Sunday, November 27, 2011

Home-based batteries for wind power

A wind farm near Ellensburg, Wash. Utilities have asked homeowners to help store excess energy to protect the grid.
As the trend continues to generate electricity closer to the point of use and people are setting up wind and solar electricity generators in their homes and businesses, the need to have storage of excess energy increases. Oversupply of electricity can cause blackouts to the grid so utilities need to find some kind of battery system. But how to do this?

In the Pacific Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration has set up a program to store this excess electricity in people's appliances. This is an interesting take on the way they control limited power here on the East Coast.

Last summer, for instance, I was wondering why my house was getting so hot on a particular summer day. I checked the thermostat, then went outside to look at the unit. While I watched, I saw it turn on. Then, after a few minutes, it turned off again, even though the house was still not down to the temperature I had set. What was going on? I called the utility and they laughed at me. They reminded me that I had signed up for a program that reduced my power bills by 10% and gave the utility the power to turn off my AC "for a few minutes at a time" to save energy. Well, the utility got through the day without needing any rolling blackouts but I and many thousands of other suckers had a hot, uncomfortable day in their homes.

So what does this have to do with storing electricity? The BPA is setting up some customers with ceramic bricks in electric space heaters that can be warmed up several hundreds of degrees by remote control. Water heaters can be heated up by up to 60 degrees. Then this energy can be returned later when the excess is gone. Apparently the utility can still control the tap-water temperature in the homes so that customers don't get scalded.

It's an interesting concept and I suppose the utilities need that amount of control to ensure the grid stays stable but it is a scary feeling to be under that much control by an outside agency. I certainly didn't like the hot summer day I spent under their control. What happens when the customers get extra heat pumped into their homes on a hot day? Should be fun to watch.

Read this article for more details.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Another great project to make a park out of unused public space

After the phenomenal success of New York's Highline park, pictured below, other cities have been looking to copy the success.

The formula is pretty simple: Find some land that used to be used by the city but is falling into disrepair, repurpose it as a park, get some public funding, some donations, get some corporate sponsors and some restaurants to open nearby and voila: a public park in an unexpected space.

The Highline park, for those who don't know, took an old elevated rail line that used to run along the west side of Manhattan that was used in the meat-packing industry, and added stairs, soil, plants and walkways, built in a few benches and turned it into a quiet oasis above the streets.

There's a new project being proposed that is even more interesting. According to yesterday's Times article, there is a three block area close to the Williamsburg bridge with 20 foot ceilings that is lying disused right now.

It used to be a trolley terminal but with light gathering techniques, it can be turned into an underground park with grass and trees.

The two men with the idea have experience with these light gathering techniques, taken from their colleges, (Yale and Cornell) and jobs, (NASA and Google) and are serious about it.
Check out the project's website for some cool pictures of their concept.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Twenty-third Excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

The center tower was leaning dangerously towards one of the banks
Early the following day, Sir Kay rode in with his three inspectors, and all were pleased again. The one who last time was drawing sketches of the wooden works was this time drawing the silo and the clay channel to the water. The accountant was frowning over the numbers while the third was admiring the capstone.
“Do you need me to finish off the other towers in this district, Sir Kay?”
Sir Kay looked keenly at the third inspector, who shook his head slightly. “No Gwilym,” replied Kay. “We have a more important job for you down in Londinium. The river gate known as Billynsgate has fallen into disrepair and is in danger of falling into the water. It needs to be rebuilt using the same stones but with a better foundation. You are the man for the job. This time you must remember that money is far less important than scope. The tower must look the same. And Gwilym, the urn containing the ashes of Belinus must be kept safe and returned to the center of the tower. The tower must be finished exactly a year from yesterday. So worry less about money than scope and schedule. And build it to your usual level of quality.”
“Sounds like very skillful work, keeping track of the old stones and putting them all back in the same places. Working next to a river and over a stream. Living in an expensive city.”
Sir Kay smiled and added, “Since money is less important on this job and the work is difficult, we have agreed to double your usual pay.”
Gwilym nodded and accepted his commission. Sir Kay handed him a royal charter and Gwilym read it over with care. Added to the usual wording was a detailed drawing of the tower: an arch crossing the stream from two strong towers on each bank and a slender but tall tower in the center. The center tower was leaning dangerously towards one of the banks.

(Next time, look for an excerpt from Chapter 3: Londinium)

To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gabby Giffords is recovering

Almost a year after being shot in the head at point blank range, Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is well on the road to recovery and ready to resume her seat. Here she is voting on a bill and talking with Diane Sawyer:

And for all those who want to protest her return, I challenge them to kick out all the other members of congress operating with less than a fully functional brain. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Re-election bids trump doing their job

Protesters against the oil pipeline
Obama is in a pickle. He has environmental protesters on one side arguing against the new pipeline from Alberta to Texas and business lobbies and job seekers on the other. But this is the job for which he campaigned so hard. Isn't it time he did that job and made those tough decisions? Instead he is delaying the decision for another year so that it cannot be used as election fodder against him next November.

Read this Times article for more details of this argument and links to details of the fight.

I'm tired of politicians believing that the main job of their first term is to get re-elected to their second term. If they would just put their heads down and do their jobs for a change we might get some real change happening in government. Instead we have a bunch of weathercocks out there bending to the whims of their interest groups and surveys.

Perhaps the term limits statutes need to be strengthened. Have every politician only serve for one term so that they can get some work done while they are in the positions they sought. No more looking over their shoulders for the impact their decisions will have on their re-election chances. Just do what you promised in the first place and then get out of the way for the next person.

The downside of this could be renegade politicians who don't care about anything since they're not coming back anyway. But a strong voter recall law can take care of that.

The only real 'downside' of this idea would be that there will be no career politicians since they can't make a career of it. Kind of what our founding fathers wanted in the first place. Wouldn't that be a nice kind of a utopia?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Christo the graffiti artist

I'm not a fan of graffiti but I recognize that there are different types. There are the colorful murals that cover blank walls under overpasses and obscures an otherwise ugly sight. There were the unsightly messes made of New York subway trains in the seventies that have thankfully been stopped. And there is the 'tagging' where some jerk or gang of jerks put their signs on public buildings or structures to show that they own this turf. Little more than dogs pissing on street lamps to mark their territory in my opinion.

Lower than all of these is the 'artist' Christo. Rather than placing his tags on ugly tenements, billboards or bridges, he chooses some of the most beautiful places on earth to piss on. He takes some beautiful islands in Biscayne Bay and wraps them in fabric.

Then he wraps architectural masterpieces like the Bundestag or the Pont Neuf with his ugly fabric.

Then he puts 'gates' throughout our gorgeous Central Park.

He has placed miles of umbrellas and fences in deserts and his next 'project' is to cover 50 miles of pristine river gorges with his fabric. Tagging of the worst kind. What are birds and fish going to do during his week-long 'installation'?

He claims to do it all for art but he has a nasty business strategy that has made him a millionaire many times over. After he installs his fabric, he takes photos of what remains and only he has the right to sell these images. What a crock!

As for the garish colors, I can only guess he gets his inspiration from his wife.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Twenty-second excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

When the last of the building materials that had lain here all winter long were removed, the capstone, on which they had laid, was revealed. It was pressed below the surface of the ground and had to be prised up carefully. It was smooth on the side that had been facing up, but when the bottom was exposed and cleaned off, it revealed the signs of an ancient rune on that surface. It looked similar to the design on the Huish tower but it was not identical. This one took the form of a many-headed dragon. The men used pulleys to bring the stone up and Athelstan and Gwilym carefully placed it into position. The tower was complete fully a week before Beltane, allowing the men to clean it up to present it to Sir Kay at the dedication. The workers were still busy with the clay channel to the water, a task that Gwilym had forbidden them to work on until the tower was complete.
Merlin appeared at the job site the day before Beltane and handed Gwilym twelve more pieces of river jade to place between the tower and the capstone. And so, once again, Gwilym spent the evening of Beltane carefully hammering in the stones on the edges of his new tower. He remembered last year with Grainne and wondered what she was doing. He hadn’t seen Merlin enter the city. Was she with him?
Gwilym had remained celibate throughout the past year. Partly this was out of memory of Kaitlyn, partly out of fear of being tied down to a town that he knew he would be leaving soon. Partly it was out of loyalty to his sons’ mother and their questions about a new figure in their lives. And partly it was due to him being so busy with this project.
He placed the river jade, watching the Beltane celebrations below him. As he remembered last year’s love-making and his year of celibacy, he became aroused again, and kept glancing behind him to see if Grainne would come again. He inserted the last piece of jade, stood up and surveyed his work, disappointed but also a little happy to be here alone on top of his completed tower. He turned to give the district one last view before descending.
“Another wonderful erection, Gwilym.” Chills ran down his spine and all the hair on his head stood on end as he saw Grainne standing in the middle of the rune. How did she get there during his quick circuit of the top?
“How…?” he began, but was silenced with a slight wave of her hand and a glance at her regal bearing. She was looking with obvious pleasure at the hydra rune on the tower, but her double meaning was clear as she raised her eyes to admire him.
“Come,” she demanded and he felt himself being pulled into her presence. “Undress,” was her next command and he complied obediently. She reached up and caressed him carefully, running her hands down the side of his face while her thumbs traced his strong brow, his prominent cheekbones. Down his neck and across his broad shoulders. Around his bulging biceps and

Friday, November 4, 2011

People-watching project

In Normal Bob’s postcard game, players match the cartoon figures with their nicknames and genres.

I love this man's personal project. He elevated people-watching to a whole new level. Bob Hain grew up in the Midwest and ended up in New York City where he hung out a lot in Union Square. Watching the people there he started to see patterns in the various oddballs found there. So he categorized and tabulated them, then created a postcard that identifies all the groups and allows you to find and check them all off.

I learned about him a few years back in this Times article and laughed myself silly. You really should read it for the entertainment value. Then visit his website for his latest pictures, stories and videos.

Here are some excerpts from the article to whet your appetite:

In Union Square, Mr. Hain is equal parts referee and ringmaster, curator and chronicler.
There is Junky the Barbarian, Pretty Boy Jake and Green Graver Girl, for starters. Then there are the categories of park regulars, which include scenesters, peepers, fundies, gravers and Griswalds.
Mr. Hain calls all these people his Amazing Strangers, and celebrates hundreds of them on a section of his Web site with the same name. Last year, he created a hall of fame, selecting the most outlandish characters and creating cartoon versions of them. Of the 70 cartoon characters he created, he selected about half to form an all-star lineup, then put them on a postcard-size handout challenging people to match each character with the right nickname.
The handout’s reverse side is an aerial photograph of the park with diagrams indicating where the various cliques and subsets tend to gather. For example, it shows that the peepers gather at the south side of the park, so they can blend in with pedestrians while peering under the skirts of women sitting on the steps. The gravers — Goth-ravers who usually dress in wide, black Tripp pants — gather nearby, near the statue of George Washington. The drug addicts do their nodding in the rear of the park, on the benches toward the east side. The Griswalds, or naïve tourists, gawk at it all from the periphery.
The club kids known as scenesters remain aloof, gathering on the triangular minipark toward Park Avenue. Fundies — being the fundamentalist Christian preachers — tend to gather at the very southwest corner of the park.
There is a primer on distinctions between a Goth and a raver. Then there is the graver, whose name borrows from both of those, but who would not be caught dead being grouped with either.
By contrast, the hipster is a bird of another feather, “the natural enemy of the graver,” Mr. Hain says. And the scenesters are the result of melding hipsters and gravers, identifiable by their studded belts, tight clothing and maybe a black handkerchief in the back pocket.
Then there are the robo-trippers, who try to get high by “huffing,” or inhaling, products like Dust-Off, or by drinking Robitussin.
Things are slower these days, with part of the park annexed by the artisan kiosks of the Union Square Holiday Market. Behind the statue, a few obviously inebriated men milled about and at one point, a sloppy fight broke out.
“I don’t have names for those guys,” Mr. Hain said. “They’re not on the handout. One time, one of them asked me, ‘Why don’t you have us listed?’ I said, ‘What are you?’ He said, ‘We’re dirtbags, put us on there!’ ”
Recently, a crusty man with hobo whiskers and a few crooked teeth in his mouth walked around the park soliciting change by flashing first one cardboard sign — “What’s the best nation?” — then the other — “Donation.”
“His name is Signs,” Mr. Hain said.

I visited Union Square with my wife and brother on Friday and met some of the denizens. It was a little cold for the peepers by Wendell the Garbageman was there rooting through the garbage and posing for pictures. The Gravers and Skaters were there but I was disappointed in seeing no Fundies or Huggers.

But it was nice to go to a new place and have a guide to all the locals. I'd love to see more people introduce us to the residents.