Wednesday Assorted Links

1. Don’t throw away your Christmas tree.

2. The ten longest bike/ped tunnels in the United States, with a link to the international top ten.

3. Why data-obsessed jocks need a data detox. In my late November Seattle marathon, the first time I took a look at my watch, it read 21.6 miles. Not bad, eh.

4. Can kindness be taught?

5. Neighbors fed up with traffic take matters into their own hands.

Friday Assorted Links

1A. Running While Female. Male runners may be shocked to learn how often women must endure on-the-run harassment. Many female runners have come to just expect it.

“43 percent of women at least sometimes experience harassment on the run. . . compared with just 4 percent of men. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not life-threatening. But it is pervasive, and it’s upsetting, and it’s most likely happening to. . . someone you know.

A man will look a woman up and down as she runs past. A driver will shout a come-on, laughing with his friends as they speed away. A person on a bike or in a car will follow a woman, and she might dart down a side street to escape. Even if nothing like this happens most days, knowing that it (or something worse) could happen causes stress. As the recent national dialogue surrounding Donald Trump’s sexist comments and alleged assaults brought to light, almost all women—runners or not—have endured unwanted sexual attention. And no matter how swift a woman’s pace, it’s impossible to outrun harassment.”

1B. Male athletes at Garfield High mentored on how to interact with women.

“‘There was things. . . that I noticed that I’ve done in the past . . . I just realized I should change,’ said Ramari, a football player.”

Imagine that, coaches looking past scoreboards.

2. Why America’s roads are in tatters.

“Brickyard is among the roads that the Muskegon County Road Commission has slated to be turned to gravel, twenty-eight miles in all.”

We are a nation in decline.

“Each American driver pays about $450 per year toward roads, according to the Journal of Infrastructure Systems. Europeans fork over on average 2 to 3.5 times as much — the difference is largely in fuel taxes. Americans have always resisted giving such financial support for infrastructure projects. . . . The federal gas tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, was last raised in 1993 and has since lost more than one third of its purchasing power. Only three states currently index their gas tax to inflation.”

You get what you don’t pay for.

3. How long must Seattle teachers save for house down payment?

“Teachers with five years of experience, and a master’s degree would pay about 28 percent of their annual salary on rent for a one-bedroom in Seattle, according to the NCTQ data.

“Are you giving people enough money to buy a house or even rent a modest apartment? If you aren’t doing that, you’re sort of depriving a profession of what makes it a profession.'”

4. Fuck, I Totally Forgot to Fight for Women’s Rights and Promote Sustainability.

“You know how it is, though.”

Rooting for the Millennials

Car makers are worried.

Today’s teens and twenty-somethings don’t seem all that interested in car ownership. Or driving more generally. Less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The fraction of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license has also dropped. And adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, a far cry from the peak of 38 percent in 1985.

Jordan Weissmann in the Atlantic writes, “The billion-dollar question for automakers is whether this shift is truly permanent, the result of a baked-in attitude shift among Millennials that will last well into adulthood, or the product of an economy that’s been particularly brutal on the young.”

I’m guessing both and.

Wiessmann asks why purchase a new car given the five figure cost, insurance, repairs, and $4/gallon gas, especially if there are reasonable, nearby alternatives like a Zip Car membership, bicycle sharing program, or subway?

Also Millennials are more likely than past generations to live in cities, about 32 percent, somewhat higher than the proportion of Generation X’ers or Baby Boomers who did when they were the same age. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, surveys have found that 88 percent want to live in cities. When they’re forced to settle down in a suburb, they prefer communities which feature plenty of walking distance restaurants, retail, and public transportation.

“If the Millennials truly become the peripatetic generation,” Weissmann warns (emphasis added), “walking to the office, the bus stop, or the corner store, it could mean a longterm dent in car sales. It’s doubly problematic (emphasis added) if they choose to raise children in the city. Growing up in the ‘burbs was part of the reason driving was so central to Baby Boomers’ lives. Car keys meant freedom. To city dwellers, they mean struggling to find an empty parking spot.”

Josh Allan Dykstra in Fast Company asks, “What if it’s not an ‘age thing’ at all? What’s really causing this strange new behavior (or rather, lack of behavior)? He likes the thinking of a USA Today writer who blames (emphasis added) the change on the cloud, the heavenly home our entertainment goes to when current media models die. Dykstra writes, “As all forms of media make their journey into a digital, de-corporeal space, research shows that people are beginning to actually prefer this disconnected reality to owning a physical product.”

“Humanity,” he contends, “is experiencing an evolution in consciousness. We are starting to think differently about what it means to ‘own’ something. This is why a similar ambivalence towards ownership is emerging in all sorts of areas, from car-buying to music listening to entertainment consumption. Though technology facilitates this evolution and new generations champion it, the big push behind it all is that our thinking is changing.”

I like Wiessmann’s and Dykstra’s analyses and insights, but not their conclusions. They’re singleminded focus is on twentysomethings’ impact on economic growth as if everything valuable in life hinges on sales receipts. Ultimately, they’re coaching car makers on how to entice Millennials back into the market.

I’m more interested in cheering them on. For resolving to live differently than their parents, meaning within their means. For caring about the quality of the environment for future generations. For contributing to our country’s energy independence and making it less likely we’ll fight foreign wars. And for challenging the status quo of conspicuous consumption.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, an inspiring generation.

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Erring on the Side of Student Smarts

When asked what was most memorable about high school, my first year university students talk about play performances; athletic competitions; service club activites; and jazz band, choir, or orchestra concerts and trips. Their coursework is forgettable, too often even mind numbing. Why?

In part, because they’re rarely asked difficult open-ended questions upon which reasonable people in the “real world” disagree. Too few adults respect students’ intelligence. Also, we lazily and artificially carve up the subject matter into smaller pieces called math, science, language arts, social studies, foreign language, and art—and thereby fail to frame lessons, units, and courses around especially challenging questions.

I’m in the earliest stages of a new project—curriculum writing for a team of explorers who hope to engage large numbers of students in different parts of the world through their expedition to the South Pole in eleven months.

My plan is to err on the side of student smarts and engage middle and high school students through a series of challenging case studies that rest on open-ended questions upon which reasonable people disagree. If successful, the cases will help teachers help students not just learn factual information about fresh water flashpoints around the world, but also to listen, read, and write with greater purpose; think conceptually; and develop perspective taking, teamwork, and conflict resolution skills.

I’m just getting started. Last week I finished an excellent book about the Columbia River that I highly recommend, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia (second edition). The author, Blaine Harden, is an excellent story teller. It’s required reading if you live in the Pacific Northwest. The primary question raised by Harden is what’s the best way to operate the world’s largest hydroelectric system? Harden’s story centers on a confounding mix of economic interests, biological imperatives, and environmental values.

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Most of the players in the drama defend the numerous dams that have turned the Columbia into a “machine river”—electric utility providers; irrigators and farmers; tow barge operators; boaters, windsurfers, and waterskiers; Google, Amazon, and Microsoft with their newish server farms; and elected officials and lobbyists who look out for the interests of utilities, irrigators, the internet goliaths, and other river users. The “other side” consists of Indians whose economic, nutritional, and spiritual lives were built around salmon, and fish biologists and Western Washington environmentalists who advocate for environmental restitution.

Students will research, debate, and decide among three possible outcomes:

  1. In the interest of maximum economic growth and inexpensive electricity, maintain the status quo of the “machine river”.
  2. In the interest of compromise and moderate economic growth, allow more water to flow over the dams thereby slightly reducing the total electricity available while simultaneously increasing the number of salmon in the river.
  3. In the interest of environmental restitution, the return of historic salmon runs, and revitalized Indian life, remove the dams and allow the river to return to it’s natural state.

Teachers will assess the relative thoroughness and thoughtfulness of each team’s proposed outcome. More specifically, they’ll be deciding which is most persuasive and why. Interestingly, this “Machine River” case study has real urgency because a federal court in Portland has given the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration until January 1, 2014 to submit a plan on how best to proceed. Many people whose livelihood’s will be dramatically effected by the outcome are anxiously awaiting the Court’s plan.

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Even more challenging than evaluating the costs and benefits of the different possible outcomes, is extrapolating “lessons learned” from the Columbia to other river systems in other parts of the world. For example, Vietnam is upset that Laos is planning to dam the Mekong River. Here’s a question upon which I’ll base an “extension” or “enrichment” activity: Based on Columbia River “lessons learned”, how would you advise Laotians and Vietnamese officials to proceed on the Mekong River? Why?

Even more challenging than applying Columbia lessons to the Mekong is developing a set of principles for 21st Century development more generally. How can local communities, sovereign nations, and international groups maintain healthy economies without compromising natural environments? Or more simply, how do we build vibrant, sustainable communities?

I have more questions than answers. Which is the single best formula for revitalizing schooling.

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How About a Vehicle Mileage Tax?

To deal with population growth, traffic density, and global warming.

From Slate Magazine.

Looking for a way to raise money for roads and public transit, San Francisco Bay Area transportation officials have decided to look into a novel idea: Taxing drivers for every mile they drive. The hypothetical tax—which at this point is only being studied as part of a long-range plan—could run from as little as a penny to as much as a dime per mile, perhaps depending on the time of day, according to the Associated Press.

The VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax, the thinking goes, would not only bring in new revenue but encourage people to drive less. The San Jose Mercury News reports that small pilot tests of a VMT tax in cities in Oregon and Washington have shown “encouraging” results, with drivers reducing their total mileage to save money.

Sure, but how does the government propose to keep track of the number of miles that every driver drives? Under the idea being studied by the San Francisco-area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Mercury News’ Mike Rosenberg explains, “Drivers would likely have to install GPS-like trackers on their cars to tally travel in the nine-county Bay Area, from freeways to neighborhood streets, with only low-income people exempted.”

Oh but don’t worry, the government would never dream of using these tracking devices for anything except tallying the total number of miles you drive. “The last thing we’re interested in is where you go and what you do,” a commission spokesman told the AP.

Here’s how a free-market, true believer, business friend of mine responded to the idea in an email:

Now there is a great plan – lets get people to drive less so more businesses can fail.  Oh, if more businesses fail that mean less tax collections, and therefore leads to higher unemployment.  But wait, we can raise taxes on the successful companies and the people who buy from them can be taxed higher also….I am sure the idiot who proposed this plan, failed Econ 101.  Government can not collect more from a soft economy without slowing it down further.

That same friend often tells me I don’t know shit about business, but even as clueless as I am, I can’t help but wonder why the correlation between miles driven and economic growth is so obvious in his thinking. The pilot studies show people actually save money as a result of driving less. And can’t we presume they spend most of their savings? Albeit at places like Amazon.com. And would the miles driven/economic growth correlation, whatever it might be right now, weaken if urban planners designed more walkable and bicycling friendly neighborhoods, if people began carpooling, or taking public transportation, and/or cycling, and if people purchased even more of what the need and want on-line?

 

This Is Our Only Home

I’m currently reading True Wealth by Juliet B. Schor. Subtitle: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy. Halfway through I’m depressed by the extent of our environmental problems, especially global warming, and our lack of resolve to reduce emissions. Here’s a December 2010, twenty-minute long global warming TED Talk by the always excellent Naomi Klein.

Green Tour 11

Last April the GalPal and I thoroughly enjoyed Olympia’s first Green Tour of 7-8 environmentally advanced homes. Two weekends ago we went on the second annual tour which had 20 homes and businesses available for people to visit. Last year the tour highlights took one afternoon, this year we spent the better part of both Saturday and Sunday visiting probably ten homes.

The extra-personable designers and builders use the tour to educate people and of course network in the hope of drumming up business in an obviously dismal housing market. Sometimes we’d look at a house for fifteen minutes and then spend another forty-five talking to the designer or builder.

We were especially impressed with the work of a young female architect who has designed Olympia’s and Washington State’s first passive homes. Here’s her company. I can be as skeptical as they come when presented with trendy buzzwords like “green,” “sustainable development,” “and eco-friendly,” but I’m convinced that when it comes to energy efficient home building there’s at least as much fire as heat (pun intended) and substance as style.

The one downer of the tour was visiting the “Jewelbox“, an 1,100 square foot passive home (excluding the separate state of the art art studio/shop) with an incredible 270 degree view of the Puget Sound just two miles from downtown. As the GalPal and I walked down the tree-lined street towards the “Box” and the Puget Sound, we realized it was on a property a friend had tipped us to two years ago before it went on the market.

We looked at it and loved the location, but passed because we thought it was overpriced and we couldn’t get past the decrepit house that would need to be knocked down. The furniture maker/sculptor owner found it on craigslist. He said the day he visited it the owners dropped the price 100k and eventually accepted his offer that was another 100k less. I’m glad I resisted punching him because he couldn’t have been a cooler, more soft-spoken, down to earth dude. I’m fascinated by the way many artists can envision things that I can’t. Sometimes landscaping, decorating, housing design vision is just built-in.

In the last year, the greenest U.S. designers and builders have taken a great leap forward. If your house is even two or three years old there’s a good chance it doesn’t capitalize on many of the most recent advances.

Granted, the science is interesting, but I’m more interested in the economics and the politics. In Europe, passive homes add about 7-8% to the cost of building a traditional home of equal size. In the U.S., because most of the wall and window materials have to be imported, it’s more like 15%. That 7-8% gap will no doubt slowly close as North American demand picks up. Once completed, a passive home’s utility costs are about 10% of normal. I’ve looked at computer models that suggest the pay-back period is approximately ten years. One 2,400 square foot home used a 1,000 watt b.t.u. air blower (less than a blow dryer) to heat the whole house.

Even with padding and rugs, the concrete floors would probably take some getting used to, and the outdoor siding is quite rough and different looking. No doubt you and I will adjust to those differences in short order as we become more familiar with them. More generally, the aesthetics of the kitchens, bathrooms, and other parts of the homes can be exceedingly nice.

I know not everyone can afford a stand-alone home and very few will ever be able to afford “overpaying” up front in anticipation of future savings. But for the economically most fortunate, the economic calculation is the same one I did with paper and pencil five years ago when deciding to buy a slightly more expensive hybrid car. I thought it would take 7-9 years to begin saving money on my car, but we’ve chosen to drive it more than expected and with a higher average cost of gas than I conservatively estimated, it’s only taken five years to reach the break-even point.

Now every time I fill up for $40 (based on about 46mpg), I think I just saved myself $40 more (based on 23mpg). Here’s another interesting example of the same concept. The analogy works even in the sense that I received a federal tax break for my hybrid car purchase because there are many rebate type incentives in place for things like solar energy (in that case, for nine more years apparently).

I’m thinking seriously about building a passive home, or more accurately, sitting passively while the home of the future is built for me.