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Archive for April, 2010

By Liz Bloomhardt

Published April 22, 2010

Today is Earth Day.

What a day for a “green devil” column.

I figured with all the earthy stuff going on today and this week (i.e. Duke’s celebration and concert on the Plaza today and Durham’s Earth Day Festival Saturday), I had to kick it up a notch for this column.

So I went on a diet, a carbon diet that is, and I called it my carbon diet challenge, C.D.C. for short.

Now, I’m not into diets as a general rule. But sometimes a catalyst is required for change.

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Today I checked out the Duke GreenRides program — a carpool matching service offered through the parking office.

After a short survey in which you fill out your location, time preference and several personal but not overly invasive questions, the database offers you matches and a form email to initiate contact.

I stopped after filling out the profile. Beyond my hesitation to meet people over the internet, I have to admit to not being fully committed. This, mostly because I tend not to be a particularly habitual person, in which case biking and regular bus service offer an attractive alternative that allow for a more independent and irregular schedule. Since I’m still exploring those two options, I’ll let the bait dangle for a bit before I dive in further. For now though, my hat’s at least in the ring.

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CSA Starts Today!

Today was the first day of the 2010 farm share season!

For the past two years I have participated in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Every week, I get a box of vegetables that have been grown in North Carolina by the farmer I signed up with at the beginning of the season. Several of the participating farms drop off at locations around the triangle but I get mine at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a drop-off location organized through the benefits program of Duke employees. The program, though, is open to anyone.

The idea is that you pay a flat rate at the beginning of the season, and get a weekly cut of the produce the farm harvests. Duke’s program has several farms to choose from at a range of price points and usually two or three share sizes.

Farm shares are especially advantageous in a state like North Carolina which has a long growing season and a healthy agricultural tradition. We like it because we’re not only developing a relationship with the farmer, but we hardly have to think about vegetables all summer. Shopping lists get shorter and the volume of veggies in the diet goes up. We also get fruit, and that’s probably the best part.

Well, I guess this means it’s probably time to break out the recipe book and get cooking!

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Student U

By Liz Bloomhardt

Published April 8, 2010

In between basketball games and egg hunts this past week, you may have noticed an annual occurrence: Everything turned green, seemingly overnight.

I find it hard not to link this profusion of pollen and photosynthesizing surfaces with another event last week, one slightly less noticeable.

It all started over a cup of coffee.

Amy Morsch, former president of Duke University Greening Initiative and a graduate student in the Nicholas School, and I, coffee drinker, met one morning last semester in Joe Van Gogh. We were there to discuss projects and campaigns, and the hurdles student groups face in marketing them to the Duke community. We wondered what the undergrad groups were working on, and if they felt like they were doing the same leg work year after year.

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Telecommuting, a.k.a. working from home; a.k.a. rolling out of bed and into your desk chair, within reach of the coffee maker.

Can you telecommute as a grad-student? Is it a good idea?

That all depends. Like any job, life as a graduate student is dictated by your relationship with your boss, so my adviser, and the work that I’m doing. Mine is one based on trust and results.

If I need to be in the lab running an experiment, I can’t telecommute. If I need to be in class, no telecommuting. Meetings, presentations, and group work also require my presence in the flesh, on campus. However, on days when I’m running Matlab programs, making plots and sending emails, the wonders of technology mean I can be anywhere. And if I’m bringing results to the table week after week. The “where” is not a problem.

Wander down to the coffee shop? Sure. But I never do. I find my little folding table under the window is sufficiently isolated, and stimulating to provide for a full day of productivity. Certainly, it’s far superior to hours spent under the vent blowing bad air into the cinder-block cave that is my office on campus.

On the other side of an improved state of being and productivity, louder music and a zero-emission commute there are the pitfalls and hazards. Most notable, is that by not being on campus I miss stuff. Events, seminars, lingering conversations in the hallway, or time commiserating with my group mates about the daily tribulations of graduate school. Considering the usual graduate M.O. is working until 5 AM, caffeine binges, and late night fast food, this can be serious missed bonding time. On second thought, that’s not my typical schedule regardless of work location…

Anyway, the point is that balance is the key for anyone considering and able to telecommute. I can’t, and won’t do it every day of the week, and I shouldn’t. But on some days, like today, it’s great to stay out of the pollen while getting just as much done as I would anywhere else.

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I picked the wrong week to start bike commuting.

Last weekend, the trees unleashed a storm of pollen that has been terrorizing the area. Pollen has become so prolific that I’m afraid there might soon be trees sprouting out from between the keys of my laptop. It’s on every surface, and it’s getting kicked up with the wind forming little pollen-devils and pollen-clouds. It’s as bad as a sand storm in the desert.

To say the least, this is not ideal conditions for biking. I hadn’t even left my neighborhood today before I was wondering how many gallons of saline it was going to take to flush the pollen cakes out of my eyes. Though I’m still coughing, and rubbing my eyes, I’ll try to move past all that and focus on some of the thoughts spurred by the beginning of this experiment.

I’ll start off by saying I don’t recommend bike commuting to everyone. I happen to already be a fair-weather cycling enthusiast. I own a bike, helmet, and appropriate gear. I’m in decent shape. I’m thinking of this adventure not as a great tidal shift, but as providing some impetus for an activity that I’ve always thought about doing, and have wanted to do for some time.

Day one is a good idea to consider a route. If you’re thinking you’ll just navigate over to the new google.maps “by bike” capability — not so fast! In the Durham/Chapel Hill area, this will not always get you on a safe, repeatable route. For instance, it put me right onto 15/501 from I-40 to Academy Rd. Anyone who’s ever driven this 45 mph stretch, currently with construction, has thought to themselves: Now, why isn’t this a highway? It’s a box store wasteland, with stoplights and traffic that won’t quit, especially during commuting hours.

Being somewhat familiar with the surface roads, I chose to follow the same path I drive to work, down Old Erwin. It’s still pretty busy, but it has some shoulder, and a nicer view.

To avoid major overlap with the morning traffic rush, I sent off a few emails from the home office before gathering the bike supplies and hitting the road. I encountered fewer cars, but at least one large truck, which I will admit, is a scary experience.

The ride home, which I did not time as well, was an experience being on the other end of the line of commuters waiting patiently for the first car to work up the nerve and space to sneak around the biker. Unfortunately, even if I’m going a blazing 25 mph (kinda fast on a bike), that’s an agonizing crawl to the internal combustion community.

So, here are some thoughts from the first day:

1. Share the road. Drivers: be patient with the biker, and no, I don’t think it’s necessary to swing all the way into the other lane. There is such a thing as passing safely without threatening the oncoming traffic, yourself, and the cyclist. Cyclists: stay on the shoulder, minimize swirving, use hand signals, and keep a constant speed. There is room for everyone.

2. Casual skirts make for excellent post commute attire. One of the frustrating things about bike commuting is the sweaty, just wiped off the make-up and ruined my hair, I’m still sweating in my new outfit even though I’ve been in the office 20 minutes problem, especially for the ladies. I don’t think I’ll be able to do the bike thing if I have an important meeting or presentation. Luckily there’s a bus, at least during the school year, but I’ll have to overcome the bus hurdle first…

3. Storage. I will not leave my bike outside. I spent good money on it, and I refuse to leave it to the weather and the vandals (not that I know if this is a problem). It’s in my office during the day. So are my sweaty bike clothes. I also have office mates, so this is an issue.

4. Distance. There is probably an ideal bike-commuting distance from campus. My guess is that I would fall outside that circle. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be maverick, it just means there’s more risk, because there’s more miles, and more time out on the road. In fact, it took me 45 minutes door-to-door on day one. That’s about 10 more than my car-commute. And people have died on the Durham roads during routine commutes to work. It’s just not worth that.

5. Stress. Especially with the commuters on the way home, I had to be focused. There were lights to pay attention to, people passing me, me passing people. It’s so much easier when I can lean back in my leather seat with the windows down and the radio blasting all the way home. For everyone on the road, this is something to be aware of. And no TEXTING! I can see you!

Happily, the weather was nice today, despite the pollen. I lost steam, though, on the way home, and slowed to a crawl. My back hurt, my sit-bones hurt, my legs were drained. Not a good way to start the experiment, but perhaps expected as it’s been months since I’ve been on my bike, let alone with a backpack.

Not to fear, I will persist. But for now, I’m settling in for the evening with a beer, and my feet up. I think I earned it.

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I recently completed the carbon calculator on the Duke Sustainability website. It was part of an email I got from the Green Devil Challenge campaign (no relation to this column).

Overall I think I did pretty well — I would need to plant 55 seedlings, growing for 10 years to offset my annual footprint. My relative ratings in three of the four categories — energy, diet, and behavior — was “Low.” These numbers don’t necessarily mean I’m doing everything right, but I do live off campus, so carbon emissions associated with my living situation don’t come into the Duke equation. If I lived in the dorms, it might be a different story. Since, I don’t eat on campus much, or work in my office all day, those contributions are also low. I also do my best to recycle, and I think I got points for that.

What I didn’t score so well in was the fourth category: transportation.

Apparently I have an average commuting footprint for a Duke community member. My annual carbon footprint associated with transportation — based on the generic questions I answered in the survey — is roughly 1.7 metric tons of carbon equivalents. That’s more than two thirds of my total footprint. I was okay with this for a while, but then I asked myself, who wants to be average?! At anything! I do go to Duke after all, a school that prides itself on being above average.

So I’m putting myself on a carbon diet. I’m setting my own challenge: a challenge for the green devil (note the lower case).

For a week, I will stop driving my car, and bike to school, or take the bus. I will post my thoughts on this experiment on this blog, and hopefully talk about the experience in my final column of the year, which will run on Earth Day.

Stay tuned!

(As a side note, I encourage everyone with a netID to navigate to the Duke Sustainability web page, log in and sign the pledge. Then take the challenge for yourself!)

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