated himself on his own farm, would actually sequester carbon-dioxide in the soil in the form of an increasing amount of organic matter.  If alcohol is a renewable fuel, it is difficult to imagine how greenhouse gases would double since we would be pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to produce alcohol, and then burning it, which puts it back into the atmosphere.

The reason Peachy Green is making this argument is that they are falling into the same trap that David Pimental finds himself in.  They are looking at alcohol fuel from the perspective of a fossil-fuel based economy.  In order to understand the promise that alcohol and other biofuels hold, we must begin to look at all of the ways that we have structured our economies and cultures in order to accomodate oil, coal, and nuclear.  Then, we can start to ask whether these accomodations would be necessary if we were running on renewables.

Bus Stop at 40th St and Baseline Road

Public transportation has been a subpar experience in Phoenix. Light rail is nearing completion. Until then, the only real form of public transport has been the bus system.

The main problem with the bus system is that the buses run infrequently. Typically they are on a twice an hour schedule, although some of the busier routes get three buses during rush hour. Tempe adds its own buses into the mix in order to better serve riders. But, on average, there is a thirty minute wait between rides.

This can be a problem in bad weather. Many bus stops in Phoenix consist of a bench under a blazing sun. (I do consider summertime, with daily temps in the 105-118 degree range to be bad weather for waiting on a bus.)

The problem is further compounded when there are connections involved. Let’s say you need two different buses to get you where you are going. The worst case scenario is that you just miss a bus when you arrive at your first stop. You now have roughly a half hour wait. Then, when your first bus drops you at your connecting station you are just a little too late again. Another 30 minutes of waiting.

Imagine that your two bus stops consist of a bench under the sun. You will cook for an hour just to get to work. (I have been so thoroughly baked.)

This problem can be addressed in two ways. The first is to add more buses so that the average waiting time is shorter. The second is to provide cover for the riders at their bus stops.

So my motivation here is to point out that the city of Phoenix has done something great by enhancing the bus stop at 40th St and Baseline Rd. What riders need here in the Valley of the Sun is shade. The designers of this bus stop used mostly steel rebar to create the archway and the trellises. Cat claw vines have been planted at the base of the umbrella-shaped forms. Bougainvillea has been planted on a trellis east of the bench. Desert trees have been planted behind the bus stop. There is a canopy directly above the bench.

As the plants mature they will provide some much needed shade, as well as visual appeal. It will be an inviting place to sit and wait for a ride. Very little will be needed in the way of maintenance. Maybe some occasional pruning.

I have seen a few other stops around town where either Valley Metro or the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, etc. have spent some cash on artistically enhanced stops.  Some look like serious cash was layed out.   The stop at 40th St. and Baseline Rd. looks like it was fairly inexpensive to complete.

The vast majority of bus stops in town still consist of a bench under the sun, or a bench shaded by a very basic awning.  For very little outlay, these bus stops could be enhanced by planting a couple-three desert trees around the bench.  While it may not be ideal in the rain, it beats sitting under the sun.

In any case, kudos to the creators of the bus stop and 40th St and Baseline Rd!

Re: Re: Don’t call me

In Re: Don’t call me I offered Mark Anderson the chance to reply to my comments.  He did.  Here are his remarks:

Dear Mr. Dombrowski,   

Thank you for responding.  We will remove your name from the list and you should not be receiving any more calls from our campaign.  I can understand your point of view regarding the automated messages.  I understand that it can be annoying to get calls that are unwanted.  That is why we try to make it easy for people to get off the list.  If our system is working right, then they just need to call and leave their phone number with the request to be removed, and we can do that within 24 hours, usually.   However, not everyone objects to the phone calls.  I do a lot of door-to-door contacting of people and a number of the people that I have met mentioned that they had received the calls and found them interesting and informative.  I also have a lot of large campaign signs out on the street corners.  Many people consider them to be eyesores and political “litter”.   On the other hand, when I talk with people I find that many of them say “I like your signs”.    The reason I have chosen to use these particular campaign tools is that they are relatively inexpensive compared with television ads and full-color mailings.  My campaign is not funded by high-powered Washington DC lobbyists or special interest groups like several of my opponents.  In order to reach the vast numbers of people in this congressional district, I have to find ways that are cost effective.  I apologize to those who are really bothered by the phone calls or the signs.  I gladly remove anyone’s name from the list so they don’t receive any more calls—from my campaign.  The incumbent congressman Harry Mitchell has sent 6 or 7 slick mailers already using the franking privilege…meaning that these were paid for by taxpayers.  I cannot compete with that kind of revenue source.  I am doing the best I can running a grassroots campaign.  I feel that I can make a difference if I can get my message out there to the voters.  Thank you for your patience, and best wishes,   

Rep. Mark Anderson

Re: Don’t call me

When I posted Don’t call me this morning, I sent an email to Mark Anderson informing him of my blog entry. I just checked my email and found that he had replied. I will share with you Mr. Anderson’s message and my subsequent response. I am doing so because I believe it helps clarify my position. The only thing I changed before posting this is the removal of my actual phone number from my response.

————————

First, my email to Mr. Anderson:

Dear Mr. Anderson,

We have been receiving your annoying phone calls. Well, not your phone calls. The phone calls made by your machine.

This is a particularly annoying manner of advertising. I posted a blog entry about this at https://lovehatephoenix.wordpress.com/2008/07/13/dont-call-me/

Thank you.

Thaddeus Dombrowski

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Mr. Anderson replies:

Dear Mr. Dombrowski, I apologize for the unwanted recorded message phone calls. If you give us your phone number, we will remove you immediately from the calling list. Unfortunately you may get other calls from other campaigns as we get closer to the election date. Again, I apologize for the calls. Let us know if you would like to stop receiving them. Mark Anderson

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My response to Mr. Anderson:

Dear Mr. Anderson,

Thank you for your prompt reply to my email. I’ll start by saying that I do want to be removed from your calling list. My phone number is AAA BBB-CCCC.

I also want you to know that my blog entry is not about you personally, or your campaign. I hope I was clear in my blog post that what I find annoying is the use of robots to reach people in their private spaces, through private modes of communication such as phones and email accounts. Your response leaves me with the impression that while you respect my desire to be removed from your calling list, you may be missing my larger point — the use of phone-bots in the first place.

I told my wife that you responded to my email, which engendered a discussion about the practice. She finds it annoying, too. If you want to reach me in my private space, you can do so personally and I don’t object. In fact, I respect the politician who takes the time to get to know constituents through phone calls and door visits. I don’t have a problem with politicians mailing letters. (Abuse of franking privileges are another matter, of course.) Even a campaign that mobilizes people to call other people for the sake of a candidate or issue is something that I can accept. I can’t promise that I wouldn’t be annoyed, but I believe it is legitimate for someone who wants my attention on an issue to call me personally.

The use of machinery to spam large mailing or calling lists is the thing that is so annoying. I understand you are probably a busy guy. Anyone who is making a serious run for office is either busy or an uncontested candidate. But we live in a world where machinery is ubiquitous. It can be an oppressive world if we have to respond unnecessarily to the machines, instead of the machines for working for us. You may think you have solved a problem by getting a robot to call the people you don’t have the time to contact personally. But, the people receiving the phone calls find themselves having to stop what they are doing to respond to your machine.

When congress passed the legislation enabling the national do-not-call registry, they did so in response to people who were receiving sometimes dozens of calls in a day. And most of these were from people working in call centers. When we first bought our home here in Tempe, before our number began to show on the do-not-call list, we also experienced the machine-gun telephone effect. The use of phone-bots by candidates for public office promises a similar result. That’s why I decided to write about it. The fact is, we are all busy people. Your time is limited, but mine is just as valuable to me.

I will conclude by letting you know that I will post your email on my blog along with my response. If you wish to further clarify your thoughts on my blog entries you can respond here or on my blog and I will publish that.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,
Thaddeus Dombrowski

Don’t call me

It’s that time of the year when politicians compete for the attention of voters. Signs are posted on street corners. Resumes are sent in the mail. Ads appear on the radio and, closer to the elections, on television.

I can cut politicians some slack. Anyone depending on public acceptance for their living needs to get their message out. It’s no different from a business. No matter how great the product or service, the producer won’t gain anything if people aren’t aware of it. The people won’t benefit if they remain ignorant of who is offering the best products and services.

However, in the world of marketing there are acceptable avenues along which advertising can be posted. There are others that irritate and annoy. I don’t mind someone posting their message on the radio, for instance. I understand when I turn on the radio that the service for which I don’t pay for exists because someone else funds it. I either tune out the advertising or I think critically as I listen. Ads in the newspaper can be ignored. But, if someone emails me, they have crossed the line. There has been a well-deserved rejection of spamming. We now have laws that hold spammers accountable.

Phone spamming is another highly irritating type of advertising. I have a telephone because I want to be able to speak with friends and relatives. I also want, when necessary, to be able to call a business for information that would otherwise necessitate a slower form of communication or a trip to the store. But, I don’t own a phone so that every joker with a product to sell can call me. I don’t own an email account because I want to receive emails from people selling viagra and get-rich-quick schemes.

Congress, a few years back, listened to the people when a public backlash against phone spamming developed. They created the national do-not-call registry allowing people to place their phone numbers on a list indicating to businesses that they don’t want to be interrupted with inane sales pitches. It’s a good law.

The lowest of the low among phone spammers are the businesses that employ machines to do the calling. I have wondered about the people who respond to pre-recorded, unsolicited messages. Why aren’t they as annoyed as I am when the person running a business isn’t even willing to employ person-to-person marketing? At least when I am called by a call-center employee I can appreciate that the business hawking their wares is willing use someone’s time to interrupt mine. But, when I receive a call from a machine I become angry that the people at that organization value their time so much, and mine so little, that they would employ a robot to interrupt my day. I either hang up, or, I wait for the invitation to leave my phone number, which I use to instead express my displeasure at their rudeness.

This week my wife has been telling me about a certain Mark Anderson running for congress that has employed a phone-bot. I haven’t researched this person, yet, for his positions on the issues nor his competence. That is because I don’t care if he is a good choice for public office. If he is willing to phone daily, for a week, to interrupt our time using his robot, his likelihood of earning my respect and subsequent vote diminishes proportionately.

Why is it illegal for a business to call me if my number is on the do-not-call list, created by congress, but not illegal for some hack wanting to be elected to congress? This is the sort of behavior indicating a double-standard. This is not the type of person I want representing my district! Mark Anderson needs to understand that he is swimming with the same sort of fishes that spam my mailbox with ads for viagra, penis-enlargement, pornography, and online gambling. The only other people recently phoning me via robot have been selling mortgages.

My wife mentioned to me every day this week that Anderson’s machine called. Today the phone rang and she went to pick it up. When she heard Anderson’s latest pitch she brought the phone to me and dropped it in my lap. I was busy reading a good book.

I took the time to listen to the message because I wanted to hear what type of things he was saying. It turns out that Anderson wasn’t speaking. Instead, he had some other office-holder vouching for what a great guy he is. He was said to be a “good conservative”.

What does it mean to be a “good conservative”? Conservatives generally advocate small government, something I can appreciate and respect. But, they also have a habit of violating that principle by employing the government to meddle in other people’s affairs. They try to pass laws that would, for instance, prevent gays from marrying. I tend to believe that government should limit itself to protecting the rights of the people. I have a hard time discerning whose rights are being infringed when gay couples marry. Conservatives recently have also been the biggest advocates for the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of our civil liberties. Is a good conservative the same as a good human being?

And, do good human beings use phone-bots to promote themselves?