Saturday, December 29, 2018

Fire-Safe Information

                                                                                                written 23 December 2018
                                                                                                published 29 December 2018

            In early December, Cal-Fire and the Mendocino Fire-Safe Council presented a seminar at the Mendocino College, sharing the following information.  
            A fire front can pass over a building in 15 minutes leaving it intact, but it is still vulnerable to four different paths of ignition.  Burning material can land on the roof, igniting flammable roofing.  Flames from trees, shrubs or adjacent buildings, can make contact with flammable house siding.  Prolonged exposure to radiant heat from burning material will ignite flammable material, even without direct flame contact.  The most widespread impact is from burning embers, small pieces of flaming material lofted into the air, spreading fire far in advance of the actual fire front, which can swirl into nooks and crevices in any building they encounter.
            Exposure to these four fire paths can be reduced by selecting proper construction materials and preparing the area around the house.  A Class A roof is the most fire-resistant rating, and defines materials that are not flammable, such as concrete or clay roof tiles, fire rated fiberglass asphalt shingles, and metal roofing.  These same kinds of materials can be used for siding.  Consideration of radiant heat exposure is necessary, as metal and concrete can transmit heat, igniting the underlying structure, even though the siding will not burn.  
            Thermopane windows are more fire resistant than single pane.  Open windows or skylights provides a path for fire to enter the house.  Close windows and remove sheer curtains during a fire, but heavier drapes can reduce radiant heat transfer into the room.
            Protection against embers is probably the cheapest change to make, but requires extensive consideration.  High winds can drive a fire, and the fires can then generate more winds.  The resulting turbulence blows embers around, before, during, and after the front of the fire has passed.  One of the most vulnerable places on a house are the attic vents, which allow embers access to combustible insulation and very dry framing material.  Most vents have 1/4" mesh, if any, but new fire rules require 1/8" mesh.  This simple replacement can save your house.  
            However, embers can also blow into cracks between rafter tails and the roof decking, between exposed ends of roof tiles, or into the leaf debris in the roof gutters.  Proper design, caulking, and regular gutter cleaning is worth the effort.
            A wooden fence attached to the house is another ignition point.  Dry debris collecting at the base of the fence can be ignited by blowing embers, which then ignites the fence and then the house siding.  Combustible material such as firewood or construction lumber should not be stored under a deck.
            Landscape modification of eliminating trees and shrubs within 10' of the house can reduce flame contact and radiant heat exposure.  Removing lower tree branches can prevent ground fires from moving into the upper part of the trees.  Remove any limbs extending over the house.
            The Cal Fire defensible space suggestions of 30' clearance around the house and 100' brush reduction, don't apply in suburban settings, where the fence line might be 10' from the house, and the neighbor's house is another 10' beyond that.  Small changes in landscape and construction can make a difference, but a community scale level of defense is required as well.
            In 2004, a shaded fuel break was created along part of the western edge of the Ukiah city limits.  This area is 100'-200' wide, with ground brush and litter removed, trees thinned to prevent crown to crown fire transmission, and the lower limbs of the remaining trees removed to prevent fire from spreading up from the ground. This park like environment allows access for fire equipment, and the reduction of fuel makes defending the area easier.  The break has not been maintained, but this year the City and County have committed to restoring this break, widening it in places, and extending it from the Boonville road to Hensley Creek.  In the recent Paradise fire, an existing shaded break made it possible to prevent the fire from expanding north.
            Preparation can increase the odds of saving our homes in the kinds of fires we are now experiencing.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Now Is All The Time We Have

                                                                                                written 15 December 2018
                                                                                                published 22 December 2018

            When you stop and think about it, time is mostly an idea.  The past has already happened, now only stories in memory. Being less than what actually happened, they are mere shadows of events that we hold as ideas.  The future is idea even less rooted in reality, based on limited projections of current events, influenced by stories from the past.  
            This isn't to say that the past and future aren't "real" in some manner. Comparing my face in the mirror to my high school graduation picture is proof that something has changed, supporting the sense of time passing.  But the only part of time I can ever experience in now, this moment.  Even when I am remembering past stories, I am in this moment, this now.  Likewise, as I plan for a future construction project or an upcoming event, the planning and thinking is happening now, this moment.
            Quantum mechanics tells us that we can only "know" what we observe in the moment.  Between observations, we can't say anything definite, as an unobserved object has a probability of being anywhere in the universe.  Reality happens only in the now.  Special relativity tells us that as objects accelerate toward the speed of light, their experience of time slows down.  Photons, which travel only at the speed of light, experience no time at all, remaining in a constant now.  In our frame of reference, a photon takes over 8 minutes to travel from the sun to our eye, but for the photon, the trip is instantaneous, no time, no distance.  The photon doesn't really "exist" between its formation in the sun and its extinction at our eye, yet we experience an energy transfer.
            A movie is a series of individual frames projected one after another, and even though each individual frame is seen for a short interval, we experience the film as showing "moving pictures".  Our awareness can only handle a limited rate of change in perception, and the refresh rate on a video screen or in a film is faster than our perception, so the motion seems continuous.  Life is like that, a series of "now" moments that appears continuous.  
            When we experience an event in this moment, our stories from the past immediately arise to provide an interpretation.  If we aren't careful with our attention, we accept these interpretations as an accurate perception of the moment, and act in response to the past story rather than the actual event.  The future becomes a consequence of the past and the present is not considered at all, thus our life becomes conditioned.  By eliminating clear awareness of the present moment, we are left unable to respond to the only reality we ever truly experience.
            Our culture trains us to validate these stories as descriptions of reality. However, by practicing mindfulness meditation, we can learn to notice when the stories are running and shift awareness to the actual moment, the eternal now, freed from the narration from the past.  Each moment then becomes an opportunity for change.  All action happens in the present, so we begin to evolve an ability to respond to current events and to be response-able, rather than automatically repeating the past.  Our future shifts from being determined by the past, to being shaped by choices in the present moment.  
            The more we practice being in the aware present, the easier it becomes, like anything we practice.  Our everyday encounters change as we are less triggered by past stories and patterns. As we live more in the present, everyone we encounter is affected as well, by energetic resonance. Communication becomes clearer as we move away from our preconceived responses and are able to listen to what is actually being said in the moment.  When we tune in to each present moment, we notice that, for the most part, we are not in distress, or dire need.  We become calmer, not anxious about past or future concerns.  Stress is a killer, so being at peace in each moment improves our health.
            Since "now" is eternal, it is always available, and we have all the time we need.        

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Power Industry For The 21st Century

                                                                                                written 8 December 2018
                                                                                                published 15 December 2018

            The power industry has not changed much in the last 140 years ago.  Large central plants generate electricity, which is shipped over vast grids, to supply power to their customers on demand. In my opinion, electricity is the most versatile energy form to come from the industrial revolution.  Any future civilization should include widespread access to electricity, but we need a new model for a 21st century power system which would address four powerful factors.  
            First, distributed power production and storage is now economically viable. Second, our growth economy is crashing into the reality of a finite planet, requiring that we learn to thrive while consuming less power.  Third, the global money system is a bloated debt bomb and most human values cannot be reduced to fiscal solutions.  Fourth, most importantly, the climate is becoming more extreme and hostile to our current way of life due to our addiction to fossil fuels.
            The myth that privatization is always best is colliding with this rapidly changing reality.  The last two fire seasons have shown the limits of capitalism for providing essential social industries such as electricity.  A corporation's first priority, no matter what the product, is maximum shareholder profit.  This is contrary to society's need for low-cost electric power delivered by a safe infrastructure.  PG&E's corporate profit model has shown it is incapable of handling this, and is facing liabilities for fire damages that exceed their insurance, threatening to bankrupt the company.  Typically, they are asking their ratepayers and the State to cover the loss.  
            There is a place for socialism, as we see in other basic social needs such as street, water, and sewer systems.  Most major cities in California already have publically owned power.  As an alternative to bankruptcy or bailout, the State should take a controlling equity stake in PG&E as the price for covering the company's insurance liabilities.
            As fire seasons become more extreme, fire insurance problems will continue to grow. Merced Property and Casualty was made insolvent by the Camp fire.  As other companies decide to leave, or rates become unaffordable, California may need to cover fire insurance to keep the housing market from crashing.  The Federal government covers flood insurance for the same reason.  State control of both insurance and the power system, would incentivize rebuilding the system for fire resilience.  
            Undergrounding power lines costs up to $3M per mile, and California has over 200,000 miles of distribution lines.  To put this in perspective, the insurance liability for just the last two fire seasons exceeds $30B, the cost to place 10,000 miles of distribution lines underground. 
            In this new model, power would be routinely shut down whenever weather condition dictate. Since electricity is a necessity, the system would invest in onsite renewable power systems and battery storage, starting with areas where shut-downs are expected.  Houses would be rewired so basic necessities remain powered during shut-downs.  Having a modest amount of power in an emergency is very different than having none.  The weather extremes we have created can no longer accommodate unlimited 24/7 power.
            Over time, customers outside problem areas would receive these distributed systems as well, moving the state toward 100% renewable power production.  The function of the grid would shift away from one-way distribution from a central plant to the customer, and become a load-sharing system, shipping excess production and filling distributed storage as needed.  Regional and neighborhood micro-grids would increase system resilience and be coordinated into the statewide system.
            Eventually, the world will awaken to the collective threat of extreme climate change and the need for equitable investment to make the transition to a zero-carbon power system.  This type of household scale unit would be of use all over the world, creating a huge export opportunity.  Distributed production and storage can be scaled from household-size up through village-size.  The basic systems can be added in parallel, allowing for expansion in small, affordable increments as funding and need increase.  If we think in terms of what could power a third-world village, and begin producing that for ourselves, as well as for export, we might just avoid climate suicide, and give our children a chance to thrive.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Fracking Fantasy

                                                                                                written 1 December 2018
                                                                                                published 8 December 2018

            American oil production doubled in the last decade, exceeding 10 million barrels a day in 2017 for the first time since 1970.  The US became the largest oil producer on the planet in 2018, spurring fantasies we are oil independent and masters of our energy future.  The miracle behind this is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
            Fracking involves sophisticated drilling of deep wells with extensive horizontal laterals to access dispersed pockets of oil within shale rock.  A chemical brew containing sand is injected by high pressure pumps, fracturing the rock, allowing oil and gas to flow, while the sand keeps the cracks open.  As conventional oil fields have depleted and discovery of new fields has declined, fracking allows extraction of the remaining unconventional deposits, but costs more money and energy.  
            Oil is essential for our current economy.  However, if the price is high enough for high cost production to profit, the economy can stagnate, contributing to recession as in 2007.  If the price of oil is low, the economy thrives, but these same oil producers lose money.  As the economy has slowly recovered from the last economic crash, the US oil industry had to shift to fracking, losing over $250 billion while expanding production. 
             Even though fracking loses money on every barrel, the hope of increasing economic growth and future profitability, keeps investors on the hook.  Many fracking companies are little more than Ponzi schemes, where new investors are required to keep everything from imploding.  But the economy stalled this year, due to the Trump trade war and the ballooning US debt needed to fund the tax cut, so investors are becoming concerned that fracking is just another financial bubble. 
            Part of what makes fracking so expensive is that production in these wells declines within a few years, compared to decades of production from conventional wells.  This means new wells must be drilled continuously to maintain even the same production level.  Most American fracking production comes from just three fields, but the "sweet spots", or most profitable areas, are already drilled.  Further development will be even less lucrative.
            Fracking requires vast quantities of chemicals, water, and sand.  From the beginning, there was concern about water contamination by the toxic brew of drilling fluids.  Much of the fracking is taking place in areas with limited water.  Not all sand is suitable for fracking, so demand has created shortages, raising prices. Most rock has natural radioactivity. The drilling fluids are recycled through filters, which then become a hazardous radioactive waste.  If these issues are adequately dealt with, they cost the producer, and if they aren't, they cost the community.  
            Increased costs in dollars can be gamed by further debt, but energy costs are real.  Energy sources can be evaluated as a ratio of how much energy is expended to deliver surplus energy in a form useful to the larger community, the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI).  Energy sources with higher ratios can support a more technologically based civilization. Agricultural societies run on grain and animal power with an EROEI of 2.5:1.  Wood fueled economies, and the civilizations they support, have an EROEI of 7:1.  Conventional oil is very energy dense, which means that there is far more energy in the oil than it takes to produce it.  The earliest oil fields had an EROEI of greater than 60:1.  This vast energy return built the world we know today, with current global consumption of 100 million barrels a day, an energy intensive way of life requiring an EROEI of at least 20:1.  The high energy expended in fracking gives it an EROEI of about 5:1, more versatile than burning wood, but less energy efficient.
            Fracked oil is light weight oil, suitable for refining into gasoline, but must be mixed with heavier conventional oil to create diesel fuel. The slowing economy and high fracking production volume have caused gas prices to drop in recent months, benefiting the consumer, but diesel prices are still very high, hurting the economy.  
            Last, but certainly not least, burning fracked oil increases the risk of climate suicide in the near future.  The hundreds of billions spent on fracking would be more prudently invested in building a carbon free economy.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Facebook And The Golden Rule Loophole

                                                                                                written 24 November 2018
                                                                                                published 1 December 2018

            "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is the Golden Rule.  This philosophy of reciprocity is found in all ethical systems.  From a unity perspective, where I and the other are one, this is a no-brainer, similar to the suggestion that I not saw off the tree limb upon which I am sitting.  
            Global connection through the Internet and social media amplifies all the issues on the planet.  This material manifestation of the fundamental unity found in quantum mechanics and all spiritual traditions allows people the world over to find information and fellowship with others of like mind.  The down side of the tech connectivity is the disruption of tradition economic models and the flourishing of the worst aspects of humanity.  
            The Golden Rule assumes that I think kindly of myself, and feel worthy of being treated well.  If poor family dynamics, poverty, traumatic emotional experiences, or a punitive religious upbringing cause me to feel unworthy, then I will expect abusive behavior and, by the Golden Rule, be hateful to others.  How we treat others is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. The other becomes a mirror, and fear of the other is like a young kitten posturing against the rival seen in the mirror.
            With empathy, we experience our connection with the other and fear and hatred dissipate.  Lack of empathy is a symptom of serious psychological disorders, such as psychopaths, sociopaths, extreme narcissists and autistics.  These disorders, present in 1% of the general population, appear in 3% of top corporate and political leaders, which explains why human values are sacrificed for profit.
            Since Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook 14 years ago, it has grown to dominate the world with over 2 billion users.  More than 45% of Americans get most of their news from Facebook, giving the platform massive influence in our society.  Chief stockholder Zuckerberg appears to be empathically challenged.  His company reflects this, claiming it is just a tech platform, not a media company, and takes no responsibility for editing content.
            When cell service expanded in Myanmar eight years ago, Facebook bundled their product from the ground up so the country's news service is dominated by Facebook.  Buddhist hate speech sites began using Facebook to inflame sentiment with false news against the minority Rohingya Muslims.  Facebook ignored requests from concerned citizens asking that it take down the sites that were destabilizing the country.  Facebook had instructions for tagging hate sites, but the Burmese translation was inaccurate, and only two Burmese speakers were employed to process complaints in a country of 51 million.  The result was genocide of almost 7,000, and 700,000 refugees fleeing to Bangladesh.  
            Facebook profitability depends on collecting detailed information on their users, and then customizes the delivery of advertising and news to each viewer using sophisticated algorithms.  With stolen customer data, these same algorithms were used in 2016 by Republican and Russian operatives to push fake news in support of Trump.  When this came to light, Facebook denied it and actively funded attacks against its accusers.  Only when the stock crashed did they begin to address the issue.
            Data is not information.  Information is not knowledge.  Knowledge is not wisdom.  Our social media saturated culture is overwhelmed with data, and seriously lacking in wisdom.  Facebook is really only a symptom, amplifying pre-existing human weaknesses.  That hate can be preached by Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims indicates that many self-identified religious people have completely missed the core of their spiritual traditions.  Local philosopher Ricardo Stocker says, "we are not bodies with a soul, but souls with a body."  Self-loathing is a consequence of being disconnected from the experience of our soul, our interconnection with the universe.  People must call out the haters in their own religions and political parties.  
            The hard work of our times is restructuring our internal landscape, cultivating and expanding our individual connection with our soul, which is always present, but can be obscured by external distractions.  One path is meditation.  If you don't yet meditate, start today.  If you already have a meditation practice, recommit and expand your practice.  Social connection is a fact of life, our challenge is to improve the quality of the conversation.