Attending TEDx Rochester 2011

Today was the third year of TEDx Rochester, held at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) TED is a lecture series that originally focused on "technology, entertainment, and design" (providing the words for the acronym) but shifted to simply, "ideas worth spreading". "TEDx" lectures are independently produced, but attempt to mimic that theme. This year, TEDx Rochester featured sixteen live discussions, two video presentations, and a proper video lecture from TED itself.

Adam Walker kicked things off talking about a project he's involved with: The Kosovo Wind Gardens. The idea is to create small electricity-producing windmills all around countries without infrastructure for a reliable electric grid. Kosovo is one example, as it has very few power plants (their largest is a 1950-designed coal-burner with disastrous emissions) and simple things like dairy milk production are hampered by unreliable power. The windmills are designed with "appropriate technology" in mind: not just something from an industrialized nation, but a design that relies on simple materials and manual labor (rather than efficiency of mass-production) to better suit local self-sustainability. I was impressed with Walker's presentation and the keen sense of appropriateness and a focus on the people being assisted.

Next was Andrew Perry who discussed Visual Literacy and Graphic Narratives. His thesis was an attempt to show that the means of storytelling and communication are changing — whereas the poem was central to literature prior to the 16th century the novel became the dominant form starting around then, and now we are seeing a new form that integrates text with images and diagrams (in a creative, literary way, not solely for factual reference). There is a new manner of storytelling that goes with it and, while I'm not sure it will become a dominant form, it has definitely come into its own as a rich and complex literary form.

Ashley Aberg then spoke about the difficulties of changing medical thinking when it comes to gender. She centered her talk on what medicine calls "intersex" — neither dominantly male nor female. It is because the male/female binary-gender system influenced the medical community that the medical community considers it worthy of "correction" that typically involves surgically modifying the appearance of a child's genitals. Aberg's point is that there is nothing life-threatening or unnatural about intersex, and as such, it is society that should adapt to it. In some ways a radical concept, but in others, it is solely habit that keeps society's view of gender from matching what nature produces.

Next, Christopher Azzarra spoke about Improvisation: Musical Literacy Beyond the Page. As a music teacher, he observed that formal musical training does more to hamper individual music development than it helps. Since the measurement and analysis of music is so mathematical and sterile, it is hardly the place to start. Instead, he provided some examples of how natural it is for children and for professional improvisational performers to communicate with one another purely with music. Music touches us deeply because it is a fundamental part of our being.

Next was a video presentation of Raymond McCarthy Bergeron's La Lune et Le Coq — an amusing animation wherein the moon and rooster compete at the end of the night.

Dr. Tim R. Mosmann, Ph. D. gave a presentation on the complexity of the immune system. He gave a depth-first tour of immune response and how astonishingly complex it is. At each of a half-dozen levels (from the body to the lymph nodes to the chemistry of the lymph nodes to the cellular interaction to sub-cellular and so on) a huge amount of information is known on how it all works. But then we can extrapolate the exponentially large amount of information, since each specific example was only a fraction of the interaction at that level. In essence, the amount of information is too large to aggregate, so we need new tools to handle it.

In another radical turn, next was Jim Maddison who gave a case for building the The Roc City Skate Park under the eastern terminus of the Freddy-Sue Bridge. Like the shift to accept graphic novels or intersex individuals, skateboarding is a perfectly acceptable leisure activity that offers a mix of exercise, creativity, and accomplishment. Maddison and his team have been working to break down the entrenched view of skateboarders as ne'er-do-wells and hoodlums.

Xanthe Matychak presented Make Better Stuff: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. She sees a major shift in manufacturing where it will be possible to build on-demand at nearly anywhere in the world, alleviating the need for the manufacture/transportation cycles we have now. I tend to agree that these new technologies are a game-changing development. But I don't think it will have as nearly a large impact as she thinks or hopes, unless we see a major change in how people view money and cost that would permit local artisans to overshadow the desire for cheap mass-production.

Emcee Howie Jacobson presented his own project: Vote Be Heard. The gist is to encourage primarily poor, primarily black, and primarily inner-city people to vote in major elections to make their world better. Although I think the effort was valiant, it did not strike me that much care was given to the voices in those communities. In other words, it seemed like some comparatively wealthy white people got together and made what they thought would be powerful messages for a group they largely do not interact with. As I see it, the inner-city poor (like the Occupy Wall Street movement) have little idea what they can do to improve their situation without the benevolence of the wealthy people who keep them there. Because of that, voting has comically little effect, and the oppressed are wise enough to know that.

Theresa B. Mazzullo followed that talking about a group she's involved with, $eedNY. They have financial resources to fund start-ups and other technology ventures. I spent her entire talk trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I was seething as I wondered why people with great ideas and people with the ability to produce things (and often some of both in one person) were not already rewarded with great wealth — and those who have great wealth have neither ideas nor means? Further, I seethed at the whole "venture capital" concept where a person with an idea presents it to those with money, and if they are given money to proceed, either they fail and the gambled capital is lost (and they probably have to pay off crippling debt regardless) or they succeed and the bulk of the profits go back to the investor, reinforcing the cycle.

In another topical twist, Jon Schull presented a history of transportation, paying particular attention to bicycling and human-powered vehicles. Although his talk was interesting and sometimes enlightening, it lacked a call-to-action punch. Rather, it seemed to advise going along for the ride and to be prepared for things to change in the future. Having lived a zero-automobile lifestyle for 4 months now, I feel deeply relieved that I need not worry about all the maintenance owning an automobile brings. I tend to work from broad goals — even in 1994 when I bought my Civic, I was already thinking about rising gas prices (which never hit until 10 years on), and since then, I tended to steer my life toward eliminating the need for a car. Having finally achieved that, I feel well positioned for the future. I advise people to do the same: it's much easier to plan to live close to work 10 years from now than it is to try and achieve next week, so start now thinking how to adapt to our world in 10 years.

Mark Noble presented some recent developments in stem-cell research. Again, an informative lecture, but pretty much just that. And again, part of me gets annoyed that (in America, at least) this lifesaving technology is reserved for the rich people who can afford it. It's kind of disheartening to know that I'm less valuable as a person than someone else.

Triggering more irritation was Hasan Elahi's video lecture from TED titled Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am!. In this case, I was annoyed with the totalitarian police state we live in, not in Elahi's lecture. He talked about how he was interrogated by airport security because of a name mix-up and how he now lives his life under constant government scrutiny. His solution was to publish the minutia of his life: he uses his smart-phone to periodically (and frequently) document his whereabouts along with other things like photos of his hotel rooms or the urinals he uses. In the end, it's a clever redirection of energy that is resulting in a surreal art project on surveillance.

Prove Your World was next: a group of people who are working on a science-based program for children that tries to be better than either dry lecturing or vacuous demonstration. By that, they mean that (like Christopher Azzarra said about music) exploring the theoretical side of something first turns people's interest away, yet by simply offering a flashy demonstration without explanation leads to no learning (or, for that matter, curiosity) whatsoever. Their technique is to start from a simple question (in their demonstration it was, "what's a supernova?") and use demonstration as a tool for learning. Of all the lectures, this was the one I want most to get involved with. Of course their pilot episode is about how airplanes fly, and I cringe that they will reinforce the "equal-transit-time myth" of the airfoil.

Jim Gresko and Dave Vogler paired up to talk about how design is similar to jazz improvisation. I thought it was an innovative approach to discuss the concepts and it worked well.

Next was a discussion of Empathy in Education by Timothy Cottrell. He runs a program called The Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education which pairs high-school students with people in Hospice care. Students' own testimonials revealed a surprising maturity for people in young adulthood.

BELIEVE/Visual Intervention is a film by Ian Wilson and Philip Night that documents a street-art project bringing in international talent side-by-side with Rochester's own on projects on Troup Street and the Union Street railroad bridge near the Public Market.

Relatedly, closing the show was Joan Hildebrand — "the Voice of the Public Market". She had simple, straightforward observations on adapting to change, as she went from a mid-time TV personality to being nearly unknown in this small town, but rather than harp on what she lost, she found new vitality in her work with the Market.

Overall, I found this year's TEDx Rochester to be an even and varied distribution of good discussions. I found it a little heavy on money and products in that many lectures centered on either an existing or future product or project, or gave significant focus to money and profitability. Of course, that may be more my own bias as I tend to seek TED lectures that are more philosophical or human-centered, and tend to ignore those that highlight a new technology or product. I find it a little off-putting, though, that in their re-cap blog post, they note that they "partnered with RIT & U of R to help us recruit new talent for the stage" and add that in the coming year they are "looking to also partner with groups like The Entrepreneurs Network and High Tech Rochester to expand our net." To me this means even more focus on money, product, and project rather than ideas and exploration.

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The Mayoral Debate at Gleason Works

I stopped by Gleason Works (1000 University Ave.) for the Mayoral Debate tonight. On the ballot are Tom Richards as a Democrat, Alex White on the Green Party ticket, and former mayor Bill Johnson as an independent. Ann C. Lewis was in present as a write-in candidate (and handing out literature outside) along with a couple other write-in candidates who were more vocally upset at not being invited to the debate. I've known White a bit through a friend of mine, and I find him to be rational, methodical, strategic, and a real lover of living life. I don't think I've ever seen Richards, and I've only had passing contact with Johnson when he was mayor or around town on occasion.

Anyway, let me lay things out in broad strokes. Rachel Barnhart, acting as moderator, asked 5 pre-conceived questions then selected several more from cards from the audience. Alas, she didn't ask about the proposed RGRTA Bus Barn project on Mortimer Street nor about the City Schools, but instead found it more important to ask about suburbanite concerns about parking and about what to do with the riverfront. In general, all the candidates recognize the major issues before them and have similar directions they'd like to go in.

The differences, though, are what's key. All three candidates agreed that giant boondoggle projects failed to revitalize downtown — White cited a few, and Johnson added that he counted 27 in the past 60 years or so as part of his research as a college professor. However, only White wanted to move forward with caution. Johnson seemed almost bitter that the Renaissance Square was opposed and cancelled — he saw it as the first time in a long time that the city and county cooperated, but my perspective was less of a trophy of such an achievement and more that the county would defecate and the city would get to keep it. Richards cited value in a rivers-end marina being developed with high-priced housing adjacent; he apparently didn't hear that the real estate market's bubble burst. While Johnson and Richards play with hitting the proverbial lottery, White's "big project" was public transportation possibly using light rail — and at that, his proposal was for, at best, a modest start rather than a one-shot full system.

White also differentiated himself by understanding that he is, foremost, a champion of the people. Johnson continues to give more credence to businesses than people (and yes, I fondly recall how he was so easily contacted, often recommending people call his office and set up a lunchtime appointment). Richards was scarcely a Republican in Democrat clothing showing strong support for big business and high finance over actual people. For instance, when White proposed that abandoned houses be rehabilitated for low-income families, both Richards and Johnson jumped down his throat that (1) the houses are not worth salvaging (clearly, White was proposing for the many houses in salvageable shape), and (2) the city now has a policy to secure the houses so it is nearly impossible for people to get into them so they can be "preserved" and get sold later. Missing from the discussion is that homeless people can be paired with abandoned homes (at least temporarily) to help solve two problems.

White also proposed that Rochester attempt to supply municipal electricity, citing that the density of electrical service suits such a system and can drive utility bills down. He prefaced by acknowledging that Richards opposes the idea (purportedly because Richards was former CEO of RG&E, resigning profitably when it was sold to Energy East, then later Iberdrola headquartered in Spain). Richards countered by saying that municipal power wouldn't work because there is no reserve to tap from, adding that the utility company is a major taxpayer in the city whose revenues would need to be replaced. Obviously capacity consumed by RG&E customers would be freed up for municipal power, so his argument is essentially that it's better to spend $0.17/kwh (average what I pay) so that $0.02/kwh can go to the city and $0.10/kwh can go to profit (fictitious figures, but you get the idea) rather than paying $0.05/kwh for municipal power and making up the $0.02/kwh difference in additional property tax (for those not good at math, that's a savings of over 50% of the cost of electricity).

Anyway, in reading other media, I find they fall for the allure of Johnson and Richards slickly polished public speaking skills with Johnson and Richards having an edge with better sound bytes. However, White spends less effort perfecting his public image and more developing sound choices for the future of Rochester.

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Bob Bechtold Talks About Saving Money and the Environment at Harbec Plastics

I headed out to hear Bob Bechtold of Harbec Plastics (369 State Route 104, Ontario) discuss their techniques to become Carbon Footprint Free by 2015 — this week's Tuesday Topics discussion in The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) When I was there, I ran into Rochester Turning blogging machine stlo7 and, to my surprise, I posted my summary first.

Anyway, since Bechtold is in business to make money, that's obviously one of his priorities, but it goes along the lines of "Eco-Economic Decision Making" — what's now called the "Triple Bottom Line": people, planet, and profits. He's a self-described former-hippie and tried to engage investors in his ecological interests. But none took hold until he started Harbec Plastics (369 State Route 104, Ontario) on an economic basis, then steered it toward ecological goals.

He started discussing Harbec's in-house electricity generation. They have 25 30-kilowatt microgenerators that provide for the company's maximum 500 kilowatt load with 5 generators literally to-spare. They run on natural gas provided by the utility, but Harbec gets the advantage of utilizing the excess heat which is otherwise a waste product. The distributed utility model is terribly inefficient on this front: generating electricity from a heat source throws away 60%-75% of the energy in the fuel as heat, while Harbec retains it for heating and even in an absorptive chiller for air-conditioning. He claims they have measured their BTU efficiency at 70% and calculated that their methods reduce carbon dioxide production by 90% over utility production.

As such, they just use the electrical grid as backup.

The well-known wind turbine has a 250 kilowatt capacity. Their location is a "class 3" wind site: about average overall and not as good as sites closer to the lake. They use the turbine to further offset their utility consumption by about 300,000 kilowatt-hours per year, netting a cost savings of $40,000 each year and a return-on-investment on the turbine itself in 8 to 10 years. Bechtold said that one of the biggest competitive advantages is that it freezes energy cost for the 25-30 year lifespan of the turbine, since the costs are no longer attached to fuel prices.

Regardless of all these improvements, their first steps were ones of reducing consumption. The site has in-floor radiant heating, large skylights for natural lighting, and double-insulated walls. Although they don't meet the requirements yet, they are following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building standards. They have also switched their injection molding equipment from industry-standard hydraulic systems to better, more efficient electrical systems. In addition, they added insulation to the molding machines to reduce air conditioning load and to make the equipment run more efficiently. The motors have inverter drives or soft-start for efficiency and to make the equipment last longer. Even their air compressor system is an advanced variable-speed unit. With the help of a grant, the ROI for switching to the T-8 type fluorescent fixtures is only 1.5 years and saves $38,000 each year in electricity.

Bechtold also started Northern Development, LLC (369 State Route 104, Ontario) so he could work toward scaling these efficiencies to an industrial park. If you're really jonesing for more tech-talk, that's the place to go.

During the question-and-answer, it was clear that his message of gains in the "triple bottom line" was accepted. As such, people's questions focused on how to expand his efforts. In answering one question, he said there are anti-franchise laws that prevent people from sharing electricity across property lines, making it impossible to implement in neighborhoods (hint, hint, legislators). It was only through some unique loopholes in that law was it possible for him to run Harbec as he does. However, the individual has a choice: he noted that he's installing a Freewatt furnace/generator at his daughter's house which generates electricity when it heats the house, offsetting expensive electricity (sorry Fairport Electric).

Curiously, New York State isn't so bad for small-scale electricity generation. Not only is it geographically advantaged to be ranked 17th for wind power availability, the legislature finally allowed "net metering" up to 2 megawatts, so small farms can "sell back" generated electricity at utility costs rather than the 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour you'd get from direct sales. This also means that you can use the grid for your excess capacity as it's very difficult to store electricity.

Overall, there's quite a bit of promise in it all.

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Is Electric Heat Cost-Effective?

So I did the cost-of-gas analysis last week and now I got to wondering if the cost of natural gas was high enough to justify electric heat. I first heard about this from someone who was building a workshop. They were trying to figure out if they should bother to install a gas furnace or if electric heat would be cost-effective — so I got the bug in my head about the conversion between the heat energy in natural gas and that in electricity.

So here's the deal: like last week, we have the cost of gas heat (Cg) and the cost of electric heat (Ce) which, at the break-even point will be the same:

Cg = Ce

And what we want to end up with is a break-even point where the price of a unit of natural gas (Pg) is some constant multiplied by the price of a unit of electrical energy (Pe). This is where it gets a little funny because I'm just going to assume the efficiency of a gas furnace is 80% and that an electric heater is 95%. In other words, the total heat in a cubic-foot of natural gas has a certain amount of chemical energy that can be converted to heat, but a furnace is not perfectly efficient at recovering that heat as usable heat in your house (i.e. some necessarily needs to go up the chimney to get rid of the carbon dioxide). Electric heaters are much more efficient as the easiest thing you can do with electric current is to turn it into heat — it's more like 100% efficient, but I'll assume there's some cable losses in the house and maybe it has a fan that does non-heating work.

It also gets a little funny because when I talk about the total cost of heating, for purposes of determining the conversion factor between prices-per-unit, it doesn't matter how much heat — just that it's the same amount. So let's say it's 2000 Calories — like kilocalories or the Calories in terms of food. Trust me. It'll be a fun result.

So now what we've got is that the cost is the unit price * 2000 Calories:

2000 Calories * Pg = 2000 Calories * Pe

Obviously the 2000 Calorie factor cancels out — but I'll leave it there for a while.

Now let's turn to the electricity. We pay for electricity in kilowatt-hour blocks. If I go to Google, I see that 2000 Calories is 2.324 kilowatt-hours. If I factor in that 95% efficiency, I'll need 2.447 kilowatt-hours to make 2000 Calories of heat.

Now gas gets kind of weird [great, more weird, right?] because it's delivered in hundreds of cubic feet (ccf) but billed as therms (100,000 British Thermal Units or 100,000 BTUs). RG&E does the conversion on the bill: 1.0136 therm is 1 ccf. Again turning to Google, 2000 Calories is 0.0793 therms. If I factor in that 80% efficiency, I'll need 0.0991 therms to make 2000 Calories of heat.

So now what I have is:

0.0991 therms * Pg = 2.447 kilowatt-hours * Pe

And since Pg is in dollars/therm and Pe is in dollars/kilowatt-hour, it all works out to dollars-equals-dollars which is perfect.

Moving stuff around, that's:

Pg = 2.447 kilowatt-hours * Pe / 0.0991 therms
Pg = 24.69 kilowatt-hours/therm * Pe

In other words, if you take the price-per-kilowatt of electricity, and multiply it by 24.69, you get the price-per-therm of gas for the same amount of heat.

I had signed up for ConEdison Solutions GreenPower (which is all renewable wind and hydroelectric) so there's separate sections for how much electricity costs. On the last bill I used 363 kwh and paid ConEdison $36.12 and RG&E another $20.93 (-$19.38 in fixed charges for the privilege of being a customer), so that's a total of $37.67 in charges based on a per-kwh rate. Dividing the total by 363, I get an overall cost of $0.104/kwh.

Doing the conversion, if my gas cost is higher than 24.69 * $0.104 = $2.57/therm, then it's cheaper to run electric heat.

I used 157.1 therms of gas, but 3 therms are included for "free" in my $14.38 customer charge and $0.62 "bill issuance charge" — $15.00 total. I paid $209.20 for gas with all the surcharges and such, so removing the $15.00 fixed charge, that's $194.20. Dividing by the 154.1 therms used, that's $1.26/therm — just about half the cost of heating with electricity.

But hey, now you can do the math yourself with your own bill. If it's easier, you can round up the conversion to 25 — so the break-even point is when the cost of a therm of gas is 25 times the cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

Oh yeah, but what about the fun with the 2000 Calorie number? That's about a day's worth of food, right? So if I ran on electricity, it would cost 2.447 kilowatt-hours * $0.104/kwh = $0.25, or if I ran on natural gas, that would be 0.0991 therms * $1.26/therm = $0.12.

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