Do Homeowners Dream of Electricity Savings?

Global climate change, war, the economy – progress in all three of these things depend on innovating America’s energy demand to sustainable and acceptable levels, then exporting that innovation to the world before somebody else beats us to it. Tied to this is water conservation, and the need integrate stellar power – solar energy, wind, etc. Jodi and I are taking immediate steps in our new home to do this.

First thing we did was replace all the wasteful incandescent lighting in the house with CFL’s, for between $1.20-$1.40 per bulb (for 60-watt equivalent light output). We set the lawn watering for two days a week, as per Allen city recommendations. I’m still tuning the system, and it will take weeks to find the right balance. I bought an electric lawnmower and edger. While solar panels are banned by the Homeowners Association for rooftops, I plan to get a portable solar-electric battery charger for the mower. We took a half-gallon juice container, cleaned it up, and used it to displace the equivalent volume of water in our main toilet tank. Since the toilet is one of the largest domestic wasters of water, this will help immensely.

These are just the start. We have highly rated appliances for energy usage and we plan to collect scarce rainwater in a barrel, which Allen can provide. I realized just what a great, huge water catcher the roof of a house is. Seems a waste to not take advantage of the target and store the gutter runoff for watering plants, etc. If anyone has additional suggestions for making little tweaks at home to save energy or water, let me know!

The first dialogue on the chief systems of the world

When Galileo Galilei composed his treatise on cosmology, collecting his own many observations of the natural world into a coherent argument, he chose to present the work as a dialogue among three men. One of them, Salviati, spoke for Galileo, and the other two (Sagredo and Simplicio) represented the voices of other parties, such as his competitors or the Vatican. Tossing strong opinion and politics into the mix, Galileo put the words of the Vatican into his character, Simplicio. The Pope at the time, a friend of Galileo’s, took grave offense at this; the rest of the story is, in fact, history.

I awoke on Sunday morning after my first solid eight hours of sleep in days. Knowing I had yard work ahead of me, but not wanting to run the mower at 8:30 in the morning, I took my coffee outside and enjoyed the warm morning. After  a bit, I decided to put my time to use and so I went inside and retrieved a newly unpacked Bible from the shelf of religious books. I found the Book of Job and started reading.

In summary, the (long) Book of Job tells the story of a man called Job, considered the most respectful and most pious man before God. When God calls together the “sons of God” – the Angels – Satan decides to show up [1]. God and Satan have smalltalk and then God asks Satan if he’s seen how great Job is (“Why can’t you be more like Job?” is the father-to-son subtext here). Satan rebukes God and challenges him on two occasions to let him take away Job’s possessions, then his health, just to show God the weakness of Man.

God basically let’s Satan have at Job, at all times asking him to spare Job’s life but not much else. Through much of this, Job endures. After breaking out in painful sores and scolding his wife, Job is visited by three of his buddies (sounds like Saturday morning in America). After sitting quietly with him for days, a dialogue between the men ensues after Job curses his own  birth (basically crying out, “What’s the point of birthing me into the world if you’re going to delight in making me suffer?”). Classic young male stuff.

His friends then proceed to try to cheer him. “Man is God’s lowliest servant, crushed under his disputes with his higher children. Put your trust in God, buddy, forgeddabout it. Don’t let the unlimited power of God to crush your will get you down.” “I wanna die, I wanna die,” says Job (does he really? He waits for death but never tries to take his own life). “Suck it up,” reply his friends. “I wanna know why I suffer,” says Job. “Let’s make up shit to try to satisfy your question,” say his friends.

Sprinkled into all of this are quotes about the natural world. For instance, ” . . . who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble . . . ” (Job, 9:6). Later, Job asks of God, ” . . . Are thy days as the days of man, or thy years as man’s years . . . ” (Job, 10:5). When I read this, I read it like I read Galileo – I see a story of a man and his friends, having a conversation about faith and the wonders of the world. I read this as a scholar, and I wonder what intent the author had in writing this.

Yes, it’s clear the author had a message about maintaining your belief in the face of outrageous physical discomfort, but there are other things in here. The author is also clearly interested in the workings of the world, putting his questions into the mouths of his characters. Job associates great acts of the natural world (sunrise, earthquakes, eclipses) to God, but one could also step back and see Job as a man wondering more broadly about the cause behind such events. His musings about whether time passes for God as for man is a very interesting question, which is left unanswered.For me, this is a pivotal question that helps to challenge literal readings of the Bible. Such readings declare the universe only 6000 years old but never question whether time (those seven days of creation, for instance) works the same for flesh as for an omnipotent being.

At the end of the conversation, after all of Job’s pleading for understanding in the face of his suffering, God finally intervenes in the conversation (I think the whining and baseless musing was getting to him). Job, and some of the other characters, represent the curiosity of our species, demanding knowledge and waiting, instead of working, for the answer.

God’s response is a litany of observations about the natural world, with each flurry of observations preceded by a challenge to Job that God will, ” . . . question you, and you declare to me.” (c.f. Job 40:7). The author of this really had something to get off his chest – like Galileo pouring out observations of the heavens in defense of his treatise on the sun-centered model of the solar system. God is like a professor, Job a graduate student who has learned some things but has not learned how to turn questions into answers.

Looking back on the conversation with the gentleman from the Honda dealership, it was fortuitous that he suggested this reading. After all, I see here in the Book of Job the seeds of a literary device used countless times afterward to make an argument. Put your questions in the mouths of characters, your answers in the mouth of another. Make the teaching of facts a human process, a story. In Galileo’s “Dialogue on the two chief systems of the world”, Salviati presents new knowledge of the cosmos and Simplicio and Sagredo are often caught up in the contradiction of their “knowledge” with facts. In the Book of Job, Job and his friends seek knowledge about the will of God, and it is God who delivers knowledge of the world to Job. At the center of God’s arguments is his own will, much as observations of the natural world are at the center of Salviati’s arguments.

The punchline of the Book of Job is, perhaps, subtle. By pouring knowledge into Job, he also takes the opportunity to jab at Job and his friends for ” . . . [darkening] counsel by words without knowledge . . . ” His rebuke is certainly a scolding for forgetting that God is at the center of the world, but just as easily serves as a rebuke for talking without understanding. Seeking knowledge is the first step toward obtaining it; that journey is long and painful, and we’re lucky if we have knowledge poured into us. More often than not, we bleed and suffer for knowledge. But isn’t the point of this book, fundamentally, that knowledge without the struggle isn’t knowledge at all, and that the act of making up knowledge is cheap?

It was a fun read.

[1]  This book reveals the almost collegial relationship between Satan and God, at all times reminding the reader that Satan may consider himself an equal but he’s really missing the point.

A Home in Texas – Part III: (Not a) Vacation in Kingman

(Written on July 20-21)

The folks at the Honda dealership were quite nice, and were fairly fast in diagnosing the problem with the air conditioning. The bottom line: we’ll be in debter’s prison by tomorrow, but our air conditioning will work, by God. The parts won’t arrive until tomorrow morning, so we’ve taken the chance to avail ourselves of a little rest in Kingman.

The benefit of flat panel displays in hotel rooms is that you can hook a laptop into the VGA port and watched your own recorded TV episodes, movies, etc. We spent the afternoon watching “Lost” for the first time (phenomenal series, by the way), and then called a cab for a ride to dinner. We hit the Kingman Co. Steakhouse, to which even the cabbie remarked, “You can go to other places in town for ambiance, but if you want good steak you come here.” It was excellent, and capped off a pretty great day in Kingman.

The other joy of the day was weather. About midday, clouds started to roll over the city followed soon after by downpours and a thunderstorm. I stood outside and tried to film some of the lightning, with no luck. The wind was whipped through the parking lot, pitching the rain at a 45-degree angle. It was really beautiful. The benefit? The front that passed through brought cold air that dropped the temperature from 104 to the mid-80s.

This time in Kingman has, for the first time, helped me to understand the beauty of the desert and mountains. The scenery here is fantastic, the weather unpredictable. There is a feeling of isolation, but isolation with friends. That said, one guy commented in the Honda lobby yesterday that he’s lived here a long time (he’s even been a cop in the area) and there are a lot of prejudices, a lot of things people don’t know about. But that’s people – can’t blame the land for people.

On our last day in Kingman, we left our hotel after arranging a late checkout and were shuttled to the Honda dealership to wait for the completion of repairs. The dealership’s shuttle was run by a very pleasant gentleman who kept his radio tuned to Christian broadcasting. He seemed very interested in the fact that we were scientists, and why we got into science in the first place. He seems drawn to our passion for the field.

At the close of the conversation, as we arrived at the dealership, he hurriedly added that he doesn’t like to push people, but that we should read the Book of Job and look at the many scientific facts embodied in the Book. Mountains under the sea were one example he gave. I decided that once we unpacked a Bible, I would have a look and remind myself about Job. Meanwhile, we hit the road and were in Dallas after 18 more hours of driving.

Then, the unpacking started.

A Home in Texas – Part II: Oh Compressor, Where Art Thou?

(Written on July 19, 2009)

We started our second day with a decent breakfast and a quick and early departure from Bakersfield. Jodi chatted with the desk attendant, and noted how long we had to wait for the cold tap water to actually get cold. We had postulated that this was because the water was stored above ground in these Central Valley desert conditions. The attendant said that often they have to wait 20 minutes for the water to get cold. All that, she commented, to save a fish “this big”, and she indicated the tiny size of the Delta Smelt with her fingers. When Jodi told me this, I thought about the right to life signs littering the highway next to the water rights signs; how the right to lifers would end stem cell science to save a blastocyst, yet the shutting down of pumps to save a fish much bigger than a blastocyst is met with disregard, skepticism, and vitriol. These are the paradoxes of the human condition, and the reality of our complex nation.

Turning eastward, we worked our way through mountains into desert, finally reaching I-40 and entering the Mojave Desert. We passed through vast expanses of windmill farms, and at nearly the same time passed a semi driving east with a POW-MIA logo on the back, reading “All gave some, some gave all.” A slogan designed to remind us of the sacrifice of the military, no less applicable to the water wars, the energy crisis, and climate change. All of us much sacrifice something, some must sacrifice all. Jodi commented that there are some species of flying animal affected by windmills – killed outright, actually. I retorted, “Some species of bat might be killed by windmills, but all species are threatened by climate change.” We agreed this made some sense; all give some, some give all.

Our air conditioning compressor failed in Needle, CA. We took the car to a small gas station, where the boss and his daughter were keeping things running inside the shop and an older guy named Kelly checked out our car. At first, he noticed that the caps for the coolant line had never been screwed back on after the Menlo-Atherton Shell Station recharged our air conditioning. More concerning was that after he refilled the system, you could see the whole engine shudder when the compressor tried to kick on but could not. The compressor was dead, and Jodi and I were angry that even after asking the Shell Station back in Menlo Park to check the A/C out in preparation for desert driving, they somehow missed a failing compressor.

We drove 50 more miles to Kingman, AZ, where there is a Honda Dealership. The cats suffered the most in the heat, and we knew that we could not continue without A/C. Bud, our oldest, was panting heavily, his jaw dripping with thick drool, and at one point the stress was so much he peed in the cat carrier and then climbed out and finished peeing on me. It was a rough day.

So the bad news is that we cannot have the car serviced until early Monday, when the shop opens. We’ll never make it to Dallas on Monday, so we’ll have to move delivery dates for appliances and even an early possible delivery of our furniture back a few days. We know our stuff will make it to Dallas before us, because we saw our truck driver in the Kingman Walmart and his truck in the parking lot. Small universe.