Friday, June 26, 2009

Thanks for the music, Michael...

... and the dancing.

I'll be singing "Rock With You" at a party on Sunday, and it will feel strange.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Megalomaniac solar

Well, it was on the nightly news yesterday in Germany, and it is now online at Der Spiegel: a group of investors plans to devote a whopping 400 billion euros to concentrated solar power in the Sahara.

For those not familiar with the technology, we are not talking about silicon solar cells here, but rather about mirrors that focus heat on some medium (such as oil) to heat up a tank that creates steam to drive a conventional turbine. It's a great technology, it's currently cheaper than photovoltaics in sunny locations, and it allows us to store the energy as heat and release it after the sun goes down, when everyone is sitting at home in the evening with their lights on watching television -- something you cannot currently do with photovoltaics.

One drawback is that we will be locking up a significant amount of funding in countries we have no control over. Granted, we have already done that with oil, for instance, and I have even met people who say, "see, it will work." I cannot understand this thinking.

On the nightly news last night, one German researcher said that these projects would be spread across 10 countries south of the Mediterranean, which would also spread the political risk. Okay, here's how it will work (I am basing all of this on the history of oil exploration): we will come up with different agreements with all of these countries, and one of them will feel cheated. That country will then nationalize the investments that these companies made and renegotiate the contracts to have more of the money stay within that country.

The other countries will then be tempted to follow that model and will gradually do so. This, I should point out, is one of the more positive outcomes. A more negative outcome would be a revolution somewhere that leads to the violent destruction of this equipment, which is basically glass and can be easily broken with rocks. Since this equipment will also not be installed in areas that can be covered by sand dunes (imagine all this expensive equipment covered with sand), it will instead be put in more rocky parts of the desert with less sand, so the projectiles you need to destroy the equipment will be all around you.

Of course, all of this is being done in the name of cheaper renewable energy, so as soon as all of this starts to go wrong -- and it is only a matter of time -- the only argument in favor of this project will no longer apply.

Whose side will be on when the North Africans reclaim their land, nationalize these European investments, and unilaterally renegotiate prices? Will you be on the side of rich Europeans who were too stupid to realize how cheap renewable energy is going to get in Europe? Or will you be on the side of the less developed nations of northern Africa who refused to sit by and let Europe get cheap energy off their land without getting a fair shake -- as they define it?

If you want to invest in renewables in Africa, do it -- for the Africans. Otherwise, I would hate to see such a large sum of money be stranded somewhere instead of devoted to domestic renewable energy production.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Counting carbon

In a recent post, I argued that one of the problems with talking about carbon emissions is that the average layperson has no idea how much a ton of carbon is. As I asked back then, do you emit one ton of carbon a day or one ton of carbon a year?

Now, I have discovered a website that provides a pretty good overview. You can mouse over various countries on the planet and get statistics related to carbon emissions. There is no explanation about why, for instance, Sweden's or Switzerland's emissions are quite low (both of them have quite a bit of hydro and nuclear, so most of their emissions come from cars -- a situation that is similar in France, which has quite a bit of nuclear and a smaller amount of hydropower) compared to Luxembourg's, which roughly emits around four times more carbon per capita than those three European neighbors even though the standard of living is roughly equivalent. But if you want to know the reasons behind such salient differences, you can start at the website and research from there.

Having said that, I still believe that the focus on carbon is abstract and somewhat beside the point. For one explanation of that, see my previous post. In general, I maintain that what we need to do is switch to renewables, which itself will bring about lower carbon emissions. The focus on reducing carbon emissions will not necessarily lead to a renewable energy supply, as anyone from the nuclear sector will tell you. So if you want to reduce carbon without switching to nuclear, forget about cap-and-trade, which has never worked anywhere anyway, and focus on ramping up renewables, which has worked in numerous countries.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Daisy chain? Yes, no, si!

Fellow translator Margaret Marks just published a post in which she expresses her skepticism about the notion that English somehow lacks certain terms that it could borrow from German. Specifically, she cites another blogger as follows:

... what about all the other fun German words? The ones daisy-chaining multiple Nouns to build fun words like Fussballgott?
I completely agree that we do not need to borrow too much from anywhere, nor does any other language. A professor from Germany who had been in the US for decades once told me that only the Germans could come up with a feeling like Schadenfreude, but he had obviously never listened to country music.

In general, Americans seem overly impressed by the way Germans create long words out of short ones, but this is a mere orthographical quirk -- you could just as easily write them as separate words, as we often do in English: "job market reforms" is simply a kind of compound noun that Germans would express in one word (Arbeitsmarktreformen).

I just received a visit from an old college friend and his family from the US, and they expressed their fascination at all these long German words until I pointed out that we now do the same thing in English in URLs. Thus, "" is perfectly acceptable English orthography, while Germans constantly ask me whether there is a dash or period in there somewhere. In a sudden role reversal, the English-speaking world has begun daisychaining words in URLs, whereas the Germans do in domains names what they do in street names and put punctuation in between words. To take just one example, a major publication in English has the URL, but the German foreign office has the URL

There is, however, one word that we need in English, though we do not have to take it from German -- we could also take it from Spanish or French. If someone asks a question in the negative such as, "Didn't you see them?" We have no way of making an unambiguous single-word reply. The German "doch" and French/Spanish/etc. "si" would be a wonderful addition to English. I don't even care which one is taken; we could even create our own. "Di" would be fine with me ;-)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

White roofs

Die Zeit is poking fun at US Energy Secretary Chu's suggestion that black surfaces in the US be painted white in an effort to combat climate change.

Statt über alte Versäumnisse zu reden, favorisieren Amerikaner pragmatische Lösungen, mit denen sich am besten auch in der Krise noch Geld verdienen lässt.

(Instead of talking about what has been done wrong, the German weekly writes, Americans prefer pragmatic solutions that also earn them money during the crisis.) Well, maybe - but that still does not make it a bad idea. In fact, I have been proposing such a solution for years, though Chu did the math to show what the actual impact would be: "the equivalent of taking roughly 75 million cars off the road for a year."

Here is what I wrote back at the beginning of 2005 in lectures I gave in 2004 in the US when arguing that conservation does not necessarily mean having to give anything up -- indeed, in some cases, there are only positive side effects:

Second example: a new house is built in the sunny South. First, you cut down all the trees so you can move around better. Then you put a black roof on the house. Now, the inhabitants get to use as much energy as they can afford eight months out of the year to try to keep this unshaded house with a black roof cool inside. What's so great about that?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Wikipedia as bilingual dictionary: loitering

Americans are all familiar with these signs outside of convenience stores: "no loitering." In the previous post about Wikipedia two days ago, I discussed vagrancy as the crime of not having income. The German entry referred to the crime of not establishing permanent living quarters in one spot, which is a bit different.

Today, we turn our attention to the crime of standing around with nothing to do, which is closely related to vagrancy: loitering. As the English Wikipedia entry explains, littering also has an illustrious history in attempts to charge black Americans with some kind of crime -- in this case, just standing around.

I remember looking at one of those signs some 20 years ago when I returned to the states after my first extended stay in Germany and wondering how Germans would say that. As I researched it, I realized that they don't really have that idea at all. In fact, basically all of Europe -- and, from what I can judge, in Morocco, Japan, and Indonesia -- nobody has a problem with anyone just standing around biding their time. Obviously, if you are drunk in public, that makes a difference, but public spaces in Europe are generally understood to be places where people just go to relax.

As a number of sociologists have pointed out, shopping malls in the US generally lack any kind of seating arrangements that are not directly part of some business -- if you want to sit down in a US shopping mall, you will probably be forced to buy something. In contrast, the closest thing to a shopping mall in Europe is probably historic centers of towns, where you can find any number of people grouping together on steps or public benches at just about all hours of the day.

There is no German entry for the word "loitering." Another thing to like about Germany.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Balkonien in English

Over at World Wide Words, Micheal Quinion has just announced the appearance of two versions of the German "Balkonien" (when you stay home [on your balcony] for vacation): naycation and staycation. A Brit, he is especially surprised to see the terms take off in the UK, where you go on holiday, not on vacation. I suppose "noliday" doesn't quite do the trick.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wikipedia as bilingual dictionary: vagrancy

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been reading a book about how life was made difficult for free blacks in the South after the Civil War. One of the methods used to get blacks outside the law was to force them to prove they were employed. If they had no proof, they were charged with some petty offense, with the court charges being even higher than the actual fine, neither of which they could pay. They were then forced to work for a private employer under terms dictated by that employer -- in effect, it was forced slavery.

One of the terms used for the "crime" of hanging around with nothing to do is vagrancy. As the English Wikipedia entry puts it,

In legal terminology, a person with a source of income is not a vagrant, even if he/she is homeless.
And what is the German equivalent of that? "Fahrendes Volk" according to the German Wikipedia. That definition applies to gypsies, but also to basically anyone -- or, more commonly, any group of people -- who are constantly on the road: acrobats, magicians, etc. Here, the stress is not on an income or lack thereof, but rather on the lack of a permanent address.

While there are certain fines related to such lifestyles (and the German entry does discuss crime), there is clearly no German tradition of charging people with petty crimes in order to get them on the wrong side of the law.

Another thing to like about Germany, though I must admit I fell back deeply in love with my country when we elected Obama.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Wikipedia as bilingual dictionary: Bully

Today, we have quite an interesting comparison of Wikipedia entries in English and German. The English is "bullying," which as most of my readers know it is quite common place in the US. Just about every school, if not every class, has a bully. In fact, the school bully is often a principal character in movies for adolescents, such as the Bridge to Terabithia.

I have two children in school in Germany (third grade and sixth grade), and when I tried to explain the idea of a school bully to them when we watched Bridge to Terabithia, they understood the concept but said they did not have any such person in their school, much less in their class. I then asked around, and the children of other parents at other schools pretty much told me the same thing. School bullies are apparently not a common feature of German schools.

What does the German Wikipedia have to say about this? The English entry for "bullying" links to "Schikane", which I would have translated as making things unnecessarily difficult for other people. The German entry speaks of bureaucratic red tape and obstacles in sports. There is no mention of schools.

Another thing I like about Germany.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ah, that Germany...

A few days ago, Steve Coll of the New Yorker feigned ignorance of the term "de-globalization" to summarize what it may mean. Basically, de-globalization means a return to local products. It has long been discussed (at least this century) in peak-oil circles as the result of rising energy prices: it will become cheaper to eat locally grown food than ship in produce from New Zealand during the summer there, etc. iPods will be replaced by real instruments, and videos games will give way to board games (think: domino). Some see it as a return to the 19th century, but with LED lighting and well insulated homes. Check out the Powerdown people for more.

But Coll does not use such pertinent examples. Because Coll was apparently in Germany at the time, he uses the unfortunate example of DaimlerChrysler:

Stuttgart has returned to a Daimler that, while still a global corporation, is more purely and proudly German. That would, of course, be the same company that made engines for Nazi bombers during the Second World War. We can hope that this is not the kind of de-globalization that Bill Gross has in mind. I don’t mean that there is any danger that Germany would remilitarize or again threaten European peace; that is inconceivable for at least a generation. I do mean that one form of de-globalization may involve the reseeding of militant and “branded” nationalism worldwide—and not only in corporate competition.

This passage is so wrong, I hardly know where to start. First, Stuttgart did not return to Daimler because it wanted a pure, proud German firm. It dropped Chrysler because the US firm was (and is) a basket case. And for peace's sake - when are Americans going to get over their knee-jerk reactions pertaining to 12 years of German history? Of course Daimler served Nazi Germany. Renault made tanks for France, and the Hummer is a GM product. What else is new? And yea, Steve, it is inconceivable for Germany to remilitarize within at least a generation. Now let's get back to the real culprits: the US roughly outspends the entire rest of the world (and has done so since the end of the Cold War) and outspends Germany 14 times.

Finally, if Steve wants to find nationalism, he need not come to Stuttgart. US renewables policies (at the state level) consistently consider or include minimum requirements for domestic products - in clear violation of international free-trade schemes the US claims to support. Germany's EEG has never had any separate payment or requirements for domestic goods, and I have never heard anyone demand such.

All in all, Coll's assessment is totally unfair - and 100% American.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wikipedia as bilingual dictionary: hazing

Today, I would like to focus on a word very common in English, but not in German: hazing.

Hazing is quite widespread in the US -- and, I gather, in the UK. It happens, of course, in fraternities and sororities at colleges in the US, but I was once hazed as a simple busboy (the people who clean up your table in restaurants -- one step below a waiter, i.e. about as low as you can get). As the newest busboy, I was thrown into the lake after work one day (it was a seafood restaurant on a reservoir in Jackson, Mississippi) by the other busboys, all of whom probably could not wait to go to college and get into some real hazing.

I had no idea how to say this in German, and frankly I had never heard of such things happening over here, so I looked it up in Wikipedia -- and voilà, the word is Bizutage, and the entire German Wikipedia entry is devoted to what happens in France and other countries. Germany has a lot of strange traditions that it shares with other related cultures -- such as dueling -- but apparently hazing is not one of them.

That's one thing I like about Germany.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More on distributed vs. central renewable energy

Stefan Gsänger, Secretary General of the WWEA, had trouble adding a comment under my recent post about Dr. Czisch's plans for wind power from Africa, so I told him I would answer in a new post. Here are his comments:
Indeed we should be well aware of the pros and cons of our strategies and long-term visions. Obviously citizens and small and medium sized enterprises have been the main drivers in renewable energy deployment to date. Without them, only little progress has been achieved, as you can see in the UK or in Egypt, for example. What role do such groups play in Gregor's scenario? Can they still be drivers? Can such a scenario even support the development of such structures in North Africa and in the end still strengthen civil society and democracy? What impact does the grid parity of PV and small wind turbines have - will Europeans want to import at all electricity?
I did in fact speak with Czisch about all of these questions except civil society and democracy, which was totally foreign to the discussion at the seminar. In fact, the inclusion of civil society and democracy in a discussion about renewable energy is something you will hardly find in the US, which has mainly focused on large wind farms rather than the community-driven projects common in Germany. So I suppose Czisch is actually more in tune with mainstream thinking than Gsänger and I are.

I hope I represent him accurately below.

Czisch is the kind of renewables proponent who would do very well in the US. His focus is almost entirely on costs (and overcoming intermittence), and if we keep in mind that T. Boone Pickens has been talking about putting up several thousand megawatts of wind turbines on his own, then we realize that Americans are not impressed by Germany's performance, which they see as pecking. A number of US investors in wind projects have told me that it is simply not economical to put up a handful of turbines here and a handful of turbines there like the Germans are doing. You have to have economics of scale, they say.

So I am sure he would say that Egypt and the UK could easily overtake Germany's scattering of turbines quite quickly with proper utility-scale wind farms. And he would be right in saying so.

Obviously, with no community involvement in such large projects, the question of democracy never arises. In discussions about RPSs and net-metering, Americans do not seem to realize that they could not only have the option of buying green power, but also of producing it.

Czisch is in line with mainstream US thinking when he says we can basically forget about solar in terms of cost -- it will never get as cheap as the best wind sites, which is why he does not include it as more than a sliver of his pie, and then only provided that the cost of solar drops eightfold. As many Americans will tell you, let's just wait until the cost gets competitive...

Importantly, Czisch is also not convinced by the grid-parity argument, and his response is one we had better get used to hearing since grid parity is around the corner (expected in a few areas in only a few years and in many areas by 2015). Czisch says it does not make sense to talk about grid parity because renewables also need the grid. He says the only fair comparison is the cost of generation (Stromgestehungskosten); in other words, if coal plants can generate electricity for four cents per kilowatt-hour, that is the figure that solar and wind have to compete with, not the retail electricity rate.

We may very well end up with Czisch's vision, or at least something quite like it. It certainly makes sense to have these HVDC lines, and the grid in the US is in sore need of repair, having been built so long ago over such a vast country.

But I think the lesson for those of us who truly support distributed power generation is that we have to stress that citizen involvement is important. We need to allow people to have input in how their infrastructure is provided, and we need to allow them to put their money where their mouth is -- without turning them into philanthropists by not giving them a fair return on their investment.

We have so much unnecessary crap (I sure do) in Western society that I simply cannot understand the notion that we should somehow be getting the cheapest energy possible. Obviously, we have to keep costs in check, but if there are some other benefits to society, then those arguments have to be made as well.

So I'm on your side, Stefan. I just wonder if Czisch can have his projects alongside ours (and vice versa).

A Dane on racism / Pasar Ikan

I am back to a series of pics at the NY Times, this time by Jacob Holdt. After you have visited that slideshow, you can check out his website to see more photos if you want.

Your heart really goes out to those poor people living in squalor, especially that little girl on picture 9. If I understand correctly, that was Alabama some 35 years ago.

I have always had trouble understanding criticism of affirmative action, which seems to be based on the notion that there is now a level playing field.

Of course, we should not forget that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide live under such conditions today. In the picture at the top, which I took in 2002 in a shanty town in Jakarta, you see a small plastic bag of cooking oil in front of the child; many items are purchased this way there.

The shantytown was created after the riots in the late 1990s during the collapse of many Southeast Asian currencies. People who lost their homes built shacks out on the filthy water in the bay. People were very friendly there; I realized after a short time that I need not fear anyone -- I was walking through a family neighborhood, a sort of suburb in a way. As an American, I had a deep-seated (and unjustified) fear of large conglomerations of poor people, so my visit to this shantytown was a truly liberating experience. Everyone just wanted to get along with each other and make the best of their lives. I was invited to play games I had never seen before and shown around the entire "neighborhood". There was a small school, a clinic, a giant (and putrid) fish market (that's what Pasar Ikan means), and lots of shops where you could get produce.

I had just gotten my first digital camera, and as I continued to feel more comfortable in these surroundings, I began to take pictures of people. I would turn the camera around and show them the images of themselves, and the experience was new to everyone including me. I had took some 30 pictures of people throughout Pasar Ikan over the course of an afternoon, and when I returned home, I had them printed out and sent them to someone I had met in Pasar Ikan who had promised to hand them out to everyone. At least they all got a picture of themselves. Many of them had lost everything to the flames during the riots a few years earlier.

The second picture shows three generations of one family, and the third picture was a rather magic moment as you can see. The longer I stayed, the more people I seem to have wanting to have their picture taken, and these children lined up spontaneously in a pyramid to have their picture taken. If you had told any of us back then that we would have an Indonesian-speaking president in the US seven years later, everyone would have surely been surprised.

The final picture shows the last row of houses stretching out into the bay. There was very little space -- a family of four might be living in a single room of just 12 square meters (120 square feet) -- so people would hang out in the boats. Made me think of the bayous I grew up in as a toddler. Like these children, I partly learned to walk on piers.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Wikipedia as bilingual dictionary: Cinch

Wikipedia, with its different language versions, turns out to be quite an excellent resource for translators. I am fortunate enough to translate from German into English, which gives me the two largest versions of Wikipedia. If you are looking up a noun (Wikipedia is less helpful for other parts of speech), you just pop in the German term and click on "English" at the left -- it is usually there, even for some of the toughest terms.

But in my work, I have come across a number of items that also show how certain issues are treated different culturally. So over the next few days (and perhaps weeks), I'm going to try to list some of them. The subtitle for these entries could also be "what I like about Germany," as you will see, though perhaps not today.

Let's start with the word "Cinch", which I capitalize because I am talking about the German. If you click on the English, you see that we are talking about RCA cables. I remember stumbling over this term when a German friend referred to the cables we used to plug one stereo component into the other (for those of you who still remember separate stereo components) as "chinch" cables -- the Germans pronounce this with a ch in the beginning, as in "church." I had no idea what they were talking about and how the word might be written in German. To make matters worse, the Germans told me that the word was originally English.

This example clearly illustrates the benefits of Wikipedia over simple bilingual dictionaries, which Wikipedia is not even intended to be. When you look up a term in Wikipedia, you often get pictures and always a description by native speakers describing things in their own culture. You can then be sure that you are getting exactly what you need and that it is actually used in the target language, which you cannot be with a lot of other terms in online dictionaries, and you can also see a whole lot of other associated lingo, which probably comes in handy for the rest of the translation you are doing.

In this particular case, the cultural background -- the differences in information provided in the English and German entries for this particular type of cable -- is not all that drastically different. One salient feature is that the German mentions other types of cables that were once common in Germany and were gradually replaced by RCA jacks.

But in subsequent blog entries on Wikipedia as a bilingual dictionary, I will present some more drastic differences.