Thursday, December 17, 2020

Leaf blowers, street sweeping, car tires, fish and you

I heard arguments for easing up on street sweeping parking tickets during a possible second covid-19 shut-down from both the left and the right.  I'm going to explain why that is a very, very bad idea.

Cities don't spend money to sweep the streets as an excuse to issue parking tickets.  They really do need to clean the streets, especially in coastal communities like Los Angeles.  If we don't clean up our streets, storm drains and waterways, toxins get dumped into coastal waters and we get fined by the EPA.  The fines have enough teeth to prod cities to clean up our street runoff.

Car tire dust is a big, big problem.  

Chemicals in tires break down into a very dangerous toxin that is decimating salmon populations.  This solves the mystery of why, when fish habitat and water flow are restored, salmon continue to die.

Zinc in car tires is a leading source of heavy metal toxins in coastal waters (along with copper from brake dust).

Tire particles are the largest source of microplastics in coastal waters.

I read the microplastics paper and blogged about the painstaking methodology and their results in Heavy Metal in LA.

The tire industry acknowledges that car tire particles make up 60% of PM2.5 and 73% of PM10 particulate air pollution.  This has been confirmed by both microscopic manual separation and identification studies like the one above and by elemental analysis of road dust.

Tire Technology International devoted an entire special issue to the problem of tire dust. It's nice to see industry discuss issues ahead of regulation.  This gives us one more reason to keep our tires inflated.  It will reduce tire dust, improve fuel economy and lower our CO2 emissions.

While regulators are still fixated on fighting the last battle, tailpipe emissions, tire emissions are largely unregulated.  But, the EPA does indirectly regulate tire particles through water quality regulations.

I've written about my loathing for leaf blowers and the health hazards that they pose. Leaf blowers churn up pollen, dust and particulate pollutants. Cars create particulates (road surface wear, tailpipe, tire and brake dust) and churn up road dust as well.  Cars also grind down larger, less dangerous particles into finer, more dangerous ones that can lodge deep in the lungs.

We are in the midst of a raging pandemic. Studies around the world have shown that covid-19 is deadlier as PM2.5 particulate pollution rises. An increase of just 1 microgram per cubic meter of PM2.5 exposure leads to a roughly 10% rise in covid-19 mortality. The Harvard study of the US covid-19 mortality and PM2.5 also studies race and concludes that PM2.5 alone (holding race constant) increases risk by 8% for each microgram/cubic meter.

I bought a home air quality sensor and moved it around the house.  When I put it near a window facing the street, I could see the PM2.5 spike whenever a car drove past.  The road dust got really bad while our city was not able to sweep the streets all the way to the curb due to parked cars.  

When parking enforcement for street sweeping resumed, I saw a decrease in road dust when I opened my windows.  It hasn't rained, so the reduction in road dust is most likely due to more thorough street sweeping.

In the middle of a pandemic, when we are urged to open our windows and ventilate our homes, isn't it important to keep the street air as clean as possible?

Isn't it our self-interest to move our cars and let the street sweeping machines do the most thorough job possible?

Also, why are we storing private property (cars) on the public right of way (street)? What is the point of mandating so much off-street parking in zoning regulations if we're all going to dump our cars on the streets?  

Parking on the street is privatizing public property. Then that leads people to get mad about getting parking tickets when they don't move their cars for the 2 hours a week that the street is swept.  Moving a car off the street is the minimum that people need to do to keep our cities and water clean.

The real outrage is that people privatizing public space is keeping our kids from being biking safely down the street.  The kids are penned between twin rows of parked vehicles with no space for cars to pass them safely--even if they could be seen through the visual clutter of all the parked cars.


The number one thing we can do to reduce tire particulate pollution (in terms of biggest reduction) is to drive lighter cars.  Drive the smallest, lightest car you need for everyday activities. Rent a larger car for occasions where you really need a larger vehicle.

Number two is to drive them less.

Number three is to keep your tires properly inflated.

With climate change, our rain season is going to get shorter.  This means we will have to rely more on street sweeping instead of rain to clean up our tire particle pollution.  The best way is to create less in the first place.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Water-Energy Nexus

Since moving back to California, I joined the League of Women Voters California Water Committee aka the Water Buffaloes.  Volunteers around the state that monitor happenings in California water and try to educate the public so that we can make better collective decisions.  

There are so many people who benefit from operating in obscurity, they sow disinformation so they can keep the doing the things that benefit them, but harm the rest of us.  Shoveling against the tide of misinformation never stops.

One of the hallmarks of LWV is that we update our knowledge by keeping abreast of regulatory changes and new knowledge.  I help out with the science stuff, and I work with other volunteers with expertise in law, journalism and education.

In order to help update the public's knowledge about California, we are writing a new series about California Water and the League.  I especially like the cartoon because Climate Change has changed everything about California water and I don't think most people have realized how much danger we're in.

Four of the planned eight articles are currently posted, and more will be dropped monthly.  I've written Water is Related to Everything and The Water-Energy Nexus.  The editor took out this great graphic showing the State Water Project and the relative heights of the water lifts needed to reach SoCal.

Did you know that water uses account for 19% and 30% of CA electricity and natural gas consumption respectively?

And that it's circular.  Water has embedded energy. Energy has embedded water?  Read The Water-Energy Nexus

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Transportation News

I'm feeling rather sad at the moment. Waves hands at all this.

I just wrote up my monthly roundup of Natural Resources happenings in Los Angeles County for LWV.  A lot happens in my little county of 10 million people. If LA Co were a country, we'd have the same population of Azerbaijan, Portugal, Sweden or Hungary.

To keep it shorter, I focused on transportation this month.

On October 15, UCLA Luskin Center held a fantastic seminar on Understanding the History of LA Traffic.  You can read the accompanying paper, A Century of Fighting Traffic Congestion in Los Angeles: 1920-2020.

I learned about the difference between facility pricing (pay to use a specific toll road or to cross a bridge) and cordon pricing (pay to enter a congested area like central London) and corridor pricing.  Los Angeles is the first in the world to study corridor pricing and using the money for reparations to the communities in the corridor.  

This is huge, and I'm so proud of Los Angeles for putting environmental justice front and center in the framing.

For instance, if you want to travel from Long Island, NY to New Jersey, you need to cross Manhattan.  You could pay a toll on the Trans-Manhattan Expressway and bypass surface streets, minimizing your impact on those communities.  Or you can pay nothing and clog the surface streets of Chinatown while traversing between the Manhattan/Brooklyn bridges to the Holland Tunnel.  This leads to horrific traffic congestion, air pollution and traffic deaths in Chinatown.

Under corridor pricing, you pay to traverse through a corridor.  It doesn't matter if you take a freeway, an arterial or side street.  You drive through, you pay for the externalities that you impose on the residents of that area.

Figure 2.1 from RAND Tech Report Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policy Makers. This figure relies upon data from page 922 of this NHTSA report.

We're already doing it on a smaller scale by charging solo drivers to use the carpool lanes on I-110.  Community groups serving communities along the I-110 corridor can apply for some of the funds raised from the tolls for active transportation projects.  But, this favors communities with people experienced in the ways of writing grant proposals.  Those are generally not the communities with the greatest needs. It also limits how the money can be spent, and those may not be the greatest needs.

Corridor pricing means the money will go to the communities in the corridor automatically.  People are hashing out what that would look like.  More money for public health?  Retrofitting homes and schools for air filters? Cash for residents?  Free transit for residents?

Meanwhile, I made a video about the kind of transportation changes we really need to make to avoid catastrophic climate change (as if what we are experiencing isn't already catastrophic.)


I keep hearing that we can't. We could never get Americans to do this. But, then I wonder why we would rather kill the planet and ourselves (Covid:Masks) rather than do the things that Asian countries like Taiwan are doing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Proposition 19 and Wildfire Danger

Proposition 19 is such a dangerous scam.  Why are realtors so eager to pass this convoluted proposition that they spent over $63 Million (as of 10/28/2020) to pass it?  Because they will make a lot of money.

Proposition 13 has been amended over the years to give ever bigger loopholes to exploit.  First was the inheritance tax break for heirs

One effect of Proposition 13 and the inheritance tax break has been to create generational inequities between those who have owned homes and those who haven’t. The laws place no limits on how many descendants can take advantage of the benefit, so future generations of Californians whose ancestors purchased houses decades ago will continue to pay property taxes based on values established in the 1970s.
Then came the portability for seniors to make a one-time move within the same county to homes of equal or lesser value.  This was supposed to help people prepare for aging at home.  E.g. help seniors move to a home without stairs or in a less auto-dependent location when they stop driving.  

Some counties extended portability between reciprocating counties, ostensibly so that seniors could move closer to family for help with care.
Propositions 60/90 amended section 2 of Article XIIIA of the California Constitution to allow a person who is over age 55 to sell his or her principal place of residence and transfer its base year value to a replacement dwelling of equal or lesser value that is purchased or newly constructed within two years of the sale. These propositions are implemented by Revenue and Taxation Code section 69.5. 
Proposition 60 allows for the transfers of a base year value within the same county (intracounty). Proposition 90 allows for the transfers of a base year value from one county to another county in California (intercounty) if the county has authorized such a transfer by an ordinance. 
As of November 7, 2018, the following ten counties in California have an ordinance enabling the intercounty base year value transfer:
Alameda, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Tuolomne, Ventura are among the 9 most urbanized counties in California and are home to 75% of Californians.  75% of Californian seniors already have one-time Proposition 13 intercounty portability and all have one-time intracounty portability.

Proposition 13 property tax assessments are already transferable between 10 counties including 9 of the most urbanized ones. 75% of CA's population already have one-time Prop 13 portability at age 55.

Once, there was momentum and counties were willing to extend intercounty portability.  But, counties discovered that this bled their coffers.  Seniors use a lot of public services, especially when their health fails or when they lose driving privileges.  Accepting people who will consume ever larger portions of scarce public dollars while paying lower taxes is a suckers game.  Prop 13 portability stalled.

Existing law allows tax assessment portability only to homes of lesser or equal value. This was marketed as a way for house-rich, cash-poor empty nesters to free up some of their equity for living expenses.  It's bad policy to give things away to all seniors, instead of just targeting low-income people specifically, but this is existing policy.

It's a misnomer to call it a giveaway to all seniors.  About 6 million seniors live in California.  Over 1 million are renters.  Senior renters are the ones most in need.  About half have trouble paying for basic necessities.

Giving money to seniors who were lucky/white enough to purchase homes in the 1970s or earlier is not going to help the seniors in most financial distress.  It's going to take money away from governments, that they could have used to help the real seniors in need.

Prop 19 would allow portability of low Prop 13 assessments to more expensive homes.  If seniors are able to purchase a more expensive home, do they need the subsidy from everyone else?

Business interests have exploited the CA initiative process to do an end run around government and elected officials when they can't get what they want.  They spend a lot of time and money crafting initiatives that sound good, while having stealth effects that they obfuscate with convoluted language.

Proposition 19 is marketed as a way to close the inheritance loophole, which will raise tens of millions per year, but it will create liabilities many times larger.

For instance, the inheritance loophole will still be valid as long as the heirs live in the home as a primary residence at the time of the transfer.  Be prepared for people to move into mom and pop's place for just long enough to get the lower tax assessment, and then transfer the low tax assessment to another home later.

Existing law, Prop 60/90, allows one-time property tax assessment transfers.  Proposition 19 expands that to THREE transfers.  Why settle for one real estate commission when you can get three?  Seniors are going to need it if they move to a rural area and then find themselves unable to drive dark rural roads.  They will need to move back to an urban area that is more friendly to those that can't drive.

[A UC Berkeley geography professor found that seniors who move to rural areas create many low-wage jobs, first in food-retail, then in home healthcare aides. Providing for seniors and the low-wage workers they depend upon is bankrupting rural counties.  That's why counties now refuse to opt-in to Prop 13 portability.]

So why does Prop 19 have these Rube Goldberg rules that tighten the inheritance loophole and redirect the money to fire fighting?  Because the 48 CA counties not participating in Prop 13 portability are mostly rural firetraps.

On the map below, the 10 counties with existing Prop 13 portability are aqua.  The 48 counties that Prop 19 would extend portability to are yellow.

Historical fire data for 1878-2019 is shown in brown.

Fire perimeters for the 2020 fire season is shown in pink.

Although there are many fires in the Southern California aqua counties, they are mostly contained in the rural, mountainous parts of the county.  Urban dwellers in the denser parts of those counties subsidize the few that live in harms way.  That is not true in most of the yellow counties.

Realtors know that Prop 19 would incentivize seniors to move to Paradise and other fire traps.  That's why they added the sop to fire fighters.  But, it would raise only tens of millions per year in fire fighting funds.  California spends a half to a full BILLION on fire suppression annually. That's not counting money spent by the Feds for fire suppression on Federal lands. 

[The Feds own 47.7% of California's land, including 57% of California's forest lands.]

People (and their cars) start fires.  Put more people out in fire country, and they will start more fires.  

Most importantly, prescribed burns to reduce fuels are difficult to do in areas that already have homes and people living and driving in them.  Ironically, prescribed fires aren't permitted if the PM2.5 particulate air pollution is already high and people live in the area.  

People driving cars shed PM2.5 (yes, even electric cars) so they add to the PM2.5 load while simultaneously reducing the allowable load.  It's so circular.  But, once people live in a fire-prone area, it gets harder to do the things you need to keep them safe.

The housing estates will further fragment wildlife habitat. 

Seniors will be socially isolated--especially when they stop driving.

Proposition 19 is just insane social, fiscal, ecological and fire policy.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Nuclear Power Context

I had a really good conversation with my daughter about nuclear power this week.  We've been having a lot of conversations about infrastructure and the environment during the voting period while she filled out her ballot.  

[I'm so proud of her doing the research and voting the whole ballot.  At her age, I left some of them blank, especially the down ticket races & obscure government boards, thinking that others were more qualified to decide.  We all know how that worked out.]

Anyway, I wanted to document our discussion in case your kid asks, too.

The federal Energy Information Administration is a font of information.  Hooray for deep state operatives that collate, quality check and make good information available! 

The US generated about 4118 Billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2019. It's impossible to know how much electricity is generated by privately-owned solar panels "behind the meter", but EIA estimates there's an additional 35 Billion kWh.  It's a drop in the bucket, but growing.

The largest chunk of carbon-free electricity in the US is from nuclear, 19.7%.  That's slightly larger than the 17.5% generated by renewables.  

If we were all to magically replace our gasoline powered cars with electric ones, we'd need to double our electricity generation.  If we were to close down all the existing nuclear power plants, we'd have to figure out a way to add carbon free electricity at an unprecedented and extremely difficult rate.  If we were to do both, as some people want, I don't know how we will keep the lights on.

Moreover, large hydropower and existing nuclear power plants in the US were all built 40-90 years ago. 25% of our nations' electricity generation capacity is at the end of their design lifetime and need to be replaced along with the 23.5% that comes from coal.

The US doesn't produce solar panels any more.  (It's dirty and dangerous to produce.  It's expensive to produce safely.)  We rely on Chinese imports.  The Chinese government just announced an aggressive schedule to decarbonize their electricity generation, which may mean exporting less panels to the US.

NIMBYs have stymied wind mill deployment around the country.  

California Governor Newsom announced an executive order that all cars sold in California from 2035 and later have to be electric.  That's 15 years from now and our electricity grid is neither ready or on the way to being ready in time. 

We are in serious trouble unless we dramatically reduce the number of cars we drive, the number of miles that we drive and the size/weight of the vehicles.  This is why I'm such a shill for Ebikes.

In California, I spend a lot of time on the California Independent System Operator site viewing daily electricity data*.  Consider August 16, 2020.  It was a particularly hot day.

Due to a combination of factors, there was insufficient electricity and California experienced rolling blackouts in the late afternoon and evening to keep the grid from crashing over wider areas.  Here's CAISO data for energy sources for that day. 

I replotted the data to put the "Green" energy on the bottom and the most carbon-intensive sources at the top.  EIA reported that roughly half the electricity imports to CA in 2019 were carbon-free. I have no idea what other means so I left it at the top.
Here's a detail of the renewables portion:
When the sun goes down, renewable energy plummets while energy demand rapidly rises. This leads to the infamous CA duck curve.  

Filling this need with batteries would take an insane amount of highly toxic and dangerous batteries.  There aren't enough rare earth minerals to make it happen, anyway.

You could fill the need, in an emergency, by releasing water from dams during the evening to generate hydropower.  But, rivers and streams don't exist solely to be our batteries.  Rivers support whole ecosystems that rely on the cooling power of water flow during the hot afternoons.  This mimics the natural rhythm of snowpack melt, stream flow in Sierras.  Moreover, you can't count on having water to release in drought years.

This gets us back to where we started.  On an annual basis, CA gets about 8-10% of our electricity from Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.  Before the closure of San Onofre, nuclear used to provide ~20% of CA's electricity.  San Onofre and the geothermal power plants near the CA-MX border used to provide SoCal with nearly entirely carbon-free electricity at night.

So we talked about how and where Cobalt is mined; nuclear, battery and coal waste problems, tradeoffs of different sources of electricity, and environmental justice.

It made me feel like I was doing my job as a mom.

* I was the type of teenager that got insider (not public) tours of Diablo Canyon and Forsmark nuclear power plants. People knew that I was interested in science and energy/water, and I also finagled my way into places.  That wouldn't happen today.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Deluxe and Status Anxiety

[I'm going through my drafts folder and found this item from 2007 that I never posted.  I added a link to a recent book and it's time you read what I thought in 2007.]

Kathleen sent me a copy of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. Man, that is a depressing book. In brief, scaling up luxury goods meant moving production to large, new factories in China. The cost of production of the luxury goods plummeted to 10-11% of the retail price. Marketing/advertising overtook production in the total price of luxury goods. 

Mark says that the truly depressing movies are the bad ones. In that vein, I recommend that people also peruse Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety  I was especially moved by this quote from page 82 of the hardback edition:
Rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. It is the legacy of those who have felt pressured by the disdain of others to add an extraordinary amount to their bare selves in order to signal that they too may lay a claim to love.
Maybe that's confirmation bias.

Anyway, Dana Thomas is a business of fashion reporter with good industry access.  Deluxe and Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes are both good reads about the opposite ends of the apparel trade.  

Leaf Blowers: Window on Governance

I wanted to do a quick post about something that seems like a small tweak and highly local, but that is much more complicated and far-reaching.  It gives another data point for "all politics is local" and "think globally, act locally."

With great fanfare, Redondo Beach voted to ban motorized leaf blowers on July 10, 2018 on environmental grounds.  The announcement did not explain the environmental grounds or clearly define what they mean by motorized.  

The notices went out to residents, but not the gardeners.  Renters, about half the RB population, don't hire gardeners. I don't know if property managers that hire gardeners were notified. The gardeners seemed to be unaware of the rule.

When I told gardeners about the rule, they ignored me or told me either that they were unaware of the ban, or that their electric leaf blowers were exempt.

The health hazards of gas-powered leaf blowers are well known.  They are deafeningly loud and expose the users to dangerous levels of carcinogens from fuel and combustion by-products.  The California Air Resources Board has a website explaining the pollution caused by Small Off-Road Engines (SORE).

BTW, the smog pollution includes NO2, which is known to be a very potent and persistent greenhouse gas.

1 hour of lawn mower use produces as much smog as driving LA to Vegas.  1 hour of leaf blower use = driving 1100 miles from LA to Denver.

The numbers are staggering. 1 hour of leaf blower use produces as much smog as a RT to visit my mom in SF and continuing on to northern NorCal to visit my SIL. 2 hours = a RT to Boulder to visit friends. 

Newer cars are much cleaner than older cars.  Our hybrid is cleaner than average so the equivalent SORE use time may be much lower.  In 2020, SORE smog emissions will roughly equal total car smog emissions in CA. SORE emissions will dominate as older, more polluting cars are retired. 

Lawn Equipment roughly equal total car smog emissions in CA and will dominate as the old cars are retired. 

The case against gas-powered leaf blowers is easy and well-known.  What about the much quieter electric-powered leaf blowers?  Are they a harmless alternative?

They don't produce the smog, but they are just as effective at kicking up clouds of dust.  Gardeners wear particle masks when they use leaf blowers to protect themselves, but the rest of us choke in it.

What's in that dust?
  • Pollen: terrible for allergy sufferers
  • Mold: terrible for people with allergies and compromised immune systems*
  • Road Dust: toxic, carcinogenic, causes lung & heart disease and dementia, makes Covid-19 deadlier
Let's normalize using a rake with a broom and dust pan.  It doesn't kick up as much dust or throw it up as high.  Reject that ultra-manicured yard look.

* My stepmother died of pneumonia after her last round of chemotherapy.  She was given a strong cocktail of antibiotics and anti-fungals via IV, but they couldn't save her.  An autopsy showed that she died of fungal pneumonia.  Mold spores got into her lungs and took advantage of her weakened state.  I think of her every time I hear or see a leaf blower.

What about governance?

Leaf blowers are another reason I lost faith in my local government.  I thought that you pass a law, and people obey the law.  If they don't, you call the cops or some other watchdog responsible for enforcing the law.

I called the non-emergency police hotline.  They took the report, but did nothing.  I asked my council member.  They said that the police were not happy about working without a contract. Hopefully, they would do more enforcement of laws after contract negotiations were successful.  

[The city was also spinning up another number and email address where we could report leaf blower violations as a workaround for the non responsive police department.  I emailed that office time-stamped photos of leaf blower use on my block, but never got any responses from them either.]

WHUT? Local teachers were working YEARS without a contract, yet they were still doing their jobs. From the Beach Reporter
In the 14 months since Redondo Beach enacted a ban on leaf blowers, the city has received more than 1,700 complaints and issued just three citations. ... On Tuesday, the Redondo Beach City Council received its answer when it learned that out of more than 1,375 leaf blower complaints to city code enforcement just two citations were issued. Police issued one citation out of 339 complaints. Numerous courtesy notices were also issued.
Up to that point, I had very few interactions with the RB police. Now, with all the BLM and Defund the Police talk, I've been thinking about what functions are appropriate for the police and which would be more effectively dealt with by others. 

Have you looked at your city's budget? I mean really looked at both the discretionary budget and the zombie costs of pensions? Do you know about the VERY generous police pensions relative to all other types of government jobs? They literally have a gun pointed at our heads during contract negotiations. 

Anyway, this has changed the way I see the police and city budgets. It's also changed the way I see local political races and endorsements from police (and fire) unions.  The saga with the RB firemans' union going after the elected officials that refused to merge with the county fire department (and their platinum-plated pension program) was eye-opening.

Even after cutting $150 M, LAPD still gets more than half the city's unrestricted funds.  If you count pension contributions, and they have the most generous pensions, police departments get the lions share of most city budgets.  

The cities work for the police departments, not the other way around.

Moreover, these employees often don't live in the cities where they serve.  They take that money and spend it elsewhere.  It's not an exaggeration to call it colonialism.

It started with my allergies and leaf blowers.  But it made this suburban mom question who really works for whom.  My local police union** taught me a lesson, and it wasn't the one they intended.  When the Defund the Police movement arrived, I was ready to listen.  

**The police union and the police chief are not equivalent. They don't have the same priorities.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

What's your Voting Plan?

I read this 2020 Asian American Voter Survey and got depressed thinking about all the people who don't have a voting plan yet.

Democracy in the US is in peril & it is up to all of us to save it. Under some metrics, North Carolina is no longer classified as a democracy.
An independent academic study founded in 2012, the Electoral Integrity Project addresses three questions:
  • When do elections meet international standards of electoral integrity?
  • What happens when elections fail to do so?
  • And what can be done to mitigate these problems?
Under the direction of Professor Pippa Norris and the distinguished International Advisory Board, the Electoral Integrity Project produces innovative and policy-relevant research comparing elections worldwide. The research team is based at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Was it a fair election? The answer is more than a simple yes or no.  Election integrity is more of a continuum.
Elections are just one of the pillars of democracy.  Another pillar is an informed electorate.  I blog about topics that I don't see in the press, or that I don't feel were treated with adequate nuance.  So, in a sense, my blog is an affirmation of my optimism for democracy.  If more people knew the facts, they could react more optimally to ensure better outcomes for everyone.

It's fair to say, this has been wildly optimistic.  Nevertheless, I persist.  Suppose you have never voted before, or are trying to convince friends and family to become voters, where do you get started?

First, you should get your information from high-quality sources.  In a functioning democracy, you would start with the people who run your elections.  For instance, the California Secretary of State runs the state elections.  The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk runs the LA County elections.  Finally, the Los Angles City Clerk runs the city elections.

[Substitute your jurisdictions to search for the official sites.]

In Los Angeles County, the county clerk coordinates the ballots and voting for all 88 cities in the county.  It's a huge undertaking as LA Co is both the most populous (10 Million) and the most complex (language diversity) county in the US.
Mandated Languages
Los Angeles County is currently required to provide the following language assistance to VRA voters in addition to English:

The full list of LA County Vote Centers just went live on 10/1/2020. Some are open 5 days (10/30-11/03) and others are open 11 days (10/24-11/03.) The list of over 400 secure Ballot Drop Box locations will be released shortly.  If you are a registered voter in CA, your ballot will be mailed to you.  You can mail it back, or drop it off at a Ballot Drop Box or Vote Center.

When I was eligible to vote for the first time, I was an 18 year old college freshman.  I only knew what my teachers and parents told me, and some of what they said were contradictory.  My fellow students pretended to know the answers, but their information was also suspect.

Various groups were after my vote and bombarded our dorm mail room with pamphlets.  I read and tossed all but one.  The League of Women Voters (whom I had never heard of up to that point) left a brochure that explained each initiative (and CA has a lot of them) in plain English and then listed the Pros and Cons of each of them.

The LWV wasn't after my vote.  They wanted to educate me.  I've used their brochures ever since.  Printing brochures is expensive, so most of it is online.  I'm providing links and explaining the differences between the different sites.

[Aside: Non-partisan means LWV does not endorse or oppose any particular political party or candidate.  LWV also works really hard not to be biased.  LWVC is a registered 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4), which means it does education AND advocacy and I'll get to the advocacy part below.]

You can always start at the LWV US (national) level site at and then navigate to your particular states' site.  In my case, that would be  Follow the links on the right column for the Voter Toolbox for instructions on the logistics of how to vote in your area. You can even Register to Vote online.

Underneath the Voters Toolbox, you will find the CA Voter's Edge widget. (In other states, go to for your state-specific information.)

Type in your zip code (your street address is optional) and click on the green "Find my ballot" button.  The site will query a database and return with every single item you are eligible to vote on in the upcoming election (Federal, State, County, City, special Districts.)

LWV volunteers in every community contact candidates running for office and send them written questionnaires and invitations to upload their bios and other informational data.  (I admit to being a bit biased here, but I think that a candidate that refuses, or is too disorganized, to provide information maybe shouldn't be in public office.)

I usually take my sample ballot, sit in front of my computer, read the candidate stuff, and mark my selections on my sample ballot.  In pre-Covid days, I brought my sample ballot to the Vote Center with me and entered in my selections on the touch screen.  This time, I will be using copying my selections from my sample ballot to my actual ballot, which should be arriving this week in the mail.

CA Easy Voter Guide  is your quick-start guide to general information about the election and plain English explanations of what each CA proposition means. Search on your state's Easy Voter Guide if you live in another state. or gives you your customized ballot information.

The Pros & Cons lay out unbiased information about each initiative.

The advocacy arm sometimes decides to take sides on initiatives (but never on candidates.)

Vote with the League provides arguments on why we hope you will side with us on some issues.

Volunteers analyze, organize, upload and sometimes write all of these materials. The decision to advocate on some initiatives is taken by a committee. (Disclaimer, I have provided research and facts for the committee to consider.) Generally, I think these are pretty good recommendations. 

Occasionally, I feel more strongly on an issue that the committee stayed neutral on (or vice versa.) But, I've never had a strong disagreement, which is pretty remarkable, and why I joined the organization as a volunteer.  If partisan politics isn't your thing and you want to be politically involved with a group that values facts, evidence and expertise, then check out your local LWV chapter.

If you are a California voter, Vote Yes on Prop 15: Schools & Communities First. Don't listen to the propaganda.  It only applies to commercial (not residential or agricultural) properties.  Make Apple and Genentech pay property taxes on the real value of their corporate campuses.

Aside (written weeks ago, may repeat above info):
When I was approaching my very first election as an 18 year old UC Berkeley Freshman, I found a LWVC Pros and Cons printed pamphlet outside my dorm along with lots of flyers from myriad groups telling me to vote this way or that way.  I read them all with a critical eye and the LWV stood out from the rest.  Clear, evidence-based discussion of the issues and what our votes will mean.

As an immigrant, I wasn't familiar with the LWV or the other groups vying for my vote.  Before the internet, you couldn't just look up the LWV history or learn how to join.

I was and am a science nerd.  I did not participate in student government at any level.  It didn't occur to me that LWV needs science nerds until a fellow math major invited me to a meeting.   We discussed a specialized field called voting methods that involved lots of math and computer science.  Everyone there was a teacher and/or a technical person and made me feel welcome.

I signed up to join both the voting methods team and the local chapter.  I went to a general meeting, and found myself helping to write the next Pros and Cons and Vote with the League information for the upcoming election (on a highly technical issue that frequently gets reduced to sound bites).

Pros and Cons is purely informational and lays out all the factual arguments to support or oppose measures.  Lies, distortions and wishful thinking are not tolerated. Facts, context and history with as little bias as possible given human writers and editors.

Vote with the League adds recommendations, if any.  After examining all the evidence and Pros & Cons, the League may feel so strongly that it will make recommendations.  Sometimes, the evidence is mixed and the League will stay neutral.  If there is not enough information or the League lacks the specific policy positions to take a stand, we won't.

LA Times posted their guide:
Here’s everything to know about voting by mail in Los Angeles County

Monday, August 17, 2020

Face Mask Science 3, August 2020 edition

Do you have face mask confusion?  Do conflicting headlines give you headaches?

I sort of feel like I've read enough to know that I should wear one whenever I am indoors in any place that is not my own home.  I should also carry one whenever I am outdoors and be ready to put it on whenever anyone is nearby.

There is no way to reduce risk 100%, but we can reduce it to pretty low by:

  • Social distancing in the sense that we minimize going out where we could encounter other people--especially in poorly-ventilated indoor places
  • Social distancing in the sense of putting as much space (and air) between you and others outside your household when you do go out
  • Universal mask wearing, especially indoors
  • Good hygiene (cleaning surfaces, washing hands, not touching face, etc)

The even better news is emerging evidence from multiple countries and situations/studies that show that universal masking reduces the severity of Covid-19 illness if you do catch it. The idea is that viral load matters.  The higher the viral load, the more severe the illness. 

  • Try to avoid situations where you can be exposed to the virus.  
  • Assume that everyone is contagious (even though usually, it's less than 1%, often much less than 1% of the population.) 
  • Then minimize your exposure.

The shaped 2-layer cotton masks I sew are fine for essential shopping trips and the occasional doctor visit.  The problem is finding masks that are comfortable enough to wear when being active (walking, biking, gardening.)

I made some gaiter-style masks with poly/lycra knit sewn into a tube, with a ponytail port at each end.  They were comfortable enough to wear for exercise, but a recent article said that gaiter masks might be worse than nothing.  That made no sense.

Fortunately, Professor Brent Stephens wrote 6000 words about what we know and don't know about masks, different materials, and Covid-19. What kind of mask should I be wearing to protect against COVID-19?

He has some thoughts on Gaiter-Gate, which I need not replicate here. Go read his analysis on why that gaiter measurement (with no control) is highly suspect.  Other scientists pointed out that the measurement that showed a "fleece gaiter" was worse than a bare face at containing droplets might have been measuring fleece fiber shedding instead of droplets.

Professor Linsey Marr wrote how she runs with a gaiter and doubles it up when anyone is nearby.  She posted a presentation on the blocking efficiency of neck gaiters.  The bottom line is that the thin kind that I sew blocks 50-90% of particle sizes that matter when worn in a single layer.  When doubled over, they block 90% over the entire range.

Lab setup:

The data:

The airbrush and spray bottle produce large droplets that, in the absence of a mask or neck gaiter, land on glass slides attached to the opposite manikin’s face. When either neck gaiter was affixed to the spraying manikin, no droplets were observed on the opposite manikin. Thus, the neck gaiters are 100% efficient at blocking these droplets from reaching the opposite manikin’s face.

I know that I sound like a broken record, but the best mask is the one that you will keep on.

Anyway, I am heartened from all of this advice from scientific experts.  It makes Covid-19 less scary.  I have enough to worry about with the elections and the census. 

In other news, this pandemic has made me read up on indoor ventilation and reminded me of sick building syndrome.  I was the canary in the goldmine for that and remember being treated like I was crazy.  One doctor even told me that he ordinarily sends patients who present with my symptoms to psychiatrists but he didn't think that was my problem; after all, I don't dislike technology and chemicals if I decided to major in it.  I'm assembling a blog post with very interesting things I learned.  I even ordered test equipment for my home. 

The mask series.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Road noise and what we can do about it

I'm really noise sensitive.  Perhaps you are, too.  I did some research reading and am collating it here.

(My local main street of Artesia Boulevard is painfully loud.  My ears ring after I've walked more than a couple of blocks along it.)

First off, I found a recently published book that has an entire chapter about Traffic Noise By Sanja Grubesa and Mia Suhanek. BTW, I just learned about IntechOpen, an open access science book publisher. This is so much better than the for-profit model. I'm looking at you, Elsevier Press.

Brubesa and Suhanek wrote a concise and excellent chapter. I'm excerpting a little bit but I hope you click on the link and read it yourself.
Road traffic noise depends on the following three factors:
  • Type of road vehicles.
  • Friction between the vehicle wheels and the road surface.
  • Driving style and driver behavior.
What types of vehicles?  In general, bigger vehicles produce more noise.

Electric vehicles don't produce any engine noise. Some hybrids run in all electric mode at low speeds (below 10 mph for our family's car.)  In congested city driving, electric and hybrid cars reduce traffic noise relative to normal ICE, Internal Combustion Engine, ones.

Vehicles also produce wind noise from the turbulent air that they produce as they travel.  Blocky vehicles create more turbulence.  Aerodynamic ones produce less.  Many economy cars and older minivans are wedges on wheels, delivering better fuel economy and less noise than trucks and SUVs.

The fashion for making minivans "cooler" by shaping their front ends to be more vertical and blocky like SUVs is so bad for noise, fuel economy and public safety for everyone outside the vehicle.  SMDH

Tire noise is a major noise generator.  Tread matters.  If you ride a bike, listen to the difference between smooth and knobby tires.  Car tires are similar, only the car cabin insulates you from having to hear the noise of your tires.  Everyone outside your car notices and is cursing you.

In general, the larger the tire-street contact area, the bigger the noise.  So you may buy the bigger tires for more cabin comfort/smoothness, but you are creating more friction and making more noise.

The heavier the vehicle, the greater the noise.  So EVs have silent engines, but may have greater tire noise.  To have decent driving range, their batteries are heavier than carrying an engine and a tank of gasoline.

The faster the driving, the greater the wind noise.  That's why Noise Increases with Vehicle Speed.

At 30 mph, a typical auto may produce 62 decibels, about the noise of a human conversation. At 54 mph, the same auto would produce 72 decibels. Decibels are a logarithmic scale so an increase of 10 decibels is a doubling of noise.

California had an 85% rule.  The fastest 15% of drivers determines the new speed limit.  Over time, the speed limits on urban arterials climbed from 35 to 40 to 45.  This has been a disaster for road safety for people outside of cars.  It's also made cities noisier.

What can you do about road noise?
  • Reduce the number of cars.  Pedestrians and bicyclists are mostly silent.
  • Lower speed limits and enforce them.
  • Reduce vehicle sizes with sticks and carrots.  People are using cars much too big for their daily needs. (They can rent larger vehicles as needed.)
  • Increase the distance between noise generators and people.  
  • This and the next 2 figures are from this Traffic Noise Factsheet
  • Replace a car traffic lane with a protected bicycle lane and wider sidewalk. The bike lane protector is a low wall that protects the bicyclists from swerving automobiles and creates a noise shadow. A waist-high wall can make the stores & restaurants along arterials much quieter

Trees don't do anything to reduce noise, but they provide much-needed shade to counter the urban heat island effect.

Speaking of urban heat islands, ICEs produce a lot of heat.  Burn anything and it produces heat. Reducing the amount of ICEs on the streets, and making engines smaller would reduce urban heat, noise and air pollution and climate change.


Thursday, July 16, 2020

More face mask science

I'm emotionally exhausted by the pandemic and all the crappy news.  I've posted links to useful Covid-19 information when I come across them on microblogging platforms like IG and Twitter.  It's just easier than blogging.  But, there is also value to putting it on a blog, with more context and explanations.

I've written about masks in The mask/no mask dilemma back on March 18, when some US government messaging was that masks were not effective for the lay public. A lot of people have written about that bad messaging and I'm not going to belabor it here.  Professor Zeynep Tufecki does it as well as anyone.

Anyway, I also posted some cool visual proof of the efficacy of masks in This is why we wear masks. Those are Schlieren images and show breath vapor, not the motion of aerosols and droplets, which will stay even closer than the images shown.

Almost any type of cloth face covering will catch droplets. Most multi-layered ones will catch the majority of the aerosols as well. Masks hold your air closer to your face than without masks.

As Dr Lucy Jones says, "don't share your air."

In my first post, I (and many readers) didn't know what they meant by "Cotton Mix" but were impressed by its filtration efficacy.

After reading this subsequent article, I learned that it was Cotton/Poly blend. Polyester, and any fabric that has static cling, has electrostatic properties that attract and hold particles. That's why your furnace filter is made of polyester fabric. In fact, some people were buying furnace filters and cutting them up to insert inside their DIY masks.

Read Aerosol Filtration Efficiency of Common Fabrics Used in Respiratory Cloth Masks. I excerpted some figures and a table from the paper. Even though it is published in a scientific journal, it's written so they lay public can understand it. It is freely available and I hope you download and read it. It's good.
We have carried out these studies for several common fabrics including cotton, silk, chiffon, flannel, various synthetics, and their combinations. Although the filtration efficiencies for various fabrics when a single layer was used ranged from 5 to 80% and 5 to 95% for particle sizes of <300 and="" nm="">300 nm, respectively, the efficiencies improved when multiple layers were used and when using a specific combination of different fabrics. 
This figure shows that filters can trap particles by either mechanical filtration (tight weave) or by electrostatic attraction.

Cotton, the most widely used material for cloth masks performs better at higher weave densities (i.e., thread count) and can make a significant difference in filtration efficiencies.
Notice that Cotton Quilt fabric (medium weave 120 threads per inch) performs better overall than the 600 threads per inch Cotton except at larger particle sizes?  Looser weave Cotton (cheaper quilting cotton at 80 threads per inch) does a lousy job.
Filtration efficiencies of the hybrids (such as cotton–silk, cotton–chiffon, cotton–flannel) was >80% (for particles <300 and="" nm="">90% (for particles >300 nm). We speculate that the enhanced performance of the hybrids is likely due to the combined effect of mechanical and electrostatic-based filtration.
The hybrids do a better job than pure Cotton. Some even outperform surgical masks, which were never designed to catch smaller particles.  (They were designed to catch larger droplets exhaled by health care workers to protect the patients.)

Our studies also imply that gaps (as caused by an improper fit of the mask) can result in over a 60% decrease in the filtration efficiency, implying the need for future cloth mask design studies to take into account issues of “fit” and leakage, while allowing the exhaled air to vent efficiently.
The biggest factor is fit. Isn't that the #1 reason why we sew?  We can customize the fit.

We also sew for improved comfort and face masks are no exception.  If the mask fits and is comfortable, we can wear them for as long as we need.

Pay attention to the pressure drop.  It doesn't matter if the weave and fit are tight, but it's too hot and uncomfortable to wear.  I know that I can wear a real surgical mask while riding my bike or for a long-haul airplane flight.  So I want a combo that has a similar pressure drop of 2.5.  I'll sew something with a good enough filtration efficiency, with the same comfort rating.

Overall, we find that combinations of various commonly available fabrics used in cloth masks can potentially provide significant protection against the transmission of aerosol particles.
Notice that, in every case, more layers offers more protection. 

If you read up on Brownian motion, you learn that smaller particles move faster and encounter more obstacles than larger particles.  So your fabric or filter material doesn't have to be tight enough to mechanically trap the smallest aerosols.  A filter can alter the particle trajectory so that it comes at a slant instead of perpendicular to the filter.  That makes the particle more likely to be caught by subsequent layers. 

That's the magic behind multiple layers.

Knit fabric structure kind of has those layer properties, which is why just one layer of t-shirt jersey can be effective.  Aerosol expert, Professor Linsey Marr, Tweeted that she wears a knit gaiter-style mask single layer when running outside and then doubles it up (by rolling the top over her nose and mouth) if anyone is nearby.

I've come to the realization that I need a wardrobe of masks for different situations.  I'll make some knit gaiter ones for outdoor exercise.  I'll make some fitted woven ones for my essential trips to indoor locales.

It's time to bust out all my cotton/poly or cotton/silk mixes for fitted masks and some high-performance poly knits for gaiters.

I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me. We can sew our own and make it a fashion statement.

Finally, read Masks offer much more protection against coronavirus than many think. Even if the mask is not 100% efficient at filtering out aerosols and droplets containing Coronavirus, it reduces the dose of exposure. So, even if we do get sick, the illness is milder.

"Perfect is the enemy of good," means that waiting for perfection to act is a bad strategy.  We can always strive to do better, learn more.  But we already know enough and have the tools to reduce our collective risk by a huge amount.  Let's all be good enough and defeat this pandemic.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

This is why we wear masks

We have a preponderance of evidence that Covid-19 is spread by aerosols and large droplets expelled through our mouths when we talk and through our mouth and nose when we sneeze or cough.  We also have plenty of evidence that (nearly) universal mask-wearing in public is extremely effective in Reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2.  The linked article by Prof. Kim Prather et al is written extremely clearly in plain English and I highly recommend reading it.

I'm embedding two videos because they are helpful to understand social distancing and wearing masks.  But, it's important to keep in mind that they are showing hot air instead of droplet and aerosol motion, which does not spread as far.

Schlieren or shadowgraph imagery shows changes of thermal patterns in the air. We expel heated air, which will mix with ambient air and might waft upwards (hot air rises.)  Large droplets are heavier and will fall downwards. Aerosols might hang around a few minutes to hours, but eventually fall.

With these caveats, these images nevertheless demonstrate the effectiveness of wearing face masks that cover the nose and mouth.

First, this charming* video of NIST scientist, Matthew E. Staymates, working from home. Note how his breath stays much closer to his head when he wears a mask vs when he doesn't. This is why mask wearing, along with social distancing, dramatically reduces transmission risk.  Remember, this is showing hot air; virus-containing droplets will most likely by caught in any type of mask as long as it covers the mouth and nose.

I particularly like that he wears different styles of cloth masks sewn by NIST colleagues, who did socially-distanced handoffs outside his home.  All types of masks work as long as they are comfortable enough for you to actually wear them over both your nose and mouth.

This older video demonstrates how much air you exchange with others just in normal face-to-face conversation.  It starts with normal nose breathing, then mouth breathing, talking, coughing, conversation, etc.

I'm cautious and minimize my shopping trips.  When I go into stores, I use hand sanitizer, then put on my mask and then enter.  I don't touch the mask until I get back outside.  This protects me.  It protects you.

Give people without masks a very wide berth, 2 meters or more, and minimize your exposure to them.  If someone takes off their mask to talk in a store, run away.  They've contaminated everything within droplet distance.  If they talk loudly, that can be far greater than 2 m.   If a store allows unmasked people to enter, assume all surfaces are contaminated.  (This creates so much more work and risk for retail workers.)

If all staff and shoppers are wearing masks, I would not stress about breaking the 2 m bubble for a short time. Remember, it's also the viral load in a short amount of time that is dangerous.  If you get a tiny bit of viral load, and you have a healthy immune system, your body would destroy the viruses before they can get a toe-hold in your respiratory tract.

When I see people wear masks under their nose, I give them wider berth, but don't say anything to them about it.  They tried, but maybe they are too uncomfortable.  Or maybe they are conspiracy theorists who don't understand that oxygen and carbon dioxide pass through the masks just fine.  Either way, I don't want to engage with them.  A mask that covers their mouth would still contain droplets expelled by talking unless they sneeze or cough.

For those of us in low-risk settings (not health care workers or people who work around others all day) the best mask is the one you will actually wear.  If you try to make it too efficient at filtering, it can be difficult to breath through, or get soggy from your exhaled breath.  If you take off your mask when indoors (other than in your own home,) then you lost protection.

I walk and bike outdoors without a mask, but carry one in case it gets crowded.  I'm coming around to the idea that perfect is the enemy of good and I may sew lower-coverage masks that don't extend as far across my cheeks for outdoor exercise and gardening.  The best mask is the one that you will keep on.

* Maybe I'm biased because I got my PhD at a NIST lab.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Undermining science and scientists

The news this week is full of stories of science being undermined by political appointees.
I'm cleaning up browser tabs and came across a story I meant to write about 5 years ago. In 2015, I wrote VW and the dark side of AI about how VW was cheating on diesel engine smog tests.

This global map of tropospheric NO2 was produced using data from the Envisat's SCIAMACHY sensor in 2004.

Science funding is very scarce.  If you are lucky, you will get one or two opportunities in your scientific lifetime to be involved with a new satellite sensor.  Around 2004, I met scientists who were validating and calibrating the SCIAMACHY sensor.  They couldn't figure out why they were detecting more NO2 than were supposedly being emitted.

They were working off emissions inventories which took into account all the known emitters of NO2.  They knew all the fixed sources like factories and power plants.  They could estimate the mobile sources (vehicles) based on the amount of gasoline and diesel sold and the expected emissions from those vehicles.  So what was wrong?  The emissions inventory (and associated models) or the satellite sensors?

This discrepancy troubled scientists for 10 years while VW and other diesel vehicle manufacturers brazenly lied and cheated.  Imagine how much science could have been done if scarce people time and money weren't wasted trying to reconcile pollution measurements to falsified emissions data.

Back then, I had never heard of the term, gas-lighting.  Man, I am a member of several routinely gas-lit many groups: women, people of color, scientists.  All that fury is bubbling out right now.

Go take a look at these and other figures of NO2 that wasn't supposed to be there.