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Smog: China’s Dirtiest Export

            The sun comes up, beaming its warmth on the ocean.  Its energy gives life to powerful winds which circle eastward across the Northern hemisphere.  The cycle is as old as the world.  These days, though, the prevailing winds carry an undesired cargo:  plumes of pollutants from the smokestacks of China.  Of all China’s exports to North America, the deadliest is its air.  North America struggles to improve its own air quality, only to have it destroyed by Chinese smog.  The mechanisms of this air pollution problem are beginning to be understood but solutions are still a long way off.
            China is a growth machine.  Its average annual growth rate is an almost unheard of ten percent (Batson).  The ruling communist party knows that only by growing gross domestic product (GDP) at this rate can it continue to provide an increasing quality of life for its very large, very poor population.  Only by doing this can the party stay in power.  China has always been prepared to keep growing at any cost.
Smog in Tianjin, China

Smog in Tianjin, China

            Growth is impossible without energy.  Most of China’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants.  China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union, and Japan put together (Bradsher and Barboza).  While it is one of the cheapest fuels, coal is also one of the dirtiest.  As it burns it emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes global warming.  Another byproduct is deadly sulfur dioxide gas, which causes about 400,000 premature deaths per year in China (Batson).  Sulphur dioxide is also the primary cause of acid rain, which is currently experienced as far away as Korea and Japan.  Finally, coal power plants produce fine particles of soot which dim the skies and produce health problems for all who breath them (Bradsher and Barboza).
            China brings new power plants on line at a staggering rate.  A new facility opens every week to ten days (Bradsher and Barboza).  Between 2006 and 2012, China will build 800 new power plants (Zakaria 31).  Even so, they have been hard pressed to meet demand during boom times.  Chinese factories, faced with rolling blackouts, have installed small diesel generators.  These units are often even dirtier than the coal plants they supplement.  One benefit of the current recession is that it has given utility companies a chance to “catch up” and most private generators have been shut down, for now (Tran).
            As China’s economy grows, so does its middle class.  People who once  lived in mud huts and cooked over dung fires are now moving into comfortable city apartments with computers, cellular phones, televisions and air conditioning.  The number of air conditioners alone more than tripled between 2001 and 2006  (Barboza and Bradsher).  Of course, all of these things require a great deal of electricity to build and operate.  While these middle class Chinese still have a much lower energy footprint than their American counterparts, they use many times as much as their rural countrymen.
            As much as the Chinese value their electronics and appliances, there is another status symbol for which they truly lust:  the automobile.  Only about ten percent of Chinese currently have drivers licenses, (Batson) but the rest will be driving soon.  In 2007, China added about 14,000 cars to its fleet every day (Freidman 59).  At this rate there will be 130 million cars in China by 2020.  By 2050 (or perhaps even earlier) there will be more cars in China than in the US (Ibid).
            The motorization of China is actively supported by the government, who see road building as a means of job creation and as a way to bring fast transportation to a big country.  The Chinese government plans to expand its highway system to 53,000 miles of roads in 2020  The entire interstate highway system in the United States has about 47.000 miles of roads (Batson).
            One of the primary byproducts of China’s growth pattern is air pollution.  Coal plants, cars, and factories emit a plethora of undesirable by-products.  Three of the worst of them, in terms of human health, are sulphates, particulates, and ozone.   
            Sulphates start out at the smokestacks of coal power plants as poisonous sulfur dioxide gas .  When exposed to the atmosphere, the gas rapidly oxidizes to form particles of sulphate (Mickley 37).  Some of the sulphate particles come into contact with water droplets creating acid rain.  This sulphate laced water is corrosive enough to strip paint.  It kills forests and crops and makes rivers and lakes unfit to sustain life.  Most of it falls on China itself, but some is blown as far as Korea and Japan (Barboza and Bradsher).  The solid sulphate particles are often blown as far as North America (Hotz).  In the mountains of many West Coast states, the density of sulphate particles in the air already amounts to about one fifth of the maximum particulate concentration allowed by federal air quality standards (Barboza and Bradsher).  Sulphate is also one of the major precursors to smog (Mickley 37).  China emits more than 22.5 million tons of sulfur per year, accounting for one sixth of the world’s sulphate pollution (Barboza and Bradsher). 
            Another byproduct of coal combustion is black carbon.  Black carbon is essentially very fine soot.  When I first moved to Southern California I noticed how a fine black dust collects on any item left outside for more than a few hours.   What I did not know until later was that over three quarters of the carbon dust pollution on the West Coast is directly traceable to China (Hadley et al. 1).   The dust is more than just an aesthetic problem.  Much of it is composed of respirable particles less than two point five microns in diameter.  Particles of this size are dangerous because the human lung breaths them in easily but can not expel them again.  Once lodged in lung tissue, they work their way deeper, contributing to cancer, respiratory damage, and heart disease (Bradsher and Barboza).
            The other major ingredient in smog, besides particles like sulphates and black carbon, is ozone.  Ozone is actually a good thing when it is found in the stratospheric ozone layer.  It blocks harmful radiation that can cause skin cancer.  When ozone is closer to the surface, however, it can cause big problems.  Not only is it a smog precursor, but it is also highly reactive.  Ozone molecules are “sticky”.  They adhere to and damage human lung tissue and the leaves of plants.  Ozone is not a direct emission of Chinese power plants or cars, but they do emit plenty of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and nitrates.  When exposed to sunlight these chemicals react to form ozone (Mickley 36-37).  Ozone, like particulates, then blows towards the West Coast on the prevailing winds, creating a ready-made “smog cocktail”.
            The mechanism by which small particles are transported from Asia to North America has only recently been understood.  For about a decade, scientists in the Sierra Nevada mountain range have been sampling the air in collectors.  Analysis of the collected particles suggests an Asian origin.  Other scientists notice a black haze over the pacific in satellite photos (Bradsher and Barboza).  These observations led many to postulate the existence of high altitude “dust plumes”.  It is believed that these plumes originate as clouds of natural dust in the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts of Central Asia.  As the dust plumes blow east, they pick up particles of sulphates, black carbon, and other industrial pollutants (Hotz).  As the plumes travel across the Pacific, they are lifted to high altitudes by cold fronts, where they are caught by fast moving winds (Hadley et al. 2).  The particles in the plumes do not settle to the ground until they are slowed by the mountain ranges of North America (Hotz).
            The dust plume theory was validated in 2006 when an international team of scientists, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, used a specially outfitted Gulfstream jet to systematically sample air over the Pacific.  The study found new plumes every few days.   The plumes form sinuous river-like structures high in the atmosphere.  Some were as much as 300 miles wide and six miles deep–deeper than the Grand Canyon and wider than the Amazon (Hotz).
            More recent research, such as the work of Prof. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institute, has used unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) instead of the more expensive jets.  Because UAVs are much cheaper, they can fly more missions and produce more detailed maps of particulate distribution (National Science Foundation).
            It is difficult to predict how the effects of the air pollution problem will change in the future.  Most scientists agree that global warming will change world weather patterns, which will in turn change the distribution of smog.  No one is quite sure how this will happen.   One possibility is that a hotter atmosphere will be more stagnant.  That is, there will be less air movement.   This would tend to slow down the dust plumes and keep more smog closer to its source.   Smog would get worse in Asia, but better in North America.  In a more stagnant atmosphere, smog would also take longer to clear.  Bad air quality events might last days longer than they do today (Mickley 39-39).
            Whether smog stays in Asia or crosses the Pacific, warmer temperatures are likely to make it worse.  Increased heat will accelerate the reactions that cause smog in the first place.  The warmer the atmosphere becomes, the worse smog will become.  Ironically, China’s air pollution might be slowing down global warming in the short term.  China emits so many aerosol particulates like sulphates and black carbon that they actually block sunlight.  It is estimated that the Chinese dust plumes currently block as much as ten percent of the sunlight over the Pacific (Hotz).  This “global dimming” process is keeping the planet cooler than it would otherwise be.  However, aerosol particles do not stay suspended in the atmosphere nearly as long as the greenhouse gases that causes global warming.  Particles or no particles, global warming is coming and will intensify the smog problem (Bradsher and Barboza).
            The Chinese realize that they have a serious air pollution problem.  The central government in Beijing, spurred on by citizen activists, has unveiled a number of new policies to clean up their air.  They have even had some initial successes.  Beijing was able to host the 2006 Olympic Games partly because of its promises to clean up the city’s air quality.  By delaying construction projects, closing factories, and only allowing cars to be used on alternate days, they achieved a substantial improvement by the time of the games.  The programs worked so well that they decided to keep some of them in place after the games.  Currently, drivers in Beijing are prohibited from driving for one day each week, based on their license plate number (Tran).
               The pilot environmental programs that were begun during the Olympics were a good start.  Even so, Beijing is still one of the most polluted cities on Earth.  Beyond the capital, the central government has considerably less power.  The provinces are largely governed by local politicians.  These men are often involved financially with the same industries that they are supposed to be regulating.  Not surprisingly, environmental regulations often tend to sporadically enforced (Bradsher and Barboza).  China is so large, and the pollution is so bad, that it will take truly phenomenal efforts to clean it up.
            Despite the scale of the problem, the Communist party has set ambitious goals in its most recent five-year plan.  A number of the smaller and older coal power plants are scheduled to be decommissioned in the next few years.  All of the remaining power plants must install scrubbing equipment by 2010.  These scrubbers, which are standard equipment in the United States and European Union, remove most sulphates and nitrates at the smokestack (Bradsher and Barboza).  New cars in China are now required to meet stricter emissions standards.  Vehicles with larger engine sizes are taxed at a higher rate (Ho and Poon).  It will be interesting to see how well China manages to enforce its new environmental regulations.
            The air pollution problem in China is one of the biggest environmental challenges ever to face humanity.  In the near future, the problem will probably get worse.  While the pollution originates in China, high altitude dust plumes quickly transport it to North America and around the world.  The Chinese government has begun to deal with the air pollution problem, but with limited success so far.  Until the air pollution problem can be solved in China, efforts at healthy air in North America will ultimately be futile.


Works Cited
Barboza, David, and Keith Bradsher.  “Pollution from Chinese Coal Casts Shadow Around the Globe:  The Energy Challenge:  The Cost of Coal.” New York Times.  [New York, NY]  11 June 2006, Late Edition (East Coast):  1.1.  Proquest.  Fullerton College Library.  15 April 2009. 
Batson, Andrew.  “China Bets Highways Will Drive Its Growth.”  Wall Street Journal.  [New York, NY] 11 November 2008, Eastern Edition:  A.1.  Proquest.  Fullerton College Library.  15 April 2009. 
Freidman, Thomas L.  Hot, Flat, and Crowded.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2008.
Hadley, O. L., V. Ramanathan, G. R. Carmichael, Y. Tang, C. E. Corrigan, G. C. Roberts, and G. S. Mauger.  “Transpacific Transport of Black Carbon and Fine Aerosols (Dmm) Into North America”.  Journal of Geophysical Research.  112, D05309.
Ho, Patricia Jiayi, and Terence Poon. “China Will Increase Tax on High-Emission Vehicles. “Wall Street Journal [New York, N.Y.] 14 Aug. 2008, Eastern edition: A.10. ProQuest National Newspapers Core.  ProQuest.  Orange County Public Library, La Habra, CA.  3 May. 2009. 
Hotz, Robert Lee.  “Huge Dust Plumes From China Cause Changes in Climate.”  Wall Street Journal[New York, NY]  20 July 2007, Eastern Edition:  B.1. Proquest.  Fullerton College Library.  15 April 2009. 
Mickley, Loretta A.  “A Future Short of Breath?  Possible Effects of Climate Change on Smog.”  Environment.  49:6.  34-43 (2007).
National Science Foundation.  “Finding Answers in the Clouds.”  Press Release.  21 May 2008.  28 April 2009.
Tran, Tini.  “Downturn a Boon for China’s Air Quality; The Shutting of Factories and Drops in Production Have Kept Alive Pollution Gains Made During the Olympics.”  Los Angeles Times.  [Los Angeles, CA]  12 April 2009, A.10.  Proquest.  Fullerton College Library.  15 April 2009. 
Zakaria, Fareed.  The Post American World.  New York:  W. W. Norton and Company.  2008.



Update: The 2009 Essays vs the 2012 Essays

Anyone who reads through this whole blog from beginning to end will notice that there is a substantial gap in my posts between the seven essays that I posted in 2009 and the essays which I am about to post now in 2012. I thought I should offer a few words of explanation. The earlier essays were all written between 2008 and 2009 while I was taking night classes at a local community college. I later transferred to a full time school where I attended between 2009 and 2012, eventually getting a BS in Management. All the new essays are from the later period. Hopefully, you will find that my writing became more sophisticated with the passing of time. As I am currently enrolled in a graduate program, it is quite possible that I will have another batch of writings for you in a few years.

As always, I hope that you enjoy these essays and that they spark ideas for your own writing. Should you be tempted to simply print them out and turn them in as your own work, you should consider the fact that online services like Google and Turn It In have fully indexed this blog, so you will probably be instantly exposed as a cheater. Ironically, I am safer from plagiarism now that I have posted my work than I would be if I didn’t. Naturally, feel free to use reasonable quotations from my work as long as I am properly cited. For any other use, please contact me directly for permission.

Oh, and one other important point. Should I die prematurely, someone please analyze all of my internet writings and construct an avatar of my personality which can subsequently be implanted in some sort of powerful killer robot. Thanks. (Caprica is the coolest show ever!)

Theme and Symbolism in Cavafy’s Ithaka

Ithaka [Flickr user PapaPiper, CC BY-ND 2.0]

Ithaka [Flickr user PapaPiper, CC BY-ND 2.0]

In his poem Ithaca Constantine Cavafy uses the familiar story of The Odyssey as a metaphor for the journey of life. Cavafy wrote his poetry in Greek. Although some of the lyricism and rhyme of the original is probably lost in translation, it is still a powerful piece that speaks to the reader in any language.

The major theme of the poem is to take your time on your journey through life, stopping to obtain wisdom, pleasure and experience. Some people always find the straight and easy way through life, proceeding linearly and avoiding distractions and detours. When they reach the end, what do they have to show for it? Cavafy seems to be saying that the things that really matter in the end are experiences and memories. You can not get many of these on the straight and narrow path. Odysseus’ ten year voyage home from the Trojan war, with its many turnings and adventures, is a metaphor for a fulfilling life.

One unusual feature of the work is that it is written in the second person imperative. It tells the reader, the metaphorical Odysseus, what to do. While this point of view is almost never workable in a narrative work, it is effective in a short lyrical poem like this. Ithaka uses several strong symbols, loosely drawn from the Odyssey. The first stanza, for instance, refers to the Laistrygonians, the Cyclops, and “Angry Poseidon”. These were among the most terrifying of Oddyseus’ enemies. The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops were gigantic cannibals who ate most of his followers. Poseidon was a vengeful god who persecuted him for years. Cavafy chooses these enemies to symbolize conflict, particularly conflict with people or powers that are much bigger and more powerful than the reader. Luckily, the reader need not fear these external conflicts: “…you won’t meet them / unless you carry the in your soul” (11-12). A person without internal strife is less likely to encounter external strife.

Another symbol is the idea of coming into new harbors. The harbors are happy times and places in the life of the reader where pleasure, knowledge and experience are gained. Cavafy mentions two main types, Phoenician trading stations, and Egyptian cities. In the Phoenician stations, one is to buy fine things and sensual perfumes. Cavafy is not telling the reader to amass treasure. The message is to enjoy luxury and beauty when the chance arises. One should appreciate the fine things that come into one’s path for the sake of the experience. The Phoenician trading stations symbolize times in life when one is exposed to art and beauty and culture. The Egyptian cities, on the other hand, symbolize times of knowledge and education. This could be a time of formal education such as going to college. It could just as easily by an informal educational experience. Either way, Cavafy enjoins the reader to visit many of these “Egyptian Cities”. Education is not something that is sought once in life. Rather, should occur in a series of episodes throughout a lifetime.

When he wrote this reference to Egyptian cities, Costantine Cavafy was undoubtedly thinking of Alexandria, where he spent most of his life. Alexandria has always been a great center of learning and a confluence of cultures and ideas. It was the sight of the largest library of the ancient world. It would not, however, have existed at the time the events in the historical Odyssey took place. Cavafy is thus either creating a deliberate anachronism or referring to other older Egyptian cities. The symbolism is still effective either way.

The final, and perhaps most important, symbol in Ithaka is Ithaka itself. Ithaka, Odysseus’ island kingdom, represents both the starting and ending place. Everyone comes from somewhere. There was a time and place that shaped them and made them who they are. As they reached adulthood they left home. Some went far indeed, even as this poem recommends. Ironically, the farther people get from home (physically, temporally, and ideologically) the more they want to return. The great risk, however, is of idealizing your own personal Ithaka. In the penultimate stanza Cavafy warns against expecting too much:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

The point of life is the journey and the experiences along the way. If you go long enough you will eventually get back to where you began. As natural as this is, this starting and ending point is simply that: a starting and ending point. It is the path in between that makes life worth living.

Cavafy is justifiably referred to as the father of Greek modernist poetry, and Ithaka is widely regarded as one of his finest poems. In it he develops elements of a familiar story, The Odyssey, into powerful symbols to support his theme.

Cavafy around 1900 [public domain via Wikimedia]

Cavafy, Constantine P. Ithaka. The Cavafy Archive. Accessed 28 March 2008.
Constantine P. Cavafy. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 381-382. 23 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

The Antihero’s Journey

Ulysses Everett McGill is not the sort of character we typically think of as a hero. Over the course of the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, he repeatedly commits acts of larceny, even stealing from people who are helping him.He lies freely when it suits his purposes.He has few qualms about inventing a story about buried treasure to manipulate his companions for his own purposes, even though he knows it will significantly extend their prison sentences.In general, he is almost completely amoral.Likewise, his physical achievements are not particularly heroic; he manages to lose every fight he gets into in the movie.Perhaps the only trait he shares with some of the heroes of legend is his extreme narcissism.He is obsessed with maintaining his perfect hair. At one point he considers sneaking into a burning building to save a can of pomade.

McGill is an excellent example of what, in literature, is termed and antihero. An antihero is “a protagonist whose character and goals are antithetical to traditional heroism” (Antihero). As unheroic as he is in character, he still functions as a hero because of the structure of the movie itself. O Brother Where Art Thou, it turns out, is a classic example of a hero story.

In the 20th century Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about what makes a hero and about the common structural elements of hero stories. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he presents an outline for what he calls the “monomyth”, a sort of fundamental common structure for all stories about heroes:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (30)

It is obvious that O Brother Where Art Thou fits this pattern. From the point when they break jail, McGill and his companions travel in a world that is superficially similar to the real world of depression-era Mississippi, yet more vivid and fantastical in all respects. It is a world of powerful characters where music has power. The supernatural, if never shown overtly, seems to lurk just off camera at all times. Eventually, having defeated the forces of evil McGill returns to the everyday world where he is raised to a position of power as the governor’s adviser.

In Campbell’s book he identifies a number of episodes which are common to many hero myths. A number of them occur in the movie. Soon after receiving the call to adventure, the three men are almost recaptured but are rescued by the Blind Seer who proceeds to prophecy about their coming adventure. This character, often male and usually elderly, is a common feature in the monomyth who appears at this stage to offer guidance (69-72). In many several stories he appears as a boatman. In this movie a railroad handcar serves a similar role to convey McGill and his companions away from the every-day world and into a fantastic hero world.

As the characters pass down what Campbell called “the road of trials” (97) they encounter other familiar scenarios. Big Dan Teague, for instance, is similar to the entities in many myths known as “threshold guardians” (77). In many stories the guardian is some kind of ogre or giant. In the original Odyssey it was the giant man-eating cyclops Polyphemus. The sirens are also familiar characters. In fact, Campbell devotes a chapter to “Woman as Temptress” (120), a subject on which McGill himself expounds later in the movie. Nearly every hero risks the being diverted from his quest by female wiles. When McGill’s encounter with Pete Hogswallup (who both he and the audience believe is dead) parallels many hero myths in which the hero travels to the underworld to commune with a dead comrade.

After the three main characters rescue their friend Tommy from the Ku Klux Klan, the stage is set for their “atonement with the father” (126) which is represented by receiving a pardon from the governor. In more traditional mythology the “father” would be an important god, often the hero’s literal father. For poor southerners, the governor might as well be a god. The governor then elevates them to his “brain trust”, analogous to what Campbell calls the apotheosis (149), wherein the hero attains godlike powers. One more trial remains, however, before McGill can reunite with “the goddess” (109), a female principal represented by his wife Penney.

Penney requires that McGill travel to the family homestead and retrieve her ring. It is here that they encounter Sheriff Cooley. Every hero has a malevolent supernatural enemy. In the original Odyssey the role was played by the sea god, Poseidon, who was enraged at his son Polyphemus’ blinding (Odyssey). The implacable Sheriff, with his dark glasses and fierce bloodhound, is as terrifying and unstoppable as any Hellenistic deity. He is a supernatural force of retribution. It is only when McGill calls on supernatural aid that he and his comrades are rescued by the flood in a trope that Campbell calls “rescue from without” (Campbell 207). Floods are themselves powerful and widespread mythic symbols found in the stories of many cultures.

The rescue by the flood marks the return to the mundane world. McGill is quick to explain it away to natural causes. Having escaped he soon returns to normalcy. Our last view of him shows him interacting with his six children and demanding wife. The hero’s journey is over and things have become ordinary again.


“Antihero.” Wikipedia. Accessed 22 March 2009.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books, 1949.
O Brother Where Art Thou? Dir. Joel Coen. Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
“Odyssey.” Wikipedia. Accessed 22 March 2009.

The False Promise of Electric Vehicles

Manufacturers and purchasers of electric and hybrid vehicles are some of the big winners in the stimulus package which Congress passed last month. The bill includes both tax cuts and outright grants. Next year, for example, the purchasers of the first 200,000 cars sold by each manufacturer will be able to take a tax credit for the first $7,500 of the car’s purchase price. The manufacturers will be offered $10 million in loans for “advanced vehicle” research. They will also be able to deduct up to 30% of their research expenses. $400 million in grants will go to local governments to improve “charging infrastructure” and buy electric and alternative fuel vehicles for municipal fleets (Stimulus Bill). The bill is one of the biggest packages of electric vehicle aid in history. It is part of a long series of aid packages, tax cuts, and special treatment given to the alternative vehicle interests.

Alternative vehicles are fashionable these days, but are they good public policy?  An efficient, low-emission car is still a car.  As a technology, cars have numerous serious drawbacks which have nothing to do with gas mileage for emissions.   It is easy to listen to the hybrid hype or buy into the pre-packaged utopian visions of electric vehicles.  To do so, however, requires ignoring a number of basic problems.

Cars pollute and consume at every stage of their life cycle, not just when they are being driven.  The factories themselves are powered by coal-burning electrical plants.    Like every large scale manufacturing enterprise they pollute the air and produce solid waste at an alarming rate.  It has been estimated that “By the time a car leaves the assembly line, its manufacture – including extraction and transport of the raw materials that go into it – has generated 29 tons of solid waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of air emissions.” (Alvord 84).  The completed cars are usually shipped thousands of miles to a dealership by big, dirty freighters and trucks.  A car continues to consume fresh water, lubricants, and other resources throughout its life.  Some of these can be recycled but it is an energy intensive process.  When a car is worn out (often after only ten years or so) it is crushed so its metals can be extracted.  Everything else goes straight to the landfill.  Modern cars have a lot of plastic parts, few of which can be easily recycled.  Every one of these environmental objections is as true for an electric car or a hybrid as for a conventional car.

Cars need roads to operate.  Busy roads divide neighborhoods.  They are a hazard to pedestrians, bicyclists and animals.  Electric vehicles are even more dangerous than conventional vehicles because they are so quiet.  Furthermore, large paved surfaces create their own environmental problems such as point source pollution, urban heat island effects, and toxic run-off from road deicing.  From an aesthetic point of view, freeways and parking lots are simply ugly.   

Many people argue that we simply can not live without cars.  They claim that cars are a necessary evil.  Thy claim that people will never give up cars, so the government needs to support the development of the cleanest cars possible.  This argument does not hold up when you consider than no other county in the world uses cars as much as we do.  In fact, the only reason cars have such a hold on American culture is because our government has been subsidizing roads and automotive companies for the last century.  If the government ceases to support cars, then people will quickly learn that they do not need them so much.

Even in this country many people live quite happily without a car.  Others use their cars only on weekends or share a car with someone else.  In other countries most people ride bikes, walk, or take trains.  Rather than funneling money into the latest fad in automotive technology, the government should be supporting grants for neglected areas such as public transportation, bicycle safety education, and urban planning for walkable neighborhoods.  Every dollar spent to subsidize alternative vehicles is a dollar that can not be spent elsewhere.  Other transportation options can be a far more efficient use of the same money.

Public transportation vehicles like buses and trains are just as damaging to manufacture as cars.  However, they last much longer and serve more people.  A typical hybrid car is used by a single person to get to work, where it then sits idle all day until it is time to go home.  A train or bus, on the other hand, is generally in constant service for twelve or more hours a day.  Trains carry hundreds of passengers and buses dozens.  Many car commuters can not even find one other person to carpool with them.  When the resource cost of various vehicles are amortized over their useful life or the number of people transported, all passenger cars are many times as expensive as public transportation.

Public transportation also takes up less road space than individual passenger cars.  A simple two-lane bus-way can carry more people per hour than the largest freeways.   Train tracks are much narrower than roads.  Neither cars nor buses require a parking lot in the sense that cars do.  Public transportation is more efficient than private car ownership in every way.

Lovers of hybrids and electric vehicles would do well to remember that all trains are electric.  Light rail trains run directly off of the city power grid while larger trains are hybrids.  A diesel generator creates energy to run the electric motors in the wheels. Hybrid busses are becoming viable.  Those that burn clean alternative fuels are already common.  The Metropolitan Transit Authority in Los Angeles, for instance, runs mostly natural gas buses.

Even public transportation, as efficient as it is, can never compare with bicycles.  Bicycles are human powered.  They produce no emissions, encourage public health, and last nearly forever.  A strong cyclist can haul hundreds of pounds of cargo in a trailer or rickshaw.  Unfortunately bicycling receives very little funding (almost none at the federal level).  American highways are designed in such a way as to be very dangerous for cyclists.  Dedicated bike paths are usually poorly maintained and often go nowhere.   An investment in cycling infrastructure would go much further than an investment in electric vehicle recharging infrastructure.  Likewise, the government should be giving tax credits to people who buy bicycles, not hybrids.  Since bicycles are so much cheaper, the money could be used to help many more people.

Government aid for alternative vehicles is a misuse of money.  By encouraging people to buy hybrid and public cars, they are really just encouraging cars in general.  By telling people that it is alright to drive as long as they drive an electric vehicle, they are really telling them to ignore all of the other horrible environmental impacts of automotive technology.  If the government insists on funding transportation, it should put the money into things that will actually help this country like trains, buses, and bike paths.  



Alvord, Katie.  (2000).  Divorce Your Car.  Gabriola Island:  New Society Publishers.
Electric Drive Transportation Association.  Stimulus Bill Recognizes Electric Drive Transportation as Critical for Creating Jobs and Breaking Oil Dependence.  Press Release.  13 February 2009.  Retrieved from 

Building Information Modeling

Every few years a technological revolution comes along that completely changes the construction and architectural world. The current development is something called Building Information Modeling (BIM). While the theoretical principles behind BIM have been around for decades, it has only been widely adopted in the past couple of years. These days you would be hard pressed to open a construction trade journal without seeing a reference to it.

In essence, BIM consists of creating a very detailed database of an entire construction job during the design phase. Literally every single piece of the job has an entry containing its size, position, color, model number, and structural properties. This includes structural members, pipes, wires, finish elements, mechanical devices, furniture, and every other component. The process is often likened to “virtually” constructing the building on the computer. The software uses the database to generate all of the plans that are needed for field use and approvals. This stands in contrast to traditional drafting techniques where a draftsman prepares each page separately with drafting software.

BIM software is not limited to 2-dimensional plans, however. Today’s systems can generate a full 3-dimensional virtual reality model. The software is sophisticated enough that it even puts in the correct lighting for a specified time of day. Because the software also keeps track of the project schedule, it can render the job at any phase of construction, not just completed projects.

The advantages of these systems promise to be enormous. The amount of the information contained in the model allows for very complex analysis. For instance, many BIM systems contain tools for structural analysis that can save the structural engineer many hours. The architect can do lighting and energy analysis. In the past lighting design has required a lot of guesswork. Any good BIM model can provide the exact number of lumens at any point in the building at any time of day. Mechanical designers can model air and water flow throughout their systems. The energy efficiencies which can be realized simply by engineering improvements are huge. Many green building advocates are in favor of BIM technology simply because of all the electricity it can save.

BIM is a great tool for estimating as well. Actually, in a manner of speaking it is not even estimating any more. Knowing the exact amount of concrete, lumber, or any other material is a matter of a few clicks. Any construction manager knows that you can save a lot of money by having the right amount of materials available at the right time. BIM will make it much easier to do just that.

Perhaps the most important benefit from BIM comes in at coordination time. Even small buildings are often designed by dozens of different professionals. The architect draws the overall building but consultants design subsystems such as electrical, heating venting and air conditioning (HVAC), fire sprinklers, and many more. The consultants then meet with their plans and “coordinate” them to make sure that their various lines, pipes, conduits, and ducts are not running into each other. The idea sounds simple but coordination can often take weeks. Even then, some “crashes” slip through. Often conflicts between mechanical systems are not discovered until installation time, resulting in wasted hours of labor, reordered materials, and completion delays.

With BIM coordination is easy. Every building system is in the same database. The job is rendered in 3D and it is obvious to everyone when systems are in conflict. Some of the programs even have a function to flag all the crashes. I still remember the first time I did a BIM job. The general contractor plugged his computer into a big-screen TV and suddenly we were looking at a beautifully rendered version of the parking structure we were building. He scrolled along and showed me two places where my pipe was running into beams and one where the plumber and I were trying to run pipe in the same place. The incident was embarrassing, but it made me a believer in BIM for coordination. It only took me a few minutes, back at the office, to move my pipes. If the problems had made it all the way to the field we would have needed to tear out thousands of dollars worth of pipe while the other trades waited on us.

BIM technology seems wonderfully useful and powerful. There can be no doubt, however, that it is going to change the whole construction world. The advantages of BIM are only available if every company on the design team has the hardware, software, and training to use it. A basic computer workstation for BIM costs nearly twice as much as an ordinary drafting workstation (somewhere around $10,000). Actually the price tag is higher because no one BIM software suite dominates the market. A contractor needs to have copies of the software used by every other company it works with (at $6000+ per copy). For many small companies this is just too much to spend. Some of them even still draw jobs by hand. BIM will leave them behind. They will be forced out of the ground-up construction market entirely as contracts go to bigger, more technologically advanced companies. I have already seen construction contracts that require the contractor to have and use a particular type of BIM software. This is probably a growing trend.

Small construction companies have always brought energy and ingenuity to the industry. It will get harder for small companies to break into the industry and harder for existing small companies to stay in. The big established companies will have the advantage, which could all too easily lead to stagnation.

As the equipment gets more advanced, the knowledge required to run it also increases. In the past many construction managers and designers came up from the trades and learned to design on the job. Construction jobs that use BIM are so complex, though, that people with advanced degrees have a real advantage. As time goes on and ever greater education is required for these jobs, we will see massive professionalization of the construction industry. This is good in that it will ensure high pay and standardized training for people who do highly technical, life critical work. It is bad because it will deepen the gulf between the building trades and the building professions. Tradesmen will have less and less idea of what goes on “upstairs in the engineering department” or why they do things. Meanwhile we will see a generation of managers and engineers with very little job-site experience. The construction engineer will go from being a master builder to being a master computer programmer.

The possible adverse effects of BIM technology could create real problems. Even so, the likely advantages are sizable. The industry is investing a lot of time and money into BIM and it is likely to be a powerful force in the construction world from now on.



Quiz Night

When we think of librarians, we often visualize a prim old woman behind a reference desk who shushes us when we try to talk. I myself have often fallen victim to this stereotype even though I have been dating one of them for over a year. My girlfriend Danica scarcely fits this picture. She was a professional actress and circus performer before entering UCLA to study Library Science. Still, I had always assumed that she was an atypical member of the profession. The other night, however, I attended “Library Student Quiz Night” at UCLA. It challenged my assumptions about librarians.

As we approached the building we could hear loud rock music from inside and see flashing lights through the windows. Passing through the front door we saw a small table with name tags and felt markers. We wrote our names and attempted to unstick the tags.

“So far, getting the name tags unstuck has been the hardest part of the night. Hi, I’m Lindsey.” I looked up to see a youngish woman in a low-cut party dress. I knew Lindsey by reputation because she often does group assignments with my Danica. She had volunteered to organize the night’s festivities.

It took several tries to release the recalcitrant name tags. “I got them at Office Max. I think they’re really old,” explained our hostess. Once we had properly identified ourselves, Lindsey led us on a tour of the party.

First, we entered a university classroom. “This is where we have all of our classes,” Danica explained. It looks much like any university classroom with its rows of tables, white-board, and computerized podium. A bookshelf along the long wall was packed with reference books. I recognized the Encyclopædia Britannica among the rest by its brown covers. Basically, the room appeared exactly as I would expect a Library Science classroom to look.

Tonight, however, it had been decorated. Fancy red tablecloths with Chinese characters and tassels covered every tables. A table in front nearly overflowed with tissue wrapped prizes surrounding an immense trophy in the shape of a human brain.

The glorious brain trophy was at lease eighteen inches from hemisphere to paper-mâché hemisphere. It glistened with gold spray paint. Its base stood blank, ready to receive the names of the winning Quiz Night team.

Incongruously, a substantial pile of lacquered chopsticks rested to one side in fancy silk cases. Later, I learned that decorations and chopsticks were left over from Lindsey’s wedding.

As the tour continued we passed another classroom where young librarians played a “Rock Star” video game on a big-screen TV. Clearly, this was the source of the music we heard on our way in. They looked so young. Even though I knew they were all at least graduate students, most of them barely appeared old enough to be in college. The majority had made some effort to dress up for the party, but clearly there had been no coordination. I saw cocktail dresses, sport coats, tight “Emo” style jeans, and one young woman who would have been more suitable dressed to go square dancing than for a party in Westwood.

The last room we visited was the student lounge. I commented that it was one of the biggest, nicest I have ever seen. My girlfriend replied that it was not that nice; most of the furniture is from the 1980’s. Clearly, she has never seen our old engineering lounge at the University of Idaho, where the furniture looks like it is from the 1880’s.

This lounge was well supplied with crackers, cheese, and the usual party foods. Another table was covered in various alcoholic drinks. Like many graduate schools, UCLA’s Library school is a “wet” building. Avoiding a bottle of Boon’s Farm and a case of cheap beer, I poured myself a paper cup of generic-brand Merlot from a bottle with a plain black and white label. The first sip revealed it as far too sticky-sweet for a Merlot. It had that undefinable aftertaste which means a wine will produce a horrible hangover. The lady next to me chose the Boon’s Farm. “Ick! It’s greasy.” She filled another cup.

I was positioning myself to advance on the cheese table when a young woman in dramatic tortoise-shell glasses appeared at the door holding a megaphone. “Attention, attention. Quiz night will begin in five minutes. Everyone move to the other room and form teams.”

I snagged another cup of bad wine and shuffled down the hallway. As we entered, some of Danica’s friends waved to her. They had saved us spots on their team. Quickly, we huddled and tried to come up with a team name. The “Library Lions” was rejected as too cliché. They decided on “Team Bingo”. “Why Bingo?” I asked. “He’s Bingo.” They pointed at the man sitting across from me. “He’s our ringer.”

It turned out that Bingo (who’s real name is not Bingo) had actually been on Jeopardy a couple of years before. Getting him on our team was a real coup.

A young man with wild bleached-blond hair and a teeshirt that had been printed to look like an evening jacket was introduced as our moderator and competition began. He asked each question three times in a dramatic voice. We wrote the answer on a piece of paper. Discussion was allowed, but we had to keep our voices down so the other teams would not steal our answers. The questions were obscure. Many of them seemed drawn from the pop culture section of some out of print edition of trivial pursuit. Others were library oriented: “Which of these is not an official library of congress subject heading:. ‘Domestic Ass Industry’ or ‘Jello shots'”

At the end of the third round there was a break while teams passed in our first sheet of answers. The girl who had used the megaphone earlier leaped to her feet. “OK, so who wants a librarian tattoo?” one hand she clutched a packet of temporary tattoos with librarian-related themes, in the other a damp rag. The first one I saw had “Dewey” in the center of a heart. Librarians immediately began rolling up their sleeves.

Things did not look good as the scores were announced. Our team, Team Bingo, was in fourth place which was second from last. A team called the “Cobras” was in the lead. We had only three more rounds in which to redeem ourselves. To bolster our morale we began a chant “B – I – N – G – O, B – I – N – G – O, and Bingo was his name-o!”

“Looks like the beer is starting to kick in,” observed the announcer dryly. Glancing around, I realized that he had a point. One nearby contestant had six empty cans in front of him. “I think I need to go to the bathroom,” he muttered and walked off with exaggerated caution. We did not see him again.

Still, if the alcohol was affecting my team’s performance, it was hitting the others even harder. By the time the scores were again tallied, we had shot up to second place. The Cobras still won, of course. They had the honor of signing their names to gold foil seals which were affixed to the base of the brain trophy. It now sits in the student lounge, dominating it with its benevolent golden presence.

As the party broke up and the guests filed out with camaraderie and good will, I heard Lindsey say, “Everyone remember to take some chopsticks.”

I had fun that night. I also realized that librarians might by a little nerdy, but they really know how to party if you give them a chance.


Big Jobs

Now and then as a project manager you get a “big job”–a job that is bigger, faster, or higher profile than anything you have ever done before. When you actually get the job you are overwhelmed at the size. It seems impossible to complete it on time. By the time you catch your breath the first emergencies have arisen. Somehow, you get through it. Usually, as soon as the job is done and you cash the check, something three times as bad comes along and the whole thing starts over again. You have to start somewhere, though.

In the winter of 2002, I was 23 and had just dropped out of engineering school to become an itinerant handyman. Officially I had been a contractor for almost three months but so far had done only small jobs for hourly pay. A couple for whom I had been doing odd jobs called up and asked for a price to repaint their entire two-story house and replace most of the siding and trim on the south side. I carefully typed a proposal on one of the school computers, my old estimating textbook in hand. The sticker price came to just over $5,000. My biggest invoice before then had been for less and $500. Timidly I dialed the clients to ask if I could meet with them that evening. My bid was well received. I later found that local painting contractors rarely painted two story houses for less than $10,000. We signed a contract on the spot. Although they wanted me to start right away, the weather in North Idaho was still too cold. I promised to return on the first clear day after May 5th.

The weeks passed quickly. I was already terrified of the job. Would I have enough equipment? Exterior painting requires a commercial pressure washer and an airless paint sprayer–each with enough hose to reach the upper stories. After many phone calls I decided to buy the pressure washer and rent the airless. I had already burned through half of my initial draw and I had not even bought the paint. I knew I did not have nearly enough ladders, but there was no money left to buy more. I began building ladders from scratch in my mother’s driveway.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend and I were evicted from our trailer. As May 5th approached we were staying in my mother’s garage in Kalispell–almost 300 miles from the job site. I had not figured any hotel budget in my estimate. I realized we would need to camp out of the truck for the duration of the job. We were experienced backpackers, so we were used to living rough. I was still only figuring four days for the job: one for prep and carpentry, two for painting, one for cleanup. Four days in a campground did not sound like much of a hardship.

As the sun set on May 4th we loaded my old work truck and rolled out into the reddening light. I had no employees yet, so I brought my unemployed girlfriend along to be my helper.
There is a special expectant feeling about driving through the night to a new job. It feels as if nothing exists in the world except a ton and a half of truck and tools flying through a tunnel of light to its inevitable goal. I have encountered the feeling many times since. On that night, however, it was new and especially strong.

Problems began almost as soon as we unloaded. The first step in painting a house is to blast off the dirt and loose paint with pressurized water, which dampens and swells the underlying boards. Then as they dry they shrink again, loosening the remaining paint. Unfortunately, my new commercial pressure washer was twice as powerful as any I had used before. When sprayed directly at siding, it was as likely to cut completely through the wood as to strip the paint. No matter how hard I tried, most of the sun-rotten plastic window screens were also blown to shreds. The temperature that morning was still less than 50ーF. By the time

I finished spraying the house I was soaked. I shivered uncontrollably as I surveyed the broken screens and cratered siding. I got in the truck and cranked up the heater while I drove to the hardware store.

It was after lunch on my first day before I had re-screened all of the windows and patched the siding with putty. My assistant was making slow progress indeed scraping and sanding. Professional house painters know tricks that she had not learned in veterinary school. By dusk the paint prep was less than a third done. I had not even begun to repair the rotten siding on the south side of the house.

As the sun crested the mountains on the second day I prepared to start the woodworking portion of the job. When the house had been built it had been clad with a type of fiberboard siding that was textured to look like boards. To save money the builder had omitted window trim on the back of the house. In the harsh northwestern winters, water had soon seeped in around the windows to rot the siding. It had become so soft that I could force a screwdriver completely through it with one hand.

I set out for the local lumberyard to find suitable replacement siding. It did not take long to discover that the product in question was no longer available. In fact, it had been recalled nearly five years previously. Nothing of similar appearance was available in town in my price range. I was sure I was seeing the last of my profit vanish.

There is, however, one thing that looks quite a bit like mock-board siding: real boards. I was in the middle of timber country and could get pine boards cheap. There were problems, however. Real 1×6 boards are both wider and thicker than their fake equivalent. They come from the mill with a smooth planed finish that looks very different from the “rustic” look on my siding. Still, it seemed like my best option. I bought a truckload of boards.
Ripping the the boards to width was easy with my power saw.

Resawing them to the appropriate thickness was much harder. The only saw on my truck that could penetrate the entire width of the boards was my old handsaw. It took two more twelve-hour days to saw the rest of the boards. The resulting surface was very uneven and had to be dressed with a hand plane.

Even after dressing my boards the the right dimensions, I had to figure out how to match the texture of the original siding. Luckily, I had learned from my earlier mishap with the pressure washer. A few blasts with the medium nozzle stripped away the softer parts of the wood, leaving as rustic a surface as one could desire. Before they were even dry, I had most of the new boards nailed up. By the end of the fourth day (when the job should have been done according to my original schedule) I had siding and window trim installed Most of the scraping and caulking was done. We were mentally and physically exhausted. We had yet to spray a drop of paint.

On the morning of day five I sent my girlfriend to pick up the paint and masking supplies while I finished the prep work. I had just finished when she arrived with tears in her eyes.

“What happened?”

“You know how the tailgate doesn’t always shut? It opened up on the road and dumped most of the paint. I didn’t know what to do so I just drove away.”

This was serious. Our initial draw was gone. What cash we had was barely enough to cover food and campground fees for the next few days. We needed money to buy paint or we could not finish the job.

At least we had plenty of tape and paper to mask off the house. Most of the primer had also been spared because it was farther from the tailgate. We went back to work. At lunch time we picked up the sprayer and began spraying the first coat of primer.
A couple hours later another client called. She had several damaged fences on her ranch that she needed fixed immediately. We could also make some money by mucking her stables. The amount would be enough to buy more paint and feed us for a few days. Working on the ranch meant leaving the job site. Luckily, the next day was Saturday. Residential contractors normally work at least six days a week, but my clients raised no objections when I told them we were taking the weekend off. They didn’t look worried yet about the job.

By Sunday afternoon we were tired and stank of manure. Then again, we had cash in our pockets. As we drove back to camp, the truck’s engine coughed and burst into flames. Somehow we managed to extinguish the fire and push the truck into a parking lot. Water got into the carburetor, so I had to take it apart and dry it by hand before the truck would move again. The truck died several more times on the way back to the campground but never again ignited.

We set off on foot the next day to finish our painting job. The campground was only about five miles from the job site. I borrowed a car from an old buddy to pick up the paint.
Compared to the previous tribulations, the actual painting went beautifully. By Wednesday afternoon my clients had the best looking house on their block. Neighbors asked me for my card. When I opened the envelope with my final payment, I found a $500 tip.

My first “big” job was done. It took more than twice the allotted time and far more money than I had expected. Even so, I came out of it with a new pressure washer and a small net profit. It was a success.

The day we left town I ran into some of my former classmates. They were on their way back from their own graduation ceremony. We chatted for a bit and I realized I did not envy them at all. Despite all of the stress, uncertainty and discomfort, I realized I had found the right life for me.

These days I work for another contractor. I manage commercial construction jobs for him that can cost more than a million dollars and employ dozens of skilled tradesmen. Every few months I get another “big job”. Each one has emergencies, tragedies, and moments when I do not think I can bring it in. When things get really bad, though, I think back to a certain house in Idaho and smile to myself.