Sunday, May 31, 2009

Segregated proms

A week ago, The New York Times published a slide show on one of the last bastions of open segregation in the US: prom night at a school in Georgia. I won't comment on the content there: see it for yourself.

But I will say that this example is yet another one that shows how privatization has been effectively used as a means of perpetuating segregation in the US since segregation became practically impossible by state means some 50 years ago. While Europe is full of public swimming pools, university libraries that are open to any member of the public (not only students), and all kinds of community sports facilities, in the US we find country clubs which restrict membership not based on race, but based on who you know, which is perfectly legal. If you want to join a country club, you generally have to be recommended by a few current members. If they happen to be privately racist and don't want to recommend a person of color, that is their prerogative under the law.

When outdoor public swimming pools open over here, everyone rushes out to them. I cannot imagine the kind of invective you can read here in the comments on this article announcing that public schools are opening in my hometown of New Orleans last summer. When segregated public facilities were ruled illegal some 50 years ago, southerners responded by railing against taxation and moving their hard-earned money to private facilities. You can still feel all of that two generations later in the insipid comments above. Imagine how poorly funded those swimming pools must be if they do not open until June. Swimming pools in Freiburg open in April, when temperatures are still freezing by the standards of New Orleans.

When I visited my alma mater, Tulane University, back in 2004, I was neither allowed access to the library (I wanted to check my bachelor's thesis), nor was I allowed to swim in the university pool. In Freiburg, I can check out a book from the university library anytime I want, though I am not sure about university sports facilities -- the facilities for the general public are closer and suffice, so I have never tried.

Anyway, hang in there, Georgia. With any luck, your grandchildren will have as much of a hard time imagining segregated proms as you have imagining segregated public schools.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Power from Africa

In a recent post, I mentioned a video about a German study on a future 100 percent renewable supply of electricity. One of the researchers mentioned in the comments to that video (though not in the video itself) is Gregor Czisch, who used to be a researcher at the University mentioned. I covered Mr Czisch in a German article a few months ago, and he was not happy about the coverage. Here is his response in German, if you can read that.

Essentially, he is proposing a gigantic grid to support large wind farms of the size that T. Boone Pickens would be interested in. These fields of wind turbines would be located in the best locations in Africa and would supply power to Europe and Africa. His proposal is that this wind power would be cheaper than the kind of distributed power many renewables proponents envision. Jobs would be created both in Northern Africa and in Europe, and the power from these intermittent wind sources in Northern Africa would complement water power in Switzerland and Scandinavia, for instance. Hydro dams could switch on in Europe when not enough wind is coming from Africa.

In principle, this approach is quite interesting. But as I explained in my German article, there are a number of problems. First, his figures for economic feasibility are based on the assumption that large companies will forgo their profit margins. These central wind farms are so big they could not possibly be set up by community projects. If we are to set up thousands of turbines in Morocco and Egypt and run high-voltage DC lines under the Mediterranean (forget about the tricky issue of whether "Arab electricity" is going to run through Israel or not), you are going to need not only consent from the King of Morocco, but also from Spain and Electricité de France. The project is perhaps best thought of as something for Sarkozy's Mediterranean project; it is even beyond the mandate of the EU.

Czisch often expresses his disappointment that German utility companies are not more interested in his project, but let's face it -- none of them have a branch office in Africa (to my knowledge). And these companies do not enjoy having a researcher calculate that their profit margin might be as high as 20 percent. I am not saying that Czisch's figures are not accurate, but just that it is politically inopportune for him to point the accusatory finger at the utilities his projects cannot do without.

Second, even assuming, as he does, that European governments could finance these projects with low-interest loans, allowing private companies to get a reasonable profit margin (say, 10%) on at least part of the deal, it is unclear that these sites will actually perform as well as some studies suggest. The Energy Ministry of Morocco told me personally in January when I visited them that they cannot confirm Czisch's statistics; they merely stated that "a German study has come to these conclusions, but the price of wind is currently twice as high." In addition, I understand that part of the site he is talking about in Egypt has been declared off-limits for wind because it is a major migratory path for birds.

Third, we should be asking ourselves whether we want to switch our current dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels for a future dependence on imports of renewable energy. I would certainly argue that power produced within political borders that we can influence is worth more than electricity different parts of the world outside our scope of influence. If Czisch can get me electricity from northern Africa for six cents per kilowatt-hour or less, I would be willing to pay 10 to get it from within the EU. I have nothing against northern Africa, and I have nothing against getting some of our electricity from them, but if the political situation ever worsens, leaders in northern Africa could threaten to cut off the supply of electricity to Europe. Do we want that? How does that differ from what is currently going on between the Ukraine and Russia concerning gas?

Fourth, I do not believe that Czisch sufficiently takes the current electricity situation in Northern Africa into account. At present, Europe is a net electricity exporter to Morocco, for instance. And while electricity consumption seems to be more or less stagnant at the moment in the EU (the current economic crisis makes it difficult to forecast), it has been growing by leaps and bounds in Morocco -- by some eight percent per annum, which means that consumption doubles every decade. In light of those figures, the question is whether Morocco will ever be able to export a significant amount of electricity, or whether most of it will be devoted to domestic consumption -- which is fine by me, but then you have to design the project as such, and not as primarily for export to Europe.

This blog entry is quite long already, so I will leave it at that -- maybe I will have time soon to come back to the particular comments that Czisch makes in German on his website.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Carbon from tea kettles

How much carbon do you emit per day? A ton per day or a ton per year? That's one of the problems I have with all of this talk about carbon -- few laypeople have any idea how much carbon they produce.

Everyone knows how much gasoline they put into their car how often, however, but nonetheless we seem to be switching to a system of carbon emissions. I suppose people got tired of hearing that they had to improve fuel consumption. Now, we get to deal with something more abstract -- something we cannot understand as well because we do not actually purchase carbon and do not actually see it when we produce it.

The problem with carbon emissions from cars is that we are essentially counting fuel consumption; carbon emissions go hand-in-hand with greater gasoline consumption. If we had a "carbon scrubber" that would remove carbon from the exhaust pipe (God only knows what would happen to it then -- would it be dropped off in little sugar-cube-size packets on the side of the road?), then we could truly say that we are reducing carbon without reducing fuel consumption, so it would make sense to count carbon emissions from cars rather than fuel economy. But there is no such thing as a carbon scrubber for cars, so counting carbon emissions instead of gas mileage makes no sense.

I am brought to this topic because of an article in Die Zeit about what the future will look like without economic growth. The article is really fantastic; I have never seen such a succinct synopsis of all of the imperatives for economic growth before, and the presentation allows the author to show the real challenges ahead of us if the age of economic growth is truly over. The author writes, listing the conventional wisdom he wishes to debunk, that we need economic growth because:

  1. Economic growth leads to prosperity and therefore greater happiness
  2. We need economic growth to create jobs (I love this sentence: "Einst war der Kapitalismus ein großer Wohlstandserzeuger, heute ist er, zumindest in den Industrieländern, eine große Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahme." [Capitalism was once a great generator of prosperity, but today, at least in industrialized nations, it is a major job creation program.])
  3. At the microeconomic level, companies themselves need to grow because they have borrowed capital at interest, and they cannot pay the interest without posting greater returns, which leads to number four:
  4. At the macroeconomic level, countries need to grow; they do so simply as a result of number three.
It is interesting to see how the concept of what the French have been calling "décroissance" for some two decades now and other Vanguard economists have called "de-growth" in English is now entering the foreground. As the article in Die Zeit shows, we desperately need economists who can come up with viable solutions that do without constant growth.

Now back to carbon: unfortunately, the Zeit author uses some pretty bizarre figures in illustrating his case (this is my translation, parts left out for brevity are marked with an ellipsis):

People have been working on solar cars for decades, and there is no indication that they will be able to replace gasoline cars.... The Internet already produces more carbon emissions than the entire airline industry.... A single query at a large search engine consumes as much energy as a 60-watt light bulb left on for an hour.

It is unfortunate that the author uses such weak arguments in an otherwise spectacular article. I consider myself a solar insider, and I can tell you that I have never met anyone who believes that solar cars are going to replace combustion engines ever. It's not because solar does not work, but because electricity cannot be stored as easily as gasoline, and you cannot recharge batteries as fast as you can refill your gas tank. So let's be fair: we are not going to have solar cars or nuclear cars anytime soon because electricity does not work as well for motive transport.

I then tried to figure out how much electricity that search query uses. I found this blog entry citing a number of sources from 2007, but the figures are much different there: an 11-watt lightbulb running for one hour -- less than a fifth of the figures cited above. That blog entry references another article in German, which actually debunks the idea that the Internet consumes more energy than the airline industry.

I'm not going to pretend to be able to calculate how much energy a Google search consumes, but I was able to calculate how much electricity we are talking about based on the figure from Die Zeit, which seems unrealistic once you do the math. First, I tried to find how many searches Google handles per day, and the figures on the web vary widely -- from "1,200 million" to 293 million; I'll use the latter figure because it is more recent (from March 2009) and probably more conservative (note the US flag as the favicon ;-)).

At 60 watt-hours per search, that would mean that Google searches consume 6416.7 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year -- roughly 12 times the electricity consumed in Germany in one year. In fact, that is even more electricity than is consumed in the United States. How feasible is it that Google searches consume that much electricity?

Incidentally, it is interesting to see how cultural factors play into these assessments: the British talk about two Google searches needing the same amount of carbon as a kettle of tea. Of course, not even that is accurate because all of these figures are based on our general electricity figures. If we switch to 100 percent renewables, those figures drop considerably. Petite Planète has been running on 100 percent renewable electricity since 2003.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Smart meter at iGoogle

Reuters reports that Google will be making a power consumption chart available as a part of a smart-metering campaign in the US. You then check your iGoogle page (you do have an iGoogle page, right?) to see when you consume how much power.

The solution seems quite simple and cheap. Similar pilot projects have already been conducted in Germany, with consumption charts shown elsewhere on the Web. And of course, Italy has had blanket smart metering for years, so we are all dragging our feet on this crucial future issue.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Can Germany go 100% renewable?

Critics of renewables say that renewables cannot provide 100% of our electricity because they are intermittent, i.e. the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow all the time. The result, they say, will be blackouts.

Germany has more wind and solar in its electricity than the US and far fewer blackout minutes, and now a video has been released in English about research at the University of Kassel (Germany) showing what a 100% renewable future may look like - by mid-century. See for yourself.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tuition or subsidy?

There are few areas in which Germans and Americans differ more than in the question of whether college should be free. Since I first arrived in Germany some 21 years ago, German students have repeatedly gone on strike. I remember them blocking my access to classrooms in Hamburg in 1988, and I was not happy because I was borrowing loans to get through college in the US and did not have a semester to wait on a one-year exchange program. When I came back as a graduate student in 1992, students in Freiburg were once again striking; in both cases, chairs were piled up at entrances, making it difficult to enter the building.

I then became a lecturer, and found myself dealing with the student strikes as a teacher, if memory serves me correctly, in 1994 and 1997. I once came to a class and found a group of students I did not know sitting on desks. They informed me that my English class would not be held that day, but we could talk about the strike if I wanted. I said that would be fine -- as long as we did so in English.

I then surprised all of my students by expressing all kinds of reasons why it does not make sense for universities to be free. If you read German, you can get some of this in an article I published a few years ago. Essentially, the way things work in Germany, universities -- where the prodigy of the upper class go -- are free, whereas all sorts of vocational schools, etc. are not, nor are simple daycare centers and kindergartens. The original idea was, of course, to attract students from lower classes, who might be discouraged by high tuition fees, but that did not happen. Most German students today are still the offspring of former German students. Free universities are a gift to the wealthy.

I seem to be very American in this opinion. I see that Mother Jones, a leftist publication, has just written the following: is valuable. It generally attracts people who already have a lot of advantages, and then provides them with a degree that enhances their earning power even more. Why should they be subsidized at all?

The MoJo writer cites that line of thinking as "compelling," but adds that tuition should include waivers for the poor.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

German libertarians go green (again)

At its party conference on May 17, the FDP, Germany's Libertarian party, gave up its opposition to the country's Renewable Energy Act (EEG). A majority of party members voted to discontinue opposition in light of the jobs created by this law. The original version of the law was adopted under a CDU/FDP coalition (Helmut Kohl was chancellor), but when the SPD/Green coalition under Schröder expanded the law in 1999, the FDP decided they no longer liked it. They have since been calling for a quota system, like the one in the UK that has stifled renewables. The German policy is the clear model worldwide.

Little info is available in English about the FDP's new stance, and the FDP itself does not seem eager to publicize its change of heart in German either. But the website of the party member who put the motion to a vote, Horst Meierhofer, proudly proclaims (in German):

Germany's Renewable Energy Act is based on the Feed-in Act, which Hans-Dietrich Genscher [the FDP’s highest ranking member at the time] helped design. Internationally, this system has set the standard.

I have never before read that Mr Genscher was a chief designer of the law, but whatever - we'll let them have their mention if they will finally be proud of it.

Since May 17, there has been no opposition to the EEG in the Bundestag. All other German parties always supported the EEG.

The FDP's about-face comes at an interesting time. Libertarians in Spain and Germany have been publishing some rather poorly researched attempts at proving that these policies do more harm than good. It is interesting to note, therefore, that German Libertarians have now said they disagree -- and admitted that the idea originally came from them.

The policy in question, commonly referred to as "feed-in rates," creates a market for a slew of technologies that need to be ramped up. It does not "pick winners," as the British Economist has complained -- that is what the British quota system (and the RPS in the US) does. Feed-in rates simply say that if a country wants to have renewables, utilities have to actually pay (people like you who invest in them) what they cost.

Germans usually think of the Democratic Party in the US as the American version of the SPD and the Republican Party as the CDU. I always say that the Democratic Party in the US is closest to Germany's FDP, and that the Republican Party in the US is also closest to Germany's FDP. The kind of anti-government rhetoric common in the two major US parties is really only consistently found in the FDP over here. The SPD and CDU both believe that the government has a crucial role to play in designing rules for the market, which they do not believe can be left up to itself. That is exactly what the EEG does: design a market, and leave the technology issues up to the market. It seems that German Libertarians are also closer to the Freiburg School of ordoliberalism than American libertarians are, even though the Cato Institute has a Hayek lecture hall. Wikipedia describes ordoliberalism as:

a school of liberalism that emphasises the need for the state to ensure that the free market produces results close to its theoretical potential.

So the state has to step in. That's German neoliberalism. Not even the most radical libertarian party in Germany will go further than that.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rumsfeld has been very busy

When my hometown of New Orleans went underwater in 2005, a lot of people -- myself included -- wondered in outrage that help did not come faster. A lot of people, myself included, held then-President Bush personally responsible. It turns out that he was pretty upset himself, and someone else was holding things up, as a recent report in GQ explains:

Bush convened a meeting in the Situation Room on Friday morning. According to several who were present, the president was agitated. Turning to the man seated at his immediate left, Bush barked, “Rumsfeld, what the hell is going on there? Are you watching what’s on television? Is that the United States of America or some Third World nation I’m watching? What the hell are you doing?

Thanks, George - my feelings exactly. Apparently, Rumsfeld was somewhat obsessively concerned about mandates in general and did not want anyone encroaching on areas that fell under his mandate.

I buy that argument. Over the past few years, Bush has made the impression of someone who knows he didn't get everything right and understands that his time is over. He has somewhat gracefully slid back into private life and accepted the end of his tenure (unlike Cheney). I can imagine that he was genuinely distressed by the situation in New Orleans.

In contrast, Donald Rumsfeld consistently pursued his agenda with little regard for anyone else. A few years ago, the BBC produced a fantastic documentary entitled "The Power of Nightmares," which can be viewed in full here. Rumsfeld is shown on a video back in the mid-1970s (skip roughly to minute 25:30), when President Richard Nixon was interested in detente with the Soviet bloc. Rumsfeld explains that even though US intelligence agents cannot find any evidence of the Soviet unions stockpiling its missiles even further,

The Soviet Union has been busy. They’ve been busy in terms of their level of effort; they’ve been busy in terms of the actual weapons they’ve been producing; they’ve been busy in terms of expanding production rates; they’ve been busy in terms of expanding their institutional capability to produce additional weapons at additional rates; they’ve been busy in terms of expanding their capability to increasingly improve the sophistication of those weapons.

In other words, if no missiles could be found in the Soviet Union, it wasn't because the USSR was not making them -- it was because they were simply too good at hiding them. (The CIA said Rumsfeld was full of it. History agrees.) The wording reminds one of Rumsfeld's famous "unknown knowns" speech some 25 years later. The same kind of paranoid thinking insisted only a few years ago that there must be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- because we couldn't find them.

Never to be countered by colleagues, when Rumsfeld was told that he personally needed to authorize National Guard troops to enter New Orleans, he responded by saying he didn't agree. The man simply did not like to be told what to do.

So George, I guess you're off the hook for leaving my people on bridges and overpasses for most of the week. And Rummy, I guess you're on the hook.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I will keep you, Suzy, busy

One of my favorite poems in English turns out to have been written by a Dutchman. Smelly fishy...

Friday, May 15, 2009


The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg apparently recently landed in New Zealand. This is how he described the experience:

It’s quite a contrast to the brutal fuck-you that greets foreigners arriving in the United States. Here, the lines are short and the officials polite; at J.F.K., arriving foreigners run a gauntlet of delays, ugliness, sullen contempt, and near chaos while being treated alternately as cattle or potential terrorists. Here the baggage carts are free; at J.F.K. you have to pay for them. Here, a welcome stand offers free tea and coffee; at J.F.K., the shakedowns begin almost as soon as you hit the ground.

I agree with him except for one thing: I don't think that Americans are really treated that much better when entering our own country. Since the 1980s, I have felt much more comfortable entering Europe as an American than entering the US as an American. The Europeans have never gone through my bags or asked me any stupid questions.

I remember once landing in Detroit, grabbing a cart for my luggage, and having some guy from airport staff grab it away from me because I hadn't paid for it. I told him it was standing around when I found it, but he wouldn't give in. I don't remember seeing an airport in the EU where you have to pay for luggage carts.

Once, a drug-sniffing dog was literally standing in the gangway that connected the plane to the terminal on a flight to the US. You literally hadn't set foot on US soil, and the dogs were already on you. All of this was before 9/11.

A few years ago, I flew back to the US with a new passport -- and I had forgotten to get my permanent residency permit pasted anew into the new passport. So when I presented my passport to a German official upon leaving, she asked me when I had entered the EU. I then realized what was going on, explain to her that I have been over here for two decades (I'm sure fluent German didn't hurt), that I pay taxes in Germany, and that I have two children with German passports. She let me leave and told me to get that residency permit put in my passport as soon as I get back -- for my own good.

US officials would have locked me up and thrown away the key.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cyclical thinking

A fellow translator-blogger, Margaret Marks, just remarked that pilgrimages are not what they used to be -- they are now offered as all-in-one travel packages, including tour guides and all the rest. Actually, it's worse than she comments, and the problem also relates to the way we treat the environment.

I have traveled the Camino de Santiago twice by bicycle from France. Once you enter Spain, there is a constant flow of pilgrims, at least during the warm months of the year. Many of them do not have spiritual, much less religious, reasons for making the pilgrimage. Some simply do so for sports and to meet people. But honestly, I doubt it was any different in the Middle Ages, when noblemen would often pay someone to walk in their steed.

The big difference today is that we actually think Santiago is the goal. In the Middle Ages, everyone knew that Santiago was the midpoint; you still had to get back home.

Regardless of why you go on this pilgrimage, I believe that everyone comes back with a different way of looking at the world: more energy, more openness, more willingness to help others, a greater love of life, etc. The pilgrimage is a refreshing experience. Today, people fly out of Santiago back home immediately or take the train. Of the dozens -- if not hundreds -- of people I met on my two pilgrimages, I only met a single person who planned to walk all the way back.

If you spend a few weeks on this pilgrimage, coming back to the real world is quite a shock -- at least, it was for me. You realize that, as much as you would like to take that openness to strangers back home with you, everyone in the real world would think you are simply intruding if you try to come too close. At least you get to keep your greater love of life.

Probably up into the 20th century, pilgrims would walk all the way home. As they walked further away from Santiago and ever closer to home, they would have been able to make the transition at a human speed.

Today, we do not have that kind of cyclical thinking -- that you have to come back to where you started. Rather, when we get somewhere, we expect to have some technology to save us, to get us back home. Too much carbon in the air? Make clouds, or spray stuff in the ocean to bind CO2. No need to change your life.

I remember Reinhold Messner, the famous mountain climber, once being asked in an interview how it felt to stand atop Mount Everest. It's painful and brief, he said (and I am paraphrasing from memory) - painful because the oxygen is so thin, and you are so weak from all the effort it took you to get there; and it's brief because you know that you have not reached your goal yet -- you have to get back down.

That's the way it should feel when you reach Santiago. Arrival should probably be more painful than it is, not for any lack of oxygen, but rather just for the fearful thought that on the way back this whole world where everyone helped each other reach a common goal will gradually disappear as you return to the real world of diverging interests.

I have not managed to find the eight weeks I would need to cycle from home to Santiago and back yet, but -- Lord willing -- I may do so one day. So put in a good word with Her for me, okay?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

We've come a long way, baby

Die Zeit has reprinted an excellent article from 1969, in which the author quite reasonably argues that bicycles should be banned from most roads in large cities -- for the sake of the cyclists themselves.

Der Weg mit dem Wagen oder mit der Straßenbahn ist jedenfalls sicherer. Ein Autofahrer übersteht rund eine Million Fahrkilometer ohne Verletzungen. Und in den öffentlichen Verkehrsmitteln passiert so gut wie nichts.
(Translation: It is safer to take a car or a tram.) The article does not contain any of the pedantic tone that now used in the battle raging between car drivers and cyclists, especially in towns heavily laden with bicycles, such as Freiburg and Münster (Germany). In fact, it is completely outdated in its thinking -- that's what makes it such a good read. If anyone tried to publish something like that in Germany today -- 40 years later -- they would be laughed at.

As both a car driver and cyclist (and occasional user of public transport), I come down heavily in favor of bicycles, as a growing number of people do today. But the thinking in the article above reminds me of how people (used to?) think in the States when I lived there: roads were built for cars, and bicycles should get out of the way -- for their own good. Even in "green" Austin, Texas, I was once nearly run off the road in the early 1990s by a public bus trying to overtake me while I was cycling. And around 2000, a German friend of mine was actually hit by a driver overtaking him on the road apparently with almost no traffic in the US (the driver did not even stop).

The general thinking nowadays in (most of) Europe, fortunately, is that everyone has a right to use the roads, which are certainly not just built for cars, and that car drivers cannot simply bully everyone else just because they themselves are not the ones who get hurt the most in the case of an accident.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Fire alarm

It seems that the debate in the US about a climate change bill is heating up. A blog entry at the National Review entitled "If Carbon Caps Are Coming, Why Mandate Renewables?" has been published. While the author obviously thinks that carbon trading is necessary, he also gives voice to someone who understands the drawback of waiting until the last minute before we ramp up renewables:

"Otherwise, we end up with a fire drill when the carbon price reaches the tipping point for coal," Hummel e-mailed, "and only the Europeans would have the companies, the manufacturing capacity, or the employees to meet the screaming demand."

Although he then writes, "I'm not sure I'm wholly swayed by either of those points," at least he does mention my line of thinking. I would, however, disagree that we are talking about a fire drill -- I think we are talking about a fire. Or, more precisely, an emergency. If we wait until the last minute, we will then scramble to replace oil, gas, coal, or whatever. And under carbon trading, we will only take the least expensive form of energy first, which means 100 percent wind power. Wind power is the most disruptive of all forms of renewable energy, and any renewables expert will tell you that we need to bring all of them online at the same time to ensure our energy supply; solar, for instance, is an excellent complement to wind power, which is often available in large quantities at sunup and sundown or even during the night.

Of course, the opposite question makes as much sense: if renewables are coming, why mandate carbon caps? Aside from giving an excellent argument to the nuclear industry and creating a completely unnecessary market -- the avoidance of carbon is not a commodity -- what exactly do we gain by implementing emissions trading instead of promoting renewables?