Thursday, December 05, 2019

An Interview from the Future

Today we are talking with Jheri Nyongo, who recently completed their 20th year in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Jheri was the architect of the Every Home a Garden initiative and rose from installer to executive director of the northeast region.

Anna: Jheri, thank you for coming today.

Jheri: Thanks, Anna, I'm glad to be here.

A: Tell us about your first year in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

J: We started with a mandate to install solar panels. At that time, I was going wherever they sent me. We were climbing on roofs and fitting panels and explaining about choosing exposures. About six months in, I'd heard several homeowners complaining about the electric utility of the time. The company kept delaying on connecting the panel systems to the electric grid. So I talked to the team, and we went to talk to the utility board. Turns out, they were worried about live wires from the panels. That's when the team decided we needed to work on the electric grid, too.

A: I spoke to your coworker Gordo Finnegan, and he said you were the leader on that.

J: If he says so. It took a team.

A: Did you like the electrical work?

J: It was interesting. We had a new set of safety procedures to worry about. I studied up on power lines and transformers and all that.

A: Eventually receiving a doctor's degree in electrical engineering.

J: Yes, that. I had some useful problems to work into my dissertation, so the work and the studies helped each other. We were dividing the grid into little sections. When everything went well, power would pass between them. When one section had a problem, it would isolate. The grid had to be smart, to handle all those power plants on roofs, which is what our solar panels were.

A: How long did you work on making the grid smarter?

J: That was my main concern for the next eight or nine years. Other teams took it up, worked in other areas. We traded what we learned between regions and made good progress.

A: Did anyone oppose the work?

J: (chuckles) There were some. One man I won't dignify by naming spent a year following us around with signs claiming that our smart connection points were the devil's surveillance plan. He had a few folks worked with him for a while. I kept my head down and worked and that blew over. We had some funding fights, too. Our first budget came in with the Green New Deal, and was up for reconsideration two years later. We saw some stink in congress. But by then, we'd given a lot of folks free solar panels, and more people wanted them. So the budget held. Most of that happened above my pay grade.

A: Why did you stop working on the grid?

J: We were mostly done by then. There were remote areas that still needed work. We'd sorted out the fun questions. I started looking around for the next problem.

A: Was that insulation?

J: No, another branch of the CCC began work on insulation while our team was working on the grid. The two approaches helped each other – insulation lowered energy use, which made the grid work better, and the better grid made areas that needed help pop right out. Insulation, appliances, light bulbs – the home team had all of that under control. So I started looking for another area we could work on.

A: What were some of the options you considered?

J: The CCC's first tagline had been "Solar panels for every home" with a little asterisk to cover those cases where they'd never pay off. As we finished up with that, and expanded into improving the grid and making homes more efficient, we needed a new line. The public relations team tried a few that no one liked. Finally, we had a big conference. Those who couldn't fly to Cincinnati joined by video call. Everyone put their thoughts in the big bucket of ideas. It took a week. Finally, we came up with the line we still use now.

A: It broadened your aim quite a bit.

J: At that point, anything that would reduce carbon, reduce other greenhouse gases, make any product or service use less energy or create less waste became fair game. I had a lot to think about. I considered home battery systems, universal broadband, transportation. I wanted to work outside, and I saw that we hadn't made much progress on lowering methane from garbage collection. What would encourage people to keep food waste out of their garbage? If they could compost it and use the compost at home. Plus, gardening calms a place. So we came up with Every Home a Garden.

A: Lots of people have had gardens. How was this different?

J: We wanted everyone to have a garden. Didn't matter if you lived on the eighth floor, or couldn't walk. We were looking at gardens that could be part of your roof, your walls, gardens for people who had no yard or no sunlight.

A: Wouldn't that raise electricity use?

J: It was a whole new set of problems to solve. Sometimes, we did need some artificial light. We worked to make that as efficient as possible. Lots of times we could choose the right plants or bring sunlight through pipes. We had some misfires where the compost was chasing people out of their homes before we found a few good systems for that, too.

A: How many homes have you reached?

J: We estimate about 30%. That's enough that we've found solutions for most home types.

A: Does that mean you are looking for your next interesting problem?

J: (chuckles) I'm not ready to talk about that.

A: Can you tell us anything about what you plan to do next?

J: I expect I can do good work for the CCC for another decade or more. We've taken care of some of the big areas of waste, and we can keep finding ways to do better.

A: Thanks very much for your time, Jheri. And thanks for your service.

J: It was a pleasure talking to you.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Finding Our Part

The world is in crisis. The climate crisis is really just one part of it. We are reaching a place where the joint action of billions of humans can have huge, horrible consequences even if those actions, undertaken by a single human, wouldn't do any noticeable harm.

We've dealt with some similar problems before. We created treaties to cut CFCs when they were damaging the ozone layer and reduced the impact of acid rain. Earlier, we learned sewer systems when having people in a city toss their waste into the street wasn't working. We have found some techniques for managing hunting and fishing rights, although fisheries need more help. We developed property to help avoid the tragedy of the commons. There are strong social norms to control excess noise and public nakedness and other activities that benefit you but annoy your neighbors. So we have successfully dealt with some conflicts of private versus public interest.

The climate crisis impacts the entire world. Also, it is often a conflict of groups versus the globe instead of an individual versus their neighbors. This larger scale may be part of why we are finding it intractable.

The groups who are benefiting from emitting carbon that harms the entire world are large and powerful. We have types of power now that were unimaginable even two centuries ago. Monarchs might control the output of an entire country – but they couldn't launch global advertising campaigns or cross the world in a day or field the labor-hours or security forces of modern multinational corporations and nations – there weren't that many people yet! Nor was there the sheer economic leverage we have now.

And we have been using fossils fuels to create a lot of that technological and economic power. Many of us are invested in it – literally, because we have shares of oil and coal companies, figuratively, because we enjoy the freedom of our cars and the warmth of our furnaces, and systematically, because we have learned to live in a way deeply interdependent with many others who are also using fossil fuels. Our lights come on from fossil fuel power plants. Our stores hold food grown with them, plastics made from them, everything transported with them. When we go to rally against climate change, we still may have no choice but to burn them to arrive. Our customers and neighbors use them, take their livelihoods from them, need them to live. Suppose all fossil fuel companies stopped paying their employees immediately. The resulting slowdown in the economy would match the Great Recession, with blackouts, and might rise to the level of the Great Depression.

Humans are scared of change and they are scared to lose income, which is how we survive within civilization. It's no wonder that many resist taking on the climate crisis.

So what can we do?

Start disentangling ourselves as we can, how we can.

Individual action may be your part: reducing fuel burned, divesting from fossil fuels, making your home more energy efficient, purchasing renewable energy and installing solar or wind power, and so on.

Or, your part might be joint action: money or time given to organizations fighting climate change, speaking out, voting and organizing for climate candidates and measures. You could be creating systems and products that disentangle us, and working with your neighbors to help them join the efforts.

I have more in my book Carbon Reset, which I give away here:

One of my parts is to imagine how the zero carbon future could be more satisfying than our present.

What matters most is that you find your part and keep taking the steps. As James Clear recently said, "Rome wasn't built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour."

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Dispatches from the Green Future

"I was there, at the last miner's march. When they said they were going to close all the mines, we decided to stand together. First, we picketed the mines. Then, word came around that we would walk to Richmond. I had nothing to lose. I took a roll and a pack and we walked along the highways. Ten thousand, twenty thousand men, coming by twenty or fifty to fill the grass in front of the capital. We were there two nights before the president came, told us the mines would close and we would all have jobs. Didn't believe it. Some social workers lined us up and took our names. They even wrote us checks. Thought it was just cheaper than arresting us, but I took my check back home so I could pay rent and buy some groceries." Ronald Black shakes his head. "Thought that was the end. But a couple weeks later, here come more social workers, with another check. I go up now instead of down." He gazes at the towering windmill behind him. "Pay's good, kids are fed, that little cough I had, just in the evenings, it's gone now. It's not what my father did, but it'll do."

Maria Estancia Lopez walks along the acequia at the edge of her small farm. "We have good water this year. My father thought the water was gone. At the end of the twentieth century, and into this one, every year we had less. My brothers and sisters moved to Albuquerque, except Adam, who moved to Taos to paint. When it started to cool again, more snow fell in the Rockies, and it filled the Rio Grande, melting in the spring and flowing out of Colorado. I am planting corn and chiles like my grandfather did, some melons. The soil is hard, because for twenty years it baked and we had no water. Bit by bit, I am bringing it back."

Fred Ma waves at the busy bike lane in front of him. "This is the part I'm proudest of. All our city planning was paying off. We had offices near apartments so people could walk. We had the buses running every five minutes, and they were full. Any time you needed to move something heavy or travel in a group, you could get an electric cargo car in ten minutes. So these four lane roads – we just didn't need them any more. Owning a car – not too many people wanted the hassle, the expense, the smell. Really, two lanes was plenty for the traffic. So we give full lanes each way to bicycles, wide as the lanes for cars. The problem was, how do buses reach the curb without interfering with all those bikes? Well, wrong question. We set up islands for pedestrians, raised the crosswalks like they do in Amsterdam, and the buses pick people up from the center now. Easy peasy."

Monday, November 25, 2019

Kaleidocycle Diagram

I have worked back and forth from the pictures and made this diagram. Very important: This layout applies when you roll the jellyfish into tetrahedra in the same direction I used.

No doubt a graphic artist could make this much more attractive! It captures the basic information I need to place the triangles so as to assemble them into pictures. For colors and movement, see the previous post.

Here is an interesting pattern. Each triangle has one vertical edge. The two points on that edge are the two that will be central in the two faces made of those triangles that the kaleidocycle can display. Imagine that all the triangles in the first column have the number one on them, and that all the triangles in the second column have the number two on them. Then the lower points will be central when 2 follows 1 in a clockwise direction, and the upper points will be central when 2 follows 1 in a counterclockwise direction.

There! More fun with geometry.

Saturday, November 23, 2019


I completed my second kaleidocycle last night, and that exclamation point is very well justified, because I have been bouncing happily ever since.

What is a kaleidocycle, you ask? The short, denotative answer is: a turning toy composed of six or more tetrahedra. Much better: A kaleidocycle is a bundle of joyful awesomesauce rotating colorful patterns.

Pictures and movies will help. Words are my main mode, and this was a clear case for visuals. So I documented the process. I was interested in how to place a triangle exactly where I wanted it on the final form. Now I have a model and a procedure so I can make pictures on my next kaleidocycle (already in process).

This kaleidocycle started with 24 triangles. Here I have completed the triangles and am preparing for the next step:

Next, I assembled the triangles into jellyfish nets, or jellyfish for short. A kaleidocycle need not be made of beads – the form exists regardless of the materials. However, creating one from beads is amazing! I learned to make kaleidocycles from Kate McKinnon and her Contemporary Geometric Beadwork project. She has a YouTube channel, and here's a great video to start on kaleidocycles: CGB also has a bead diagram guide to kaleidocycles here: Betsy Ramsey of designed the color palette, Macaw Monday. This is a teaching kaleidocycle – I added counting beads to make each triangle distinct – so a bright, primary palette matched my purpose.

It matters which side of the triangle is up and how the triangle is rotated.

It also matters which way you roll the jellyfish. On my first kaleidocycle, I rolled one half-jellyfish a different way from the others and had to separate it and try again. It's good to stop and check alignment before closing the edges of each tetrahedron. 

And complete! 

Here are pictures of the jellyfish and the faces of the kaleidocycle they became. I made this kaleidocycle to have this map! On my next kaleidocycle, there will be two faces that have pictures spread across their six triangles.

That was fun! And now I have a kaleidocycle!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Thought Experiment

Earth can absorb a defined amount of carbon every year. What if everyone on Earth had equity in that carbon? Each person could use their share or sell their share. If someone wanted to use more than their share, they would have to find someone willing to sell their carbon equity. Let's dream a few lives.

Letsha lives in Lesotho in a traditional one-room hut. When people first approached to buy her unused carbon equity, she couldn't believe it. It took several weeks for the strange foreigners to show their good faith. Now she shows visitors the solar panel that lets her charge her phone and do a little reading at night. She has a new stove, too, that takes less wood to cook. She and her neighbors record and share traditional songs and download new ones to sing together.

"Always I have been part of the earth, and now other people see it. My heart is full," she says. Besides the improvements to her home, she has sent her daughter and her son to school.

Carl and Livia have a large house in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. As we watches a team installing solar panels on his roof, Carl grumbles, "The carbon payments are killing me. It's actually cheaper to put up these panels than to keep buying credit." Livia chimes in, "They are very ugly, but it's just good sense. At least we aren't the only house in the neighborhood with them." In fact, almost half the homes have added panels since the equity plan went in, and another team is working to install more down the block.

Magali and Guiseppe run a small family vineyard in southern France. "The equity payment, bien sûr, it was expensive to start. Year by year, we make improvements. Now is not so bad." They have added a windmill on the slope above the vines. Parts of the home date to the 1500s, so the walls are thick and naturally insulated. They replaced the oil furnace with a heat pump and have revived traditional methods of crushing the grapes and returning the pressings to the soil. "A little slower and our neighbors help. And the wine, you taste the feet in it. Is so rich." They offer you a glass, and sit with you to watch the shadows of the vines lengthen. You have a delicious and abundant evening.

I believe we are all in this together and that we can live well on a neutral carbon budget.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Why Don't I Eat More Vegan Food?

I talked a few posts back about the reasons I'd like to eat more vegan food: health, environment, flavor, adventure. When I wrote about systems for eating, that implied that one reason I wasn't eating more vegan food is that I didn't have a vegan cooking system.

I'm still mulling and brainstorming on that.

Meanwhile, let's look at some of the other reasons I don't eat all vegan meals for clues to eating more of them.

Some reasons are other facets of needing a system: inconvenience, lack of knowledge, old habits. If I had a system, it would include making some vegan meals easily, knowing their recipes by heart, and having the habit of including vegan meals on a regular basis.

Then there are health concerns. Doug, my husband, is diabetic. I like to cook food that helps him regulate his blood sugar. Our best results so far have been with a low-glycemic diet that tightly limits grains, potatoes, and other starchy vegetables. This makes a lot of vegan recipes problematic. When I read vegan recipes for rice bowls, polenta dishes, pasta, stuffed potatoes and shepherd's pies, or even sandwiches, they frequently look far too glycemic to serve to him. Our experiments have seen him doing well with spaghetti squash or broccoli as a pasta substitute. Small amounts of homemade, whole-grain bread also seem fine for him.

We are accustomed to generous quantities of protein, and "not enough protein" can be a concern with vegetarian or vegan diets. Although we are in no danger of kwashiorkor, we feel better with protein in our meals. How much of that is biologically optimal and how much of it is custom and changeable, I don't know. We made a large batch of lobia (with olive oil rather than ghee) from Urvashi Pitre, and ate it lunch and dinner for several days, along with our usual vegan breakfasts. After the last meal, I said, "It doesn't feel like we've been eating vegan." Aha! A clue. This is a fairly high protein vegan dish, with both the black-eyed peas and spinach contributing. So it's possible that the feeling of eating vegan comes from getting less protein than I am used to, and if so, keeping the protein up could help vegan food feel more sustaining. Our experiments around Doug's blood sugar led us to meals with about 30% calories from protein in them for him. Vegan meals run lower than that on average. It's easy to include enough protein to avoid protein deficiency. There is not yet a consensus on how much protein an optimal diet includes, and there is some evidence that the optimal diet varies widely from person to person. So we might be able to adapt our diet to run higher in protein, like the lobia recipe does, or we might be able to adapt to less protein, as some very healthy traditional diets contain.

Another reason is comfort: eating the food I grew up with feels supportive. If I feel ill or stressed, I often crave my childhood favorites. I've made some progress on leaving the ground beef and cheese out of the burritos from our family table. I gave up cheese with few pangs when I stopped digesting milk well. We spent some years mixing half TVP into our taco meat, and trying ground chicken, pork, or turkey instead of beef, and it tastes better to us now that way. The burrito recipe always contained refried beans, and the vegan ones taste better to me. On the last version, I tried adding corn kernels and sunflower seeds to the refried bean filling to round out the protein and add some fat to satisfy my expectations for a burrito. With plenty of seasoning and salsa, I found that comforting. Adding avocado makes any burrito more appealing, too! Matching the protein and fat content I'm accustomed to may make vegan food more comforting as well as less glycemic.

Typing out these thoughts has given me some good ideas. I can see why people want paleo vegan recipes. Their high-protein emphasis might solve some problems for us.