Archive for June, 2006


For those who haven’t heard, my sisters were in a fairly serious accident several days ago, and I made an unscheduled trip home instead of returning to Pittsburgh after the conferences. They are both home from the hospital now and doing amazingly well considering the circumstances. Though there are some weeks of painful recovery ahead, we’re pretty sure they will come back to 100% with some time. I’m going to stick around here for a while (not sure how long yet) to help out and whatever.

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[photopress:Lisbon_from_castle.jpg,thumb,floatright] [photopress:park_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:alley_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatleft] There’s a definite contrast going from Norway to Portugal, which, if I may generalize (and really, isn’t reckless generalization the basis of so many R/C posts?), is archetypal of the contrast between north- and south-western Europe. Portugal is more colorful, both literally and figuratively. The lifestyle seems more relaxed, fun-loving, and disorderly. Norway, on the other hand, was clean, rational, comfortable (in the sense of economically well-developed), and determined.

[photopress:subway_seats.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:courtyard_Lisbon.jpg,thumb,floatright]Lisbon strikes me as an amiable, disheveled city, steeped in history, and not quite holding itself to past standards of grandeur: graffiti is absolutely everywhere, dog feces dot the marble-tile sidewalks, and old, crumbling buildings stand side-by-side with the many crisp, new, multicolored cubist developments. Dinners at restaurants start late and last for hours. Clubs don’t fill up until 3:00am(!). Wine (or, in my case, sangria, for the same price as soda) can be purchased with lunch in the mall food court.

[photopress:bridge_over_moat.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:cathedral_interior.jpg,thumb,floatright] The conference was fun, especially the meeting and talking with many friendly students from around the world. Our host university and student organizers did an amazing job making us feel welcome with a tour of the city, reception in a castle, and a fabulous dinner at a hip, fancy restaurant overlooking the water.

[photopress:Fado_restaurant.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:post_Cup_celebration.jpg,thumb,floatright] I managed to see Fado, a traditional local folk music (but lately of interest largely to tourists, I hear), and to witness some of the manic country-wide celebration when Portugal won a game in the World Cup. The streets were a jammed with cars full of honking, hollering, flag-waving revelers for hours after the game. Coming back from dinner, a cab-driver refused our fare because many arterial roads were impassable, so we walked by the throngs of elated soccer fans, and I was happy to have my earplugs. Had I not recently lived through the Steelers winning the Superbowl, it would have been yet more surreal.

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[photopress:parade_marching_Oslo.jpg,thumb,floatleft] parade end, Oslo I went tooling around Oslo and continued to enjoy the feel of the city. I happened upon an open-air market and then a huge parade with 3 or 4 marching bands separated by various uniformed groups.

I hadn’t thought before that it must be pretty hard to see where one is stepping if one is a bass drum player in a marching band. The elderly player for one of the bands was confidently keeping a beat while the band marched at rest when he tripped on a curb and fell squarely forward onto his bass drum. The rest of the band scattered briefly in confusion with the driving pulse missing. It was one of saddest things I’ve ever seen.

The parade converged at a park in front of the royal palace. I never figured out what it was about.

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[photopress:art1.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:art2.jpg,thumb,floatright] It’s a little bit of a shame that I find I’m getting comfortable in Norway just as I’m about to leave. I had a pretty nice day here in Oslo. On my way in I helped an arriving Vietnamese girl navigate the train from the airport. I even hefted her gigantic bag (which must have been about two-thirds her weight). It turns out she works on energy systems and sustainable development and is hear for a summer class at the university. I had a delicious and cheap falafel pita for lunch and I checked out downtown Oslo. I found it delightfully lively in that urban-cosmopolitan way.
I saw everything in the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Some of it was pretty enjoyable, like the things pictured. I was a little disappointed at the size of the collection, though. The Carnegie Art Museum probably has a bigger collection of contemporary art.

[photopress:art3.jpg,thumb,floatleft]Overall, I got a good vibe from the city, but I had to get some work done, so I’ve been doing that for last 8 hours or so. Maybe I’ll get to see a little more before I ship out tomorrow.

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One conference ends …

[photopress:cathedral_from_bridge.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:riverside_residential_trondheim.jpg,thumb,floatright] That’s it for the 8th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies. I learned a little bit. I made a few connections. I ate fancy food and drank French wine at a dinner hosted by Statoil, thus benefiting from oil companies’ massive profits. I enjoyed Trondheim’s maritime charm and swooned at its more contemporary architecture and design. Their style is very Modern, rational, and conspicuously wood-heavy with a really nice sense of texture and intrigue.

[photopress:square_at_midnight_trondheim.jpg,thumb,floatleft] It’s easy to describe the phenomenon of perpetual daylight, but the feeling of a light sky and active street life at midnight on a Wednesday still took me by surprise. The picture helps to illustrate it. In the evening one gets a sense of imperviousness to the clock: “I can stay out as late as I want; it’ll still be light when I want to go home” and there are enough other people out and about to support that sense. Of course, the imperviousness doesn’t extend to the next morning and afternoon.

Incidentally, the King arrived in town today (I heard Tronheim is his Summer residence). There was a royal procession, with children and various groups following behind, cheering and waving flags. There’s a concert in the square right now which He is attending. A pop orchestra had been playing incredibly cliche classical pieces, the ones you always hear in movies and movie previews. Now they’ve added a singer and drumset, and they’re doing orchestrated pop numbers. Some of it’s not bad. Some of it is pretty cheesy (My Favorite Things, Lean on Me, …).

I head out tomorrow morning.


Day one wrap-up, or, “That’s what the butt-pads are for.”

[photopress:seating.jpg,thumb,floatleft] I have to credit Sean with the succinct and insightful titular statement. I observed the Norse predilection for quintessentially-Modern bentwood-and-steel furniture and Sean suggested that’s why they included a fold-up sitting pad in our conference packets. (They also included mittens, an aluminum water bottle, and a rain poncho — go figure.)

I regret how much coffee I drank today to get through all the talks. The plenary sessions were surprisingly bland for a conference with a fairly narrow focus (carbon capture and storage). However, I liked the opening talk where the lead organizer showed a graph of conference-attendees by country (950 conferees from 42 countries) and calculated the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the conference (1000 tons CO2). Considering the emissions, he facetiously(?) suggested that next year’s be web-based.

Fun fact for the day: the earth’s oceans are acting as a giant heat-sink, adding inertia to the climate system. So even if all human-emitted greenhouse gases were suddenly removed from the atmosphere (I’m imagining the spaceship-vacuum-cleaner from Spaceballs), the planet would continue warming another 0.6o C, equal to the warming we’ve so far experienced since pre-industrial times.

[photopress:Archibishops_Palace_interior.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:marching_troops.jpg,thumb,floatright] I don’t know if an academic conference coming to town is a big deal in Trondheim or what, but the mayor invited us for a reception at the Archbishop’s Palace (“the oldest secular building in Norway”), complete with an old-timey soldier troupe marching about and periodically firing muskets into the air. A city-councilwomen addressed us from on high to sing the praises of Trondheim and its history and encouraged us to see the sights and, perhaps, do some shopping while we’re here.

[photopress:Josh_in_front_of_old_gothic_cathedral.jpg,thumb,floatright] And here’s a picture of me in front of a very old, famous, gothic cathedral. It’s silly, but I guess I should do a picture with me in it once in a while.

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Our beautiful planet

It’s my first morning at the conference, and right now the director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Coal & Power Import & Export is waxing poetic about how are planet is uniquely “blessed” in the solar system to support life. She goes on using flowery language to describe “clean energy systems” that protect our “beautiful blue planet” while supporting our needs for “many generations to come”. She urges us to be “as proactive as we can be” in “bring[ing] clean energy technologies to the world”. Gag me. DOE speakers are always full of feel-good optimism while their agency takes no action and doesn’t even talk about potential action on carbon emissions. Okay, there’s a serious speaker up now and I should pay attention.

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Around Lom

[photopress:carnival.jpg,thumb,floatleft][photopress:sheepdogging.jpg,thumb,floatright] A few tidbits before I left town. There was some sort of festival going on there, which included the little carnival section, where they were playing a dance remix of Beverly Hills Cop theme “Axel F” when I walked by. There was also what I interpreted as a sheep-dog competition. The man would whistle various patterns and the dog would jump up and chase the five sheep this way or that. It was sort of impressive.

[photopress:wood_church.jpg,thumb,floatleft] [photopress:storeroom.jpg,thumb,floatright]The other thing I have to say is that they love their wood architecture here, especially rough-hewn log construction. This church is one of the biggest and oldest in Norway, dating to the 1200′s, which is pretty old for a wooden structure. The other structure is a large store-room, similarly aged. [photopress:log_bridge.jpg,thumb,floatright] Also, I love that this is a classic king-truss bridge, except made out of logs. Interiors, also, are dominated by unstained wood paneling, wood floors, and hulking wood furniture. You can start to see the roots of the Ikea aesthetic.

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I feel kind of ill today, which is an especially lousy feeling to have when traveling. I was going to do a second hike today but I don’t think I’m up to it. Now the question it what I will do for the next 7 hours before the bus comes in a tiny town with, soon, no hotel room in which to set up my laptop.

I was just thinking about yesterday’s hike and musing that, although I have previously disparaged hiking alone, it has some distinct advantages (which, to some extent, apply to traveling alone in general): you can get grumpy and no one is around to notice or be affected; you can get lost and backtrack a lot (which I did for about the first hour yesterday trying to find the trailhead) without anyone getting mad or negatively assessing your sense of direction; you can eat questionable things like peanut butter and jelly tortillas and tuna from the can without being judged, and you can sing along loudly to the songs in your head, pausing and rewinding to correct the wrong notes, without disturbing anyone’s peace and quiet.

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Music and stuff

It turns out these earphone-earplugs I got for the trip are really great. On the plane they block out an impressive amount of engine rumble — enough so that music is coherent at pretty low volume. I mean, I can hear all the instruments and frequencies without straining, and I’ve never been able to do that before on an airplane, even with isolating headphones. On the bus they essentially eliminated background noise; I might as well have been listening on my home stereo. They are surprisingly comfortable too, much more so than my regular earplugs. The sound quality is very good with all of the frequencies clear, except the sound is a slight bit flat (cold?) — like music played through a subwoofer-satellite system. But overall, I’m enjoying the new gadget.

On a loosely-related note, I talked to a middle-aged Norwegian man last night who also plays drums and keyboard. His English was about is good as my Spanish, which is to say, pretty limited, but I gleaned that his hero is Johnny Cash(!) and he’s been to Nashville twice, once actually meeting the Man in Black. He was baffled that I didn’t know Alan Jackson, his second favorite musician (apparently he is a popular country musician with many hits in the 90′s).

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Hiking in Lom

I couldn’t make it in to Jutenheimen national park as I planned because the bus doesn’t start running there until next week. I’m stuck here in Lom, about 20 miles from the park with no bikes or cars to rent. I flirted with hitchhiking, but didn’t want to risk getting stranded. My fanciful plan to find other guests at breakfast who were going hiking was thwarted when there was absolutely no one else around when I came down this morning. So a took a trail near town. It turned out to be a long, very steep hike with great views down into three river valleys. I didn’t see another person the whole time except for a search-and-rescue (?) helicopter that kept flying by. It was good, but I may have overexerted.


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I think it’s obligatory

It’s not a great photo, but here’s the best I could get of fjords so far.

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Don’t try this at home, kids

I’m pretty much ecstatic to be on the Internet right now, and fairly surprised that this hotel/hostel in a small mountain town has free wireless. It turns out that my voltage converted doesn’t fit in most Norwegian plugs, and my devices were dying off one by one as they ran out of batteries and I couldn’t recharge them. My mp3 player went last night and I was pretty sad about that today when for some reason I had a bunch of songs going through my head and an intense desire to listen to them.

There are definitely no adapters to be found in this little town, so I got proactive. I remembered reading in wikipedia that the voltage that some European countries use the same voltage standard but have a recessed housing, which is what they look like here. [photopress:adapter_assembly.jpg,thumb,floatleft] So I just need a way to connect the pins in the wall to the the pins in the adapter. I have no tools because of the fricking airplane rules, so I picked up a cheap steak knife from the supermarket. The lynch-pin was the extension cord I found at the convenience store. I cut off the female end and stripped it with the knife. But the color conventions of the wires are different. I seemed to remember from wikipedia that green is ground, (or “earth” — nice mnemonic), but to be sure — I’m a little proud of this — I touched the pins to my camera battery and shorted the blue and brown wires to look for a spark and see which wires were hot (I was right). I attached the bare wires to the adapter pins with bandage tape I had in my bag. The last thing was to try it out on my least valuable device. I decided that was my cell phone. I tried it and … not even a spark. It works fine. I charged up my music player a bit and listened to a few songs I was craving. Then I attached the cord to my laptop and here I am. It’s not a what I’d call a “robust” solution, but it works for now.

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The long road to Oslo

This is the first Rational/Contemporary post from outside North America. Unfortunately, it may be brief because my voltage converter doesn’t work with my laptop and I’ve only got so much battery. Hopefully I can buy an adapter soon. Also unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures to share since I’ve spent most the previous 22 hours in airports and airplanes and apparently they have a thing about taking pictures in airports these days.

Which is too bad, because I really wanted to take a picture of the underground walkway/tunnel in the Frankfort airport. It had this great 2001 aesthetic with curved white walls backlit with color-changing lights, and for some reason it played spooky retro-futuristic sound effects (to complete the Disneyland Space Mountain effect?).

Anyhow, I’m glad I successfully navigated 4 flights and two trains without a hitch. Although two of those planes required sprinting through the terminal with all my stuff, hardcore1. So I’ve got several layers of dried sweat in addition to the usual baggage.

Although I spent some time studying the phrasebooks, my first attempt to say anything in Norwegian utterly failed. I think it’s pretty hard to know how it sounds without hearing it. The hardest part about traveling for me is the constant reminder of what a linguistic retard I am. I feel ceaselessly awful about coming to other countries and expecting them to speak my language.

On a brighter note2, I’ve been riveted by Jonathan Saffran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and that had kept my going through many traveling hours, as I’m sure it will continue to do on the 6 hour bus ride tomorrow.

Norway is beautiful, from what I have seen so far, which admittedly isn’t much but I have to put in at least one observation here. More when I have them.

  1. Mostly not my fault: the bus to the Pittsburgh airport was a half an hour late. Then the flight got delayed on the runway so I was already late for the connection when we pulled up. []
  2. Sort of, it’s actually an extraordinarily sad book. []


Marriage and feminism

I suppose you could call it one of my guilty pleasures, but I actually enjoy reading Salon’s advice column. In a recent letter, a woman writes about getting flak from her feminist peers for wanting to marry at her young age of 21. It’s the sort of ironic inverse of the problem I usually hear about from friends, of getting pressure to marry as they get older. With age of first marriage trending steadily upward, the parents’ and grandparents’ generations are bound to have different sensibilities, and we in the educated class are particularly prone to delay or omit marriage.

Whether or not he meant it to be, I think Cary Tennis’ response to the letter is an interesting volley in the post-feminist debate discussed previously. It’s not a new argument, per se, but it’s well articulated: essentially, that the highest aim of the feminism movement is for women to have freedom of personal choice, and so it is contradictory for this woman’s feminist friends to try to criticize her free choice to get married and have children young.

I think I tend to agree in this case, because her background and environment make it clear that she is making a personal choice for happiness from a position of freedom. But it’s not as clear for women in similar positions who also feel pressured by old-fashioned norms or economic circumstance. Would getting married young and having kids be taking the easy way out in that case?


It’s all about the music

I’ve been into lately. It’s great to see what my friends are listening to in almost-real-time, and the radio “stations” that you can select by tag or that play your recommended music are pretty fun. Everyone should check it out. I added a recent track list to this page over on the right, so if I’ve been listening to music on one of my computers lately you can see what I’ve been listening to. Unfortunately it doesn’t fit so well. Someday I’ll work on that.


Personal carbon offsets

I’ve been hearing about this personal greenhouse gas emissions offsetting lately. Basically, the idea is that, while you may be concerned about climate change, it’s hard to stop emitting CO2 and thereby contributing to it: you’ve got to drive, heat your home, buy products that were transported in trucks, and so forth. But you can reduce or eliminate your personal contribution to climate climate change by paying to offset your emissions, that is, stop the same quantity of greenhouse gases from being emitted somewhere else. Salon has a thoughtful article on the phenomenon, and the author identifies a half-dozen companies who will sell you emissions offsets, noting that the price varies from $5.50 to $30 per ton of CO21. That’s pretty cheap, compared to what most people expect the industrial price of carbon emissions will be in the long term. Incidentally, I do research on technology the we estimate will offset emissions for something in the neighborhood of $140/ton-CO2.

So I’ve been thinking, why not join the some tens of thousands of offsetters and atone for my own emissions? There are a few interesting caveats to personal emissions offsetting, but I at least want to see how much I would need to purchase. Most of the company websites have calculators to help you estimate what your emissions are. You put in things like how much you drive and the mileage of your car, how high is your utility bill and in which state you live. Of the few that I tried, all were missing something big. One neglected air travel, one neglected home heating, and none accounted for the embodied emissions of consumer goods. Many of the companies focus just on car emissions or car + plane emissions. I guess the rationale here is that people feel guilty about driving and flying because it is something they have control over, on the margin, and so they are particularly willing to pay to relieve that guilt.

My emissions came out as little as a tenth of the average, largely because I don’t drive (I put in some miles for the rides I bum) and share an apartment. But I don’t think that is really capturing everything, so I’m going to try my own calculation. Here goes.


This is a wild guess for how much driving I’m responsible for. Most of it is probably when I’m home on break. I’m assuming that when there are multiple people in the car, the emissions get divided evenly by the number of passengers.

[tex]\left( \frac{500 \,miles}{year} \right) \left( \frac{gallon \, gas}{22\, miles} \right) \left( \frac{.011 \, ton \, CO_2}{gallon \, gas} \right) = 0.25 \frac{ton\, CO_2}{year}[/tex]


Here’s the category I’m probably highest on compared with other Americans. I routinely fly across the country to visit family, and lately I’ve been flying similarly far for research trips to Canada and to conferences. Airplanes have about the same emissions per passenger-mile as cars, coincidentally — equivalent to about 34 miles/gallon driving alone. I figured two trips home and two conference trips to get the miles per year. Sources: Energy Information Agency here and here.

[tex]\left( \frac{17000 \,miles}{year} \right) \left( \frac{3600 \, Btu}{passenger \cdot mile} \right) \left( \frac{7.64 \times 10^{-8} \, ton \, CO_2}{Btu \, jet \, fuel} \right) = 4.7 \frac{ton\, CO_2}{year}[/tex]


I’m making a rough estimate at the per-person gas bill since I don’t have all the month’s prices.

[tex]\left( \frac{\$600}{year} \right) \left( \frac{1000 cubic feet \, }{\$16.82} \right) \left( \frac{million \, Btu}{1160 \, cubic\, feet} \right) \left( \frac{0.015 \, ton \, CO_2}{million \, Btu} \right)= 0.45 \frac{ton\, CO_2}{year}[/tex]


This is a straightforward calculation using the Pennsylvania electricity price and emissions factor. Pennsylvania electricity is really dirty.

[tex]\left( \frac{\$120}{year} \right) \left( \frac{kW \cdot hr}{\$0.098} \right) \left( \frac{5.74 \times 10^{-4} \, ton \, CO_2}{kW \cdot hr} \right) = 0.70 \frac{ton\, CO_2}{year}[/tex]


I’m drawing my calculation from the article I discussed earlier about diet and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a little tough because the authors do everything in terms of differences between diets, not absolute emissions. I think I’m in the neighborhood of 1 ton/year, compared with the average American diet which is about 2.3 tons/yr. Then again I regularly eat produce trucked from California, so it could be higher.

Consumer goods

I don’t have the patience to do them all, so I’m trying to think of the few most important categories of consumer goods I buy. I’m using the Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Analysis website to get emissions factors for various categories of goods. I’m making rough guesses at the dollar values, too.

Computers and parts, sort of amortizing the equipment I already have:
[tex]\left( \frac{\$500}{year} \right) \left( \frac{5.0 \times 10^{-4} ton \, CO_2}{\$\, purchased} \right) = 0.25 \frac{ton\, CO_2}{year}[/tex]

Audio/visual equipment:
[tex]\left( \frac{\$100}{year} \right) \left( \frac{6.5 \times 10^{-4} ton \, CO_2}{\$\, purchased} \right) = 0.07 \frac{ton\, CO_2}{year}[/tex]

Furniture (I don’t really buy furniture, but I’m trying to account for my roommates’ Ikea stuff that I use):
[tex]\left( \frac{\$100}{year} \right) \left( \frac{8.7 \times 10^{-4} ton \, CO_2}{\$\, purchased} \right) = 0.09 \frac{ton\, CO_2}{year}[/tex]


If I add that all up, I get about 7.5 tons CO2 per year. I clearly left stuff out. I didn’t account for energy use or anything else happening at school, and it’s not clear whether I should. Other than that, I think I got all the big factors. But it’s a messy calculation, anyway, so let’s say 10 tons roughly accounts for my climate impact. I could offset that for $300/yr, which, in the scheme of things is not bad. $300 to completely solve the climate problem? I could do that. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple for everyone to go carbon-neutral because the economy would have to dramatically change, but it wouldn’t necessarily be more costly in the economic sense.

P.S.: It’s nice to finally use the LaTeX plugin for my blog to write equations here. Heheh.

  1. For a sense of scale, United States CO2 emissions are about 25 tons per person per year. []