Saturday, March 29, 2014

OnStage Community Theater This Weekend, March 29-30

Our OnStage community theater group debuts a new show tonight and tomorrow afternoon at Passage Theatre in Trenton. After not paying too much attention to theater for most of my life, I joined this group two years ago, and have found the process of taking on another character to be revelatory. Our director, Adam Immerwahr of McCarter Theater, is first rate.

Drawn from interviews with area residents, “Live With That” examines decisions that have shaped and reshaped lives–everything from starting college at age 40, to moving a parent into a nursing home, to dealing with a daughter’s less-than-ideal high school date.

Tickets purchased online or at the door are $15. Purchase your tickets AT THIS LINK.

Passage Theatre is just off Route 1. Take the Market Street exit to the right, turn right on Stockton, then left at the light on Front Street. The Theatre's a block or two down on the left. Patrolled on-street parking is available on S. Montgomery St, Front Street along the park, and in the Artworks parking lot.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Great Ideas in Sustainability Breakfast This Thursday

This looks like a great event:

Innovative Energy Solutions
Thursday, March 27, 8:30 am
Princeton Public Library
Please join NRG and local entrepreneurs to explore the clean tech journey – from the first seeds of innovation to development of full-scale enterprises in the energy sector:
  • Moderated by NRG COO Mauricio Gutierrez
  • Local Entrepreneur Presenters include
    • Kyle Teamey CEO and co-founder of Liquid Light, a technology that converts CO2 waste to revenue. Kyle developed and incubated the company while an Entrepreneur in Residence at Redpoint Ventures. He has extensive experience in renewable energy and clean technology investments.
    • Eden Full –  inventor of the SunSaluter, a low-cost mechanism that optimizes solar panels while providing clean water for rural, off-grid communities in nine countries. Named one of the 30 under 30 in Forbes’ Energy category three years in a row (2012-2014) and Ashoka’s Youth Social Entrepreneur of the Year (2012), Eden is a junior in Mechanical Engineering at Princeton University.
    • Nathan Haley, co-founder of the Comet project, which seeks to create the world’s first cruiser-style production electric motorcycle. Nathan is a student in the Department of Economics at Princeton University.
We hope you will be inspired and amazed by the hopeful inventions being developed here in Princeton.
Share your interests while enjoying a free, sustainable breakfast provided by a local eatery.
Sponsored by Sustainable Princeton and Princeton Public Library

Monday, March 24, 2014

Weather to Bother and Bewilder

(sung to the melody of Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, by Rodgers and Hart)

It's cold again,
Late March! Again!
There's even a forecast of snow again,
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I.

Got some sleep
Cold's good for sleep
The cold that won't let winter fall asleep,
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I.

Tell me that climate's cooling.
That's the least they could do.
Now I hear that it's weirding
Because of what we do.

A pill it is.
This chill it is.
The jet stream gets drunken until it is
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered
Like me.

Some background:
(The "drunken jet stream" is a description of the more exaggerated, less predictable behavior of the jet stream that used to do better at keeping arctic air in the arctic. As I understand it, the jet stream--the powerful winds that blow west to east above the U.S.--is driven by the difference in temperature between polar and more equatorial air masses. It has become weaker as the arctic heats up faster than the rest of the planet. As it weakens and slows, the jet stream meanders more, allowing arctic air to bulge down into the mainland U.S. and remain for longer periods. It's a bit like a very, very large hernia.

If the arctic air is down here, that means it's not somewhere else. As an example of how this drunken jet stream is turning temperatures upside down, the high temperature today in Princeton, NJ and in Anchorage, Alaska, is similar, even though Anchorage would normally be fifteen degrees cooler than NJ this time of year, according to tables at )

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Garbage Disposal Mysteries Solved

And now for another episode of  "Don't try this at home" Home Repair. Some months ago--we will not say exactly how many--the garbage disposal under the sink stopped working. Some, faced with a non-functioning garbage disposal, would yield to an impulse to replace it. The resident repairman chose instead to pursue what some might interpret, and probably did interpret, as an inexplicably extended period of procrastination. During this time, we (first person singular form of "we") were forced to resort to periodically giving the disposal a quick manual turn from below whenever the water started backing up in the sink, replicating in the kitchen sink a level of functionality comparable to the way the U.S. Congress has been run for many years now. For the sink, if not for Congress, this approach worked unexpectedly well, feeding the procrastination. It helped that most food scraps end up in the compost bucket rather than the sink.

A generous reading of the resident repairman's inaction would be that he was allowing the garbage disposal an opportunity to repair itself, as had occurred with some appliances in the past. He found validation for this approach when the disposal did in fact begin to work again, about a month ago, though this repaired state regrettably lasted for only a few minutes.

We may never know what finally prompted him to tackle this lingering kitchen sink enigma. Why one day and not all the others? Perhaps he was able to take a deep breath somewhere in his psyche, unlocking a previously untapped confidence that the known unknowns might not be as unknown as he had long assumed them to be.

He seized the day, or at least a moment when his daughter was in the kitchen and could call to him when he had turned the relevant circuit off down in the basement. It was also an opportunity to explain to her that the house has many different circuits, each servicing different plugs and sockets. This bit of real world education just wouldn't have happened if we had called an electrician in.

With power off, and after removing the protective plate and doing some investigation of the wiring behind the switches, involving various teasings and proddings, each of which required trips to the basement to turn the circuit on to test the result, then off again to try something else, it became clear that a wire coming from the relevant switch was loose, and that all that was needed was a larger wire connector to keep an unusually thick cluster of wires tightly clasped.

Such an oversized part, he learned by trial and error, could only be found by journeying to the deepest canyons of Big Box Retailand, several miles south. Coordinating errands so as to burn a minimum of gas and time, he found the part, installed it along with a gleaming new switch plate, and felt at last that sense of pride in achievement.

Time allotted: X months of contemplation followed by 1.5 hours of action.
Level of difficulty: Hard to fathom, but ultimately easier than expected.
Savings: Face, along with whatever a new garbage disposal might have cost.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Climate and a Deepening Contradiction in our Lives

(An early February letter to the editor)
If the planet is warming, then why have we been the ambivalent recipients of recurrent snowstorms and the coldest January in ten years? A brief tour of the globe via internet reveals just how much of a bubble we’ve been living in here in Princeton. While we had the 8th snowiest January in 120 years of record keeping, California has been suffering through a record breaking drought. Alaska has been unusually warm. Intense use of air conditioners during a 100 degree December heatwave in Buenos Aires, Argentina led to extended power outages, which in turn led to demonstrations. Australia, too, is suffering yet another extreme heat wave.

Our unusually cold winter was brought to us in part by the warming arctic’s apparent impact on the jet stream, whose increasingly erratic behavior allowed a bulge of arctic air to settle for a prolonged period in the eastern U.S. This bit of global weirding allowed for four days of skating on Lake Carnegie. Very pleasant, but the planet continues to warm overall.

Ironically, the increasingly erratic weather in NJ and throughout the world is being caused by the very fossil fuels that deliver consistency to our daily lives. We depend on them for clearing our streets, keeping our homes comfortable and delivering us to work each day. And yet the impact of that stability is a destabilization of weather and sea levels that will only grow more radical with time.

As well-meaning, generous people, we should not stand for this deepening contradiction that continually forces us to choose between present and future, and demand of ourselves and our leaders, in Princeton and beyond, a steady and expedited squeezing of these star-crossed fuels out of our lives.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Cleaning Up Princeton's Streets--Some Lessons Learned

If you care about clean streets, now is the time to be trying to change policy. In spring, summer and fall, when yardwaste, leaves and brush, and even grass clippings (supposedly illegal), are being cast out loose upon the streets without concern for pickup dates or ordinance requirements, it's too late. Now, too, is when we usually forget all about what happens in summer and fall. Thus, nothing ever changes.

This year, amazingly, some residents fed up with the perpetual mess are seizing the moment, carpe diem-like, and calling for a new policy that will make our streets a source of pride, rather than a dumping ground. Below are some insights I've gained after years of fighting this battle for change:

  • Education without ordinance enforcement has not been effective in the past: In my experience, and as the main author of Princeton's pamphlet detailing the problems with and solutions for dumping leaves and yardwaste in the street, a focus on education has unfortunately not worked. We had an initiative to give away free leaf corrals, we've distributed the pamphlets, yet more organics get dumped now than ever before. Why is this? Because our education efforts are competing with the most powerful message being sent--that when it comes to dumping organics in the street, anything goes. A focus on education places the burden on those who care (preparation of pamphlets, distribution of leaf corrals, etc), and asks nothing of those who don't care. An ordinance that is well constructed and consistently enforced is the best education. 
  • People do what they see their neighbors doing. Because backyard composting--the best means of keeping streets clean--cannot be seen by neighbors, there is no means of spreading the practice through imitation. By contrast, dumping of yardwaste, leaves and brush on the street is a highly visible statement, which is then imitated by neighbors thinking that it's the right thing to do. More people are joining Princeton's program for collecting foodwaste in part because of its strong visual (the green rollout bin on the curb). Backyard composters need a similar icon to put in their front yards, as evidence of how they use composting to help keep Princeton's streets clean. I had at first thought it could be a small sign saying "Another Clean-Streets Backyard Composter", but a small icon-like object might be better. It could be pyramid-shaped, maybe 6" high, with the words "clean, streets, backyard, compost" on the four faces, and the point flattened to accommodate an "=" sign, as in "backyard composting = clean streets". The town could have a design contest, with a prize going to the winner.
  • Take advantage of improved communication. Emailed reminders of when collections will take place, particularly when combined with some enforcement of the regulations, would greatly reduce dumping of yardwaste on the street weeks before the next scheduled pickup. The town sends out emails any time the website is updated, but there doesn't appear to be a list specifically for collections.
  • Take a comprehensive approach. Particularly because a promise was reportedly made that no services would be cut as a part of consolidation, resistance to changing the existing organics collection will be reduced if the changes are part of a larger rethinking of services that includes additions to balance any changes perceived as reductions.
  • Highlight lower visibility services. Leaf/brush/yardwaste collection is one of the highest visibility services provided by the municipality. In a town where property taxes are high and many people are unaware that town taxes are a small percentage of the total, it is very hard to cut back on what is essentially an unlimited freedom to dump organics in the street. If streamlining collections would provide significant savings or allow other less visible services to improve, that would be a useful argument for changing the status quo.
  • There's a need to fully document costs of the current approach. If we don't know how much the status quo is costing, we can't calculate how much could be saved using a different approach. Responding to a request from the Princeton Environmental Commission, the town recently reported that $640,000 was spent on staff time for organics collection in 2013. But other big ticket items have not been given a dollar figure as yet. Important expenses to measure are composting costs (2006-7 borough data showed that sale of compost did not fully cover the costs of the composting operation), plus fuel (both for collection and composting--fuel consumption at the composting center is huge, according to past borough data), plus all the equipment costs (e.g. parts, maintenance, replacement). Since there is a large variation year to year in expense, depending on what storms come through, data from more than one year will be needed in order to have good numbers to work with. 
  • Beware of a quick dismissing of ideas. For good policy to emerge, there needs to be an information gathering stage, during which people keep their minds open as to which policy is best. I'm always surprised how quick people are to dismiss ideas. We owe it to ourselves to explore all ideas without summarily dismissing any one of them. Having an open mind also means coming into a discussion being ready to be wrong. Ideas should be stripped of ego and bias, and considered for their own sake, regardless of their source. Those with scientific training often have an advantage here, both in having practiced keeping an open mind until adequate data is collected, and in developing radar for questionable assertions. One quick way to kill an idea is to highball its likely cost. I've seen this tactic used repeatedly over the years.
  • Reflexive dismissal of the rollout bin option: I've heard the idea of using rollout bins as part of an overall collection program dismissed, and yet they are a popular option with other towns and cities. The private haulers of trash and recyclables, for whom profit and efficiency is particularly important, have largely switched to rollout bins. Lawrenceville reportedly saved $100,000 the first year by switching to rollout bins for trash collection and going from twice weekly to once weekly pickup. Judgements need to be made after collecting sufficient evidence, not before. 
  • Plastic vs. combustion: Environmentalists often passionately object to plastic. Plastic is visible, while carbon dioxide emerging from an exhaust pipe is not. One argument given against using rollout bins to containerize yardwaste is that they represent a large investment in plastic. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, but as a friend in the EPA pointed out to me, plastic is sequestered carbon. If a collection program is made more efficient by utilizing plastic containers, that means less burning of fuel, which means less carbon escaping into the atmosphere over time. 
  • Resistance to change is short term, benefits are long term. Changing policy will inevitably lead to some angry phone calls that town staff are understandably not savoring the prospect of dealing with. However, there are examples of towns that have shown the courage and foresight to change their policies and weather the controversy, for the sake of long term fiscal and environmental improvement. Resistance to change can be strong at first, but it fades as people adapt to a new system. 
  • Exploring connection between leaf collection and tree planting: Since trees produce leaves, people's views about leaves and leaf collection can influence how they feel about planting trees to shade the street and their property. This suggests that both the shade tree commission and the environmental commission need to take an interest in leaf collection policy.