Archive for May, 2008

Budget Hero

Budget Hero title screenYou’re probably familiar with Marketplace on NPR, but did you know that they make games now too? They recently published an online “watercooler game” called Budget Hero. It’s pretty basic and is currently pretty slow since their server is getting hammered, but it’s worth a look. Balancing the federal budget has never been so interesting!

When you start the game, you get to pick three goals, which is a nice way of reminding you that there’s no objectively best federal budget. The best you can do is to have a budget that is the best at a particular category. Once that’s done, you get a bunch of dials at the bottom that tell you how your budget looks in terms of long-term sustainability, current deficit, and your goals. Above that are buildings that represent different budget categories, the taller the more expensive. It’s an amazing way of visualizing the budget. I had no idea how little a portion of the budget goes to education, especially versus the big three: defense (and diplomacy), healthcare, and social security. Clicking on a building gives you a selection of “cards” that describe a budget change (“reduce military spending by 10%”) and a cost or benefit (“-$305 billion”). Double-clicking gives you more information on the pros and cons of that particular card. You can also modify taxes in a similar way.

Playing around with it was really interesting. Although I’ve heard about things like Bush’s tax cuts, it’s hard to put it all in perspective. In Budget Hero, I can put it in terms that I understand (if I repeal Bush’s tax cuts, I can fund mandatory healthcare and alternative energy research).

There are some drawbacks too. Clicking on a building (budget topic) can sometimes give you a “server is busy” error message. The cards also focus on specific policy directions that have been talked about. If you want to do something off the wall, you won’t be able to model that here.

Despite these minor flaws, it’s entertaining and a great way to make sense of the budget. It also helped me get a handle on the costs of some of the issues I feel passionate about and what I’d have to sacrifice to pay for them.

I highly recommend trying it out!

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The Wedding

Maggie and I are back in Bloomington after another long drive. Rob and Angel’s wedding was beautiful. The ceremony was in my parents’ front yard, so we spent Friday making sure everything was perfect. That mostly consisted of shoveling rocks back into the pond (they’d been removed so that my dad could fix the pump), so I’ve been sore since then.

Saturday morning, there were lots of clouds but nothing more than a sprinkling of rain. The clouds were a bonus because they not only kept everything cool, they gave the wedding an even lighting that made the pictures turn out incredibly well. It was great to see all of the close family friends at the ceremony, especially when they stood and spoke about the couple.

Rob and Angel were married under the auspices of the Raleigh Friends Meeting (Quaker), so the ceremony consisted of about half an hour of silence punctuated by people standing and speaking when moved. After that, Angel’s sister read the marriage certificate and they exchanged vows. After ten more minutes of silent worship, everyone got up and talked, signed the certificate, and got something to eat. It was incredibly moving and very fun.

The reception was held at one of the lakes that forms Raleigh’s reservoir system. Although it looked pretty normal when we were there, although perhaps a little low, it was basically dry a year ago and was still several feet below normal even a couple months ago. There’s a lot of discussion now in Raleigh about what to do about the water supply. Based on the editorials and letters to the editor I read, the most popular views seem to be to increase the cost of water in a tiered system, to encourage individuals to continue to conserve water, or to hook Raleigh’s water supply to those of nearby cities.

My parents are doing their part. They have two new connected rain barrels that they use to refill the pond when it evaporates and to water the plants in the front yard. There’s also no grass (it’s all pine straw and plants), which means less need for watering, as does their proximity to the pond. The birds certainly appreciate the pond too! My dad had to shut it down for a couple of days to clean the pump, but as soon as he turned it back on, the robins jumped back in to bathe. The next step is to get some frogs to live in there and keep the water a little cleaner.

Overall, it was a great trip. I’m impressed with how well my parents were able to create a beautiful natural space in the middle of Raleigh and I’m jealous that my brother got to use it for his wedding! :)

Once I unpack my camera, I’ll post some wedding pictures here so that you all can see what I mean.

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So many green living books

Sarah Susanka\'s \"Not So Big Solutions for Your Home\"I love books. However, after moving at least once a year for the last, oh, twelve years, I am trying to keep my personal book collection to a minimum. I appease my book cravings with frequent trips to the local library (although that “Friends of the Library Book Store” in the basement with used books for $1 is a major temptation.) I also have a major cheap streak that keeps me away from most new book stores but I did manage to spy a few interesting titles while wandering through shops in D.C. I have only flipped through them, so I can’t make any major endorsements.

The Lazy Environmentalist is an awesome title for a book. The book itself appears to be a brief rundown on how to shop greenly with links to other resources, which seems kinda cool but kinda strange, especially since it’s a paper book so you have to manually type in all the links at your computer. Come on, it says it’s a book for LAZY people.

Squeaky Green: The Method Guide to Detoxing Your Home was an easy read about how to keep scary chemicals out of your home. Of course, I didn’t realize until I read the Amazon blurb that it’s by the guys who invented the Method line of cleaning products. Somehow that makes me a little uncomfortable but at the same time, they have surely done a lot of research on the subject, right? And they have suggestions that go way beyond their product line, many of which seem totally achievable. (I’m less sure about ripping up carpet everywhere, installing hardwood floors, and investing in all natural throw rugs. Sounds expensive and/or back-breaking.)

Rubbish: Reuse Your Refuse was a cute little book about some craft projects involving trash although I feel like a lot of the time those kinds of projects encourage me to go out and buy additional materials like glue guns and spools of fancy wire plus pliers for bending it. But I like the concept and enjoyed flipping through them.

Not so Big Solutions for your Home by architect Sarah Susanka was very inspiring to flip through. I haven’t actually read The Not so Big House yet, partly because I thought it would focus a lot on building from scratch, which I don’t think I ever will. This book talks about how to do fairly minor remodels inside your home to improve the available space – projects like creating an entry space for sorting mail, building a window seat, or adding a screen to divide off an area of a room. The section that interested me the most talked about how she believes every adult in the household ought to have at least a small space in the house that is their own where they don’t have to compromise their taste. I’m not sure what that would look like in our house but I like the idea of having a little space of my own, even if it’s very tiny.

Happy reading.

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Driving to NC

PriusA while back, I talked about driving from Bloomington to Chicago (and beyond) compared to a similar train or plane ride. Driving to Raleigh, NC last week gives me the opportunity to see if the results are similar with a different car, number of people, and destination. This time, I also plan to compare costs, which I ignored in my last analysis.

The numbers produced by the carbon calculator and my estimates were off by quite a bit, so I used my calculations and their estimate of CO2 per person-mile. I believe the difference is that I use exact mileage (as provided by the transportation company) and I’m not using a multiplier for the plane to represent that fact that its CO2 is released in the upper atmosphere.

The driving distance from Bloomington to Raleigh is about 670 miles. At 49 mpg, that’s almost two tanks of gas (8 gallons each) at $3.40/gallon. That makes the out-of-pocket cost about $50. According to Consumer Reports (subscription required), a Prius has maintenance costs of $2,971 per 75,000 miles. That’s an amortized rate of $26.54 for our trip for a total cost of $76.54. Using the same carbon calculator as before, the trip also produced 274 pounds of CO2 (19.56 lbs per gallon burned). Since we’re also travelling back, that would double the results but that’s negated by the fact that there are two of us in the car.

Driving the Prius: $76.54, 274 pounds of CO2, and 26 hours.

There are direct flights from Indianapolis to Raleigh, but Indianapolis is further away from Raleigh than Bloomington is. The total distance is about 990 miles. A round-trip flight for one of us would be 436 pounds of CO2 (0.44 lbs/person-mile for a medium-length flight) and $245 (assuming we get tickets a month out). The flight itself is 2 hours but it would require another hour to make sure that we’d be able to get through security on time. We’d also have to drive to Indy from Bloomington, which would produce 39.12 pounds of CO2, cost $6.80, and take 2 hours round-trip.

Flying: $252, 475 pounds of CO2, and 8 hours

The Amtrak website is pretty hard to navigate (it kept timing out and giving me errors). The biggest problem is that if you’re switching zones (Midwest to South in this case), it won’t suggest routes for you. You have to figure out what the connecting city is on your own. Going from Indianapolis to Raleigh requires a stop in Washington, DC (which actually might have worked out well, since Maggie is making an extra trip up there to visit a friend). The Indy to DC leg would cost $82 and take 18 hours. Going from DC to Raleigh is $43 and 6 hours. Ignoring any layover time, that’s $125 and 24 hours for one person going one-way. The trip is over 720 miles each way, which is 302 pounds of CO2 (0.42 lbs/person-mile). That makes the round-trip train ride cost $250, produce 604 pounds of CO2, and take 48 hours. We also have to add in the additional travel time up to Indy (39 lbs of CO2, $6.80, 2 hours).

Train: $257, 643 pounds of CO2, and 50 hours

As with the train and plane, we’d have to head up to Indy to take a Greyhound bus. There are 2-3 transfers and it’s about 700 miles. Those 700 miles would produce 462 pounds of CO2 (0.66 lbs/person-mile). Depending on when we left, it could take anywhere from 16.5 to 22 hours. All of the routes are the same price ($222), so I’ll assume we’d pick the shorter one. Once again, we add in the trip to Indy (39 lbs of CO2, $6.80, 2 hours).

Bus: $229, 501 pounds of CO2, and 35 hours

It’s table time!

Cost lbs CO2 Time (hours)
Car $77 274 26
Plane $252 475 8
Train $257 643 50
Bus $229 501 35

Once again, the car seems to be the best choice. It costs about a third less than the next cheapest alternative and produces almost half as much CO2. Even though the car is better in all categories than the train and bus, the plane is much, much faster (over three times as fast!).

It’s pretty obvious why Amtrak makes such a dismal showing. Going all the way to DC before going south adds a whole lot of distance, which increases everything else. While doing some research after my last post, I found out that inter-city buses average less than 7 mpg! With two of us in the Prius, the effective person-mpg is about 100. For a bus to do that well, it’d have to have 15 passengers, assuming that it goes the same distance. Unfortunately, the buses have further to go as well, since Indianapolis is further from Raleigh than Bloomington and they make some detours for stops. I’d guess that a bus would have to have around 20 people in it to match our person-mpg. Based on its CO2 production, it looks like the expected number for a trip like that is more like 11. I haven’t actually ridden from Raleigh to Indianapolis, so I don’t know if this is accurate for that trip, but it seems plausible based on the size of the bus.

Running the numbers again really makes it hit home why people in the US prefer their cars (and occasionally planes). Trains cost way more and take much longer. Buses are a little better, but aren’t as comfortable and still require you to get to a station somehow. Airplanes cost a lot and produce a lot of CO2, but at least they get you there faster. In fact, if you look at cost as a proportion of time, the airplane costs almost exactly as much as the car ($78), so you’re basically just extrapolating the cost of the car. That is, if you could pay to increase the speed of the car, you’d have to pay as much for it to get there in 8 hours as you’d pay for a plane ticket.

That doesn’t even begin to account for the convenience. Since we were driving, we were able to carry a bunch of boxes for Maggie’s friend Laura and Maggie was able to take a short side-trip to DC to visit her.

Basically, if you care about cost and have at least one passenger, it makes more sense to drive than anything else. I wish it were otherwise, but until they get some zeppelins up and running, I think we’re stuck with it.

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Living Car-Free in D.C.

Maggie riding the busI’m up visiting my best friend in Washington, D.C. She has lived here for almost three years and has been living car-free for almost one year. It has been challenging but she feels it makes a huge amount of sense both financially and ecologically.

Being in a big city makes it easier to live without a car in some ways but harder in others. There are many different public transportation options here – a bus system for each county, the D.C. metro system (which encompasses subway and buses), a car-sharing program (Flexcar and Zipcar recently merged), a brand new D.C. bicycle rental system, an informal carpooling system called “slugging” that helps folks share rides from Virginia into the city to take advantage of carpool lanes, and taxis. Of course, that means there is a lot of options.

She focuses on taking the bus and subway for commuting to work and doing most of her travel around town. She usually takes the D.C. metro buses but sometimes will take the local county bus. Of course, there are some places that are still very complicated (or impossible) to reach by public transportation (especially on the weekends) and it can be pretty awkward to take the bus when buying groceries or other bulky items so sometimes she calls upon friends with cars. She signed up with Zipcar but hasn’t used it because it seems prohibitively expensive ($14/hour, which means a trip to the grocery store would be about $30).

She chose her apartment largely on the basis of having good access to the Metro line that takes her to work and also having some nice restaurants and stores within walking distance. (There was also that whole affordability issue; always huge in a big city.) I was impressed by the number of little stores and shops within easy walking distance but of course a lot of them were places I would go to only a couple times a year (liquor store) or never at all (hot yoga studio) and there were some basic things missing like a major grocery store.

I asked if she felt the car-free lifestyle was working and she said it is. She really enjoys having the ability to use her commute time for knitting or reading and it doesn’t take too much longer than driving. For anyone who is considering it, she says the key is figuring out your commute to work by public transportation. Everything else you can figure out one way or another. There are still some things that are really difficult (going to the doctor) and some places she just doesn’t go because it’s impossible to get there without a car. She has a friend who takes public transit to work but uses her car sparingly in the evenings and weekends, which seems like a reasonable compromise.

We didn’t end up taking public transit much during my visit because we were trying to cram a lot of activity into two short days. Today we traveled to Georgetown and decided to take the car since there were four of us but this evening, just the two of us took the bus to Silver Spring (see photographic evidence). It was nice to see buses getting some use (unlike the last time Will and I rode the bus, when we were the only riders). I love to see public transit really work and I love urban neighborhoods where people can walk to their neighborhood stores. If only big cities didn’t have so many people, I might be tempted to move.

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Comparing Hybrid Oranges to Hybrid Apples

My friend Lisa recently got herself a new car and wanted to get a hybrid.  She test drove a Toyota Prius (which is what Will and I drove all day yesterday) but didn’t like the crazy space-age dashboard interface and the fact that it’s hard to see out the back window.  So she hopped on down to the local Honda dealership and got herself a Hybrid Civic.  She was super excited and decided to go one step further and change her driving style in order to maximize her gas efficiency.  I confess I don’t know much about hypermiling but the techniques she tried were similar to what I’ve heard about – accelerate slowly, try to maintain a constant speed with minimal acceleration and deceleration, allow your car to speed up a bit going downhill and slow down a bit going uphill, and forget about being a speed demon aggressive driver.  Hybrids also have little gauges so you can see what your efficiency is in real-time and adjust accordingly.

Alas, she was working hard to drive like an old lady and was getting unimpressive mileage results, especially in town.  She kept trying and ignoring the honks from the lead-footed drivers around her.  She took the car to the dealership and asked why she wasn’t getting the 50mpg mileage they touted but they told her the car was performing just fine. 

Finally, one week she got distracted and went back to her normal driving habits.  Her mileage improved although it still seemed better on the highway than in the city.  So she has returned to her old driving habits and is feeling a little better about the car but still disappointed.

I mentioned this story to my dad and he said that what most people don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between the Toyota hybrid system and the Honda hybrid system – the Toyota is a full hybrid system while the Honda is a power assist hybrid.  Both have an electric motor and a gas motor.  In the Toyota (the Prius), the electric motor operates the car at start-up and at slow speeds so it is very efficient for puttering around town in stop-and-go traffic.  In the Honda (the Civic), the electric motor operates as as a booster for the gas motor so it accelerates more efficiently and cruises at high speeds on the highway more efficiently.  So, with the Prius it makes a big difference if you accelerate slowly because you can run on the electric motor for a long time.  However, with the Civic you’re always using the gas motor so the in-city mileage is never going to be as good no matter how you drive.

That’s my understanding, anyway.  I did a very small amount of research using Wikipedia and JDPower but I’m afraid my engineering brain has been called upon too many times already today as we prepare for Rob and Angel’s weddin – fixing pumps, arranging landscapes, scaling up recipes…  So let me know if I’m off.

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They say…

They say that you can never go back, which might explain why the drive to NC was so horrendous.

Still, we made it and it’s great to see my parents. They’re frazzled from wedding prep and we’re frazzled from the trip, so we’re just relaxing and catching up.

I’m going to get back to it, so I’ll cut this short. Expect a longer post tomorrow! We took Maggie’s parents’ Prius down, so I’m going to run the numbers to compare the drive to theoretical air/train/bus travel. Exciting, I know!

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Urban Chickens

Chicken VillageWe were sprawled on the couch watching “The Kids in the Hall” on Tuesday night when the phone rang.  It was Will’s sister, Linnea.  She wanted to know if chickens would be an appropriate wedding present.

I had to laugh.  I think chickens would be an awesome wedding present but this is the sort of thing that earns me weird looks from more mainstream folks.  Will told her that we are interested in chickens but couldn’t give her a “yes” answer until we find out if we’re buying a house.  (We now have an accepted offer on the house so things are looking good, assuming the inspection goes well and the mortgage people can hook us up.)

Alas, having chickens within Bloomington city limits requires a bit of hoop jumping.  I took a two-hour class last fall through Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard and learned that we would need to get a chicken flock permit, under ordinance 06-21  “To Permit Small Flocks of Chickens By Waiver.”  Believe it or not, this was a huge controversy just a couple years ago with passionate speech-giving on both sides.  The proponents said that all citizens should have the right to raise chickens for eggs and as a disposal system for kitchen scraps, provided they are cared for properly.  The opponents said that chickens are too loud for city-living and that they create offensive odors and that they might infect us all with deadly avian flu.  (I believe there was also some talk of “returning to the Dark Ages” but we’ll leave that rhetoric for the folks in Raleigh who want to keep their garbage disposals.)

Eventually, a compromise was made and voted in so here’s the scoop.

1. A landowner may keep a flock of up to five hens and no roosters if he/she gets a permit, lives in the correct zoning area, and follows all the permit requirements.

2. The first step in obtaining a permit (and probably the biggest challenge) is to get a written waiver from all adjacent lots “indicating that said owner does not oppose the harboring of chicken flocks at the applicant’s address…”  The good news is that the people across the street are not considered adjacent and therefore can’t say anything.

3. Next, the landowner must create a suitable chicken coop and chicken run.  There are lots of details about how far it can be from property lines and what it should be made of but the general idea is that your chickens should be contained at all times and kept out of contact from wild birds, rodents, and dogs.

4. Once all the waivers are submitted and the chicken coop has been inspected, the permit is issued.  Oh, well, you do have to pay a $25 administrative fee and get the permit renewed every year.  And there are still some restrictions on what you may or may not do – no slaughtering chickens on property, no letting your chickens run wild, make sure their droppings are disposed of properly…  You get the idea.

It seems like a pretty reasonable compromise to me although there are still some people in the community who think it’s too restrictive.  I’ve heard arguments that hens should not be deprived of rooster companionship but I’ve heard others say that the hens get along just fine and that one of them will take over the role of the rooster, even going so far as to mount the other hens and to develop noticeably more masculine features.  I wish the city arrangement allowed for chickens in chicken tractors but I can see where that might not be practical on a 0.1 acre lot.

So, Linnea, I definitely appreciate your offer and once I make it through the house-purchasing and permit-acquiring phases, I would love some wedding chickens.  But I might want to help you pick them out.  It’s a big wide world of chickens out there.

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Barefoot no more!

Five Fingers shoesMy neighbor Ian had a birthday last week and decided to treat himself to some rock climbing. There’s an indoor wall within (long) walking distance of our place but neither of us had ever gone. He enjoyed the experience, but unfortunately, he’s a tall guy with large feet and even the largest shoes they rented were too small. That gave Ian the perfect excuse to get a pair of Five Fingers shoes.

Ian tells me that according to the shoe salesman, normal shoes are terrible for your feet. They force you to bend the way they bend rather than letting your foot work the way nature intended. I don’t know how true that is, but from talking to people who have gone from walking barefoot lots to wearing shoes lots, there might be something to it. In any case, these things are a pretty cool new way of approaching the “I don’t want to step on rocks” problem.

The Five Fingers shoes have separate areas for each of your toes and a rigid plastic bottom that’s cut every centimeter or so. That makes it really flexible and lets you flex each of your toes individually. There’s a mesh across the top to keep it on but allow for some air circulation (the “winter” ones are neoprene on top, so Ian found them swelteringly hot even just trying them on).

Ian hasn’t tried climbing in them yet, but we walked a couple of miles out to a stream and a couple miles back and the only trouble he had was with little pieces of grit that got stuck in them when he went wading. They’re totally waterproof, which makes them the only shoe I know about that’s comfortable to walk in but that let you wade around as if you were wearing sandals or flip-flops. They’re also totally vegan (the drawback, of course, is that they’re also totally plastic).

I haven’t tried them out myself, but I’m pretty impressed with them. At $80, they’re about the same cost as a pair of running shoes so they’re not too expensive. More importantly, they seem designed from the ground up to work with our bodies rather than against them. I’m tired of technology that’s made based on what’s cheapest or easiest for the designers rather than what’s best for me.

Hopefully, Five Fingers is an indicator that other people feel like I do and we’ll start seeing more “barefoot” products in the future!

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Book Review: Last Child in the Woods

Last Child in the Woods by Richard LouvI just finished “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv.  It’s on a lot of “must read” book lists and has generated a lot of enthusiasm for getting kids outdoors, while also creating some controversy.  The basic concept is that kids need exposure to nature in order to be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy but our society has made it really difficult.  Some of the major obstacles are lack of open spaces, excessively busy schedules, fear of letting children explore outdoor areas, and concern of potential liability when kids do activities where they might get hurt like (gasp) climbing trees.

Most of the book was information I had heard before and parts of it were a bit dry but I enjoyed the way he wove it all together and came up with suggested solutions that attack the issue from multiple levels – getting our own children outdoors, exploring ways to bring environmental learning into our schools, and lobbying to have more nature-friendly city design.

I was most excited about reading his descriptions of Green Towns and other nature-friendly urban planning concepts.  I have toyed with the idea of being an urban planner for many years because I feel we could create really amazing places to live if we put some effort into it.  Sometimes I think the biggest challenge is convincing people to let go of the status quo.  People seem to worry a lot that switching to more eco-friendly designs will decrease their quality of life but I don’t think it’s true.  Wouldn’t we all enjoy living in towns were we could walk to the store or to work and where we had beautiful natural spaces to enjoy?  I think we just need to let go of the idea that life is incomplete without wide roads and 100% climate control.

In the end, I have not entered the realm of urban planning because redesigning cities is a very slow process that involves years of patient negotiation with a wide variety of stakeholders – community members who have various needs and desires, governments that are interested in maximizing property tax income while minimizing infrastructure costs, developers who want to stay in business, preservationists who want to save various historical sites and buildings, transportation networks, and oh, so many more.  It is not a battle I’m ready to take on.  Not yet, anyway.  But I do believe one of the best things any community can do is to develop a vision of what they *might* look like if everything worked out right.  Not a utopia.  Not some dream of perfection.  But a semi-realistic concept of a town that integrated into the ecological landscape, that supported the needs of all living beings in the area.  Humans are definitely important but I think the way for us to protect ourselves is to do a better job protecting everything else.

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