Tuesday, June 19, 2007

bicycles and swim trunks

On Sunday, I crossed yet another item off of my "Someday I'll do this" list. I took the swim test for the Minnewaska Distance Swimmers Association (www.minnewaskaswimmers.org), earning me the privilege of swimming outside the roped off kiddie beach at Lake Minnewaska. Huzzah! I took the test at the Moriello Pool. It was a beautiful (though hot and humid) day, and the pool parking lot was packed as I pulled in on my bike. I spent about an hour at the pool; during which time, not a single other bicycle appeared on the bike rack. This is a source of constant disappointment to me. Here in New Paltz, we wear our green politics on our sleeves, electing progressive politicians and standing on the street corner protesting the war; but when it comes to making actual changes in behaviour, even something as simple as biking to the community pool instead of driving is a novelty. Quite honestly, I hope gas goes up to eight bucks a gallon (and it probably will, of course).

Anyway... I couldn't believe how nervous I was, standing by the pool, waiting for my turn to jump in and do laps. Something about being judged, I guess, even for something as trivial as this. Despite the fact that I hadn't done laps in a long time (probably almost 20 years), I didn't have much doubt that I could pass the test. I thought back on growing up and spending Saturday mornings at the YMCA taking swimming classes. Maybe the ghosts from that unpleasant time in my life were being resurrected in my mind. But I jumped in and swam nonetheless when my time came, and I guess I swam so well that the ghosts couldn't keep up. I feel that mindset permeating other aspects of my life too, sometimes; my yoga practice, especially. I see what's going on in my mind, whatever turmoils and tempests I've brought to the mat with me, and I try to practice as if none of that is there. Sometimes, practicing that way helps to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


When I'm not busy thinking about garbage (or rooting through it), I think a lot about energy. A few years ago, I had a cochamamie idea that if there were a wind turbine on every utility pole, it would be a great additional source of energy without polluting the environment or screwing up the viewshed or infringing on any one's rights. Eventually I discarded this idea as utopian and unrealistic. If it would work, I thought, someone would have suggested it already. Well... someone did, actually. I've since learned that Buckminster Fuller proposed the same idea in the 70's. I don't know why it never took off. Seems like a no brainer to me. Later (last year, I think), I hatched another energy scheme, even wilder than the last. Single celled organisms are awfully good at taking sunlight, water, and carbon and converting it into hydrocarbons. Why not tweak their genomes to maximize the process? Couldn't they convert the atmospheric CO2 that's cooking the planet into oil? If we produced all of our carbon based fuels this way, carbon emissions would become a closed system, and we might be able to make some real headway on global warming. Once again, I dismissed the idea as fanciful and science-fictiony. But a few months ago, I read in the New York Times that there's a start-up company in the desert southwest that's doing pretty much exactly what I'd envisioned. So part of the lesson here is clearly that I should always act on my every idea, no matter how ridiculous it seems.

I also had a thought that the problem of birds flying into wind turbines at night and dying could be ameliorated by placing LED's on the blades (of the turbines, not the birds). LED's hardly draw any energy, and they could be produced to illuminate at a wavelength that's visible to birds but not humans.

We're all taught in gradeschool that all of our energy (or most of it, anyway) comes from the sun. And by the second law of thermodynamics, the closer to an energy source you get, the less loss there is. Take fossil fuels for example: first photosynthetic life had to evolve, then it had to die en masse and be compressed for millions of years before becoming a fuel source. So the end product (oil, natural gas, coal) is really, really far removed from the original energy source (the sun), which is why this energy source is so easily depleted. Lots of loss along the way. So the best solution to our energy woes is to use solar energy, right, since it comes directly from the source? Well... no. Or not yet, anyway. Solar panel technology is still very, very inefficient. Only a few percent of the energy that hits a solar panel gets converted into electricity. Until solar panels can be built to harness more of the sun's output, they're really just going to be a novelty item.

Hydrogen - also problematic. It's a great way to store energy, but you still need to produce it somehow. The most obvious source of hydrogen is water, but it's awfully difficult to split it from that oxygen atom. Takes a lot of energy, so we're back to square one - trying to find an efficient, non-depletable energy source.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Garbage, garbage everywhere

I spend a lot of time thinking about garbage. I don't mean bad television programs or manufactured pop bands or the latest movie sequels, I mean the household stuff that we deposit in the ubiquitous under-sink canisters, and once a week set out by the curb for removal. I also spend a lot of time thinking about packaging. It's amazing to me that we actually spend money on packaging for our garbage. Not only that, but there's high end packaging for our garbage, and it sells! What is the point of buying anything but the cheapest store brand garbage bags? How does Hefty stay in business? This boggles my mind on lonely nights when counting sheep just doesn't do the job. I also ruminate on the little cardboard box that garbage bags are packaged in. Packaging for packaging for trash, which eventually ends up being discarded in one of the packaging units that it once contained. Layer upon layer of convolution, all for garbage. Someone, somewhere, is sitting at a computer brainstorming new ideas to package garbage, and to market that packaging.

I have a friend who once, on a long car ride, suggested to me that it would be better if everyone threw all of their trash out the windows of their cars. Then, at least, it would be impossible to ignore the amount of refuse that we generate. We'd be accosted by the sight and the stink of it wherever we went. I thought about her idea for a few years before deciding that she might be right.

Last week I did some dumpster diving on a local college campus. I picked up some dinner plates that struck my fancy. The kids move back home when the spring semester is over, and whatever stuff they accumulated throughout the year, they discard in big piles out on the lawn. Dishware, furniture, clothing, "art", many, many, many ink jet printers. I guess it's the printers that surprise me the most. Twenty years ago, I think we had a much less cavalier attitude towards disposing of electronic equipment. The stuff was expensive, first of all, and I don't think the term "planned obsolescence" had come into use yet. But now here we are - buy a new printer at the beginning of the school year, and throw it out 9 months later, because the low cost of replacement makes saving the old one a waste of energy. The upside, I suppose, is that anyone who's willing to dig through a pile of someone else's trash will be richly rewarded with the detritus of disposable consumer culture. It is an uncomfortable thing, to browse through someone else's unwanted goods. I found myself asking what was wrong with me, that I would debase myself in such a way. Was I just cheap? Was it pathological? I have the wherewithal to buy new, so why was I doing this? What does it say about me that I would do this? I don't have any good answers to these questions, but I think it's important to do things that make you uncomfortable and confused sometimes. Dumpster diving definitely takes me far out of my comfort zone, and maybe that's reason enough to do it.

If there was a point I was trying to make with this post, it has escaped my memory.