Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Going net-zero quite net outlay

You can tell there is something of a lull today as I am offering up a second item in the space of less than two hours. I have been weighed down with a certain guilt that I haven't been entertaining my readers at quite the frequency with which they have become accustomed. I came across a nice little article last week in the Tribune about a "net-zero" house in Chicago. For the uninitiated, a net-zero house is one that in energy does just what it says: consumes no more energy than it produces, and may in favourable circumstances be a net producer. Cool n'est ce pas? Needless to say the house is suitably architecturally stimulating and also quite expensive - about $1.6 MM for a modest (according to the single occupier) 2,675 square feet. Compared to the vulgar monstrosities of excess that Dulcie provides for her well-mortgaged clients it is modest. I have heard couples wailing at the prospect of 5,800 square feet (8 bathrooms if you please) just not being enough these days.

The energy generating sections include solar panels (of course) and geothermal. There are green rooves (roofs in this country; I guess we could have a debate about that, Firefox none too happy with my word selection), things where stuff is growing to provide insulation and do its little bit for global warming. Inside there is energy-efficient lighting (of course), no plasma TVs, radiant flooring and air recirculation. Just for grins there is also a "gray water" system that diverts the washing machine water into the lavs.

It's all very lovely and would that I were a 44 year-old pharmacist (is that why so many students want to get into pharmacy?) able to afford its spendours. Would that we all could. The question is, is this a realistic vision for the future of housing? We are still waiting for the cost of solar to decrease relative to other energy sources. Will it ever? Would photovoltaics ever be workable in an apartment building where the surface area to volume ratio is a lot smaller? Meanwhile let our architects indulge our energy-conscious, well-heeled brethren. Far better that than the odious piles now losing their value by the million.

The lost tribologists of Argonne

I received the grim news that tomorrow marks the last of our "casual Thursdays," which can only mean one thing and that is summer is coming to an end. Yet one feels that it has hardly started. I wanted to spend a bit of time visiting my student interns in their various environments; last Friday I high-tailed it down to Bloomington Normal to see the students at Illinois State; yesterday I went to visit Ellen Briggs at Argonne. A slight thrill of nostalgia as I entered once more through the visitor center, three long summers have I spent there, but not three long winters thankfully.

I discovered that Ellen was working with a group involved in developing oil additives. Her project was looking at using naturally occurring minerals as lubricants, rather than the conventional synthetics, the idea being that whatever comes from nature can return to it without harming it. One may argue the validity of that argument I suspect. In any event, she showed me round her little kingdom, wherein she makes various tribological measurements of scuffing and friction and so on. Tribology is one of those subjects (apparently unfamiliar to Firefox since it is questioning my spelling) that I have always been vaguely aware of but not known anything about. I joked to Ellen that from the sound it smacks of something anthropological. It turns out I'm not alone in that thought. Later I learned from the group leader that the DoE bureaucrats told him to find a new name in funding proposals because there were always questions about why DoE should be funding Native American research.

I noted that the stimulus has struck home at Argonne because the roads were all asunder in a massive resurfacing project, the first since about 1957 I wouldn't wonder.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My own private Ventoux

One rite of summer that occupies three precious weeks in July, as Dulcie has unavoidably become nauseatingly familiar with, is the Tour de France, or more simply "Le Tour." All other televisual activities, F1 excluded, become subordinate to the daily couple of hours devoted to a stage on VS (the station formerly known as OLN). So conditioned has she become to watching Le Tour, or in her case more like enduring it, that she expresses surprise when "bicycles" (Le Tour in Dulcie-speak) are not on. "It's a rest day." I might reply patronizingly.

The odd thing about my fascination with this event is that I don't ride a bicycle; I don't even like them; I'm even slightly afraid of being on one. As a student at Oxford I was one of the few without one. A bicycle was central in a long-since-forgotten brush with the long arm of the law. Yet every summer, on that first Saturday in July, I am geared for the prologue (Stage 1). This year it started in Monaco, with the finish using the same piece of harbor front that the F1 cars pound round at nerve-tingling speed. The slightly more sedate pace of the bikers allows the viewer to observe that there actually is a swimming pool on that series of bends. Not that the bike riders are any the less brave than an F1 driver: watch these chaps descend off one of the high peaks down a series of hairpins to get a measure of their cojones on the bike.

There are two things to savor when following Le Tour. One is the complex, fascinating, convoluted, fluid strategy playing off the often opposing ambitions of individuals and the teams they ride for. In general a team has one leader to whom the other team members sacrifice their own personal goals, except on those days when opportunity might present itself. There are Tour super-objectives (winning the Maillot Jaune, the green jersey etc.); and there are daily stage objectives. Only a chosen few have any hope in the first category; but in the second one, history shows that almost anyone can have his day and define a career in the process. The second reason for watching is simply the scenery; all that hyperbole about the beauty of France is annoyingly true: ancient ruins, beautiful churches, beyond-quaint villages, vistas of yellow, jagged peaks and on and on.

So you might be thinking that I'm one of those Johnny-come-lately Lance worshipers. In truth, like John the Baptist, I came before him - not exactly making a way though. For I have been an addict since turning on to watch Indurain (then 5-time winner) crack in the mountains in 1996. A youthful Jan Ullrich finished second that year, and won it the next, the first of many it was thought. That was until a certain cancer survivor arrived on the scene in 1999, with neither fanfare nor expectation. In the prologue that year, Lance rode like a "man on a mission" as Phil Liggett described his awesome display in seizing yellow on his very first day back. Paul Sherwen later gushed "He has come from the gates of death to ride like a Trojan at the head of the Tour de France." Paul should know; he knew him back when. Much more thoroughly justified hyperbole has followed. Whatever might be said of Lance's less-than-amiable personality, his achievements stand alone in the sporting pantheon.

So as I head out for my own modest constitutionals, the images of Le Tour accompany me. The hill up to Thornhill on the west side of the Morton Arboretum (the Arb in Dulcie and Aylwin speak) becomes my own private Mont Ventoux, that terrifying moonscape peak in Provence (toujours Provence n'est ce pas?) that faces the riders on the penultimate stage this year. The Ventoux will make or break the contenders or so it is hoped: the ultimate stage on the penultimate day. Upon that stony slope decades ago Tommy Simpson collapsed and died, his alleged last words being "Get me back on the bloody bike." These chaps are driven. Sometimes too far, as Simpson was one of the early victims of performance enhancing drugs. It's not just a modern problem.