Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy turkey day, and thanks much for the powder cloud!

Ciabatta bread, roasted turkey, brie, avocado, pepperonici, lettuce, and dijon mustard is all it takes for me - what a delicious sandwich! And it's pretty big, too; in fact normally I'd say such a sandwich is perhaps a tad more than enough (the picture shows only half of it). But I look at it in context of Thanksgiving - most Americans will eat orders of magnitude more on this day (I have witnessed this personally), so this sandwich is really a relatively modest celebration.

In other news, a powder cloud is finally blessing California this week, and I'm very much looking forward to playing in the snow again. My favorite quote from this years Warren Miller movie says it all: It's frozen waves, dude!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Oceanic November Colors

Recently, I've become more aware that I live close to the edge of all the world and western civilization, that is, the Pacific Ocean. It's just 40 minutes away with the car. I had driven along the coast on Highway 1, taken pictures of the Golden Gate, walked along Gold Bluffs beach, and even taken a brief swim at China Beach near San Francisco at some point. But by far the best way to get to know the ocean is to surf!

The best picture is the one that I could not take since I did not have my camera with me. I was surfing near Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz on November 15. There was a wonderful sunset - red, orange, golden colors, which reflected on the waves. The sun set near the Santa Cruz lighthouse. The Big Sur mountains looked close. Against the sunlight, surfers in dark wetsuits were dancing on the waves. I had fun, too, but wouldn't claim it was dancing and the ocean washed my face thoroughly a few times, leaving behind a salty though not unpleasant taste. Perhaps that's what makes the perspective from a surfboard so much more intense than standing on the shore with a camera or binoculars.

Another day I wanted to experience a "stormy" sea, so I went to Point Lobos with rain and strong winds in the forecast, and rubber boots so at least my feet would remain dry as I'd hike around the rocky beach. Water, rain, rocks, and birds put on a nice spectacle.

Of course, the typical fall colors in California are much less gloomy - surely in this state, making black and white pictures takes effort. Here is a picture of the Santa Cruz lighthouse with the more authentic Californian sunshine. Unfortunately the waves had been too small for a fun surfing session, so I was rollerblading along Cliff Drive with my camera.

Last but not least some fall colors from Menlo Park, taken earlier today.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

One plastic bottle of water is equivalent to driving roughly half a mile.

Many people feel strongly about bottled water. They feel that bottled water is terrible for the environment, much too expensive, and perhaps unhealthy due to chemicals in the plastic.

The other camp believes that bottled water is convenient and much healthier than soft drinks. And bottled water sure is popular.

I think it's important to compare the environmental impact of bottled water to other human activities. For me, it's most intuitive to compare the impact with driving around in a car. So, let's suppose I drive with a few friends from Mountain View to Lake Tahoe on a weekend and back (450 miles) while consuming 20 plastic water bottles. It turns out that very roughly, the environmental impact of the water bottles makes up about 2% of the trip.

Here is my rough calculation:
  • The Pacific Institute says that "the total amount of energy embedded in our use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full with oil".
  • These water bottles are usually 500 ml (16.9 FL OZ), so that's 125 ml of oil per bottle.
  • Wikipedia says that "on average, about 19.5 US gallons (16.2 imp gal/74 L) of gasoline are available from a 42-US-gallon (35 imp gal/160 L) barrel of crude oil (about 46% by volume), varying due to quality of crude and grade of gasoline". This means that the bottle is equivalent to roughly 58 ml of gasoline, or 0.0153 US gallons.
  • My car gets about 30 miles per gallon on lengthy trips, so that's 0.460 miles of driving for the 0.0153 gallons of gasoline.
  • It's around 450 miles to Tahoe and back, so the 20 bottles are equivalent to an additional 9.2 miles of driving, which is 2% of 450+9.2.
This calculation of course is very rough and has multiple weak points; among them:
  • The estimate by the Pacific Institute may be inaccurate.
  • There is more environmental impact from the car than just burning the gasoline. Relatively speaking this would lower the relative impact of the water bottles.
  • The conversion from oil to gasoline may be more or less efficient. That is, one may need to invest additional energy to convert from oil to gas - this would lower the relative impact of the water bottles.
  • Perhaps we should compare with a diesel engine (since diesel fuel is closer to oil) or more efficient cars - this would make the relative impact of the water bottles greater.
  • The trip might involve other activities with environmental impact (e.g. sleeping at a hotel, eating ribs, etc.). This would lower the relative impact of the water bottles.
Despite all this I still think it's a valuable ballpark estimate for the order of magnitude of the environmental impact of plastic water bottles. Another, simpler comparison to make is that according to the Pacific Institute, roughly 17 million barrels of oil each year are used to make bottled water; and according to the US government, the US consumes 20.68 million barrels per day. So, very roughly, eliminating all use of water bottles with something that has no environmental impact is equivalent to the US consuming no oil for one day each year.