Monthly Archives: March 2010

school bullying in the news in MA

2 sad bullying stories in the news this week in MA:

$35M lawsuit: Lynn failed to protect bullied kid

South Hadley: Prosecutors: 9 teens charged in Phoebe Prince death

To these communities and families and friends of all involved, my heart goes out to you.

ObComment: Many of our schools are broken. Bullying is a symptom of deeper problems. Not just with our schools, but with our communities, families, society. Schools are just a mirror. But still a good place to start!

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PBDEs in the mainstream press…

Flame wars — Fire retardants may affect female reproduction
“In North America, PBDE concentrations in humans have been doubling every four to six years since the 1970s, and are 20 times higher than in Europe.”

“I hope you are not nervous, but this concentration is very high,” Bergman says with a light Swedish accent. My blood level of one particularly toxic PBDE, found primarily in U.S.-made products, is 10 times the average found in a small study of U.S. residents and more than 200 times the average in Sweden.

And the not mainstream…

Dell, Apple (I think) and some other companies stopped using PBDEs in their plastic before mandated by law.

“[M]attresses, mattress pads, couches, easy chairs, foam pillows (including breastfeeding pillows), carpet padding, and other foam items purchased before 2005 are likely to contain them [PBDEs].”

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PVs and grid-parity — we’re basically there in MA

One interesting thing about PVs right now is that it is getting VERY close to it being cheaper to get one’s electricity from PVs rather than one’s local electric company.

Some discussion:
1. Electricity in MA (especially if you are doing GreenUp, GreenStart, the Wind Fund, etc to be 100% renewable sourced) is basically 20 cents per KWh. Or more. In other words, expensive.
2. Electricity in MA (and New England generally…) is fairly dirty unless doing GreenUp. The mix (last I checked in Feb 2010) is roughly 1/3 coal, 1/3 natural gas, 20% coal and oil, 10% renewables, 10% “other”). Anyway, the basic point is it’s not very green yet.
3. The grid-parity calculation I did in excel is even without factoring in state and federal subsidies and things like S-RECs (where the state pays you $0.38/KWh produced for the “greenness”…)
4. There is pretty decent sun in MA. The quick calc that seems to get used is that if your panels are basically facing south, you take 1200 * system size, and that’s the number of KWh produced in a year (So a 6KW system makes 7200 KWh (an ave of 600 Kwh/month).
5. We don’t happen to have net-metering here in Stow, because our electricity is thru a “municipal”… Hudson Light and Power… and they don’t do net metering yet. Soon I hope! What this means is our payoff calculations get a little trickier since we will have to pay pull price for electricity we use when it’s dark or cloudy.
6. Since we are adding PVs directly to a house we are buying/building, it gets rolled instantly into the 30 year mortgage, so… the basic cashflow calculation is that we are paying a little more for our mortgage with PVs, but our reduction in electricity bills offset this increase. So we are cashflow positive from day one.
7. A more complicated analysis would factor in opportunity cost (what the $ could be earning in investments) and tax-deductions for mortgage payments. But also the subsidies.
8. Protected from grid-electricity price increases!

In the end, I don’t even care so much about $ payback periods. I would MUCH rather use the sun than fossil fuels. So it’s worth it even if my calcs are off slightly and it’s not quite a money maker.
But we really are there. So if you’ve got some sun, it’s time, or just about time to go solar in MA.

FWIW… I would advise someone ready to “wade in” to just ask to use PV microinverters… you can easily gradually increase the number of panels without problem. And partial shade is not a problem with microinverters.
So start small and add more later!

And insulate your house a little more first! That will probably save you even more money! At least in MA! “Energy audits” from your electricity or natural gas company are usually free. And insulation improvements are subsidized as well.


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Unschooling and interning…

“[D]irect soliciting of fascinating adults is compatible with the unschooling (and, generally, homeschooling) philosophy of “learning from the world” and ignoring arbitrary age barriers. Why, then, do so few teens attempt it?” LINK

Basically, my sense is poking around in internships and such is never going to work out, but if you are really obsessed with something, you can probably just dive right in. That might mean some advanced schooling or mentorship. But it may not. Just depends.

- “The Loneliness of the Information-Age Learner: Students’ Ability to Pursue Knowledge as it Relates to a School’s Size” (from: Reflections on the Sudbury School concept (1999) page 219-228 (excerpt: “Nor was it realistic to assume, back in the late 1960′s and during the 70′s and 80′s, that there would be lots of opportunity in the outside community for our students to move in and out of learning situations… Use of outside resources was harder in reality than we had pictured in theory…” (p 220-1)
- John Taylor Gatto often talks about how he was able to line up internships/apprenticeships/mentorships/coops for many of his students — but I don’t see how this is widely possible. Maybe I am wrong.
- “Where then is the dividing line between childhood and adulthood? The question appears to be even more obscure…” (A New Look at Schools‎ – Page 38)

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Filed under alternative education, contrarian, education, school, Sudbury Schools and Sudbury Valley School, unschooling

Lotsa Helping Hands

This is an amazingly useful website for helping friends/family/neighborhoods/religious communities/cohousing/etc organize help for a person or family in need. It’s basically a custom calender and bulletin board system for communicating with a group of helpers so you can organize and assign things that need doing. Anyway, enough said… just thought people should know about it. It’s such an obviously useful website, yet it’s amazing that there is nothing else like it. What a great help! (I helped with some coding on this website years ago.)


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Our car (a 2001 Saab 9-5 wagon) gets pretty good gas mileage without thinking about it much. Seems like we average around 26 MPG in our typical around-town driving, and on the highway (without racks or roof-top boxes) about 31 MPG. That’s partly why we chose it… most minivans and SUVs get considerably worse gas mileage. But where was I… when I am driving to and from school, if I reset the car’s little computer readout which shows AVG gas-mileage, so I am then looking at just the current trip, I can get around 40 MPG. Nice. So just now I got to wondering… is there anyway to get a readout like the Priuses apparently have showing real-time MPG to aid in my hypermiling on a regular basis — without having to constantly reset the Saab’s computer (a bit of a pain)? Yes! Here it is! SCANGAUGE II

Oh, and I just am reminding myself to check my tire air-pressure and to screw in those little cheap thingies that show you GREEN when your pressure is ok for a given tire — apparently tire pressure matters quite a bit too. Sure there will be some time to pay off the expense, but my guess is the breakeven point wrt fossil fuel use, emissions, etc (vs $$) is incredible quick even if one is able to dial back ones fuel use by even a small amount like 5%. For us, driving 12k a year at an average of ~26MPG, that’s 462 gallons of gas. Visualize 462 gallons of gas. (Google tells me that 462 gallons is 61.76 ft^3. So that’s a cube of almost 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet.) Yikes!

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We can heat our house with a hair dryer. Is that inexpensive?

The house we are building here in lovely Massachusetts, USA… almost a Passive House, but not quite certifiable… well, we can heat it with a hair dryer (1500 W of heat). And two on a very cold day (6F design temperature). Does this mean our heating bills will be low? Pretty low, I imagine, yes. But not zero.

Let’s do some math… And first let’s simplify things… the HDD (heating degree days) for Stow, MA is somewhere around 7200 (base 68F) meaning that if you multiply the days of the year we need heat times the temperature differential between the inside and outside temperature on these days, you’ll get 7200. It’s a little more exact than this (think “area under the curve” from calculus — using hour by hour measurements), but that’s the basic idea.

So let’s simplify it even more. Let’s call every winter day exactly 32F outside vs 68F inside and assume our 1500 W can keep up with that (which from my back-of-the-envelope calculations seems about right…) So that’s a delta of 36F. Now how many days is that? 7200 F*days / 36 F = 200 days = 6.66 months. Let’s go crazy and call it 7 months.

OK, so let’s say one really did run a hair dryer for 7 months, 24 hours a day. What would that cost to run 1500 W (1.5kW) that whole time? Well, we pay $0.20/KWh. So using the factor-label method to keep track of our units… making sure numerators and denominators cancel out, that’s:

7 months * 30 days/month * 24 h / day * 1.5 KW * $0.20 / KWh = $1,512.00 per year

In other words, kinda a lot!!!!

But that’s why people don’t typically use electric heat, it’s expensive. (It’s also not a great idea because fossil-fuel power plants are roughly 33% efficient in converting the fuel to electricity… I imagine that’s exactly why it’s expensive! So… it’s better to use it in direct form at your house…) That’s where the heat pump comes in. If we factor in the 2.7 COP (coefficient of performance) of our Mitsubishi “Mr Slim” air-source heat pumps that’s:

$ 1512 / 2.7 = $560

OK, now we’re talking! This also happens to be almost exactly the number you would get if you calculated the cost of delivering 1500W of heat via propane or natural gas. That would be fine and dandy too. So the 2.7 COP mainly serves to green up the electricity use, getting back to parity with using propane directly. 2.7 * 0.33 = 0.8991 (probably about the efficiency of a Rinnai propane direct-vent heater)

Now, the reality is that I hope most of this heat comes from active solar heating. But more on that later!

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Don’t forget your jacket! Why Sudbury Valley School makes sense to me.

When I arrive with A at Sudbury Valley School, I often have try to convince him to put on a jacket before we walk to the school from the parking lot. Depending on the day, it’s a tough sell. But see, the thing is… I can’t really blame him. Logically this happens primarily on those border-line days where I myself wouldn’t necessarily see a need to wear a coat, so why should he? But still… usually my thinking is… yes, but later maybe he’ll wish he had one! But 1) if that turns out to be the case, and he cares, then surely he won’t be so casual about passing on the jacket offer in the future! And 2) as we walk to the school building on days like this (usually in the late fall or late winter) one often sees about 1.2 million other kids who are wearing even LESS clothing than A, or, if it’s a rainy day… out in the rain completely soaked, but loving it. Obviously the kids aren’t exactly suffering from their (chosen) lack out outerwear.

In other words, Time to get over it… the jacket is MY issue, not his. Kids People learn fast, so if he needs a jacket, he certainly knows how this works.

And it gets better… on days when it is REALLY REALLY cold, the school has a strict policy of the under-8 kids needing to check in with a staff member before going out and the kids know it because there is a huge sign on the front door… and anytime there is a sign on the front door A of course asks “what does that sign say?” These are the days when basically no one in their right mind goes outside anyway, but it’s a good policy, and of course, like all other school rules/laws/policies, it’s one the School Meeting (think… New England-style Town Meeting) came up with. (Consent of the governed!)

I mean, how awesome is THAT?! This place just makes sense.

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Filed under contrarian, school, Sudbury Schools and Sudbury Valley School

Where is my electric car?

I’m waiting for an electric car I can buy. I don’t think any of the ones in the works fit the bill… so sorry Prius plug in hybrid, Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Mini E, Tesla S, etc, etc… my problems?

1) They are too small! That’s a problem because of a) carpooling… I need to be able to haul at LEAST 5 kids to and from school. We’re talking mini-van or SUV I guess. b) safety. Check the numbers at A prius is still about twice as dangerous in terms of injury and death rates as our Saab 9-5. I want to save the planet, but I’m not will to risk my family. This is no joke… as I’m sure you know… the chances of dying in a car crash are in the neighborhood of 1/8000 a year or 1/5244 in 2 years

2) They are too quiet! I am hoping this gets resolved somehow, but I am just not willing to risk killing a pedestrian because they didn’t hear my car coming. Apparently folks will be figuring out what to do about this at some point, but until then, I am seriously considering sitting on the sidelines.

OK, so what other problems did I forget? There are other (non?) issues, … There are probably answers to these…

1) Effective MPG hurts a bit (maybe only a bit?) because there is no waste heat to heat the car in the winter. And it’s cold here.

2) Cradle-to-cradle environmental impact / full-life-cycle of the cars: Are the batteries a concern or not? I heard that there are some crazy rare earth metals that are needed for them that is decimating china, etc. NYTIMES My guess here is that it pulls down the green-ness a bit, but maybe overall still worth it vs internal combustion engines.

3) Is this is a solution for everybody? Can the electric-grid handle it? My answer here is that it seems like if people install several kW solar arrays on their roofs, they might do quite well for covering their commuter miles at least.

4) We are already a 1-car family. So it’s a little odd to buy a second car. Would we then sell our other one? But then what about long trips that are outside the range of an electric car? Rent?

5) Bang for the buck. Is buying a brand new car to cut our fossil fuel use in half a good use of money vs other ways of “saving the planet”? (we already average 26MPG in our Saab 9-5… closer to 30+ on the highway or local carpool if I hypermile…)

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Passive Houses and other tight houses — When the power fails

OK, so we know that passivhaus homes are superinsulated and built tight. That’s good right? Less heat (or coolth) flying out the cracks and thru the walls. But one needs fresh air! I think it’s a valid concern people have. I mean, day to day things are hunky dory… the HRV or ERV (heat recovery ventilation system) in a PH is bringing in fresh air at a rate that is quite excellent… by design, instead of just hoping that it leaks in. But… what about when there’s a power failure / power cut that lasts a while?

Open 2 windows a little.

The total “effective leakage” area of the house will still be minuscule compared to most homes. In fact, this is the same idea as the approach that some think is superior to an HRV/ERV for day to day living — usually called “exhaust only / passive inlet” ventilation I believe. So instead of 2 windows cracked, you have a super efficient and quiet bathroom fan (Panasonic WhisperGreen one used to be called?) that runs on a timer and you poke a hole with a damper in another spot in the house. Instant ventilation. But harder to direct to individual rooms and no heat-exchange. Some still think this is a better way. The K. I. S. S. approach.

Anyway, back to window opening. This again might be seen by some as a disadvantage. With most houses, one could maybe claim that the owner/user doesn’t to know a single thing except to pay the bills. (Passive House folks say that their is evidence to the contrary… that many of our buildings are inadequately ventilated. Interesting.)

But back to passivehouses and power failures. Such an house might be lacking in fresh air during this time. But it doesn’t seem like it’s asking too much to open windows. Especially since this is a rare occurrence in most places, and meanwhile, for 95% of the rest of the time, their air quality is probably better with active ventilation. I am open to hearing otherwise, but my guess is the case.

People are used to having to make sure that they have oil or propane (or wood!) delivered in many parts of the world to avoid freezing in the winter. And to make sure their AC is working if they’re in a warm place. So is opening the windows asking too much?

I suppose a parallel analogy is seat belts vs air-bags. I believe as early as 1959 Ralph Nader thought air-bags were important in cars because one could never expect that people would use seat-belts. And remember those automatic seat belts on tracks? Gone! We now understand that good old normal 3-point seat-belts are WAY effective AND people will use them. Airbags are an excellent addition, but they can’t replace belts. OK, so I am trying to equate the active participation in home-operation with the active step of putting on a seat belt. Seems reasonable. People can be expected to know to open their windows if need be. One can install CO2 monitors for that matter…


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