Friday, August 29, 2008

How does one kill big oil?

One of these days people will get wise and realize that I post way too many links to Wired and that I'd be better served by killing this blog altogether and just linking to their web site and letting everyone cherrypick stories they find interesting.

Just not today.

I hit a confluence of stories today with things I'd read there and the buzz created by Barack Obama's speech about the need to start cutting ties with the oil companies. It's pretty exciting, but of course, that's what convention speeches are all about - creating excitement and giving the candidates a strong surge heading into the fall.

Hey, it beats news that the Republican nominee for Vice President is in favor of teaching Creationism in classrooms. Oh my.

First, from a short essay on Thomas Friedman's new book is a call for action and a systems approach to ending oil dependence. In it is a quote that's been with me for the past few weeks:

"The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stone," he says. Likewise, the climate-destroying fossil-fuel age will end only if we invent our way out of it.

But he's not suggesting a new Manhattan Project. "Twelve guys and gals going off to Los Alamos won't solve this problem," Friedman says. "We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things — in the hope that five of them break through."

Our current efforts are not only inadequate, they're hopelessly haphazard and piecemeal. Friedman argues it'll take a coordinated, top-to-bottom approach, from the White House to corporations to consumers. "Without a systems approach, what do you end up with?" he asks. "Corn ethanol in Iowa."

Ouch. Sorry, Iowa. You might want to make some calls to the good folks at Jiffy Pop to see how they're doing in terms of stock. You might have some corn on your hands to offload.

In the same issue is a rather lengthy piece that highlights a revolutionary new way of manufacturing, running and marketing electric cars. Intertwined with that are stories of a man and a company that I'd work for without question and I'm not the only one.

I know I rarely read lengthy links, so I'll give you the broad points here, but if you have a little time, I suggest reading through it or picking up this month's hard copy and reading through the cover story.

Shai Agassi is a relative newcomer to the electric car market, but has an impressive pedigree and no major hang ups with slaughtering America's sacred cows (like the internal combustion engine). After accepting to Young Global Leaders, he seriously sunk his teeth into environmental issues.

Starting with home energy use, he set his sights a bit higher and dove into the car market. That's where things started getting interesting. First up for Agassi was to outline life with an electric car and to work on batteries first - an issue since the invention of the first automobiles.

Car batteries, then and now, are heavy and expensive, don't last long, and take forever to recharge. In five minutes you can fill a car with enough gas to go 300 miles, but five minutes of charging at home gets you only about 8 miles in an electric car. Clever tricks, like adding "range extenders"—gas engines that kick in when a battery dies—end up making the cars too expensive.

Agassi dealt with the battery issue by simply swatting it away. Previous approaches relied on a traditional manufacturing formula: We make the cars, you buy them. Agassi reimagined the entire automotive ecosystem by proposing a new concept he called the Electric Recharge Grid Operator. It was an unorthodox mashup of the automotive and mobile phone industries. Instead of gas stations on every corner, the ERGO would blanket a country with a network of "smart" charge spots. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a specific plan—unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month, or pay as you go—all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. They'd buy their car from the operator, who would offer steep discounts, perhaps even give the cars away. The profit would come from selling electricity—the minutes.

There would be plugs in homes, offices, shopping malls. And when customers couldn't wait to "fill up," they'd go to battery exchange stations where they would pull into car-wash-like sheds, and in a few minutes, a hydraulic lift would swap the depleted battery with a fresh one. Drivers wouldn't pay a penny extra: The ERGO would own the battery.


This brings us full circle to a Jalopnik post today asking for a Manhattan Project style overhaul of the process, should Obama win in November. Funny, I had just talked myself out of that after the first link...

I think everyone would be well served by taking a meeting with Agassi and just getting a feel for what he's proposing. In one of life's little twists, Hawaii is the frontrunner for implementation in the United States, with a small land mass that is dependent on imported oil for all of its needs.

So, in a week of high ideals and grand plans that seemingly know no bounds, I point you in the direction of another one - Agassi's. It's a long shot right now and would require Americans to accept something different from what they're used to and see as their birthright - bigger, faster cars that can run through hundreds of miles of desert with the air conditioning on full blast.

Count me as someone who loves those cars - and has made no secret of his outright lust for the old gas guzzlers of the 1950s, 60s and 70s - but it's time to face facts and to stop chasing down the same arid dead ends.

Agassi seems to be on the right track - he doesn't think like normal people do.

When I ask Shai if he's worried about a competitor stealing his idea, he stares at me like I'm an idiot. "The mission is to end oil," he says, "not create a company."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's worth noting

Without any editorializing or clouding what you will take from this, these three events that share the same anniversary, August 28.

1955 - About 2:30 a.m., Roy Bryant and his half brother J. W. Milam, kidnap Emmett Till from Moses Wright's home (in Money, Mississippi). They will later describe brutally beating him, taking him to the edge of the Tallahatchie River, shooting him in the head, fastening a large metal fan used for ginning cotton to his neck with barbed wire, and pushing the body into the river.

1963 - The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream Speech" in Washington, D.C.

2008 - Barack Obama plays to a full house in Denver as he accepts the Democratic nomination for president.

It's a start.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Too Much Information

No more than 10 years ago, the professors at the college I attended were getting pretty nervous with the influx of Internet-related information as students increasingly used them for citation in papers and mock debates in the classroom.

At the time, the Net wasn't the finely polished tech superpower it is now, it was a bit ragged and had more of a Wild West feel to it. I assume that the fears were founded in the belief that information pulled from its pages wasn't necessarily on the level and were prone to a "here today, gone tomorrow" rule.

It wasn't uncommon for students who came to the writing lab where I worked to have printed copies of the cited pages as backup in case a site went down, went bust or wasn't easily accessed by the faculty. In some cases, that was just the norm for the professors as they tried to rein in the new technology.

While the mild hysteria surrounding the Internet has ebbed a bit, there are still plenty of shortcomings to address. Wired has a good culture review this month addressing the assertions that the Net makes us dumber, citing the history of new ideas and technologies as precedent.

On the contrary: The explosion of knowledge represented by the Internet and abetted by all sorts of digital technologies makes us more productive and gives us the opportunity to become smarter, not dumber. Think of Wikipedia and its emergent spinoffs, like Wiktionary. Imperfect as they may be, the collective brainpower contained within these kinds of sites — and the hunger for learning and accurate information they represent — is something human history has never known before. (Even Encyclopedia Britannica will soon be accepting user contributions.) Or consider the Public Library of Science: By breaking the publishing industry's choke hold on the circulation of scientific information, this powerful online resource arms scientists and the masses alike with the same data, accelerating new discoveries and breakthroughs. Not exactly the kind of effect one would expect from a technology that's threatening to turn us into philistines.

That's not what worries me, though.

It's not the anonymous nature of posting, not the deliberate misinformation that's placed into the data stream, nor the need to strike first with breaking, though incomplete news that clouds the issues for readers.

It's the tendency for the Web to cultivate echo chambers where all the common reader gets is affirmations of their previously held notions. That sort of informational stagnation can't be good for anyone.

While newspaper readers have always been subject to the real and perceived biases of their hometown newspaper - the Chicago Tribune essentially owned up to a shortcoming in their coverage of the 1968 Democratic riots in a special Sunday feature looking back 40 years later - it's magnified exponentially with online content.

Take Frank's example from last week where he wrote of his daily news intake in the form of two papers on a train ride. On any given week, he probably jumps on the sports section first and works his way back out through Metro and on to National and World news. Some days the train runs on time and he misses a story here or there and some days the train takes forever and in order to keep boredom at bay, he digs a little deeper into stories he'd normally skip.

In either case, he's more likely to see at least a headline that he'd miss completely with online content. My point is that with traditional newspapers, the readers are exposed to more things outside of their normal sphere of interests.

In contrast, my morning routine begins with three pages loading on my laptop - Boston Dirt Dogs, Deadspin and my fantasy baseball league (for the record I totally wanted to fudge my homepages to make me look cooler). From there I expand out, depending on when I need to be at work, but there are many mornings that I could completely miss news on the scale of another Chernobyl because my routine doesn't call for the Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle or other newspapers unless I have enough time.

Compounding the problem is the need to streamline content to avoid overwhelming the reader, which forces newspapers to offer a handful of the freshest content on the home page, making some of the second-tier stories hard to find and off the reader's radar.

Back to Frank, he would see references to conflict in some small island nation well before they become front page news and I would catch on.

All of this is predicated on the idea that the sites we're visiting have that content available in the first place, hence the echo chamber effect. To be completely honest, there's not a lot of room for the opposing viewpoint in a traditional web surfing session.

It's obviously not a lack of available content - as evidenced by my Google reader which is currently busting at the seams - but I think most of us have hit a point where we just can't physically put our eyeballs on even a fraction of the information that comes our way online.

Instead, we rely on aggregation sites to keep us in the loop. God help us if those gatekeepers fall behind or start rejecting stories outright because of personal or organizational blind spots.

It's an interesting paradox for me, where there is more information available and it's easier to access than at any point in human history, but the saturation point is miles beyond what even the most dedicated reader can sift through.

It's beautiful and a little heartbreaking to know that the truth is freely available to anyone in the world on virtually any event - especially with the explosion of citizen journalism - but the din of thousands of other stories make it impossible to find it in most cases.

I can only imagine the stories that would have been sent to all corners of the world from Poland in the late 1930s or the pictures that would have appeared from soldiers with digital point and shoot cameras from Robert E. Lee's army, had the same technology been in place.

The big question is what we would have accepted and what would have been written off as junk posted by alarmists and radicals.

(Image from:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

We're not dumb, just choosy

A little over five years ago, the two major dailies in Chicago got into a turf war for the eyes and minds of the twentysomethings in the city.

The Tribune launched the Red Eye and the Sun-Times launched the Red Streak within weeks of each other, each screeching with shrill headline every morning. While some fresh content was added each day that was designed to appeal to the Lincoln Park crowd, most of it was the same content that appeared in the "real" paper, only pared down.

The message was pretty clear - "We don't think you have the attention span to digest the whole article, so enjoy this shorter version, dumbass."

I was not a happy panda when I saw what was happening.

On a particularly grumpy day, the Red Eye ran a small ad, asking for feedback in it's annoyingly snarky way. "Let us know what you really think," it said. "Go ahead, we can take it."

I sent an e-mail to let them know that I didn't appreciate being talked down to in print and that the problem wasn't the length of the stories, it was the content. In short, if they printed 100 or 1,000 words on steps for a healthy colon or on selecting the right retirement home, I wouldn't read either one.

They responded by offering me a spot on their reader panel.

After reading Frank the Tank's call to arms for readers of our generation, I'm filled with a renewed sense of outrage and a desire to help push content for my generation. It feels much like a space between hopefulness and a loss for where to begin.

Much like the traditional argument against the perceived liberal media bias - the reporters, while they may be liberal, are paid by a conservative old guard of ownership - I feel that newspapers today have a major blind spot with regards to what readers want and how they consume content.

Frank is correct in explaining how our generation consumes both hard news and celebrity fluff, but it goes beyond that. While people my age are now in editorial positions at the major papers nationwide, I imagine it's a hard sell on the content and budget side to craft better ways of delivering the stories.

I believe strongly that some of the most worthwhile content generated in the past half decade comes from the online departments, who piece together wonderful stories in a multimedia format. Pictures, audio and a splash of Flash do wonders for capturing moments and helping readers grasp the state of affairs in Darfur or understanding the emotions invovled with the post-Katrina mess.

While the major dailies are finally embracing these new ways of telling the story, they're a few years late to the party for my tastes. This isn't brand new technology, it just takes coaxing to get the big papers to engage in a degree of trailblazing.

So, where does this leave things?

Right where they've always been, with a little more "online only" content and the usual cut and paste jobs from the morning paper for the paper's web site. Breaking news can be added in a more timely manner, but I'm not seeing much innovation.

I read recently that both TV and print media are simply the competition for eyeballs to sell ad space and spoke to an AP reporter on tour this week who thinks that the smaller papers will lead the online revolution because of expense and the fact that they have long-standing ties with advertisers who will fund the switch.

My money is on history repeating itself - wait for the comet to strike and kill off all the dinosaurs which have grown too large to adapt.

(Image taken for Siberia, Minnesota)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The one in which the (new) bike is put on lockdown

Gentle readers, learn from my mistakes.

Not knowing what lines I cannot cross with a new bike on order and the insurance company cutting a check, I'll opt to focus on what I've learned about locks since yesterday. Suffice to say, never assume that your bike is bulletproof and know that mine was stolen in front of our shop, a doorman for the condos next door, a mailman and the knowing eyes of hundreds of geese.

Since then, I've trolled the Internet for the best in bicycle security and it boils down to a few keys points.

* Kryptonite is the gold standard for a reason. Some bikes are better known, but of lesser quality. I love the alternative/mom and pop companies as much as the next guy, but Kryptonite keeps coming out on top. I'm sinking my money into a lock and chain that require 10 minutes with power tools to break.

* There are a few levels for Kryptonite's products. Standard, New York and New York Fahgettaboudit. The NYFU is the top dog from what I researched. If you plan to buy on, don't be too afraid of the multiple combos and prices. Most are just different ways to combine one of the locks with one of the chains or are sizing variations on the u-locks.

* That pesky Bic pen issue that NAD referenced before? Done and done. Most companies have gone to flat keys instead of the old round ones. Make sure you're working with the flat keys.

* The best lock in the world won't help you if you a.) don't lock the bike at all or b.) don't lock the bike correctly. There are plenty of sites to help you out with this, but if you lock your rear wheel and frame to something solid, you're ahead of the game. Sometimes, Internet celebrities will even help keep you honest.

* When locking down your baby, don't leave space to smash a lock on the ground (or to push the lock down to the concrete where it can be bashed with a hammer) and try to minimize the space to sneak a jack or other prying device into it.

* Don't be a moron and leave your bike unlocked. No, not even to go to Starbucks for a second. No. Bad cyclist. Bad.

* Secure wheels, seats and accessories. Ask your local bike shop for help with this if needed.

* Be careful where you lock your bike. The location is important (not locking things to a dumpster behind a building is a good start) as is the object you're banking on. Parking meters are good, trees are good, bike racks are great. Sign posts for no parking signs or bus stops are not. Look closely, there's a bolt at the bottom that can be undone and your chain just slides right off.

* Try to avoid leaving your bike out overnight or outside for days on end. If you're doing this, chances are your bike isn't worth much and you stopped reading this five minutes ago.

* Know that Chicago is second in the nation in bike thefts. Damn.

(Image from: Danny M, who totally cheered me up with this screencap today)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The one in which the bike is stolen

With all apologies to Tony, the title of this post was the easiest way to disassociate myself from the theft of my wonderful bicycle late this morning.

At some point between 11:30 a.m. and noon, someone got next to my bike, cut or smashed the lock and took off with a very expensive, very awesome red bike. I've been rotating between anger and sadness since then.

I honestly think if some poor soul had been riding their red Canondale when I was out on tour that I would have run them down on a Segway and beaten them until I could check a serial number. It's probably for the best.

To answer the big question, yes, it was locked - with a Kryptonite lock, so to borrow from a comic I saw recently, I know it wasn't Superman who took it, but the rest of the world remain suspects - and chained up right in front of our shop on a busy street.

The kicker is that I lock my bike to the ceiling supports in our garage if we leave town for the weekend. Guess it makes my reluctance to park my bike with the bike valet in Grant Park a few weeks ago seem a little silly, huh?

It was a strange feeling to realize it was gone and somehow I've made it 30 years without a major theft in my life. Also on the plus side is the fact that the bike was insured, I can now check "yes" to "Have you ever been the victim of a crime?" on my jury duty sheet and my wife is amazing and got a new bike on the road to be here by Tuesday.

All told, I'm out a $15 fender and a cheap seat bag with nothing in it that won't be covered by insurance and I'm on the train for a few days while the new bike arrives. I'll also buy a minimum of two locks to really secure the Bejeezus out of the new bike and hound my boss into letting me park the bike inside.

The Girl assures me that the new, blue bike will be faster than the stolen, red bike. I'm a bit skeptical because fire trucks are red, not blue, but after her big day to get the loose ends tied up before I was back from the afternoon tour, I'm inclined to believe her if she tells me that Abraham Linclon was biologically a mountain goat.

I had to leave for a tour a few minutes after finding the bike gone, so The Girl came down from her office and filed the police report for me. She was told that another bike in the same price range was stolen earlier in the day, but wasn't insured like mine was. The officer on the phone guessed that 1 in 50 bikes over $1,000 are insured.

That's just crazy.

Chances are, I'll never see that bike again, which is a shame. It was a phenomenal bike, which meant a lot to me after just two months because it's the one my wife worked so hard to find to make for a great 30th birthday. My whole family chipped in and it was the first "low rung of the high end" bike I'd ever gotten.

I can't get that back.

Then again, if it shows up for sale with one of the shops in town, chances are someone will call the police. Canondale is a nice brand, but honestly, this has to be one of maybe three bikes in the city right now. I'm also holding out a little hope that someone dumb enough to steal bikes is dumb enough to try and resell them to a bike shop.

On Tuesday when I pick up my new bike, I'll be searching around for any extra edge in locking that bike down. My preference would be a strong cable with a keyed lock that connects to a hand grenade.

(Patent pending.)

(Image from: