May 2007 Archives

I'm sitting in the NEC Arena train station in Birmingham. Birmingham has the distinction of being one of my least favourite cities, on an even par with Croy (Scotland), Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Cleveland (USA).

I hope the suburbs are nice. Cleveland has suburbs; my parents live in Mentor, and there are parts of Mentor that nearly have the charm of Milton Keynes.

I'm flying to Birmingham for work - not to go to Birmingham, per se, but to Abingdon.

But it is neither the ultimate nor the proximate destination that holds my interest right now. Instead, it is the dynamics of interpersonal interaction on flights, plus the environment - the tree hugging kind of environment.

The man in the seat adjacent to me was Jonathan Tomlin, the UK Sales Manager for the Vitasheet Group, a subsidiary of British Vita, a plastics manufacturer. His business card is clear, flexible plastic and looks cool. But even cooler than the card was a particular product which he wants to sell - no to me, obviously; I felt as though he genuinely believes in what he is selling and that he practices his pitch on his fellow travellers. Admittedly, the information was solicited. We sat in silence for the first twenty minutes of the flight, which was my fault. I had whipped out my trusty PowerBook and was busily preparing for the meeting to which I was headed.

But when the airline attendent proffered a chicken sandwich and an enormous cup of tea, I accepted, shut my laptop and hunkered down for a conversation.

The pitch that he was practicing was properly cool. A plastics company in
the States, NatureWorks, has developed a new type of plastic-like substance, called
PLA. PLA is biodegradable - seriously, properly biodegradable. It's
basically extruded corn starch. In a landfill, it will turn back into
corn starch. I have some additional questions about it - energy
intensity of production, conditions under which it biodegrades, cost - but it internalises the pollution
externality. Marks & Spencers' clingfilm wrap on all of their food
packaging is now PLA. It costs somewhere between 30 - 40% more than its
ABS counterparts. Is it worth it to increase our packaging costs by 30%
to replace plastic in our landfills in the future with corn starch? My
gut tells me it is, but it will obviously take further investigation to
either validate or repudiate that intuition.

It made me excited because this is exactly the sort of thing that we need to be investigating if we hope to stave off dying in our own waste until a future generation.

The conversation was bijou, compact, it lasted no longer than the 45 minutes that comprised the second two thirds of the flight to Birmingham. A single serving friend, as Tyler Durden might have said. Like most frequent flyers, I have a lot of these conversations.

Some of you fly more than I do (I'm thinking particularly of B.J. here), but I suspect I'm in the top end of the flyer market. I've flown more than 50,000 miles this year.  Tyler Durden was right about single serving, fast food friends; every time I fly, I meet someone new. Sometimes, these conversations are really, really cool - I once had a conversation with the best quilter in the world. I thought she was self-proclaimed and, er, a bit eccentric until she produced a quilting magazine, with her on the cover. "Barbara Barber, UK's Champion Quilter" went the headline. In fact, she was into some kind of international competitive quilting scene and had just been visiting Lancaster, PA and Atlanta to research how certain American communities make their quilts so she could make hers more authentic. She really loves her dogs. Another time it was John, a fellow who had started his own company from his PhD thesis, making printed circuit boards, only using electrostatic printing instead of photo-lithography. He was 26. This time, it was Jonathan Tomlin, plastic salesman to Europe.

You can tell a lot about a person from their opening moves in the airline conversation pre-packaged friend category. Barabara Barber's was to talk about her daughter, who "must be about your age!" (her daughter was 23; just for the record, I'm nearer to 43 than 23). John said "Thank God! Someone with a lighter!" (we met just outside the lounge at Ciampino - which was oddly devoid of smokers). Jonathan Tomlin's opening moves were a polite silence.

It was up to me to open. My opening was "Why are you headed to Birmingham?" It's easier than "What do you do?" I get "What do you do?" a lot. The problem with this is that, while I love my job, my title is long without being descriptive and there's basically no way to sex up the fact that what I do is IT support for a massive multinational. Jonathan was vague in his reply and it was with a bit of pressing that I found out he sold plastics. I was so relieved. If there's anyone who can relate to loving a job that makes other people bored, it's a plastic salesman.

As a side note, by the time I was done reading this, I was on the train to Oxford - and the countryside around Oxford is absolutely stunning, a vast improvement over Birmingham.

As a sign of how acclimatized I've become to the weather in Edinburgh, it reached 61 degrees Fahrenheit today and it was sweltering. I've opened the front and back windows of the flat in the hopes of getting a breeze in and am reconsidering my previous choice of dinner (TexMex:  fajitas, refried beans, rice, pico de gallo). Perhaps to be replaced with a cool bath and a glass of fruit juice.

I have a headache. I'm not sure if it's from the heat, but that's what I'm blaming right now.

Suzy's coming by later; we're going to eat fajitas and play Scrabble. Maybe drink a bottle of wine. Oddly, my wine closet is exclusively Australian Cabernet-Shiraz.

On another note, I got an email from Josh today; you'll remember from his blog that he's headed off to Iraq, now later rather than sooner.

For those who don't know, I served in the United States Marine Corps, alongside Josh, Chris and Ange, amongst others. Yes, Ange was a Marine. And she's very, very dangerous. Handle with care. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ange. Some pieces sold separately. Known in the State of California to impair driving.

Josh was my roommate for three of those years.

He's a good man and a good friend, both in better shape and considerably wiser than I am.

There was a time, not even that long ago, when I used to think that one day, I would move back to the U.S., somewhere near Chris and Josh - and B.J. and Gregg and James - and we'd have our families and work near each other or with each other, buy homes, send our children off to day care and then school, join the local bowling league, laugh at ourselves and each other, enjoy life, grow old, pretend to be deaf and ignore each other in the rest home.

That doesn't feel likely to happen and that makes me feel sad.

One of the opportunity costs of that dream is that I can't live in Edinburgh.

Now, I've ranted and raved considerably about how much I love Edinburgh - and it is a lovely town, mind you - but it's not just the city for which I stay.

First, there's my daily commute to work. I've written about this in comments on my friend Merseydotes' Blog. I have one of the best daily commutes in the world. I walk about fifteen minutes through Edinburgh's New Town, on cobbled roads amongst Georgian stone buildings that date to the 1750s, across a stunning private park, along Jamaica St. mews, which dates to when Scots colonized Jamaica (hint:  a very long time ago). I love every moment of it. Sometimes, I'll listen to a podcast; usually Dan Henage reading Bruce Schneier's CryptoGram, my favourite security newsletter.

Second, the weather is lovely. I know that some of you who have been over in, say, November or December might want to argue with this point, and I'll grant that the days are pretty short in winter, but it rarely gets below freezing and in summer it never really gets above 70. I like that. In summer, there's also days that are nearly 20 hours of sunshine - and that's nice, too.

Third, the pay is better than in the U.S. The longer the dollar continues to drop, the more this is true.

Fourth, I've got a great job. Money aside, I love what I do.

Finally, I've got a great group of friends here. I miss Josh, Chris, BJ, James, Gregg, Karl, Ange, my family - but if I went back to the States, I'd miss Ingrida, Lena, Suzy, Owen, Keith, Ailsa, Marc, David, Dave, Ewan, Gus, Cat and Dan.

I don't know if I'll stay here for good, but it's a good adventure.

P.S. Big thank you to Merseydotes for telling about a good real estate agent; much appreciated!

Carbon offsetting

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I've been thinking about challenges to American hegemony.

While most of the discussions of this type focus on clear and present dangers, I've been thinking of some very long run effects that have non-linear consequences. "Tipping point" effects, where we cross a threshhold.

Some of them are end quarternary event scenarios, the kind where many eons from now intelligent cockroaches find our fossils and hypothesize about how we lived.

But others are a bit nearer to now, including how we interact with the environment.

Let me start by saying that there are very few poeple I've listened to who is making sense. If you have heard someone who is making sense, let me know.

Here are some things that I do accept:

1. The earth is getting warmer. Let's not talk about why just yet, but I can accept as fact that the earth is getting warmer.
2. This creates winners and losers, but on the whole more losers than winners; it is a general bad thing.

Um, that's about it.

There are a few challenges that I have about the generally accepted theories of global warming, like the causes.

First, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, sure, and so is methane...but water vapor is far more effective at creating a greenhouse effect. We do lots that puts water vapor into the air, yet no one seems concerned. Do we even know anything about historic levels of water vapor? I don't know, but I'd like to know. And I think that water vapor is probably partly to blame for rising temperatures.

Second, we burn some quantity of fossil fuels each year. The combustion of these fossil fuels generates heat. What if the amount of heat is non-trivial? If that was the case, then cutting our greenhouse gas emission might only be part of a solution. How much is this heat?

Third, how much biomass is in the oceans? Biomass soaks greenhouse gasses. What if the amount of biomass we remove from the oceans is so vast that the oceans can no longer sink greenhouse gasses - or if the biomass we want lives best at a temperature lower than the oceans are becoming? What happens if the oceans become biologically dead?

With all of these thoughts in mind, I did a hypothetical calculation on how many trees you'd need in order to sink the carbon output from your car. It was a quick calculation, full of assumptions.

I assumed that you drive 25,000 miles a year.
I assumed that your car gets 35 miles to the gallon.
I assumed that you'd choose to grow conifers.
I assumed that the trees were 60 years old.
I assumed that all 62 million registered vehicles in the U.S. got 35 miles to the gallon and were driven 25,000 miles a year. In fact, I suspect most cars are less fuel efficient and probably also driven further - 32% of all registered vehicles are commercial, as in 18 wheel rigs and tractors.
I assumed that a tree was a truncated cone.
I assumed that the volume of a tree was well approximated by the number of board feet of lumber it contained.
I've assumed that all of the carbon from gasoline is combusted and becomes carbon dioxide.
I've assumed that our engines burn 100% pure octane.

There may be other, unstated assumptions that I missed; feel free to point them out.

What percentage of America's surface would we need to plant with trees to match the carbon output from all the cars on the road in the States each year?

Every gallon of gasoline releases 186.37 moles of CO2, or about 2.236 kilograms, or about 5 pounds.

If you drive 25,000 miles per year in a car that gets 35 miles to the gallon, then that's 714 gallons of fuel per year, or about 1.786 tons of CO2. This is 0.487 tons of carbon.

A tree sequesters carbon for it's natural life; let's start there. It adds carbon as it grows. The rate at which it grows will determine how much carbon it absorbs.

A Massachussetts Woodland Steward article from the June/July edition in 1999 suggests that the volume of 14" diameter conifer trees should increase at roughly 5% per year.

Each tree will have a volume of roughly 0.25957 cubic meters (same article, based on the fact that it will have 110 board feet in it), a mass of 168.7 kilograms. The composition is approximately 60% water, 40% cellulose, or 67.48 kilograms of cellulose. Cellulose is 4/9ths carbon, so that's 30 kilos of carbon.

That tree is 60 years old, by the way.

So each year, a 60 year old conifer removes an additional 1.5 kilos of carbon from the environment. That means that, in order to support a car that gets 35 miles per gallon 25,000 miles, you'd need 294 conifers that were 60 years old.

There are approximately 62 million vehicles in the U.S., meaning that we'd need 18,228 million trees to support our car habit.

Trees of these type can be planted at 25 to the acre, which gives you 729 million acres of woodland, or about 3 million square kilometers, roughly twice the arable land area of the U.S.

In London

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I'm in London, representing my employer at a vendor advisory council.

But I'm also visiting Keith. And it's great to see him again.

I've decided to sell my condominium in America. It just makes sense.

It's costing me a bundle to keep the condo in America and it's costing me an equal bundle to rent a flat in Edinburgh.

If I sell the flat in America, I can buy a place in Edinburgh and pay neither rent nor mortgage - or pay a small mortgage.

The difference is enormous.

In other news, Josh Kaminoff is going to Iraq. I have mixed feelings about this. He's wanted to go for a long time, but, selfishly, I'd rather he be a bit disappointed but safe for Zack and Steph.

What's it like being an Uncle?

Well, it's pretty cool. There are all sorts of things that I understand now that I didn't understand before - like why Uncle Phillippe would have spent an entire afternoon, when it was sunny outside, to teach a seven year old about division.

I'm still grateful to him.

I look forward to being able to talk to Liam. At the moment he sleeps and eats and poops. Mark assures me that he also pees; my mother assures me that he cries.

Speaking of my mother, she was on TV last night on the Discovery channel! I don't know how it went, but presumably it was fine. Leroy Sievers is Ted Koppel's executive producer and has been battling cancer for a long time. He has a blog about cancer and my mother and sister posted on his blog for a long time.

Discovery put together a show based on Leroy's blog and led by Ted Koppel; it's apparently a special edition of a regularly scheduled Ted Koppel show called Koppel on Discovery. In any event, it was on very early this morning, 0100 my time, or about 8pm EDT.

I haven't seen it yet; no one I know gets Discovery. But my mother has a DVD copy and so I'll see it eventually.

Today is a Bank Holiday in Scotland so my place of employment is closed; what would you do with a windfall of leisure?

Well, I'm headed to Glasgow to hang out with Ingrida, a friend of mine who's going to the University of Strathclyde. Glasgow's a rainy city, much rainier than Edinburgh, and I'm not cheered by the idea of the rain, but that's where Ingrida is so that's where I'm going.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from May 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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