Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reduce the Hype, Get the Real Numbers on Alternative Energy Sources

Heather and Martin referred me to this book by a British physicist for learning how to assess the real impact of various forms of renewable energy. The book is in draft form right now. Just reading the Preface, I'm hooked! The author, University of Cambridge physicist David MacKay, explains that he had to understand why two professionals, one a physicist, the other an economist, could write books about the global energy crisis and have completely opposite points of view: one claiming oil will run out and the other that there is no crisis. MacKay saw similar disagreements among noted professionals on topics such as nuclear energy and renewable forms. To understand the problem better, he wrote this book that looks at just the facts, the numbers, applied to energy sources. He explains that he wants the reader to be able to make sense of policy decisions. In his words:

"The aim of this book is to help you figure out the numbers and do the arithmetic so that you can evaluate policies; to lay a factual foundation so that you can see which proposals add up."

If you are at all concerned about energy and environmental issues, you should consider reading some or all of this book. Let's reduce the hype and get the real numbers on alternative energy sources.

An Adventure in Reducing my Ecological Footprint

This past Tuesday evening I attended the second class in the Ecological Footprint class I'm enrolled in. As homework, we were supposed to walk, bike, or take public transit for at least one errand we would normally do by car. I chose to take TriMet's light rail from the Sunset Transit Center in Beaverton to downtown Portland and walk between there and the class over on 1st and Columbia. Although it took me a little longer to get to the class, it was far more exciting, educational and peaceful than driving Skyline to the Sylvan entrance to 26 and then 26 to Market Street in downtown.

I've taken the light rail several times before (in my eleven plus years in Portland, that's not nearly enough, I know!) but this was an adventure. When I arrived at the transit center I went up to one of the ticket machines to purchase my ticket. From the brief information I found on the machine, I figured I needed a two-zone pass, which is $1.75 for a two-hour ticket. As some people who know me locally know, I pay for most things with cash these days. With only a $20. bill and a $1. bill in my wallet, I put the twenty into the machine. Out came my ticket and my change: ALL in coins, mostly the new one-dollar coins shown below.

Since my train was scheduled to arrive at any moment, I was in a bit of a hurry so I didn't count the change until later, when I realized that TriMet ripped me off on the order of two to three bucks! Geez! But no worries, it didn't upset me as much as notify me that I need to use more forethought when I'm about to buy tickets from those machines.

After my class, which focused on eating locally and eating less meat, both more sustainable than not knowing where your food comes from and eating lots of meat, I walked back to the transit mall area for the ride home. At the ticket machine (replica shown below),
I pressed the button for a $1.75 ticket and then tried to insert my newly-acquired one-dollar coins. The coin slot was blocked, didn't open. I tried forcing a coin in it and that didn't work. So I thought, well, maybe you place the coin sideways into this larger circular area and it slides down. Well, it sort of took my coin, but it didn't slide very far. Stupid me, I pushed it and eventually it slid down, somewhere into the belly of the machine. At that point a screaming and loud siren sound came blasting out of the machine! People gathered around me as I explained that all I did was try to insert a coin. The siren went on for about a minute I think after which it just stopped. No ticket, no indication that my one-dollar coin was used to deduct from the $1.75 charge for the ticket. Soon after a train came by but it was going to Gresham not towards Beaverton. I realized I was on the wrong platform and walked the two blocks to the westbound platform where I was able to buy a ticket from a "working" ticket machine! Whew!

The last part of this adventure was a thirty-minute delay near PGE Park where the train broke down. Fortunately I had a book to read.

Monday, September 24, 2007

One Laptop Per Child (and One for your child)

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program started at MIT that had the goal of creating a $100 laptop for children in developing countries has announced an offer for donors to not only donate a machine to a child in a developing country but to get one for their own child to use. The program will be for a short time in November and is revealed here. The original $100 price-tag goal, however, has been raised to $188. And the program requires you to pay $399. for the two laptops, one going to a child in a poverty-striken area and the other to you.

This gives OLPC an opportunity to expand the distribution of the laptops throughout the world while generating excitement about them among families in the developed world. For kids interested in programming, it provides an additional opportunity for developing and testing software for the machine. Presumably a separate Linux machine would be necessary for software development; not sure.

Intel's Classmate PC is their own attempt to inject a low-cost laptop into the developing world. Apparently Nigeria has adopted it in some of their villages because it runs Windows, which presumably will give high-school age students a better chance of getting work. That's Intel's claim I believe, not mine.

Alternative Energy Sources

I've been corresponding with a friend in the Washington, D.C. area about setting up a non-profit oriented toward alternative energy sources such as solar. Although there are a lot of sources out there for energy information, not everyone knows how to get started. I'll post more about this as we make progress in our planning and are ready to go public with the organization.

In the meantime, a local friend has just blogged about the wild and crazy idea of bicyclists storing up electrical energy generated while riding and then selling that energy at a depot or energy station, with the accumulated juice going back into the local electrical grid. I think that this is a great idea. There are already some home-made electricity generators based on stationary bikes and some cell-phone chargers hooked up to bikes. Think about the possibility of having cheap electricity generated by thousands of people and making that electricity available to the community to reduce demands on fossil fuels. Think further about that idea being applied in a developing country where the electricity powers local industry, raising the country's per capita income in a sustainable economy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ecological Footprint

I went to my first Ecological Footprint class tonight. Offered by the Center for Earth Leadership in Portland, the class started out with a general overview of sustainability and what an ecological footprint is. Dan Bower, Transportation Options Policy Program Manager for the City of Portland then gave a very interesting slide presentation in which he explained why Portland is a model city for sustainable living. Focusing primarily on bicycling in the city, he explained the Bicycle Boulevard concept. Here's a quote from the Transportation Options website:

"Bicycle boulevards are not striped with bicycle lanes, so they are not always visible to new or potential riders as good bicycling streets. They do have amenities that make them work well for people riding bicycles, including crossing treatments at major intersections; traffic calming to keep auto speeds slow; and a stop sign pattern providing cyclists with a better flow along the street."

Bicycle commuting has increased dramatically in Portland since we came here in 1996. In that year about 5,000 bicyclists had crossed a group of four surveyed bridges in a day. It's now up to 14,000 cyclists! The city and some businesses offer cash benefits to employees who do not drive to work, bicycling, walking and/or taking mass transit instead. I'm curious if surrounding communities (Beaverton, Hillsboro, Gresham) have incentives for businesses to encourage their employees to not drive. There is a business tax credit available in the city of Portland.

Some interesting web links from the class:,

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Clinical Economics

Jeffrey Sachs' description of the developing world in terms of an economic development ladder is vivid. Through engaging stories, he shows the difference between Africans in Malawi who have not a toehold on the development ladder and Bangladesh women and young Chinese professionals who are, with their countries, on the ladder and on their way to escaping poverty hopefully forever.

Early in The End of Poverty, Sachs then relates the key paradigm shift that he made and which he professes for understanding and eradicating poverty: clinical economics. His wife is a pediatrician and no doubt his observance of her skill and practice of solving late-night emergencies has helped him to develop his concept of clinical practice applied to developing country economics. Sachs took four lessons from clinical medicine: (1) the human body is a complex system, (2) complexity requires a differential diagnosis, (3)all medicine is family medicine and (4) monitoring and evaluation are essential. Just like the human body, a country's economy is a complex system and diagnosing it requires more than looking at a severe budget deficit and runaway inflation (the two symptoms of Bolivia's problems when Sachs first got involved in development consulting back in the mid-1980s). The diagnosis for Bolivia, for example, required an understanding of its economy in terms of geography (it is land-locked), its political and social systems and the fact that its primary exports have been high-dollar value per weight items such as tin which were necessary to overcome the high costs of transporting it to ports from the high Andes. If you're browsing a bookstore and come across this book, don't forget to look at the table on page 84 entitled "Checklist for Making a Differential Diagnosis." Pretty comprehensive. Sachs is one of the main players in the Millenium Development Goals, a UN initiative to eradicate extreme poverty and improve the health of people around the world.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

An example of seeing the forest AND the trees

I've been fairly active this weekend. On Friday night I got some help from a few of the mechanics at The Bike Gallery on NE Sandy Boulevard. They recommended replacing the tires on one of the bikes Kilong and I are donating to indigent girls in North Portland. And they fixed the brakes on the other bike. With my pleading, the mechanics were able to knock ten percent off the cost of parts.

Then on Saturday morning, I met Kilong's family in their neighborhood and we all walked the bikes up the street to the girls' residence. They were very happy to have bikes! I also got to meet their brothers, little guys with a lot of energy who kept us company as Kilong showed me around part of his neighborhood. I found out that Kilong's wife Lisa later purchased bicycle helmets for the girls and their brother!

We walked around the New Columbia neighborhood, drank coffee at AJ Java, talked with another neighbor about elderly services and events, picked apples from a tree and generally had a good time in this jewel of a community. The coffee shop, AJ Java, I have since learned, has an owner dedicated to enriching the lives of disadvantaged children. The community has its own paid security force which is housed in a building that just blends in as just another house or apartment. Children are encouraged to keep the parks and greenspaces litter-free. Not with ugly signs saying not to litter, but through direct encouragement from community leaders who themselves are residents of the community. Knowing that the Liberian girls to whom we donated the bikes live in this neighborhood really lifts me up!

That was by far the highlight of my weekend. After that, I went to the Hoyt Arboretum where I am in the process of scanning all of their photographic slides into a computer so that the photos can be accessed electronically. I started earlier in the summer and am about halfway done. Hopefully I can finish the entire task by end of the year. We have also talked about how to use the images, such as extending their database to contain pointers to the image filenames. One of the horticulturists on the staff once told me about a larger arboretum that had a setup throughout their grounds where visitors could get information, read from a database, displayed on a handheld (bluetooth-enabled) device. That's cool and I'm sure the Hoyt will get there someday.

I've read through a few chapters in Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty. He believes we can end 'extreme poverty' which is what about one billion people on our planet are experiencing. They struggle on a daily basis for survival and have not yet reached even the first rung on the ladder of economic development. I'm heartened that he firmly believes that we can eradicate this poverty within our lifetime, and not with a drastic alteration of our own well-being. I'll post more as I continue reading.

Finally, I saw the movie Hotel Rwanda last night. Besides feeling the shame at not trying to get our government to do something about that when it happened, I was struck by the courage of Paul, the real-life character who was Assistant Manager at a resort hotel in the country and helped save twelve-hundred lives by housing refugees in the hotel during the genocide. While watching the movie, I reflected on the fact that Kilong told me that the six-year-old Liberian boy in his neighborhood remembered and could tell what he experienced in his country before they had to leave it. These events brought home to me the tragedy of our times and how it is not just something we can sit back and shake our heads at before we switch the TV channel or sit down to another home-made meal.

A good example of seeing the forest AND the trees.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

One person at a time

When someone he knows does a good deed for another person, my friend Kilong may say to that person that he "is now part of a force that makes the world a better place, one person at a time." In today's sound-bite world, it may seem just like part of the background but let me explore exactly what this means to me, personally.

Like most people, I want to make the world a better place. I want the war in Iraq to end, poverty to be eradicated throughout the world, child abuse to go away, etc. Choose your poison, there are a lot of ills in today's world. How can I be part of a force that makes the world a better place?

A "force" is something powerful. Merriam-Webster Online defines it as strength or energy exerted or brought to bear. It is from Latin's fortis meaning strong. Another way of putting it is, to have force is to have influence. So how can I be a force, an influence, on the ills of society? And how do I do it one person at a time?

My son mentioned an interest in volunteering to me the other day. I pointed him to Hands On Portland. Kilong, learning that I was a fairly avid bicyclist, asked if I could find a way to obtain bikes for two ten-year-old Liberian girls who live in his neighborhood. We're delivering those bikes this weekend, thanks to the generosity of two wonderful residents of Sandy, Oregon who discounted them 66% from their original, craigslist-advertised prices. One person at a time.

I don't care what you think of me about writing about this. I'm not interested in getting credit for any of this. But I won't be quiet if, by telling my story, I can help you to be a part of a force to make the world a better place, one person at a time. As Kilong so astutely wrote me in regard to the bikes, "it's not about the bikes."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Technology and Microfinance

This article in MIT's Technology Review magazine highlights a UW grad student named Tapan Parikh who has applied a whole lot of common sense to the problem of poverty in the developing world. As the subtitle states, he applies 'simple, powerful mobile tools' which are software programs that he develops for mobile phones. Tapan spent a lot of time in the field learning how people performed their work, whether they were fair-trade coffee farmers or fishermen, and then crafted software that would assist them in making their business successful. As an example, a fisherman in India could determine which port to head for to sell their catch, avoiding ports where the market is glutted on a particular day. Tapan believes in decentralization and his products are being used in the traditionally decentralized area of microfinance.

Contrast this with Mifos, an open source microfinance software project sponsored by The Grameen Foundation. This project's core is a freely-available MIS system for microfinance institutions. The Grameen Foundation is providing the initial leadership and funding for the project but is actively seeking developers and other technology pros to participate in this open-source project with the goal of making it an industry-wide effort.

These are two great examples of applying technology expertise to the problem of poverty by enabling more successful microfinance ventures. I'm excited about both of these projects. Whether they are conflicting models or will someday meet in the middle is hard to say. But there are smart people applying themselves to an increasingly dire situation.