Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Obey the Law of Exergy (Time to Go All Electric)

Feel the useful heat
You may not have heard of exergy. (No, it’s not a typo!) In thermodynamics, exergy is the maximum useful work possible as a system resolves into equilibrium. Okay, that’s not a law so much as an inherent property. But the Second Law of Thermodynamics (a true law!) means we are fools not to pay attention to exergy.

Standard physics torture
Don’t worry; I’m not going to torture you with equations. The Second Law just says that energy available to do work in a system always decreases over time. Once this energy is gone, you don't get it back. Let’s examine why exergy is important and what to do about it.

We burn fossil fuels to do work for us, fuels such as natural gas and gasoline. Both are nifty, high quality fuels that contain excellent amounts of exergy. The problem is we use these fuels incredibly inefficiently, getting out of them only a fraction of their potential. And once we burn and waste them, they're gone. The work they could’ve done for the human race, if only we didn't squander them, is dissipated forever.

Wicked hot
For instance, natural gas can be used to create very high heat. Greater than 800°F heat. The kind of heat necessary for industrial processes, like glass and cement manufacturing. The kind of heat difficult to get from solar concentrators or solar boilers. Using natural gas to heat air to 72°F or hot water to 120°F is a gross waste of natural gas exergy since such low grade heat can easily be generated by a solar hot water heater or a heat pump.  Or . . . wait for it . . . the heat can be scooped up from waste heat left over from industrial processes. Indeed, waste heat from industrial processes in the US could heat every single home and business if we set up systems to take advantage of it. (Instead, we squander.)

Busy making gas?
Now, natural gas is not infinite. The earth can potentially continue to make small amounts, but it takes millions of years. Methane can also be captured from livestock, sewage and landfills, but in relatively small amounts. In fact, natural gas is so finite, we’re spending more and more energy drilling and fracking to obtain it, reducing the net energy we get from it. Yes, natural gas is cheap at the moment due to US drillers borrowing endless cheap money courtesy of the Federal Reserve even though they've been unprofitable for years. Easy credit for drillers has come to a halt, however, and much of the natural gas industry is heading towards bankruptcy. Long term, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren may actually appreciate some natural gas left for them to allow them to produce aluminum, iron and steel, not to mention cast metal. (Electric arc furnaces luckily can be used for making steel from scrap feedstock.)

Leaks in Boston alone
The other problem with our current natural gas system is that it involves incredible amounts of pipe to deliver it to where businesses and households can burn it. About two million miles of pipe. Now, natural gas is primarily made up of methane, which, when it leaks into the atmosphere, is twenty times more potent than CO2. And leak it does. Over ten percent of US methane emissions occur from leaks in the natural gas transmission, storage and distribution system. Even though natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, the amount that leaks does almost as much climate damage as nastier fuels.

Natural gas also poses dangers to homes and businesses via explosions (such as the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010 that killed eight people), and through carbon monoxide poisoning, (usually the result of poorly ventilated appliance or heating systems.) Homes and communities that are all electric have fewer potential safety hazards.

What? I'm proposing giving up natural gas for home heating and appliances? Is this even possible? Yes, dear reader, it is. It can be done expensively (all in one fell swoop,) or it can be done economically, by replacing systems and appliances one at a time as they get creaky and old.

The one fell swoop method. If you have gobs of money hanging out in a mutual fund, this is the route I would take. In six weeks you could not only transition to all electric, you could transition to net zero energy and pretty much zero energy bills for the rest of your life. You would have energy security and a low-carbon conscience to boot.

First, install a ground-sourced heat pump, a super-efficient, quiet, and long-lasting way to heat and cool your home ($30K, $20K after tax credit.) Add on a desuperheater that will give you free hot water during summer cooling season ($500), and a heat pump hot water system or solar hot water system to provide hot water the rest of the year ($2K for heat pump version; $5K for solar, $3.5K after tax credit). Then put in an induction/convection stove ($1400-$6000 depending on how high-end). Many professional chefs say that induction ranges cook better than gas ones. Next, get a heat pump dryer ($1400). (If you don’t already have a front load washer, get one of those, too.) After that’s in, slap up a couple dozen solar panels on your roof (probably $15K after federal tax credit), and if your house is reasonably well sealed and insulated you’ll be in great shape. If your local utility is hostile to paying you for the extra electricity your solar panels produce during the day, then install a Powerwall battery for $7K  ($5K after tax credit when installed with solar PV) that will allow you to hardly pull from the grid at all.

Utility shield
Total cost to go zero carbon, zero net energy, nearly zero electric bill (with extremely nice, high-end appliances)--$47K. ($52K with Powerwall.) The average US household in 2015 pays about $3200 per year in energy bills (electricity plus fossil fuels burned.) Energy costs are projected to increase 1% per year over time. (I think this is far too low, but hey, we’ll go with it.) So by going all electric/solar PV your energy savings will totally pay for everything in 14 years. (16 years with a battery.) After that your utilities are basically free in perpetuity. Again, this is all averages. Depending on your climate, and the solar insolation of your particular house, your optimal set up may differ.

Note: if you are building a home from scratch, put in radiant-heated, hydronic floors and a drain heat recovery system to produce even higher savings. Harder to do as a retrofit.

The bit-by-bit method. Not all us of have $50K hanging around, so this approach is likely the most viable.

All heating, cooling and appliance systems get old and fail. The trick to replacing them with electric is to not wait until they are totally dead. If your hot water heater goes out at 8pm and you call an emergency repair guy to come over stat with a new unit because you can’t face a morning without a hot shower, you are not going to end up with a heat pump or solar hot water heater. Both take a little more planning.

Let’s look at some life expectancies.
Gas dryer—13 years
Gas stove—14 years
Gas or electric water heater—10 years
Furnace 15 – 25 years

This may not tell you much, but I can't resist the animation.
Because these systems and appliances last so long, it’s vital not to lock yourself into another decade of natural gas use. Look at it this way: there are many ways to generate electricity, many ways that are even low carbon and renewable. Moreover, over the next decade, most households and communities in the US will produce at least some of their own electricity. Few will produce much natural gas. When you have to buy a new heating system or appliance anyway, upgrading to a high-efficiency electric one costs little extra, especially when compared to future energy savings. And you don’t have to put in an expensive ground-sourced heat pump to go all electric. While somewhat noisier and less efficient, air-sourced heat pumps that both heat and cool are far cheaper (only $3K-$5K), and there are new ones out that can deal with temperatures below zero degrees (even -15°F), though if you often have temperatures this low, some kind of back up is recommended. You can even go with a standard electric dryer and electric stove that are almost identical in cost to their natural gas versions, although I encourage you to seriously consider induction cooking.

Get thee gone
The exceptions to the bit-by-bit replacement rule are houses heated with oil, propane, kerosene, and/or baseboard electric heaters. These fuels are so costly, and baseboard heaters are so inefficient, that you’re better off replacing them with a ductless heat pump right away, even if the heating system you have is nearly brand new. (Note: if you heat your house with wood, you should already have a masonry heater, a high efficiency woodstove or a high efficiency fireplace insert. Anything else pollutes, squanders resources and significantly wastes your money.)

Also consider lower-tech solutions, like clotheslines for drying, passive solar and/or adding thermal mass for heating and cooling. And then there are ceiling fans, whole house fans, awnings, and southerly deciduous trees for cooling, not to mention sealing and insulating your home to reduce your heating and cooling needs in the first place.

SESI (the future)
During my investigation of the all-electric trend, I had a chance to tour the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI), a new energy plant that the university is deservedly proud of. Stanford has a district heating system, meaning that the majority of campus buildings (over 150) are connected to a central energy system that provides them with heating and cooling. Stanford used to have a cogeneration energy system that burned natural gas to produce both heat and electricity. Cogeneration was all the rage thirty years ago when Stanford put it in, and it’s indisputably more efficient than power plants that burn natural gas for electricity and then do nothing with the waste heat. (Like 90% of US power plants. Squander, squander.) And cogeneration is also more efficient than burning natural gas for low grade heat and producing no electricity whatsoever, like the average home’s furnace. (Squander, squander.)

Waste not, want not
But Stanford’s cogeneration system was nearing the end of its lifecycle, so the university assessed its options. It was then that their team of engineers realized that Stanford’s heating and cooling loads overlapped to the point that they could take the waste heat from cooling and use it to meet 70% of the university’s heating needs. Their team also realized that their current heat delivery mechanism—steam—was far less efficient an energy carrier than hot water and much less safe. So the university replaced 20 miles of steam pipes with 20 miles of insulated hot water pipes, while at the same time building a new energy facility with massive electric heat recovery chillers and three monolithic thermal storage tanks.

SESI went on line this last spring. It has cut Stanford’s carbon emissions in half and will save Stanford $420 million over the lifecycle of the system. It’s also dropped Stanford’s potable water consumption by 15%, water that used to go cooling towers to evaporate waste heat. (Squander, squander.)

Down is good
When I toured SESI, I learned that Stanford isn’t completely off natural gas. They still use some during cool weather to boost hot water temperatures in their thermal storage tanks, and they use some in a scattering of older campus buildings that aren’t part of SESI. But with SESI, Stanford is very likely the largest district heat and cooling system in the world to go (nearly) all electric. Stanford is also installing 5.5 MW of solar PV on campus and 73 MW off site to provide the campus with renewable energy. By 2017, their total greenhouse gas emissions will be 68% less than their 2013 emissions.

I have to say, I am such an energy geek, I thought SESI was pretty fabulous and have extolled its virtues to my family well beyond their patience. My college-student daughter, who had to study SESI for a class, thinks I’m nuts.

You don't actually need hard hats in a groovy control room
But after even more research, my enthusiasm has not diminished. Stanford looked into the future, saw where technology and humanity were headed, and converted from 100% fossil fuels to nearly 100% electric, sensibly making good use of waste heat in the process. Yes, Stanford has buckets of money to play with, but as they point out, though SESI combined with renewables had the highest up front capital costs, it was the lowest cost option when taking into account the entire life of the project. (And their calculations didn’t include the possibility of a carbon tax.) In addition, SESI has reduced Stanford’s water consumption no small amount, especially important given California’s drought.

As a country, we will all be off natural gas by 2030 except for high heat industrial processes. There’s no way the planet can stay below a 1.5°C warming increase if we don’t. The cheapest way to do this is to go electric as each appliance and heating system needs to be replaced. Starting now. Basically, there needs to be no more new gas-burning appliances sold or installed in the United States. Starting tomorrow.

Let’s be smart and pay attention to exergy. Let’s only burn natural gas for its high level uses, which certainly don’t include space and water heating. Future generations will thank us.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Best Tool for the Job--SUV, Bicycle or NFL Linebacker

What's it going to be? (photo: cleveland.cbslocal.com)
Let’s say, hypothetically, you had a hankering to kill someone. And let’s say, hypothetically, you had to choose between an SUV, a bicycle, and an NFL linebacker to do the job. Which one is best? Let’s examine the efficacy and the risks—physical, legal and financial--of each one.

First off, efficacy. This is going to depend on the intended victim, his or her frailty, and mode of travel. Now, if this person spends all his/her time encased in vehicle steel, neither a bicycle nor an NFL linebacker is going to do you much good. Neither has the mass to kill anyone inside a car except through sheer luck. By t-boning at high speed, an SUV might be able to take out someone in a Mini Cooper or Yaris, but if your intended victim drives an SUV, you might need a dump truck.

"Breaking News" indeed. (sf.streetsblog.org)
If your victim walks or bikes, that’s another matter. In an SUV, it’s easy to nail these suckers because basic physics is totally on your side. The average SUV weighs 5000lbs! It can reach speeds of 30 mph in seconds! It requires almost no strength or physical prowess! You can be eighty-five years old, nearly blind, hardly able to walk, and with an SUV still squish someone like a bug, no problemo. Plus an SUV has a good five feet of width with which to clobber your target, reducing the need for accurate aim. Its only drawback is that its noise might warn your victim, but the din of traffic will likely mask your approach, and if you’re going fast enough, there’ll be no time to jump or steer out of the way anyway. Helpful hint: intersections are prime spots for picking off pedestrians and bicyclists. When you see your intended victim in a crosswalk or pedaling right where you can make a turn, just press pedal to the metal, and the impact will likely result in severe blunt force trauma that will kill rather than just injure. This is true whether your victim is frail or fit. It’s nearly a sure thing.

Speed Demon (wikipedia.com)
Now your average linebacker is 240 lbs, three feet wide, can accelerate like a demon, and reaches top speeds of 20 mph. Mowing down a pedestrian or bicyclist will be a piece of cake for him. Even so, a linebacker weighs 4000 or so pounds less than an SUV, so the collision isn’t likely to cause enough blunt force trauma to kill unless the victim is very young or very old (the fragile body club.) If you’re lucky, when knocked down your victim might strike his/her head on the pavement and pop off that way. But the pedestrian or bicyclist might also only wind up with a concussion, cracked rib or a broken arm, so no guarantees.

Aim well. (wikicommons)
Bicycles, weighing only 30lbs or so (plus your body weight), don’t have much mass, and, let’s face it, their ability to accelerate from a dead stop is pathetic. So you’ll need speed. To really mow someone down with a bicycle, you’ll need to be going at least 25 mph, and this is not easy to do unless you’re whizzing down a hill or you’re physically quite fit. It certainly isn’t possible within 30 yards of a stop, so your timing becomes tricky. Plus, bicycles are only about eighteen inches wide. To hit your victim, you’ll have to start from a distance, pick up hella speed, have excellent aim, and also be blessed with some luck, since your victim could easily, even at the last moment, move out of the way. (Hitting another bicyclist is even trickier but possible.) As much as you might wish your victim would step into the bike lane from between two parked cars just at the moment you’re barreling along, you can’t count on this happening. The only thing you really have going for you is a quiet approach. As with the linebacker, if your victim isn’t very young or old, even with a dead-on hit he/she may not die but rather just end up with a cracked bone or two, putting all your effort to naught.

Lots of protection (autoworld.com)
Now for risks. Physically, in an SUV you’re sitting pretty. Maybe your airbag will deploy, but rest assured you personally will come out of a collision with a bicyclist or pedestrian just fine. If you go after someone inside a car, well, that’s chancy unless your vehicle has at least twice the mass of the other.

Using a linebacker to mow down your victim probably won’t hurt him, and it certainly won’t hurt you, unless you neglect to pay him, and he comes to beat the daylights out of you.

On a bike, however, if you take out a pedestrian or another bicyclist, you’re likely to injure yourself severely enough to require an emergency room visit, if not worse. Even more concerning is once you collide with your victim, go flying, and slam pavement, you’ll be at risk for some car running over you. So you can see, using a bicycle to kill, besides being relatively ineffective, is a dicey proposition physically.

You can bike in prison if you're lucky. (nbcnews.com)
Let’s look at legalities. Legally, killing someone while riding a bicycle is a disaster. You can’t hit and run since the collision will leave you splayed on the street chewing asphalt. You will be caught. If your victim is a pedestrian, you’ll do time in the big house even if you claim you didn’t see him/her. (If your victim is another bicyclist, you might get off with a slap on the wrist.) You will be vilified in the press; the judge and the jury, who distrust/dislike/detest bicyclists, will find you guilty of multiple heinous crimes and impose the maximum sentence. Major bummer.

It’s hard to know the legal ramifications of hiring a linebacker hitman. Being speedy, the linebacker might be able to hit and run without a trace. If caught, he might claim temporary insanity or that he slipped. The thing is, if pressed, he could strike a deal ratting you out in exchange for a reduced sentence for himself. That would be bad for you.

No big deal (nbcnews.com)
In a car, if your victim is a pedestrian or cyclist, you could hit and run, as is quite popular in the United States, but the better option is to stay and cooperate with the police. As long as you’re not legally drunk, there will be no consequences! You just say, oops, I didn’t see the victim, or, oops, I confused the brake with the accelerator, and it will be called an unfortunate accident. You won’t even be charged with a crime. Now, you probably couldn’t do this repeatedly, but you could get away with one or two killings with impunity. After all, in the US, where 35,000 people die a year in car “accidents,” a rate nearly triple that of non-suicide gun fatalities, it’s gun deaths that get the attention. Death by car, in contrast, has become a normal, if unfortunate, part of modern life that no one questions much at all.

Lastly, let’s examine the finances of each method. The linebacker is not going to come cheap. Even bad NFL linebackers make over $400K, so you’ll have to pony up at least $20-30K to make it worth his while. A bike is the least expensive option, but not as dirt cheap as you might think. After all, you can’t use a crappy bike because you’ll never get up enough speed on it. Plan on at least a $1000 bike and six to nine months of fitness training before your intended hit.

Cost of doing business (photo: avtimes.com)
A new SUV can cost anywhere from $30-$80K, but here’s the trick—you can just use the one you currently have (or a friend’s.) Yes, your hood or grill might get dented, or, if a bicycle goes flying, your windshield might get cracked, but it’ll probably end up costing less than a couple thousand to repair. Not much more than a really good bike. And here’s another tip:  you don’t actually need an SUV. Mowing down pedestrians and bicyclists can be done with a wimpy Prius or a midget Smart Car. Any vehicle with an engine and a couple thousand pounds of steel is an effective killing machine, one without any legal consequences or physical risk to yourself. If you’ve got any kind of car, then congrats. Your hypothetical homicide is as good as done.

Note: this article utilizes the literary tool of irony. It does not advocate the killing of anyone.

Karen Allen is a novelist (Universal Time, Beaufort 1849) and writer on resilience and energy issues. She lives in San Francisco where she walks and bicycles most of her trips.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eleven Groovy (or Not So Groovy) Disruptive Technologies Coming Soon to a Future Near You . . .

I’m writing a new novel these days, and as I research I’m stumbling across all sorts of interesting disruptive technologies that are just a matter of time before they reach a town near you. Some I find pleasing; others less so. As they arrive, inevitably some things (and jobs) will go away. My prognostications:

There's must be an app for that
    1) Self-ordering at fast food and even chain sit-down restaurants.  This is just too easy because the technology already exists and doesn't cost much. So at fast food places, we'll soon be seeing  kiosks that take orders and payments faster than cashiers (who basically punch the same buttons). At sit down restaurants, we'll see an ipad-type device on every table for people to both place their order and self pay. This will not only reduce server costs, it will turn over tables faster. Even though I’m pro pushing up the minimum wage, a higher minimum wage will inevitably expedite this technology and reduce the number of minimum wage server jobs. I expect self-ordering to be widespread within three years. What will go away: millions of food service cashier and waiter/waitressing jobs. What will stay: Waiters/waitresses at high end restaurants for the “bespoke” customer experience. (Also at restaurants run by small businesses that can’t afford the tech.) Cooks, table clearers, food bringers. (Robot trolley servers are still a ways off.)

Leave the driving to the pros
      2)   Autonomous cabs. It will turn out they’re safer, not to mention more energy efficient than human drivers, and will require less fuel costs and insurance. They will also be smaller than current cabs, taking up less space on the street, and be electric (no fumes and quiet). Expect to see them first in cities where there are already  a lot of cabs. What will go away: big city cab drivers, even Uber and Lyft drivers. Asthma and lung cancer will be reduced. What will stay: Electric car repair technicians. Uber and Lyft drivers in areas with less dense populations. 

There used to be a gas station . . .
      3)   Urban Infill. Ok, this is only a technological change if you consider urban living a technology in and of itself, but it’s significant just the same. It’s already happening in spades in some US cities (San Francisco, NYC, parts of LA, Boston, Washington DC, Denver, St. Louis) but will spread to smaller, regional ones as well. Expect just about every surface parking lot to disappear (they just don’t produce very much value) along with most gas stations, car dealerships, auto repair shops, etc. They will be replaced by multistory residential. (Lucky neighborhoods will get residential over ground floor retail/offices/light manufacturing.) This will cause many cities to join the 10,000+ per sq mile population density club within 10 years: Seattle, Portland, San Jose, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Honolulu. Urban infill is even increasing (or will increase) the density of such cities as Houston, Dallas, Columbus, Charlotte, Sacramento, Omaha, and Atlanta. What will go away: much car-related infrastructure in the cities mentioned. Much street parking. (It will be turned to other uses to accommodate all the new people.) Many suburbs. What will stay: car-related infrastructure where real estate has lower value (suburbs). Urban construction-related jobs. Urban shoe repair shops and bicycle repair shops, for all the city pedestrians and bicyclists who will be walking and biking so much more.

Waste not, want not
      4)  Heating Districts. I’ve become enamored with waste heat, or, more precisely, how to make use of it in the United States. Two thirds of the energy of the fossil fuels we burn—to make electricity, for industrial process, to run our cars--we get nothing out of. It all just dissipates into the atmosphere. In fact, if all homes in America were sealed and insulated to just 1990’s building standards, the US currently has enough industrial waste heat available to heat every one of them. In Europe they are much better at using heating districts to capture and utilize the low-grade heat from electricity production and industrial processes. Heating districts do take a significant upfront investment--a lot of trenching and piping—but then they’re good for 50 years. Although, because of cost per mile, they may never pencil out economically for diffuse suburban sprawl, there are already a few dozen heating districts in the US in cities, on college campuses, and in a few small towns. (Check out Stanford’s nifty updated heating district with a new heat recovery system that meets 93% of their campus heating load with waste heat from their cooling load.) What will go away: much use of natural gas, electricity and fuel oil for space heating. Natural gas fracking jobs. What will stay: Heating district construction jobs. Heat pump and control system manufacturers.

Our hovering friend
    5) Widespread video and drone surveillance. Not a fan of this, I just see it happening. The technology is already available, highly effective, and widely used. Voiceprint recognition and facial recognition means any city street you walk down, any store you go into you can be identified and your activities recorded. License plate readers mean everywhere you drive you can be tracked, even without GPS. Combine this with how easy it is for your computer and purchasing activity to be monitored, and there isn’t a lot left to know. Security drones (operated by police? other government agencies?) will start to get into the act soon. What will go away: a heck of a lot of privacy/anonymity. Maybe some human security guards. What will stay: easier to solve crimes, keep neighborhoods secure. Drone, surveillance, and big data processing companies.

A package deal
    6) Package Pick up lockers. These already exist but will become more widespread because they have the potential to save delivery companies so much money. Less employee time, less fuel burned, no multiple attempts at delivery. At first you’ll probably get some kind of discount if you select to pick up your package at a locker. In dense cities these lockers will likely be within walking distance at a currently dead storefront. In the suburbs they’ll probably take over a dead strip mall. When your package arrives, you’ll get an email with a code and three days to retrieve it. The locker area will have video security and no lines, (unlike at the post office.) Later, shipping costs to your home will be precisely based on how much it will cost the company to send someone to your location. This will give further incentive to use the lockers. What will go away: many UPS/FED Ex drivers. What will stay: automated locker manufacturers and software programmers.

Pure is pure
       7)   Recycled Water. Yes, I know, all water is basically recycled constantly. What I mean here is that eventually all water used in households and by commercial businesses will be captured, processed, filtered and reused. Only toilet flushes will go directly to the sewer. Why? As cities grow denser, sewer systems won’t be able to keep up. The cost of new sewage treatment plants will make the economics of recycling water on site attractive. At first new apartment buildings will adopt this, then all new construction, then everyone else will retrofit. (Already in Washington DC, not a place I associate with drought, high-end new apartment buildings are capturing shower water for toilet flushes.) It will turn out that the filtered recycled water will be purer (less contaminants) than city-supplied water and people will prefer it. What will go away: some water bills. What will stay: plumbers and water recycling engineers. 

Can I get a latte with that?
     8) Starbucks of funeral homes. Okay, turn up your nose, but a heck of a lot of Baby Boomers are set to pop off over the next decade. Consider that this generation is largely tech and social media savvy, and consider that funeral homes are creepy and have fat, fat profit margins. This creates an enormous disruptive business opportunity for someone to create a joyous LifeEnd Ceremony franchise (hey, can I trademark this?) that combines the comfortable, transparent, I-know-what-I’ll-get-experience of Starbucks with the controlled self-display/sharing gratification of social media. Imagine designing your entire funeral service on line, at any hour of the day or night. Select your urn and flowers. (Sunflowers and daisies? No problem.) Upload the prayers, music and photos you desire for the service. Heck, even narrate the service yourself. Select the site for your ceremony, any one of 2000 LifeEnd franchises across the country. Upload an invite list (with email or text contact info.) Leave instructions for what should be done with your ashes. (Scatter at sea with biodegradable confetti; ensconce in a birdhouse to be scattered by birds; shoot them over a mountain pass in a rocket, etc.) Prepay with a credit card. There, all taken care of, everything exactly as you want it. No trouble for your loved ones! All this for just $1000, payable in installments. (I imagine the price would be higher if you wanted a burial that actually involved real estate.) Look folks, this is a plum opportunity just waiting to be picked. Maybe someone is writing an app for it as you read this. What will go away: many overpriced funeral homes. What will stay: Baby boomers will leave this world in control and much more cheaply.

Freight future
    9)Electrified rail freight. There is some talk about autonomous trucking, but I see that happening mostly just for the last mile (or the last five) of deliveries. The long hauls will happen by train because rail is far more energy efficient. It’s true that the current freight rail system is fairly dysfunctional, but there is enormous opportunity to streamline the whole thing with computer systems that control both tracks and cars. This would increase the speed of long distance rail delivery five-fold (heck, just fixing the rail mess around Chicago would double the speed) and reduce costs by the same amount. In addition, it’s far more possible to electrify rail than trucks. I am guessing 50% of trucking jobs will go away in five years, 75% in ten. What will go away: millions of trucking jobs. What will stay: rail jobs, automated transportation control manufacturers and engineers.

Store the heat
      10) Seasonal Thermal Storage. Take the heat of the summer, use a heat pump to stuff it in the ground or in some water, and use it in the winter, perhaps via a district heating system. This is already entirely possible, and, as you might imagine, extremely energy efficient since it doesn’t involve creating heat, just moving it around. Even better, this technique can be used to pull blistering heat from under asphalt or concrete in the summer, save it in underground boreholes, and reuse it in the winter to melt snow on the same stretch. (This is not to be confused with current snowmelt systems that use vast amounts of newly-created heat.) This would not only reduce use of salt brine (wicked bad for the environment and wicked cause of pot holes) and snow plows (wicked cause of street and curb damage), it would extend road surface life, it would make sidewalks that rarely get shoveled walkable in winter, and, get this, it would reduce the urban heat island effect that makes many of our cities sweltering misery all July and August. This is not cheap, so it won’t happen everywhere, but where it goes in, people will love it. What will go away: salt use, snow plows, natural gas and fuel oil for heat, some electricity consumption for air conditioning. What will stay: Seasonal thermal storage engineers and construction companies.
Use it in winter

   11) Automatic Body Activity Managers. Imagine a wristband that monitors your caloric intake, calories burned, steps you take, distance you travel, your stress level, how you sleep, hydration level, your heart rate, and your blood pressure, all via just three sensors--a pressure sensor, an impedance sensor and an accelerometer. (It counts calories by monitoring the body’s glucose curve via the impedance sensor.) No way, you say? Maybe someday, in the age of Star Trek? It already exists. This device could have an enormous predictive impact on heath care costs, in that anyone who both maintains activity levels above a certain threshold and consumes only as many calories as they burn are going to be vastly cheaper to insure. I predict that companies will adopt it first by giving financial incentives to employees who wear the wristbands 24/7 (the wristbands can tell if you cheat!) and meet the threshold measures. Then health insurance companies will get into the act. I am not personally anxious to wear such a device, but given that health care costs are close to consuming 20% of our nation’s wealth, something’s going to give on this front. Food consumption and activity levels are the number one and two predictors of both one’s health and one’s ultimate health care consumption.  What will go away: yet more privacy, probably a lot of empty calories. What will stay: treadmill desks?

So there you have it. For better or worse, a future coming soon!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Praises Universal Time

Kirkus Reviews finds Universal Time "wildly imaginative."

"Allen creates an intricately detailed, remarkably inventive universe encompassing alien languages, physiology, and culture, as well as advanced technologies. She populates this vivid world with characters that are both layered and believable . . . Newcomers to Allen's work will find this sci-fi romance to be quite an adventure."--Kirkus Reviews

Find the whole review here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Diligite planeta (Love Your Planet)

1) It's beautiful.
2) It gave us life.
3) It gives us life.
4) It's the only one we have.
5) In its own silent, majestic, unfathomable way it loves us. I don't know why. It just does.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Future Does Not Have to Be Dystopic (Why I Wrote a Sci-Fi Comedy)

We aspire; we imagine; we attempt     (photo: Stephanie Barnhizer)

Just wriggle your nose
My journey to science fiction began like that of many people my age—as a child watching the original Star Trek episodes during the heady years of 1966 – 1969. During those years I also watched Batman, Betwitched, the Monkees, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. All sorts of odd ideas about magic and heroism and technology and the world of imagination rattled around in my young mind. I didn’t understand until much later that I was seeing parody and cultural critique and a parable of the Cold War. I didn’t even know there was a Cold War, though I was vaguely aware of the hot one—Vietnam. I didn’t know there was a Civil Rights movement, although in 1968 I was aware people were upset when a King got killed.  I just absorbed the pop culture presented to me, trying to make sense of the world as best I could. Though I taught myself to read at age four, it wasn’t until early 1969 that I tackled a real chapter book (Wizard of Oz!) and entered the kingdom of literature. Up until then television and my family were my prime sources of information.

60's good guys
I knew Bewitched was pretend but thought maybe I might run across magic someday just the same. (At this point I still believed in Santa Claus.) I knew that Batman was silly but it was lively and the goofy villains reassuringly never got the upper hand. I knew that The Monkees were real somehow (I had one of their records) but even at six I knew their show was far too nonsensical to have much relation to reality. I knew when Mr. Rogers’ trolley went into his King Friday puppet world it was pretend but also that the puppet world was much more interesting than the time he spent singing while taking on and off his real sweater. 

And then there was Star Trek, a show I watched with my parents. I knew it was pretend because many of the things they could do were akin to magic (“Beam me up, Scotty.”) But I also understood that Star Trek was more than pretend, because it was about the future, and even though it wasn’t true now, it might be true in the time to come. And so Star Trek created an odd idea category in my developing mind, one that danced back and forth across the imaginary/real boundary.

You have a better phone than Kirk.
And some tech from Star Trek has already turned out to be real. Uhura’s earpiece receiver and computer tablet, flat screen TVs and video chats, flip-open phones/communicators, computer voice recognition and universal translators. Before a new technology can be created, first it must be imagined. And sometimes just the imagining ignites the desire to turn an idea into reality. Science fiction can be powerful stuff.

Happy future
But the best part of creating science fiction goes far beyond imagining cool gadgets and tech. Because of its strange dance across the line of possible future truth, science fiction is a powerful way to examine and critique the human experience. Often this is done through dystopic future-casting, some examples being 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Blade Runner, Childhood’s End, Ender's Game, The Handmaid’s Tale, the Firefly series (TV), the Hunger Games trilogy and The Children of Men. All show a frightening vision of possible trends in human culture. It’s not the advances in science that are so grim in these narratives, it’s what humans do with them. Most of these books/movies/TV shows have little in the way of humor, not surprising when the realities they depict are so bleak. (Yes, Firefly fans, that show has its humorous moments, but you have to admit the Reavers are some of the worst bit of nastiness ever created.) Beware, watch out! the generators of these dystopias say. Their cautionary tales are meant to disturb us, prod us into action to prevent our descent into these various self-created hells.

Of course there are exceptions to the humorlessness of sci-fi dystopia. A mordantly funny, wildly dystopic sci-fi book I admire is The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem. (He also wrote Solaris, the film of which had no inkling of humor whatsoever, but since Lem himself said none of the film versions made an attempt to capture the essence of his novel, maybe someday I’ll be brave and try it out.)

The granddaddy of all modern science fiction, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series had perhaps a dystopic cast to it, but it wasn’t essentially pessimistic. Yes, the grand human empire falls apart, but due to smart men (as far as I can remember it is almost entirely men who take action) the ensuing dark ages lasts only a thousand years instead of thirty thousand. As sci-fi dystopia goes, this is a unicorn and rainbows outcome.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is dystopian in its way (after all the Earth is destroyed by the Vorgons pretty much immediately) but Douglass Adams finds even wiping out humans a comical event, and both the universe and life go on in an entertaining fashion.

My formative years, however, were filled not with sci-fi dystopias, but with cartoonish superheroes, happy witch families, pothead pop stars, and deep Star Trek optimism. The original Star Trek (and also most ensuing versions) was a combination adventure story and exploration of human morality. Anti-war and pro-racial diversity, the show promulgated that humans in the future could unite, live in peace, and explore the universe with mostly altruism and integrity. Gene Roddenberry, the creator, wanted to illuminate humanity’s potential if war and violence on Earth could be put behind it.

Cancelled? You've got to be kidding.
After three seasons the show was cancelled for low ratings. The last episode ran six weeks before humans first walked on the moon. Over the years the initial series has received just criticism for not entirely escaping racism, imperialism and sexism, although, to be fair, it managed a great deal less of it than most shows of its day. During the 70s Star Trek was syndicated, shown as reruns, and gained a much larger audience than it had originally.  It was seen by secondary TV stations as effective counter-programming against the Big Three stations 6 o'clock news. It developed a cult following, the first Trekkie convention was held in 1972, and the rest is history.

My last book, Beaufort 1849, was a cautionary tale, but one couched in historical rather than science fiction. It depicts a society, the antebellum South, that needed to change its slave-based economy and energy source to a wage-based economy fueled, ironically (in my view), by coal. (Water-powered mills would also have been an option.) This transition would’ve meant some loss of power and wealth by the Southern elite. Instead of changing, this elite doubled down on their way of life and lost everything. To me there are direct parallels to our own society (we need to transition to a sustainable economy fueled by sustainable power sources), but I suppose any resemblance is easy enough to ignore. Many believe that the antebellum South was evil and racist, we today are not evil and racist, and so we have nothing to learn from their choices, etc. Ah well. Personally I'm not sure that enslaving millions of people is any more evil than killing off billions through disease and famine, which is on deck to happen quite soon, but history will be the judge of that.

With Universal Time, I was interested not in warning but, like Roddenberry, in imagining what is possible for the future of humanity. What could be achieved if a race of human-like sentient beings put war, over-population, and environmental devastation behind them, and then, over a million years of conscious evolution, created a society that joyously and harmoniously met the needs of all its members? Such beings would still have problems, of course, as the Tivoleans in my book do. (After all, without problems there are no stories.) But in the end they solve their problems on their own terms, according to their principles of non-violence.

I wrote the book at a time when the topics pressing on my mind were health, education and the US invasion of Iraq. Now that we’ve seemingly become inured to endless war and I’m more panicked about energy issues and the environment, I probably would’ve written it differently today, but I’m still happy with the sense of optimism and expansive possibilities the novel presents, and its affectionate rather than mordant humor. After all, imagining that something can exist is the first step to making it possible.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Biking the Bay Bridge

Ever since the new east span of the Bay Bridge opened I’ve wanted to try out the feature it didn't possess in its previous incarnation—a bicycle/pedestrian path cantilevered into space. So yesterday my husband and I made the trek on BART from San Francisco to Oakland and biked the Bay Bridge trail. There was the good, the bad, and the ugly to the experience, but overall it was worth doing.

Now I must say that I find using BART for bikes trips to be a pain because I hate carrying my bike down multiple sets of stairs, and unfortunately, the elevators on BART tend to be slow, smelly and located in inconvenient places. Bizarrely, cyclists are not allowed to use BART escalators. (Why, why, why? I am far more of a menace to society lugging my bike up and down stairs than I am keeping it propped next to me on an escalator.)

We managed to haul our bikes down to a BART platform in the Mission nonetheless and boarded a train quite packed with passengers for a Sunday morning. After pouring over Google maps, we decided to get off at the West Oakland BART station because it’s the station closest to the Bay Bridge Trail. Another plus is that all BART trains stop there, reducing wait time for trains. 

Was this a mistake? Well, first off, even though West Oakland is the closest BART station to the Bay Bridge Trail, and the Bay Bridge Trail is one of the nicest public amenities/possible tourist attractions in the area, there was absolutely no signage on how to get to the trail. We took the Nelson Mandela Parkway, which was decent enough, with a reasonable bike lane and not all that much traffic. However, when we turned onto West Grand Ave, we found ourselves pretty much on a freaking freeway. Cars whizzed by at 50 mph on their way to actual freeway on ramps, and there were no bike lanes or any other bicyclists in sight. The only saving graces were a wide shoulder to ride on (filled with a certain amount of debris) and the fact that though traffic was fast, it was sparse. (The road was perhaps three times wider than it needed to be. Plenty of room for bike lanes!) I would say it was one of the nastiest miles of biking riding that I've put myself through. And it was the route Google Maps recommended. (There are not many streets that get you across the train tracks running through this area.)

Landscaping with flowers!
Eventually we found the parking lot on Maritime Street where one branch of the Bay Bridge Trail begins. The lot was full of cars with bike racks. Evidently driving your bike to the bike trail was far more popular (sensible, safer) than biking your bike to the bike trail. Once we got on the trail, however, our biking experience brightened considerably.

The first mile or so is flat and parallels the freeway through a kind of industrial wasteland, but the path itself is lovely, wide, and shiny new with pleasant landscaping and a separate section for pedestrians (which they sometimes use.) After the first mile there is an area with half a dozen portapotties, hand-washing stations and warnings that there are no more facilities for 2.4 miles. (Tip: bring your own water bottle and snacks.) We pressed on. As we left land and started on the bridge, the uphill climb began. The grade wasn't difficult—only 2%--but we were also riding into a headwind. Still it was enjoyable. I saw a little kid on a tiny bike struggling up this long grade, but anyone on a bike with at least three gears was fine. After a mile or so, the grade got easier—1 %—not something I could detect with my eye, but I sure felt the difference on my bike. 
Nice wide path

Once we were actually on the bridge, the noise of the cars reverberating over the bridge structure was quite loud. Perhaps not as loud as the Golden Gate Bridge (which, oh my gosh, is LOUD), but my husband and I had to raise our voices considerably in order to talk to each other.

The hazy south
The bike/ped path is on the south side of the bridge which is unfortunate. It means you can’t see the views off to the north, neither of San Francisco, nor of any of the islands. And it was fairly hazy (smoggy?) to the south so we couldn’t see much in that direction except some freighters waiting to be unloaded at the Oakland port. On the way back we could see downtown Oakland and the east bay hills, so it’s not as if the path offers no views at all.
The single tower

There were quite a few people on the path, probably an equal number of pedestrians and cyclists, though not so many as to make negotiating the path in any way difficult. (Not even a fraction of the bike/ped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.)  Again the path is wide, and in a few places there are bulb outs with benches so people can rest or safely take photos without being in anyone’s way.

There was a nice breeze during our ride, so even though we were only ten feet from the car traffic, the air quality wasn’t bad.  Still, we were only ten feet from car traffic the entire time we were on the bridge, not an exactly a relaxing experience. Off the bridge, the trail felt much further from traffic impact.

Me at the end of the road
We biked uphill 2.4 miles until we could go no further, a spot about a hundred yards from Yerba Buena Island. Crews are still deconstructing the old bridge, and a chunk of the old bridge blocks where the bike/ped path would go if it were to make it all the way to the island.  When the bridge is completely torn down, perhaps the path will go all the way? (We can hope!) As it stands, this path goes nowhere and provides no utility as transportation, only recreation. But many people were happy enough to make use of it nonetheless.

One benefit of riding the trail that I did not expect was being able to see the east span tower up close. In a car, I always pass by too quickly to get a good look. This time I could appreciate its design details (it has more than I thought) as well as admire the geometry created by its sweeping white cables against the blue sky.

Riding back we had 2.4 miles of coasting down hill! No peddling necessary. In fact, during the stretch with a 2% grade I had to brake occasionally to keep my bike under the 15mph speed limit.

The way to Emeryville
Since we’d not been enamored with our chosen route on the way there, on the way back we followed a spur of the trail that took us to the Bay Street shopping area of Emeryville. From there we got ourselves on 40th street which took us to the MacArthur BART station. This put us three stops further out on BART (lengthening the BART ride home), but by and large 40th Street has bicycle infrastructure the whole way that made for pleasanter, less scary biking. (However, I can’t say I understand the sharrows painted on a continuous green stripe in the middle of the car lane? As a bicyclist I really prefer to have my own dedicated, unmistakable space.) Though we had one hill at the beginning to get over a rail track crossing, in general the route was pancake flat compared to my San Francisco neighborhood. (From my point of view, flat=easy biking.)

After a certain point on 40th Street there was signage to the MacArthur BART station which made me happy. There was also decent signage on the Bay Bridge Trail, although it mentioned 40th Street and not BART. The busy MacArthur BART station has elevators that are not smelly, not abysmally slow and are large enough to hold bikes. Thumbs up there.

Coming down
I think it’s not unreasonable to expect a non-terrifying bike route from the West Oakland BART station to the Bay Bridge Trail. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a decent biking experience—half the route on Mandela Parkway is already fine, and there’s plenty (plenty!) of room on West Grand Ave to put in a protected bike lane. Get out some paint, glue down a few dozen soft hit posts, and West Oakland could become a  popular jumping off point for people wanting to experience the Bay Bridge under their own power. (Look at the number of bicyclists and pedestrians who cross the Golden Gate Bridge!)

As we passed through West Oakland, I noticed around me a neighborhood that has enormous potential. If I had ten million dollars (which, sadly, I don’t) I would snatch up as much property within a mile of the West Oakland BART station as I could and develop walkable, transit-oriented development with ground floor retail. A few thousand units of housing in this sunny location that is a mere 7 minutes by BART from downtown San Francisco would take a great deal of pressure off San Francisco real estate. And, unlike Treasure Island, West Oakland probably won't be under water in twenty years. I can’t see how this area will remain a run down, post-industrial wasteland much longer.

Over all I'd say biking the east span of the Bay Bridge is a worthwhile and interesting experience. Perhaps not as spectacular as the Golden Gate Bridge, but pleasurable in its own way. Maybe someday the path will extend across the western span as well. I look forward to biking from San Francisco to Oakland when I'm seventy!

The old and the new