Posts filed under 'project quixote'

Blanket Powers

My primal image of comfort is of my father tucking me into bed, under the covers, when I was little. Now that I have entered politics, as an energy commissioner for the City of Berkeley, I've begun to experience what it means to be the grown-up, seeing to the little details that preserve and protect the body politic.

It's all details -- that's my take from the first meeting I attended, in a comfortingly drab room at the North Berkeley Senior Center. (The commission meets the fourth Wednesday of every month.) There are Robert's Rules of Order to follow -- a set of rules of etiquette that would be easy to lampoon, but actually allow for the respectful (and relatively efficient) exchange of ideas on a series of topics. There's an agenda to follow. The issues mostly sound dry -- though what they address are often life-and-death matters, especially (but not exclusively) when they deal with local approaches to fighting global warming.

The commission is appointed -- Mayor Bates appointed me. At a recent groundbreaking for a municipally owned wind turbine near the Berkeley Pier, I was excited to be on the list of speakers. By the time I was called up to the podium -- following various electricity and wind-power experts, as well as Mayor Bates himself (pictured here with two young volunteer ground-breakers) -- I was feeling singularly unqualified to speak. What did I know? Well, in truth, not as much as I hope to, as I study these issues. But my tentativeness also struck home to me how singularly different it felt to be in the role of someone who's supposed to think about this stuff -- and not just think, but do.

Later, at the commission meeting (here you can see me being sworn in by Berkeley energy czar Neal DeSnoo), I quickly revealed my (political) greenness. I was quite anxious to participate in my first vote as a political appointee, and I thought the opportunity had come when the commission chair called for a vote to ratify the previous meeting's minutes. So along with the other commissioners, I raised my hand and said, "Aye." At which point one of them gently pointed out to me that, since I hadn't been on the commission at the previous meeting -- indeed, hadn't even attended the previous meeting -- I might find myself on firmer ground by abstaining.

Ah, yes. Of course. I'll get it right the next time.

I did get to vote to adjourn, however (since the meeting had lasted nearly four yours, this vote, unsurprisingly, was unanimous). And I walked out into a delightfully chilly Berkeley night, blanketed in fog, proud to have begun my service.

Today I have to send in my conflict-of-interest form -- required of all California politicians, whether elected or appointed. Since I'm not aware of having any interests, this should go pretty smoothly, I think.

July 13th, 2007

Something To Tilt At

Next week I'll begin my formal (and, I suppose, informal) duties as a new member of the Berkeley Energy Commission. If there's anyone out there with experience in government (or with energy ideas), I'd appreciate hearing from you in the comments section (with do's and don'ts).

On Tuesday afternoon, at 1:30, I'll be attending a groundbreaking ceremony for a wind turbine being built at the Shorebird Nature Center (right by the Berkeley Pier) -- there's a nice little article about it in today's Chron.

On Wednesday evening at 6:30, at the North Berkeley Senior Center, I'll attend my first commission meeting as a commissioner myself (my son and I dropped in on them a couple months ago). Apparently at the start of the session I'll be sworn in -- or, as my son refers to it, "coronated." I'm somewhat nervous about being up to the challenge -- about having the patience to work through the incremental processes of fighting global warming at the local level (among other energy issues) -- but I'm excited to be getting involved.

On a beautiful day in Berkeley like today, it seems almost surreal to imagine that there's a climate crisis. I keep thinking of what my little heal-your-own-back book (and my chiropractor) says: it's especially important to work at prevention when nothing seems to be wrong. (I understand that this spine-to-global-warming analogy is quite flawed -- but if you have a wonky back yourself, you probably understand how the topic tends to work its way into disparate conversations.)

By the way, as far as I know the public is welcome at commission meetings. At one point, late in the meeting I attended as a civilian, the commissioners came to a point in their agenda where they were supposed to ask for public comment. They all turned to me, as I was the only member of the "public" in the room. After an awkward moment I just shrugged and said, "Um, the public's cool with everything so far."

June 22nd, 2007


I've been appointed by Mayor Tom Bates to the Berkeley Energy Commission!

More to come shortly. ...

June 16th, 2007

Wind Power

One of the curiosities of my New York childhood was that my Bronx-bred father's dream was of one day owning a sailboat. Nobody we knew owned a sailboat. Nobody we knew had even sailed in a sailboat. True, my dad and his dear friend Mo Kranz had been transported by sea to the Philippines during World War II. (This trip was notable, in family lore, for several things: (1) Dad claimed that he was the only one on the boat who never got seasick. (2) Dad's suggestion to a shipful of nauseated sailors was that they try bending their knees, as he was doing. (3) In response, many sailors apparently threatened to pummel him if they ever stopped puking long enough to do so. (4) Dad converted Mo to Marxism on this trip. (5) When the sailors, nervous and stir-crazy after a long time at sea, got into a massive fistfight, Mo clambered onto a table and said: "Comrades, let's all look at this problem dialectically!" (6) In response, several sailors threatened to pummel Mo, who was fortunately whisked away by my dad.) But clearly, that vessel had not been a sailboat -- so how to explain Dad's obsession with sailing, which (as far as I could tell) was anyhow a sport for those of a much higher income bracket than ours?

AnthonyAnthony Sandberg recently gave me some clues. The founder and president of OCSC Sailing in Berkeley, he's a big bear of a man -- and he's bursting with an infectious evangelism for sailing. A friend of his had read my account, in this blog, of Project Quixote, my family's project to bring wind turbines to the Berkeley Pier (among other forms of renewable energy) -- and he'd emailed me to suggest that Anthony might be able to take us out on the Bay and give us another perspective on the Pier and on wind power. A short time later, Anthony and I were in direct email contact, and he had -- with a generosity that turns out to be typical for him -- offered to take me, my wife and son out on one of OCSC's 50 sailboats.

Question: How do you turn down an amazing offer like that? Answer: You don't.

It was a magical experience! Anthony is just a wonderful guy -- a visionary and a mensch. As soon as he started showing us around, I knew that we were in great hands. And what a story he told! As we gazed from an office balcony onto the beautiful shipyard around us, he explained that back in the '70s the whole place had been -- literally -- a garbage dump. Back then, showing great foresight and fortitude, he squatted amidst all the garbage -- and was eventually rewarded with the land that he and others cleared and transformed into OCSC. They're now the top-rated sailing school in the country, which is pretty cool. But the thing that most impressed me was Anthony's passion for doing good. Nonprofit groups meet regularly for free at OCSC's offices, and there's all kinds of interesting stuff going on there. But above all, what really gets Anthony going is the prospect of people -- especially kids -- getting massively involved in sailing the Bay. And, as he explained to me, sailing can be surprisingly affordable; it's not, as I'd assumed, only a sport for the Thurston Howells of the world.

My wife and son and I gingerly boarded a beautiful sloop, accompanied by Anthony and two pals of his. (Based on this experience, my assumption is that like him, all of his friends are insanely accomplished -- these two guys had come up with, like, 50 world-class inventions between them. I felt like such a slacker!) It was a perfect day, weather-wise: crisp and clear. Anthony expertly directed his friends as they dealt with the sails and such. (Yep, you won't be getting any correct terminology from me here -- I was way too preoccupied by this novel experience to even think of taking notes.) We motored out to the open water, and from then on in we were powered entirely by wind. Wind power! It's hard to describe how cool it feels to be propelled entirely by this most fickle-seeming of elements. It keeps changing direction! and strength! And the sailors continually adapted. Success at sailing -- as in jazz and democracy -- seems to depend on a combination of expertise and improvisation.

May I brag on my nine-year-old son for a bit? (Thanks.) Soon after we started our sail, Anthony and his pals encouraged him to take the wheel. And -- admittedly, with a bit of help now and then -- he ended up steering for almost our entire two-hour trip! He really seemed to have a feel for it! I had a happy premonition that not only might my son end up getting his driver's license before I do, but he might also be the first to get a sailing license (if that's what it's called) as well! No one was more thrilled than Anthony. He pointed out that on this spectacular day, in this Bay that offers some of best sailing conditions in the whole world, there were only two sailboats out on the water -- ours and another from OCSC. (Though I should note that there is, apparently, a thriving sailing community in the Bay Area, made up of many fine schools, clubs, and other organizations.) His dream, he said, was for the Bay to be filled with sailboats helmed by kids; he wants sailing to take its place with bicycling, skateboarding, etc., as a common recreational option for urban youths.

That's not a vision that I would have understood before this afternoon. But now, as we headed back toward the Berkeley Pier -- where, in my quixotic dreams, there might one day be a wind farm to supply perhaps a third of my city's peak-time electricity needs -- it made a lot of sense. Sailing calls on its practitioners to master a whole set of crucial life-skills: leadership, organization, adaptability, and a respectful intimacy with the power and whims of nature. Thanks to Anthony Sandberg's generosity, my interest in wind power had spread from the land to encompass the waves as well.

To be sure, Sandberg is a sailing zealot. Count me now among the converted.

1 comment April 22nd, 2007

Life Nell

In recent months, as I've tried to do my own little part to help save the Earth via the nascent (meaning still disorganized) Project Quixote, I've had the great pleasure of meeting people who've actually been devoting their lives to the cause of fighting global warming. Some are neighbors of mine. Some -- bless their patient souls! -- are in government. One is a friend of my brother's who taught himself about energy and then actually wrote energy legislation for several states, including ours. Oh, and I also met Al Gore, who I think has been doing pretty good job of getting the word out.

The cumulative effect of hanging out with these people has been to give me a sense of hope -- albeit, nothing close to certainty -- that people may yet respond to this unprecedented global challenge with unprecedented global resourcefulness. The one thing that I am sure of is that it feels a helluva lot better to try than to stick to my usual practice of drawing the blinds and curling up in a ball. And I know, too, that I'm intensely grateful to folks who, by example, show that it's possible to move forward through our finite lives even while facing infinite-seeming obstacles.

A bonus is when they also provide lots of free food for me and my crew! Such was the happy case when Nell Newman swung by our studio to tape the interview that will be broadcast tonight (at 7:30). Newman, the head honcho of Newman's Own Organics, had arranged for a, like, huge box of their stuff to precede her. (I can assure you all the products found happy homes.) I found her to be remarkably unscathed by a relatively happy childhood with famous actor parents -- and in remarkably good shape, too, considering all the snacks she has access to. Perhaps it's all the surfing she does.

In any case, we talked about her helpful, down-to-earth book, Newman's Own Organics Guide to a Good Life, and other stuff, like predatory birds (a passion of hers). She also checked out the "Wandering Josh" piece we did for this show, which features a visit with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (an energetic advocate of green-osity), a trip to the educational, inspirational Berkeley Marina Shorebird Nature Center, and an off-the-grid experience at the offices of Local Power -- an organization run by Paul Fenn (pictured), the friend of my brother's I alluded to up top.

Between the studio conversation with Nell and the field visits for the WJ, my crew and I learned a ton of stuff about how we can help make things better. (And, yes, we collectively probably gained a ton of weight as well -- but we can probably work it off by building windmills and such. ...)

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April 16th, 2007

Step It Up 2007

My pal Scott Rosenberg -- whose terrific book about the perils of software-writing, Dreaming in Code, arrives in bookstores this week -- passes along an email from his friend Bill McKibben. (Scott and Bill are part of a frighteningly talented group of writers who all went to Harvard together while some of of us -- cruelly rejected by Harvard -- were reduced to wandering through the educational wilderness, gathering nuts and berries and occasionally reading "Family Circus.") Bill's 1996 book The End of Nature was, to my knowledge, the first account of the global-warming crisis written for the general public. Now he's got a new project: Step It Up 2007.

In typical Bill fashion, the project is both modest and ambitious, and very well thought out. The text of his email follows (minus all those weird symbols that tend to accrue in forwarded emails, which -- as a small gift to the struggle -- I have deleted):

Dear Friend:

I'm writing to ask your help. I know you've already made changes in your own life to deal with climate change; I'm guessing that, like me, you feel a little helpless about the scale of the problem. Some of us who are eager to do something more are organizing a day of demonstrations for April 14. We're calling ourselves, and we need you to be a vital part -- to organize a rally in your neck of the woods. If everyone pitches in, we'll have by far the largest action yet in this nation about global warming -- large enough that Washington will notice and start to act. It's going to be an unusual day. People will be rallying in many of America's most iconic places: on the levees in New Orleans, on top of the melting ice sheets on Mt. Hood and in Glacier National Park, even underwater on the endangered coral reefs off Key West and Hawaii. But we need hundreds of rallies outside churches, and in city parks, and in rural fields. It's not a huge task -- assemble as many folks as possible, hoist a banner, take a picture. We'll link pictures of the protests together electronically via the web -- before the day is out, we'll have a cascade of images to show both local and national media that Americans don't consider this a secondary issue. That instead they want serious action now.

We're not an organization -- we're, in essence, a few people sending out invitations to a party. A potluck. This is going to be a homemade day of action. So go to our website at and say, "Here's where I live -- I want to help organize." We'll coordinate the responses, introducing you to others from your area, and give you everything you need to be a leader, from banners to press releases. You don't have to have ever done anything like this -- you're not organizing a March on Washington, just a gathering of scores or hundreds in your town or neighborhood. We need creativity, good humor, commitment. If you are active in a campus group or a church or a local environmental group or a garden society or a bike club -- or if you just saw Al Gore's movie and want to do something -- then we need you now.

And by now, we mean now. The best science tells us we have ten years to fundamentally transform our economy and lead the world in the same direction or else, in the words of NASA's Jim Hansen, we will face a "totally different planet." We're calling for 80 percent carbon cuts by 2050, which would be a good first step to warding off that future. But the exact numbers are less important than the underlying message to Washington: get serious. The recent elections have given us an opening, and polling shows most Americans know there's a problem. But the forces of inertia and business-as-usual are still in control, and only our voices, united and loud, joyful and determined, can change that reality. Please join us.

Bill McKibben

P.S.: It would be a great help too if you could forward this plea to anyone you think might embrace it.

January 13th, 2007

Buck Stopped Here

BuckAt least, that's what I infer from this bit of graffiti on the fence at the end of the Berkeley Pier. My son and I biked back there yesterday, to continue pondering the possibilities of a windmill farm on the Pier. We're hoping that Berkeley will commit to providing its own mostly green energy -- possibly including windpower -- and we're calling our quest Project Quixote.

Will it happen? We don't know. We're not experts. Okay -- we're way not experts. But we want to do something about global warming -- something real -- and this is what we're trying. Plus we dig windmills.

As I mentioned in my previous blog item about this stuff, my son and I recently spent a fascinating few hours with energy expert Paul Fenn, who is a friend of my brother Jake's. Paul and his family live in the Canyon, which I believe is just outside of Berkeley (I'm really bad with geography), and they are totally "off the grid": that is, they receive no electricity from anyone. Their home is lit with kerosene lanterns, and they have no plumbing, so they use an outhouse. (Paul invited us to visit, and we plan to; I just want to fast for about 48 hours beforehand.) The prospect of raising two small children in those conditions is not one that I would wish for myself, but there's something fiercely admirable about their ability to do so.

"How do you use the telephone?" I asked.

Paul explained that the "old" phones supply their own electricity.

Indeed, whenever I've called, I've gotten this tinny, scratchy outgoing message -- it sounds as if they're using some pre-Edison equipment or something.

But even though Paul and his family live in these Luddite circumstances, it would be a drastic mistake to take him for an opt-out, antisocial, anti-government type. Paul writes laws. His "community choice" laws -- allowing each municipality to choose its own energy sources -- are the on the books in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, and (if I'm reading my scrawled notes correctly) Massachusetts. He's also written a bunch of energy laws for San Francisco.

"What about Berkeley?" I asked -- focused as I am on my beloved home base.

Turns out, he said, he tried five years ago to get the Berkeley city government to back his alternative-energy plan, but was unable to get anything going. And the problem right now, he explained, is that there's a window of opportunity that will soon close, due to existing power contracts. In fact, according to my notes -- which, admittedly, became especially scribblicious at this point, as we were now strolling along the Ohlone Greenway -- Berkeley may only have a year or less to act.

San Francisco recently committed to achieving 51 percent green power by 2017. And it seems to me that, given our Free Speech history and the fact that our sandals have 15 percent greater traction, we Berkeleyites ought to be able to match that.

But how? I wondered.

  • Would we need to try to pass some sort of ballot measure?

    No, Paul explained -- our city government could simply take over power-providing duties using its power of "eminent domain."

  • How might such a project be funded?

    Through bonds, which could be secured by ... (Here my notes become somewhat illegible -- possibly a byproduct of the grand mal-type seizures that begin to afflict me whenever anyone starts using words like "fiscal." I realize that this is something that I must get over, if I am to be any sort of a citizenly mensch.) Well, let's just say "bonds" for the moment, and leave it at that.

  • Could all the energy be provided by windmills?

    No -- only about a third (which is a lot, actually!). The rest could be provided by other technologies -- for example, something called a solar concentrator, supplemented by a hybrid steam-gas turbine.

  • Might the windmills be a hazard for birds (as I'd heard somewhere)?

    This, it turns out, was a major concern when Paul approached the Berkeley folks several years ago. He says that there are a variety of windmill designs, and some are bird-friendly.

  • Could Berkeley really do this on its own? (Generating your own power seems like a really big deal.)

    Yes it could, he said. But even better would be a collaboration between, say, Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo, and Emeryville. He explained that it's best to have a wide variety of energy consumers: some residential, some industrial, etc. With several East Bay cities banding together, you could have a nicely diverse assortment of electricity-users.

As Paul drove off in his biofueled car, I thought: Phew! So this is the kind of stuff the grownups have been dealing with all my life!

Pier ViewAnd a couple days later, as my son and I stood on the Berkeley Pier, near the spot where Buck had once stopped and made his mark, I felt giddy -- with excitement at the possibilities, with fear of failure, and with awe at the beauty of this place.

I can just follow my instincts and do my best. Let's see what happens.

3 comments January 3rd, 2007

Project Quixote

Berkeley PierSo first off, Happy New Year! I hope you, unlike me, have not already completely violated your New Year's Resolution (um, getting up early and sticking to a schedule).

But I am hopeful about 2007. And I have a project as well: trying to get my adopted hometown, Berkeley, to commit to 51 percent green power by 2017.

Many years ago, as our family was facing a crisis, a friend of my father's accused him of being quixotic. As it turns out, his friend was wrong: my dad, who did indeed dream many impossible dreams in his short lifetime, was being very practical in that case. His "quixotic" solution to the crisis worked.

Lately I've been reading Don Quixote and thinking about windmills, which the famous knight errant famously attacked, believing them to be giants. And at the same time I've been freaking out about the global warming crisis: scientists say we have 10 years to change our ways, or else disastrous climate change will be inevitable and irreversible. In addition (with continual coffee drinking, much pondering is possible) I've been thinking about what I can do, as a citizen and a dad and a husband and a friend (and eventually as an ancestor), to help solve the problem. ... So naturally my thoughts turned to windpower. Might windmill-generated power help fight global warming? In Berkeley, say?

I called my brother Jake in L.A. He drives a car that's powered entirely by vegetable oil, and tends to know about this stuff. He in turn referred me to a friend of his, Paul Fenn, who wrote California's Community Choice law, which passed in 2002. This law allows cities to choose their own electricity provider. A couple days ago my son and I chatted with Paul and strolled around our neighborhood. I'm still digesting all the stuff he told us, but the gist of it was this: Berkeley can go green with much of its energy -- probably through a combination of wind and solar power.

I asked him where the windmills could go, and he said a great place would be the Berkeley Pier, which gets lots of wind and has a floor made of reinforced concrete, which could support the weight of a windmill farm. The thing for me, aesthetically, is that it would be great if the windmills looked like, you know, "real" windmills -- the picturesque ones I associate with Holland -- rather than the more robotic-looking ones you see at the Altamont Pass. Paul said he thought that might be possible, and agreed that those kinds of windmill are the coolest-looking.

loonYesterday my son and I biked down to the Pier, to do some reconnaissance. Man, it's lovely there! People were strolling, fishing, and -- in one case -- engaging in a tense domestic argument while fishing. A loon was hanging out in the water nearby. A cheerful guy at a hotdog stand wished us a happy New Year. Over in Richmond you could see a huge chimney spewing some dangerous-looking stuff into the sky. But what I grooved on most was all that air over the Pier -- nice, potentially power-providing air.

Could there be a windmill farm here, we wondered? How would it affect the fishers, the fish, the birds? At the end of the walkable part of the Pier we came to a somewhat crude wooden fence. A woman was looking out through the fence at the Bay. We got into a conversation with her, and I mentioned our idea of trying to get Berkeley to go green with most of its power -- possibly including windmills on the Pier. She loved the idea! And, as it turns out, before she retired she used to be a grant-writer. She gave me her contact info, saying she'd love to help.

So now there are four of us: me, my son, Paul, and that woman (her name is Nancy). I think our next big step will be to go to the folks in Berkeley's government and see if they're into the idea.

It feels incredibly weird to try to do something practical about global warming -- rather than my usual, time-honored practice of cycling through anger, depression, and despair. But it also feels good. It feels ... quixotic.

What do you think?

2 comments January 1st, 2007


I want to build a windmill in Berkeley. Does anyone out there have expertise in this area? If so, I'd be grateful for your input!

More to come! ...

2 comments December 30th, 2006

Quixotic Query

Has anyone out there read the relatively recent Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote? If so, I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

October 17th, 2006

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