Friday, August 20, 2010

Geothermal Energy and Entropy

As fossil fuels are starting to become scarcer and harder to obtain, we human energy hogs are finding ever better ways to convert forces of nature into sources of household energy. We have begun to harness wind, waves and sun and in some parts of the world, we have started to extract heating and cooling BTUs from the Earth.

Places like Iceland, where volcanic heat is just below the surface, this geothermal energy has been used for centuries. Even in Africa I have stumbled over project of this type while hiking in Hell's Gate National Park near Lake Naivasha in Kenya.

Olkaria I Geothermal Power Plant in Kenya, 1988

Just yesterday I heard a radio program on how the state of California is sponsoring geothermal initiatives (Full Steam Ahead for Geothermal Plans, NPR). While generally boosterish, the report did acknowledge bore holes literally running out of steam, issues with small earthquakes, and boreholes collapsing. Indeed, a quick survey of these problems brings up articles from the web. The running-out-of-steam problem in particular piqued my interest. I had thought before generating geothermal energy is closely tied to the second law of thermodynamics. As the air is heated, the earth in the bore hole is cooled. Eventually, and admittedly probably after many millions of years, the temperature of the earth and of the earth will be the same.

I thought about this on my way to work and forgot about it till I drove home, again with my radio tuned to NPR. And wouldn't you know it, a certain Cedric Villani won a mathematics award (the Fields Medal) for calculating the rate at which entropy increases in the world.

This was too odd to simply ignore. And when my friend Paul told me he wanted to install a geothermal system in his house, I know I needed to take another look.

A search for geothermal and entropy brings indeed quite a few hits and leads to articles such as this one: "Entropy (not Energy) is the Issue, New Earth Rising"

I don't know much about physics or math but I am glad that my musings are not necessarily original.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Salon! SALON! S A L O N!!!

That's how my lovely wife entitled an email message to the members of the same. She had invited them to "Solon" (groan) at our house and I had shot off a terse message to her asking the word "solon" were some inside joke, an ambiguous use of "Solon" (who was an Athenian statesman in the 6th century BC).

Anyway, I requested either an explanation or the us of the word "salon" which is a "gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation." (See Salon in Wikipedia)

I think for our salonnières, the empahis is on to amuse one another through conversation (not to speak of the quantity of wine that is consumed at such gatherings).

I find that the misspelling, misuse, mispronunciation or misunderstanding of an obscure word happens quite frequently. Just this morning one of my favorites came up as I listened to NPR's
Weekend Edition Sunday. I do hold its host, Liane Hansen, in highest esteem because of her smarts and her interviewing skills, but this morning she blooped: she mispronounced the French expression coup de grâce (blow of mercy) as coup de gras meaning "blow of fat." Ms. Hansen, the s (and even a hint of the e) is pronounced in the former, while in the latter, it is not. This is so common a mistake that there is a reference in the Wikipedia entry for coup de grâce, and they even have a BIG word for that type of mistake: it is a hyperforeignism. Whoa, whoever came up with that word!? 

Disclaimer: I cannot claim that I have not made this type of mistake. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Great Ice Cream Face-Off

More than a year ago I made the mistake to become embroiled in an argument about the true nature of ice cream. Jen, one of my colleagues and avowed foodie, insisted that "gelato" and "ice cream" are different creatures. I insisted that it was just a matter of translation, gelato being simply the Italian word for ice cream and the other way around. Oh boy, did I have it coming. Getting into an argument with a bunch of lawyers is never a good idea, even if you are one yourself.

Jen's argument was that the USDA or the FDA or the FAA or whatever defined ice cream as having a higher amount of fat than gelato. I see her point, to a point.

If you grow up in Belgium, like I did, you know that "French fries" are not French, but instead are frites, fritjes or Fritten, depending in which language community you happen to live. You also know that there is no such thing as a Belgian waffle. Just as certainly you know that the many parlors of a certain type do not sell something as exotic-sounding as gelato, but rather glace itlaienne, italiaanse ijsje or Italienisches Eis. Still, Jen was unable or rather unwilling to see my point.

The argument escalated, other colleagues were drawn in, and a line was drawn. On the one side was the American separate and unequal (i.e. ice cream ≠ gelato, or else) faction, consisting of some of my colleagues (et tu, Bryan?), and on the other side were the European unified ice cream = gelato = eis = ijsje = glace and-who-cares-anyway separatists, consisting of me.

Liz, in true American fashion, suggested an event that had a competitive element, namely some sort of eat-off. I can never say no to an Eis, thus I agreed immediately. Marilee, by managerial decree made it a team event, and Bryan provided scholarly literature in the form of a dubious article in the NYT.

Of course Liz had to pour oil on the flames by stating that "[t]he article highlights a distinction between gelato and ice cream...see below.  Very Interesting....Perhaps we can discuss tomorrow!"

Indeed, the NYT article proclaimed that "[i]n the case of gelato, which in theory contains less air than other types of ice cream, makers often cite the intense flavor and dense texture (both of which result from the way gelato is made) as reasons for a higher price".

We could have discussed this immediately, dear Liz: of course Italian-style ice cream will sell at a premium in the US. The same would be true when selling gelato americano in Italy. There, the distinguishing characteristic could or would be a "creamier texture" compared to the local product.

On the other hand, maybe it's just the 'o' at the end. We should do a focus group to see how much people are willing to shell out for "icecreamo." (Maybe Sheli can check this one out for us, it's within 100 miles of Boston.)

Instead of worrying about such trifles I set the tone (or maybe rather my palate) for tomorrow's after-work event by preparing some vermicelli (Italian for "little worms," they never use that moniker in when selling these type of noodles in the US) with costoluto genovese heirloom tomatoes and basil, fresh from my garden, some garlic, some EVO and a little gound beef from a grass-fed cow. My boys even left me a bit so I could have an Italian lunch before dessert. Unfortunately, I won't be able to bring the prosecco to work ...

Carey decided that she'd had enough of the argument and invest the time remaining into deciding what shoes to wear. I am sooo glad that there was at least one non-partisan character in this commedia dell'arte.

Throughout the day, we were sizzling with anticipation. Most of us left work around 3:30 PM, except for Carey, who thought we were supposed to show up at Ring Mountain Creamery Cafe at that time. I was second. She was wearing sneakers that went very well with her sweat pants. Right in front of the ice cream parlor she was sitting on hot coals because she had promised to meet a friend at the gym. Marilee, the sponsor of this event showed up and we went in. A nice selection of reasonably priced ice cream and gelato, whatever the difference. Fortunately most of the rest of the gang showed up, too, so we started ordering. I opted for something called the Ring Peak, a sampler with 5 smaller scoops of one's choice. I needed this in order to support the scientific tack I decided to take: chocolate gelato, chocolate ice cream, strawberry gelato, strawberry ice cream, and a scoop of mandarin gelato to clean the palate.

Well, I have to admit, even with my continental palate I think I would have had a hard time to distinguish  between the variety in a double-blind study. We absolutely have to test my hypothesis that others will be equally as challenged by having a taste test, blind of course at our next staff outing.

The friendly banter I had expected was not present, no big argument of whether gelato was ice cream or not. I think everyone was just too busy eating their scoops to bother. I guess the sniping will start again at The Office.

I could not resist another scoop before I left Ring Mountain, one for the road so to say. I opted for Death by Chocolate Ice Cream. A good choice, preventing drips from my cone while doing 80 with a stick shift on a winding stretch of the Interstate. Felt just like Italy!

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Not So Big Garage

One of my friends, Jim, sent me a funny video . I will let it speak for itself.

Watching the clip amused me on so many levels. First, there is the elderly gent (he could be my dad) slowly and deliberately setting the scene. The ridiculously narrow garage door in the small townhouse facade and the compact car. He has to take his bike out (a drop handlebars 10-speed which I can't quit imagine he rides) to fit the car in. Last, but not least, he has the fold the mirror in. The narration is in Dutch, and I'm waiting to see the license plate and there it is: the oldtimer is a countryman, I knew it.

Funny indeed, but the clip made me think, too. A few years ago, a local (Twin Cities) architect, Sarah Susanka, wrote a very successful book: The Not So Big House. The idea sounded very appealing to me since many of our acquaintances lived in suburban palaces while we were in a 1300 sqft 1 1/2 story. I took a peep into the book at our public library and thought immediately that the house Ms. Susanka was presenting seemed plenty big to me, i.e. 2000+ sqft. and luxuriously appointed.

What bothered me was that the premise of a not so big house should that of affordability and simplicity. Yet, the photographs in th book reminded me of the features and ads in Minnesota Monthly's Midwest Home, over the top luxury well out of reach of a middle class family.

The clip made me also think of one picture in a slide show I had seen in 1977 or so. Jacob Holdt, a Danish hippie had documented American lower class squalor, racism and upper class opulence by being a participant observer in many different milieus. The picture in question was that of a three-car garage, juxtaposed with the poverty of an apartment in the projects.

These are the reasons for why I found this clip so good, this old guy so matter-of-factly driving his car into a garage that anyone on this side of the Atlantic would have a hard time parking two bicycles in.

After ranting about American garage excesses I have to admit that I am not immune to grandiose visions of palatial automobile abodes. I am currently constructing my own gigantic garage which besides providing shelter for our cars will house my workshop. My family is already looking forward to me permanently moving from the house to the garage.
View from street. Not exactly "Not So Big" ... For pictures of entire garage project, see this Facebook Album