Monday, December 31, 2012

Mind ajar

I failed my resolution for the year 2012 by not changing a major opinion. This marks three consecutive years during which I've kept nearly the same world view, with all my new ideas coming as nothing more than refinements of previous ones.

Was my resolution for 2012 silly? I suppose so. I can't willfully change an opinion. Changing an opinion requires, in addition to an open mind, serendipity, and one can't force serendipity. But I also lacked an open mind. I've become set in my comfortable thoughts and theories.

It's impossible for me not to relate this to getting older. Most living things, as they age, become less adaptable and more adapted. What was once in an organism's youth a universe of potential necessarily collapses over time into a set of ever narrower possibilities. This brings to mind a metaphor, one of a crooked tree that was warped in youth due some pressing circumstance of the time, such as having to grow around the obstruction of a building or away from the shade of a bigger tree. After some years of thickening its trunk and branches, the tree's crooked shape becomes fixed, and the tree grows only by extending and hardening the basic shape it already has. Even if the building it grew around is later torn down or the tree whose shade it grew away from dies and falls over, the crooked tree retains its awkward shape until it too dies. To survive new obstructions, the tree relies on the adaptations it's already made.

The forward arrow of time can't be avoided, and it can't be undone, but neither is it wholly regrettable, for it's chiefly the unchangeable parts of ourselves that make us who we are. Nevertheless, I won't be the champion of a closed mind anytime soon: during 2013 I'll strive to be both adapted and adaptable. But as far as resolutions go, maybe I'll try something that's more within my control, such as being punctual or eating five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Reading log, 2012

Here's this year's list of books I read.

In addition to the books, I began reading a lot of magazines. This was born out of my increasing frustration with the poor quality of most free content on the Internet—as with such sites as the one you're reading now—which pushed me into a conscious willingness to pay for better content. Consequently, I bought a subscription to The New Yorker and to The American Scholar, which together average an issue a week and have kept me perpetually inundated with interesting material to consume. What's the mark of good writing? For me it's finishing a piece about a topic I wouldn't otherwise be interested in reading about. By that standard, both magazines are full of well written articles, and so this year I read with greater diversity, though that diversity isn't reflected in the following list.

  • Stephen King

  • Keith Devlin
    The Math Gene

  • Jane Austen
    Sense and Sensibility

  • Paulo Bacigalupi
    Windup Girl

  • Isaac Asimov
    The End of Eternity

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
    Dragon Wing

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
    Elven Star

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
    Fire Sea

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
    Serpent Mage

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
    The Hand of Chaos

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
    Into the Labyrinth

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
    The Seventh Gate

  • William Poundstone
    Prisoner's Dilemma

  • William Poundstone

  • Stephen King

  • Walter Tevis
    Queen's Gambit

Monday, December 17, 2012

How much oil does our country produce?

While I was in Houston, my dad mentioned predictions of the United States becoming the world's #1 oil producer within a few years. I laughed, for that contradicted what I had always heard: that the United States is a distant third in the world, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia, and our production has been declining since the early 1970's. Not so, my dad said. Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are all very close in their production numbers, and with the current production boom going on in our country, we may very well become #1 soon. No, I said, Russia and Saudi Arabia produce about 10 million barrels per day, and the United States produces about half as much. Not at all, he retorted, the United States also produces about 10 million barrels per day.

We were at my uncle's house at the time, and it wasn't until later that day, after having burned through about a tenth of a barrel's worth of gasoline to return home, that we searched the Web to see who was right. What we found illuminated the obscurity of oil production statistics.

The first page we pulled up was the relevant Wikipedia article, List of countries by oil production. It has a chart clearly confirming what my dad said earlier: Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are bang-bang-bang in oil production, with the United States producing about 9.7 million barrels a day. My dad was right. No way! I thought. I did my own search and found another page, one from the EIA (Energy Information Administration) showing the classic chart of declining production in our country. The units are different—the EIA chart is figured in barrels per year rather than barrels per day—but the result is vastly different even after doing the conversion. According to the EIA chart, the United States currently produces about 5.6 million barrels of oil per day. That's 4.1 million barrels shy of the figure in the Wikipedia article, and contradictorily shows I was right. What's going on?

There are two major differences in how the two figures are calculated. The Wikipedia article's more generous figure of 9.7 million barrels per day includes something called refinery gains, which is the increase in volume that naturally occurs when crude oil is refined into separate chemicals. Forty-two gallons, i.e. one barrel, of crude input gets refined into an extra gallon or two of output, and so some oil production accounting includes that gain as part of what a country produces, even when the crude oil that's inputted into the process is imported.

But the bigger difference in the 4.1 million barrels per day discrepancy is the inclusion of natural gas liquids. These are hydrocarbons, such as methane and propane, that are in liquid form at underground pressures but gaseous form at atmospheric pressure. Some oil production statistics include natural gas, and some don't. Whether it gets included or not determines whether the United States is a distant-third oil producer that's been on the decline for four decades or else is currently booming and subsequently closing the gap with the world's top two oil-producing countries.

This is something we all ought to consider whenever we hear politicians, economists, and business analysts casually tossing around oil production statistics. Whether natural gas ought to be included in oil production stats depends upon the context of what you're talking about. For example, natural gas is proving to be a great fuel for generating electricity cheaply, but you're not going to see cheap gasoline or airfare anytime soon because of a methane boom.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Houston trip recap: bike trails

I should write something to cap off my Houston trip, now that I've been back in Phoenix for a week. That something will be about bike infrastructure, and how Houston is putting in a lot of it.

Buffalo Bayou Trail, with the Downtown skyline in the background.

During the afternoon of the last Sunday I was in town, I had some time to kill, with the two constraints that (1) I was starting near Memorial Park and (2) I needed to make it to a friends' house in the northwest side of town by six o'clock, more than four hours later. Before setting out, I consulted a foldout map of the city's bikeways and got a notion to go Downtown and see its library branch, which began renovation just before I moved away in 2006, and maybe also tour around Hermann Park to the south. But what I ended up seeing most to my pleasure was something unexpected: a lot of construction signs, construction equipment, and freshly moved dirt—all part of the Bayou City's many efforts to create, extend, and improve its bike trails.

Excavators making things better for the future along the Buffalo Bayou Trail.

Some highlights. From Shepherd, just south of the I-10, there's the Buffalo Bayou Trail, which casually winds its way to Downtown. Most of this trail has been around for years, as this wasn't the first time I've biked it, but there are some new bike bridges crossing the bayou and some trail construction work taking place now. The result is a continuous path that goes from one end to the other without ever crossing a street except by underpass. By the way, tucked under the Waugh Dr bridge are thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats (click the link and search for bat colony). During the day you can't see them, but you can hear them squeaking, just like many of the bicycles passing below.

The signs on the Waugh Dr bat bridge caution to stand back during flight to avoid bat droppings and to never handle a grounded bat.

I noticed only after returning to Phoenix and studying maps that there's another, parallel east-west trail also starting at Shepherd and ending in Downtown: the Heights Bike Trail. Its west terminus at Shepherd is less than a mile away from the south terminus of the West White Oak Bayou Trail, which begins at the intersection of T.C. Jester and 11th St and continues to Antoine, north of Little York, if I'm to believe Google Maps. On my ride, I exited three miles sooner, at 43rd St, which has a continuous stretch of bike lane or wide shoulder westward out of the city, all the way to Bear Creek Park, which abuts my favorite trail, the Cullen Park Trail. I had the pleasure of riding through Addicks Reservoir and the Cullen Park Trail after midnight later that night, and it was spooky dark, with deer and armadillos snapping twigs and rustling fallen leaves to scramble away into the safety of the thick brush a few feet from the pavement. But I forgot to mention about the West White Oak Bayou Trail: Some of the underpasses are currently under construction, and I had to do some awkward bike-carrying across the I-610 access roads and an unfinished median to complete my ride. But soon the trail will provide a continuous, uninterrupted ride.

But I'm still too far ahead of myself. Earlier that day I discovered that the Downtown library branch is cerrado en Domingo. (Seriously, the sign on the door was in Spanish only.) So to Hermann Park I went. There's no dedicated trail that connects Downtown to Hermann Park; I used the bike route signs to stay on low-traffic roads. A Monday–Friday commuter might opt for the light rail to traverse the same route.

At Hermann Park, partially circling around it on the south and east sides, is Brays Bayou Trail. It's about twelve miles long, though I rode it for only one. It connects the University of Houston with Braeswood near the US-59, with plans to extend the trail at that western terminus along Keegans Bayou to Kirkwood. That's only a mile or so from the city limits of Sugar Land and two more from the elementary school I went to for grades one through three.

The newly finished and marvelous Bill Coats Bridge over Brays Bayou.

And of course there's the concatenated super-trails of Terry Hershey Park and George Bush Park. Together they connect the Sam Houston Tollway to Barker Cypress with a dedicated trail that allows for uninterrupted riding from one end to the other. I used it on five out of my six trips into or out town over the two-and-a-half weeks I was in the city.

A blog post is only so long, yet there are many more trails. This .gov page describes many of them, though not all. And there are many more without names, spanning short distances of a mile or so, that follow unnamed drainage ditches in the newer residential developments beyond the city limits. Those might be token bike developments, but they're more than I had growing up in a neighborhood built in 1980's.

Phoenix still holds an advantage over Houston in terms of bike friendliness, though with Phoenix's tepid pace of development these days, Houston is catching up fast. Nevertheless, I like to see a city—even one I don't live in—putting otherwise worthless land along waterways to good use for bicycling. Houston's chief challenge for bringing itself up to a 21st-century mix of transportation, like most other car-centric cities, is finding the will to put some otherwise worthwhile land to that same end to stitch together its patchwork of trails.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Houston trip: traffic signs

Best sign

Not only does the sign shown to the right prohibit motor vehicles, which is a happy result in itself, but (1) it warns of snakes and alligators and (2) does so as a legally required caution. As I note later in this post, the difference between a traffic law and a traffic warning is nil in the Lone Star State.

Worst sign

During my first day in town, on my way from the train station to my parents' house, I discovered that Memorial Dr is closed to cyclists for some portions between the I-610 and the Beltway.

The sign didn't offer legal guidance as to whether it was OK to ride my bike on the sidewalk, which is illegal in Arizona but of unclear status in Texas. Shame on me for not knowing all the laws in a state I'm visiting for a couple weeks.

Meta Honorable Mention

There's no sign as satisfying as a sign that warns about other signs. Second-most satisfying is a sign that regulates other signs, as shown in the photo to the right. Apparently, in Texas, all yellow warning signs must be treated as law. Maybe the state just didn't feel like painting all those yellow cautionary signs to white? Maybe the state ran out of white paint?

I remember learning how to drive as a teenager in Texas and feeling so relieved I didn't have to obey those pesky cautionary speed limit signs before sharp turns. But it turns out those are every bit as law as the regular white speed limit signs—as are other cautionary signs, such as BE PREPARED TO STOP and DRAW BRIDGE. Police officer: May I see your license, registration, and drawing of a bridge?