Saving Energy and Selling Cars

President Obama has finally put climate change on the national agenda. Some say he’s attempting too much, and some say he’s attempting too little. I say that, however you slice it, some effort is better than no effort. It’s important to acknowledge when you’re moving in the right direction. That doesn’t dispel the gloomier parts of the picture, but good news is good news and we should take it where we can find it.

Here, for example, is a list of Cleantech Milestones Worth Celebrating as compiled by Greentech Media. You read these things, and you have to wonder: Is it real, or is it hype? But I am seeing some of these things with my own eyes. I’m a believer. I use LED lightbulbs in my house. Friends of mine have installed solar panels on their roofs. I know several people with electric cars. Something is actually happening.


My friend Seth recently bought a Tesla. It’s a nice car! The Tesla story is a good example of how hard it is to change things in the real world. Tesla wants to sell you a car directly, which is to say, without using a car dealership. It turns out that in most states this is illegal. And why is it illegal? It’s illegal for ancient historical reasons that no longer make sense except for one thing: there are now entrenched interests, car dealers, who will bitterly oppose any change to the old laws. In North Carolina they are even passing new laws to prevent Tesla from selling you a car. Consider how ludicrous the argument is: the noble car dealers are protecting you, the helpless consumer, from the claws of the manufacturers.

It’s the most depressing kind of self-interested protectionism masquerading as a public service. I wish Tesla luck. In the spirit of green tech, I suppose we shouldn’t talk about tilting at windmills. Perhaps instead we should speak of windmills tilting at oil rigs.

Minnesota’s Funny Horn

Anyone who has ever noticed Minnesota’s little protuberance has to wonder at some point: why on earth would they have drawn the border like that?


The northern border of the lower 48 is flat flat flat along the 49th parallel from Washington State to western Minnesota, and then there’s this thing. If you look closely, the mystery is compounded by the fact that the special included region is uninhabited park land on the far side of a lake.

Is there something valuable there? Gold? Copper? A precious trove of old National Geographics?

The answer is a charming example of fossilized happenstance. The diplomats who negotiated the northwest border of the US had an imperfect knowledge of the region based on this imperfect map. This excellent video from C.G.P. Grey explains all…

Phenomenally nominal

Watch much NASA TV? If you’re even a little bit of a space geek, you’re probably aware that the word “nominal” is used by spaceflight teams as a way of saying “as expected.” Which is fair enough, but like a lot of geek language, it gets fetishized under the guise of somehow being “precise.” Never confirm with a mere “yes” when you can use “affirmative” or “roger that, will comply.” I like rolling around in jargon as much as the next fanboy, but it generally adds syllables and not illumination. Still, fun is fun.

The curious thing is that the word nominal is used in the space business in a way that is unlike all the standard definitions. The space-centric context of nominal is so odd that it is called out as a final special case. The Oxford online dictionary defines the fourth American form as: (chiefly in the context of space travel) functioning normally or acceptably. I’m guessing it started out long ago as a way of saying a flight parameter is following the named (declared and expected) path. Apparently this usage goes all the way back to the NACA/Langley days. And from there it grew and grew.

Spaceflight is booming these days, so we’re hearing lots of nominals. So many, in fact, that the podcasters over at made a wonderful compilation. They counted the number of times that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences use the word in recent launch coverage videos. The result? SpaceX put in a plucky performance with 31 nominals (one every 23 seconds), but Orbital Sciences trounced them with an astounding 93 nominals by the time the vehicle was in orbit. That’s one nominal every 7 seconds. Is that super-nominal? Meta-nominal? Or perhaps just phe-nominal?

You’ll want to zoom to the 4:48 mark in the program.

At some point, it became so absurd that I felt like I was listening to this instead:

Hey, wait a second! Is that Elon Musk?