Monday, July 26, 2010

Fueling our future

I've always followed our world's energy needs with great interest. It started out less about the cost issues associated with our oil dependency and more about ecological impact. But as I learned more, I realized that we have a lot of reasons as a country to move away from our current energy policy. Also, the fact that oil is practically our sole provider for so many crucial aspects of our civilization seems like a setup for a future disaster. Since I was young, we've been hammered with the fact that fossil fuels are a limited resource. So why isn't this addressed with the upmost urgency? This is a problem we cannot simply buy our way out of. Within the next two generations, the world's oil reserves would almost surely be depleted. What then?

We cannot avoid this problem and think that it will simply resolve itself. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has only reinforced the suspicion that we can't rely on big business to work this problem out for us. The opposite in fact. They will continue to feed our oil addiction for as long as possible and maximize their profits. As supply diminishes and demand skyrockets, companies only look to gain more. Why would they bother introducing any ideas or technology to undercut their dominance?

We as a whole need to take the lead to drive policies, push technology and alter our habits. This is my attempt to galvanize my own thoughts on the situation and what can be done.

A daunting task considering the development of China and other nations who's energy needs will surely increase as time goes on. In the United States though, we have established infrastructures that can allow us to, at least individually, keep us from using more fuel than needed. Simple things such as turning off lights and appliances when not in use, commuting to work or using mass transit would drastically undercut our energy consumption.

Suburbanization has pushed people further away from their places of work, increasing commute times and thus fuel usage. Advancement of communications technology such as teleconferencing, and company policies allowing for working offsite could help reduce the need to commute to the office everyday.

Car mileage per gallon is the first thought that comes to mind. In the 1970s during the Mideast Oil Embargo on the U.S., gasoline was in scarce supply and for the first time created awareness of the fragility of our country's dependency on oil. President Carter responded by introducing radical policies that included investigating alternative fuels and increasing standards on fuel efficiency in vehicles.

Unfortunately most of the proposals he set in motion were systematically shut down by the next administration. Had his policies been followed to fruition, automakers would've been pushed to continually increase the fuel efficiency at a rate of 2% per year! Instead, the car industry has been allowed to sit on technology for the past 40 years at a nearly constant rate of 15 - 25 mpg.

This is when I become frustrated with policies driven by the pocketbooks of corporations. I'm not a anti-big business zealot or a conspiracy theorist, but it's hard to ignore the meddling hands of corporate self-interest in these situations. There's a reason why so much of this information has been difficult to uncover on the internet and why policies are so impossible to push through in government. Keeping the public in the dark and feeding us their side of the story allows them to keep doing what they're doing.

Dramatic change will only come from the public. Even researching these issues has been tough since it's hard to determine if the sources are unbiased (towards either side). The only thing to do is to keep reading as much as possible and decide for oneself.

Another way to address fuel efficiency is to rethink our country's electrical grid. Our aging grid creates uneven distribution, haphazard architecture and electrical waste. Remapped systems and better conductive materials could increase efficiency of output without drastic rethinking of the power sources.

However we proceed, whichever source of power we draw from, the only clear thing is that we cannot rely on fossil fuels anymore. Renewable and sustainable should be key credos of any future policy. Surprisingly, many of the technological innovations necessary may already be out there.

The diesel engine was originally meant to run on biofuel. Convoluted agriculture policies put forth by the government, while not directed at stunting the biofuel diesel engine, effectively caused the makers to switch to petrol fuel. Amazingly unbeknownst to most people, the modern diesel engine will run on biofuel gasoline without ANY modification. The result is higher fuel efficiency than a normal gas engine and none of the polluting emissions. And no direct reliance on fossil fuels.

Biofuel is an attractive solution because it can come from used material. Grease from fast food fryers can be utilized into biofuel. Weed crops such as switchgrass can also be a source, which is beneficial for not competing with the needs of usage such as other crops like corn. Also, weed crops grow in less than ideal environments that are usually considered unfarmable, again avoiding any competition for valuable farming land.

Another source of biofuel that is being developed is algae. The benefits include eating up large amounts of carbon dioxide from our air, requiring less space to grow, the ability to grow from our own waste and sewage, and not emitting carbon dioxide when burned.

Megaflora is also a new alternative that is being studied. These are engineered trees that grow to full size within three years, and when cut down can regrow from the cut stump back into a full tree again.

Before proclaiming biofuel as the savior to our problems, I want to do further research to see what possible offsetting issues come along with them. The methods are definitely new but promising as well. Virgin Airlines has been one of the many proponents of the emerging technology, even flying over the Atlantic on biodiesel to prove it's viability.

Ethanol has been the subject of many debates as a possible alternative to oil. Enough has been written and can be easily found on the web so I won't repeat it all here. But I know that one of the complaints is that corn is a food crop that could be problematic if we also being to rely on it for fuel consumption.

My thinking here is that this could be an opportunity to move America away from its corn addiction (food-wise anyway). Much has been made of how our food industry is creating many unhealthy and fat people with so many additives, primarily corn. There are enough books and documentary films out there to start convincing people to not eat so much food with corn additives so the movement already has traction.

I know why America supports corn as much as it does. After all, it's still a vital way to make a living for many farmers. Our government heavily subsidizes corn so that it becomes integral to much of our food. But the fact is that our corn growers actually overproduce the crop and sell it to other countries. We don't grow so much corn out of dietary need, but to keep the influential farm states in business.

Take a look at another food staple: salt, which has been the crux of more than one civilization. Salt was virtually the only way to preserve meat historically and thus was of vital importance to living. The Salt Industry in America had a tight grip on governmental policy, much like oil and corn do today. It was only after the development of the electrical grid and refrigeration technology that we needn't rely on salt as we did, which resulted in its loss of influence on our politicians.

Similarly, the corn industry is a powerful lobbying influencer that could be tough to circumvent. However, our energy needs could provide an elegant solution that solves our food industry problem with corn without having to fight the corn industry or try to strip it of its power.

An indirect solution, such as a technological innovation, may be the only way to effectively fight against such powerful opponents. I just have no idea what that innovation would be for our oil addiction. What is clear to me is that our technological creativity is not the problem. It's the restriction of policy and the greed that drives it. (See General Motors and the EV1.)

Again, it is upon us (the public and the consumer) to force the change. Only after hearing the outcry of the public will politicians make the necessary changes. In Germany, biofuel is subsidized to be cheaper than gasoline, thus making it easier for consumers to move towards alternative fuels. In Sweden, renewable fuel sources are untaxed in an effort to move towards complete petroleum freedom.

Other energy alternatives that have always been on the table are wind and solar. These are possibly the most ideal solutions, in theory. Completely natural and renewable, they require virtually no effort on our part to generate. The only problem, which has always been the problem, is that we are unable to get high yields of energy from these sources. Until we revolutionize the method of capturing this energy, they will always be relegated as marginal sources. One other problem with the current setup is that each requires rather large equipment to collect wind or sunlight. Any future technology needs to be space efficient as well. Imagine if we had a car with one small solar panel instead of having every inch of its surface covered. Or if we had a personal windmill the size of our satellite tv dishes on our roof instead of the giant field monoliths.

As ingenius as we humans have been with how we get our energy (the grease biofuel still impresses me), it's amazing to me that everything still boils down to us burning something to turn generators to produce energy. It seems to rudimentary and antiquated that I'm surprised that we haven't found another way to get electricity. Isn't there any other way than to create steam to push turbines to create static electricity??

Even our modern cars use gasoline because it creates an explosion when lit which causes air pressure to push a piston in the engine.

I criticize our collective inability to create other methods but I don't really have any substantial solutions either. I'm not that smart. I can throw out wild ideas but have no idea how they work or how to repurpose them for our energy needs.

What about plant photosynthesis? Plants are able to capture sunlight and use it as energy. They definitely aren't using steam turbines. Can we somehow synthesize or replicate how they do it? Or is there a way to use plants directly and tap into their energy generating ability?

The human body uses electricity to carry signals. How are our bodies generating those sparks? Can we copy that somehow? I'm not suggesting we get all Matrix-y and insert tubes into people or anything. I'm just saying we always get our inspiration from nature and it seems to me that we haven't really felt the need to push our energy creation solutions beyond what they already are.


So those are my thoughts. No fool-proof or total solutions. I suspect the real answer lies in an amalgamation of methods rather than one magic answer. I still have faith in our current President to push for energy independence and technological innovation. But I also know that he is mired in our current polarized political system and can't do it alone. He's been focused on a lot of issues, like universal health care, but with the BP disaster and the resulting public dissatisfaction with oil companies, it'd be a wasted opportunity if he didn't channel some of the public attention into innovative policy.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Role Call : Fractured Man

Related Posts
Part 3 : Modern Man
Part 4 : Post-Modern Man

The current shift in social gender behavior further proves that we are an unpredictable species. I would've never fathomed such formulations as possibilities. I also think that we're still in the middle of this era which also makes it harder to examine with an unskewed perspective.

The scales began tipping from male dominated to equal and then to female dominated. In this brave new world, men resisted and reacted in various ways. Some fought to hold onto what they could, others embraced the new system. Demands on men to be more sensitive and sympathetic also made it okay to be not so macho. Historically, it was unpopular to be wimpy and non-athletic. But in today's era, it was not only accepted but fashionable. The rise of the metrosexual gave empowerment to those who saw the typical jocks and hunks as brutish and unsophisticated.

Not every guy embraced this new persona. My trips back to Texas would result in a lot of scoffing about "sissy metrosexuals". The reaction was to get bigger SUVs and buy fishing boats. Yet like in any war of escalation, overt signs of hetero-manliness was seen as a sign of repressed homosexuality. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. The only way to go along unscathed was to remain neutral.

Post-Modernism created a battlefield for sexual dominance. Coming out of that period, men took an interesting stance: they embraced the role of the lesser. As mentioned previously, women fought for more respectable representation in society. Thus in media, the women grew more intelligent and ambitious. Yet possibly due to our base human values, they had to stay beautiful. The most transparent (and ridiculous) case had to be the casting of Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in the James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough. I don't want to promote the idea that beauty and brains are incompatible in a woman, but Richards as an actor lacked the skill and gravitas to pull of a cerebral heavyweight.

Possibly to emphasize the ascension of females, the guys in the shows became more buffoonish. Early pioneers included Home Improvement and Malcolm in the Middle. Even Homer Simpson began to evolve (or devolve) as time progressed, to reflect this change in social attitudes. The show creators laughingly admit that Homer's IQ dropped as the seasons went on. Gone were the days of The Cosby Show when both adults could be competent equals. One had to be the butt of the jokes.

Though creator Matt Groening has said that he believes that audiences love an idiot, which means Homer's stupidity isn't exactly rooted in gender role upheavals. His theory has merit. Throughout television history, bumbling males have proven popular with watchers, even up to today with characters like David Brent from The Office. The psychology behind this approach reasons that people don't want to feel inferior to the characters they watch, so enjoy watching morons as long as they're basically good-hearted in the end.

True to this, virtually every character on The Simpsons takes a dip in intelligence. But why then do Marge and Lisa remain intact for the most part throughout the show's span? Are we less inclined as a society to find it comfortable to laugh at an idiotic Lisa as opposed to an idiotic Bart?

So women were smarter, savvier and still sexy. But men grew fatter, uglier and dumber. A pair that became comedy gold in recent history. So predominate, it became the default set-up for any show. You couldn't land on a channel and not see a fit starlet sitting on the couch next to a beer-bellied oaf.

My initial reaction was to wonder, "Is this what we're expected to be as guys?" But my second thought was to ask, "Is this what women are expecting to get from guys?" Are women being conditioned to have low expectations towards men?

It's almost as if the men, losing the tide of battle, turned around and said "Women want to be superior? They think we're not as good as them? Fine, we can do that."

Somehow men were promoted to think that they can envision themselves with brainiac supermodels while not having the same expectations of themselves. And women, fighting so hard to gain respect somehow got the tables turned on them.

It became acceptable for men to revel in their nerdiness. Video games and comic books would instantly sink one's social standing when I was in high school. Yet today, it's cool. A guy can embrace his geekdom and the hot girls will still come running. The video game channel G4 punctuates this with the former-model turned host, Olivia Munn. Moral of the story? Hot chicks gravitate towards guys, no matter how geeky.

The theme of a nerdy, emotionally-stunted manchild was crafted to perfection in Will Ferrell, and virtually every Judd Apatow movie. The guys were immature and awkward but women loved them anyway. I'm not discounting the attractive power of humor in a man, but is it the same when the sides are flipped? Are men as conditioned to accept less than perfection in women?

Mel in Flight of the Conchords is nerdy and passionate about her likes, but is also portrayed as a little insane. In practically every teen movie, the nerdy girl is just a suppressed princess waiting for a guy to help her discover her true nature. In American Pie, Alyson Hannigan's sweet yet dull band nerd is actually a sexual deviant in disguise. In She's All That, Rachel Leigh Cook plays an antisocial misfit who just needs the right guy and a makeover. Take note, girls: remove your glasses and you can be prom queen.

And guys? That prom queen will ultimately see you for your inner beauty. No need to quit the chess club.

I'll admit that media's portrayal of men isn't so rigid. Rock stars will always be wild, bad boys, despite the occasional Weezer or Vampire Weekend saying it's okay to rock out in glasses and sweater-vests. And Hollywood will always find a pretty boy for girls to fawn over (current iteration: Edward Pattinson).

But is that enough? Yeah, handsome men are still portrayed in media but they're virtually never paired off with anyone less radiant than a Julia Roberts or a Catherine Zeta Jones. Is Brad Pitt ever in a tryst with a fat, unattractive girl?

Where is the equality? Guys are conditioned to think "Well, I can't look like George Clooney. But it's also okay if I look like Kevin James because I'll still get the hot girl."

I'm sure there's evidence counter to this theory. I like to think that Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a great role model for impressionable girls. Here's someone who doesn't fit our society's guidelines of beauty. But she is 100% comfortable in her own skin and has such high sense of self that she doesn't find it necessary to conform to a more accepted public opinion. She has an unusual fashion sense but flaunts it with such genuine joy that one can't help but respect her and find her sexy because of it. Still, she's a rock star and isn't that sexy to begin with?

Dove recently put out an ad campaign to promote real women with real curves as beautiful, bucking the trend of Victoria's Secret waif yet buxom idols. An admirable effort, yet it was still rife with controversy. Apparently, the "real women" weren't as real as they were touted to be.

Despite these efforts, the overall trend is for women to have high expectations of themselves, yet low qualifications of the men they should seek. And men are told to think the same.

The Apatow movie, Knocked Up took this awareness and attempted to subvert it. "Hey you look like Katherine Heigl. Why wouldn't you be disgusted to be with someone who looks like Seth Rogen?" Yet the story ended up conforming by having her fall in love with the guy anyway. Stereotypical behavior is acknowledged but preserved.

What this film indicates that we as a society are becoming increasingly self-aware. We know what's happening.

There are occasional references back to the Post-Modernism resistance, yet in a more subversive way. Old Spice's recent campaign, "Smell Like a Real Man" carries the same message as some of the older ads. But the effect is purely for over-the-top, humorous effect.

Another example of this awareness is the AMC show, MadMen. Harkening back to the 60's, social trends are accentuated by the stark contrast of today's standards. But that show is so rich with material that I'll refrain from delving into it to possibly save it for a more in-depth examination in the future.

Where do we go from here? Judging from the twists and turns that I've already observed, it won't be easily predicted. One certainty is that we won't be able to go back to the clearly defined roles of the past. Our gender boundaries continue to fracture and blur. We constantly have to reassess what we consider to be manly or womanly. As information continues to proliferate our lives and our ability to project ourselves becomes more ubiquitous, we more frequently re-assimilate ourselves and our self-perceptions.

In Freudian terminology, we could apply my proposed categorizations as elements of an overall social psyche. Modern was the Superego, aiming for perfection and harmony. Post-Modern was the Id, reacting as brutal instinctual force trying to preserve the primal roles. And the Current era is the Ego, trying to reconcile a balance between the two.

Personally, I don't mind subverting the old values of what a man is, but I also don't want to lose a sense of manliness. In a woman, I want an intelligent, confident person who still wants to feel sexy. What's so hard about that, right?