Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dark days on Fawell

And not just because the long days of summer have been hurtling towards those dark mornings of winter; even now, when I rise from my bed of pain of a morning, the sun is barely visible, poking reluctantly above the trees on Raintree. No, the darkness on Fawell is emanating from the boardroom: for the second time in little over a week, my breakfast's Go Lean-inspired equilibrium was disturbed by the newspaper.

Last week, the disturbance was caused by one trustee, new boy on the block Atkinson (not elected by the way, but selected by other BOT members to replace one of the two resigned trustees), engaging in a crude, pre-meditated and thoroughly classless ambush on a fellow trustee at the board meeting. It was all recounted in the Herald: Atkinson spending nearly nine minutes of the board's time revealing (shock, horror!!) Trustee Wessel's well-known connections with a group called DuPage United.

This time the story was in the Tribune .

Read it yourself if you wish; I do not intend to discuss the tawdry issues at hand here. For one thing, I know very little about the individuals involved. What clutched at my colon and impelled me to the heights of unquenchable fury was the fact that the BOT chairman's attorney, a certain Chuck Roberts, has attempted to drag the SSCP into the mess by insinuating that the allegations in question are motivated by faculty members objecting to the new policy of wide-open public accessibility of the college's financial records.

Quoting from the article, "He's basically opened the checkbook for review by everybody," Roberts said Thursday ... "If I was a highly paid faculty member, that may make me a little nervous. There's been a little bit of a tussle over that kind of stuff."

Note yet again the qualifier "highly paid" applied to faculty member. As Dulcie rather acerbically observed, "Have they seen where you live?" Whether or not we are or are not "highly paid," as Mr. Roberts implies, (there's irony, a lawyer implying a college professor is "highly paid." Just so you know, I don't bill people for every phone call I make, or every time I use the lavatory), it is all beside the point. As countless people observed in comments on the column, the suggestion is as dumb as it is erroneous. The "transparency" policy adopted to humour Mr. GoodforIllinois occurred just a few weeks ago, at least a year after the original allegations arose. Mr. Roberts, for your client's sake, I hope you make better arguments in court.

There is an election in April 2009 for four of the BOT seats. It would be nice in future to read articles about the COD that involve student success and achievement, rather than the machinations of BOT members.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Golf carts no more

As both an ardent fan of F1 racing and student of alternative energy, the recent article in New Scientist on electric cars took my immediate fancy. The main feature of the article was the Tesla roadster prototype funded by some Californian whiz who had made masses of money doing something else. Although there are shades of the Monty Python line, "...made a cool 4 million in vanadium and sank it all into diesel powered nuns..." (Editor's note: the internet is an amazing thing: I enter diesel powered nuns into Google, every academic's best friend, to check the accuracy, and get 76,200 hits; and there's even a blog of the name "dieselpowerednuns."), initial results are certainly impressive from the performance perspective; while massive questions of cost and practicality remain.

Time was when the electric car was a tiny, nasty little box with absolutely no performance and even less range; it was as if it were necessary to carry around a long cable so it could plugged in every few miles to recharge. It's not the first car to have changed the image, but the Tesla blows it out of the water, with its blinding acceleration and claimed top speed of 200 mph apparently limited internally. I don't recall the range but for sure it is far superior to yesterday's golf carts. So what is the difference? All in the battery. The Tesla derives its awesome power from a lithium battery that weighs in at a mind-blowing 450 kg. Lithium batteries are the wunderkind of modern batteries, since lithium combines very low atomic mass with very high reduction potential (the bit that makes the voltage). So they combine low mass with high energy density unparalleled by other competing battery technologies. As a side note, the SSCP is not slow to point out that he worked on lithium batteries back in his youth at Exxon. That was the era of the first oil crisis.

The amazing thing about the Tesla power plant is that the size of the battery far exceeds anything I have been familiar with. The lithium battery powering this laptop as I type weighs maybe 100 grams. It would also cost be about $150 to replace unless I buy one from some disreputable place on eBay. Two issues with lithium batteries are safety and cost. I already alluded to the latter. Little wonder then that the Tesla would set you back $100,000. At that price it is hardly the answer to all our transportation issues; but to be fair to the developer, he does say that the Tesla is a kind of marketing vehicle and that "future products" would emphasize lower-performance, mass-production type cars.

The safety issue represents a longer term problem perhaps. Most people have heard about, or seen pictures of, laptops spontaneously bursting into flames. Imagine that happening on an airplane with an armed marshal sat in the row behind you. My understanding was that the size of the lithium battery was limited by this safety concern. Imagine the conflagration that would ensue if a 450 kg battery (4,000 times larger than the laptop battery) went off. An earlier lithium-powered car made by Volvo (also a high-performance sex machine) used hundreds of tiny cells. Evidently things have moved on.

Looking down the road there are other things to be concerned about. So, if each existing automobile, not to mention the millions more that will appear in places like India, China and Brazil, uses a lithium battery like the one in the Tesla, that means a lot of lithium. At a stroke we will have moved from concerns about peak oil to concerns about peak lithium. In all probability, the latter will be an even more massive problem. And then supply issues will negatively impact prices and so on.

Then what about the recharging? Although the Tesla emits no carbon in its travels, other than that emitted by the driver, the production of electricity to recharge the battery currently does. Although calculations show that, apparently, the carbon footprint of electrical power generation is lower than that of fossil-fuel-powered cars, it is far from zero. So, to some degree, the carbon problem is simply moved somewhere else by the Tesla. Then of course there is the irritating charging time.

The developer is disdainful of the fuel cell approach; but at least the latter requires no long charge times; nor does it hold the owner hostage to the cost of lithium. Of course fuel cell technology will require a hydrogen infrastructure, which is still in its infancy; and that is probably a stretch.

Still, all-in-all, interesting times in electrical transportation.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hmmm. Firm.

Word of the week from COD.

I was listening to my uber-favorite podcast, BBC Radio Wales' "All Things Considered" - not to be confused with NPR's version (I think I may have said this once before), while going about my constitutional amidst the autumnal splendor of Danada/Herrick Lake preserve. The mellifluous Roy Jenkins, as soothing a voice as can be heard on the radio, was interviewing some old geezer who had kept a diary on a daily basis for more than thirty years; it might have been fifty, but I forget. Seeing as how the "blog" is the contemporary version of the Letts Schoolboy's diary, the medium that the interviewee had begun his diarying with, I find it unimaginable that I could maintain such a regimen. For one thing, there is a degree of narcissism involved in writing something in a form for others to read. Being one visited occasionally by self-doubts about the value of my thoughts, that narcissism is occasionally defeated. And then there are the times that one simply has nothing to say.

Dulcie looks up from the kitchen table over her glass of Punte Mes (I have introduced her successfully - perhaps too successfully - to the delights of Italian bitter aperitifs, which all started with the search for Fernet Branca inspired by James Harrison Patterson) with the question, "Did I know that T.S. Eliot wrote Prufrock when he was only 23?" Since among the immortal lines there are bits such as "I grow old, I grow old..." I found that fairly amazing. On more than one occasion do I find myself identifying with the poem's hero. The tea and cake and ices lines: definitely been there. At the moment though, my trousers are not yet rolled. For the moment. Later, who knows.

Given that the youth of today read about five minutes a day on the average for pleasure, I wonder how many have heard of T.S. Eliot. Let alone read anything.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Postcard from the Kremlin

This is my 101st post, which has taken about 18 months to achieve. There are those that make a hundred posts a day; such is the fecundity of their brains, the nimbleness of their fingers, and the unlimited availability of their time. Despite my being a "teacher;" reviled the length and breadth of DuPage county by the likes of "Head of the Family," occasional contributor to the lavatory wall that is the comments section in the Daily Herald; for working as little as possible, the time afforded to me for gifting to the world my genius with the pen is limited. Or perhaps I am as idle and lazy as Head of the Family believes. As I pen these immortal words I am still in my pajamas, or what passes for them these days (don't imagine too deeply), knowing that I must to the COD shortly. Damn! I must do the washing up too before Dulcie returns to find it strewn about the kitchen like the remnants of Hurricane Gustav.

Life at the COD is taking on some of the elements of one of those C.P. Snow novels in a university setting full of Machiavellian plots and internecine goings on. Who would have thought the same possible at the linoleum floor educational level. As I think I have commented previously, time was I knew not the BOT, its members, when they met or what they did, if anything. Times have changed. Over my morning Go Lean (but not lightly), I read the Herald article in which one BOT member publicly attacked another one for allegedly master-minding "protests" against the BOT actions. This same BOT in the course of the past few months assassinated the president, swiftly replacing him with a stand-in puppet. In recent weeks, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs was similarly gunned down in the car park (behind one of the new weed-strewn bioswales - so that's what they are for); and, just for completeness, the Associate Dean of Natural Science has also been offered cyanide pills. Given that the Dean is on a year's sabbatical, my entire management line has been removed in less time than it normally takes to convene a committee meeting. All this is supposedly done with the interest of the tax-payer at heart, but the costs are not inconsequential: paying for two presidents as we are now, with money being spent trying to find a third.

The Gang of Four is unhappy. It doesn't like having to pay attention to the views of others, particularly those that have any experience or interest in education. It appears hostile to education and those that actually do it. To placate one anti-tax activist, the salaries are all going to be posted. For what? To denigrate the employees. It attacks the student newspaper because the latter actually has the bollocks to write about what is going on and questioning the wisdom of recent decisions. It tries to eliminate public comment at its meetings and bristles when anyone approaches the microphone. Board procedures are invoked to discourage the emergence of opinion. It has foisted upon the college a "revised" policy manual that weighs twice as much as the previous one, and wants to force it through the process avoiding any form of due process in so doing.

And I want to know why? What motivates these people? They have no interest in education, no background in it, no vision, no mission, no desire to promote it. Why has the once peaceful little COD been turned into some sort of politically motivated circus that successfully generates masses of bad press.

There is an election in April.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Clean coal: put that in your stack and smoke it

It was about a year ago that Mattoon was on the brink of becoming the epicentre of advanced coal research with the awarding of the giant Futuregen project to that small burg somewhere off I-57, close to the home of Eastern Illinois University. Parents, do your children a favor by not ruining their college years by sending them there.

Although Dulcie informs that I was incorrect in remembering there to be a Sonic burger place, I must have been confusing it with St. Louis (easily done), the lone restaurant near the interstate exit, whatever it was, defined fine dining in that area. Rightly or wrongly, and that is a debate rich in nuance, Mattoon's glory was short-lived as Futuregen got slashed a few weeks later as being too expensive.

For my loyal readers unfamiliar with Futuregen, it is/was an ambitious project aimed at developing carbon-free emissions in a coal-fired power station. Since almost all the energy from the combustion of coal involves converting carbon into carbon dioxide, this is a mighty problem. Coal is almost all carbon; whereas natural gas, methane (CH4) has four hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom, so energy from burning the latter comes from both creation of CO2 (bad) and H2O (not bad). Fans of alternative energy sources are largely opposed to any research on improving coal. The trouble is, there's lots of it and, for several decades, no conceivable way that the non-carbon alternatives will replace it.

Earlier this week, an advanced emissionless power plant, much smaller than the one proposed in Futuregen, was unveiled in Germany (the former East Germany as people are still wont to say). It is fairly amazing that this idea really has practical and economic utility, but perhaps it does. For one thing, the coal must be burned in pure oxygen rather than air (only 21 % oxygen) to ensure complete conversion into CO2. All this CO2 must then be captured in the exhaust. It is then pressurized, liquefied, and stored in tanks for later disposal. The current design has the tanks being transported for injection underground at another location. This is the equally improbable-sounding carbon sequestration where, instead of releasing the CO2 into the atmosphere (bad), it is pumped deep underground where it will happily live ever after in the seams of some old mine or something.

Compare all that effort with simply taking a lump of coal and burning it, and you have to wonder how it can be cost-effective. Then consider the logistics of converting every single coal-fired power station to this kind of process. Bear in mind that the infrastructure of capturing, transporting and sequestering mammoth quantities of CO2 is yet to be developed. Bear in mind also that new power stations are popping up in India and China like mushrooms in the Morton Arboretum in the damp fall weather.

The enormity of the problem of eliminating carbon from the energy game is so massive that it seems that all solutions are pointless. It will never be a question that one approach is the way. However, if all of the myriad approaches using various renewables, sustainables, bio-this's and thats, futuristic clean coal, and even including the nuke (nukular in the GOP parlance), are all applied, then a difference can be made, over time and with monumental investment at the government level. If all the money frittered away in the pathetically wrong-headed attempt to impose "democracy" on a unwilling foreign country, much of which ended up in the pockets of the president's pals, was focused on developing those sources, think where we might be now. Maybe Mattoon would have become more than just a one-burger town.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

If the glove fits...

The news came over my radio Saturday announcing that O.J. Simpson had been found guilty on all counts. A flood of memories provoked by the juxtaposition of those words: Simpson and guilty. Was it almost fifteen years now when he was the beneficiary of one of the most celebrated miscarriages of justice in modern history? The most celebrated perhaps if not the greatest. For day in, day out, there are more grievous perversions of the system of justice as innocent men, lacking the celebrity and resources of the likes of Simpson, are quietly put away. Some of them may get lucky decades later, when some vital evidence missing at the time surfaces. Many do not. The sordid imperfections that permeate the system are the strongest argument I know against the death penalty. (As an aside, how are those folks who are so pro-life with their Christian worldview usually so profoundly pro-death when it comes to law and order? Not to mention the obsession with rights to carry guns)

Almost fifteen years: the white Bronco, the weird chase, the envelope, the cut on the finger, the horrid slaughter, Judge Ito, the rest. I was spending a lot of time cutting and polishing crystals for my fledgling company using the equipment at the then Amoco Optics. The radio was on the whole time and the trial was a constant fixture, like a soap opera. In spite of the Himalayas of evidence the jury saw fit to acquit. One could really question the efficacy of the jury system.

Is it possible that justice could finally be served, or at least repaid a little? No doubt there will be an appeal. This is America, and, as everyone knows, freedom is always available at a price. Back then, a cavalcade of "celebrity" lawyers whored themselves to get a piece of the action. It was a truly disgusting sight. And it paid off. Hopefully this time it won't happen and the Goldman's will get a semblance of justice at long last.

Safe inside the "Ivory Tower"

While it might be a bit of a stretch to equate the rusting hulk of the Berg Instructional Center (pity poor Mr. Berg for having his name attached to this monument to horrible 1970's "architecture," with its ugly rusting walls and lexan windows rendered utterly opaque by degradation and rivers of rust) with the ivory towers of learning, nonetheless, it is a place of learning, albeit at the lower end of the spectrum of higher education. I like to tell people when introduced to them that I am very familiar with the lower reaches of higher ed. And, being so, the college is largely insulated from the horrors that a plummeting economy visit upon people in the real world, as Dulcie likes to refer to everyone else; college professors do not live in the real world.

It is largely true, as scarcely a whisper of the recent panics on Wall Street filtered into my soulless square of a cubicle that passes for an office. Indeed, on the latest Black Monday, I arrived home blissfully unaware of the disaster; Dulcie rolling her eyes in scornful disbelief at my ignorance.

I'm sure the protection afforded us teachers is partly responsible for the hatred that many of the community apparently have for the profession. A letter in the Daily Herald regarding the publishing of the salaries provoked an astonishing vitriolic torrent of abusive "discussion." Notable among the posts was the hostility of some towards teachers ("Head of the Family" in particular, anonymous coward): how we are only interested in working as little as possible for as much as possible. Having spent the best part of a Saturday without receiving a cent of compensation, not to mention the weeks in the summer working with my research students for next to nothing, I am not entirely in agreement with this viewpoint of the teacher; though I can think of a few that might qualify - where art though football guy?

While for most, the daily rumination revolves around whether or not their employer will weather the storm, for the COD faculty the current crisis is the modification of the reading requirement - a decision made without their full consultation, blessing and consent.