Energy

Energy is important to me.

It’s so important to me that I included it as one of my passions in my first blog post:  ‘About Me‘.

When I look at images from NASA of the ‘Earth at Night,’ I can’t help but be reminded of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s quote, “We are in this universe, but perhaps more important…the universe is in us.” We have remade the earth to reflect the stars from whence we came. But this fabricated starlight, the power that makes our nights twinkle is not free. It comes at a great cost- the resources we use to create that electricity.  

Illustration by NPR/NASA

This little star isn’t a city. It’s an oil and gas field in North Dakota, one of many recently constructed to meet the demand we have created, where fossil fuels are being fracked and then transported to refineries and powerplants. These non-sustainable, non-renewable, high-pollution energy sources generated 62.7% of the energy used in the United States in 2017, according to the EIA. The pipelines used to transport them have become a target of protesters who have justifiable fears about the environmental and health risks that come with pipelines. However, these protests have not stopped the transport of fossil fuels, and the alternative transportation methods have had dire consequences.

Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster- July 2013
A freight train carrying crude oil got stuck outside the town of Lac-Mégantic in Canada. The whole town had to be rebuilt, as what wasn’t blown up in the approximately 1km blast zone was contaminated. 47 people died. Pipeline or no pipeline, our demand for energy comes with serious risk.

Deaths of Despair, Coal Deposits and Trump 2016 Presidential Results

Causes of Mortality Rate 2014

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Percent Change of Mortality Rate by Cause 1980-2014

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Coal, the resource that powered the industrial revolution, is still used today.

The first gif shows the mortality rate in 2014 caused by alcohol, drug use, self-harm, and interpersonal violence. The second shows the percent change from 1980 to 2014. Both use maps from a JAMA study. Above it is a map of coal deposits in the United States, and below is a map of states Donald Trump won in the 2016 Presidential election. There is an obvious correlation between these, as one article called them, deaths of despair and fossil fuel extraction. Where there is coal there is ever increasing unemployment, which evidence tells us leads to much higher rates of substance abuse. Donald Trump promised throughout his campaign to “put the miners back to work”. A year into his campaign, Vox found that he had failed to do so, and NPR reported that the number of coal mine deaths had increased in 2017 after a record low in 2016. There were 15 coal mine deaths in 2017 alone. It’s not that people who work at coal mines are unaware of the negative environmental impacts or the health risks, but as one of their own put it “If you had to take another job, in this area especially,” Williams says, “you’re going to take anywhere from a 50 to 70 percent pay cut to what the next best thing is that’s out there.” (NPR). The same article disclosed the national average salary of coal miners- $80,000. The people of coal country are just trying to support their families the only way they know how, but the impact of their industry can’t be ignored. The energy industry is responsible for the majority of our carbon emissions, and coal is responsible for 70% of that. Coal is deadly, commonly known to be terrible for the environment, and unsustainable. But there is light at the end of this mine shaft- solar power.

Renewables are vastly more popular than any, other form of energy, with support on both sides of the aisle according to the PEW Research Center. But they come with significant drawbacks. Solar panels don’t work in the dark, and the wind doesn’t always propel wind turbines, but our demand for energy is constant. Until renewable technology is more advanced, our base power needs must come from a more reliable source, like Nuclear.

Nuclear power plants operate using nuclear fission which heats up water. Steam untouched by the radioactive material turns a turbine and generates power. They are very similar to wind turbines, only it doesn’t depend on which way the wind is blowing that day. It’s constant, and provides an excellent source for our base power needs.  

Gif From the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

We have a collective fear of nuclear, it’s gotten quite a bit of bad press. More people have died in fossil fuel accidents like the Upper Big Branch mine tunnel collapse, which killed 29, and the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, which killed 47 people, than died in during the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Exact numbers vary, but usually fall around 38 deaths directly associated with the disaster, with a consensus of “fewer than 50.”

Meltdown situations, while extremely rare, are scary. If there’s nothing to cool the radioactive material, it can overheat, become liquid, and much more toxic. We think of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukashima as inevitable, but neither of those plants were under the kind of severe regulation plants in the US are required to meet. A notable event from the US, Three Mile Island, had a partial meltdown that would’ve been catastrophic had there not been back up after back up in place, multiple levels of failsafes, and excellent engineering. 

Nuclear energy is incredibly safe, as the severe consequences of these accidents has led to substantial governmental regulation and significant research. The containers that hold spent fuel rods, those radioactive things we all fear, undergo extensive testing. In one such  test  reserachers crashed a plane into one of the containers, which sustained no major damage. Gifs below show the containers being slammed into walls, hit by a train, and fried by a jet-fuel fire. None of the containers shown sustained any major damage. Nuclear waste is hard to deal with, but compared to other forms or energy that produce coal slurry and carbon emissions, it has far less environmental impact. In fact, nuclear energy doesn’t have any direct carbon emissions. The facilities designed and built in the US are exceptional, and are routinely examined.

Container Testing AKA Cask Tests

Gifs Made Using SANDIA Labs Video

Nuclear plants are no more dangerous than other energy production methods. Nuclear is the only energy resource we have today that is carbon-free, sustainable, cost effective, as it costs less per kilowatt hour than fossil fuels, reliable, as it produces whether it rains or shines, and safe. Power plants of all kinds have been facing thousands of terrorist attacks each month, both physical and cyber, for years now. Power plants have been successful at thwarting these attacks so far, but Nuclear plants have the added benefit of extra physical security and better computer systems that are constantly monitored and upgraded. While renewables are both green and popular, there is no better option than nuclear for our base power needs. 

Coal has got to go, it’s dirty, unsustainable, and toxic. Renewables are green and popular, but entirely dependent on the very unpredictable forces of nature. The only viable solution for replacing it and other fossil fuels is nuclear power.  

Applied Digital Studies: Final Reflection

Final Reflection: It’s been a blast, I’ve learned a bunch, and I think I deserve an A.

Throughout the process of submitting the work I’ve done this semester to Canvas, I’ve tried to explain each portion as I submitted it. This spelling out of each assignment in detail is much more impactful, and almost emotional because this is my last Digital Studies class. I had no idea what I was in for when I started, but I’m so glad I did. It’s been the most educational, most formative, most inspiring aspect of my college education thus far.

 

Each week this semester I’ve made an entry into my Learning Journal, a Google Doc where I reflected on what we’d done that week, how I’d connected it to other projects, other disciplines I’ve studied, and the world at large. I’ve made real effort to think critically about the work we’ve done this semester, what it means, what I’m going to take away from it when the class is over, and how it will impact the way I approach future projects.

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The first of the three sections of the class involved collaboratively reading and then analyzing in group teaching sessions the Sci-Fi novel The Peripheral by William Gibson. During my three teaching days I had found it progressively easier to ask discussion questions and to consider more in-depth questions about the novel itself as the plot thickened and I got to know the people in my group. Going back to look at my Teaching Notes I got to relive my wild goose chase looking for the meaning of the novel and how Gibson’s eerily accurate portrayal of a dystopian future fit in with Applied Digital Studies. I know the novel was pretty divisive in our class, in fact quite a few people absolutely hated it, but I found that it’s abstract messages made me think harder and more originally about the content and the warnings it tried to impart. (I have further details about each day I taught where I submitted my Teaching Notes on Canvas. )

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Before we set out on the next big section of the class, we were asked to come up with a Programming Manifesto. In my Manifesto I expressed much of the frustration I had about the tediousness of coding. Even with all the things that we learned while teaching each other to code in Python and in working on our Big Projects, I’m afraid that by the time we considered our Re:Manifesto, I still found coding to be pretty tedious, but I got back some of that creative spark that I had when I first learned to code as a freshman. I even made a public Re:Manifesto blogpost to include gifs for a little creative flair. That feeling of possibility alone was well worth all the effort I made while learning and teaching the essential concepts of Python according to Montfort and completing my Big Project.

The three occasions on which I taught concepts from the Montfort textbook covered the essential topics of Iteration, Examining and Manipulating Strings, and Computing is Cultural. I chose Iteration first because I struggled with it when I first took programming for CPSC 110, and I thought the lessons I learned while trying to understand the concept might benefit those in my audience who were learning about loops for the first time. (My poster for that concept was a CC0 image of a fingerprint. The little curves are called loops -punny right?) I then chose to tackle Examining and Manipulating Strings because I thought it might help me with my Big Project. It didn’t end up helping much at all, but it was still interesting and I had a great time showing the other people at my table how to mess with strings. Finally I gave a presentation about how Computing is Cultural because it was the essential concept that most interested me, and I used that to show several videos that I felt most exemplified the idea that computing itself is cultural, and that it has the power to create positive change in our cultures.

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The overall experience of teaching in this class was extremely fulfilling and I truly enjoyed it. I felt prepared to teach others the concepts and chapters I’d covered and had meaningful discussions with my group about the topics we learned. I got good reviews from my peers on Airtable and tried to adapt my teaching methods throughout the semester to include more visual explanations per their request. Moreover I participated not only in each teaching session by being an attentive student, even when my Chromebook’s limitations made following along difficult, but in workshopping the Big Projects of my classmates, helping them come up with snappy names for their blog posts and making software and website recommendations. I also participated in all of the in-class activities we did, like the Python Poetry generators.

 

As for my own Big Project, I submitted a proposal for a project using the code, or at least the structure, from the cloud-to-butt Chrome extension that, instead of replacing “the cloud” with “the butt”, replaces racially sensitive words in crime reports to their opposite, white to black, hoodie to polo, african american to caucasian, hispanic to germanic, etc, in order to highlight the racist language used in news broadcasts and facebook discussions all over the internet everyday. It’s a serious problem, and I think that it would not only bring this issue to the attention of people who might not think about it as they’re absorbing and engaging with content, but it could also help serve as an indicator of platforms that do so routinely and deliberately, i.e. Br**tbart, F*x News, NRA ads, etc. (It’s important to censor bad words)

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It was an ambitious project for someone of my coding ability, and by the first Progress Report, I’d already run into trouble. I’d found all of the elements I needed, had most of the skills I should have needed, and couldn’t get to it because I couldn’t open the extension. I could see it, I just couldn’t open it. That little gray icon taunted me from the corner of my browser for the rest of the semester.

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By the second Progress Report, I’d talked to everyone I could think of about troubleshooting, but was still SOL. It really shook my confidence, and I parked the original project until I could get a Python version working just in case the extension never worked. That resulted in several python programs that looked like this:

def main():
 string=raw_input(“Enter article: “)
 list=string.split(‘ ‘)
 a=”white”
 b=”whites”
 list[list.index(‘Black’)] = a
 list[list.index(‘African-American’)] = a
 list[list.index(‘blacks’)] = b
 new=’ ‘.join(list)
 print new

 

By the third Progress Report, I was watching javascript tutorials on Youtube about anything even remotely related to the code I was working with. I really wanted to make the Javascript work, but in spite of several visits to the basement of Trinkle, I was never able to meet with a computer lab aid or a computer science student with any degree of fluency in Javascript. I resigned myself to making the Python version a real program rather than coming up truly empty handed. I even contemplated trying to figure out how to use the MIT Media Cloud tools, but realized that the demo versions currently available to the public weren’t a good fit for the project. I even spent my project teaching day on HTML using the video I’d used to teach myself, even though I was sure by that point that I wouldn’t be able to use any of the new skills I’d learned for the project.

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So after the third Progress Report, I was trying to salvage what I could before the due date. I was trying to remember how to work with directories and manipulate files in Python when I got frustrated with that, and resolved to take one last stab at the Javascript. Four hours of stubborn tinkering with tips from Youtube and one line of code later, I had a working Chrome extension. The magic line was none other than “ document.write(v); ” at the end of the program. Turned out that gray icon that mocked me all semester was functional, it just wasn’t displaying the changes it could make. I even learned how to add a red border to the pages it worked on to blatantly indicate that the page had altered, and added little * to words that the extension had changed.

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Here are some examples of the extension at work:

When applied to a list of 5 Racist Bill O’Reilly quotes (link):

When applied to an article about a racist website the Southern Poverty Law Center bravely took to court (link):

I said in my proposal that this project should be graded on its ability to function as it was intended on Chrome, and I think it does that well. You can try it for yourself if you’re on the #applied Slack channel, just put the files at these links into a folder, go to the Extensions option under More Tools on Chrome, and load that folder as an unpacked extension. Enable and enjoy!

(You need all four files, and they have to be named as listed)

Popup.html

Myscript.js

B_128.png

manifest.json

Keeping it 100%…Or as Close as Possible

All of this has to add up to a grade, so…

The Big Project (35% of total): I’ve got all the components linked throughout this Reflection (Proposal, Progress Report 1+2 AND 3, Final Reflection), and I actually made a Chrome Extension that works and everything! I think I deserve a 98% for this, I really made a lot of effort, put in a significant amount of time, I learned an entirely new skill, and I fulfilled the requirements I laid out for myself in my proposal.

Teaching (40% of total): I’d say I’ve earned a 91%, because I taught on all the days I was assigned and came prepared to do so, I participated when others were teaching and always filled out the Airtable forms to give them feedback. That being said, I feel like some of the people I had a chance to learn from did a better job, and I think my grade in this portion should reflect that. I also think other table-groups were a little more professional, but I think I learned the concepts better in the environment we created at our table, because it was so cordial that it was easy to ask questions and take suggestions. There’s a reason the Digital Studies program is part of a Communications degree, and I think the small group skills I cultivated teaching reflect that association.

Programming Manifesto (10% of total): I think it’s fair for me to get a 93% for this portion because while I did put a lot of effort into it and tried to be a little creative with it, I didn’t change much between the Manifesto and the Re:Manifesto. I think I could’ve done a better job showing what I’d learned over the course of the class.

Learning Journal (7.5% of total): I’m very confident that I should get at least a 98% on this assignment. I put in significant time and thought, and kept up with it throughout the semester rather than going back through at the end of the semester and BSing it.

Participation (7.5% of total): I’d give myself a 92% for participation because I filled out all the Airtable forms, submitted my project to the showcase, answered questions and collaborated with classmates throughout the semester. I was present in class not only in body but also engaged in what we were doing, whether it was workshopping projects, sharing functional code snippets while teaching and while learning, or keeping up with the readings, I was mentally invested for every class I was able to attend (all but a couple I think). I also put articles on Slack that were relevant to class discussions.

 

I’ve also put several hours of work into this Final Reflection post and linking it to as many documents as I can recall creating.  I think, if I’ve done the math right, that comes out to a 94% A for the class, and I think that’s fair, because as I said at the outset, it’s been a blast, and I’ve learned a bunch. I think I deserve an A.

Thanks for a great semester!

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Re: Manifesto

To me, coding means learning how to forge the keys that open the gates to every corner of the universe, and to every aspect of modern life on this planet. Coding, for me,  is still synonymous in many ways with the Roman ‘ianuator’, or English ‘janitor’, meaning ‘keeper of the doors’ in that it simultaneously feels like the world is at your fingertips, and yet also like you’re constantly cleaning up a building that other people take for granted.

My limited prior experience with C++ and Python from Computer Science classes helped as I rediscovered Python these last few weeks and allowed me to really solidify that knowledge. I also became familiar with some HTML and Javascript while trying different approaches to my Big Project, which has significantly increased my understanding of the online platforms I use everyday.

The peer to peer learning experience was so much more fulfilling than traditional classroom learning, as it was much less intimidating to ask questions of people on the same level as me, and it was easier to help those with topics I understood because we were part of the same group. The textbook itself was helpful in that it broke down what was important in essential concepts that built on one another, which helped me prioritize my learning experience. I found Youtube tutorials to be very helpful, like the series for Python done by thenewboston.  

I have a goal to complete a project I’ve been thinking about since I started coding that I’ve never had the time and the skills to focus on. I’ve had this idea for a program that would generate dinner ideas based on meals that I have frequently that I’ve wanted to take on as a project to hopefully eliminate the all to frequent stand off in my household over what we’re going to have for dinner. Creating a program that would take into account my household’s schedules, preferences, dietary restrictions, and the time of year would free up a couple hours of my week that are taken up debating what we should eat every evening and probably manage my father’s diabetes more effectively.

Representation and Highlights from the 13TH by Ava DuVernay and Netflix

In this timeline, I explore the history of Mass Incarceration through the lens of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13TH. She takes us from the 13 amendment, which allowed criminals to  be enslaved, to the current problems of racism and the prison industrial complex. It’s a film well worth the time it takes to watch.

I made this gif from the Official Trailer:

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Some Billionaires are Better Than Others

An article in the New York Times entitled Steve Ballmer Serves Up a Fascinating Data Trove describes the pet project of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. This billionaire is spending his retirement using government data to follow the money spent by federal, state, and local governments, and put all his findings in a database. It’s called USA Factsand it’s got plenty of terrifying figures. Our graduation rate is only 59%. There are 427,910 children in foster care. We have no figures on how many guns are in this country, thanks to the NRA. We’re spending more money than we have to spend. It’s not a pretty picture.

Ugly and terrifying as that picture might be, Steve Ballmer wants all American’s to have access to the same set of data about the issues that matter most to them. He has created this database as a means for our increasingly polarized population to work from a common ground of numbers that are “apolitical”, so that we may each draw out own conclusions rather than preach our chosen party line. Ballmer provides a stark contrast to another billionaire- Trump. Not only is he worth almost 10 times what Trump is in dollars, he’s worth 100 times more in sense. His approach to the current division in the United States isn’t to pick a side and fan the flames, but rather to give Americans the tools needed to work through our differences. The only way we get through this is together. Now that we have USA Facts, we can’t hide behind MSNBC vs. Fox News, or Koch vs. Soros. We have the information we need straight from the US government that has been sorted out into understandable segments of truth about where our money goes. Now it’s time to take it to the table and work toward a better future for all of us.

For Inspiration and a Laugh

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This is Bernard Marks, a Holocaust survivor, addressing his sheriff and an ICE official at a town hall event. Marks brought up allegations made by the local paper that ICE was detaining people who were trying to access the courthouse. His remarks were brief, but very powerful. Take the time to watch here, or just enjoy the endless loop of Bernard sticking it to the man.

The only way we’re all going to get through the terrifying reality that is currently our Executive Branch is to laugh at the sheer absurdity of having an unqualified overcomb occupying the oval office. Monstrous and authoritarian as he may seem, he is only a man who should really learn his place in the pecking order. Remember that eagle Trump tried to use as a prop? I do. And I laugh every time I see it. Spread the joy.

 

The Fight for Net Neutrality is Heating Up Again.

Net Neutrality Town Hall

Net Neutrality is under threat again, according to the New York Times article “Net Neutrality is Trump’s Next Target, Administration Says” . New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was one of the dissenting voices when Net Neutrality was originally enacted back in 2015, and with his new powers as Chairman, the Open Internet Rules are more vulnerable than ever.

This timeline shows the history of net neutrality, and the events that led to the protections we enjoy for now. For more information about protecting the future of net neutrality, look into the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Digital Democracy.

Image from Teddy Wilson, License