Monday, December 24, 2007

What is talent?


I have a Hotmail address that includes the word "talent" in it. I'm not going to broadcast the story of how this address came to be simply because the entertainment to embarrassment ratio is far too low. Regardless, every time I give this address out over the phone or in person to someone, it makes me think about the word "talent" before I think about the genesis of the address. I think 'does this person think I'm full of myself because I have the word "talent" in my address?' Then, I think 'do I deserve to have this word in my email address?'


Talent is a funny thing. Being talented in something is a product of chance, practice, both, and neither. By chance, you can be a talented writer. By practice, you can be a talented basketball player. By both, you can be an inspirational painter. By neither, you could have the potential for something within you and never even know. Talent is born and built and wasted and ignored.


In the past couple of days, I've talked to two very talented people. These are people that I have a lot of respect for and whose work I am amazed by. The talent they both display is fascinating to experience though each of them have very different talents that exist at very different cultivation levels.


One is both accomplished in his field and an expert at human interaction. He is, thankfully, writing a book which, if the universe is fair and just, should sell a million copies. He is a family/marriage counselor by trade who happens to be the most insightful person I know when it comes to humans interacting with each other. He can say very, very little while telling you more than anyone has ever told you before. This is what he told me (personally) about talent (this is not a direct quote; I'm paraphrasing):

Use who you know and what you know to do what you need to do. Sometimes we think that we need to do everything and know everything ourselves but that is not how you get done what needs to be done. Leverage your talent to build relationships and use these relationships to reach your goals. When you try to do everything at once, you get bogged down in the details. You need to find the people that can help you the most and use their talent to help you.

What do you think?


The other person I talked to about this is a musician with an international fan base and an album coming out soon. I'm really not sure exactly long he has been making music but I can assume that it's been at least a decade. Having a conversation with him is a pleasure because he's both very smart and very knowledgeable and does everything he can to make sure he speaks his mind as clearly as possible. He's political, musical, socially-conscious, sans both a driver's license and a cell phone (OMG, can you imagine?? LOL), and a great person to talk to about talent.

We got on the subject of someone he knows that is a talented videographer. Hearing someone like him talk about someone he respected made me want to ask him how he handles others with talent. I asked him, essentially, how he feels when he is around talent that is potentially greater than his own? He had this to say (again, paraphrased):
I just like to be around talent, be the nexus of talent around me. I like to be around people who are more talented than me because I can learn from it. Having talented people around me makes me work harder and do more, not to compete but because I have more resources

Intrigued, I dug a little deeper. He clearly has a talent that he has no choice but to follow. How does it feel to have a talent and a passion you can't deny?
I'm not sure it's all that great. I'm stuck doing this whether I want to or not. Trying to be a rock star and making an impact on pop culture is a curse, really. I don't have anything that's marketable, I'm basically a starving artist. Either I make an album that works and appeals to people or I fail; those are my two options. I'm always facing failure no matter what I do. There is a stigma to being creative, I don't really have a marketable skill. If this doesn't work, then what? If I fail, people can look at me and say 'silly boy, of course you don't do that, you'll never get anywhere in music."


Talent is a blessing and talent is a curse. Talent ties you up and talent sets you free. Talent pays the bills and talent drains your savings account.

So what is universal about talent? Talent only gets better with practice and focus. Talent makes you popular if you let it. Talent is knowing when to use your talent and when to use someone else's talent. Talent gets better in the presence of complementary talent. Talent comes to you, it finds you. Talent is finding your own flow, tapping into something that's bigger than yourself. Talent won't guarantee your happiness and talent won't guarantee your income.

Your talent is bigger than you, it's bigger than what you can create or fix or destroy. Still, the talent that you have inside of you is yours to use or yours to ignore. Not everyone who finds and exploits their talent will end up with what they wanted or thought they deserved out of life. What they will do, always, is inspire and amaze and cause people to think if they let that talent out into the world. Human ability appears limitless in it's depth, breadth, and scope. Even if you don't or won't find it in yourself, talent has the ability to affect you in fascinating ways.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Energy bill... what's the buzz?

What's the skinny? A new energy bill just passed in in the House and is on its way to the Prez. Here's what it demands (using this NY Times article as a reference):

-> "The bill requires cars and light trucks sold in the United States to meet a fleetwide average of 35 miles a gallon by 2020."

This are the infamous CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards you hear about all over the place. Currently, it is 27.5. To me, lowering energy used is as simple as making the things we use more efficient. This gets the action it out of the hands of people who don't care about the big picture (i.e. a majority of consumers). You put part of the burden of conservation on the manufacturers, where, in my opinion, it should be. This does not take the burden OFF of the consumer by any means but it makes it easier for people to make the right choice.

Problems? "Critics say it will make cars and trucks less safe and more expensive," two valid points, to be sure. But this is assuming that safety and economy are mutually exclusive which I don't agree with. Will it make cars more expensive? Sure but so does all the technology and research that goes into making them faster, which, at this junction, is going to take a back seat. You could say that making them more expensive puts off the decision to buy a new car, reducing manufacturing across the board and potential waste of an old car. You could counter THAT with saying that this will keep people in potentially less fuel-efficient cars (i.e. older) for longer. There's also been suggestion that the last time that fuel economy was raised, people simply started driving more and made up for it.

I think a CAFE is necessary but, as it is, will not be effective enough. I think an ECAFE is better: EFFECTIVE Corp Avg Fuel Economy. Under current CAFE standards, a car company could sell one model at 20 MPG and one model at 40 MPG. If 75% of your sales are the 20 MPG car, your EFFECTIVE fuel economy is (.75 x 20) + (.25 x 40) = 25 MPG while your current CAFE would be (20 + 40) / 2 = 30 MPG. Of course you can't enforce consumer choices of a higher MPG automobile but this would mean that the worst offenders would have to be phased out and replaced with better alternatives. People will complain about the lack of choice but our choices are restricted now as it is. I posted the following statement here (scroll down):

Eventually, consumer choice will have be curbed by necessity. We can't own a fully auto weapon, we can't drive cars that don't meet safety standards, we can't drive drunk, and we can't own slaves. These are all choices that have been restricted because of a number of reasons and I'm doing fine because of it. In understand that my quality of life isn't better because I'm allowed to do what I want to do. I've learned to cut back my speed on the freeway, take public transportation, deal with CFLs and power strips, and be a little colder in the winter and warmer in the summer.

That's enough from me... I want to include some relevant feedback from The Car Lounge because there are some serious gearheads and environmentalists who know more about this stuff than I do.

uncleho: "I think the process of conservation of dino fuels (my belief is that we will be tied to it for some time to come, because other fuels are not readily available or practical) in relation to cars requires "motivating" both companies AND consumers. IMO... the root cause necessitates the most motivation, because car companies will only build what people desire. Furthermore, there is only one motivator - government. I believe CAFE is a good start, but that reviews for loop holes (be it truck exclusion or dumb statistics or credits) is required."

CarLuvrSD: "Intrinsic motivation> Government coercion."

rimtrim: "The problem with waiting for intrinsic motivation (aka market forces) to kick in is that it will likely only happen AFTER a major problem has become clear -- either we really do begin to have oil shortages due to lack of supply, or global warming floods NYC, or whatever. By then it will be too late to change in an orderly fashion.

This raises the question of what our goals are. If we want to get as many people as possible into more efficient cars right away, raising the gas tax dramatically is the way to do it.... On the other hand, if the goal is to encourage a gradual changeover with minimal disruption of people's lives, a CAFE-style system is better. It has no effect on people who are happy with the cars they already have, and the effects on new-car buyers are not likely to be huge price increases. While there will be some price increases for additional hybrid or diesel equipment, the automakers would also be pressed to look for low- or no-cost changes to improve economy, such as restricting power, changing transmission gearing, improving aerodynamics, etc. The overall results of this would be that new cars would be less "cool", but more efficient, and probably not that much more expensive."

uncleho: "I often wonder WTF do we fix the CURRENT community design as so much of America (and unfortunately other countries trying to emulate us) is setup for the car (i.e. It is too late to fix it as it will be a massively expensive undertaking.). But if we don't fix it now, when will we fix it? Should we just live under some short-sighted/ignorant design forever or spend the money know for long term conservation?

Detroit and its utter lack of a real public transit system is a good candidate. And who's to say the auto companies need to make money with just CARS? GM's 'motto' is actually to be "#1 in transportation". Guess what GM??? Transportation can = buses (again), train/railway/subway, and even aircraft!

Changes in transport strategy to conserve can actually BE profitable as a whole new drive can be started in an otherwise niche market - public transport!"

The CAFE thing, unfortunately, is not the only change proposed...

-> "[The bill] requires the annual production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, a fivefold increase from current ethanol production levels"

That's bad, plain and simple. Want to know why I think that? Start here, go here and then keep reading; it should not take much to convince you that ethanol is not the answer.

If dreams were pennies...

According to the State Department, MIT is on-track to save the world. I always roll my eyes at these articles about concepts and dreams... I like to read articles about things hitting the marketplace or starting to be manufactured. On the other hand, it is MIT, the same group that brought you the "Flexcar2" idea. Here's the skinny:

Amy Jaffe is surprised that only very few people think she and her colleagues are crazy. What the Massachusetts Technology Institute (MIT) senior, about 400 other students and 30 faculty members from around the world want to do is not a small feat. The group plans to build, in just three years, a hyperefficient, supersafe four-passenger to six-passenger car called VDS Vision that will be produced and used with 95 percent less energy and toxic materials throughout its lifetime than an average existing vehicle.

Hyperefficient! Supersafe! Neither of these words are accepted by my browser spell check, just in case you were wondering.
Adrian Chernoff, who volunteers as a guide, mentor and adviser to program participants, says they face a tremendous challenge...Chernoff, an accomplished inventor and innovator, knows what he is talking about. As a chief architect and principal inventor behind General Motors's 2001 Reinvention of the Automobile program, he helped to bring about several concept and demonstration vehicles such as AUTOnomy, Hy-Wire, CARousel and Sequel. With many independent teams spread around the world, working together smoothly and efficiently will be the most difficult part of the project, Chernoff said. “In the end, it is about networking, collaboration and teamwork,” Chernoff said.

*Sigh*, the Hy-Wire...

GM General Motors Hy-Wire concept
It's funny that this car should come up in a article considering my recent reminiscing session. The Hy-Wire was the GM car that really got me excited about hydrogen power in cars. The innovation behind the car was less about its propulsion and more about its actual design. Hydrogen (and electric) cars allow (read: require) you to re-design the idea of a car from the ground up. Forget about steering shafts, drive-lines, engine placement, and cooling systems; everything needed to move the car is modular and doesn't really limit its placement in the vehicle. What this lets you do is include all this stuff into one "skateboard" section of the car and then rearrange the rest of it as you will. I did a Google Sketch-Up to illustrate:

Hy-Wire skateboard section on Google Sketch-Up
So imagine the green as the batteries and/or fuel cell(s) and the blue for your electric motors. Computers are interspersed through-out and the car is drive-by-wire (so instead of the steering shaft actually turning wheels or your gas pedal actually feeding fuel, your inputs tell the computer to do it [my VW is drive-by-wire for gas input so this isn't crazy future stuff]). That means you can add and remove all the interior parts (seats, dash, etc) and even change the body on it and you won't be affecting how the car moves. It's a great concept and not that hard to actually make happen.

The point I eventually intend to make is that this little Hy-Wire guy has been out and about for many years, at least 7 if my memory serves me right. Despite its great ideas and "potential to revolutionize the blah blah blah," it's gone nowhere. Well, Wired got to drive it at least, that's something.

I admire long term goals ("the group's goal goes beyond that; members also want to change the way cars are produced and used") but it's important to take this kind of news for exactly what it is: a step in the right direction and a promise of absolutely nothing. I would hate for someone to read this and go "here it is! The future is now! Problems are solved!" There are quite a few safe and economic options out there to begin with and not everyone is rushing to get them. You can buy and own an electric vehicle, you can choose a hybrid SUV, you can drive differently. All of these things contributes towards the same goal and this project: using less oil, changing our economy, and polluting less. If people the way we produce and buy and use our cars was apt to be changed, wouldn't we already be doing everything we could?

Simply put, there are not enough people out there (yet) who care enough to make this kind of radical change. Never stop dreaming, never stop building, never stop designing, never ever. But make sure you have the big picture in your head too: there's more to overcome than just the products that are available. There is a massive, interconnected, complicated sociology, psychology, and infrastructure in place that just won't shift directions for a product like a Saint Bernard for a milkbone.

Keeping dreaming but don't quit your day job (see number 7):

THE SEX & CASH THEORY: "The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the task in hand covers both bases, but not often. This tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

OMG! Seattle INCREASES public transportation!?

This I've got to see in person. Here is the main site and here is the route:

SLUT route map
Call me crazy but I'm not sure that route is going to help too much. You're cutting right through a section of Seattle that doesn't have a lot of people living in it. The whole North half of the route is not a very populated/popular area. Plus, the housing there is fairly expensive and I'm pretty sure the bulk of public transportation (PT) riders, for now, are not the ones who left their C-class Mercedes at home (congrats to you if you do, though; PT should have nothing to do with socioeconomic status).

Other then the kind of goofy route, the fare is low ($1.50) and the website says it does connect the other PT systems which is a start:

The Seattle Streetcar's South Lake Union line has eleven stops conveniently located a short walk from other transportation hubs connecting the entire the region's transportation options, including: Metro buses and Sound Transit buses, trains and light rail; Ferry service; Taxi; Flexcar; Park and Ride; and Monorail.

The big upside is that the South Lake Union Trolley has a great acronym. Part of me wonders if someone was smart enough to "accidentally" give it such a funny name to possibly get it into people's minds.

Someone: "Wanna drive there or ride the SLUT?"
Someone else: "Is that a serious question? SLUT, of course!"
The first someone: "Alright, let's go SLUT it up!"

That was fun but I digress... So they have a great nickname, the fare is low, they connect other modes of transportation, and they look pretty neat:

SLUT Seattle Lake Union Trolley car (I wonder if anyone will do an image search for 'slut' and get this picture hahaha
All this is fine and dandy but there's a big problem in the mind of those who would like to see a massive increase in PT options like this one (especially in Seattle). The Seattle PI says that this could lead to new networks of PT: "We now want to talk about a network that connects neighborhoods to downtown." But those are talks, not plans. There is now this fancy, new trolley system covering areas where the ridership is, naturally, going to be pretty low. These are not congested areas, they are not huge urban centers (in terms of living spaces), and they probably didn't need this route to begin with. I suspect that they will see much less people riding the trolley as they anticipated and will use it as a reason to avoid future PT plans. The purse-string controllers will go "see, you silly Seattlites, we told you PT was stupid... look, no one is riding the one we gave you $52 million to build."

Seattle is a beautiful city caught up in a lot of goofy crap. It has two of the most amazing sports stadiums in the country and two disappointing sports teams with a pretty weak (in terms of numbers and overall fanaticism) fan base (come see the maniac Charger fans and you'll see what I mean). PT gets cut and cut and cut and people wonder why no one rides the buses and monorails (the monorail goes from the friggen Science Center to the Westlake Mall... not useful). Ineffective leadership, poor money management, and almost zero cultural diversity, Seattle simply needs a huge injection of something other than heroin.

So what to do? Why not make Seattle the shining example of a green city? Lots of rain to use, it already looks great, and the whole place could use an identity. I mean, it's already called the Emerald City. Make an environment for architects that fosters green design, legislate strict LEED enforcement, add a greentech museum... none of this is hard and none of it is all that expensive. Tax breaks for adding EV charging stations, same for alternative fuel stations.

Seattle skyline from Lake Union
*sigh* complaining about Seattle makes me miss it a little bit... coming home soon.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What does it all mean?

Hugh MacLeod, the first blogger I ever started reading and ever subscribed to, drew this carton which makes me laugh first, then consider the implications:

Hugh MacLeod Gaping Void brand experience cartoon
What are your meaningful brand experiences? What brands get you going? Does it make you feel icky to be asked that question? I think it is a natural human reaction to recoil a bit from the idea of a "Meaningful Brand Experience" making us feel better but I also think it is not a waste of time to consider what it means.

Since we're sharing, I'll start. I have had meaningful brand experiences with Apple, for sure. Listening, organizing, and sharing the music that gets me through my life... also yelling, swearing, and threatening when I realize Apple's conspiracy against PC users (this has not been officially substantiated). Despite it's recent and mysterious demise, I've always had a love affair with Canon digital cameras. The 4+ gigabytes of pictures I obsessively and repeatedly back-up show a long trail of friends, relationships, and experiences, all of which I relate back to my two Canon cameras. On a smaller scale, I also have a strong affection for the BreakBeat Science record label. They were my drum&bass mecca and visiting the shop in New York was a big highlight of my trip out east. Their logo still makes me smile...

BreakBeat Science logo
Today, I'm faced with a different kind of brand experience, a distinctly sad one. Stumbling through alternative energy news on Google News (I know, surprise surprise, a Google product), I came across a few stories mentioning the potential demise of Ballard Power Systems, a fuel cell company in Vancouver, British Columbia that I always fancied myself working for.

Here's one sign:

Peter Stickler, vice president of human resources at Ballard Power Systems Inc. sold 19,180 shares at prices ranging from US$4.90 to US$5 on Dec. 13 and Dec. 14, 2007. His total company holdings after these transactions was 115,440 shares.

And another (with a particularly morose headline and picture):
Ballard -- the Canadian fuel-cell company that once hoped to be the "Intel Inside of the hydrogen car revolution -- has sold off its automotive fuel-cell business to Daimler and Ford.

[Analyst]: [Ballard] would never contemplate such as move if it thought it had any chance of making good on the millions it has poured into that research -- and the vast financing it has been able to raise with promises of the hydrogen highway, a route to the future that has never materialized, but seduced investors with visions of cars that spewed only water from their tailpipes.

The above article takes much of its content from here, BTW.

From the horse's mouth:
Ballard Power Systems (TSX: BLD)(NASDAQ: BLDP) today announced that it has agreed to sell the company's automotive fuel cell assets to Daimler AG and Ford Motor Company. Payment for these assets will consist of all 34.3 million Ballard shares held by Daimler and Ford. These shares will then be cancelled. Ballard expects to record an estimated gain on the transaction of $95-to-$105 million.

"This transaction will enable Ballard to concentrate on growth in fuel cell applications which provide clean energy solutions in commercial markets," said John Sheridan, Ballard's President and CEO. "It also lowers Ballard's risk profile by addressing the realities of the high cost and long timeline for automotive fuel cell commercialization. At the same time, a new private company will be established and will be positioned for success in automotive fuel cell technology over the longer term, with management and funding provided by Daimler and Ford."

So what does it all mean? I have two perspectives on the matter...

If this does, in fact, point to hydrogen's eventual demise as an automotive fuel, so be it. If you know me then you know I love the idea of hydrogen and I feel like it is a viable option. A lot of my optimism is simply a general belief in scientific progress and an overall "never say never" sentiment. I know there are problems with a massive hydrogen economy/infrastructure as it stands; if you follow the industry at all, you'll know this. But the storage problems are, in my opinion, minute and easy to overcome. The hydrogen production problem is the big one but even that has some promising technology .

Regardless, if hydrogen is not meant to be, I'm not going to be the lone voice screaming against all reason for the fuel to be adopted simply because I like it and think it is neat. I'm seeing a lot of this going on with ethanol and I refuse to be counter-productive in the search for sustainable transportation simply because my pet technology didn't work out.

Enough said on that.

The sad part - i.e. my second perspective on this news - is the death of an icon representing something very important to me. Ballad Power Systems was the second company I attributed to clean energy and sustainable vehicles. The first was GM. In fact, GM was the whole reason I started pursuing this industry as a career. It was a Wired article about their fuel cell technology that made me perk up, get my crap together, and go to school (no joke). As I learned more about the technology and what kind of promise it held, Ballard ousted GM as my dream company for employment (after GM declined my generous offer to move out to Detroit and help them pursue green technologies... also no joke. Apparently they have my resume on file). I imagined myself living in Vancouver, making a name for myself in the transportation world. It was a perfect dream but, of course, just that... a dream.

It turns out, all of that dreaming actually lead somewhere. I'm in school with a goal in sight, I'm building valuable contacts in the field, and I'm working hands-on with chemistry that might just be the hydrogen storage silver bullet (there's that bright and shiny optimism). The loss of my "corporate role-model" certainly doesn't indicate the end of the road for my quest but it is symbolic. Ballard's name comes up in almost every hydrogen fuel cell story simply because they build the best fuel cell available right now. The were THE name in fuel cells and, for a while, represented a pretty solid investment.

BLDP Ballard Power Systems stock price
So is this the "end of the road for hydrogen?" Will Ballard Power's symbolic loss of their automotive sector really lead to the demise of this technology? It's a bad sign but, really, who can say? All it really means is that hydrogen will not be profitable in the very near future and Ballard, certainly a company that has shouldered huge financial burdens to try to make this technology come to fruition, needs a break. I will add, however, that having a buyer (Daimler Chrysler...not expected) ready and able to step up and take over the technology is a good thing. Ballard will continue to develop fuel cells but in a different sector (hopefully a profitable one). Who knows, maybe this is exactly what hydrogen technology needs. Ballard can concentrate on different markets and leave the automotive stuff to an automotive company. Win-win? I guess we'll see :)

As for me, I'll have a little moment of silence for the company that symbolized progress and altruism despite obstacles but I will also revisit the big picture reason why I'm pursuing what I'm pursuing.

1) I'm for safe, clean, scalable, and sustainable transportation for the most people possible.

2) I'm not a cheerleader for anything except the greenest, most feasible technology available.

3) It will be hard but not impossible for us to achieve a long-term, valid replacement for petroleum.

I wish great karma and financial success for all the people involved with Ballard Power Systems. Thank you for my meaningful brand experience...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Great minds think alike I guess

Great post from Seth Godin about Whole Foods and this whole eco-movement thing:

A trip to the Whole Foods Market used to be really fun. It's an amusement park for food, a place where the lights are bright, the vegetables are fresh, the potato chips apparently guilt free.

Sometime in the last year, it feels to me, the story changed.

The mantra of "less" which is a natural offshoot of carbon-footprint thinking, combined with the mantra of "less" which is a natural offshoot of overfishing, combined with... have made shopping in a store like this a contest over who can have less impact.

So, here's a can of tuna, but maybe that's not okay because it's a can and it's tuna.

And here's an avocado, but maybe that's not okay because it came a long way in a truck.

And on and on.

For me, local and organic is a treat. I feel great doing it and I'm happy to invest the time to go to the Union Square market. I wonder, though, about how long the legs on that story are. If we're going to make people feel guilty when they spend money, pretty soon they're going to start ignoring the story that makes them feel guilty.

Do you remember when you were a kid and you were supposed to clean your plate when eating because somehow that was going to help some starving kid in China? That story didn't last so long.

I'm more and more convinced that the best hope for the eco movement is to tell a story of efficiency and growth and ingenuity. More is easy to sell. Less almost never is.

Bold emphasis is mine...

Efficiency, growth and ingenuity... certainly things you've read on here, right?

The future (and present) of science

Science, chemistry in particular, is a very interesting world to be involved in, academically and professionally. Actually, I hate the word interesting, too vague. Allow me to start over...

Chemistry is pretty bad ass for the most part. The classes are fascinating if you pay attention and you understand the implications, the implications are important because chemistry, plainly put, is involved in every single thing you experience every second of your life, and practically every experience you have in a research environment has the potential to be novel.

When I started my undergrad research project at SDSU in metal-organic frameworks, I was immediately struck by the open-source nature of the chemistry community. This was something I experienced in my position at Johnson & Johnson but had never seen first hand. For those of you outside of this world that I am just now getting acclimated to, here's exactly how chemistry works:

The skeleton (in this case meaning underlaying framework) is one or a group of very smart people. These are the PhDs and the post docs (those who have continued their formal research after a doctorate degree has been achieved) and they are the heart of any lab environment. They are the brain and kidneys too and, while we're at it, probably the lungs and DNA and hemoglobin as well. I'm really getting out of hand with these anatomical metaphors and probably losing a little focus as well. Keep in mind I'm just now trying to recover from an intense two weeks preparing for final exams. I'm recovering by working a 10 hour day if that makes any sense.

What I'm trying to say is that chemistry is nothing without some serious brain power hanging around. What is interesting about PhDs and professors and so on is that they are not the main workers (most work damn hard, don't get me wrong), they are the directors, the conductors if you will. I would venture a guess that if you're not involved in chemistry that you might think it's all about mixing colorful liquids to get colorful solids that save the world. The real work is done researching and problem solving OUTside of the lab. Let me be clear: the mixing and heating and solvating and freezing and separating and roto-vapping and analyzing are what all of the research is for but, without a plan, the scientific foot-work is useless.

You might be surprised if you knew how much time people spent in front of a computer or notebook doing any number of (somewhat) tedious tasks: recording results, calculating molarity and yield, summarizing information, setting up presentations, and, the major time sink, researching the NEXT STEP. Doing this research can be massively frustrating and, for the time being, is a very medieval (almost spelled that right first time around) system. I guess it might seem a bit ridiculous to call building molecules in a software program and searching through countless records accessed through this crazy thing called the interweb 'medieval' but, to someone who deals with "optimizing web experiences," it's a PITA.

What we do in chemistry is start with a problem, gather as much information as we can, and then just poke at solutions until we find an answer. The first time you start doing this, you're struck by how inefficient the whole process is. Just to start working might take an hour or more of baking glassware and pumping equipment into the "airbox:"

The point I'm meaning to address through this long, ridiculous ramble is that the scientific process for chemistry has come a LONG, LONG way and is almost incomprehensible in terms of its complexity and capacity but there is A LOT of room for improvement. The biggest/best change I could suggest (from my very novice POV) is a vast improvement in the sharing and exchange of information. Right now, we search through existing successful chemical procedures in the form of academic papers which may or may not be clear, free, safe, in English, capable of producing a usable yield, or incredibly expensive. The person who wrote the report may of may not be alive, still reachable, or even willing to answer any questions. They also might be wary of competition for grant money or fame and fortune (and groupies, of course). Here's an example of, basically, what we use to direct our research...
Click here and select "Full Screen" to view it better...

It is, of course, amazing that so much information is available on-line to academic institutions but using it is a drawn-out, frustrating hunt-and-peck activity that can go on for hours or days. The question is, how do you take work that people have, potentially, spent their whole lives accumulating, work that exists in many different forms, published or not?

Science, in a lot of ways, is a very open environment that wants, more than anything, the simple pleasure of accomplishment. Scientific advancements are also the source of a fantastic amount of money and will be as long as sentient beings are mucking about. So what is the middle ground? How can I retain sovereignty over work I've done while giving back to the system that made this work possible? I certainly don't have the answer to that question and I think that no one truly does.

Personally, I'm a fan of things being as open as possible. That's why I blog, plain and simple. That's also why I help people around me with anything I'm good at. I would be much happier in a world with more incorporation, more community, more open-source everything and less chances to be fantastically rich, less copyright laws , and less restriction altogether. "What about the work you do?!!" If everything I did needed to have a clear, upfront monetary value, I would be A LOT LESS BUSY. I certainly wouldn't blog, I wouldn't read, and I would be hard-pressed to stay as diligent in school as I have been. I am truly a fan of open information and will always contribute with that sentiment in mind.

Which brings me to the article that I stumbled upon (yes, that was definitely one hell of an introduction). From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Microsoft is partnering with several universities to create open-access Web sites where chemists, freely and easily, can find details about molecules and atoms. That’s the report today from Peter Murray-Rust of the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge, in his blog.

Murray-Rust notes that Microsoft has financed and developed a software design called Object Re-Use and Exchange “which sees the future as composed of a large number of interoperating repositories rather than monolithic databases.” Using it, he continues, will allow bench chemists and undergraduates to browse libraries of molecular structures to get information they need for research and publications, rather than being restricted to whatever database to which they happen to have a password.

“We shall also be ‘scraping’ (ugly word) any material we can legally access,” Murray-Rust writes.

Partners in the program, besides Cambridge and Microsoft, include Penn State University, Cornell, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the PubChem project, a free database of molecular structures hosted by the National Institutes of Health

We will, hopefully, see this more and more as time goes on. As Google keeps making uncopyrighted work available for free and science opens up further and further, people will see the benefits that don't have an intrinsic dollar value.

The best part about this is that the ones who create the information (students, professors, etc) are FAR more likely to be the ones who want the information shared (compared to executives, deans, etc.). Though the universities where the work was done have some kind of claim over the knowledge, it is ultimately up to the scientist whether that information goes anywhere. They can share it clandestinely, talk about it whenever they want, and help 'competing' researchers take that next step. The information always belongs to the holder, no matter how many copyright laws there are.

Here's another example of a push for professors to share their research (also from the Chronicle):
Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, wants scholars to stop keeping their research materials to themselves. Just about every academic has notes, photographs, digital scans of research documents, and plenty of other data on their hard drives, he says, but they rarely share anything beyond what makes it into their final books or journal articles. Why not upload such material to a shared online database for other scholars to draw from?

The center announced yesterday that it will work with the nonprofit Internet Archive to create just such a database — and to build tools to make it easy for professors to add their personal research files. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded $514,000 to the center to support the effort, and gave more than $700,000 more to the Internet Archive for the project as well.

Mr. Cohen said that the key to his plan was ease of use. Many professors are using the Zotero software already, he said, and the upload will take place with just a few clicks. Plus, adding materials might enhance a scholar’s reputation, since his or her name will remain attached to the contribution. Materials in the archive should be easy enough to find, since the Internet Archive, where the materials will be posted, is already popular online.

Open it up, folks, let your information out. Your value, monetary or otherwise, is based largely on your future potential, not your past body of work. Your past body of work serves as a possible indicator of your future potential. Get out there and share what you have, no matter what it is. Everyone will benefit, yourself the most.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The magic of statistical mechanics

The software that likely went into this (unless it's a big pile of pseudo-science) is probably a sight to behold. From the NY Times:

The company employs what it calls a “package flow” software program, which among other hyper-efficient practices involving the packing and sorting of its cargo, maps out routes for every one of its drivers, drastically reducing the number of left-hand turns they make (taking into consideration, of course, those instances where not to make the left-hand turn would result in a ridiculously circuitous route).

Last year, according to Heather Robinson, a U.P.S. spokeswoman, the software helped the company shave 28.5 million miles off its delivery routes, which has resulted in savings of roughly three million gallons of gas and has reduced CO2 emissions by 31,000 metric tons. So what can Brown do for you? We can’t speak to how good or bad they are in the parcel-delivery world, but they won’t be clogging up the left-hand lane while they do their business.

That's what I'm talking about!

The act of going green comes in many different shapes and sizes (only one color, of course). It ranges from altering your life completely to eliminate/drastically lessen your impact on your surrounding environment all the way to doing something that benefits both yourself and the environment. At this stage in the game, people should at least be CONSIDERING their impact on energy, water and waste. For one, it is just the right thing to do (see John Locke and his ideas on Limits to Accumulation... I would argue that overuse [waste] falls under the same heading as spoilage do to over accumulation). For another, it could lead to savings and quality of life improvements you never thought about.

Gold star to UPS for finding a very interesting way to save money and use less gas!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Try typing "" into your address bar... sweet huh?

Monday, December 10, 2007


Politics, as a rule, usually just make my head spin and my tummy hurt but I found a nice, succinct collection of presidential opinions on major issues.

It really brings everything together and makes you think very big picture. I think a lot of people pick one issue and make that the way they vote (*cough* stem cells *cough*). I think, if you are a rational person, it would be hard to look at this long list and only pick one issue.

Keep it real out there ;)

Odd categorization

Want to pick a fuel efficient car? The government site seems to have a few options for you here. Best of the best for those who don't like clicking on links for themselves?


Toyota Prius with 48 city and 45 highway

Runners up:

Honda Civic Hybrid with 40 city and 45 highway
Toyota Yaris with 29 city and 36 highway
Toyota Corolla with 28 city and 37 highway
Honda Fit with 28 city and 34 highway
Nissan Versa with 26 city and 31 highway

What was the surprise of this site? The MPG for the following may not be surprising but their categories are... odd car categories
Since when is a giant Bentley coupe called a mini compact?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Camry hybrid

Kind words from a friend of mine who ditched a 9 MPG SUV (an Explorer gets 9MPG???) for a 34 MPG Camry:

Not only going broke paying for the gas in my truck (9mpg) but I'm really getting behind the alternative fuel movement. Trying to do my part baby! :) Car is AWESOME!! It doesn't have the power that you usually get (4cyl) but I'm too old to care about that kind of crap anyway. I do miss being up high while driving though - thats a tough transition. We got it all tricked out with NAV/Leather etc.. The mpg is only stated at like 34mpg as compared to the 07' Camrys which were stated as 40city 38hwy for the hybrid but I guess the EPA changed their standards for mpg testing? In the past I guess they did those tests with some 100lb dude driving with no AC/Heat/stereo etc in perfect conditions and driving on a completely flat surfaces. But now they are making it more realistic or something??

Yes, EPA MPG standards have been changed which is a good thing and, yes, moving towards sustainability means losing things that you thought you couldn't live without. It seems blasphemous to say that you're willing to give up a few ponies and try something new for the sake of doing the right thing but that'll change.

BTW, the new Camries look pretty darn good in the right trim level:
2008 Toyota Camry

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Green Vocab WotD #001: Cogeneration

My, aren't I being optimistic by numbering this one 001 and though I expect 998 more of them! I'm hoping to bring a little more information into my blog here as well as keep myself "in the know." No use talking about stuff I know very little about, eh?


From Wiki:

Cogeneration (also combined heat and power, CHP) is the use of a heat engine or a power station to simultaneously generate both electricity and useful heat.

Hence, COgeneration. It goes on...
Conventional power plants emit the heat created as a byproduct of electricity generation into the environment through cooling towers, as flue gas, or by other means. CHP or a bottoming cycle captures the byproduct heat for domestic or industrial heating purposes, either very close to the plant, or —especially in Scandinavia and eastern Europe—for distribution through pipes to heat local housing.

This goes back to the LED lights I put on my X-mas tree. I told you that there is no hear coming off of them and that is where the energy savings is. In this case, the "byproduct of electricity generation" is heat and there is nothing to do about that (for now). So, there is waste energy. Remember, heat = light = electricity = radiation = energy. They are in different forms but it's all, thermodynamically, the same thing. We could theoretically power our own biological processes with electricity... in fact some of them are (nervous system, anyone?)

Cogeneration is another example of "Big Picture" thinking. Someone realized, decades after the discovery, that, hey, energy is energy. Waste heat (like your car engine) is wasted energy from gasoline. Get rid of the waste heat and you use less gasoline, plain and simple. In the case that you can't get rid of the heat (like your car engine), use it somehow.
In the United States, Con Edison produces 30 billion pounds of steam each year through its seven cogeneration plants (which boil water to 1,000°F/538°C) before pumping it to 100,000 buildings in Manhattan—the biggest commercial steam system in the world.

Cities are disgusting, pollution-soaked, dangerous clusters of wasteful humans... for now. They are also beautiful in their design and complexity and a great place to start using green technology. I find cities fascinating and will likely never live outside of one. Despite the destruction and waste that goes into maintaining them, it is better, in my opinion, than sprawl. Working to make NY, LA, Seattle, etc. cleaner will always trickle down to other locations.

Where was I going with that? Oh yeah... that kind of heating couldn't really happen in Spokane or Poway or any other small city. The electricity generation has to be massive and the populated areas have to be nearby. Look forward to systems like this pervading the nation.
Byproduct heat at moderate temperatures (212-356°F/100-180°C) can also be used in absorption chillers for cooling. A plant producing electricity, heat and cold is sometimes called trigeneration or more generally: polygeneration plant.

Heat used for cooling?! That's witchcraft!!! Not really... refrigerant like what is in your car/home AC is simply moved and vaporized using heat. Refrigerant cools things down by evaporating, like how your hand gets cold when you spill rubbing alcohol on it. It's all thermodynamics!
Cogeneration is a thermodynamically efficient use of fuel. In separate production of electricity some energy must be rejected as waste heat, but in cogeneration this thermal energy is put to good use.

Amen to that!

Hopefully we all learned something... I know I did :)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"My" Idea

I say that because this came to me a little while back. I certainly claim no sovereignty over it, just explaining why I thought this was so neat.

The article

On a beautiful, crisp late fall afternoon, rock icon Neil Young took his 1959 Lincoln Continental for one last spin before a team of mechanics ripped out its gas-guzzling engine to make way for an electric motor.

What a great idea! Reminds me of the high school I posted about a few months ago. I love the idea of switching such a great, old car into a symbol of sustainable transportation. It's also nice to see celebrities doing the right thing.

Car in question (not actually his):

The article goes on to quote Neil as saying it will get 100 MPG and runs off of biodiesel. Transformation apparently takes 45 days... I'm sure Neil has a replacement.

More interesting than this specific car is the idea itself. I was asked a while back what my dream job would be and I said "CEO/owner/prez of a company that either built sustainable cars or modified current cars to be sustainable." I feel like that would really stretch my business sense, let me work individually with people, keep me in the auto world, let me be an innovator in terms of technique, and really work my entrepreneurial spirit (which really has not had a chance to be seen at this point). It's the perfect job, IMHO. In fact, being the CEO may not be exactly what I want but having something to do with a company like that would be ideal.

Well, the company that is changing this Lincoln is doing just that:
Goodwin is making a name for himself -- and his company, H-Line Conversions -- by turning gas-guzzling behemoths like Hummers, Cadillac Escalades, Jeeps and other big American cars into clean-power machines. The first thing he does is remove the old inefficient engine -- even if it's a brand new vehicle -- and replace it with a diesel engine that can run on biodiesel. What's the drawback of his method? You guessed it. Cost. "It's not cost-effective for someone to run out and spend $40,000 to double the fuel economy, but I have no shortage of customers," Goodwin says. Including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's having his Wagoneer converted to biodiesel. Goodwin, 37, drives a 1987 gas burning Wagoneer, rents his home and will sheepishly tell you he didn't graduate from high school. Expect to hear a lot more about Goodwin in the future. Companies are knocking down the door to work on projects with him.

I'm torn between seeing this as a massive opportunity for the future or scared that someone is already doing it....

What do you do when you see someone else living your dream and it's suddenly very clear to you how real that dream could be??


Monday, December 03, 2007

Zero inspiration

Final exams are impending and, with that, comes comprehensive, suffocating exhaustion. No longer am I tired or happy,or good when asked, I just am. This sentiment is both very familiar and not at all unique to me. All around, the incontestable signs of impending, permanent, official critique are popping up. Attendance, which dropped last week, is quickly climbing back up. Faces I'm not quite familiar with are appearing in class. The black-circle-under-the-eye plague is spreading unchecked across previously fresh-faced young whatevers-to-be.

Finals bring out the soldier in some, the beggar in others, and nothing at all in a third segment on campus. Some beg, borrow, and plead for a passing grade, suddenly feeling regret for the last 3 months of letting things slide. The library and computer lab are now both full of inconsiderate asses, completely mindless to what could and should be a quiet environment. The population there doubles; the regulars still remain but now they are joined by a new contingent, a platoon of slackers, procrastinators, alcoholics, and others who treat school like it starts and ends in the same month.

Much like the roles we take, the dress code around campus also splits into thirds. Suits and ties and dresses and blouses appear as everyone gets ready for that final group presentation in This Won't Help You Later 110. At the same time, old T-shirts and track suits and pajamas and helter-skelter hair dos also propagate, the product of a complete lack of interest in anything but the task at hand. Appearance, hygiene, laundry, and other typically essential components of society easily take a back seat to your future which, invariably, rides on your receipt of a vowel or a consonant. Some, like myself, didn't care, still don't and won't next semester either. About appearance, of course. My future rests in the letter, just like everyone else.

Still, despite the morose turn the campus takes this time of year, there is a small glimmer of hope in the student body's heavy and bloodshot eyes. With the end of finals comes a respite from the regular regimen. Some of us leave, some of us work, some of us stay and do nothing, but the bells aren't ringing, the tests aren't being passed forward, and the heavy books are on the shelf. Combine all of these together and you have something, however small, to celebrate. I plan to double the amount of hours I'm working, learn how to use a publishing software, spend a while at home half-relaxing, and catch up with my schedule-estranged girlfriend (who's name, unfortunately, escapes me for the time being). I call this celebration.

So good luck to you in whatever you do and Happy December to all.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Well said

From the WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) "Deeper Luxury" report found here (it's a 52-page PDF, FYI).

If everyone were to live like the average European, three planets would be needed to provide adequate quantities of natural resources – for the average North American, five planets would be required.13 It would be physically impossible for all the world’s poor to achieve greater wellbeing in the same ways that Europeans and North Americans have managed so far. Such wasteful development is possible only for a minority, and for a limited time. This is neither morally nor environmentally sustainable. Our challenge is to find ways to improve human wellbeing within natural limits; to stop living as though we had another planet to go to.

So freakin cool

Neat lightbulb from Hulger
Man, it took a while for someone to do this... so neat!!! Just a regular CFL (compact fluorescent light) bulb in a gorgeous shape. Ever just see something that makes you stop for a second and appreciate? It doesn't have to be as ostentatious as a Ferrari or cliche as a model... it can be something simple, like this.

Dig a little deeper into the producer and you'll find some rather disturbing other products: a lizard-skin bluetooth handset that makes it look like you're on a normal phone. Can we PLEASE, as a species, move beyond killing animals just to make things like pretty? Totally senseless and unnecessary, IMHO.

Light bulb is still sexy though...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Maybe E85 not a miracle? Shocker...

Link is here:

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that biofuels "offer a cure [for oil dependence] that is worse than the disease." A National Academy of Sciences study said corn-based ethanol could strain water supplies. The American Lung Association expressed concern about a form of air pollution from burning ethanol in gasoline. Political cartoonists have taken to skewering the fuel for raising the price of food to the world's poor.

They have this very telling little graphic as well:

Ethanol prices 2004 2005 2006 2007
^^^ That says a lot to me. It says beware of fads, particularly green ones. It says don't have the "short sell" mentality and try to make that fast buck if you have no idea what you're doing.

I found this to be quite interesting... did you know this?
The U.S. gives oil refiners an excise-tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of ethanol they blend into gasoline. And even though it's the oil industry that gets this subsidy, the industry dislikes being forced to use a nonpetroleum product. The U.S. ethanol industry is further protected by a 54-cent tariff on every gallon of imported ethanol.

How did ethanol get all of this help so fast? It was interesting to see how fast the idea of ethanol made it into our collective consciouses. At first it was rarely talked about, then it was all over the place, and now people are asking questions.

But here is what REALLY bugs me:
Ethanol's opponents also began to highlight reasons why ethanol might not be such a boon to the environment, citing some recent research studies.

Look at ANY objective research and this will be blatantly clear to anyone. I spent a total of maybe 20 minutes going through scholarly journals (electronically of course) and found that ethanol not only frees up 10% extra energy (i.e. if it takes 100 joules to make a gallon, that gallon produces 110 joules), it uses a whole lot of fresh water, something else we need to conserve, and really does a number on the soil. It has been a total mystery to me why people were pursuing this fuel. Now I know, it was probably...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Hybrid Choo-choo

Taking us one step closer to that hybrid jet I've been designing on the weekends, GE announced that they are working on a hybrid powered locomotive. "Wow, cool," you might be saying and I am saying the same except it's more like "HOLY SH*T! COOL!" and it's probably for a different reason. First, an interesting fact from their site:

The energy dissipated in braking a 207-ton locomotive during the course of one year is enough to power 160 households for that year.

That fact is probably one of the coolest I've heard in a while (and I live an existence bombarded by facts). First, that is a helluvalotta energy which makes sense because trains, because of their weight, generate a lot of momentum (the product of speed and mass). Now add in deceleration (reducing speed) and you have energy, joules of power. Second, the comparison to 160 households is simply incredible. I'm floored... in a good way.

But here's why I'm so excited:
GE's hybrid locomotive's lead-free rechargeable batteries will be able to provide superior performance by allowing operators to draw an additional 2,000 horsepower when needed.

What a great way to test, research, and develop high-horsepower and high-torque applications for electric motors! Right now, there's not a lot of propulsion methods that will work for a semi-truck or a bulldozer or, well, a train simple because big, heavy things need a big push. It is difficult to get an electric motor to push that mind of weight around which is why you'll find a lot of weight-saving features on hybrids and EVs. GE is going to have a fantastic, constant lab to try new things in the high-load realm.

GE General Electric hybrid locomotive, train
Getting big, thirsty, heavy, dirty diesels off of the road, whether we clean up diesel fuel and engines and replace everything or find a new method, is an important piece of the sustainable transportation puzzle. You better BELIEVE that if these hit tracks, I will replace some/all of my air travel with them.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Really, more green than red

Wow, holidays just came and kicked me in the butt this year.

In order to avoid being caught off-guard by the impending holiday season, the happy couple concocted a continuous reminder of the upcoming festivities in the form of a plant draped with electronics and doo-dads. Feel free to follow our festive lead.

LED Christmas lights
How does it look? I'm very pleased with the whole set-up. The lights are low-energy Phillips LED lights in the "soft white" color. Being a complete green-compulsive that I am now, I was unable to just go with regular lights. These are $12 at Target, not anymore than regular lights, and, according to the general hype, use 80-90% of the energy. That's enough to switch if you already have a set, that's for sure.

The interesting thing you will notice about these lights, despite the strange things they do to your eyes when the lights or your head is moving, is that they emit no heat whatsoever. Grab the bulbs and you feel nothing but room-temp plastic. This is where all the energy savings is coming from and, when you understand this, you begin to understand some of the energy waste that plagues our, well, world.

Light bulbs certainly don't need to emit heat to light our way, only photons. Same goes for your car engine; you don't need all the heat of a combustion engine to get from one place to another. The heat, in fact, is a bad thing for our cars (particularly turbocharged ones like my VW). Heat, in many instances, is just a byproduct of the process required to get energy out of a substance/material. Find a technology that gets rid of an energetic byproduct (heat for lighting your house or light for, say, welding metal) and you save energy.

Anyways, I'm 100% satisfied with the LED light purchase and would recommend storing as many strands of regular lights as you can afford. Save some dough, save some electrons, and lower your risk of fire. Also, pick up a glass pickle ornament while you're out:

LED Christmas lights and a glass pickle

Wiki says:

The Christmas Pickle is an American tradition related to the Christmas tree. In this tradition, a family decorates its Christmas tree with ornaments including one glass pickle. On Christmas morning, the first child to find the pickle on the tree would get a special gift and would supposedly have a year of good fortune.

No kids here and I'm not a particularly traditional American but the thought of a random, glass pickle on the Christmas tree was simply too enticing to ignore.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm thankful for:

- My friends, family, and everything in between that keep me going through everything. I need you more than you might think I do. Take care of yourself and stay in touch.

- My health, mental stability, and employment. I never take these attributes for granted and I'm glad I know how to retain them; I spent years trying to do away with them, glad that's over.

- The skills, talents, abilities, and capacities people keep telling me I have (I won't admit to them... not ever).

And, because you've been good, here's a treat :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thermodynamics... very funny

Thermodynamics is a funny subject. The first time you go through it, you don't understand it at all. The second time you go through it, you think you understand it, except for one or two small points. The third time you go through it, you know you don't understand it, but by that time you are so used to it, it doesn't bother you any more.

Arnold Sommerfeld

Hydrogen from biological sources

Sunrise in Cancun, Mexico

What's the most miraculous thing you can think of? What is the most amazing thing that exists on this planet? What just totally blows your mind about your existence? If you said "my existence," you totally got that question right.

Life is amazing, plain and simple. If you're unconvinced, Wiki "DNA" or "protein folding" or "hemoglobin" and try to make sense of it. The processes that are involved with living are just... incredible. English will fail in describing just how incredible they are so I'll stop stuttering and move on. The reason I'm on this tear is that I had a biochem test today and, with my regimen of chemistry lecture classes, I'm always torn between overworked and utterly fascinated. I guess that's how you know you picked the right major, ya?

We know so much about life and, yet, so little. What we do know is that, in it's present form and capacity, the earth can handle a whole ton of organisms without importing anything from anywhere. Well, there is one exception: the sun. Without the sun, we're toast. Actually, we're the opposite of toast but either way we're screwed. Solar radiation is pretty much the source and power for all life on the planet.

Sunset in La Jolla, California
Point being, the sun will be here while we're here and, when it's gone, we're gone too. While it's here, it's unlimited and we must find a better way to use it than we are doing at present. Solar power and all of it's subsets are THE way to energy independence for every country, state, and person on this planet. I've said it before and I'll say it again:

biological processes can solve virtually any problem. in particular, it can solve our energy problem

Here's just one reason why:

Researchers at Penn State University say they've developed a way to use bacteria to extract hydrogen from almost any biodegradable organic substance, from grass clippings to wastewater.

You always hear that hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet. It is but not in the gas phase that we need it to use it for energy. Why? Because it just can't ever be that easy, can it? That and it is really energy dense so creating it costs energy. Thermodynamics says you can't create or destroy energy - one system uses it to do work on other systems and the energy just moves around. Anyways...

The main problem with a hydrogen economy as it stands (and, if I say, from a very pessimistic or simpleton mindset) is our current inability to get hydrogen out of the states it likes to be in (mostly bonded to carbon like in oils, tissue, hair, anything relating to life). Algae is currently being explored, now bacteria.
Logan and his research assistant Shaoan Cheng's method uses bacteria called exoelectrogens to break down acetic acid -- produced by fermenting cellulose, glucose or other biodegradable organic matter -- in a microbial electrolysis cell to create hydrogen.

You might, at this point, be asking "whathef..." What they're doing is taking cellulose (very abundant, non-digestible carbohydrate from plants) or any other organic material (something that contains carbon and hydrogen like your bod, anything you eat, anything that grows) and making acetic acid by fermenting it (letting it go bad). The little micro-organisms break it down and...
When bacteria consume the acid, electrons are transferred to a graphite anode. The bacteria also release protons -- hydrogen atoms stripped of electrons -- that are held in solution. As electrons are transferred to a platinum cathode, they combine with the protons and generate 0.3 volts of electricity. Adding another 0.2 volts creates hydrogen gas.

These bacteria are actually oxidizing (removing electrons [what electricity consists of]) the acid! Stuff happens and electricity is created. Boost that voltage with a little bit more and hydrogen gas is generated. Wow... Here is the big picture:
The researchers noted that the method produces up to 82 percent more energy than the electricity and biomass needed to produce it.

Keep that in mind... that is an important figure. The higher that percentage is, the better. Oil is probably 200-300% (total guess) while ethanol is under 10% and sometimes less.

Here is the Penn State announcement.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A few quick ones

I went back to Washington this last weekend and had no time to update while my list of links was getting longer and longer.

Hybrid pick-up truck... a step in the right direction I guess but sub-20 MPG is still pretty bad. Here's the problem:

Partnering General Motors' patented 2-Mode Hybrid system and a powerful 6.0L gas V-8, the Silverado Hybrid delivers highly efficient performance while maintaining full-size pickup capability

Why the heck do you need a 6.0L engine? That's really big, probably one of the biggest in its class. Drop the displacement and keep the hybrid system. I'm well aware that the electric motors are not going to haul/tow very much but you don't need more than probably 100-150 HP to cruise on the freeway.



Well, maybe just one quick one. Time for class

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dont conceal, reveal

From Seth Godin's blog:

A different technique is starting to gain traction, though. Working to reveal instead of conceal. My fish monger in Grand Central has started placing signs in front of each fish. They describe exactly where the fish came from, whether it's healthy and how endangered it is. You'll never see fine print saying "previously frozen." They don't have any fine print. The first few times you visit the stand, it's actually off putting. It takes the romance and pleasure out of buying the fish, because you realize that there's a cost to it. The meat guy across the way doesn't have pictures of cows being slaughtered, does he?

But after a while, because the information is out there, because smart fish buyers already know some fish is endangered, the signs give you power. They allow you to make smart choices. They send a message to the customer about the honesty and intent of the seller. They build trust.

This will, by necessity, become more popular as the green economy advances. Hopefully, people won't easily fall prey to the "green" tag without evidence of its extent. I think if you have half a brain (meaning you use half your brain when you buy something), you can skim off most of the bullcrap. But inventive, persistent, well-formed marketing has a way of circumventing our brains instead of appealing to them. Marketing is, unfortunately, value-neutral in so many cases (think cigarettes, fast food, Blackwater). It's hard to figure out how to vote with your money when the candidates are not what they seem (that was meant to be a metaphor).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Brilliant - Silicon Recycling

First off, I'll say that this technology is brilliant:

IBM today announced an innovative new semiconductor wafer reclamation process... The new process uses a specialized pattern removal technique to re-purpose scrap semiconductor wafers -- thin discs of silicon material used to imprint patterns that make finished semiconductor chips for computers, mobile phones, video games, and other consumer electronics -- to a form used to manufacture silicon-based solar panels. The new process was recently awarded the “2007 Most Valuable Pollution Prevention Award” from The National Pollution Prevention Roundtable (NPPR).

If you're unsure, this is a GREAT, GREAT, GREAT win for solar technology. As the article states, solar technology is being held back by a shortage of materials - in specific, silicon. Nothing worse than trying to bring greentech to the people and having it be too expensive because of materials. Briefly:
"One of the challenges facing the solar industry is a severe shortage of silicon, which threatens to stall its rapid growth,” said Charles Bai, chief financial officer of ReneSola, one of China's fastest growing solar energy companies.

IBM and others in the industry use silicon wafers both as the starting material for manufacturing microelectronic products and to monitor and control the myriad of steps in the manufacturing process. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, worldwide 250,000 wafers are started per day across the industry. IBM estimates that up to 3.3% of these started wafers are scrapped. In the course of the year, this amounts to approximately three million discarded wafers. Because the wafers contain intellectual property, most can not be sent to outside vendors to reclaim so are crushed and sent to landfills, or melted down and resold.

Awesome, it's win-win... but I still wonder...Why did IBM put time and effort into this project? There are three reasons I can immediately come up with

1) The did it out of the goodness of their hearts

Though this is, IMHO, fantastic in the way that the chances of it being true fall somewhere between "slim" and "zip." Which, as you heard in Dumb and Dumber, still means there is a chance. If I started an environmental company, you better believe I would put "green" and "profit" as equal in priority. In fact, I wouldn't start a business I believed to be unsustainable. So, yes, IBM could have had an epiphany. More likely, however...

2) They did it to APPEAR to have good, green hearts

Is that wrong? No. It's predictable, to be sure, but the outcome is the same in the end. Or is it?

Though this is, as I mentioned, a big win for solar power regardless of the motivation. But if this is a marketing opportunity more than anything else, it leaves the possibility of it going away quickly when the benefits don't outweigh the costs for IBM alone. Lets say the recycling process gets a little expensive or they have to hire more people to take care of the process or any number of different things that could happen. Suddenly, appearing green is no longer a priority and the process slows to a halt. The press release already went out so the impact was already felt. Is anyone going to track and report on it if they decide to stop? No one... BUT ME!

Which brings me to the last reason this process might have been created...

3)It makes them money

Between 2 and 3, it's hard to say which one is more likely and, in the end, it's all the same thing (green image leads to more sales). In fact, it ends up being both:
IBM’s commitment to environmental conservation blah blah blah blah blah blah

The projected ongoing annual savings for 2007 is nearly $1.5 million and the one-time savings for reclaiming stockpiled wafers is estimated to be more than $1.5 million.

This further proves my (and others') theory on the environment:

things will not change until it becomes profitable for them to do so

Keep in mind I am not saying ANYTHING against IBM. This is a great move on their part and I would not expect an industry giant to do anything but do as it has done in the past. If this is an indication of corporate altruism, then all the better. An environmental win is a win.
The new wafer reclamation process produces monitor wafers from scrap product wafers - generating an overall energy savings of up to 90% because repurposing scrap means that IBM no longer has to procure the usual volume of net new wafers to meet manufacturing needs. When monitors wafers reach end of life they are sold to the solar industry. Depending on how a specific solar cell manufacturer chooses to process a batch of reclaimed wafers - they could save between 30 - 90% of the energy that they would have needed if they'd used a new silicon material source. These estimated energy savings translate into an overall reduction of the carbon footprint -- the measure of the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service -- for both the Semiconductor and Solar industries.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Project Better Place

A great name for a potentially great project. This is a FOR-PROFIT corporation that is dedicated to making EVs (cars powered by electricity) a wide-spread, viable transportation solution. I feel like if I paraphrase more, I'm just going to ruin it so I'll let them speak for themselves.

Today, the world depends on oil as its fundamental transportation energy source. With the rapid rise in oil prices, a number of alternatives to oil have been proposed in recent years with little success. Project Better Place will focus on the integration of existing technologies and systems to provide the infrastructure and scale necessary to make electric cars a viable alternative to fuel-based vehicles. By doing so, Project Better Place will overcome low adoption rates to-date due to the lack of an established and ubiquitous charging infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

The timing of the launch of Project Better Place is based on two trends—the upward trend in the price of oil, and the downward trend in the price of cutting edge batteries. For the first time, the per mile energy cost for an electric vehicle has fallen below that of an internal combustion engine-powered vehicle. Within a decade, the cost of energy production and storage for the lifetime of an electric vehicle will fall below the fuel costs for a single year of a traditional automobile.

I'll say, first-off, that having solid ground to base your business on is a good start. I'm not a business expert but that part makes sense. Green companies frequently depend upon the altruism of consumers which simply does not exist in the quantities that would make a sound business plan. You can't ask someone to pay twice as much or settle for an inferior product simply based on how environmental it is. You'll get people like me and the other < 1% but everyone else will want the better performer, regardless of how guilty they feel. When you say "gas cars will cost more, EVs will be cheap," you have a draw for the majority of people. The EV might be a bit smaller and less horsepower but it costs you 1/4 of what your car does AND it's green. THAT'S where you start to get converts.

So, how to do it? Here comes the really neat part:
The business model for the electric cars will be similar to that used by mobile phone operators. In the same way that wireless operators deploy a network of cell towers to provide an area of mobile phone coverage, Project Better Place will establish a network of charging spots and battery exchange stations to provide ubiquitous access to electricity to power electric vehicles. The company will partner with car makers and source batteries so that consumers who subscribe to the network can get subsidized vehicles which are cheaper to buy and operate than today’s fuel-based cars. Consumers will still own their cars and will have multiple car models to choose from.

Similar to cellular phone companies, Project Better Place will offer consumers several subscription-based ownership models. Through these subscription models, vehicle owners will be linked into a nationwide network of charge spots and exchange stations. When a consumer parks his or her car, the network synchronizes the car with the smart electric grid to recharge the battery. When a driver travels long-distance, he or she can swap batteries at an exchange station to get a fully charged battery, similar to how we now stop to fill our gas tanks today.

To match multiple customer segments, Project Better Place will offer several car models and subscription pricing packages that will reduce total cost of ownership and subsidize the car as part of this package.

I like the way this sounds! Hopefully they will also be able to address existing cars. I would think that there are a lot more people out there who would rather convert their current car to EV rather than buying a new one. Keep in mind, this also saves manufacturing energy and pollution as well as raw materials. Gotta look at the BIG PICTURE, right?

Reading a new book

I'm pleased to be starting a new book: "Zoom: The Global Race to the Car of the Future." My dad sent it to me (he's a book-a-holic... I don't think he's even touched this one yet) the other day and I started it yesterday. I'll post a review when I'm done with it.

I find it very hard to set aside time for reading when I'm in school. When classes are in session and I try to pick up a book because it looks interesting or might just have what it takes to distract me for a little while, I feel guilty. How could I be reading for pleasure when there are thousands of pages of required reading I could be doing? Same goes with blogging vs. term papers. Go fig. It's probably a good thing that I write and read for pleasure alongside of the mandatory stuff. Maybe I won't see either activity as tedious, I can just trick myself into thinking it's fun. Ya right.

Friday, November 09, 2007


Anyone get that?

Akira-like motorcycle called the EV-X8
This bike looks like a lot of fun! Maybe not as much as the last one I posted but still... driver position is great; it looks like you might be able to stand it for the 110 miles it gets per charge. And a top speed of 92 isn't too shabby either.

To avoid any awkward situations involving bad jokes, I'll end by saying that there is no official mention of the inclusion of leather-clad asian girls but I'll leave the ironing out of those details to the company.

As a side note, their website is beautiful if not immediately legible.

Axle group website