Tuesday, July 25, 2017

More about my Volt; Remembering Alger Hiss

Today is a bit of a Grab Bag day, though it isn't a Friday.

Cost of Driving a Chevy Volt
First, a follow up to my blog post about the cost of driving my Chevy Volt. I have since found out that if I had subscribed to the On Star program, General Motors would be sending me monthly information about my car and its driving habits, including mileage, how many Kilowatt Hours and gas I've consumed, etc. As it turns out, I haven't signed up for it, but maybe I will.

Remember Alger Hiss?
Now that Jared Kushner has spoken to Senate investigators, it bears remembering that in 1950, Alger Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison. The crime? Perjury. How did he perjure himself? He failed to disclose information to a congressional panel about his contacts with an agent of the Soviet Union. The stakes keep getting higher.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Net metering is switching our economy to electricity

The greening up of our economy takes many forms. In a recent conversation with my neighbor, I found this out ...

Long ago, he installed solar panels on his roof. During the summer time, his panels produce a lot more energy than he can consume. The excess energy gets sold back to the energy grid, and his utility Eversource then credits his account for the value of that energy. He runs a negative balance these months, where Eversource owes him more than he owes them.

During the winter months, when the sun is lower in the sky and the days are much shorter, my neighbor can then spend the credits he earned during the summer. This entire process is known as "net metering." 

Factoring in everything, over a 12 month cycle my neighbor still produces more energy than he consumes, but here's the kicker ... 

Because his credits are accumulated by producing electricity, the only way he can spend those credits is by burning electricity. Therefore, my neighbor is massively incentivized to transform all his power needs into electric. This includes warming his house with electric heat in the winter, and powering his car with electrons rather than with petroleum all year round. 

He tells me that as soon as his lease is up on his BMW X3, he will be in the market either for a Chevy Volt or Bolt, or for a Tesla. 

Electricity is replacing fossil fuels as our preferred power source.

Just another chapter in how the world is changing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Akamai consolidates its employees in Kendall Square

Governor Charlie Baker joined Cambridge mayor Denise Simmons in Kendall Square today for a groundbreaking celebrating the consolidation of Akamai employees into a single new building there. Boston Properties, responsible for much of the development in that part of the city over the past four decades, will construct the building.

Cambridge mayor Denise Simmons, next to governor Charlie Baker, at the Akamai groundbreaking

Akamai is the back-end of the internet, helping over 3 trillion interactions happen every day on the World Wide Web. Founded in Cambridge by Tom Leighton, a professor of applied mathematics at MIT, and his former graduate student Danny Lewin in 1998, Akamai has grown to 7,000 employees world-wide and over $2 billion in annual revenue. That Akamai is able to stay in Cambridge is no small success for this city of 100,000 people, and today's event reiterates the importance of Kendall Square in the local economy.

As if to underscore that point, another important developer presented their plans for Kendall Square at a separate event last night. MIT's real estate arm came before the housing-advocacy group A Better Cambridge and told a roomful of people their plans to develop the Volpe site, a 14-acre parcel right in the heart of Kendall Square.

An audience member asks a question at last night's ABC event with MIT

While the MIT team is nowhere near breaking any ground on new construction, their process is designed to incorporate as much of the local concerns as possible while sorting through some of the stickier urban design and planning questions this development poses. Right now, they are working through different scenarios dealing with open space, housing, commercial and retail activities.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Is driving on electricity less expensive than driving on gas? Comparing a 2017 Chevy Volt to a 1999 Subaru

As many of you already know, I'm in love with my new Chevy Volt. It's comfortable, it drives well, it feels safe on the road. It inspires confidence in the corners and in the rain. It has Apple Car Play, which among other things means that I can have GPS navigation on my screen through Apple Maps. But more than any of this, my car has now travelled over 1,500 miles since April, and it has used less than one tank of gas total to do it.

That is because it runs on electricity for the fifty miles before it switches over to the gas-powered engine, so all local driving is done on electricity with no gas necessary. 

This prompts an obvious question, a question that I get asked all the time ... 

Have my electricity bills gone up?

I now can answer that question. 

The answer is unequivocally: Yes. 

Here's how I know ... I looked at my electricity usage from Eversource and this is what it told me ...

My electricity usage more than doubled when I compare June 2016 to June 2017. It went up by 115.6 percent to be precise, amounting to an average daily usage this June of 9.7 Kilowatt Hours (kWh). While that does represent a huge jump from this same time last year, my net total cost for that electricity is $67.67, a very manageable number and average daily usage of 9.7 kWh is still significantly below the national average of 29.6 kWh. 

Here is my data from Eversource ...

Since my quick math tells me that in June 2016, I spent roughly $31.47 on electricity for that month, my net total increase for June 2017 was $36.20.

Assuming that all of that $36.20 was caused by increased electricity consumption to power my car (an assumption that doesn't make entire sense because of the amount of air conditioning I have used this summer), the next question is, 

Am I spending equivalent to, more than or less than I was spending on gas in my former car, an old 1999 Subaru wagon? 

As it turns out, in June 2016, I spent a total of $47.84 on gas. 

So, comparing June 2016 to June 2017, I have spent 24.3 percent LESS on automobile fuel (whether in the form of electrons or petroleum) this year than I did last year, or in dollar terms, $11.64, which as an annualized amount is $139.68 in savings by driving an electric car.

Given that my car payments are $144/month, I am getting one month's worth of car usage just on my gas savings alone.

This 24 percent is a real savings, and it will only increase as gas prices rise. Furthermore, while I haven't accounted for miles driven, my personal sense is that I have been driving more in my new car this year than I drove in the Subaru last year. 

The Chevy Volt: saving money and reducing the carbon being spewed out into the atmosphere. A win win. 

Addendum: Starting next month, my energy bill will increase again because I have signed up for Cambridge Community Electricity, an aggregation program where Agera Energy becomes the energy purchaser for Cambridge customers instead of Eversource. 

The base plan is 25% more solar that what the state requires though they also have a 100% GREEN option, which is exactly what it sounds like ... 100% renewable sources for electricity. I opted for 100% GREEN, so I'm powering my car completely on wind and solar. It costs 20% more per kWh, but if ever there were a case of "Putting your money where your mouth is," this would be it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Henry David Thoreau, you're too old to die.

The rain sprang out of nowhere. Lightning shot horizontally across the sky as the clouds darkened. The radio was telling me what I already knew, there were thunderstorms in the area. I don't worry about thunder, but the lightning I mind.

This is doubly true when swimming is the goal. The rain came down harder. It was a blinding rain. My windshield wipers couldn't keep up. Back-and-forth-back-and-forth, I thought they might fly off their hinges.

Sure enough, in the way these things happen, as soon as I got to Walden Pond the rain started to relent. In the parking lot, there was a young woman in a bikini trying to dry her hair with a towel. Trying to dry your hair in the rain. It seemed odd to me. But she was wearing a bikini, so I forgave.

It was blue sky by the time I got down to the shoreline. Lifeguards had required everyone leave the water when the rains came, so the pond was quiet.

I wanted to swim, but it wasn't allowed. 20 minutes, they said. So I just stared out onto the pond. Sometimes a summer shower means the temperature is about to drop and the air is about to get crisp. This was the opposite. The wet air was able to suspend even more moisture in it. Hot and humid became hotter, more humid.

How would I tell Henry that I was here? How would I let him know I was here?

Walk around the pond, I thought. Once around the pond, to tell Henry "Happy Birthday, old man!" Once around the pond for the boy, born on this day 200 years ago, in Concord, Massachusetts.

I began my pilgrimage. The shoreline was empty except for the odd family now and again.

When I got to the far side, I dropped my shorts near a little cove and went for a dip. I wasn't naked. I had my swim trunks on. I went for a dip. The water was cool, but not cold. And it was clear. Man was it clear. A short dip, then back to the shore, shirt on, shoes on, on my way, around the pond. Once around the pond for the boy, born on this date, 200 years ago.

What he did with his 44 years is worth remembering. That Henry David Thoreau must have been an odd duck. The way odd ducks leave an impression. Living in the woods? What a strange thing to do.

An American Impression. An American Original. An American Independent.

Happy Birthday, you strange man.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,   
And round it was, upon a hill.   
It made the slovenly wilderness   
Surround that hill. 

The wilderness rose up to it, 
And sprawled around, no longer wild.   
The jar was round upon the ground   
And tall and of a port in air. 

It took dominion everywhere.   
The jar was gray and bare. 
It did not give of bird or bush,   
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

-- Wallace Stevens

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

We are free. We are free.

In Congress, July 4, 1776,


When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the right of Representation in the legislature; a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of the People.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of Peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his protection, and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens, taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions, We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred, to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in GENERAL CONGRESS assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions, DO, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly PUBLISH and DECLARE, That these United Colonies are, and of Right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Bri tain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that, as FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. AND for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Attested, CHARLES THOMSON, Secretary


Monday, July 3, 2017

Congress should reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment now

Now is the time for Congress to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment.

Back in 1994, swelled with braggadocious pride at their electoral victory in November, House GOP members began their war on science and knowledge and facts by zeroing out the budget of their Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA as it was called, as part of their larger Contract with America.

OTA, created in 1972 to provide the Congress with unbiased assessments of technology and its impact on science and society, lived a peaceful life on Capitol Hill, studying subjects as varied as housing for the elderly, crop substitution strategies in Colombia and Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" proposals. Always a target of conservative ire, the agency was staffed by an unassuming, dedicated mix of scientists, social scientists and policy experts working under the radar of the brighter and hotter debates in Washington. OTA studies took about 18 months to complete and were viewed as the standard bearer for discussion on the topic, whatever the topic may be. The agency cost the tax-payers roughly $22 million a year to operate.

Newt Gingrich, bomb-thrower, agitator and hate merchant, decided that Congress would start its belt tightening by tightening its own belt. Because he couldn't touch the Congressional Research Service, a policy research arm of the Library of Congress, the only sacred cow he could slaughter was OTA. Gingrich's success in cutting OTA pointed out the magnitude of his larger failure. Gingrich backed down when faced with real opposition, but didn't slow down in face of a smaller opponent. In other words, Gingrich was a classic schoolyard bully. Sound familiar?

More importantly though, his actions were an early salvo in the continuing Republican assault on rationality, common sense, intellectual honesty, knowledge and science. By cutting OTA, he put blinders on the U.S. Congress, thereby denying policy makers deeper insight into the meaning and implications of new technology that continues to arrive faster and more furiously every day. 

OTA had a sister agency in the executive branch, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Located at the White House, and headed up by the president's science advisor, OSTP still is tasked with providing thoughtful analysis for the president as he decides on policy direction in space exploration, energy and climate science, nanotechnology and our national labs, just to name a few. The horrifying recent reports that OSTP's Science Division now has exactly zero employees is a result of the simple fact that adults find it impossible to work for such a degraded man as Donald Trump. Conversely, a man as degraded as Donald Trump has no interest or understanding of what these adults do and therefore no motivation to attract talented people to fill these positions in his White House.

A first step to rectifying this situation is for Congress to reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment now, a bold move that would provide timely, thoughtful, peer-reviewed advice and insight on the most pressing issues of our day. For the right, this will have the added benefit of combatting the accusation that all Republicans are antediluvian flat-earthers and will offset the prevailing belief that rational discourse is the sole purview of the Democratic party. In the meantime, it will make us all safer, and it will help make America great again.

[Editor's note: Author worked at both OTA and OSTP in the 1990s.]