Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Turn out your lights

I was a kid during the last — or some would say the start of the current, energy crisis in America. In the first grade we were thoroughly subject to energy-conservation propaganda. This is a good thing. I brought home from school these stickers with "Make Every Kilowatt Count" printed on their face and stuck them to our lamps and switches. You can be sure my folks loved that!

So I have this deep programming to turn the lights off. No one else in the house does. This is a point of contention and anxiety for me. I regularly get home from work to find that all the bedroom lights are on and have been all day. It makes my skin crawl. So, I was getting after my son who is a young teen to turn off his light and told him I was going to bill him for the wasted power. So I had to figure it out. OK, sixty Watts times nine hours times whatever our cost per kWh is comes out to about nine cents per day. Oops. Needless to say, he wasn't much daunted by the dime looming large over his head. But the incandescent bulb puts out a lot of heat too. We could count that. And amortize the life of the bulb... But really, this was simply the wrong approach. The truth is, it's just a drop in the bucket.

But how big is the bucket? What if every American changed their ways? How about everyone in the world? How big could our impact be?

The latest figures I could find suggest that the US consumes 3,717,000,000,000 kWh annually. There are over 305 million of us. So that divides to over 12,186 kWh that we're each consuming annually or a bit over 1,000 kWh per month. (I'm rounding down at every step to make sure that I don't overstate the issue.) 1,000 kWh is the equivalent of 16,666 60-Watt bulb hours. Now, to be fair, that includes all the electricity we consume at work and shopping and so forth. But still, given how much we have to account for, couldn't we each find a way to save maybe the equivalent of one such bulb for eight hours each day? For my family, that would be just turning off the lights regularly. Maybe for you it means spending an extra $100 on your next appliance to get the more energy-efficient model. After all, that's only 14.4 kWh monthly — less than 1.5% of our electricity budget.

And if each of us did that, we can leverage that massive population and note that as a nation we'd save 4,392,000,000 kWh. Sounds like a lot. But looking to understand what that means in more tangible terms and being concerned about both the global oil shortage and climate change, I decided to convert that number into barrels of oil. I looked around the net for figures and when I found some consensus, I went with it. The following numbers could be wrongish. I suspect they're close enough for back-of-an-envelope calculations and that I'm within an order of magnatude. A barrel of oil contains enough chemical energy to be the equivalent of 1700 kWh. But we have to get it out of the ground and move it to the refinery and/or generation plants and the conversion process itself is lossy — heat leaves the system during generation. If we use 38% as the net efficiency, we're still getting 646 kWh of electricity generated. That's at the generation plant. Some is lost in pushing it down the wire to your house — but we'll ignore that amount. So that 4,392,000,000 kWh that the US could conserve through relatively minor efforts and expenses (it seems to me) amounts to about 6,798,762 barrels of oil. Each year.

It's still just a drop in the bucket. Just like that dime that my son might pay when he leaves the light on. But it's something. It's a start. And it's that much less carbon in the air. That much longer that we have until whatever's going to happen, happens.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Newman's Own

Paul Newman died last Friday at the age of 83. I really liked his charitable work. There's a good story at CNN about his work. Here's an excerpt:
But Newman, who died Friday of cancer at age 83, told the men he wanted to be remembered for the "Hole in the Wall" camps he helped to start across the world for children with life-threatening illnesses and to make sure that 100 percent of the profits from his popular food company, Newman's Own, would continue to benefit such camps and thousands of other charities.
You can read the rest of the story here: Newman's legacy: Good works.

Goodnight, Mr. Newman. Thanks for all your work. I'll keep buying Newman's Own products. And maybe I'll watch Butch Cassidy again. Here's the famous cliff scene if you'd like to watch it again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Need help finding a charity?

Need help finding a charity? Or wonder if a charity is legitimate? Here's a good place to start:


They have all kinds of useful tips and guides (like what kind of questions to ask, protecting yourself from scams, donating your car, how to stop mail solicitations), as well as all kinds of lists (top ten charities in the red, charities in financial trouble, etc) and they make it easy to give money to the charity of your choice. Check them out.

Friday, September 26, 2008

When times are tight, we buy less and make more

So I've been thinking about the moral/social/aesthetic value of making things by hand. There seems to be a renaissance of hand-craft in mainstream culture happening right now; perhaps a confluence of hippy-, hacker- and artistic-aesthetic. I like making things. I like the things that others make by hand. And it feels as if it is more than a mere preference. It feels like there is something spiritual about the act of making something; resisting entropy; carving a niche in the world of chaos; saying "no" to destruction.

It is clear that here in America — and in much of the world now too, our spending-power is dropping. And with market-instability many of us fear that it could begin to drop precipitously. As we look back at our 20th century history, it's clear that in response to the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, ingenuity spiked with truck patches, victory gardens and the boom of the DIY industry. You can make stuff from relatively inexpensive — even second-hand, elements and save money while engaging in a higher pursuit.

So these ideas are rolling around in my head on a pretty constant basis these days. It happens that one of the blogs I read is the MAKE: magazine blog. It collects lots of cool articles on various fabrication methods from all over the net. But just today, it has two links that aren't about bending a synth-toy or building homes out of styrofoam. They're kind of reflective, philosophical and along these lines that I've been thinking. So here, I'll just point you to them:

An editorial about how the maker aesthetic can make a better world.

And a piece about the reality of self-reliance in a makerly and recession-proof way.

We've really gotten away from making stuff over the past hundred+ years as we embraced large-scale industry and automation. We buy stuff made all over the world. We go out for dinner. And most of us no longer have a lot of skills that would have once been taken for granted. If you accept that the world is made better when more things of care and beauty exist, then making things — nice things, helps to make the world a better place for all of us. Let's assume that you're not among the world's most handy 1% and already making stuff every day.

You don't have to be. Learn a skill. Do it today. Anything. Weave a place-mat, learn to cook, start working with electronics simulators, sew a blouse, make jewelry from pop cans — or anything.

Lay off the horn (exception: preventing an accident)

Use your car horn solely to prevent an accident, and NEVER to punish someone’s bad driving.

Why? For two reasons. The first is that it's a question of safety. Too much horn use desensitizes us, and we simply pay less attention. It's like the boy who cried wolf. It's startling, it's loud, and at 110 decibels, it can damage hearing (as can anything above 85 dB) especially to nearby pedestrians or drivers with windows rolled down who aren't protected from the noise by closed windows.

But the second reason is just as important, and where I'm going to direct most of my comments.

Because it's rude and obnoxious and contributes to sound pollution. Remember that when you lay on your horn, you aren’t just getting back at the offending driver — but also at everyone else who is within earshot (and at 110 dB, that's a fair distance). There have been many times when I jumped out of my skin — while driving — when someone sounded their horn, and it usually wasn't even directed at me. It's rather unpleasant.

And just think how much quieter traffic would be.

I lived in New Jersey for 5 years, and I've always contended that people on the East Coast are a lot more polite than most folks give them credit for — generally as pleasant, at least face-to face — as anywhere else I've lived or visited. However, it's somewhat less true when you are behind the wheel. Why toot the horn, when a 30-second blast would do? It's like saying "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO10!!!!!!!" instead of "go" to a stranger. Why would anyone do that?

I didn't really notice the difference until I moved back to the Midwest, and I realized how much quieter heavy traffic is here than it was out east. And it's not like I don't have to deal with heavy traffic — contending with rush hour in Minneapolis is certainly no picnic. While it's not as heavy as the traffic in San Francisco, or Los Angeles, New York, or even Newark, navigating I-494 during rush isn't exactly fun.

It's quieter here, but not quiet enough. All too often I hear car horns being used unnecessarily.

Before someone who knows me (like my stepson) points a finger and tells me that I'm a hypocrite, I have to admit I can't claim perfect horn use myself. I once blasted my horn at some girl in a crosswalk at the grocery store, who for some reason known only to herself decided to stop and dance in the road (and yes, she was doing it to make me wait longer - the contemptuous look on her face spoke volumes). Maybe the dancing girl deserved something for her behavior, which was obnoxious, as she was not just holding me up, but also the line of cars behind me. I still wonder why the heck she chose me? It's one of life's little mysteries, I suppose. But I digress. No matter what she "deserved," noisy escalation that impacted lots of other drivers and pedestrians just wasn't called for, even if seeing her jump was a little satisfying (though the obscenities that followed were less so). I've also sounded my horn to make my 14-year-old stepson hurry his dawdling self out of the house. I'm sure my neighbors loved that — probably as much as parents love their teen's date, who honks from the car, instead of ringing the doorbell. So, with red cheeks I admit to being rude on occasion. But, I'll do better.

Anyway, I think we can all use some restraint at the wheel. Please use your horn as little as possible.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mend your clothes - and keep wearing them.

Why not mend your clothes, instead of throwing them away? It's better for the environment (fabric production contributes to a great deal of environmental pollution) less wasteful, and heads us away from being a disposable culture.

A cheap sewing machine costs $70 (roughly equal to two new pairs of jeans) and while it won’t be a great machine, it’ll get the job done. That machine will last for years and years of light duty, and if it prolongs the life of your clothing, then eventually it’ll more than pay for itself. If you spend a little more and get one that does automatic darning, you can mend your clothes so well that the repairs barely show. You can buy sewing machines used off of eBay if you’d like. Often you can get working sewing machines from yard sales, or craigslist, freecycle or from elderly relatives. If you are looking to invest in a better machine, please go to a sewing machine store, one that offers free lessons. I got a Janome HT2008 for $350. (If you think that's expensive - I saw one in the store that cost $8K).

Unfortunately, there are some careers where it's just not appropriate to wear mended clothing. Corporate executives cannot, and there are certainly many other careers where mended clothing cannot be worn. If you are in that situation, why not mend the clothes yourself and wear them during off hours? Or if you don't want to sew (in which case, buying a machine would be silly), then you can pay someone else to mend your clothing. You can usually find someone to do mending or alterations at your local dry cleaner. This contributes to the local economy and supports small businesses, without adding another sewing machine to a landfill. If you just cannot wear the clothing once it's been mended, (who would want to wear a suit off hours?) then donate the mended clothing to Goodwill or the like.

However, if you ARE in a job or career that doesn't preclude mended clothes, be proud of your mended clothes and don’t be afraid to wear them out of the house.

I just learned how to mend my husband’s jeans. If you’re interested, I blogged about the experience here. Though after mending 6 pairs of jeans, I’m pretty sick of it!

And for those even more ambitious, there’s a trend among sewers to rework old clothes into something new and unique (a practice called "upcycling"). Here's some reading to get you going:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Vending Machines in schools

I can't tell you how appalled I am at the existence of most vending machines in schools. They are full of food that is simply bad for you, and the schools (and the companies providing the machines or food) are profiting on the ill-health of our children.

Doesn't that seem like a conflict of interest? The schools are supposed to be teaching our kids the things they need to know to successfully navigate through life (and honestly, good nutrition seems like a better investment for most kids, than the quadratic equation) yet they don't teach them much about proper nutrition, and make pop and candy and other junk food freely available.

Some school administrations point to the large sources of revenue that vending machines provide, and we all know that schools are usually running shy of funds. But it's just wrong for them to be profiting on and encouraging the kids' a) ill-health and b) lack of self-control and c) making incorrect choices. We have an epidemic of obesity in this country that affects our youth in two ways. The first is that they are learning the habits of adulthood, so even if they aren't overweight now, they are forming habits that will hurt them later. The second is that many of the kids are already overweight, and we are just enabling them to continue their poor eating habits.

So how should schools handle this? Short of ditching the machines entirely, get rid of the pop. Put in bottled water, even some flavored waters. Put healthy choices into the food machines. I recently saw a vending machine with carrot sticks in it. Granola bars, while not great, aren't bad. Just get the ones low in sugar, please.

Schools, please make these changes. Parents, write to your school board and demand (politely) that they do something about this problem.

And one final note - my stepson's teachers believe in rewarding the kids with candy. Stop it. Candy is bad for them, and their behavior tends to get worse with bad foods, rather than better. And you are teaching them to strive to get the candy, not to do what's right.


I just bought a book for my six-year-old daughter. Couragewritten and illustrated by Bernard Waber. It's a cute book that starts (and ends) like this:
There are many kinds of courage. Awesome kinds. And everyday kinds. Still, courage is courage -- whatever kind . . . . Courage is what we give to each other.
This is a great book to get little kids thinking about what it means to be courageous, finding the will to do scary or risky things. Like standing up for the kid being picked on, instead of safely remaining a bystander. Like standing up for yourself when you are the one being bullied. Maybe if more kids are raised with these ideas, then those of us who are scared to try something for fear of failure (yes, I'm speaking of myself) might be better prepared to... just do it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Help an entrepreneur in a developing nation

Kiva is a site/organization on the net that allows you to loan money to individuals in the developing world. Here's what they say:

What is Kiva?
Kiva lets you lend to a specific entrepreneur in the developing world - empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty. Each pre-screened entrepreneur is hard-working and hopes to create a sustainable livelihood. All they need is a small loan. Choose an entrepreneur. Loan as little as $25. Receive updates. Get repaid as the business succeeds.

We've loaned some money through Kiva, and it seems to be an awesome organization. It's one of the few ways I've seen for people to directly help folks in need in developing nations. Check them out.

Be polite. Even when the other person is rude.

One of the most powerful things that people can do to make this a better world is this: Be polite. Be respectful. Show courtesy even — and this is the really hard part — when it’s not returned. For one thing, being courteous and respectful even in the face of rudeness is a GREAT way to stop the escalation of meanness that we so often see.

I read the following in an essay by Greg Knauss, which is included in a book called Things I Learned About My Dad. The book is pretty good. It has lots of good stuff about parenting, but has lots of other good stuff too:

If disobedience is maddening because it's active and open defiance, and lying is maddening because it's sneaky and covert dismissal, then rudeness is maddening because it's thoughtless and self-satisfied arrogance. Oh, were you there? How about that? You don't like having your dinner interrupted with an air horn? Huh. How, exactly does that affect me?

So let's avoid being thoughtless and arrogant. Being nice is well... nice.