Saturday, January 30, 2016

Is the Force with Me in Grad School?

Note: Grad school's been keeping me pretty busy, but I finally wrote a short, silly post about grad life for the blog of my department, the Energy and Resources Group (ERG). Though the full post is below, you can find the original here.

At times it’s difficult to explain the ERG student experience -- even to other grad students at Berkeley. But it’s not so different from other grad students when you think of it in terms of “the Force.”

That's what happens when you don't use the Force in grad school! Or is it? (Source: Kristina A)

It’s my first year as an ERG Ph.D. student but my third year as an ERGie, so I’ve already gone through a lot of the initial Ph.D. student anxieties: imposter syndrome, adjusting to working beyond a 9-to-5 schedule, and pretending not to worry about grades since “grades don’t matter in grad school.”

However, when you shift from the Master’s program to the Ph.D., there is a shift from structure and requirements to one of striking it on your own and making your own research decisions. I not only ask myself “What is my research question?” but also “How will I answer it?” and “When?”

It feels somewhat like working on a spaceship, learning all the technical details to fixing the ship from the inside out, and then... untethering. I think I feel like this because there’s a sense that I don’t know enough to figure things out on my own. However, my advisor reassures me that I still have time.

I’m going to geek out here (too late, I’m already in the middle of a Ph.D. program). In my own convoluted way, the relationship between a professor and a Ph.D. student seems somewhat like the Jedi Master-Padawan relationship from Star Wars. In fact, to me, grad school seems like the closest thing in the U.S. we have to a Jedi-like phenomenon.

Getting accepted to a Ph.D. program is equivalent to professors saying, “The Force is strong with you.” Then, you connect with your Jedi Master/advisor. From there, they train you in “the ways of the Force.”

I’m not the only one recognizing the connection. Jorge Cham of PhD Comics recently put this out:

As I consider this further, there are so many more parallels here. I, the Padawan, have been trained in many tools (and at ERG they get pretty diverse): maneuvering through the asteroid belt that is the institutional review board (IRB), extracting information from people on the field through interviews and participant observation, steering the ship of R programming, feeling my way through regression models and principal component analysis (PCA), and reading through applications for the new Jedi Masters of ERG.

There have been more than a few times when my advisors have asked me: “What do your intuitions tell you?” If that’s not Jedi Master talk, then I don’t know what is.

During the Ph.D., one is to go to the edge of what is known and figure out ways to get beyond it. This unclear, fuzzy world of the beyond is our “dark side.” We shouldn’t give in to ignorance and the complacency of not knowing. Into the wee hours of the night we code, make graphs, organize our Mendeley reference files, and take those final readings.

I recently completed my first stab at PCA on data I have been collecting for the past two years. I now have pretty graphs telling me that my intuitions may have been... somewhat off. This is when I think, “Damn it. The Force is NOT strong with me.”

Will I ever become a Jedi Master?

Well, actually, knowing when your analysis gives you a null result is a huge part of understanding the Force -- though academic journals may not readily acknowledge this.

So in a sense, I AM using the Force and overcoming the dark side! I WILL become a Jedi Master! I think.

Now on to a more pressing question: When do I get my lightsaber?

(Image source: JD Hancock)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Right to Steal Electricity

Photo Source: Flickr/Matthew L Stevens
Note: I wrote this post for the BERC Blog last December.

“If Einstein saw this, he would roll in his grave!” exclaimed my friend.

It was only yesterday that my friends and I were buying samosas at a Berkeley restaurant, where hanging on the wall was a photo of a typical electric pole in a typical small alleyway in a typical old section of Delhi. Like the tangled hair of an electrified hairbrush, black lines meshed and shot out from the top of the wiry mess, winding from the pole through windows and across streets to electrify homes, shops and factories.

These wire entanglements are a product of people for years eyeing the fruit of energy on these poles and throwing up lines and connecting to some of that electric juice; in effect, stealing power in plain sight. I have seen this in urban areas across India and my initial misguided reaction is to think that the government simply needs to cut down the extra wires, put in meters and make everyone pay. Ah, if only the world worked so simply.

Soutik Biswas of the BBC, recently reviewed the film, “Katiyabaaz (Powerless),” showing how such simplistic plans can get you reassigned. First of all, I have not actually identified the problem. What is the problem here? Stolen electricity? That’s just a symptom. What the film seems to confirm is that people need power, and once they get it for free they do not want it for not free.

This reminds me of attitudes toward water. Instead of extracting water, making it potable, and distributing it; coal or oil is extracted, made into electricity and distributed. It is as if people eye electric poles as one would a community well or drinking fountain. It’s there and it’s ours to use.

I remember one hot day, sitting with a man while he sold ice cream from a cart on the street. Up to that point, I had assumed that these carts bought ice to keep their goods frozen. I had worked with kulfi (ice cream) sellers in a slum that used no electricity—only salt and procured ice—to make and sell their frozen dessert. However that day, the man explained that the cart was itself a freezer and just needed to be plugged in all night. And what if there was no power all night? Then, a lot of melted ice cream and no money for the day.

In India, there is an incredible amount of adaptation around unreliable electricity. In the past, I have set up a battery back up in my house in order to make sure I have a fan running all night and have experienced 24 hours without electricity still being expected to take exams in 110°F weather. However, ice cream vendors and cottage industries cannot afford generators to back up their systems. In these conditions, if you knew that power was only a wire throw away, wouldn’t you tap into it?

With UN’s Ban Ki Moon aiming for sustainable energy for all, like water, energy is becoming more and more like a fundamental human right. However, water and energy—to be sure—are not the same things.

But then again, I suspect Einstein might have something to say about this.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The softer side of hydro

Note: This was my first post on The Berkeley Blog (cross-post from the BERC Blog).

Natel Energy
What I understand so far is that we are about to visit a company that develops renewable-energy technology. On the way to an old Navy air station in Alameda, I ask my fellow passengers, “So, what do these guys do, again?” Someone mentions wind; I have assumed solar, but I am a bit taken aback when I enter the presentation room.

I am on a group tour at Natel Energy with ERG’s Energy and Society course. The person at the front asks us to share what we are interested in. People mention energy, engineering and policy. Feeling a bit like an outsider in the room, I am telling her, “I work with water and development…” when I glance up at the slideshow presentation, which says “EcoSmartHydro™.” I do a double take, thinking “Hydro? That’s got to mean something else.” But as I stare at the screen, I continue, “… and, I guess I’m interested in hydro?”

I am surprised because the popular image of renewables is the archetypal wind farm or solar panel. I believe that hydro seems to get marginalized due to controversies surrounding its ecological and social impacts, but more on that later.

Natel project in Arizona (Source: Natel Energy)
The person at the front is Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy. The company’s strategy relies on the development of cost-effective low head hydropower technology. While large dams can rise anywhere from a hundred to almost a thousand feet in height, “low head” here refers to drops of thirty feet or less. What intrigues me about the system is that instead of installing turbines directly into rivers, they retrofit them into canals, taking advantage of pre-existing water infrastructure. Natel claims that California’s irrigation canals have a hydropower potential of 255 megawatts (MW).

The question in my mind is then: “What about the context of developing countries?” Schneider mentions Chile where Natel claims they have 1,000-MW hydropower potential through existing irrigation infrastructure.

My experience has been in India where earlier this year I had visited a canal, part of the Indira Gandhi system in the Thar Desert. I happened to be at a point in the canal where the opposite of hydropower was occurring: Water was being pumped higher in order for it to flow downward. You could potentially call this hydro-consumption.

Today, India still has about 84,000 MW of general economically exploitable hydropower potential, however I am not sure if this number includes potential low head hydropower within their existing water infrastructure. At present, Natel’s projects reach up to 0.5 MW in Oregon, however Schneider emphasizes the accumulative effect of low head hydropower across an entire water system.

This echoes the “soft path” strategy popularized by Amory Lovins. For Lovins, even renewables, such as solar and hydro, could veer a nation toward an unsustainable and socially discriminatory future if they are incorporated into large, complex development projects. Large hydro development (hydel) projects do end up displacing already marginalized communities while fostering energy elitism due to the operation of complex technology and centralized energy distribution.

What Natel and small hydro in general offer is somewhat simple technology used within existing infrastructure at a local level—homegrown energy or the softer side of hydropower.

This is not to say at all that this will work in India at a national scale — let alone in the utterly dry Thar Desert. However, as India negotiates huge hydro deals with Bhutan and Nepal and environmentalists blame hydel projects for “man-made disasters” in the Himalayas and as these large projects take at least 4 to 5 years if not longer for approval, these smaller local projects may in the meantime be able to light up a few unconnected villages—putting some power into local hands.

Cross-post from the BERC Blog and The Berkeley Blog.

Monday, November 4, 2013

When we drink the devil's water

(Source: Flickr/len4its)
In the context of groundwater, she started by reading this Australian folk song from the turn of the century:
Sinking down, deeper down,
Oh, we’ll sink it deeper down.
As the drill is plugging downward at a thousand feet of level
If the Lord won’t send us water, oh, well, we’ll get it from the devil
Yes we’ll get it from the devil deeper down.
(Banjo Paterson, 1896)
At the Philomathia Forum last Friday, Sally Thompson, Assistant Professor of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Engineering program, presented on the Arkvathy River in South India, whose flow has declined since the 1970s and has now run dry in many areas; similar to the Colorado. In places where depths used to be over people heads, they can stand in what basically is now a dry field even during the rainy season.

Where has this water gone? Thompson explores the basic explanations: Has the rainfall changed? Has evaporation increased? What about channel encroachment?

Her research comes up with a negative on all counts. However, Thompson then points to what she thinks of as the elephant in the room—groundwater. Although Thompson understands river basins as complex systems, groundwater is a big piece of the puzzle. Water tables in the region have dropped up to sixty feet in the past few decades, and surface wells have gone dry. And who’s to blame?

Thompson goes back to the British era. In India, stepped water tanks in the ground were built in communities as reservoirs for agricultural use. Tank custodians would then receive a tithe of the farmers’ production. More water meant better production therefore greater tithe, incentivizing better tank management. This system collapsed when the British centralized payment to tank custodians who then lost incentive to actually manage the tanks.

Add to this water hungry development and unregulated extraction of groundwater and you have “a race to the bottom.” All of this coincides with my experiences with groundwater in India.

I surveyed the city of Gurgaon while interning with an NGO, looking for potential areas for groundwater recharge and water treatment. This city near New Delhi suddenly has popped out of seemingly nowhere with tall buildings occupied by multinationals and hip young people. Decked out with fast food joints, shopping malls and company offices, the thing that has gotten left for figuring out later is water. Now that the water table is dropping at alarming ratesa community group asked the NGO to help, as they cannot wait for the government to get its act together before it all runs dry.

Gurgaon at night (Kirk Kittell)
Water comes from a variety of sources—all interconnected. God apparently gives us water from the sky; the devil, from the ground. In ancient India, the Ganges River is a goddess who fell from great heights; and today we talk about sea level rise from Arctic glaciers via the magic of meteorology.

In some ways though, it seems rather appropriate to think of extracted water as coming from the devil. The devil works in mysterious ways. It all is quite good at the start. Then at some point we reach the bottom, and everything is gone. And all that is then left to be done is to dry up and fade away.

Cross-post from the BERC Blog.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Redford film puts water back into river

Note: I have started writing for the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) Blog. Below is my first post there.

“Where do you think your water comes from? When you drink water from a water fountain here in Berkeley, what river are you drinking?” I attended a water talk recently and the speaker already knew that we wouldn’t have a clue about the answer. Where does our water come from? 

When I lived in India, I usually knew where my water came from—either I pumped it straight from the ground right by the house or it came from the river a few blocks away. I could see the water source. I had a connection with it. I swam in it. When I pumped it either by hand or machine, I controlled its extraction. However, most of us in Berkeley don’t have that experience. Water comes to us by the press of a button, the turn of a knob or by intermittent infrared sensors in restroom faucets which shoot water at us from hundreds of miles away.

Apparently this is an issue for all of California: Water out of sight and out of mind.

“The Colorado is California’s forgotten river,” said Barry Nelson last Wednesday at the Commonwealth Club. The funny thing is California gets more water from the Colorado River than Colorado does. Furthermore according to Nelson, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Resources Defense Council, the Colorado is “ground zero” for climate change and water issues in the US because of the huge impact changes in the river could have on the West.

Another thing that people aren’t usually aware of is that the Colorado River stops. It just stops. The river flows through seven states in the US and two in Mexico and dries up before reaching the ocean. What was once a flowing delta has now become a desert. Maybe that doesn’t really matter to us because that’s stuff that happens over the boarder. Again, out of sight, out of mind.

And this is where James Redford comes in. Yes, his name should sound familiar, and so does the voice on the film he promoted at the Commonwealth Club. His father, Robert Redford, narrates on the documentary, “Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the New West.” Redford (the younger) joked after presenting a short clip of the film, “We do have a great narrator, I must say.”

Right to left: Maria Baier, Jill Tidman, James Redford and Barry Nelson at the Commonwealth Club last Wednesday
The Redford Center uses film and storytelling to get people excited about issues like what is happening with the Colorado River. Since its release last year, “Watershed” has been shown in 43 film festivals and 300 community screenings around the world. Jill Tidman, who produced the film with Redford, emphasized how people feel disconnected to so many things and how people need to understand where their water comes from. The film seems to be working.

Redford recalled his favorite moment when after one screening a little boy went up and tugged on his shirt, saying, “That’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” This boy’s reaction was significant for Redford since it meant that the documentary resonates with a greater audience. Plus, he emphasized, this whole project is for our children, our future.

Just last month, the Redford Center along with other major NGOs launched an online campaign called “Raise the River,” and from the vibe of the event last Wednesday, it seems like the river is about to rise. “It’s not only achievable, but it’s achievable in our lifetime,” said Maria Baier, CEO of the Sonoran Institute.

The pieces have already come together. A major piece of the puzzle is the signing of Minute 319, a bi-national agreement between the US and Mexico to increase the flow of the Colorado River by one percent. This along with the cooperation of multiple NGOs and other groups (including Will Ferrell’s Funny or Die) in addition to local community participation means we may see Colorado and the Gulf of California reunited with our very own eyes.

The Colorado connects states, ecosystems and even nations together. Raise the River’s effort is just a small incremental step in a huge interconnected web of relationships. Plus, there are a ton of unanswered questions: What about water rights of Mexican farmers? Who gets displaced? How will water impact the present ecosystem?

Though the uncertainties remain, Redford’s campaign shows us that it is possible to put the pieces together to do something significant now. If there’s a lesson from this about water management that the Bay Area can learn from… that’s not for me to say. But I am a bit jealous of how sexy water looks due to all of this attention.This brings us back to our connection with water and how we are so indifferent to water and just how sexy and alluring she is. We don’t even bother to find out her name or where she’s from.

Cross post from the BERC Blog.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Biodiversity goes Bollywood

For your information, "biodiversity" in Hindi is jaiv vividhataa. And... don't ask me to say that again. It's somewhat nerve-racking to pronounce it in front of a class of kids.

So how did I avoid saying "biodiversity" while teaching about biodiversity in class yesterday?

Easy. I used Bollywood.

[Cue the dancing pink flamingos.]

But seriously... I've been helping at Asha Deep School here in India for the past couple months and I finally got to teach the kids about the environment... in Hindi.

Sadly, there is a dearth of resources in Hindi about the environment. This is why projects such as Dhara are so important. Resources appropriate for kids are even more difficult to find. The Government of India does make a good effort through the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and programs like Paryavaran Mitra, however kids' resources need constant updating. As young people become more and more fast-paced, even the slum kids that go to our school need things to be new and exciting.

This is why I was amazed when I found two recent animation projects that put a Bollywood twist on biodiversity.

The first is a Bollywood-inspired song released this year by none other than TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute). I love the creativity of this Hindi song, but I also love the fact that the video isn't simplistically promoting the end of urban development but that we need to work out how animals and humans can live together in an urban environment.

When I showed this video to the kids, they also loved it. They were glued to the screen and laughed the whole way through. They were also sad to see the animals so sad and sick. (You will be too when you see the monkey's sad disappearing face... if you have a soul.) Watch it. It has subtitles.

At the end of the video, we had a discussion. I asked the kids why it is important to plant trees in the city. They right away gave the stock answer of trees being a supply of oxygen. This is true, but trees are also the habitat of many animals. Who lives in trees? Birds. Who else? Monkeys. And? Squirrels. And? Insects? Yes! So many animals live in trees. Planting many trees are a way humans and animals can live together.

The previous evening, we had a special movie night where we watched the Bollywood animated film, "Delhi Safari." This came out last year and features voices from famous Bollywood actors like Govinda, Akshaye Khanna, Urmila Matondkar, Suniel Shetty and Boman Irani. It takes some animation tips from Disney, however its heart is Bollywood... but with animals.

Sadly it seemed not to do well at the box office, but it was a hit with our kids. The message was a little simplistic, but what does get across is that it's not right to wantonly destroy animals and the forest--their home. For kids who have grown up in a slum next to one of the most polluted rivers in the world, getting them to see beyond the concrete and pollution is a huge step in the right direction toward a more sustainable (and healthier) future.

As I've stated before, for me saving any species is not only about saving the environment but about also about saving ourselves.

The last activity we did was one I stole from CEE called "Web of Life." Each child got a label: Sun, water, tree, fish, monkey, insect, bird, fruit, crocodile, etc. I had them stand in a circle and showed them a spool of green thread, saying, "This is your shakti, your energy." I asked the child with the "sun" label who she wanted to give her shakti to. She said that she wanted to give it to the tree, of course. With the thread, I connected the sun to the tree. Like this we connected all the elements and animals to make a web.

On the web I put a bottle, which represented humanity, saying, "This is humanity. We depend on this web to survive. But what happens when the water becomes polluted?" I pulled the child with the label "water" out of the circle, and she let go of the string. The web weakened. "If the water is polluted, then the fish will die." Then I pulled out the child with the "fish" label, and he let go of the string. One by one the web weakened until "humanity" fell.

Like pulling the chair out from underneath us, we put ourselves in this precarious situation.

In the end, I asked the kids what they learned. They shouted, "Janwar hamare dost hain! Animals are our friends!"

And I think if we really understood this friendship, we'd do a lot more to keep it alive.

[Cue the "Delhi Safari" English version.]
Yes, apparently they made a full English version with Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams and Christopher Lloyd.

Monday, April 8, 2013

People who live in the desert dream about water

"People who live in the desert dream about water." That's what my friend said, anyway.

I just got back from a short stay in my friend's small desert village in northern Rajasthan, India. It is a village covered in sand, far from any town--a village so remote that it took three phone calls and three hours to get me a paracetamol (aspirin) for a fever I was having.

One night my friend and I got to talking about dreams. We realized that we had many dreams in common: being able to fly, being chased but you cannot run, being caught without any clothes on in a public place, trying to shout but not being able to.

However, there was one reoccurring dream that he had that I could not relate with: being thirsty but not being able to find water. I have never had a dream like that. He told me that he and his brothers have had this dream many times.

Driving through desert sands near the village

In fact, this is one fear in the desert. They hear news of children dying in their sleep, literally dying of thirst. They believe that the warm winds of the peak hot season sap water straight from their babies in the middle of the night. This is why if they hear even the slightest whimper from their children, mothers wake them up to drink some water.

I was interested in learning how they survive in the desert, so I started by asking about their history, and I was surprised that it started out with violence.

Only a few generations ago, their grandfathers fought for this land. I thought, "This place had no water, no trees, no nothing. Someone actually fought for this portion of desert?" I asked, "Why?"

The reply was that they wanted a place of their own.

Slowly, I put pieces of their history together. I was mainly interested in the development of water. They told me how they had to travel for hours and hours to carry water by camel. Then finally their grandfathers manually dug the well near their home. This seemed sufficient until Germans came and told them that the water has excessive amounts of fluoride, which could lead to fluorosis. A plan was already in place to fit these remote desert villages with toilet and bathing facilities and to pipe in treated drinking water.

One old aunt laughed as she said, "I remember when they put in the tap. We were dancing and had flowers!"

The toilets seem to be doing okay, but the tap has been long dry. They say that it was getting too expensive to maintain. And that's when the canal reached their village. Basically, it changed their lives.

Looking at the canal from the water "lift"

The Indira Gandhi Canal Project in Rajasthan started in 1958--a project started to water the desert. Said to be one of the largest canals of India, it took about 35 years for the canal waters to finally reach my friend's village.

One of the biggest changes that took place is  that they can now have another growing season. In the first season, they use the canal water to grow crops like wheat and chana (chickpeas). Their second growing season, during the monsoon, is now fully taken over by one crop--guar.

Guar does not actually take that much water to maintain. Even when there was a freak rain a couple days before I arrived, guar started to grow wildly in the my friend's family field. Not a day would go by without my friend's father asking me about the market conditions for guar in the US. All I could do was throw up my hands.

The second major impact of the canal water is that they now have a fresh supply of drinking water without excessive fluoride content. However, this is regularly driven in and stored in underground concrete tanks. The nearby well water is now only used for the animals and for other domestic uses.

I had many more questions as I explored the village and the surrounding area.

  • How much should the government invest in irrigating the desert?
  • How much more should the village develop? When I was there there was a poorly managed health clinic and a very small shop. 
  • As young people become more and more educated and less inclined to farming, what is the future of such a village in the desert?
  • How has watering the desert affected the hydrological dynamics and ecology of downstream communities?
  • How "green" should we try to make a desert?
The benefit of greening a desert is that it reclaims land for productive use, pushing against forces of desertification. 

Kids playing in the canal near the fields
I explained to my friend that in the US, we have also greened our deserts. In California, canal water from far off states irrigate fields of oranges, rice and almonds. We've been able to build cities with water parks in the desert. But has this been so wise?

People have started to plant trees in my friend's village. I told him, "Once you start planting trees, it's usually easier to plant more trees later. Trees then change the micro-climate of the area." My friend started to think about it, saying that he had not thought of that aspect of the forest--how it affects the hydrologic cycle, how it can bring water to an area.

As things slowly change in my friend's desert village, it is quite possible that they may stop having dreams of thirst and water. 

And it's quite possible that they will start dreaming of new things all together.