All posts by Sean Dague

A Year in Podcasts

Every year my mix of podcasts changes up a bit, and the end of the year is worth reflecting on what I’ve been listening to.

Always on Top

These podcasts I’m always jumping to the top of my queue when a new episode comes out:

Skeptics Guide to the Universe – a great weekly dose of science and critical thinking. The crew also published a book this year which was incredible. The weekly Science or Fiction game on the show, is always a lot of fun. This has been in my bump to the top list for years, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

Bombshell – 3 folks with incredible experience in and around the State and Defense departments take a deep dive on the week’s news through a national security lens. And drink. And ask guests what’s their favorite statistical distribution. And, the hosts and guests all happen to be women. This podcast wins the award for the one I’m mostly likely to recommend to folks out of the blue, and every single person that started listening after that thanked me for it.

Binges

I had two podcasts this year that I found, and immediately listened all the way through ignoring the Always on top rule above.

Farm to Taber – Sarah Taber is a crop consultant who has seen the ag industry from many different perspectives. She’s got incredible stories about things she’s seen on farms, and a system perspective that I found really interesting. She works really hard at showing that while a sustainable ag future is a great goal, the current narrative of “big ag bad, small farm good” really papers over a lot of complexity that’s really important if you want a sustainable future. Highly recommend if you are interested in how your food gets to your table, and she’s also great to follow on twitter.

2050: Degrees of Change – Johanna Wagstaffe is a CBC meteorologist, and put together the 6 part series last year which tells the story of what 2050 British Columbia in Canada looks like because of climate change. Every episode starts with the morning wake up interaction between a 10 year old girl talking with her “smart assistant” about what she needs to do that day. They then unpack one aspect of that with the best experts and modeling we’ve got today. The picture it paints is really powerful.

Climate and Energy

Because of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer work, I started finding more and more content in the area to dive deep on issues. So a huge part of my listening feed includes that.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby Podcast – This is the mega feed. It includes the monthly lecture / meeting, the citizens climate university deep dives, citizens climate radio interview show, and recordings from sessions at conferences. I listen to most of it, and even got the administrator to up the published list to 100 so I could go back through some older content. I’m often listening to one of these when I’m driving down to our monthly meeting to set the mood.

The Interchange – this is a weekly dive in a pretty wonky way on energy and electricity sector from green tech media. The show can be a bit corny at times, but is great to understand how the electricity sector is actually changing in a greener way, and want some of the barriers are to it.

Warm Regards – Dr Jacquelyn Gill, paelo-ecologist from the University of Maine, and a bunch of other great rotating guest hosts talk about climate change topics, and bring in pretty amazing guests. I discovered it when they had someone from CCL on, and have been avidly listening ever since. I really like the approach they took recently in adding a new mini climate related piece of research at the end, because apparently climate change is making bears eat less salmon. This one also qualifies in the “Always on Top” category, but is in this list for thematic reasons.

Listen to Every One

There are a few more podcasts that I make sure to listen to every one.

The Mirror of Antiquity – My friend Curtis Dozier, who teaches Classics at Vassar College, now has a podcast about where we see ourselves in the ancient world. The episode on what it means to make a translation, and what parts of the original are really accessible was pretty amazing. As was the episode on the invention of Europe.

The Long Now – Both the monthly lectures, and the conversations from the interval are amazing. An organization who’s core tenant is to increase long term thinking (to the point that they write the current year as 02018), brings together some amazing folks. My favorite of the year was calls Soldiers and Scouts. It starts with wondering if the history of humanity is not unlike that of the robot uprising, where evolution has shaped us to be one thing, but we are in the process of rising up beyond our programming to be something more. The narrative works really well, and makes you think a lot about the way we think and react in the world. And, the seminar with Kim Stanley Robinson on climate change and science fiction was equally wonderful.

More Good Stuff

My podcast queue backlog is typically over 100 episodes. As I mostly listen when driving, flying, or doing yard work, there is lots of great stuff in my queue that I just dip in to from time to time. We’ll hit these fast for speed.

  • Commonwealth Club of California – they produce something like 400 events a year, and podcast most of them. I value this for new ideas and injecting something different into my feed.
  • Code Switch – a podcast on race in america.
  • The Churn – podcast about the Expanse TV Show (which is my second favorite show being produced right now after The Good Place).
  • Radiolab – a unique way of telling (mostly) science stories.
  • More Perfect – Radiolab team diving into the history of the Supreme Court. The episode on the 2nd amendment is a must listen.
  • Planet Money – A dive into economics. This year’s 5 part series on launching a satellite into space was great.
  • Planet Money the Indicator – 5 minutes each day about 1 number in the economy and what it means. I missed when they dropped the indicator from the show, and glad they just brought it back as a dedicated podcast.
  • Wait wait don’t tell me – NPR news quiz comedy show, mostly because 11am on Saturday is a time we’re never home any more. We also go to their live shows whenever they get close.
  • Imaginary Worlds – why we create worlds in scifi and fantasy, and what they mean to us.
  • 99 Percent Invisible – a look at design and the built world. You will never see the world the same way again.
  • The Allusionist – a deep dive into the oddities of the English language, with lots of humor and punning.
  • Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything – a truly unique podcast that blends fiction and non-fiction in a seamless way that often makes you wonder where the line is. I still need to catch up on the giant multipart series this year on fake news.

Hopefully Something for Everyone

Hopefully something in here caught your attention. My top recommendation if I can only recommend one new thing you listen to, is Bombshell. I also think that everyone would be well served by having more critical thinking in their life with Skeptics Guide. But everyone listens to things for their own reasons, so knowing why I like certain things might help you decide if you would as well.

I wish you happy listening in 2019 and beyond!

What Citizens’ Climate Lobby has Meant to Me

Over the past year and a half I’ve been volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a volunteer group with a laser focus on passing federal carbon pricing legislation in a bi-partisan manner. I got involved originally from a Communications perspective (handling monthly emails and social media), but then due to scheduling challenges with existing group leaders, ended up taking on the group leader mantle for our local chapter.

The Investment in Volunteers

Volunteers are being asked to do some pretty amazing things: self organize at a congressional district level; directly lobby their members of congress; reach out to members of the community can grow support; establish deep relationships with local media. How does an enthusiastic volunteer even do any of these things? Well, the national organization will walk you through it, with world class training.

This, hands down, is the thing I find most remarkable about the organization, it’s investment in volunteers. Multiple nights a week, every week, there are training sessions running for volunteers. When you join on as a group leader you are signed up for a weekly emerging group leaders program, that’s 12 weeks of 1 hour evening sessions going through the whole of the organization, the theory of change, the levers of political will, active listening. All interactive with other new group leaders, all with the ability to ask questions along the way.

After that there are skill building training sessions running at least once a week through Citizens’ Climate University. And if you can’t make the session live, it’s all recorded and made available as a webcast and a podcast to catch up at your leisure.

I’ve volunteered in other contexts, and not seen this level of support and investment in volunteers elsewhere. The only time I saw this level of investment from a work perspective was when I was part of a Leadership Excellence program at IBM back in 2006.

These skills, like active listening, are not specific to the CCL policy goal. They just make you a more kind and effective human. Understanding where people are really coming from. Focusing on the fact that interactions with others don’t need to be high stakes, it’s ok to just connect on whatever common ground you can find. And, getting lots of time to practice. I’ve already noticed this changing, for the better, some long standing relationships.

Engaging in the Community

In the last year working with CCL has given me this nudge and excuse to reach out all over the community in ways I never did before. I sat down with a neighbor of 14 years, that I never knew lived here, who chairs our town’s Conservation Advisory Committee. I reconnected with a college friend from 20 years ago who’s now a local Rabi. I’ve got to sit down with members of local city councils, and our county legislature, with some amazing local non-profits and small businesses. I’ve gotten to know other volunteers in neighboring CCL chapters, and built new friends there. And a few of us are now working on a list of local craft brewers we’re going to reach out to, which is going to make for an amazing 2019.

All these people have been here all along, but in circles I wasn’t aware of or engaged with. And now, with this excuse to talk about climate change solutions, it was motivation to reach out and find them, and sit down for a chat. And out of it I’ve already made some amazing new friends with some really incredible people. Those relationships I will value for years to come.

Diving Deep on Climate and Policy

In the past year I’ve read economic modeling studies, climate assessments, and many a policy paper. I now have a much better understanding of what the Clean Air Act actually does, and how it does it. What the Clean Power Plan really was, and why it could only be so effective. How energy markets work, especially the electricity sector. What NY state’s grid looks like, where we actually get our electricity from.

The part of my brain that consumes two books on React.js programming in a week to write a medium complexity application in a new technology, is loving diving in on all this industry specific knowledge. And understanding the complexity in these things also helps me understand what pathways are going to be effective to really decarbonize.

And the Successes

And, after a year that’s been amazing and engaging on learning and process, we also had some great successes. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividends Act was introduced into both the US House and US Senate during then end of the 115th congress. Both with bi-partisan co-sponsors. Both will be back next year.

I have to admit, when I joined the group and really internalized the Carbon Fee & Dividend model, I wasn’t really sure it would every happen. This isn’t a papering over and declare victory proposal. This is nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy off fossil fuels, with 40% reduction in emissions in 12 years, and 90% reduction from 2015 levels by 2050. It’s not just targeting the electricity sector, it’s really going to transform the whole economy.

It just seemed too ambitious to make it to the Hill, but it still was the best idea on the table, so I was happy to push on it. And when the bill landed, I was on an Adrenalin rush for a week.

And the best part is how this mechanism is symbiotic to all kinds of other solutions. This accelerates every single solution in Drawdown. It will make a Green New Deal easier to accomplish, and more impactful should it happen. It’s in line with the Paris agreement, and leaves the door open for lots more action to meet even more aggressive targets. And, because of the Dividend, it is something that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Next Steps

I’m extremely enthusiastic about CCL’s work in 2019. A bill is a long way from a law, but you can’t have a law without a bill. My work schedule is going to get a bit busier in the new year, but we’ve collected such an amazing group of volunteers locally, it’s just an excuse to help folks grow more into roles and hand off some responsibilities. Both are good things to do.

If you are looking for a volunteer organization that is going to make a difference on Climate Change, and help you grow to become a better advocate for any issue, CCL is a great organization to be a part of. Introductory calls happen every Wednesday night. Our local chapter meets on the 2nd Thursday of the month at Beahive in Beacon, NY.

Come join us, make a new friend, and help slay the climate dragon.

Two Degrees: Cities, Architecture and Our Changing Environments

Source: Two Degrees: Cities, Architecture and Our Changing Environments | Commonwealth Club

There were a few things in this podcast that struck me. The first was the summary of the thesis of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Societies collapse because one of the 3 following things happen:

  • They don’t think there is a problem
  • They think there is a problem, but think it’s someone else’s to solve
  • They think there is a problem, know it’s theirs to solve, but take ineffective action

This describes how lots of things fail, not just civilizations. I’ve seen so many software projects fail on premise #1 and #2. It seems simple, but as a framing it’s pretty good at classifying where things are stuck.

Efficiency is not sufficient

A lot of the talk was about how we’re going to need to change the built world. We hear a lot of talk about efficiency, which is good, but not sufficient. When it comes to the efficiency of cities, dense infill near transit hubs ends up far surpassing any retrofitting of buildings. Building cities around the idea of decreased car miles is super critical.

Will pipelines carry Hydrogen in the future?

One thing I did not realize is that a lot of our city level infrastructure for the methane/natural gas network existed before natural gas was widely used. It used to carry Coal gas, which is a mix of a lot of things, but notably 70% hydrogen. This means that the city level infrastructure could be reused to supply hydrogen gas in a future where we don’t want to be burning methane. 

There was lots more in the episode, and I’ll have to listen to it a second time because it was so informative. Not everything fits in my brain going over it only once. You can listen to the whole episode on the Commonwealth Club site.

Maize that fixes it’s own Nitrogen

For thousands of years, people from Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been cultivating an unusual variety of giant corn. They grow the crop on soils that are poor in nitrogen—an essential nutrient—and they barely use any additional fertilizer. And yet, their corn towers over conventional varieties, reaching heights of more than 16 feet.

A team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the corn’s success lies in its aerial roots—necklaces of finger-sized, rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria. Thanks to these microbes, the corn can fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.

Source: The Indigenous Mexican Corn That Uses Air as Fertilizer – The Atlantic

Take 1: Holy crap this is cool. Corn is a huge staple grain, and requires a lot of off farm inputs to grow because it takes a lot of nutrients out of the ground.

Take 2: This maize matures in 8 months instead of 3 months for commercial corn. Interesting. Dr Sarah Taber pointed out on twitter that this is a really critical point. Nitrogen fixation takes a lot of energy, that has to come from somewhere. Modern varieties of maize might have had this bred out of them for a reason, so they put their energy into sugar and maturation instead of the ground. It may not be possible to keep this trait, and have the maize mature any faster.

This is important. Because the headlines for most articles on this make it sound like we’ve solved a hard problem in farm science and corn won’t need fertilizer in the future. That’s definitely not what the science says.

Take 3: The science behind verifying this is kind of amazing. You can’t tag nitrogen atoms to prove where they are coming from. So they did 5 different independent ways that each provide circumstantial evidence that the maize is actually doing this.

Take 4: The IP generated by this goes into the public trust. This is done under the Nagoya Protocol to address the very real concerns of bio-piracy by indigenous peoples. Good on them!

Take 5: The url of the Altantic piece is https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/08/amaizeballs/567140/. Yes, they really did go there.

Tell the Complicated Story

It turns out that one of the solutions to get us all to talk to each other is to stop simplifying the narratives we use:

After the conversation ends and the participants are separated, they each listen to audio of their conversations and report how they felt at each point. Over time, the researchers noticed a key difference between the terrible and non-terrible conversations: The better conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war. They were more complex.

But could that complexity be artificially induced? Was there a way to cultivate better conversations? To find out, the researchers started giving the participants something to read before they met — a short article on another polarizing issue. One version of the article laid out both sides of a given controversy, similar to a traditional news story — arguing the case in favor of gun rights, for example, followed by the case for gun control.

The alternate version contained all the same information — written in a different way. That article emphasized the complexity of the gun debate, rather than describing it as a binary issue. So the author explained many different points of view, with more nuance and compassion. It read less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes.

After reading the article, the two participants met to discuss Middle East peace — or another unrelated controversy. It turns out that the pre-conversation reading mattered: in the difficult conversations that followed, people who had read the more simplistic article tended to get stuck in negativity. But those who had read the more complex articles did not. They asked more questions, proposed higher quality ideas and left the lab more satisfied with their conversations. “They don’t solve the debate,” Coleman says, “but they do have a more nuanced understanding and more willingness to continue the conversation.” Complexity is contagious, it turns out, which is wonderful news for humanity.

Source: Complicating the Narratives – The Whole Story

The article calls for a new approach to journalism which makes sure to tell the complex story, and not the simple one. It’s full of very specific ways of doing this, and why telling a 2 sided story isn’t the same thing as a complicated one.

One of the things that struck me most was how much this was the same as the motivational interviewing / active listening that is part of Citizens’ Climate Lobby training. When we pull back from interactions all being high stakes winner take all, and more about mutual explorations, we make a lot more progress understanding each other.

8 months in with Geothermal Heating & Cooling

Last summer about this time we made a big decision. We were going to work with Dandelion (a new geothermal company in the area) and replace all our Fuel Oil based forced air heating and hot water system with a Geothermal system. Instead of burning oil to heat our home, we’d use 1000 feet of water pipe, going up and down a  new 500 foot well to extract and compress heat from the earth.

How does Geothermal Heating work?

Once you get below 10 ft here in our corner of New York State, the ground temperature is about 50 degrees F. This is a giant renewable source where you can either extract heat (in the winter) or dump heat (in the summer), and it really doesn’t budge the ground temp. A compressor is used in the furnace to turn this 50 degree ground loop heat into 90 degree air in the winter, or 42 degree air in the summer.

The compressor is where all the energy is consumed. However,  moving heat is much more efficient than creating it, so heat pumps have efficiencies of over 100%. Typically ground source heat pumps will produce 4 – 5 units of heat for every 1 unit of electricity put in. For cooling it’s even better.

By the numbers

In the winter of 2016-2017 we spent about $2000 on fuel oil and service contract for our old system. That was based on a fuel oil price of about $1.90 / gallon as part of a really good group buy. It was also a relatively warm winter.

The new system went into place on Nov 22nd of 2017. Early in the heating season. This heating season included a 14 day cold snap starting at Christmas where it was 20 degrees below averages the whole time. Even with all of that our electricity add from the furnace was around $650 dollars for the winter (the Waterfurnace system we got has really detailed metrics in it that let me see it’s energy use). There is a harder to account for hot water heating part of the equation, especially as we also got an Chevy Bolt EV this year. Also the year in oil would have been much more than the year before (both in use and cost). But suffice it to say, we come out way ahead on operating costs no matter how you slice it.

Our June and July bills from Central Hudson are less than last years, even though it’s been a hotter summer, and we’re also charging an EV. It looks like for the month of July we’ll end up spending about $32 in electricity for cooling. Here is a graph of all the current number in kWh used.

What else we love about the system

There are lots of qualitative things we love about the system as well. First of it so much quieter. It has 2 stages on both heating and cooling, and stage 1 (the more efficient) runs with a low fan speed that means unless you are in the room adjacent to the furnace it’s hard to know it’s running. This lower fan speed also does a much better job of pushing the heat out to the edges of the house. The whole house got much more consistent.

Getting rid of the fuel oil system means we no longer have a fuel oil tank in our basement of indeterminate age rusting away in the corner. There is no whiff of oil smell at times. The primary risk of carbon monoxide and potential fires in the house is gone. And that 700 gallons of fuel oil we used the last year is no more, which is 3.5 tons of CO2 emissions not taking place (the CO2 from the increased electricity we used in the winter comes to about 0.7 tons).

We installed a whole house humidifier along with it, so now can keep the house comfortable in the winter without filling humidifiers through the house.

And lastly, our screened in porch got so much nicer. The old AC compressor was right outside it, and loud. Now it’s in the basement and can’t be heard outside.

We love it

While I knew on paper that a ground source heat pump like this would be great, having never experienced one before I had this niggling concern all the way through the process in the fall. What would it actually be like?

It’s been amazing. At least once a week I have a moment about how great this new system is. The quiet, the comfort, the savings are all pretty amazing.

The Expanse Saved!

Given that my last post was about the Expanse getting cancelled, I’d be remiss to not write about the show getting saved. Amazon Studios has stepped up for Season 4 (… and possibly beyond?). The announcement happened at the International Space Development Conference where Jeff Bezos was getting an award.

Cas Anvar helped organize a panel on Science in the Expanse at ISDC, and tells an incredible tale of how that came to be, and how the whole evening went on The Churn. (Spoilers: this episode also deconstructs Expanse episode 308, so if you aren’t current in the show you’re likely going to ruin one of the best reveals of the season). Cas’s story is really amazing, and any fan is going to love it.

I’m really looking forward to Season 4, because book 4 is one of my favorites in the series.

If you haven’t been watching the Expanse yet, go check it out on Amazon Prime. Binge the first 4 episodes as a block before making up your mind on the show, because there is so much universe, and so many characters to set up.