Archive | April 2013

Designing Towards Abundance

Writing about their latest book, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance in Metropolis, William McDonough and Michael Braungart expand on their Cradle to Cradle advocacy:

Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.

Such talk may seem counterintuitive to peakists and doomers, but in Depletion and Abundance, Sharon Astyk also saw past energy depletion to a possible future of abundance. McDonough & Braungart envision a more industrial future than Astyk’s Nation of Farmers, though:

This concept, we believe, could move the dialogue far beyond a simple interest in recycling, because we noticed that the entire recycling effort grew from a negative belief. The theory being put forward by most sustainability advocates, and increasingly by industry, goes something like this: Human beings create enormous amounts of waste and should strive to become “less bad.” Use less energy. Poison less. Cut down fewer trees. According to these current “best practices,” all people can hope to achieve is eco-efficiency, minimization, and avoidance, to recycle a limited percentage of objects humans use daily—bottles, paper—and fashion them into, unfortunately, a lesser product, one that can be used once more, or twice more, or maybe even five times more. But then where does this product go? Into a landfill? An incinerator?

Rather than simply conserving, McDonough & Braungart think it makes more sense to design our way out of scarcity and into abundance:

… eco-efficiency — setting a metric of tolerable levels of a gas—is simply not sufficient for positive design.

Eco-efficiency might also seek to curtail consumption: water use, for example. But that consumption limitation is premised on the notion that we live only in a world of scarcity and limit, that the ecological world is insufficient for the world of human activities and industries. This is just not true.

It sounds great, but it also sounds like a tough sell. In the wake of the West, Texas explosion and the Dhaka, Bangladesh collapse, in a global business-scape where cutting costs is paramount, it is frankly difficult to conceive of industry taking such prescriptions to heart.

To E-bike or Not to E-bike?

That is the question. At Yale e360, Marc Gunther asks, Will Electric Bicycles Get Americans to Start Pedaling?

… Americans bought as many electric bicycles as they did electric cars last year. About 53,000 electric bicycles were sold, according to Dave Hurst, an analyst with Navigant Research who tracks the industry. Electric car sales came in at 52,835. …

Electric bikes make commutes more inviting by easing worries about hills, headwinds, and fatigue. “They increase the distance that people can ride comfortably,” says Evelo’s Mordkovich. Commuters on e-bicycles are also less likely to arrive at the office dripping with sweat. “It seems like a small detail,” Mordkovich says, “but it’s a big deal to a lot of people.”

I’ve been very tempted to get a folding e-bike for just that reason. I have about a ten mile commute one way, and every other day I bring the bike in on light rail, and ride ten sweaty miles home. With a twenty mile range, I could ride every day, bypass the transit system altogether, and stop waiting for trains. I could carry my locks, and bike to the pool or to the grocery store.

However I do relish the small victories of climbing the hills in a higher gear than last time and maintaining a better pace than the day before. Doing the same courtesy of an electric motor doesn’t appeal to me in the same way.

More practically, I’m worried about battery life. There are relatively cheap e-bikes on Amazon, but reviewers chime in to complain that their range has dropped dramatically in the first year. As we saw with the Nissan Leaf, some of that may be from improper charging, but a steady degradation of range is to be expected with any battery-powered vehicle.

My other concern is making it too easy to go too fast. While European e-bikes may all be pedal-assist, the ones I see here are often throttle and go – essentially low-powered motorcycles. Even with better brakes, it doesn’t take much loose gravel or leaves for a two-wheeled vehicle to slide at high speeds. And as we see in Asia, a lot of e-bikes leads to a lot of collisions with cars and pedestrians.

Update 2013-04-28: At Cyclelicious, while reviewing a new $5,900 e-bike, Richard Masoner talks about the disconnect between claimed wattage and actual performance of e-bikes:

When I asked Specialized’s electrical engineer about the lack of performance on other 250W motors, he said, “Motor ratings are such a lie.” He also explained that the nominal rating on a motor doesn’t take into account how much the battery can deliver.

Cost of Doing Business

When I was a young draughtsman, sometimes the boss would have us do some drawings while at the same time complaining that he wasn’t getting paid for it. “Don’t spend any time on it,” he’d say. When I asked him why he did extra work for nothing, he just shrugged, “Cost of doing business!”

Cost of doing business is an elastic concept. From an accounting standpoint it is a simple consideration of fixed costs – rent, insurance, wages – and variable costs, such as raw materials and marketing. But businessmen often wryly ascribe anything from favors that keep the client happy to well-publicized charitable donations or even to bribes as the, “cost of doing business.”

TalkingPointsMemo carried an AP report about the building collapse near Dhaka, Bangladesh. AP is ornery about quotes, so I found, Bangladesh Dhaka building collapse leaves 80 dead, on BBC:

Building collapses are common in Bangladesh where many multi-storey blocks are built in violation of rules.

A doctor from Mauritius once wanted me to design a building for him. He bragged that back home they built with concrete instead of gypsum board. But when I spoke about getting an engineer to design the concrete, he complained that back home, they just used unskilled laborers, and threw in coat hangers or any strips of metal they could find to hold it together. He said it worked out fine. I decided it was prudent not to take that commission.

It is not yet clear what caused the collapse, but local media reports said a crack was detected in the block on Tuesday.

One worker rescued from the building told the BBC that factory owners had told workers on Wednesday morning “not to worry” and that “they said they had examined the crack”.

As the AP noted, the factory was making clothes for Disney, WalMart, etc., so one could consider the collapse as a regrettable cost of doing business for the Dhaka textile companies, for American retailers and even for those of us that are happy to find cheap clothing.

A letter to the SacBee, Explosion shows cost of doing business in Texas, shows that someone else is thinking along those lines:

… I put my faith in health and safety regulations and oversight that would ensure safe storage, handling procedures, emergency and safety procedures, and accurate records of large amounts of explosive fertilizer chemicals. My sympathy goes out to the survivors in West, Tex. They know the hidden costs of business as usual, Rick Perry style.

Oil companies certainly see spills of crude oil or dilbit as a cost of doing business, and by extension all of us who drive accept that. The NRA clearly sees the the occasional Newtown shooting as just a cost of doing business for the firearms industry, and all of us who rave about the second amendment accept that. Our government was probably surprised by the Boston Marathon bombing, an unexpected cost of running a global economic empire, but by-and-large, most people will rage about terrorism but accept that, too.

Hardly a Whispa on CISPA

With all the Marathon bombing news, the passage of CISPA through the House of Representatives barely registers in the mainstream press. Anonymous attempted a blackout, and the Young Turks loudly worry that Obama won’t veto it, but I could only find an article on last year’s vote in the NY Times.

Russia Today sees a long wait for Senate confirmation, but notes that many more Democrats succumbed to industry lobbying than did last year:

The next step for the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, after passing by a 288 to 127 margin in the House, is a Senate vote. However, the Senate has yet to debate the bill and has given no indication that the proposal is a priority, as major issues including gun control and immigration linger in the national consciousness.

Last year only 40 Democrats supported the bill – though that number nearly doubled to 92 who voted for it in 2013. That seemingly sudden ideological shift followed an $84 million lobbying effort from major sponsors like Viacom, Time Warner, Verizon Wireless, and others, according to the Daily Tech.

I’ve been skeptical of Anonymous, but with Ag Gag and CISPA in the works, anonymous protest may be the only tool left to the average citizen.

The Up Series hits 56

Somewhere I ran across a review for 56 Up. I mentioned it to a fellow anglophile at work, and he couldn’t believe I had never heard of the Up Series. But then he was once a teacher. He told me that Netflix had them through 49 Up. And my wife and I got hooked.

Essentially, in 1963, a British documentary crew selected 14 seven-year old students from upper and lower class backgrounds to try to make a point about the inevitability of the rigid class system. The first, grainy episode – Seven Up – came out in 1964. It was poignant and funny as the little upper-class kids seemed to know already which college at Oxford or Cambridge they would attend, while the little working class kids wanted to be astronauts, jockeys or coach drivers. There were ten boys and four girls, a poor choice that is partially evened out because most of the boys’ future wives participate a great deal while very few of the girls’ future mates have much camera time.

I doubt that the filmmakers expected just how much life would change in the late sixties and early seventies. At 7 Plus Seven (1970) all the children seemed a bit embarrassed by what they had said before. One of the three public school boys seemed headed down the long-haired hippie route while his two fellows were still clean-cut, serious Oxbridge types.

By 21 Up (1977), the upper-class girl had left school to travel. She worked an ordinary job, smoked cigarettes and renounced all that seven-year-old talk about having two children. One fellow left to find work in America, another ended up in Australia and another spent some time in India. Most of them married; many got divorced and most of them remarried. One divorced dad said his wife seemed a different person after her father died, which really struck home with me. And there were many more surprises.

The late Roger Ebert reviewed 49 Up:

When you live with Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, there tends to be one character who most focuses your attention. For me, in “28 Up” through “42 Up,” it was Neil, the troubled loner. As a boy, he wanted to be a tour bus guide, telling people what to look at. As an adult, he still has an impulse to lead and instruct, but it hasn’t worked out, and he became a morose loner. In one film there was a shot of him standing next to a lake in Scotland, in front of his shabby mobile home, no one else in sight; I thought, “Neil will be dead by the next film.”

We worried, too. Some compare watching the show to having another family, but that’s a bit much. These folk are just a year or two younger than I am, and to me, watching each show is more like catching up with an old group of schoolmates every seven years.

56 Up won’t be out on video until July 2013, and I have no idea when it will be on Netflix.

Update 20130708: 56 Up is on Netflix. Watching it now.

More Fly Kicking in Breaststroke

I never swam anything but freestyle crawl in high school, but as an adult I’ve developed a decent breaststroke. Of course, nearly everyone swims it wrong. Most people swim it as a resting stroke, holding their face out of the water and breathing throughout. At the other extreme, elite racers now stay very streamlined underwater, breathe very little and often get away with extra dolphin kicks that are against the rules but hard to detect.

Above water arm movements crept into Breaststroke events in the 1930s – the result was sometimes called the butterfly-breastroke – and the hybrid stroke was so much faster that butterfly became a separate stroke in 1952.

Now, FINA proposes to legalize more dolphin kicking, but breaststroke purists are afraid that those kicks may once again cause breaststroke to evolve into a fundamentally different stroke.

FINA TO DISCUSS RULE ALLOWING MULTIPLE DOLPHIN KICKS ON BREASTSTROKE START

… the Technical Swimming Congress will officially discuss allowing multiple dolphin kicks on the start of any breaststroke race for up to a distance of 15 meters. … Russian swimming federation President Vladimir Salnikov suggested it in a letter. …

Following is the official wording of the proposed rule change:

After the start, the swimmer may take one arm stroke completely back to the legs during which the swimmer may be completely submerged for a distance of not more than 15 metres. Multiple Butterfly kicks are permitted while completely submerged.
Once the swimmer’s head breaks the surface of the water, the stroke cycle must be one arm stroke and one leg kick in that order. All movements of the arms shall be simultaneous and on the same horizontal plane without alternating movement. At the last stroke before the turn and at the finish an arm stroke not followed by a leg kick is permitted.

As reported in the Australian, Changing rules would make breaststroke a joke, says leading coach

Simon Cusack, who coached Christian Sprenger to the Olympic silver medal in the 100m breaststroke last year, warned that such a radical rule change would devastate the discipline.

“It would be a joke,” he said.

“All short-course breaststroke events and 50m events would be won by people who are the best at kicking underwater, not the best at breaststroke.”

Cusack argues that because the underwater butterfly kicking moves a competitor so much faster than breaststroke (the slowest swimming stroke), it would transform the event. Those with a strong butterfly kick would have a distinct advantage over those with the best breaststroke technique.

In my breaststroke, I glide between the kick and pull, and ending *every* whip kick with a small dolphin flick of the lower legs feels very natural – though I know it would get me DQ’d in any serious meet. If allowed to dolphin kick during the glide, I’d probably find it hard to remember to stop during the rest of the length.

Update20130725, from SwimSwam:

FINA CONGRESS REJECTS CHANGES TO BREASTSTROKE RULES ON UNDERWATER DOLPHIN KICKS

… FINA announced that “The rules on breaststroke concerning the start and the turn remain as in the present rulebook.” This rejects several proposals to try to clean up the underwater dolphin kicks, including the implementation of underwater cameras (still under deliberation) and a proposal (that seemed to have a lot of backing within the highest levels of FINA) to allow unlimited dolphin kicks off of the start, and then revert to current rules off of other walls.

Dissing Malthus Again

In, Adam’s Law of Slow-Moving Disasters, Scott Adams repeats the generally-taught idea that Thomas Malthus was some sort of doomer:

I’m skeptical of any claim so big and contrarian, but it does fit with The Adams Law of Slow-Moving Disasters. Simply stated, my observation is that whenever humanity can see a slow-moving disaster coming, we find a way to avoid it. Let’s run through some examples:

Thomas Malthus famously predicted that the world would run out of food as the population grew. Instead, humans improved their farming technology.

A few years ago on dagblog, I discussed what Malthus actually wrote. He didn’t predict that we would run out of food. In his An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the Future Improvement of Society with remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, he argued that rather than being freed to live in utopian conditions, the human population would continue to be resource-limited in bad times, self-limited in good times and that misery would result if these limits weren’t effective enough. In his own words:

On the whole, therefore, though our future prospects respecting the mitigation of the evils arising from the principle of population may not be so bright as we could wish, yet they are far from being entirely disheartening, and by no means preclude that gradual and progressive improvement in human satiety, which, before the late wild speculations on this subject, was the object of rational expectation. … A strict inquiry into the principle of population obliges us to conclude that we shall never be able to throw down the ladder, by which we have risen to this eminence; but it by no means proves, that we may not rise higher by the same means. … And although we cannot expect that the virtue and happiness of mankind will keep pace with the brilliant career of physical discovery; yet, if we are not wanting to ourselves, we may confidently indulge the hope that, to no unimportant extent, they will be influenced by its progress and will partake in its success.

All Malthus was doing was throwing a bit of cold water on the extremely utopian predictions of Godwin, Condorcet and others, who thought that man was about to escape the fetters of food and energy and live in philosophical enlightenment. As there are no reports of a utopian era since 1798, it seems that Malthus was correct.