Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year

Yep, another trip around the sun has passed the start/finish line. Off we go to 2015. I posted the Youtube link to that Bruce Cockburn song in a sombre moment last night, as one sometimes feels a little strange realizing that far more laps are behind one than in front of one as one reflects on life, as Bruce does in his lyrics.

Today I did some non-sombre things, i.e., walking the hounds in the bright sunlight and taking a drive to Pajarito Mountain to enjoy what the snow we just were blessed with did to the X-C ski trails. Skiiing was excellent, although the base is not deep enough to protect one completely from rocks and other land mines.  Proceeding through the sharp downhill hairpin directly south of marker H, the one marked with the yellow "caution" triangle sign, I was in what was otherwise looking like a good setup as I dove into the tight radius descent. Then I snagged one ski on an intact aspen shoot that was slightly buried and got spun around and dumped on my hind end. When pushing the Envelope of Life, I suppose one has to watch for buried aspen shoots. My apologies to others for the sitz mark! 

Dinner included a traditional Japanese New Year's Day soba based soup (delivered with an "akemashite omedetou gozaimasu" card) brought over by our neighbor, who is of Japanese-Italian descent, in honor of my three weeks of bachelorhood.

It was truly a glorious New Year's Day.

NW End of Canada Bonita, looking west towards Redondo Peak, 
the resurgent dome in the middle of the Valles Caldera

Same location as above, looking back southwest towards the meadow

Burn scar area of ski trails in low lying cloud cover 
(well, where low lying clouds are at 9,000 feet!)

Extolling fossil fuels. Really?

 I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said "Well, a-bless my soul"

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

In an editorial printed in the 30 December Santa Fe New Mexican, Alex Epstein, President of the Center for Industrial Progress, extolls the virtues of fossil fuels, saying, quite correctly, that cheap and abundant fossil energy sources have powered human development during the Industrial Revolution and improved our lives. If you Google Alex Epstein, you will find a wealth of connections to pro-coal and pro-fossil energy essays. In the New Mexican, under a title "There's a moral case for fossil fuels" (original long version here), he says "...Fossil fuels have a profound moral importance. They allow us to improve human well being and make the world a better place..."

I can't help but wonder how Epstein is able to be such a Pollyanna in the 21st Century. It is absolutely true that cheap and abundant energy (traditionally including hydropower, coal, oil, natural gas) has and continues to drive human progress and has improved the human condition for those who have partaken of its benefits. Having said that, one has to look at the totality of the human endeavor and how it changes through time. A human infant is dependent on abundant and easily available mother's milk to grow and prosper. A mature adult consumes an entirely different mix to prosper.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there were about a billion humans on the planet. Industrialization directly impacted only a few, first in England and later in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. There are now over seven billion of us; the rest of the world is rapidly cashing in on industrialization to obtain the goods and services we in the U.S. take for granted. If seven billion of us use fossil fuels, the impacts will be far greater than they were a century or two ago. Thus, one has to look at the complete, forward projected cost-benefit analysis of fossil fuel use rather than just the price at the pump or meter, in order to see what in the long term is a good idea.

We may not remember the bad air present in many American cities a half century ago (or, conversely, our booming industrial economy of a half century ago), but one only has to look at pictures of the air in urban China to see how bad it can get; one is not supposed to be able to see air. The immediate down side of fossil fuel use, especially coal, includes pollution in mining and pollution in combustion, the latter having both health and environmental impacts. Coal burning, for example, releases radionuclides, mercury, and a variety of toxic and acidic combustion gases and aerosols, the last, unless trapped technologically, being responsible for cardiovascular disease and for fresh water acidification such as we have seen in the Eastern U.S. An October, 2014 Consumer Reports article notes a dramatic rise in mercury concentration in long lived, top of the food chain fish in the North Pacific (I blogged on that here). This change in downwind ocean mercury chemistry is directly attributable to the rapid industrialization of the Far East and its reliance on primitive coal plants. We should note that the dirty side of coal burning is convincing the Chinese to invest in cleaner power sources such as nuclear.

In the long term, the reliance on fossil fuels by the world economy promises at least a couple things. One, that the world will constantly be struggling with the Hubbert Curves of supply and demand as we exploit each resource in boom and bust cycles, as we are currently doing with hydraulic fracturing. Secondly, the release of combustion products will have both short and long term impact. Mercury in fish is an immediate concern. Climate change is a long range problem.

CO2 is a "greenhouse" or Tyndell gas (acknowledgements to Dr. Michael Johnson in the New Mexican) and, along with water vapor and other "greenhouse" gases, contributes to making the earth quite inhabitable; without "greenhouse gases" the average temperature on the earth would be far colder, in this link about 32 deg C colder. The carbon-oxygen bonds in CO2 (and chemical bonds in water and other gases) absorb infrared energy that would otherwise escape back to space and re-radiate it within the atmosphere, an effect studied since the early eighteen hundreds by scientists including Joseph Fourier, Svante Arrhenius, and John Tyndall. Adding more CO2 to the atmosphere from sources long sequestered in the earth (stored as coal, oil, natural gas) makes humans agents of climate change by changing the atmosphere's effectiveness in absorbing energy that would otherwise be lost to space. CO2 is good and perhaps we could actually calculate optimal levels and keep them there. Like anything that is good, a lot more of it added without due prudence is not necessarily better. Think of what you would look like if you ate a half gallon of ice cream every night.

Climate, as any earth scientist will tell you, is a fickle beast and it changes with or without our help due to natural processes such as variations in solar output, wobbles in the Earth's orbit (Milankovich cycles), the eruption of supervolcanoes that release climate-impacting aerosols and gases, and variations in geophysical processes such as ocean currents and their relation to the positions of the continents. These changes, both slowly evolving and sometimes rapid and dramatic (i.e., the Little Ice Age) are not without consequence and can sometimes have catastrophic human impact, as the Anasazi in the Southwest and the Vikings in Greenland discovered (and discussed in Jared Diamond's book Collapse).  For example, adding heat to the earth by significantly increasing atmospheric CO2 above pre industrial levels can melt continental glaciers and raise sea level, acidify the oceans, speed up the water cycle and move climate belts. All of these impact human activities built on the implicit assumption, at least in the short term, of relative climate stasis. One can go up and down the coastlines of different nations and see perched shorelines, some of them due to previous high stands of the sea during periods between ice ages. One can study the migration of humans to North America when the Pleistocene glaciation created a land bridge between North America and Asia. Future humans may have to grapple with how to move whole cities and farm belts, irrespective of national boundaries.

So while cheap and abundant energy has very positive impacts on human activities (think of your life without food refrigeration), it is not without both positive and negative consequence. The real cost vs. benefits of the energy we use today is measured not just in the meter reading, but in how we will manage the present and future environmental as well as economic impacts our choices impose on us and the planet. Should we include in the cost of fossil fuel what is needed to manage climate change through geo-engineering or carbon sequestration? Should fossil energy be taxed to pay for the costs of cardiovascular disease directly linked to pollution?  How do we measure and calculate the cost benefit ratio of all of the "externalities" of fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy consumption? We must quantify these effects if we want to know how cheap, or conversely, how expensive, our energy sources really are, and how they compare to their alternatives.

A 600 word version of this has been submitted to the New Mexican as a "My View" contribution. Here 'tis...

Thursday, December 25, 2014

County Council Approves Alignment to Continue Canyon Rim Trail to Smith's Marketplace

As covered in the Daily Post, Council approved Option 3 to continue the Canyon Rim Trail west of its current terminus by the fire station. When complete, it will extend from its eastern terminus at the Airport Basin (across from the Los Alamos Co-Op) to a western terminus at the Smith's Marketplace parking lot. This will provide a badly needed and quite attractive off road option for those who want to hike or bike to the Airport Basin rather than use NM502, which has serious choke points where the shoulder peters out just as one is entering stretches of road with center medians, i.e. squished into motor vehicle traffic in that same interval where the speed limit changes from 50 mph to 35 mph. Its especially annoying on the westbound, uphill return trip from the Basin area.

Kudos to Council for acting on the need to provide good transportation alternatives. With improvements to NM502 to make it more amenable to biking far over the horizon, Council did what we should have done, i.e., do something ourselves. A nice marked crossing on 502 would help.

Of course, one will have to respect the trail for its limits as well as enjoy its beauty. I've discussed that before. 

As far as Smith's Marketplace, I'd like to see a little more dedicated bike parking, but when I ride there, I just lock my bike up to that really fine looking fence to the south of the Starbucks. As far as I can tell, that fence is actually a really fine bike rack.

Figure from county, via the Daily Post

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Winter Solstice and Last Day of Zappadan

One of my favorite end points--the East end of Kwage Mesa 
overlooking the Rio Grande Rift. Seems me or the
Blackberry camera are having a bad day.
 It was a lovely, if short day today, the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. With a high around 38 deg F, I took the mountainbike out for a short scoot and otherwise piddled 'round the house, cleaning, vacuuming, doing laundry, and rearranging the mess in the garage.Strangely but predictably, another loop around the sun has gone by while I was doing something else, leaving me wondering where 2014 went, and hoping for a few more laps before I'm chased down by that inevitable closer of breakaways, the Grim Reaper.

The North Mesa trails are more interesting this year, given Open Space specialist Craig Martin's great work in creating more trails/singletrack headed east from the horse stables. One can now do a great loop of North/Kwage Mesa without setting tire on the main jeep road except for a couple of crossing points. Its beautiful back there. A tip of the hat to Craig and his volunteer corps who made that possible. I think it was the Boy Scouts?

It was also the last day of Zappadan, that period celebrated by Frank Zappa aficianadoes, especially my pen pal and newly minted New Mexico resident Patrick O'Grady. Zappadan starts on the anniversary of Zappa's death (4 Dec, 1993) and ends on the day of his birth (21 Dec. 1940, coinciding with the Winter Solstice). So here is a tip of the brain bucket and guitar to anyone reading this.
Just enough snow to make curves interesting. 
I was practicing my drifting technique, 
almost getting it sideways on one occasion.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thinking Exponentially About That Strapline Concept

Council has finally killed the "Live Exponentially" strapline. From what I have heard and read, at least one councilor and a former councilor are a bit exasperated with the public response to the Live Exponentially strapline. In one case a former councilor asks why Council should "appease" the public. In another interesting comment, Councillor David Izraelevitz  said (to slightly paraphrase) that just as you wouldn't ask the employees of Coca Cola to come up with a branding  for Coca Cola, you wouldn't ask the citizens of Los Alamos County to come up with a brand for Los Alamos County.  (Coca-Cola comes up at 2:34 into the Council video). Such thinking is a big mistake in Bombtown. I've never seen a public so willing to pick up the torches and pitchforks over any sort of real or imagined infraction by Government. This one might not be a roundabout, but to some, just as visceral.

While it is a really good idea to design a catch phrase that will bring more outside folks into our shops, hotels, and restaurants, and it is a good idea to get professional help from marketing experts, whatever branding strapline gets adopted reflects on this community, is somewhat to strongly personal, and thus we inhabitants have a right to weigh in on how we and our community are portrayed to outsiders. Indeed, we are not "employees" of Los Alamos County, but the residents, owners, and therefore rightful players in deciding  how our community is portrayed to the world. It is a bit surprising that Council, its hired consultants (and selected business leaders and LANL) would not realize that the public would want a strong say in how we are "advertised" to others. Especially given the close knit nature of this community, its common sense of purpose, and its well known ability to pugilistically analyze anything and everything brought before it. I appreciate Staff and Council's work, and agree we probably need to have someone with some intellectual distance work on this, but the final call should be the public's. Whatever is decided, we get to wear the t-shirt.

Note. Council video here. The debate on this starts at about the one hour mark and is quite illuminating.

So my advice to Council as it plots a path forward? Bring the public into the process. Now, not after the next debacle. Its our town. We have a right to some input on how this community is presented to others.

My personal choice of strapline, for what its worth, would be "Discover Our Secrets". Indeed, unless one lives or spends some time here, one probably does not have a full grasp of the majestic vistas across the Rio Grande Rift one can see from the back of the singletrack/horse trails on Kwage Mesa, the many cavates besides the ones at Bandelier, great skiing, and the glorious canyons. Or as my wife and I found out many years ago when LANL was recruiting me, the wonderful drive along the High Road to Taos that we took after a night sitting alongside Ashley Pond and pondering our impending decision during a gentle snowfall. This place has so much to offer. Plus, the double entendre is amusing to me, given my line of work.

A second issue is to ask what exactly it is that we are trying to accomplish. While bringing more out of town folks into our shops, hotels, and restaurants is a good idea that will benefit both shop owners and locals, such assets are not central players to the economy as we know it. Tourism does not bring in the high paying technical jobs we are used to and that are required to live and work on The Hill. Tourism, hopefully, will always be ancillary to the high value jobs we take for granted (and which we should NOT take for granted). Plus, this community, from my perspective, has to actually get off its hind end if it wants to attract visitors. When we run the Tour de Los Alamos, the business community is not, from what I observe, rushing to provide goods and services to racers. When I ride the Red River Century, the entire town rolls out the red carpet. When the International Mountain BikeAssociation wanted to make this a centerpiece of mountainbike riding comparable to places like Moab, the response was less than enthusiastic, to be polite. Likewise there seems to be a collective snooze when the suggestion of a local charity ride has been made, even to the Lodger's Tax folks, even tracing out a potential route. So one needs more than a catchy slogan. One has to put one's back muscles where one's slogan is.

We need a real discussion here. With public involvement. People take BombTown seriously, so that slogan, whether in a Chicago airport or the side of a DPW vehicle, has to resonate with residents.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bicycle Exponentially?

You can even get the t-shirt
Yours, for only a quarter million dollars!
Dear Council

I'm sure you have read enough letters and emails complaining about the "Living Exponentially" strapline. Well, here is yet another. I've yet to read a good reason to use such a bizzare and vague slogan when we have at least one really good one on the entrance of town: "Where Discoveries Are Made". Plenty of other good ones have been offered that are better than "Living Exponentially". We certainly are a city different, but unfortunately, that one is taken.

Los Alamos is only here as a community larger than it was in 1942 because the Federal Government brought together a collection of scientists and engineers to solve a difficult problem that would help to win a brutal and deadly war. We continue to exist as a community not due to some vague notion of living exponentially, but because we continue to serve the public with science dedicated to national security. Like most defense related science, ours also has made peaceful discoveries. Let's continue to proclaim our strengths rather than evade them. Let's also stop throwing good money after bad.

Khal Spencer

In other news, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. Frank Zappa wrote this in 1965. Happy 5th Day of Zappadan.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday, December 7th....

It occurred to me as I got up to make coffee this morning that this year as in 1941, December 7th fell on a Sunday. A few moments of silence are in order.

:Photo from
Attack timetable here.