Monday, June 23, 2014

Sustainable business

That's my excuse for being in Andalucía for 12 days with a group of nine Santa Clara students. Local arrangements and site visits have all been taken care of by our friends at Universidad Loyola Andalucía, a brand-new Jesuit school based in Seville and Córdoba, so my presence is frankly rather superfluous. I tag along, ask some questions, and try to make sure nobody drinks so much that they can't participate... with this group, I didn't expect problems, and haven't had any. Meanwhile I get to visit three wonderful Spanish cities for the first time: Seville, Málaga, and Córdoba.

So far the site visits have focused more on sustainable technology than sustainable business, which is probably too bad for many of the students, most of whom are not engineering types, but is great for someone like me who is curious about how things work and is endlessly impressed by human ingenuity.

Loyola's Seville campus currently (and temporarily) occupies three buildings in a technology complex recently built by Abengoa, the Spanish multinational construction and energy company. Abengoa has gone big into designing and building renewable energy facilities, including the new 280 megawatt Mojave Solar Project (MSP) in the United States. That facility is based on the parabolic trough technology, which frankly is not very exciting but seems quite effective and scalable. Arrays of long parabolic mirrors focus the sunlight onto tubes containing a fluid that is heated and then flows to a central location where it drives turbines to generate electricity. Much more interesting to see in person is the tower technology, which focuses all the energy from a large mirror array onto a fairly small area at the top of a tall tower, where again a fluid is heated for generation. Here is one of the towers at the solar facility we visited outside of Seville... it's 160 meters high:

Energy storage has been, of course, the Achilles heel of solar. One interesting and very promising development in concentrated solar power is the use of molten salts (instead of, say, water or oil), which can be raised to a very high temperature and then stored for later power generation when the sun is unavailable.

The Abengoa Technology Campus, where the university is based for now, was designed by architect Richard Rogers along with Spanish partners, and is LEED platinum certified—i.e., about as green as you can get. Aesthetically speaking, I found the buildings attractive but rather sterile.

Next up: sewage treatment!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


These are very good indeed at La Primera del Puente in Seville: grilled squid topped with a garlic-herb-olive oil sauce, washed down with a cold cerveza. I also had the bacalao con tomate. Based on this evidence, it seems likely I will return.

The Southern Reach Trilogy

The first two installments of Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach Trilogy" are, to my mind, perfect summer reads—in fact, damn good reads any time of the year. Smart, exciting, well-written, plot-perfect, psychological, they drop you into a world that is familiar but has somehow gone strange; soon you find yourself inside the brains of the complex but damaged and incomplete characters as they grope their way toward understanding the new strangeness, the mysteries of their own personal histories, and how the two might be related.

I have read a number of science fiction novels in which alien (maybe?) biologies arrive and start making trouble not just with the natural world but with human minds and personalities—Octavia Butler comes to mind—but part of what makes VanderMeer's new novels so compelling is how he successfully welds the exobiology weirdness onto superbly executed genre conventions. The first novel, Annihilation, is at core a survival adventure story: there's a bit of Hunger Games for grownups here. The follow-up, Authority, which I devoured mostly in one sitting between San Francisco and Chicago, is in considerable part an old-fashioned detective or spy procedural—as if Dalgleish or Smiley had to figure out not who but what dunnit... and indeed, just what it dunn...

All of this is more than enough: sharp writing and storytelling with plenty of unsettling weirdness and confusion to keep you on edge. But if you're a nature nut like I am, you will particularly appreciate the way VanderMeer creates a sense of natural place; in fact he has a special penchant for the human places that have been partly reclaimed by nature: the unmaintained swimming pool, the vacant lot, the abandoned lighthouse. These places have a special terroir, to use a term that plays an important part in the second book. We normally think of such places in terms of decay, entropy, a return to purposeless natural chaos. But what if some entity were planning the decay by design—if the mildew and rot were connected to an intelligence beyond human comprehension, with designs perhaps linked to our own actions and purposes. That would be interesting, wouldn't it? And scary.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Thanks, GW and Dick!

This whole Iraqi Freedom thing has worked out quite nicely, don't you think?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

At the SF Zoo

The new red panda proved to be a bit of a bust. It ambled out of its hut at the back of the enclosure once and nibbled a bamboo, then retreated. The lemurs are definitely a lot more fun to watch, and just about as cute and furry. The polar bear put on a nice show in its little pond, frolicking with a big plastic trash can (probably fantasizing a fat seal dinner, but how should I know?). The zoo has a wonderful teen volunteer program, whereby enthusiastic pairs of kids are in charge of animal show-and-tell around the grounds. Alexi and I love the zoo, and we love the excuse for a lunchtime trip to nearby Kingdom of Dumpling on Taraval, where the dumplings are fresh and juicy, the mashed cucumber simple and refreshing, and the salt and pepper fried tofu melts in (after burning the roof of) your mouth. Also, without embarrassment, we enjoy the petting zoo. We always let the little kids go first...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How conservative is Eric Cantor?

The ever-fascinating voteview blog has the goods. The answer is: pretty damn conservative, even within a party that has tacked strongly starboard in the past couple decades.

Along Hetch Hetchy

I've been to the dam and looked out over John Muir's worst nightmare a number of times. Even half filled with water it's a helluva sight. But I'd never walked much beyond the dam. Saturday we took the trail out to Rancheria Falls, 6 miles each way. I would not recommend it much later than early June... it was hot enough this time of year, and within weeks the waterfalls will likely have lost a lot of their roar.

But right now? Two classic waterfalls and a wildflower display as good as any I have seen in Yosemite.

Wapama Falls may be the prettiest waterfall in the park. The water shoots over the canyon rim and after a cascade or two plunges steeply about 600 feet, with a fantastic bump that provides a lot of visual interest. Unfortunately you can't get very close to the biggest parts, but the views from the footbridges that cross near the bottom are fine enough.

It being Yosemite, one expects impressive rocks...

... but I had not expected the flowers. The section of trail just before you reach Wapama crosses seeps that send water flowing broadly over gentle slopes of smooth granite. At the margins are brilliant yellow monkeyflowers (Mimulus sp?)...

... and in the meadows dayglo Hetch Hetchy monkeyflower (Mimulus filicaulis)...

... and abundant mariposa lilies (Calochortus venustus?).

With all that eye candy, it's perhaps too easy to ignore the humble fungi and lichens...

Clouds Rest

According to Jeffrey Schaffer, Clouds Rest is the largest granite face in Yosemite, and an amazingly beautiful one at that, with its undulating contours and pale exfoliating layers—but it suffers the inattention that comes with having the world's most famous hunk of granite as a next-door neighbor. Oh well, the smaller number of hikers who take the "easier" trip to the top of Clouds Rest from Tenaya Lake are rewarded with views that surpass Half Dome's—in part because they include a good profile of Half Dome! (See lower right of second photo.)

Unfortunately for hikers, clouds don't just come to Clouds Rest for repose, but often engage in loud and violent revelries that put measly exposed humans at risk. So our own rest was cut short and we scurried back down, showers and booming thunder following us all the way.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Soylent Green is people!

The makers of Soylent must have a good sense of humor, if not a palatable product. They can't have been unaware of the classically bad Charlton Heston movie...

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

This is unfortunate

I was never sold on the idea of using natural gas as a bridge to a carbon-neutral energy system. It seemed way too convenient given recent huge gas discoveries, and therefore too good to be true. Indeed.

This is rich

"Forty-one Republican Senators asked the Obama Administration on Wednesday to abandon its new rules limiting carbon emissions from coal plants, saying their 'primary concern' is how the rules will harm the poor and the elderly." Can a hike in the minimum wage and Medicaid expansion in all the red states be far behind?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

She Came Along to Me

Laura put Mermaid Avenue on the stereo tonight. I suppose Woody Guthrie's "She Came Along to Me" could be heard as one of those patronizing "behind every great man stands a great woman" songs... but I have to think the universalism he finishes with extends to gender equality. And somehow Billie Bragg knew exactly what to do with wacky American vernacular like "Never could have it been done":

Ten hundred books could I write you about her
Because I felt if I could know her
I would know all women
And they've not been any too well known
For brains and planning and organized thinking
But I'm sure the women are equal
And they may be ahead of the men

Yet I wouldn't spread such a rumor around
Because one organizes the other
And some times the most lost and wasted
Attract the most balanced and sane
And the wild and the reckless take up
With the clocked and the timed
And the mixture is all of us
And we're still mixing

But never, never, never
Never could have it been done
If the women hadn't entered into the deal
Like she came along to me

And all creeds and kinds and colors
Of us are blending
Till I suppose ten million years from now
We'll all be just alike
Same color, same size, working together
And maybe we'll have all the fascists
Out of the way by then
Maybe so.

Either / and

A lot in the news lately about climate policy and cap-and-trade. Obama is doing what he can, I suppose. But if Hilary loses, it will all be undone with an asshole's signature.

Robert Stavins may overstate the case when he writes:
A national carbon-pricing regime is the only feasible way for the United States to reach its goal of reducing emissions to 83 percent below their 2005 level by 2050.
It may be the most sensible way, but the only feasible way? I guess that claim rests primarily on the assumption that energy interests that would otherwise oppose heavy regulation must be bought off by allocating them valuable carbon permits. Some environmentalists and lefties find such bribes distasteful, but Stavins is being realistic about the politics, and permit handouts do not undermine the effectiveness of the policy:
The initial distribution of allowances in a cap-and-trade system offers a direct means of compensating for the inevitably unequal burdens imposed by a climate policy. It resists degradation by political forces, because its environmental and economic performance is unaffected by the initial distribution of allowances.
Still, even an effective policy, whether in California or nationally, will fail to prevent the worst warming unless we can bring China and India on board, and soon. For that reason, I am with Severin Borenstein:
The primary goal of California climate policy should be to invent and develop the technologies that can replace fossil fuels, allowing the poorer nations of the world – where most of the world’s population lives – to achieve low-carbon economic growth. If we can do that, we can avert the fundamental risk of climate change.  If we don’t do that, reducing California’s carbon footprint won’t matter.
Thankfully, we can do both. Let's take the permit revenue we don't give away to the fossil magnates and commit it all to green energy R&D. There's no real economic rationale for doing that, but it has political appeal, and might just raise enough money to save the planet.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

NBA salary cap and league competitiveness

If LeBron were paid his market value (about double his current 20 million), along with his fellow players, would it make the league more or less competitive?

Last year, the ever-unreliable Planet Money said "less": under the individual player salary cap, superstars are affordable even by poor teams, making the league more competitive... hence even LeBron would agree that the player cap is good for the league.

Roger Noll disagrees: Surely if the NBA kept its team cap rules and eliminated the individual cap, no team could afford to assemble the Heat's talent... and hence the Heat would be beatable in the playoffs by more than one or two other teams. Seems to me that Roger must be correct. The most obvious piece of evidence is that the league really isn't very competitive!

Regardless, Miami vs. San Antonio should be a good show.