Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wind Energy ... shooting the breeze

The subject of wind farms in this area has triggered a lot of debate over the course of past few months or so. I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but my inclination is to support an energy resource that is not petroleum or coal based and which might provide a shot in the arm of the local economy.

A rather unlikely alliance of rural landowners and counterculture types (several of which are friends of mine) have assembled a pretty formidable media campaign against the proposed Antelope Ridge wind farm slated to go up in Union County. I decided to do a little online research to see if I could track down the validity of certain claims being made about the problems with wind power.

It only took a short time to locate what I'm assuming to be uber-source document for the wind power opponents. It's a paper titled "A Problem with Wind Power" authored by Eric Rosenbloom in 2006. This is an excellent place to begin reading if you want to understand the anti-wind farm perspective. It is cited on many sites which are devoted to the anti-wind farm movement.

For those of you who like to debate, there is a website called Debatepedia attempts to outline the forensics framework for pro and con arguments.

I also ran across a pdf document which summarizes a position paper published in 2010 by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). This paper evaluates the European Wind Integration Study (EWIS) conducted in 2007-09 which was financed by the European Commission. You can read the final report of that study here. For those of you who don't have time to read the whole thing, the first five pages contain summaries of major findings and recommendations...they're worth looking at.

The upshot for me is that wind power might fairly be described as being in need of further development in order for it to deliver on its promise as a substantial contributor to our overall energy needs. The wind turbine technology is not perfect; the connectivity to the grid is at present problematic, and economics of wind power seem dependent to a significant degree on public investment.

All of the aforementioned problems strike me as symptomatic of a new technology and therefore to be expected. The histories of railroad development and, later on, interstate highways, were ones which included, unless I am mistaken, significant public assistance in some form or other. In both cases parties got rich in the process, sometimes unfairly profiting from insider information and or governmental favor. My point is simply that transitions from old models to new models are seldom (never?) smooth, but if the long term vision is important enough, you have to begin somewhere.

Reading Rosenbloom I am struck by how certain problems with wind power trigger a summary dismissal of an entire technology. Every problem with wind power discloses a seemingly insidious intention on the part of shadowy profiteers. By contrast, reading EWIS one sees some of the same problems acknowledged but where those problems trigger a problem solving response...hence you read recommendations about how to improve the grid and how better distribute and harmonize production. The animating impulse is to make wind power work better.

One way to account for such divergent reactions to the same or similar information is rather obvious. Europe has already embraced wind power as part of its long range solution to its energy needs. It has embarked and is well on its way down the road. It is committed to solving the problems that arise along the way. Rosenbloom lives in Vermont and, like my friends in Union County, he has made no such commitment; instead, he embodies the not-in-my-backyard perspective. He is digging in his heels in an intense campaign to preserve a way of life that suits him and others who agree with him just fine, thank you very much.

It is telling (for me anyway) that Rosenbloom does not prioritize his criticisms of wind power in such a way as to plot a course, theoretically at least, toward some possible embrace of wind power in the future. Put another way, what one or two obstacles, if they were surmounted would make wind power palatable to him? Is it the cost of building the proper infrastructure? Is it the relative cost of oil? Is it the aesthetics? Is it foreign involvement? Is it the bird and bat mortality rate? Is it the environmental footprint of wind turbines? How do any of these compare, for example to the problems associated with nucleur energy? (an energy source I have become more and more attracted to over time, by the way)

My sense is that it is not any one of these claims anymore than it is all of them taken together...what I see Rosenbloom assembling is a time honored and all too familiar strategy for blocking change. If any of his objections are factually resolved, I get the sense that he will find new ones to replace the old ones because he's not interested in wind power that works, he's interested in keeping it out of Vermont. I could be reading Rosenbloom wrong of course.
Perhaps someone can set me straight.
In the meantime...let's not forget energy conservation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What I did this summer vacation

Started yesterday morning and finished about six hours ago.

Okay, okay it's still June and therefore much too early to be composing the obit for the summer, but if in September I'm asked to respond to the standard prompt, I can always say that I built a loft bed for my daughter. The day before yesterday, Beth said, "Why don't we build a new tree house this week?"

I didn't bite, just kept chewing on my cereal. That evening, Beth and Tess sat down and doodled some bedroom design ideas. I got up early the next day and played some golf while my family slept. When I got home, Tess hugged me and said, "Are you feeling up to building me a loft bed?" I mused over the wording of her question and glanced at Beth who smiled inscrutably.

Clearly it was time to make something...first step, Google "loft bed". Beth and I find a website with something that looks like it will work. Tess and I hop in the bus and go get lumber at Miller's. Once there, Tess sniffs out the free popcorn while I order the plywood and the other lumber. I love that we can fit a sheet of plywood into our VW Westfalia.

Before noon I had lumber stacked in the front yard, tools on the porch, and a tape measure in my hand. My process as a builder might be called methodical if there were more method to it, yet in terms of pace it is quite methodical, even in terms of visuals it qualifies, as at any given moment you are likely to observe me contemplating what lies before me.

I'd like to think that all my thinking saves me time having to undo bad decisions or erroneous measurements and bad cuts. A good example of this is my finally coming to the realization that I could not move a fully assembled bed from the porch to Tess' bedroom. I'm sure most people would have seen that one right at the start... not me. It came to me in a flash of insight just as I was about to bolt the eight foot 4x4 beams to the box. Even so, not all of my mistakes got caught in time. I had to dismantle the bed twice, once to re-size the box, and once because after bolting the beams to the legs (inside the bedroom), I discovered that I didn't have enough ceiling clearance to turn the bed upright. Throughout the entire building process, Beth was largely absent, occupied with Farmers' Market. When she did drop in, I found myself bristling at any remarks that I construed as critical of the design.
"I didn't think it would be that small."
Part of my problem, is that I am borderline competent and I'd prefer not to be reminded of that fact.
"Is that going to be strong enough?"
I'm not really competent to respond in a meaningful way; instead, I sulk and mutter, "I'm just following the plans." I don't have the lightness of spirit that I wish I did sometimes. I want to be Keebler elf, merrily swinging my hammer and bantering with onlookers instead of a grim faced man barely holding his own with a process he sees but darkly. Beth gives up and stalks away. I know that we'll sort it out later; in the meantime, I fold my arms and consider whether what she has said can in any way be incorporated into the design.
The kids hung about intermittently as did a couple of neighbor kids. Occasionally I was able to put them to useful work, balancing the box or fetching tools or the like. The neighbor girl, Mandy, says, "I was wondering if you could build stuff."
I pause a moment. "Really?"
"Yeah, I was wondering if you could build us a dog house."
"Yeah....but we found somebody to do it."
I am so relieved.
As the bed goes up, so do the kids' expectations.By the end of day one, the basic frame is standing in the middle of the room. It's unbraced and has no ladder yet, not to mention accessories like shelves and the desk. I have to warn the kids to stay away. That night, I sleep fitfully, tossing around possible bracing schemes in my mind. Finally at two-thirty in the morning I get up and go sit under the loft bed and try to visualize the finished product. Beth is leaving later in the morning for a two day retreat, and I want to have this thing done before she gets back. Actually, I had thought of getting in another early morning round of golf, but sleep deprivation is turning that idea into a long shot. Colm wanders by on his way to our bed. I decide to trade places with him. Before I go to sleep I compose a shopping list for the building supply store.

I wake up and gather my list, Beth comes in and looks at the frame. Her eyes turn again to the bracing that supports the mattress (and the child who will lie on it). The doubtful look on her face restarts our exchange from yesterday, almost word for word. She wants to be sure there won't be some catastrophic failure; I want to be believed, and I want to believe myself. I stalk out of the house and go to the lumber store. I come back, my head cleared. I can see the finish line.

Beth helps me hoist the plywood into place for the wall that will be opposite the desk. We then say goodbye to Beth and then the kids and I hit it. Tess dutifully clears out her room and her desktop to make room for all the maneuvering that's going to have to happen in a cramped space. She boxes up items as if preparing for a move. The first thing I do is use a skill saw and a jig saw to customize her desk so that it will fit between the posts of the bed. Next it's time for the ladder, but I'm stumped by the challenge of moving this thing from one side of the room to the other. It's an incredibly unwieldy (and heavy) thing to move about the room by myself.

I walk next door and knock, nobody home. I call John, not home. I go back in there and think about it some more, my signature process. Once upon a time, I managed to hoist a camper shell up onto my pickup all by myself. It was touch and go and could easily have ended badly for me and the shell, yet I somehow got it done. Another time I carried a full-size futon sofa frame, with folding out hide-a-bed attachment, from Colm's bedroom across the house, through the kitchen and mudroom, and down the basement stairs. It took me a half hour, but I made it. In both cases the difference between completing task and screwing myself up was small enough to appear negligible to some. Compared to those two examples, this bed was a piece of cake. The more I thought about it, I was almost embarrassed about having gone next door to ask for help. Once I had it where I wanted it, all that was left was to drill and bolt the cross pieces for climbing up and then using some scrap lumber to fashion a shelf for the desk and another small shelf on the headboard. Colm got a charge out of tightening the lag screws with a socket wrench; Tess got into the act too. I worked straight through the day. Tess fixed a lunch of cold cuts, crackers, cheese, and berries, and cold cereal for herself and Colm. It was endearing to see how well they fended for themselves, with hardly any direction...it put me in mind of the Truffaut film Argent de Poche where the two kids fix breakfast while we hear the song Les enfants s'ennuient les dimanches. When they finished eating, they came back in and helped some more.

When I finally allowed them up on the bed, they were elated. The task of putting the bedding back on the bed was an utterly novel and delightful undertaking...perhaps for the last time.

As I put away tools and cleaned up, I heard them already experimenting with the bed as a stage for some new play acting with their toys...like Kramer in that famous Seinfeld episode...they had discovered the intrigue of "levels".

Tonight they are sleeping together in the loft bed. It's only right since both of them helped to make it. The loft bed will impact our night time routines. I've been up there and found it comfortable, but I doubt I'll join both kids up there any time soon. Sammy is completely at a loss over being unable to jump up on the bed with Colm or Tess. When they leaned down over the rail to kiss me goodnight, they could barely reach the top of my bald head at first, but with practice we managed to touch noses. As I write, they are sleeping high above the ground, who knows where their dreams may land.

My work is largely done. It's all squares and stock lumber...no pretense to being furniture grade. I've decided to install a couple of handles on the posts to make getting up and down easier and safer. Beth will take up paint and brushes and involve the kids in a whole other level of creation. I've built a bed; she will make a dwelling place.

post script:

Just in case there are some carpenter-types out there checking the blog, I'm posting a couple of photos taken from underneath the bed of the support system for the mattress. It is recessed into a box made of 2x6 lumber. I've attached 2x2 strips, screwed in with 2 1/2 inch screws at ten inch intervals (approx) over which I've laid the plywood and then the mattress. The plywood is slightly smaller than the box (the primary source of concern for Beth...and me). The minimum coverage of of plywood over 2x2 is 7/8 inch...it's more than that in most spots. I've screwed the plywood down into the 2x2s to prevent it sliding. If you see a problem, please comment. I'd appreciate it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Something grand...MCT comes to La Grande

The Missoula Children's Theatre worked some magic in La Grande this week. Two young actors, Allison (the leprechaun) and John Thomas, assisted in their very first MCT gig by MCT veteran Samantha brought their know how, their enthusiasm, and the trademark MCT formula for success to sixty local children whose ages ranged from six to seventeen. The production was an original and very whimsical adaptation of The Princess and the Pea, created by Michael McGill.

MCT was founded in Missoula, Montana, forty years ago and now it is a world renowned organization that this year alone will bring theater to 65,000 kids in 1,200 communities in all 50 states as well as 17 countries. They train and send out pairs of actors whose focus is help teach kids life skills through the theater experience.

I was terrifically impressed by their work. The audition process alone is worth witnessing just to appreciate how seamless is their approach to both life and art. From the moment the kids walk in the door, they have begun their audition. The MCT actors initiate a series of mundane exercises, reciting names and ages and such. By degrees and according to individual inclinations, each kid realized that he was being observed not just as a performer but as a listener. The MCT actors set the tone in auditions by consistently alternating between high energy playfulness and no-nonsense attention to the rigors and requirements of working together effectively.At the end of two hours they have taken a group of sixty strangers and cast an entire show.
It was a fascinating illustration of how one can modulate between fun and focus. All week long, the kids found themselves coaxed and prodded and taxed to the limit. For the little ones especially, there were times when their weary expressions tugged at your heart. But always they rallied.

Colm had, in fact, tried to get out of going before the week began. We made him go, but kept an eye on him. No worries. He and Tess both enjoyed themselves enormously.

Part of the genius of the MCT approach is the way it provides the younger kids with lots of opportunities to observe and emulate the older ones. The cast featured some very capable youngsters, including a stellar pair playing the princess and the pea. Their inventiveness and investment proved contagious.

On the final day, the kids were delighted to finally see and wear their costumes and to get their makeup put on. Everything began to take shape. The kids began to sing with more gusto, they moved with more purpose and they smiled with conviction. They also displayed a collective discipline onstage and off - testimony to Samantha's relentless insistence on respectful listening and decorum.

Tess and Colm both became increasingly more bold and engaged as the week went on. It was great to see them work it out for themselves. By the end of the week, both kids were singing the show's tunes at home and performing their choreography just for fun. The first performance took place yesterday before a nearly full house. Everyone was charmed and even astonished by the quality of the show. As for the kids, they have a final performance this afternoon. When it's over, they will resume their summer routines, but each of them may carry some subtle sense of what if feels like to be part of something grand.
P.S. Beth, it was you who initiated the idea to bring in MCT...way to go!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

she is a he

Shocking bit of news left the kids saddened last week and cut our poulty population in half. We woke up one morning to the sound of a cock crowing...which was news since we only have hens, or so we thought. The culprit turned out to be a bantam named Sunny aka Sonny Boy. She/he was Colm's favorite. Crowing is definitely not allowed in our neighborhood. She/he and her/his friend Chirp now reside in a safe house in the Cove.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Baring my sole

Life is slow once again.

During these slack times,Tess is periodically seized by an entrepreneurial spirit which usually results in her posting herself curbside in front of the house. This time she was offering to do your nails for three bits. Colm decided to add to the offerings by getting Beth to make him lemonade.

We live on a very slow street which almost always foils our kids' dreams of making a pile, but it never seems to take the luster off of the venture for them. The few pedestrians who do happen by have a hard time pretending to ignore these two. There's nowhere to hide. The mailman gave Tess some money and told her to give someone a free nail job.

I decided to have a relaxing read under the tree while having my toes painted some shiny metallic hue.

Tess announced yesterday that she is going to take her fiddle to the Farmer's Market Tuesday evening and play for tips. Colm is considering whether to do the hula hoop in a supporting role.

Pennies from heaven...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

a teacher's reflections..28 to be exact

The year is over. For awhile now I've been mulling over some fairly big picture notions regarding schools, but since I've embraced the art of "slow blogging" none of you out there would know about that would you?
Here are some shorthand statements and questions that represent a sketched outline of what's on my mind these days. Maybe someday they will cohere into essay form.
  1. Too many kids and too many parents seem to uncritically accept college as the default post-high school option.
  2. Too many educators at the high school and college level counsel too many kids towards college.
  3. Getting accepted into a college is a far cry from being able or ready to flourish there.
  4. Anything short of flourishing in college, represents an outcome that makes college a questionable investment.
  5. Not all college degrees are worth the money, and some represent an ill advised accumulation of debt with little prospect of pay-off down the road.
  6. Too many employers uncritically require college degrees as part of their job requirements.
  7. Too many legal and cultural impediments exist to allow young people meaningful entrance into the adult world of work.
  8. The boundaries between school and work need to be far more permeable.
  9. Not enough value is placed on life/work experience or on portfolio's of work.
  10. Not enough education and training is available in the workplace.
  11. Credits and grades are profoundly distracting to the project of acquiring a good education.
  12. Instead of or in addition to reporting out GPAs and credits, we should furnish narratives and impressions that accurately characterize each of our students.
  13. What should matter most to educators, students, and parents in high schools are these four questions: What do you know? What can you do? What can you make? Who do you who can help you with the first three questions?
  14. There is no substitute for the joy of creation, and there is no greater leverage in the quest for excellence than that joy.
  15. Success in one domain, however narrow, should be mined for all its worth, even at the risk of ignoring other domains...over time, success spills across the board.
  16. Grade level is a pernicious concept.
  17. Teaching is a practice that must perpetually revised and refined over time...therefore, good teaching practices require quality time for review and reflection.
  18. Schools should be places where reflection is a core value and a conspicuous practice.
  19. Teachers should be practitioners in their areas of teaching, not just be certified.
  20. Teachers should grade less and assess more authentically and effectively.
  21. Teachers should be wary of textbooks and, at every opportunity, introduce their students to primary texts (contemporary and historical) and authentic materials that inform their discipline.
  22. Teachers should teach intolerance of lazy thinking.
  23. Teachers should solicit anonymous evaluations from their students...and read them.
  24. Students should assemble their own portfolios of work to carry forward into life after school.
  25. Students should expect to have to exhibit their work in a public way.
  26. A principal should be the lead educator in the building, not merely the person enforcing policy and holding the purse strings.
  27. Administrators spend almost no time in the classroom...this is exactly the opposite of what the case should be.
  28. Administrators ought to be able to articulate forcefully and coherently all these things that are listed above in order that the public is not permitted to be ignorant of the true costs and benefits of a quality education.