Save the world with Admiral Bob

Recently I read a NewScientist article about changes in rainfall patterns due to global warming, and it predicted the usual depressing outcomes in the medium to long term: famine, disease, war, immense human suffering.

Then three thoughts occurred to me: 1) a very large amount of the world’s freshwater is lost in the form of rain that falls at sea; 2) meanwhile, enormous petroleum supertankers ply those very same seas; 3) in some places, people pay more per liter for bottled water than they do for gasoline.

These thoughts were synthesized into a pretty freakin’ awesome idea: deploy a fleet of supertankers harvesting rainwater. They would use weather radar to hunt the heaviest precipitation (and the stormiest seas, like as not — only the hardiest sailors need apply). Any rain falling on their decks could be funneled straight into the holding tanks. I’m not sure how you’d keep seawater out of the tanks, as waves would frequently break over the deck of the ship in stormy seas, but that seems like a surmountable engineering detail.

Does it make economic sense to harvest rainwater this way? Let’s start by assuming it’s economical to transport petroleum by supertanker. (A safe assumption.) The retail price of a gallon of gasoline here in Northern California is presently right around three dollars. I don’t know how much crude oil goes into a gallon of gasoline, but for our very rough calculations it’s simplest and safe to say a gallon of gasoline equals a gallon of crude.

That three dollars per gallon we pay at the pump has to cover a lot of oil-industry expenses that a freshwater industry would not have: refineries, research, exploration, and drilling, not to mention giant slush funds for dealing with corrupt foreign regimes. And oil-industry tankers must be double-hulled to protect against spills. Freshwater tankers can be single-hulled.

On the other hand, whereas the oil industry can use their supertankers simply to transport millions of barrels of oil from one place directly to another, a freshwater fleet would have to roam at sea for a while until it contained enough water to make a delivery. This is an operational expense the oil industry does not have. How long must a freshwater supertanker follow rainstorms around until it is full? According to Wikipedia, a supertanker named the TI Asia has a depth (height) of 112 feet. Let’s guess that the tanks it contains are 60 feet high. For simplicity, let’s further assume these tanks have a uniform width — they don’t taper at the bottom or anything like that. This means that the ship must collect 60 feet of rain to fill its tanks — possibly less if a catch area much wider than the tanks themselves can be funneled into them. How long would it take to collect that much rain, if you’re always steering into the heaviest rainfall? Let’s guess that a good freshwater supertanker captain can expect an average of four inches of rain per day. That’s six months at sea to fill the freshwater tanks.

How much does it cost to have a supertanker crisscrossing the bounding main for six months? I have no idea, but let’s keep guessing and say that that cost roughly offsets the petroleum-industry-only costs I listed above (drilling, bribes, etc). This means that the fleet could deliver freshwater for about three dollars per gallon, which is about 79 cents per liter, which is very reasonable compared to the prices paid per liter of bottled water in many places threatened by future global-warming droughts.

The TI Asia can carry half a billion gallons of oil. If a comparable freshwater supertanker can carry an equal volume of water (which is not certain, since water is heavier than oil), then it can deliver a year’s worth of drinking water for a million people. Half a billion gallons is also equal to 1,534 acre-feet, enough water to irrigate 736 acres of crops for a year, but that sounds much less impressive, and at a cost of almost a million dollars per acre-foot, it’s nowhere near competitive.

Would I like to be the admiral of a fleet of freshwater supertankers saving the world? Hell yeah. For many weeks after this idea came to me, I kept it to myself. But then I looked at my pile of ideas-to-implement-someday, and the large subset of those that are in the category no-idea-how-to-get-started (which includes this one), and decided the world needs this idea more than I do. So, one of you reading this: get started. Just do me a favor and christen the first ship the gee bobg.

Show me the money answers

Today on Susie Bright’s blog:

I answer most sex questions, no matter how personal, without blinking an eyelash.

But no one’s ever asked me intimate secrets about money before — until I met editor Nina Smith from QueerCents, who propositioned me with 10 Money Questions.

How embarrassing! How shocking! I’ve never felt so completely NUDE!

I took a look at the “more interesting stumpers” that Susie Bright highlighted and didn’t find them so stumpy. Here they are, with my answers.

What is your most significant memory about money?

Earning a shiny quarter early each morning at my first “job”: sweeping the floor at the “Casino” (which is what the concession store/soda fountain/lunch counter was called) at the Pine Knoll bungalow colony in Monticello, NY in the summer of 1972. I was not yet six.

I rode to “work” on my Big Wheel, swept the floor, got my quarter, and usually spent it immediately on pinball or the jukebox. I got back in time for the start of day camp. And I learned a lifelong lesson about the satisfaction of earning a day’s pay.

What is your worst habit around finances?

Overcautiousness. And then, when that has built up for too long, reckless splurging, like a dieter diving into a cheesecake after weeks of salad.

Is sexual or financial compatibility more important in a partnership?

They’re both important. Each is more important than the other at different times. Fortunately, they can both be cultivated — but without some sexual compatibility to begin with, who would bother cultivating either one?

Have you ever paid or been paid for sex?

Nope, except in the “I Get Paid For Loving” sense.

What did your mother, or your father, teach you about money?

“Pay yourself first,” meaning saving for the future is a higher priority than any other use of your money, even if it’s just a little at a time.

Pay off debts. And especially beware of credit card debt. (That’s one they tried to teach me but I had to learn on my own, the hard way.)

Always get the best you can afford.

If you’ve been in a relationship, do you and your partner see eye-to-eye on finances?

Yes, except I don’t know how I’ll convince Andrea of the absolute necessity of dropping half a grand on the Lego Millennium Falcon, which comes out soon.

Don’t you know that slapstick is DEAD?!

[This post is participating in the Slapstick Blog-a-thon.]

“Don’t you know that slapstick is DEAD?!” hollers movie-studio honcho Sid Caesar to washed-up director Mel Brooks near the beginning of Silent Movie (as Brooks is pitching the idea of a silent movie to Caesar). He promptly topples backward into his office chair, which flips him onto his back and inexplicably rockets him across the room, colliding with the wall.

At ages four and two, my kids were already movie buffs, both able to devote their attention to a full-length movie and speak intelligently about the stories and the characters. Jonah, age four, exhibited enormous sensitivity, mirroring the emotions of the characters on the screen — joy, sorrow, fear, excitement. Archer, age two, hadn’t reached that milestone. He watched and enjoyed movies without becoming emotionally involved.

One day I put on Silent Movie and read the title cards aloud for them (making a few judicious edits along the way). I could tell the boys were enjoying it, but Archer was impassive as ever…

…until the elevator scene. Mel Brooks and Dom Deluise board an elevator at the hospital to visit Sid Caesar, but their friend Marty Feldman — distracted by a toy airplane — misses it. There are six elevators, so he waits for the next one. When it opens, he is prevented from entering by an improbable crush of exiting passengers. When the next elevator comes, the doors close almost immediately and he collides with them. The same happens with the next elevator, and the next. Soon he is ricocheting between the elevator doors like a pinball.

Archer started laughing and laughing. Jonah had been only mildly amused but Archer’s infectious giggle got him going, and then me too. Helpless with mirth, we missed much of the next minute or two of the movie.

Archer’s three and a half now and plenty else has made him laugh or worry or cheer in the movies he’s watched. But Silent Movie was the first one to get a genuine reaction out of him. For him, slapstick definitely wasn’t dead.

Berkeley Breathed ripped me off

I did it first, and I did it better: West Wing Story, 7 June 2007.

Berkeley Breathed did it second, less well, and less thoroughly, but with better artwork: Opus, 9 Sep 2007.

Do mosquitoes still whine?

One night during the summer of 1977, my parents left me in charge in our bungalow while my sister slept and they went out together for a couple of hours. I stayed up, enjoying the stillness and the sound of crickets coming from outside, and (though I don’t specifically recall) more than likely re-reading Star Wars.

My repose was shattered by a faint high-pitched whine at the very edge of hearing. Eeeeeeeeeeee… a mosquito, buzzing in my ear!

I jumped up and spun around, trying to spot it. It landed on the wall. I smashed it; whew. I sat back down and resumed reading.

A few minutes later: Eeeeeeeeeeee! Jump up, hunt, smash, sit down. And then: Eeeeeeeeeeee! Jump up, hunt, smash, sit down. And again. And again. I started keeping count. I could no longer read. I was on heightened alert. Each time I sat back down I could only dart my eyes around the room, trying to spot the next mosquito, heart pounding, ears straining.

I had no particular fear of mosquitoes or of mosquito bites. I even sort of enjoyed getting them — they were so satisfying to scratch. (Even now, my worry about such things as West Nile virus is not very great.) But something about hearing them zeroing in on me made me crazy. They had to be destroyed.

By the time my parents came back, they found me in a wild-eyed feral state. I had annihilated seventy of the little bastards (this I do specifically recall) and was still hunting for more.

Fast-forward thirty years. I live on a different coast, in a different climate. There are still mosquitoes in summertime in Northern California, but nothing like there were in Monticello, New York. As recently as this past spring, the sound of “Eeeeeeeeeeee…” in the middle of the night could still rouse me from deep slumber all the way to frantic alertness in a single instant.

But I didn’t hear that sound all summer, though over the past few months I’ve spotted and swatted a goodly number of mosquitoes.

I know and accept the reality of age-related hearing loss, especially in high frequencies. In fact I’m almost too accepting of age-related decline. Soon after I turned forty last year, I got my first pair of prescription eyeglasses — after a quarter-century of expecting to need some any day now, but still not, as it turns out, needing them at all.

Still, I’m having a hard time accepting that these mosquitoes are keening their high-pitched whine as usual. After all, I can hear the famous “Mosquito” ringtones that made their way around the Internet recently. Can it be that we’ve had silent mosquitoes flying around? Is it possible I lost my hearing at only the precise frequency that mosquitoes emit?

Whatever the explanation, I look forward to no longer being jolted awake in the middle of the night just because a tiny insect wants a drop of my blood. Go ahead, drink up. Just be quiet about it.

A troubling trend

In 1998, when my car, the Nimble Imp, was still new, an inattentive driver rear-ended it as I sat in stopped traffic on 101 South. No one was hurt, but my shiny new car needed body work.

Yesterday, as I sat in stopped traffic on 101 South, my shiny new car, the Out on a Whim, was rear-ended by an inattentive driver. No one was hurt, but now it needs body work.

There is a tradition among boys, or used to be, that when someone shows up at school with bright new sneakers, his friends would purposely scuff them up with the filthy soles of theirs. It’s a way to take the owner’s unseemly pride down a notch, and to eliminate any hesitation he might feel while at play in the schoolyard from wanting to keep the new shoes clean.

I consider this to be the same sort of thing, though it’s weird that it has happened in the first few months of ownership of the only two new cars I’ve ever bought. (My other new car, the Compelling Notion, was leased.) If things go now the way they did in 1998, I’ll get my car fixed with insurance money, drive it without further trouble for most of the next decade, and command a surprisingly high resale price. Not too bad.


Jonah has been doing a great job learning to read, but until now we haven’t spent much time on writing. He can write his name and a few other words (suitable for use in birthday cards), and recently, in conjunction with his beginning kindergarten, we’ve started encouraging general-purpose word-writing.

This morning at breakfast at the Bayside Cafe, Jonah and Archer got the usual kids’ placemats with crayons. After coloring the picture on the front of his placemat, Jonah flipped it over and started doodling on the back. We asked him to write a word. At random he wrote the letter B, then, trying to think of what begins with B, finished the word BEE. We gave a little cheer and I drew a picture of a bee next to his word. “Any word you write,” I told him, “I’ll draw a picture of it.”

We asked him to write another word. At random he wrote the letter P. Casting about for a word that starts with P, he shouted, “Pee!” (By analogy with “Bee,” I suppose.) Then, more jubilantly, “Penis!”

Carefully sounding it out, Jonah wrote the word on his placemat, and then started chanting, “Penis! Penis!” before we shushed him.

(Fortunately, the family seated at the next table was sympathetic, having twin boys who were Jonah’s age. Amazingly, the mom of that family recognized us when we came in: back in the ’90’s, long before kids, she and her dogs frequented the same local dog park as Andrea and I did with Alex.)

Jonah held me to my word and bade me draw a penis peeing. Here are his words, his doodles, and my dubious artwork. (The bee that I drew is obscured by later scribbles.)