October 4, 2015

Martian SUV

On Mars as in the USA, vehicles are getting larger with time. You can see why: payload is tough to get into orbit, and expensive. I don't actually know what the postage for, say, the Mars Rovers' communications devices, but I bet it's larger than the total annual revenue of the postal services of a small country.

The first Mars rover, the 1997 Sojourner, was barely larger than a skateboard. The ones in the next mission in 2004, Spirit and Opportunity, were about the size of a bicycle, albeit one with six wheels and solar-panel wings. And Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, is the size of a car, crammed with cool instrumentation for exploring the Martian surface.

The next one will be the size of a large SUV - electric, of course. There's a great side-by-side comparison of how things happen in the movie The Martian and how NASA's engineers are designing things for the #JourneyToMars project; one of them shows an exploration vehicle designed to house and move two people.

October 1, 2015

In-Car Smoking Ban

Smokers take note: starting on October 1, 2015, you may no longer smoke in your own car (or anyone else's) if you're sharing the car with a child under 18. The ban covers England and Wales (and the Scottish parliament is considering a similar ban).

This is a Good Thing, especially for the chidren we love. Why expose them to the risks of second-hand smoke? The anger unleashed by the Volkswagen diesel scandal shows clearly that we value the health of our lungs, and there's no worse attach on a child's developing lungs than having them share a small confined space with a cigarette smoker.

September 27, 2015

What to do if you own a Volkswagen diesel car

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the emissions fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, which installed software that enabled some VW models to behave like saints during the EPA emissions tests, while allowing devilish behaviour out on the road while you are at the wheel going about your daily business.

During the tests, the NOx emissions come in under the legal limit, while in real-life conditions it can be 10 to 40 times larger than that legal limit. NOx is a gas that contributes to small-particle pollution (better known as smog) that's bad for lung health.

Why did Volkswagen do this?
Why, to save money, why else?

This is not cool. I bought my diesel Golf because it offered decently high mpg without the environmental and maintenance problems of the battery in a hybrid, and without the range issues of most affordable EVs.

I didn't buy it so that I can spray egregious NOx emissions.

September 23, 2015

The Popemobile is a Fiat 500

Pope Francis, arriving in the United States, landed at the Andrews Air Force Base, was enthusiastically greeted by a welcoming committee headed by President Obama and Vice-President Biden, walked the red carpet, was cheered by the crowd inside the terminal building - and drove away in a Fiat 500.

To be precise, it's a Fiat 500L, the larger version with more space in the back. But it's a Fiat 500 nevertheless. And this is fitting for a pope who has chosen simplicity over pomp (just look at the saint whose name he has adopted). This is the man who, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, used to take the bus to work.

And now, Pope Francis has skipped over the Rolls Royces and the Cadillacs, and climbs into a Fiat 500.

September 21, 2015

"The butler - I mean the software - did it."

This is the 21st century where very few of us have butlers. That's nothing new: it has always been the case that very few people have butlers. But what is new is software, and most of us got that. Software still won't make you a cup of tea, but it sure can act as your personal assistant, your secretary, and your accountant.

And software now runs your car, which is said to be evolving into what's basically a large tablet on wheels. Software regulates the mixture of fuel and air injected into the cylinders of your car's engine, the timing of the ignition, and myriad other housekeeping tasks that used to be performed by mechanical devices.

Like butlers, software can, shall we say, embellish reality. Like a butler compliments his employer on his looks after the elaborate grooming for the dinner party (think Jeeves), so a car's software can be devious. But unlike butlers, who make their own decisions about whether and when to deliver a white lie, software has to be deliberately made deceitful by the people writing it.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Volkswagen is fully responsible (and has admitted as much) for installing less-than-honest software in some of its diesel models. The crooked code detects when the car is going through an emissions testing cycle, and adjusts various parameters to minimise emissions of NOx gas. These nitrogen oxides contribute to smog formation which is very bad for your lungs.

September 19, 2015

Wind Parks: Heavenly Vision or Eyesore?

Here is the vision for our zero-carbon future: Everybody will get around in electric cars. And all the electricity to run those cars will come from renewable sources, like solar and wind, both as good as zero carbon, once you start manufacturing them using energy from solar cells or windmills that you've already built.

Great idea, right?

Another source of renewable energy, hydropower, already provides more than 6 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States in 2015. They were built in a gung-ho time: first their construction gave lots of jobs. Once they were finished, they supplied electricity to growing cities as well as water to both cities and agricultural users. Not to mention the opportunity for water sports, in all those places that would normally not have enough water for a row boat, never mind yachts and water skis.

People love dams. But oddly enough, people don't love wind parks.

That's too bad, because wind is actually one of the most promising sources of clean energy. Already, at 60,000 megawatt (MW) installed capacity, it supplies 4 percent of the electricity used in the nation, and it's growing by leaps and bounds.

Back in 2008 wind already generated 52,000 gigawatt-hours of energy. A gigawatt (GW) is a billion Watts. But those 52,000 GWh is a tiny fraction of how much energy could potentially be generated by wind in the US: That number is mind-bogglingly large: 37,000,000 GWh, or 30 times the nation's entire current electricity consumption. Conveniently, the wind potential is reasonably well-distributed, peaking over a broad swath of the midwestern states as well as at the coasts.


So why aren't we buliding wind parks like mad?

September 6, 2015

Coal Is Amazing

The coal industry just badly tore a nail while desperately scrabbling for a handhold, trying to keep itself from sliding down a slippery slope to oblivion. Okay, that "oblivion" bit was wishful thinking on my part, coal will be with us for a while yet, for while it yields the dirtiest form of energy in so many ways, it's also the most plentiful and the cheapest.

But it is, as the Guardian points out, a sign of the coal industry's desperation that it feels the need for a charm offensive. The most recent is the "Coal Is Amazing" ad from the Minerals Council of Australia.

The ad features suggestive landscapes in shades of charcoal grey, with a soft-spoken female voiceover whispering seductive things about coal.

In response, Australians have taken to Twitter and subverted the #CoalIsAmazing hashtag with their own take, peppered with plenty of black humour. Or should that be anthracite humour? All the sarcasm stops have been pulled out in this reaction, the outpouring of disgust completely eclipsing the original intent of the hashtag.

Here are a few samples:


In response to "aesthetic objections" to wind farms:

September 5, 2015

How to Slash Transportation Emissions

California (who else?) is leading the nation in reducing carbon emissions. The state is gripped in a devastating drought that is made worse by the effects of climate change, and Governor Jerry Brown is proposing a suite of bold mandates. By 2030, the energy efficiency of buildings must be doubled; half the state's electricity is to come from renewable energy, and California's transportation must run on half the oil that it uses today.

Of these, the first two are pretty straightforward. Energy efficiency in buildings is such a good investment that it should be a no-brainer, since many measures pay for themselves in a few years. The renewable energy sector is already providing 20 percent of California's electricity, and solar energy in particular is now growing in leaps and bounds, so it's quite possible for the renewables portion to reach 50 percent in 15 years.

Everybody can see that those two goals are within reach. But the third goal, to reduce transportation use of petroleum by half, is becoming a contentious issue. In large part it's the reality that, in California like everywhere else in the nation, almost everybody depends on their car to get them places. Places they really need to go, like work. There are pockets with great public transport, but by and large the car is it.

The oil industry, whose profits come in large part from our wallets, which we open every time we stop at the gas station, has entered the "discussion", casting the proposal as a disaster and painting a near future in which gasoline is rationed, leading to long lines like during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and even the banning of minivans.

Of course they would. It's their profits at stake here, after all, and in the long term we're talking about their very existence that's on the line, if this kind of legislation spreads beyond California the way sensible legislation tends to do.

August 28, 2015

What to Do About Our Choked Roads?

There is a poster, produced by the city of Muenster in Germany, for their 2001 campaign to push for better space management of their roads. It compares, side by side, the space required for sixty people to commute to work by car, by bus and by bike.

A picture is worth a thousand words! A composite picture like this poster is worth more than three thousand words, which is great for me, as I have a few other things to say.

August 23, 2015

License-Plate Parking

I'm squinting at the parking meter, grateful that it's a quiet weekday morning and nobody is behind me waiting their turn to use it. That gives me a chance to take my time with the new routine, and to step back and admire the photovoltaic panel mounted on top like a minimalist umbrella.

But let's step back in time a bit: In the beginning, there was the mechanical parking meter. Putting in a quarter (or a lot of quarters, depending on where you are parking) made the steel arrow move to the desired parking time. The arrow sits in a glass window, so you can see it from both sides of the parking meter.

Parking meters lined up down the length of the street alwas reminded me of the scene in the Odyssey, where Penelope challenges her suitors to shoot an arrow through the eyes of twelve axe heads. Except parking meters were never that well lined up.

August 18, 2015

Urban Heat

"Urban Heat" sounds like a cool name for a band. Unfortunately it's nothing like that. In fact, it's not exactly cool. The "urban heat island" refers to the fact that the average temperature of a large city is higher than the surrounding rural area. Sometimes, quite a bit higher.

This is because a lot of energy is used in cities, for transportation, heating, cooling, lighting, running computers, washing machines, coffee makers and all the other machines that make modern life possible. And once that energy has done its job, it turns into heat.

And that's even before taking into account some other things that make it worse, like the lack of cooling trees, and the presence of dark asphalt and rooftops that are very good at absorbing heat from the sun. So there is more than fresh air that makes it so "refreshing" to get out of the city and into the countryside.

Urban heat is hard on cars. On a nice sunny day cities can be warmer than the area around it by up to 27F (15C). And if you park your car in the sun, it can get hotter still.

This hapless Megane got stuck in a confluence of unfortunate circumstances: Its owner had parked it in the sun, on an asphalt lot, in an Italian town, right when a heat wave hit it in August 2015. Oh, and the car was dark blue.

August 16, 2015

Not Enough Fear and Loathing in The Hague?

Since I shamelessly borrowed, for the title for this post, from Hunter Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", let me start by saying that I've actually never visited one of the Dutch "coffeeshops" where they don't sell coffee. So the photo below is not mine, I found it at a website called coffeeshopmenus.org. This menu is pretty, and it's from a coffeeshop called Tweede Kamer, perhaps in honour of the Lower Chamber of the Dutch Parliament that passed the policy that, while marijuana, like other drugs, is not legal in the Netherlands, possession of marijuana "for personal use" (up to 5 grams, if you must know) is not prosecuted.

This is probably the most famous example of the Dutch ability to see something without seeing it.