Rodney Davis: Please take a stand against Trump’s immigration order

I just sent the following to my representative in Congress via the web form on his page at the House website:

Based on media reports and what I can find on your website and twitter feed, it appears that you have not yet taken a stand against Trump’s illegal and unconstitutional executive order blocking entry by nationals from certain countries.

Can I count on you to do so in short order?

I didn’t mention in my note, but wanted to mention here, that Davis’s words for his constituents after the recent election invoked Lincoln’s phrase “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” so I’m a little concerned that he may be putting a dangerous strain on our nation’s limited supply of irony.

I also refrained from once again pointing out that the Republicans in Congress are straight-up cowards, afraid of widows and orphans.

In the Conservatory on a gray day in January

I’d been feeling somewhat glum these past two days, so I decided to take steps. Specifically, I paid a visit to the Conservatory at the Plant Sciences Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

It’s a nice space to visit on a winter day. It’s warm. It’s humid. It’s full of plants.

I’d been meaning to go since before Christmas, but the University’s closure over the holidays made it seem simpler to just wait, and then my glumness made it seem suddenly rather urgent, so today I just dropped everything to go for a short visit.

Longer term, I want to return for a more deliberate visit. I want to return on a sunny day, and see what some bright sunshine does to the space. I want to bring art supplies and spend some time drawing, rather than merely taking a few quick snaps the way I did today.

But today, this is what I had time for, and I think it has been of some help.

I think the Conservatory, like an art museum, will reward repeated visits.

In the meantime, enjoy these pictures and imagine that you’re someplace warm and humid and filled with tropical plants.

What cell phones teach us about the power grid

Back in the day the telephone network was a regulated monopoly. As long as the phone company kept the regulator happy, they were permitted to earn rate of profit on their investment. This resulted in a couple of interesting effects.

First of all, the company was incentivized to invest more in infrastructure: The more they invested, the higher their profit (which was a regulated rate times the size of their investment). This is very different from an unregulated company, where investment is viewed as a cost.

Second, while keeping the regulator happy was always a complex dance, the regulator tended to focus on a few key metrics, one of which was network uptime. This incentivized the phone company to use that large infrastructure investment to produce a network of extreme reliability.

And that network was reliable. In my personal experience with wired phones in that era a wired phone always had service: For two decades as a youth I had literally 100% success picking up a phone and getting a dial tone. Likewise, calls did not drop. Service was rated in nines: 99.999% uptime was 5 nines, 99.9999% uptime was 6 nines.

Of course, that sort of reliability is impossible with cell phones. They move around. Worse yet, they go places where radio signals simply can’t reach.

Cell phone reliability is pretty darned good—let’s call it 98%, as long as you’re not trying to get service in places where nobody else cares if there’s service (the middle of the desert, the middle of the ocean, etc.). But people are not surprised when they find a spot where there’s no service, nor are they surprised if a call drops when elevator doors close or they drive into a tunnel.

This is not to say that cell phone service is bad. My point is simply this: To get the advantages of cell phones, people have accepted a drop in telephone service reliability from six nines down to less than two.

I think this is particularly of interest because I see a potential parallel with the power grid.

The big problem with solar and wind power is that they’re crappy at providing baseline power, for obvious reasons: nighttime, cloudy days, calm days, etc.

If you want a power grid to provide five or six nines of availability, you really need to have enough fossil fuel (or nuclear) generation capacity to provide a large fraction of your total power needs—at least 80%, probably more if you don’t have considerable diversity in your renewable sources (both diverse sources: solar and wind, and geographic diversity: the wind is always blowing somewhere and the sun shines different hours different places).

But just as people learned to get by with less than two nines of phone network reliability, people could certainly learn get by with a less reliable power grid as well.

Thinking of household use, there are certain things that really need fairly reliable power (refrigerator, freezer, furnace), but beyond those few things, we only require a high-availability grid because we’ve set things up with the expectation that it would be there.

Just two or three modest changes to the way we use power could easily accommodate a less-reliable grid.

The easiest one would be for each household to have a guaranteed level of power—enough to keep your food fresh, your pipes unfrozen, and a couple of lights turned on—and then make additional power available on an as-available basis. Alternatively, you could go with a market-based measure where power was cheap when it was plentiful and expensive when it was scarce. A third option would be to distribute the resiliency, with each household providing its own backup power storage or generation capability.

My point here is not to solve the issues for a smart grid, but just to make this point: For a big enough payoff—like the payoff of a internet-connected supercomputer that you can carry in your pocket—we would accept a considerable downgrade in reliability from our power grid.

The payoffs from renewable energy arguably are that big. (In particular, not rendering the planet uninhabitable for humans. But that’s a payoff that’s uncertain and diffuse, with the gains—especially the early gains—going to people other than the ones who need to make the sacrifices.) But there are payoffs to everybody: less particulates in the air, fewer pipeline and tanker spills, fewer truck and rail accidents hauling coal and oil through towns and cities, fewer worker deaths in the coal-mining and oil-drilling industries. And then there are the cost savings: Renewable power has the potential to be very cheap and very reliable in the out-years, once the infrastructure has earned out its initial capital costs.

It might well be worth getting past the idea that the power grid should provide near-perfect reliability, given the payoffs involved in accepting a bit less.

Winter solstice night hike

Last night the Urbana Park District hosted a winter solstice night hike at Meadowbrook Park, and Jackie and I had a great time walking with Savannah, the park district guide, and the nearly a dozen people who attended.

The winter solstice is always a hard day for me. The longest night should be the day things finally start to get better, but I have trouble finding solace in that truth. Making a bit of a ceremony of the solstice helps.

In years past—pretty much without even thinking about it—I have always fought against the gathering dark. My reaction to this tweet by Jonathan Mead is a good example.

The more you resist the seasons the more you’ll pay later. Sink into the darkness. There’s no better time than now to fully recharge.

I was having none of it:

“Good advice,” I say, vowing never to give in. I’ll gladly pay more later, when the light has returned. A lot more.

That particular reaction—so automatic, and so strong—prompted some thinking over the past year. Maybe there was something to the idea. Could it be that there’s a way to concede to the dark and cold without sinking into depression?

This winter I will experiment with that idea. I mean, it’s going to be cold and dark whether I rail against it or not. Maybe a bit of acceptance could help?

Savannah read a short text that advocated along these lines—something about “being where you are” on the winter solstice. [Updated 28 December 2016: I had emailed Savannah a link to this post, and she replied with the link to the text she had read from: Winter Solstice Traditions: Rituals for a Simple Celebration]

I’ll post more on this as winter progresses.

The night did not fully cooperate. The sky was overcast, which meant that we couldn’t see much in the way of planets or constellations. We didn’t hear any owls, despite Savannah’s best efforts to call to them, nor did we hear any coyotes. It wasn’t even as dark as it might have been—the low clouds caught and reflected the light pollution from Urbana and campus.

None of which meant the walk fell short of my hopes. Savannah talked about the history of Meadowbrook Park, and showed us several of their current projects—restoring native plants along Douglas Creek (Jackie helped with that one) and opening up some space along the Hickman Wildflower Walk. She talked about the Barred Owls in the woods to the west and the Great Horned Owls in the woods to the east. She talked about the few local species that hibernate, and compared them to the local species that instead engaged in winter sleeping. She took us to the Freyfogle Prairie Overlook and told us it was the highest point in the park—an amusing notion in a place so flat.

It was wonderful.

It was dark enough that I didn’t want to try to take pictures, so the pictures on this post are from earlier visits to Meadowbrook Park. The rabbit in the picture at the top is one of my favorite sculptures. This picture at the bottom, taken on one of our very long walks leading up to our big Kal-Haven trail hike, is from a spot quite close to the Freyfogle Prairie Overlook.