Thursday, February 28, 2008

The thunder of carbon footprints

It’s a red letter day when a chap gets to be on NPR (Fresh Air) and in the New Yorker in the same week. Michael Specter was talking to the urbanely detached Terri Gros about his article on the problems of computing the carbon footprint of products. It recalls my discourse on the greenness of Peruvian white asparagus. It turns out, however, that it’s a lot more complicated than you might think. Undoubtedly there is far greater public awareness of climate change in England, though I am not entirely convinced that anything really substantive is being done at the individual level. I don’t, for example, see any public outcry against low-cost short-haul air travel, perhaps one of the greatest contributors to the nation’s carbon footprint; and then there are all the parents dropping their little darlings off at Dulwich college, creating massive traffic jams generating masses of carbon, instead of making them walk or take the bus.

Anyway, back to the point after my little digressive diatribe. The piece makes the point that the carbon footprints of produce are not intuitively obvious. Did you know, for example, that a Kenyan tulip is less carboniferous (to misuse a word) than a Dutch tulip if purchased in the U.K. Further, the New York wine drinker who places environmental consciousness above personal taste should purchase Bordeaux rather than Californian cabernet. Apparently, more carbon is generated trucking the Californian wine to NYC than is generated by boating the Bordeaux equivalent across the pond. The calculations are very geo-specific since the picture shifts when one is making the comparison in Chicago. Am I correct in thinking that my Oregon Pinot is eco-acceptable if quaffed in G.E., or should I be importing grossly over-priced Burgundies instead?

One can envisage carbon consciousness reaching absurd levels. It is not outside the realm of possibility that products will one day have their carbon footprint on the label. I understand that one brand of English crisps (Walkers) already does so. More carbon is emitted in producing the crisps than is contained in the bag. Will people stop eating crisps now? I doubt it.

The calculation of a carbon footprint is fantastically complex if one tries to do it properly. At first glance, the idea of accounting for the energy consumed in making something seems simple enough; but begin to dig deeper and the calculation takes on a fractal quality, becoming longer and longer at ever-decreasing dimensions of scale. So it is unlikely that we will be padding round the grocers with our carbon footprint calculators any time soon.

The take-away is though that some qualitative comparisons are still possible and that our choice of products can be guided to some degree by these kinds of comparison. Yet, as the earlier examples show, the results are not always obvious. So back to the asparagus: is the white greener than the green or not?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

London: One big "C" word

Entering London from LHR on the bus to Victoria, one is confronted by a blizzard of signs showing a large white “C” on a red circle. These warn unsuspecting drivers that they are about to enter the Congestion zone, which costs up to 25 quid per day I believe. It is, I am told, the brainchild of the current mayor of London, the nice Ken Livingstone, who was, and maybe still is, some sort of communist; though I am sure he enjoys all the trappings that the office provides, as do most communists when they get into power. Whatever the faults of commie Ken may be, the congestion charge is a great innovation. Where once the centre of town was an impassable mess of illegally parked cars and formidably intertwined traffic, it is now a carnival of buses. Instead of poncing around France collecting iron railings and pretending to ride a bicycle, I would rather Mayor Daley should come and meet Ken and see what a real public transport system is.

Not that everything in London is enviable. Outside the congestion zone, things are not as pretty. I am staying with my sister in Dulwich, home of the famous private school (which of course is perversely referred to as a public school). The streets around the school are a forest of bollards and mountainous speed bumps that leaves the impression that the good folk of Dulwich are defending against possible assault from heavy tanks. I never knew that Sydenham was that threatening. Such is London today. The ever present blinking eye of the speed cameras, danger of inadvertent entry into a bus lane (instant 90 quid fine or something), the positive blizzard of signs and warnings, roads littered with rubbish skips and white delivery vans contrive to make immense demands on concentration to achieve an accident-free journey.

I caught sight of a man urinating less than discreetly in a doorway near New Bond Street. This is the kind of thing one expects to see in France. Though I think the offender was foreign. In civilized Glen Ellyn the fellow could be arrested.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

C word in the news

Some time last week a "furore" was stirred up by Jane Fonda using a "vulgar synonym" for the title word of the play "Vagina Monologues" on network TV. Shock, horror, declining standards etc. etc. Naturally my interest in all things C-word gravitated me towards this non-story. Here's my question: why is it completely acceptable for the author to use the word umpteen times within the text, but completely unacceptable for Ms. Fonda to use the offending word in a matter-of-fact way to explain why she turned the offer down? Methinks there is much by way of double standards here. One reads all sorts of bad words in the very intellectual New Yorker (and bad pictures too). If it's "artistic" I suppose it's okay. Hmmm.

A couple of seasons ago Dulcie and I attended a production of this particular piece performed by various women of COD as part of women's history month. Were it not for the fortifying beverage cunningly concealed in my "coffee" cup I would have run screaming from the theatre. Not because the performances were bad; they were largely honest, committed and enthusiastic, if neither polished nor particularly skilful; but because the play is so singularly dreadful. What is the point of it I wonder? Some kind of perverse celebration of the female reproductive organs? If so, it is done in such a way to frighten off any men who should by rights be the first worshippers of those organs rather than women. The particular monlogue that Ms. Fonda took exception to just left me squirming with embarrassment. I'm just wondering how a play which just said "cock" the whole time (seems okay on BBC America with Gordon Ramsey) would go down. Is it really the objective of feminists to turn women into men haters? They certainly seem to go quite a long way in turning decent chaps into card-carrying misogynists. I would rather see Wicked ten times than view another production of this ugly piece.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

No Futuregen

These are probably dark days at the Sonicburger in Mattoon; if not exactly Charlie Trotter, then at least a more reliable dining venue than the campus of Eastern Illinois, if Snipper's experiences are anything to go by; given the recent murmurings that the Futuregen project won with such jubilation by Mattoon a few short weeks ago appears to be getting the chop. The reason appears to be concern about the rising costs (the supercollider all over again). While this might be a wise decision, and for sure it is reasonable to question the project's practicality, the abrupt about face smacks a little bit of incompetence or worse skullduggery. Surely those questions were apparent a few weeks ago and nothing really could have changed since the time of the award to change anything; so why waste all the resources on having the competition in the first place?

Along with talk about reducing or eliminating subsidies for ethanol production from corn (totally appropriate in my view) it has been a bad time for energy development in Illinois. Add to that the travesties that have been wraught in funding at the noble Fermi and Argonne one has to wonder what the powers that be have against the Land of Lincoln.

Go the homepage of Fermilab and this is what you will read:

"Budget impact on Fermilab
The FY08 federal budget cut $94 million in funding for High Energy Physics. The dimished (sic) funds will have a powerful impact at Fermilab, requiring workforce adjustments and forcing the cancellation of R&D for experiments and technology key to the future of particle physics. Included in the cuts are funding for the NOvA neutrino experiment and funding for R&D for the International Linear Collider."

The U.S. no longer has a presence in the ILC as a result. The paper last week reported layoffs in the region of 200. To add to the insult, the administration is now trying to right things by talking about replacing the cuts in 2009. Arrogance or imbecility or both. If the money can be justified then, it can be justified now. All this against the backdrop of untold loot poured into a bottomless wastepool of military adventurism.

Visit the Argonne website and you will see something similar. This is what you will find at the page for the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source, once one of the leading structural facilities in the world:

"Dear Colleagues
It’s my sad duty to inform you of some unfortunate news regarding the future of IPNS. As you may know, the omnibus bill that was signed into law by President Bush just before the end of the year provided funding for our sponsor, Basic Energy Sciences (BES), at a level that is too low to meet both new construction commitments and maintain full operations in the US. In order to meet budget obligations, BES has ordered significant cutbacks in operations for all programs that they support. As a part of this cutback, BES has ordered a complete cessation of IPNS operations, effective immediately."

All the time we are lamenting, wailing and gnashing our teeth about the need to generate more scientists and engineers. If all students read is stories about research facilities getting shellacked, they can certainly be forgiven for thinking why bother.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Nice non-work if you can get it

Okay, I lifted the subject line from the editorial in the Tribune (properly acknowledged, I am not plagiarizing), but I thought it was a good one to describe the so-called sabbatical shortly to be taken by the so-called President of Governors State University. Being in the educational trade, I am naturally drawn to stories of educational wrong-doing; being at this moment myself on sabbatical I have a particular resonance with this lurid tale.

The meaning of the word sabbatical, as supplied to me by the delightful Karen Biernat of McGraw Hill is: Sab·bat·i·cal any extended period of leave from one's customary work, esp. for rest, to acquire new skills or training, etc.

Why is it that I am feeling at great pains to convince myself, let alone the cynics out there, that it is more than just rest. Perhaps it is days like Friday when Dulcie disappears into the remains of the blizzard at 7:30, while I am flicking through the paper indulging in my bowl of Go Lean (but not lightly) Well at least I am out of bed I say. (Predictably, the hard-working faculty spent the rest of the day whining about having to come to work). Perhaps it is when she calls at 11 to ask me what I am wearing. Perhaps it is taking a shower at about noon for no particular good reason other than the feeling I should be wearing proper clothes. The point is really, I can work on my chapters just as productively in my pyjamas as anything else.

So, anyway, back to the story of the subject line. The president of Governors State has announced that she it taking a year's sabbatical to be followed by immediate retirement, thereby enabling her to pull in her absurdly high salary of $240K for doing absolutely nothing. The paper points out that the faculty rulebook states that a faculty member must return to the campus for at least a year after taking a sabbatical. Do you think the pusillanimous board of trustees will take any action on this? Another point to ponder is that sabbaticals are really meant for faculty members to pursue research or projects pursuant to their subject. What projects could an administrator legitimately claim to be worthy of a sabbatical?

Governors State must rank among the world's worst universities, boasting as it does a 17 % graduation rate last year- and that is it's best effort in the past five years. I trust the president is feeling proud of that and feeling the $240K well earned. I am not aware of any students from COD going there and I would never recommend it. I did meet a group from there at Argonne last summer as part of the FaST program. If I remember aright the faculty member had a face whiter than any corpse, the appearance made the more stark by the dank black hair atop it.

Apart from the putrid graduation rate the university has been in the news for several (wrong) reasons. There was for example the scam with the student loan program being funnelled through some company with connections to the university. Then there was the president spending all kinds of loot on stuff and losing the receipts. The topper was perhaps the two photocopiers bought from a "company" run by a university employee at about $250,000 over list price. No wrong doing of course...

No doubt we will hear from the search committee the need to pay some salary even more outlandish than the $240K wasted on the present incumbent. After all, they will say, we need to attract a qualified candidate. Let me say right here that I will offer my services at far less than the above and I guarantee I will do a better job. And I won't have the same blatant disregard for the students, and I will buy my Dreadnaughts with my own money, provided I get the free house that goes with it.