Monday, August 31, 2009

Life's Little Irritants: Breaking News Abuse

Breaking News banners are going the way of the 'boy who cried wolf'!

I used to stop what I was doing the moment I heard of 'Breaking News' on the TV, Radio, or whatever the source was. Breaking News was truly a new and newsworthy event. No more!

Not only do the cable news networks such as CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, and others use the 'Breaking News' for stories that just aren't worthy, they use it over and over again, declaring Breaking News on the same identical story they reported in the previous hours.

If there could be a law on 'Breaking News', it would be that it can only be used the first time the story is broadcast. Any repeat can be labeled 'Top News', but by my definition a repeat is not 'Breaking News'

While this gripe applies broadly to all of the Cable TV News Networks, I do want to commend those breaking news SMS feeds for not following this practice. If TV is annoying, imagine how repeat SMS would be.

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Driveway Container Experiment

I created a container garden on my driveway earlier this year because I believed that my prime vegetable garden spot wasn't getting enough sun. It's between two brick walls and was only getting about 4 hours of direct sun a day.

As a comparison, I planted some of the identical plants in containers in the old spot so I could directly measure the differences. I installed automated watering for both, attempting to apply similar water in both locations.

The control plants were:

Heatwave Tomatoes
Texas Sweet Onions
Burpless Cucumbers
Jalapeno Peppers
Green Onions
Curly leaf Parsley

Observations as of mid-July

Early in the season, the driveway garden won hands down. The driveway garden receives twice the sun of the sideyard garden, and it was evident in early tomato production. The strawberries and Texas Sweet Onions also did much better, the onions producing fully formed onions sooner, and the strawberries thrived where in previous years they bore poorly in the sideyard.

However, as of today, the sideyard garden is producing good tomatos, cucumbers, parsley, and basil, while all plants except the strawberries, peppers, and basil in the driveway garden are showing extreme heat stress. More water isn't noticeably helping.

I'm thinking of changing the experiment in the fall. The driveway container garden sits on a white concrete driveway, and is on the East side of a 6 foot brick wall. It gets sun from about 2 hours after sunrise until about Noon, and then becomes sheltered from direct sun after that. I'm thinking the combination of the direct sun, the collection and reflection of heat by both the brick wall and the concrete may just be too much.

My plan is to move the container garden to the center of the driveway, forming a single mine down the center with a lane for a car on each side. This would provide for more sun, more air circulation, and less accumulated heat from the brick wall.

This past year, I planted winter lettuce in the sideyard garden. My observation is that it really didn't do well until late winter, when the lettuce produced quite well until about mid May. My hope is that the center driveway location will provide more sun for lettuce growth during mid-winter.

I'll report again next Spring on the results of the next experiment.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Life's Little Irritants: Food Labeling

I've been trying to count calories and cholesterol lately, and at times it get's really frustrating. It has to do with trying to look good without necessarily being so. Take an example on a can of Pam Organic Canola Oil Spray.

The label says 0g Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 0mg Cholesterol. Also 0 calories, and 0 calories from fat. Sounds good, right? Well then, look at the serving size: 1/5 second (spray time). Servings per container: 419. WHAT? Did anyone ever try to cook with 1/5 second of cooking spray? It looks like if you can list 0 for a value if the true value is less than 0.50 of a gram, and perhaps less than 0.5% of daily value. At the serving size specified, all the values are zero. The label certainly doesn't tell you anything. It is totally useless. From reading a label on a bottle of Canola Oil, Canola Oil contains about 14g of fat per tbsp., which is also 14g of product.

Doing a little math, it takes spraying about 10 seconds to get 1 tbsp of product by the spray. I probably don't spray 10 secs, but I do probably spray 2 secs. That would make a reasonable serving 2.8 g of fat.

Now why can't they just say that on the label?

Another example is content by deduction. An example, Total fat: 6g. Saturated fat: 2g. Of the 4 grams not specified, any idea how much is polyunsaturated fat and how much is monounsaturated fat? I haven't a clue!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Life's Little Irritants: Left Turn on Green Arrow Only

I am going to begin my "Life's Little Irritants" series with one of my least favorite signs, "Left Turn on Green Arrow Only". This is such a time waster. The government feels a need to protect us from ourselves. No one is allowed to think and make a decision on when it is safe to make a left turn.

I agree that there is value to protected left turn arrows. Some times the traffic is so heavy that without a left arrow, it would be a long wait for a break in traffic, and then only one or two cars could make the turn.

However, the 'Left Turn on Green Arrow Only' is carring the protection too far. For most times during the day, cars just sit, waiting for the green arrow for minutes at a time with no cars in sight in any direction. Such a waste of time.

I am tempted to make the turn anyway, ignoring the little sign, but I try to be a law abiding citizen. So I wait, and I get irritated, and I still wait.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Frustrations of Interstate Driving

I just returned from a lengthy, but brief, road trip. My wife and I drove 1700 miles spread out over only 3 days. 850 Dallas to Knoxville on Friday, and 850 Knoxville to Dallas on Sunday. On a good day with sunshine and light traffic, 850 miles is about my driving limit. On a bad day, with heavy traffic and heavy rain, it's just too far.

The Sunday trip was a fiasco of bad alternatives. About 6 hours of the 14 hour trip were in heavy rain. Visibility was down to about 200 yards, and the road between Memphis and Texarkana was loaded with traffic. Interstate 40 between Memphis and Little Rock is always heavy 18 wheeler traffic, and dealing with it in the rain is espescially stressful.

The alternatives are drive the speed limit and go with the flow, even in poor visibility; slow down and risk being run over or contributing to a traffic problem; or just get off the road or find another route. I chose go with the flow, even though the visibility was extremely poor, probably bad judgement and high risk. This brings me to the point of this post: Driving our interstate highways can be a high risk activity!

Here are some of the frustrations:

Speed Limits and Speed enforcement vary from state to state.

Different speed limits in different states are certainly understandable. Miles of open road I-90 in Montana or I-80 in Wyoming certainly justify higher speeds than I-95 in New England. What's more difficult to understand is the wide variations in enforcement. Why isn't a speed limit a speed limit? It's a guessing game to figure out what the magic number is. As a law abiding citizen, I drive at the speed limit on the open road. In some cases, this is more hazardous than going with the flow.

On the otherhand, I passed no less than 10 radar checks in Tennessee enroute between Knoxville and Memphis. The speed limit was generally 70, and much of the traffic was flowing at about 75. What speed was too much? Who knows?

There is way to much speed variations among vehicles on the road

No matter how fast you drive, someone will go faster. No matter how slow you go, someone will go slower. Extremes in either direction created hazardous and frustrating situations.

The dangers of average speed

In hilly or mountainous country, trucks especially seem to practice the concept of average speed. What this means is in a stretch of road with a speed limit of 65, you may find trucks slowing to 45 going uphill and accelerating to 85 going downhill. It is so frustrating to get behind trucks going uphill, trying to pass each other, with one going 45 mph and the other going 46. If you are able to get by this problem, you are promptly blown away by both of them going downhill at 80 a few minutes later.

The lower the speed limit, the greater the violations

As I said before, I usually drive the speed limit. Last summer, driving through West Texas where the speed limit was 75, I drove 75. Almost no one passed me, and I passed very few myself. It seems most people just don't want to go faster than about 75.

Friday, as I approached Knoxville, in East Tennessee, the speed limit steadily is reduced from 70, to 65, and then to 55 as you near the city. At 70, the ration of cars passing me to cars I was passing was about 50/50. At 65, it was probably about 60/40, and at 55, it was about 90/10. This is frustration at it's extreme. Why adopt a speed limit you have no intent to enforce?

Size Matters

Trucks are way bigger than cars, all cars. All cars lose when they hit trucks. But! as we trend toward smaller cars, the matter gets worse. My wife and I used to own a Mercedes SLK. This is a really small car. On several occasions we were nearly pushed off the road by an 18 Wheeler whose driver simply didn't see us.

Self imposed solutions

I can't fix this problem. Maybe, over time, our efforts to reduce our oil dependence and switch to alternative fuels will also bring changes to our transportation infrastructure which may address some of these problems. Meanwhile, I'm going to impose some changes on myself to try and lower both stress and risk when I travel.

As a retired citizen, time is not as important as it used to be. So, for starters, I am going to try and avoid the very busiest of the Interstate Highways, and enjoy more of the countryside. I get way better gas milage in my SUV at 60 than I do at 70 anyway, so slowing down and taking the less traveled byways may be both more scenic and less stressful.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Obama is saying some good things on energy

If you listen to President Obama, he's saying some good things about energy and environment. Here's a recent quote:

"So transportation, when it is not just fixing our old transportation systems, but it’s also imagining new transportation systems. That’s why I’d like to see high speed rail where it can be constructed. I would like for us to invest in mass transit. Because potentially that’s energy efficient and I think a lot more people are open now to thinking regionally in terms of how we plan our transportation infrastructure. The days where we’re just building sprawl forever? Those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats… everybody recognizes that that’s not a smart way to design communities. So we should be using this money to help spur this kind of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation. That’ll make a big difference.”

My daughter is an environmental planner. Here's what she had to say just last week:

"...Increase densities in cities with growth boundaries and incentives to decrease build-out. Make residential green building design affordable..."

I can see that idea beginning to work in my community of Las Colinas in Irving, Tx. Las Colinas has been a planned development for nearly 30 years now. It had an explosion in the early 80's, and then some stagnation in the 90's, Recently, the activity in the Las Colinas urban center has picked up dramitically. Why, because light rail is coming. With the Las Colinas light rail connection to downtown coming in 2011, and then connecting to DFW airport shortly thereafter, a major influx of high density building is taking off.

Light rail centered development has already occurred in Dallas at Mockingbird Station, downtown at Victory Plaza, and others. And it isn't just Dallas. Other cities have seen this as well. What I hope for is that this goes beyond using rail to travel around the metroplex. High Speed rail interconnecting major Texas cities like Dallas-Austin-San Antonio, Dallas-Houston, Dallas-Denver, would open major new realms of low cost, environmentally friendly travel.

We need not only the spending, but an attitude change by Americans to make this possible. The attitude change is already underway in our younger generations, it just needs to spread to the old folks in congress.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Death by Regulation

I was listening this morning to a report about alternative energy delimmas caused by solar and wind projects that can't seem to get their product to market because of resistance to building transmission lines. They site environmental regulations, not-in-my-backyard attitudes, difficulty getting permits from everyone as major hurdles.

I certainly agree that transmission towers are ugly. All above ground utilities are ugly. I used to own a house here in Irving, Tx that I loved. It had a great floorplan. It had exactly what my wife and I needed. My biggest problem with it is that the room on the second floor that I would use for my office had only one window, and it looked straight on to an electric pole with a power transformer only 25 feet away. That transformer was a major factor in my deciding to sell that house. So I understand when communities and homeowners take a stand against high voltage transmission lines in their back yard. They are ugly, and some would say even dangerous to those in their shadow.

Continuing with my own example, I moved from the house with the transformer and bought a house next to a gas pipeline. The pipeline was underground and protected by a 50 foot wide pipeline easement. It wasn't ugly, in fact, it gave me a 50 foot buffer to the next lot and thus much more privacy than I might of otherwise had. Was it dangerous? I don't know. It didn't have an issue in the years that I lived there, and indeed the only reminders that it was actually was the occasionally fly over of an inspection plan every few months.

Here's my point: We should build all new transmission lines underground. I know it's more expensive, but as I have previously suggested, it will not only mitigate the nay-sayers but potentially may become part of a multi-use right of way where appropriate.

There will need to be amendments to environmental and other regulations that enable swift approval and streamlined right of way aquisition for these underground lines as environmental disturbance, if properly built, will be only temporary and completely transparent in a very short time.

I am not advocating that the United States become as ruthless as the Chinese when it comes to economic progress. Amendments to environmental regulations must protect the intent of preserving, but we have to be able to adapt to change, and we have to do it without years and years of delays.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Wind Generated Electric Cars ranked most friendly

An article by Mark Z. Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, , listed Battery Electric Vehicles, charged by wind generated electricity, as the top Alternative Energy amongst known alternatives.

Not surprisingly, the article also lists Ethanol, wheter derived from corn or cellulose, as last. A few months ago, National Geographic Magazine also berated Ethanol as a marginal alternative fuel.

So why does our government pay out huge Ethanol subsidies? The answer may lie in the lobbists and a blind effort to do something, even if it is wrong. Not only was the Ethanol subsidy the wrong thing for the planet's energy alternatives, it was the wrong thing for the price of food. We simply can't afford to burn our food for energy.

Let's hope the new administration can deal with the error of our ways on Ethanol, and put the savings into the electric grid infrastructure.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A New Electric Grid should be multi-purpose

In his major speech on the economy, President-elect Obama mentioned the electric grid as one of his infrastructure investment proposals. This is a much needed investment that could be made much more useful if it could be implemented as a multipurpose right-of-way as I first proposed in this blog on Nov. 13.

The two most important elements of the multipurpose right-of-way are the underground electric grid and the high speed electric powered passenger rail service.

With the exception of a few routes, passenger service in the United States is provided over rails designed many decades ago and most Amtrak trains are limited to 79 mph maximum speed. This speed limit severely limits the ability for rail travel to compete with airlines or automobiles. High Speed, environmentally friendly, electric trains would change this equation, and in my judgement significantly change preferred alternatives in favor of rail for travel of 500 miles or less.

Flying has become such a hassle. TSA delays, weather delays, luggage restrictions, and ground transportation all make us seek an alternative. I believe such an alternative may be rail, and we can began by coupling it to our planned grid infrastructure improvements.