Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Screeds (I like that word) ...

Iraqis face an uncertain future. They can either have a continued occupation by American troops, where Iraqi non-combatants get caught in the cross fire between Americans and insurgents of whatever stripe. Or the Americans will leave, and the Iraqis, who have seen their professional class decimated in a wave of kidnappings and killings in 2004, will have to try to run their country without engineers and doctors and lawyers, although they do have a surplus of thugs. The best part is they have no control over what happens, they are subject to the whims of the American people and Congress. We wanted to export our brand of democracy, and that’s exactly what we did.

I bring the Iraqi situation up because I hear people, as the economy worsens, voicing opinions (loudly and rudely) that would not pass the grandchild test. The grandchild test, probably reminiscent of (one of) Kant’s Categorical Imperatives, is whether you could imagine telling your grandchildren they should do this thing. Take drilling off the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and/or in the ANWR. Let’s say the liberals are wrong about it taking ten years to get the oil; that oil could come out of these places within six months. But how long is the oil projected to last? Ten years? Twenty? So our grandkids will face a future without oil. Of course, we will have been preparing for that future all along, with new solar power and wind initiatives, right? Well the best predictor of our future behavior is our past behavior, and the last seven years of the Bush administration (or the previous eight, or the twelve before that) we did nothing. So the drill now people are like the invade Iraq now people were in 2003. No long term plan for the future.

I have gotten myself involved with the national 55 mph speed limit movement in a tiny way, signing up to be a local resource for Drive55.org. The people who argue against the 55 mph speed limit are interesting. They almost all call the idea stupid (using that word in particular). Some also cite statistics or studies, most of which probably come from right wing think tanks, or from the objectors own personal experience. So they say traffic accidents went down after the 55 mph speed limit was ended, or their last car got better mileage at 65 (or 75) than it does at 55 mph. Sometimes they make the personal argument. One fellow at a hypermiling website (hypermiling is the practice of driving in such a way as to maximize fuel economy) first said that instead of a 55 mph speed limit we should remove/retrain the incompetents who don’t maximize their own mileage (so taking away driver’s licenses is preferable to driving 55) and then said that there is a stretch of a California highway where he can nurse his Prius downhill at 70mph and navigate the small uphills only on battery power, where his gas powered motor would turn on if he went 55 mph. Therefore, because he gets better mileage at 70 mph in this one spot in one type of car using obscure driving techniques, no 55 mph speed limit for anyone.

I think the 55 mph speed limit passes the grandchild test. If you are going to drive a gas powered car, don't waste this finite and scarce resource. I think not drilling now in the OCS passes the grandchild test. Let's wait, see how bad it gets, and drill when we really need to live, not just to maintain a wasteful lifestyle. I think solar and wind and bicycling all pass the grandchild test. Do things that don't use resources your grandkids might really need.

Iraq, drilling now, driving 65, 75, 85... You kids stop that, now.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thank god for Democrats, say the Republicans

When this Bush came into office, the standard complaint made by the Republican administration and the Republican Congress was that the country was in a shambles because of the years of the Clinton administration. Never mind the fact that Clinton had six years of a Republican Congress. The Clinton’s had ruined America and now George W Bush was here to undo the damage. As no progress toward doing that was made during the first few months of the Bush administration, what a relief it must have been to have the terrorist attacks. Now there was someone new to blame for the economy and the lack of progress the Republicans had made. So Bush turned his attention toward Afghanistan and toward hunting Osama bin Laden, with the help of NATO and the good wishes of much of the rest of the world. Bush’s attention soon wandered toward Iraq, and we invaded them. And the years rolled on, as Osama and Afghanistan were forgotten and we started an occupation of Iraq with US government officials tossing packs of money they called “footballs” around and then losing the "footballs". The new problem was Al Qaeda in Iraq, aided by communist sympathizers at home (also known as Democrats and Hollywood). Although the economy grew some from 2000-2006, and average wages grew a bit, that was mostly because the wages at the top end grew dramatically while the middle class and the poor just stagnated. Katrina brought into sharp focus just how inept our government had become. Although the Republicans tried to blame the Democratic state and local government, clearly the federal government was not and still is unable to address the problem. So what a relief is must have been when the Democrats won the Congress back in 2006, for the first time since 1994. Now all the problems that have been festering since 1994 can be laid, once again, at the feet of the Democrats.

That’s just what Jack Kelly did in today’ column, in between taking shots at Al Gore. “The power grid already is strained by the unwillingness of Democrats to construct electric power plants of any kind.” is a sentence buried in the middle of Kelly’s anti-Gore screed. So suddenly the Democrats have stopped any new power plant being built in the last year and a half, because in the six or twelve years prior, no one was interested in building a power plant (twelve including the Clinton years). What were the Republicans doing between 2000 and 2006? What were they doing after Middle Eastern terrorists attacked our country? Not reducing our dependence on foreign oil by opening up the OCS to drilling (like they now “suddenly” want to). Not authorizing new power plants to be built (ditto). No, the Republicans were cutting the rich tax breaks, ignoring the housing bubble and bringing home the earmarks for their districts like there was no tomorrow.

Yeah, the Democrats, including Al Gore, are not perfect. The Democrats are now getting earmarks for themselves, and somewhere I heard they are the largest in history. Of course, I assume the budget is also the largest in history, the sort of thing that happens in a growing economy. Doesn’t excuse the Democrats, just means they aren’t any worse of villains than the Republicans. And I don’t know why Al Gore has four houses, including the monster mansion in Tennessee. It may be that after he left the Vice Presidency, he thought he might still have a public role, and wanted to be able to receive people in his house in a style they would respect. If he had a modest house outfitted with solar panels, I am sure people would dismiss him as an Ed Begley Jr wannabe, some environmentalist who wants us to wear Jimmy Carter sweaters and ride bikes everywhere.

Instead Gore has an enormous house, on which he has installed solar panels so that his carbon footprint is apparently zero (at least in terms of home energy usage, although possibly he sells enough surplus energy back to make up for the private jet, etc). People who try to lead are human and fallible. Some Democrats are still upset with Gore for not fighting for the election harder, some even for Gore “sighing” in the debate. At least, though, Gore is not calling conservation a “Personal” virtue; something Cheney has not, to my knowledge, apologized for or at least corrected.

I glanced around the web just enough to see that the APS was doing no more than presenting the debate not changing its position. There clearly are scientists who don't believe in global warming, but its not clear to me how *many* there are. When conservative columnists say that the global warming issue is in serious doubt, a web search usually reveals that these claims are made by only a few, and dismissed by many others. It may be that the earth is not quite warming as fast as predicted, just like it may be that the surge in Iraq has in fact been "militarily" successful. But the slowing in the rate of global warming may just show that efforts to reduce carbon output here and there were successful (and not taken into account in the original predictions), just like the military success of the surge may enable the actual troop with drawl from Iraq.

Friday, July 25, 2008

District 7 Town Hall

So I did go to the Town Hall meeting for District 7 last night and I feel I should say something. First of all, seven of the nine Council person were in attendance (it’s easiest just to say that Dan Deasy and Reverend Burgess were not there). There were some preliminaries in terms of presentations by a planning person and a budget person, slides that I wish were on the City website (or if they are, I wish they were easier to find). Patrick Dowd took a few minutes, and said something that he apparently feels is the most important issue facing the City. He pointed out that the City has had a downward trend in population since 1950. Dr. Dowd later suggested to me that now is a time also of extraordinary opportunity, although I have some trouble seeing the opportunity if your funds are as limited as ours are.

Now, I don’t know why people were leaving Pittsburgh up to about 1980, maybe it was that whole sun belt versus rust belt thing. But by 1980, heavy manufacturing industry and the formerly large number of corporate headquarters were gone or about to go, and the people who remained in Pittsburgh were retirees in larger numbers than in other cities. So I pointed out (when I took a turn to speak) that the recent decline could be because of people dying off, not necessarily leaving.

I would agree, though, Pittsburgh needs to attract people to the City. That aside, the other big question about the evening is how the Council members got along, considering the recent news stories and the City Paper article. There was no obvious sign of friction among the Council members. I don’t remember Jim Motznik speaking, although he may have at the end (“This is my favorite part of the job”, they all said). There were a few looks of boredom and possibly frustration on some Council faces during the event, especially when other Council persons were talking, but that could have been because it was a hot room at the end of what was probably a long day and near the end of the week.

Of cours, this is my blog and I want to talk about me. So among my suggestions (when I took my turn to talk) were to install a large solar array somewhere (I didn’t say it, but my favorite target location is Flagstaff Hill), a big, flashy project that might get some attention for the city (could be used to power City equipment like traffic lights). I also suggested the City rehab abandoned houses for people returning to the City (say, from exurbs where it is now too expensive to live), putting police on bicycles, and putting something on the City website to help newcomers to the City, like a forum where they could ask questions and see answers to previous questions. The police thing was a repeated theme for the evening, some people complaining there isn’t enough of a police presence, especially after the police station moved, and one memorable speaker describing a series of events in which she felt she and or her children were targeted by the police, possibly called by malicious neighbors. People were asking for foot patrols, I made the bicycle suggestion as a way of giving beat cops more range and a bit more speed potential, while also saving gas. I don't know for sure, but apparently I was mumbling early, and I think my face got quite red. At least I didn't fumble for words like I have in the past when I spoke in front of a crowd.

Many of the evening’s comments had to do with parking, tree removal, police presence and speeders and other traffic issues. Few were related to the larger issues facing the City, but that’s the nature of the relationship between government and its citizens. Most of us ask for help from the City, County, State or Federal government, especially if we approach an elected official.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The City Paper - "Motion Sickness" (heh)

There was an article in this week’s City Paper on the City Council (Charlie Deitch). Not surprisingly a lot of it had to do with Pat Dowd. He has become well known to Council watchers as some one who is argues the technical merits of issues, any nad perhaps all issues, without really being concerned about who he is arguing with. Away from the Council table he seems to think this is OK:

“There was a time that you knew these five were with the mayor and these four weren't," Dowd says. "You don't have that now, and I think that's pretty important. I don't see the middle as a bad place. I see it as a way of being reasonable and considered, deliberate and open-minded, and not ideological and locked into a way of thinking.

"When is the last time that you were able to sit in a city-council meeting and honestly not know which way the votes were going to go? I think it's great for the process."

But Pat Dowd has accused fellow Council persons of “dirty politics” and “dishonesty”. He is raising his voice (so I am told), showing his passion for his position. But that could be viewed as contempt for someone else’s position, maybe everyone else's position. He appears to be burning bridges, getting a reputation not as an independent thinker but as a contrarian.

Look, I am the last person to disagree with the idea that each issue should be viewed on its merits. I think that each issue should have at least some discussion, possibly an argument, as long as all sides agree to be civil and logical. If your position is based on fact, if you can advocate the logic of your position thoughtfully and persuasively, then you should win supporters. After all, City Council is a place where you have the time and resources to lay out your case (the "Twelve Angry Men" fantasy).

But Council persons are political animals. Their voters may believe that their street should be paved or their local police station should be re-opened or what have you. If you always vote against the Council representative from the West End (for example) when he proposes these things, after a while (s)he is going to take it personally, and start voting against you reflexively, no matter how logical your position. So you need to cultivate allies, especially on a closely divided Council. Ideological purity is nice and all, but tough to explain to voters. Even tougher when City Council seems bogged down in minutia, when the City plunges further into debt and the pension funds fall further behind.

There is no shame in saying “I disagree with Mr. Shields, Mr. Burgess, Mr. Kraus and Mr. Peduto on this specific point, but I understand and agree with their larger intention, so I will vote with them.”. People may say you sold out, but they will understand why. And most will probably agree with you.

There is a District 7 town hall meeting tonight. I plan to attend to see what Dr Dowd has to say. This means I will miss the CityLive event, “Transportation Solutions for Our Region” tonight on the North Side (Hazlett Theatre). I hope someone asks about the price of diesel fuel and what PAT is doing about getting funding to cover it. And I hope someone suggests lowering fares and increasing routes. People need reasons to get out of their cars and get on the bus. The price of gas has gotten many people there (although it is now showing signs of falling due to demand, the right result but the wrong incentive). But others are only three quarters or halfway there. For the sake of our country and the future of the world, we each need to do what we can (says the guy who drove into work today: hey, at least my last tank-full was at 34 mpg, and I plan to ride in tomorrow. Gotta get home tonight for the Town Hall).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Truths we can't handle ...

Chad Hermann is a well known and apparently greatly admired local blogger, as I’m sure you all know. In yesterday’s post, at his blog Teacher, Wordsmith, Madman. he printed an email to him (the second of an apparent series) about the presidential race, and he also pointed out (perhaps humbly) how he has no dog in that hunt:

“Unlike many other bloggers, I'm not playing partisan hack or shill or biased, blindered cheerleader. I'm sticking to a core set of beliefs and principles that have not changed in the almost four years I've been writing this blog. All I'm doing is calling the truth as I see it.”

And then: “It's just that this time, as Colonel Nathan Jessup once famously noted, some people can't handle it.”

Let’s keep in mind that Mr. Hermann (Dr. Hermann? I don’t know) printed a six part analysis of Barack Obama’s speech on race from Philadelphia, analyzing/criticizing it literally word by word. He has accused Mr. Obama of overly florid prose, of incoherence and of course of lying. He was incensed when Obama would not renounce Jeremiah Wright when those videos hit the media rotation, and then also incensed Obama did renounce the Reverend when Wright came forward on his own power to call Obama a slick politician. Keep in mind when the Wright controversy erupted the first time, the media was using video out in the public, out of Wright’s control. The second time, what Wright said was in his control. The first time, Obama used the issue as a teaching moment, to remind white America that most of black America has not made that much progress. The second time, Obama indicated he does care about loyalty.

This is Mr. Hermann’s non partisan, truth telling nature, to spend the vast majority of his posts on presidential politics bashing Obama, yet not indicate why Obama treated Wright in the way he did (both times). To claim not to be a “partisan hack or shill or biased, blindered cheerleader” (on his blog), while his day job is as a speechwriter for Republican candidates (one of whom, Mark DeSantis, I also supported on my blog).

Colonel Nathan Jessup is an interesting choice to reference for Mr. Hermann. What is the truth that Colonel Jessup thought the naval Judge Advocate General Corps attorneys could not handle? That Colonel Jessup ordered the torture and accidental death of a marine, who may have been sick and in any event was not keeping up. That Colonel Jessup then lied about the “training” procedure, denying having ordered it, content to leave two enlisted men holding the bag (so to speak), so Jessup could advance to an important political position.

Actually, for Jessup the truth, as he saw it, was that real men have to do things, difficult things, so that pussies can sleep easy at night. I think that’s what the European and European-descended settlers told themselves as they rolled over the Native Americans. That’s what colonists and later citizens told themselves as they chained blacks. That’s what the military told itself as it rounded up Japanese Americans in World War II. And that’s what the neocons told themselves as they ordered detention without end and torture at Guantanamo Bay.

We can’t handle those truthes. You are damn right.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Definition of Irony

Someone at the PG must have a sense of humor, or irony, or something. Basically right next to Jack Kelly’s Sunday column, on how the democrats are to blame for high oil prices, there sits Sally Kalson’s column on how she is growing a “Victory Garden”. So the essay from guy who wants us to be able to drive SUV’s for some time to come is right next to an essay on not having to drive for food because you have the ultimate in local eating.

Poor Jack, he might score some points with liberals if he tightened up his message a bit. He starts his essay by noting the danger in drawing conclusions just because one event comes after another, such as blaming the Democrats for high oil prices. Then he proceeds to go ahead and blame the Democrats for high gas prices, although without citing one specific action that would have triggered the run up in high prices. Instead he notes that when President Bush issued an Executive Order ending his side of the ban on drilling off the west and east coasts, oil prices came down. Actually oil prices were flirting with coming down the week before, but had bounced back after Iran had test fired missiles. But at least Kelly had a quote from conservative economist Lawrence Kudlow. Kelly mentions nothing about falling US demand for oil as people use other methods to commute and cancel trips, but he does say that a Bureau of Land Management decision to open 4.9 million acres of land in Alaska to oil exploration, over the objection of environmentalists, contributed to a further drop in the price of oil.

Kelly does say that the price of oil is high specifically because Democrats won’t allow drilling off the coasts, in the ANWR and because Democrats won’t allow the coal to oil gasification thing. He says nothing about the previous six years when no one said anything about drilling. He then claims that it won’t take ten years for new drilling to bring oil (possibly true in some cases, but what about refining capacity), and finishes by stating global warming isn’t coming, and even if it is, it won’t hurt for fifty years; wheras while the democrats carbon control plan, cap and trade, will immediately cripple the economy (to the tune of $144 billion). He mentions a Heritage Foundation Study for the assertion about cap and trade, but no source for his assertions about global warming, Maybe he feels it is settled science that global warming is false from his previous columns on the subject.

The thing is, when Bush calls for a end to drilling bans, it probably does exert a downward pressure on oil prices (which we have yet to see at the pump). Unfortunately, it seems like 1985 all over again. If the price falls, there will be no incentive to keep riding your bike or taking the bus to work. Whether it’s this time, the next or a time after that, there will be point where the price of oil will go up and not come back down. Where Chinese and Indian demand will be big enough to keep the price of oil up. At that point, we may have drilled all the reserves we had off the coasts and in Alaska, and we or our kids will demand the government do something, and the government will say they already did that something in 2008. It’s probably time to deal head on with the twin issues of global warming and high oil prices once and for all. Jack Kelly’s position is exactly the short-sighted wrong position.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

How many crises?

There is a great line from Woody Allen’s essay “My Speech to the Graduates”.

“More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Let’s see if we can accurately count the different crises facing the US.

There is a housing/banking crisis, caused because during the housing bubble, banks made loans to people with out checking to see whether the income they said they had was in fact the income they had. Then those loans were sold upstream to funds for investors, and again the fund managers took the word of he banks that they had done due diligence.

There is a new energy crisis; the price of gas spiked for literally no apparent reason. OK, some people blame Asia for increasing demand, some people blame speculation, some people say it is our own fault (mostly cranky environmentalists).

There is a related crisis, the risk of recession. That is related to the banking crisis in that too many banks or investment firms going under doesn’t help the economy. But maybe more important, the price of gas affects all transported goods, which these days is everything. So there is a risk of the same kind of inflation we saw in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. That inflation (named stagflation at the time because it was linked to higher unemployment) was bad enough to induce Congress to agree to higher fuel economy numbers for cars, and to the infamous 55 mile an hour speed limit. The inflation was probably broken when the OPEC cartel was unable to keep its members from breaking their agreements to sell at a certain price. Their price agreement feel apart and the price of oil/gas dropped like a stone. Ironically it probably had something to do with the 55 speed limit and people’s personal efforts at conservation that helped break the cartel.

Finally, there is the global warming crisis. This has to do, apparently, with the fossil fuels we burn to light and heat our homes, to drive to and from work and in general to make our lifestyle what it is. This is the crisis Al Gore was looking at when he called for us to switch our electricity production to 100% renewable in ten years.

Now some of these crises are linked, feed on each other. Some of the ways we address the different crises are in fact the same, others solutions for one crisis make another worse.

We have the sorts of problems where the solutions could propel us into science fiction land; a place where we drive electric cars, our energy comes from wind and solar power, where our farming is a low tech sustainable organic sort, where we travel by rail, not plane (except perhaps zeplins), but mostly we use the internet to interact, so that we keep the critical mass of intellectual thought going to contnuously look for new solutions.

Or we live in a giant mix of downtown Pittsburgh and downtown Detroit.

The banking crisis will have a considerable negative effect on solutions for global warming and some of the solutions for high gas prices. The capital for new solar, nuclear and wind installations just may not be there. We may want the new solar/wind/nuclear not even to replace coal fired plants, but to power a new group of vehicle that use electric power and batteries. Of course, hybrids are not going away, and gas stations are already here, but unless people are buying golf carts for city driving, they may have full size electric cars that they may want to drive more than two hundred miles. If they have to wait three hours just to go another two hundred miles ....

But the idea of replacing our power plants with wind, solar and nuclear is attractive. Whether as a supplement to power new vehicles or to reduce green house gas producing coal and natural gas plants, it is a step in the right direction and may produce a desirable sort of momentum. Another positive step is that people are looking at their transportation options. They are taking the bus, commutuing with a bicycle, combining their shopping trips and have managed to reduce US demand for oil for the first time in a long time. I assume these things are being done in other countries too. This, in turn, appears to be exerting a downward pressure on the price of oil. Of course, the last time the price of gas feel, we soon went back to our old ways of wasting gas. Now we are really good at it. to help us waste more gas, there are the proposals that we drill off the coastal US, and in the ANWR. That would likely also exert a downward pressure on gas, and so we might be able to drive like we always have, for about five, maybe ten years. Burning even more gas, emitting more green house gases.

I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m about halfway through the Omnivore’s Dilema, but I can already see that a lot of what we are doing in terms of obtaining food at the lowest price possible depends on using oil, which will run out eventually, and on allowing considerable pollution and soil erosion (kept in check with ever more chemicals). In other words, unsustainable methods. We could follow Al Gore’s call to action, do things like encouraging local farms that use sustainable methods and switch to bikes and electric cars.

Then I remember the film Idiocracy, by Mike Judge. It chronicles the triumph of the lowest common denominator. Owen Wilson ends up as the smartest man on earth (!). You should check it aht.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oil prices - We won't get fooled again?

It was probably too soon to declare that oil would keep going up and up, and never come down again back at the end of June. It’s probably too soon to declare that oil is coming down again. Still there are hints that that is exactly what is happening. The NYTImes suggests that oil traders think a recession will cause US demand to fall. Of course, possibly conservation (that dirty word that Cheney spits out) might be having an effect. That may be too radical a notion for oil traders (or newspapers reporting on them) to contemplate, but truth to tell, our record from the mid eighties doesn’t give anyone much reason to think we could maintain a serious effort at conservation. Either way, it looks like the price per barrel is dropping a bit. Of course, so far the price at the pump isn’t budging downward, in fact, in some places it is still edging upward.

What will be interesting to see is if demand for gas plateaus or even starts rising again. I suspect demand for gas in China and India have at least slowed. I know China subsidizes gas, but its payments to it domestic energy companies weren’t keeping pace with the rapidly rising price of oil, so they were threatening to go out of business. China adjusted the price of gas upward by some 20% (as I remember), still below the international price but a respectable jump. Since the Chinese are newish to the driving game, they may park their new cars, or delay buying one, and get back on their scooters, electric bicycles or plain old pedal bikes. Ditto for the Indians.

But while global demand for oil may slow, I don’t see it stopping, at least not in the near term. We could be leaders in this regard, but for every Barack Obama, there is a Newt Gingrich that thinks Americans don’t want to and shouldn’t have to give up their comforts and conveniences (after all, its just the planet at stake). Unless population growth stops rising and becomes only replacements for existing people, the demand for energy is going to continue to rise. But we have gotten the really cheap oil out of the ground. Now it is going to get more and more expensive to even get the same amount of oil out of the ground, and of course eventually there will be less and less of it. At this point, investments in the solar and wind industries look like a good bet.

However, I believe Congress is still paying money to oil companies for … nothing, just giving them taxpayer money. They were doing the same for solar and wind, but the Republicans decided that was a good place to tighten the belt (read: solar and wind aren’t contributing to campaigns yet).

If we do start to use an alternative fuel, how is that going to work? Are there enough french fries to fuel a whole America of veggie mobiles? Would you be able to stop in at your local gas station and plug in your electric car or even plug in hybrid and, in the same time it takes us now to fill our tanks (about three minutes), could you fill your battery? How will your corner gas station feel about competing with an extension cord and your own outlet? And is our electric grid ready to replace all those fuel tankers? Where would all that electricity come from?

These are non-trivial questions, and since electricity is a regulated industry, and there are safety standards for cars, government will have to be involved in the answers. I don’t know what they will be. I would hope that a big push for solar and wind generated electricity would be part of them, but who knows.

Friday, July 11, 2008

@#%* Planet green

I don’t know if I have mentioned the Planet Green Channel before. Discovery something or other changed into Planet Green a few weeks ago. I noticed it because I wondered if there was going to be a new season of “Living With Ed” or at least repeats (there are repeats on “PG”).

The Planet Green channel specializes, obviously, in environmentally themed programming. They have managed, amazingly, to combine environmentalism with good old fashioned American competitiveness. Every show has a greener than though element to it, and to someone not familiar with the environmental movement (or even some who is), it would seem that it must be very expensive to save the earth. The programs feature things like renovations with triple paned windows and blue jeans insulation (just try to find it, then marvel at the cost).

I thought part of the point of the environmental movement was to find cheaper, more sensible alternatives to our ostentatious lifestyle. Instead, Planet green is creating a whole new way to be ostentatious, and of course you get to flout it. Here are some of my suggestions for environmental improvements, and then what I think their suggestions would be:

For windows, that plastic film you buy in the hardware stores is 70% as effective as changing single pane windows to double pane windows. That may not sound good until you consider the price differential; five bucks versus one hundred fifty or more per window. Oh, and the five bucks covers three average windows. PG (for Planet Green) wants you to consider triple pane windows for the ultimate in insulation.

For insulation, insulating you attic with a foot or more of fiberglass in rolls or batts is one of the cheapest ways to save energy around. The recycled newspaper insulation is another way to go, about the same price, but to do it yourself you are supposed to blow it in (with a rented machine), I don’t what you are supposed to do about a vapor barrier, if you already have some fiberglass you are not supposed to mix them, yada yada. You can insulate your walls, but that absolutely has to be blown in, and by professionals. So you should max out your attic insulation first. PG would have you use the blue jean insulation, or some esoteric sprayed on insulation made from natural materials. And go ahead and rip down the plaster from your walls, put in the spray, and then re-cover with recycled timbers from a farmhouse in Vermont.

For transportation, I say first a used bicycle from Craigslist. People sell bikes on there across the whole price range, but you don’t have to buy a Cannondale racing bike for $1000 just because some says it is worth. And for a car, a used stick shift small rice burner, possibly from Craigslist, is the ideal choice. If you want new, a Yaris, Fit, Accent, Versa or Aveo are good choices, or a hybrid, especially the Civic or Escape (the Prius has picked up a price premium). The Escape still has a three thousand dollar tax credit. PG would have you look at folding or electric bikes. There are some cheaper folding ($125-$175) and electric bikes ($350), but PG would have you buy the top of the line versions in both (a thousand and up), which do perform better and weigh less, but are they worth it? And for cars PG would advocate hydrogen if it was available, but esoteric electric cars and of course Prius hybrids are about the best they can do.

Listening to AnnaBeth Gurwitch on Wa$ted talk about how she buys organic cotton clothes because even though they cost more they are better for the earth, I was struck by the fact that middle class and lower income people, squeezed by higher prices already, would change the channel to MTV or Cinemax, rather than be lectured to and ordered to spend even more on a mother earth that is already threatening to force them drive stupid little golf carts instead of their dream SUV. You can do well by doing good. But that won’t work if the environmentalists keep rubbing your nose in the fact that they do better and more for the earth than you do (apparently because they can spend more). If its so cheap to put plastic on your windows and recover the cost next week, you should do it. If adding insulation and putting the plastic on your windows saves you money over the next five years, then maybe you can afford to put in new windows. Or get more education, get a better job, and sell that crappy house.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dowd N'@

You may have noticed a Tribune Review story about Pat Dowd that included a quote from me. The quote they didn’t print from me is that I am very confused by Dr Dowd recently. I’m confused because although I understand (but don’t necessarily agree with) each of his individual positions, I am having trouble conceptualizing them as a coherent whole.

Our story so far ... Dr Dowd was not happy with the way zoning/permitting process was “streamlined” so that the Lamar LED sign downtown would receive no (pesky) public hearing, in fact was not even run by the boards of the Zoning Board or Parking Authority. Dr Dowd asked for an opinion from the Law Department and six weeks later they say it isn’t kosher and essentially “so what”. So Dr Dowd decides someone needs to file an appeal with the Zoning Board, but can’t find a private citizen who lives downtown (in, say, the Pennsylvanian) who will do it, so he files the appeal himself, as a private citizen, who works downtown on Grant street. Now, in that position its possible, maybe probable, that the Zoning Board would have said he lacked standing. Dr Dowd was prepared to go, from there, to the Court of Common Pleas to argue his case. I halfway suspect he wanted to do exactly that.

But four other Councilmen also stepped forward and jointly filed an appeal with the ZBA, as COuncilmen on City business. And the five won and Lamar has to refile, and presumably will go through the hearing process. And since then Dr Dowd and Jim Motznik separately but unfortunately at the same time asked for a legal opinion on the City paying the four Councilmen’s legal bill, and Dr Dowd has argued that it is improper for the City to pay the bill. And (to the Trib) I tried to say that Dr Dowd had “dug” himself a small hole (instead as I was thinking ahead I apparently said “cut” himself a small hole). It’s a small hole because if Dr Dowd drops the confrontational attitude, it could all be forgotten in six weeks (the time it takes to render an opinion … heh).

It seems to me that Pat Dowd is treating Council like it is the US Senate. It is easy to imagine Ted Kennedy and Orin Hatch arguing and fighting tooth and nail over policy and procedure, saying positively nasty things about each other. But the next week they could “reach across the aisle” and co-sponsor an education or anti-poverty bill, standing next to each other and beaming, going on about “bi-partisanship” and so on.

But a City Council is not the floor of the US Senate. Here your constituents are closer, and they have the capacity (if not the desire) to hear every word you say. Here your fellow Council persons are more ordinary citizens themselves, people who ran for Council because they had reached the limit of what they could do as party ward chairpersons, and so went the next logical step to be able to get things done. They are much more interested in the ends than the means. You can convince ordinary Council persons that they need to worry about transparency and the division of power in city government, but it is not something they come by naturally.

It seems like Dr Dowd is going a more formal route, but in so doing he seems to be turning Council into more of a courtroom setting, obeying more complicated rules. But that is a dangerous path. All the parties in a courtroom agree to the rules, even while they try to use them to their advantage. Courtrooms are highly stylized places where people agree with the outcomes (at least to some degree) because they do have this formal process that everyone agrees to, including the ability to appeal to ever higher authorities if you can demonstrate the process was violated.

But Council is not a courtroom, and the other Council persons are going to get tired of Dr Dowd trying to inject this formal process notion into the proceedings. Meanwhile, the three new Council persons and Doug Shields and Bill Peduto had (in January) a promising political block, at least enough people to get things passed. Now the “Lamar Four” will need to find a different fifth member. Maybe Darlene Harris, who has demonstrated that at least she appears to care about her constituents (including the four legged variety). But whatever hopes Dr Dowd had for legislation, whether greater transparency, addressing Pittsburgh's debt or creatng more bikes lanes, are endangered by the grudges he is creating with his postions and style of articualting them. And we are not going to have the technocrat Council that some people were hoping for (and an even more interesting what-if, if DeSantis had been elected and had worked with the Technocrat Council – maybe we would all have solar powered Segways by now).

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Your mileage may vary...

I just read a NYTimes piece called “American Energy Policy, Asleep at the Spigot”. It pointed out that when gas prices went up the first time, in the late seventies and early eighties, we reacted with a 55 mph speed limit, with higher fuel standards for cars and by then actually buying the smaller cars. But when the gas prices went down, in the mid-eighties, the speed limit went back up, no updates for the CAFÉ standards were considered, and we started buying bigger and bigger cars. We simply frittered away the nineties and most of this decade. President Bush talked about a giant solar array in the Desert in the South East, back years ago, but did nothing about it. In fact, President Bush could have made energy independence a feature of his homeland security policy back in 2001, he could have advocated solar power, mass transit and new fuel standards for American cars. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only a Texas Bush could have endorsed conservation and alternative energy. But Dick Cheney once said "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," and the Bush policy has followed suit. Even now, the major recommendation of the Bush administration is to open up more areas for drilling.

But while the federal government may be incapable of acting, we can each individually do things, and pressure our local government to act. We can increase our use of bikes in commuting, or use public transportation. By the way, I should mention the electric bike went back. The second rechargeable battery was working no better than the first. But I have taken up using an old hybrid bicycle to commute to work. Hybrid does not refer to engines in this case, rather it was the name given to bikes which have narrower tires and lighter frames than mountain bikes, but are less fragile than road bikes, having fatter tires and the upright riding position of a mountain bike. I already have a stick shift, two door Korean rice burner mini car, but I am going to try to stop driving it to work so much.

Meanwhile, I wonder what the City and County could be doing to help their citizens. One thought that occurred to me is that the City could take public land and do things with it. The City could buy up or just seize (temporarily) some of the vacant lots and start growing switch grass there. Switch grass has been cited as a possible source of ethanol, like we are using corn and the Brazilians are using sugar cane. The difference with switch grass is that we wouldn’t necessarily use fertilizer on it the way we do corn (we apparently use a lot of petroleum based fertilizer on corn, in fact, apparently we over use it in the Midwest, it runs off and has created a dead zone in the Caribbean). And Steel City Biofuels has taken up residence in the building where Construction Junction is, no doubt just waiting for a knock at the door.

Another thing the City could do would be to put solar panels on Flagstaff hill in Schenley Park. The hill seems about angled right to get a lot of sun. The city could sell the power back to whatever utility (or utilities) it uses to power its buildings and our traffic lights. Maybe this could be done in conjunction with CMU engineers, in exchange for some fraction of the electricity.

The County, meanwhile, needs to resolve its issues with the driver’s union. That union seems to feel it can use a strike to its advantage, keeping or even increasing its benefits and perhaps getting a raise too. The County should point out to the driver’s union that transit agencies across the country are seeing increases in riders, but they are also seeing fuel costs increasing even faster. Nationally transit agencies are talking about cutting back on routes. PAT should let the drivers know that if they strike, and afterwards the Authority loses riders, there may be layoffs and dramatic cuts in routes. Which of course is absolutely counter intuitive in this time of higher gas prices. A bus may pollute more than two or three cars, but with twenty riders it is taking twenty cars off the road, and using less gas than probably the first fifteen to eighteen.

The point is there are a number of things we can do locally. It remains to be seen whether we will.