28 October 2009

Why The Horseless Carriage Will Never Catch On

I recently came across a yellowed clipping, dating from around 1900, with the following information:

In spite of the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of such inventors as Herr Benz, it is quite impossible for the auto-mobile or "horseless carriage" to ever supplant horse-drawn vehicles as a major form of local or long-distance transport. The reason? Each vehicle has but a limited storage capacity for its fuel.

As a plaything for the rich, who may rattle around their estates or in towns, and can thus return to their stable to refill this "tank" at need, this may not be a problem. But imagine trying to go by auto-mobile from Philadelphia to Baltimore, a distance of more than 100 miles by the established turnpike. Would the vehicle be able to carry the weight of the required fuel, perhaps one or more barrels, as well as the conductor and mechanic? This is an obvious absurdity. By coach this was never a difficulty, as there are several stages at which horses could be rested, or even exchanged if in haste. And of course the railway makes the journey easy, obviating the need for any road machine.

Even if supplies of motor-spirit were to be stored at these post-houses (with, it must be said, great danger of fire, unavoidable odor, etc.) how would it be brought there? By wagon or railway, of course! Hay, grain, and grazing are universally available throughout the country to supply horses, making such expensive and hazardous storage of motor-spirit completely unnecessary!

If mechanically driven transport is needed, railways have already been established and proven the ultimate in efficiency. If Mr. Astor wishes to "motor" in Boston, he would do best to load his auto-mobile on the train, and unload it at his destination. For it to get there under its own power would be quite impossible.

So though we may marvel at these fantastic vehicles as they clatter past, let us recognize them for what they are: a toy for the rich, not transportation for the populace.

People sure were dumb in those days! I guess this lack of refueling points didn't turn out to be a big problem after all. Of course recharging the batteries of electric vehicles is completely different, and forms an insurmountable barrier to their acceptance.

[Full disclosure: I made all this up.]

27 October 2009

Good-bye to the Car?

Teenagers' attitudes toward cars are changing in the U.S. Compare these two (made up) recordings of typical teenage interaction: "Hey! Let's all jump in Johnnie's car and go to the Malt Shop!" Vs. "tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tappety tap tap, tap, tap, tappety, tappety, tap, tap."

For an earlier generation car power was an important social distinction, useful transportation resource, tool for meeting members of the opposite sex, and vital gauge of a potential mate's quality. (Owning a car showed economic achievement and potential--someone who could maintain you in the style to which you would like to become accustomed--and if he can fix a car he can probably unstop a toilet or hang a shelf, also key husband qualifications.)

But has the place of the car for many of these purposes been usurped by the BlackBerry or the iPhone or some other possession? (True they can't take you to the malt shop, but maybe the communication that used to require a trip to the malt shop now takes place in other ways. And they don't have a private back seat . . . who knows what kids do about that these days?)

This item from The L.A. Times tells of a recent J.D. Power survey of online conversations. Shockingly, "Online discussions by teens indicate shifts in perceptions regarding the necessity of and desire to have cars." Ominously, "The negative perceptions of the automotive industry that teens and early careerists hold could have implications on future vehicle sales."

Full disclosure: I don't have a car. Most of my kids don't have cars. My wife has a car but it is broken [she junked it since I originally posted this]. My parents have two cars (but are selling one).

23 October 2009

Flip-top skid lid for stylish cycling

If you are like me you always have a problem deciding what to do with your helmet when you go somewhere on your bicycle. None of my clothes have pockets big enough. In the cinema you can hold it on your lap, but then where do you put the popcorn?

(In Boston's Symphony Hall some of the seats have, or at least had, wire brackets designed to hold a man's hat, brim up, below the seat. Whether it would fit a helmet I do not know.)

A solution may be at hand: Dahon, a maker of folding bicycles, has developed the folding helmet. This video explains:

If you can't see the video, watch it on YouTube here.

So now you can protect your brain-pan and save the planet, and just stuff the folded lid in the pocket of your tux or in your evening bag when you get there.

20 October 2009

Manure mountains manufacture methane, make mess a memory

Greeley, Colorado is a center of cattle feeding and processing. JBS, the successor of the Swift meatpacking business, is a major force in town, and has decided that there's money in those mounds of manure. Like large dairy operations, they can make natural gas from that waste. (Associated Press did a recent story, which you can read here at the Boston Globe. Mr. Swift, who created the meatpacking empire, came from Cape Cod.)

By optimizing the production of methane and capturing it (instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere where it is a potent greenhouse gas) waste disposal problems are reduced, heat is generated for commercial purposes, and tradable carbon credits can be captured.

Heat is usually generated by breakdown of manure by microbes, as anyone who has put his or her hand into a steaming pile of manure can attest. The inside of a pile of manure will typically reach 140℉ or more. This is not the heat that the methane could produce by being burned (although manure fires are a real problem). This heat comes from the action of anaerobic microbes in the pile and some of the most important ones for methane production like higher temperatures. The trick for commercialization is to capture the methane they generate rather than letting it escape or be broken down by other organisms as would happen in manure composting. More about manure to methane here.

Honda Cub for the Next 50 Years?

The Honda Super Cub has been on the market since 1958. Sixty million units have been sold, making it the best selling motorized vehicle of all time. Now Honda will be showing at least a concept version of a battery-electric Cub at the Tokyo Motor Show (see press release and pix at Autoblog Green).
The Super Cub (also known as the Cub, the Honda 50 and the Honda C100) is a 49cc, 4-stroke, one-cylinder workhorse that has put millions on wheels for generations in 150 countries. It served as the inspiration for the Beach Boys song "My Little Honda", which probably nobody reading this has ever heard. Sigh. (I was going to include a link to the video, but it is too embarrassing.)

Now maybe a new generation of Cub riders will be humming a new tune, instead of the buzz of its mighty four-stroke. And our grandchildren may be puzzled by the "first gear, second gear" lyric, should they somehow run across the song, perhaps while getting a Ph.D. in historical popular musicology.

Electric bikes were discussed in this earlier post.

18 October 2009

Smoot, Hawley and Inhofe

Many remember, or have been taught about, the harm done to the global economy by the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930--the Smoot-Hawley Bill. (Or, maybe if you are from Oregon, the Hawley-Smoot Bill.) The names of Senator Smoot and Representative Hawley have lived on in infamy. In fact, the Tariff Act of 1930 has lived on and is still a basic part of U.S. trade law. Both Smoot and Hawley, and Herbert Hoover who refused to veto their ill-conceived bill, were defeated in the elections of 1932. Of course by then it was too late.

How then will Jim Inhofe, Senator of Oklahoma, be remembered? He has played a major and visible role in the stubborn refusal of the U.S. Congress to make any commitment to serious action against greenhouse gas emissions. He calls climate change a "hoax". And he has been reelected by the people of Oklahoma.

J. Wayne Leonard, the Chairman and CEO of Entergy Corporation, recently said at a conference with lawmakers that we are making a choice whether to risk extinction or to pass comprehensive climate change legislation.

He said it in engineer-speak: "We are virtually certain that climate change is occurring, and occurring because of man's activities. We're virtually certain the probability distribution curve is all bad. There’s no good things that's going to come of this. But what's uncertain is exactly which one of those things are going to occur and in what timeframe. In the probability distribution curve is about a 50% probability that about half of all species will become extinct or be subject to extinction over this period of time. What we will never know on an ex ante basis is whether or not man will be one of those casualties or not." Watch his remarks on YouTube.

He said we are cheating our children, and we are doing it with our eyes open. Why are so many in our Congress willing to roll those dice?

As children we learned about Smoot-Hawley, but by then the Great Depression was over. Our children and our children's children will learn about Senator Inhofe, but they may have to live in the consequences of our inaction for centuries to come.

16 October 2009

Still Sustainable: Las Gaviotas

An item in the New York Times reminded me about Las Gaviotas, an experimental outpost in los llanos of Colombia, the dry savanna east of the Andes. When I visited it in the 1970s it was already an off-grid testing ground for "appropriate technology" for rural development. It is still going thirty years later. It has grown to a community of about 200, still testing "small is beautiful" energy and water systems and other village technologies.

Here is a journal of a visit there more recently, with pictures of some of the technologies.

Weird or Cute? Peugeot BB1 Concept Car Video

Peugeot's somewhat whimsical BB1 concept was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show and got everything from snickers to abuse. But it has bounced right back to appear in this video showing its features in Paris. I think it is kind of cool.

If you can't see the video watch it on YouTube here. What do you think?

15 October 2009

Why Commons Aren't Always Tragic

Who is Elinor Ostrom and why is she getting the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel? Here's a video to help answer those questions. You can see why some say this is another Nobel Prize related to the problems of climate change.

If you can't see the video watch it on YouTube here.

Professor Ostrom is another female economist I could watch all day. The first is, of course, Jodi Beggs.

14 October 2009

Burtynsky on Oil - The Big Picture

A series of pictures "From extraction to consumption: Oil" by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky appears here courtesy of The Guardian.

The images are from a current show at the Hasted Hunt Kraeutler gallery in New York. A parallel exhibition of photos from Burtynsky's new book "Oil", at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., is profiled here.

We posted earlier on the fantastic film "Manufactured Landscapes", which features Burtynsky and his images.

12 October 2009

That Clever Peace Prize Committee

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which selects the laureate for the Peace Prize, has gotten some criticism for picking U.S. President Barak Obama, much of it pointing out that he hasn't actually accomplished much concrete progress yet on his nuclear disarmament, climate change, or peace initiatives. The Committee recognized this, awarding him the prize in part because he has "created a new climate in international politics."

But did the Committee have a deeper policy? Obama will be in Oslo, Norway, to pick up his medal, diploma, and certificate of the monetary prize on 10th December 2009. He will undoubtedly also attend some of the other Nobel Prize events held in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the same time. The 15th Conference of the Parties under the United Nations’ Climate Change Convention will be taking place in Copenhagen from 7th through 18th December, with the hope of getting a protocol agreed to extend or replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.

Thus the wily Norwegian Nobel Committee has cleverly all but insured that President Obama will be in Copenhagen during the Conference, and will be able to exert his charm and influence to try to get a deal done. The Committee has already shown how closely it feels climate change is tied to threats to world peace (see earlier post).

If the Committee's move helps get a deal in Copenhagen it will itself deserve the Peace Prize.

Dream On, Minister Ramesh

India's minister of state for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, says a final deal may not be possible at the upcoming Copenhagen conference, and that "governments should now focus on agreeing on three main areas: finance for adaptation to climate change, a deal to combat deforestation and promote forestation, and technology sharing."

Unfortunately this may not work, since at least one theory of the way negotiations have to go is this:
  • Poor nations will suffer the most from the effects of accelerating climate change, so they urgently want rich nations to cut emissions deeply.
  • Rich nations (except Norway) do not want to cut emissions as much as poor nations want them to (indeed as much as climate scientists say is necessary to try to reduce further serious negative effects).
  • Rich nations are willing to part with a certain amount of cash and technology to reach a deal that requires them to promise only cuts that are politically acceptable to their voters.
Therefore it is impossible to separate the promises of aid from rich to poor nations from the promises of emission reductions by rich nations.