Cameraperson

See. This. Film.

It’s an extraordinary film, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and through some remarkable twist of fate (probably more than one was required) is now on the Academy Award short list. The filmmaker, Kirsten Johnson, has Colorado connections, so that’s a bonus, and she’s had an exceptional career as a cinematographer and producer (if you haven’t seen CitizenFour, Invisible War, The Oath, Innocent Until Proven Guilty, and Pray the Devil Back to Hell they are all very worthwhile). But Cameraperson is a truly singular work of reflection, meditation, and introspection about the nature of documentary filmmaking, the act of documenting while necessarily being pulled into the thing being documented, and the power of the camera.

I don’t know when it will play in Denver again, but if it makes the next cut for the Oscars - the final nominee list - then perhaps it’ll hit a few theaters early next year. And if it doesn’t wait with baited breath for the very first chance you get to see it on VOD.

Jacob's Golden Update: Election Edition 2016

Hi everyone –

Every year around election time I’ll do an email newsletter issue and blog post that are focused on the upcoming races and ballot measures. This is that.

A quick thought before I dive in: the vitriol and the violence of this election season has been terribly disheartening. For instance, just days ago someone firebombed a Republican campaign office in North Carolina. This stuff is insane.

Fortunately, we all live in Golden, and here in Golden there has long been a culture of neighbors-first-politics-second, earnest dialogue, and keeping our disagreements respectful. Down below I offer my recommendations on some of the candidates races and ballot measures, but what I care much more about is that here in Golden we continue to trust that everyone here truly does care about our community, even when we disagree about how best to protect our quality of life and small town character, and that we continue respecting and honoring our diversity of views even when they don’t align with our own.

So … please vote, and let’s all please keep being neighbors first.

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Ballot Measures

Ballot Issues 3A and 3B: YES
There is no question to my mind that we need a permanent fix for our system of funding public schools in Colorado. Until we can figure out a permanent solution, though, I absolutely support 3A and 3B. The quality of our public schools is a critical factor in our quality of life here in Jeffco, in our property values, in the strength of our communities across the county, and in giving all of our kids a great education and the opportunities the follow. Ballot Issues 3A and 3B would result in a substantial funding boost for things like critical school repairs and building improvements, school counselors, improved hands-on learning opportunities, school security, Outdoor Lab, and expanded music, art, STEM, and vocational programming. I fully support paying a very small additional amount in property tax every year to benefit Jeffco schools and the kids they educate.

Amendment 70 (“State Minimum Wage”): YES
Amendment 70 would raise the minimum wage to a modest $12/hour over three years. I know that one concern I’ve heard is that doing this might actually reduce the number of jobs available. The good news is that most of the research seems to show that this doesn’t actually happen. As I understand it, most minimum wage jobs are in fast food, home care, retail, and other roles that can’t be exported somewhere else. And while it does sometimes mean the cost of goods goes up a little bit, it is more than offset by the increased income among the lowest wage-earners. They actually end up with substantially more income that they can spend on food, gas, clothes, school supplies, and everything else, which then drives job growth, which then benefits everyone in the economy. It also helps people at the low end of the economic spectrum transition away from safety net programs. To my mind, if you work full-time you shouldn’t have to live in poverty. But minimum wage in Colorado – $8.31 – works out to about $330/week with a full-time job beforetaxes. That’s a poverty wage. I doubt that $12/hour is enough to lift all minimum wage earners out of poverty, but it’s at least closer to a living wage.

Amendment 71 (“Requirements for Constitutional Amendments”): NO
I don’t think there’s any question that we could update and improve the process for amending the Colorado Constitution, but Amendment 71 isn’t the answer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever aligned with the Independence Institute on a ballot measure before, but this time I think they are spot on: “Amendment 71 is intended to keep you and me from petitioning the government by making the initiative process impossible for grassroots groups and activists.” The Independence Institute is concerned that if Amendment 71 passes we might never be able to strengthen TABOR, and I’m concerned about exactly the opposite – that we might never be able to fix TABOR. But the point is the same: as a practical matter, Amendment 71 would ensure that only large corporations and super-wealthy individuals have a chance to pass ballot initiatives. And because of its signature requirements, it would enable voters in a single State Senate district to prevent a proposed initiative from even getting on the ballot. This is as frustrating to conservatives (voters in left-leaning Boulder could prevent a conservative ballot measure from even getting a vote) as it is to liberals (voters in right-leaning Mesa County could prevent a liberal ballot measure from getting a vote). The ability to put initiatives on the ballot should be available to everyone, not just the uber-wealthy. (Incidentally, there are substantial coalitions on both the right and left opposed to Amendment 71. Lots of folks across the political spectrum recognize just how severely this would cut off access to the ballot initiative process.)

Amendment 72 (“Increase Cigarette and Tobacco Taxes”): YES
I support this partly because higher prices for tobacco products means lower rates of tobacco use, especially among children and young adults. Tobacco companies win big when they get kids addicted to cigarettes or other products, and I strongly support making it harder for tobacco companies to do that. In addition, the revenue raised through this measure goes right back into improving health care across Colorado, including health benefits for veterans, making it easier for health care professionals to work in rural Colorado or in other underserved areas of the state, improving mental health and substance abuse services for kids, and disease prevention and treatment.

Ballot Question 21 (Municipal Broadband): YES
I don’t know if it would make sense for the City of Golden to offer high-speed internet or other telecommunications services. I do know that virtually everyone hates Comcast (the crappy bandwidth, the inconsistent customer service, the high cost), and as long as Comcast has such enormous power over internet services in Golden we are stuck with whatever they decide to offer us. Passing Ballot Question 21 doesn’t commit Golden to doing anything, but it at least gives us the option. And at a minimum, passing Ballot Question 21 will force Comcast to take Golden’s concerns and interests more seriously, and if Comcast doesn’t step up its game the City will have the option of more seriously exploring other options.

Ballot Issue 4B (extending the Denver Scientific and Cultural Facilities District): YES
The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District tax is one of the smartest inexpensive long-term investments we make. For 1/10 of a cent of sales tax, the SCFD funds music, art, history museums, and a bunch of other scientific and cultural facilities all over the Denver Metro region, including multiple organizations in Golden. It’s part of what makes the Denver region such a remarkable place to live.

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Candidates

United States Senate: Michael Bennet
Like many people, I’m generally skeptical about members of Congress. The place turns even the most well-intentioned people into reelection-focused fundraising-obsessed political machines who care more about triangulating than about their own beliefs or the views of their constituents. Michael is different. He is as grounded and down-to-earth as they come (despite his high-profile background). He’s extremely intelligent. And he is genuinely pragmatic and approachable. On multiple occasions I’ve had the opportunity to talk through an issue with him, or make my case for a particular position, and he is remarkably open to those conversations in a way that’s truly rare among politicians (Ed Perlmutter is another member of Congress I would put in this same category). I for sure don’t agree with him on everything. He represents our entire – politically diverse – state, and he sometimes lands in places I don’t share. But he brings an integrity and thoughtfulness to the role that is incredibly rare among politicians.

7th Congressional District: Ed Perlmutter
It’s hard to imagine someone better suited to representing the 7th Congressional District than Ed Perlmutter. He enjoys enormous support here because of how well he understands the communities in the district (including Golden), how hard he works, and how seriously he takes his responsibilities as our Congressional representative.

U.S. President: Hillary Clinton
I’ll start by saying that I supported Bernie Sanders in the primary, and I wish he were the Democratic nominee. And I’ll point out that I’m not a huge Hillary Clinton fan. And I get, at least partly, why Donald Trump is so appealing to so many people. People across the country are frustrated with politics, and even aside from his policy positions (and of great importance to me, his apparent bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia), supporting Trump feels like a dramatic rebuke to the way politics usually happens. But for me, being “anti-establishment” isn’t enough. This is the White House. It’s not just about symbolism. And many of Trump’s positions seem truly dangerous, like his overt pandering to Vladimir Putin and his threats to launch a trade war. And while I know that “his temperament” is now a talking point, I find it genuinely frightening to think that we could end up with a President who is so easily goaded into lashing out at whomever just criticized him. I don’t want him anywhere near the nuclear codes, for sure, but his reactions – by all appearances rash and impulsive – could also wreck havoc on the economy, or unnecessarily escalate violent conflicts, or further weaken the tenuous balance of power in the Middle East, or any number of incredibly dangerous and harmful things. It may be that his temperament and attitude has served him well in the real estate business and in his reality TV career, but for all of Clinton’s weaknesses the idea of Donald Trump as the President is a much, much more frightening scenario.

And, despite her weaknesses, Clinton is unequivocally qualified and prepared for the role. I remember how dismissive people were when she first won her seat in the U.S. Senate (saying many of the same things we are hearing now), and within a couple of years she had earned deep respect from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate for her work ethic, her respectfulness, and her commitment to the office. It’s safe to say that if she wins she will make a lot of decisions I disagree with, but from my perspective Clinton is without question the better choice. And she is strong in all of the ways that Trump is weak. She is clearly thoughtful and deliberate (especially compared to Trump’s impulsiveness). She brings an impressive depth of knowledge and understanding about a wide range of critically important issues. I don’t know if Trump is actually as bigoted and sexist as he appears to be, but in sharp contrast Clinton clearly understands the importance of diversity and inclusion. And on and on.

For most of us here in Golden (and, if the polls are any indication, for most Americans), neither major party candidate is a perfect option, but for me Hillary Clinton is by far the better choice.

Jefferson County Commissioner (District 1): Marti J. Smith
I don’t know Marti personally, but the more I learn about the race and about her the more clearly she has become my choice for District 1. She’s got the right attitude about protecting Jeffco residents from overdevelopment and attracting good jobs to the county without undermining the very qualities that make Jeffco so special.

Jefferson County Commissioner (District 2): Casey Tighe
Serving on the county commission is often a thankless job, but the commissioners have a great deal of influence over important issues like open space, land use, and the criminal justice system. Casey has a good track record advocating for fiscal responsibility, smart economic development, and strengthening the county’s criminal justice system. I’d be happy to see him earn another term.

Regent of the University of Colorado: Alice Madden
I’ve known Alice for a long time and think very highly of her. She is super smart, thoughtful, and capable. I’d be thrilled to see her serve on the CU Board of Regents.

Regional Transportation District Director (District M): Dave Ruchman
Dave has been a stalwart champion for light rail and improving the transit system across the entire Metro region. He’s also been supportive of Golden’s efforts to protect our community from the many high-speed beltway proposals over the years.

State House (District 24): Jesse Danielson
I don’t know her very well, but it seems like she’s working hard and doing a solid job. Her bills in this last legislative session include the rain barrel bill (making it legal – finally – to collect and use rainwater for your lawn or garden), requiring that businesses competing for state contracts pay people fairly for their work regardless of gender or race, protecting senior citizens from abuse, and creating better job opportunities for military veterans.

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How to Vote

You should receive your ballot within a few days (I just got mine today). There are 24-hour drop boxes at Golden City Hall (911 10th St.) and at the main Jeffco building (100 Jefferson County Parkway). You can also mail it – just be sure to attach postage. The key is that it must be received by Tuesday, November 8, so the sooner you drop it off or mail it, the better, plus the sooner you do that the sooner your name will drop off the political phone call lists.

If you have any questions, I suggest you contact the Jefferson County elections office (303-271-8111).

No Place Like Home

I’m very excited to share that my good friends Mary Anne Hitt and Anna Jane Joyner last week launched their new podcast: No Place Like Home (on iTunes, and also available on SoundCloud). Their goal is a human-centric, optimistic look at climate change and the climate movement, and so far I’d say they are pulling it off in spades.

The first episode features filmmaker Jesse Sweet of the Emmy-winning series Years of Living Dangerously (a project on which Mary Anne and Anna Jane both worked a bunch). I had a blast doing the second episode (which they just published) with them, talking about Bernie, the climate movement, and our film Waking the Sleeping Giant. And I know they’ve got more terrific episodes on the way.

Please check it out, and if you like it please subscribe and rate it on iTunes (that’s super helpful for Mary Anne and Anna Jane!).

Right-wing populism always punches down

Jonathan Smucker, on Medium:

“… despite its ostensible anti-elitism, right-wing populism always punches down, unifying ‘the people’ (some of them) by scapegoating a demonized other: blacks, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims — take your pick — depending on the opportunities available to the particular demagogue in the given context.”

Waking the Sleeping Giant: July update

It’s wild to think that after two years of working on this film, yesterday we began editing.

Jon and I spent the previous five days holed up at camp (his cabin in upstate New York) cranking on the script. Kathryn is deep into campaign mode now (she makes a living running campaigns) and couldn’t join us, sadly, but we were able to confer with her along the way. We’ve now got a solid script for most of the film and will fill in the rest over the next few days as Brad works through the first couple of acts in Premier.

There’s still a fair bit of filming to do … some important interviews, a few follow-up interviews later in the fall, the conventions, GOTV and the election (and we’ve got a crew filming at the GOP convention in Cleveland – more on that later), etc. But after all this time planning and filming it’s really cool to actually be assembling the story that’s been slowly evolving in front of our eyes and our lenses.

It’s also a bit strange, since we are now editing before finishing all the filming, but that’s a necessity for hitting key festival submission deadlines and our end-of-December completion date. This is a film and a story that really need to launch into the world early in 2017 after the election. Over the next couple of months we’ll finish as complete and polished a version of the film as possible for the initial festival submissions, and then complete a final version in December after the election and our final post-election reflection interviews are done. But we’ve got a really good handle on the stories and the arcs and how they all fit together, and it’s exciting to see Brad Johanson, our editor, actually start cutting the pieces together.

And now that we’re starting to put sequences together, it’s also just really cool to the images and story flow together on the screen.

The early morning light and long evening light lately has been awesome for getting out on the trails around Golden, but as the numbers go up the potential for conflict predictably goes up as well.

Chimney Gulch (one of Golden’s most popular hiking, running, and mountain biking trails).

Chimney Gulch (one of Golden’s most popular hiking, running, and mountain biking trails).

For years now, I think the mountain biking community has done a really good job of creating and enforcing a culture of responsible riding, at least in Jefferson County. The vast majority of riders I encounter when running are friendly and courteous, and pull over to let runners and hikers pass. The handful that barrel past, or don’t make room, or rip around blind corners (a few months ago I saw a couple of downhillers on Chimney Gulch take out a mountain biker going uphill), or are just otherwise rude still have a disproportionate impact on everyone else’s experience, which obviously fuels tension and controversy, so hats off to the community for continuing to do as much as they do to sustain that culture of respectful trail use.

I ride once in a while but mostly run, and in my experience the runners are usually friendly as well, but I’ve seen just as much rude behavior from runners toward mountain bikers as the other way around. Hopefully we runners can do just as a good job sustaining that same sort of respectful culture as the bikers do.

But even as a mostly-runner I disagree with Jeffco’s expectation that mountain bikers should always yield to everyone else. It makes sense to me that peds and bikers yield to horses, and on flats and uphills I for sure appreciate that bikers yield, but if I’m passing bikers heading uphill as I’m running downhill … I think it’s crazy to ask the bikers to yield. Uphill is tough whether you’re on foot or in the saddle, and the way I figure it the pedestrians and bikers traveling downhill should always yield to the pedestrians and bikers slogging their way uphill. That just seems like common sense.

If it were up to me I’d probably retain Jeffco’s approach with that one change. Call it the “Yield to the Sloggers” rule, or the “That Person is Working Way Harder Than You” principal, or maybe the “Be Kind to the Uphillers” mantra: if you’re heading downhill on a bike or on foot, make way for anyone heading the other way.

Golden Update: proposed annexation & other news

1) City Council Advances Plan for Large Annexation

2) Your Input Mattered: Street Giveaway Plans on Hold

3) A 2016 Election Endorsement: Ed Perlmutter for Congress

4) Golden Bike Library Arriving in June

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1. City Council Advances Large Annexation Plan

At its February 25 meeting, City Council approved a resolution authorizing the execution of an agreement to annex more than 100 acres on the north side of town(the undeveloped land between Mountain Ridge and Golden Gate Canyon Road).

The point of annexation is to make it easier to develop a property by granting access to utilities and services the owners can’t easily access otherwise, so deciding whether to annex a property into the city limits is one of the more important decisions a City Council makes. And because annexation decisions are such a big deal, they deserve vigorous community input before the Council makes any decisions.

Instead, City Council seems to be doing exactly the opposite, formally expressing its support for this annexation without the benefit of a study session discussion, town hall meetings, discussion in the Informer, or taking advantage of our community email newsletters (like Judy Denison’s and mine) to solicit input.

This specific proposal would allow the property owners to build a few more houses clustered next to the existing homes while zoning the rest for agricultural use. That doesn’t sound so bad, except that the proposal includes no guarantees that the rest of the property won’t also get developed later. The owners of the property (the Brunel family) are friends, and when they say they don’t intend to develop the rest of the property I believe them.

The problem is that the annexation is permanent. If the Brunel family ever sells the land, or if some of the family members change their minds, or if new family members who want to sell and develop the land come into the picture, today’s promise of protected open space turns into the very thing I suspect most Golden residents oppose. All it takes is a development-happy City Council – at any point in the future – to change the zoning (and change the comprehensive plan if they feel they need to), and all of that property turns into houses or a strip mall. Much of Golden was agricultural, until it wasn’t.

I encourage City Council to make a serious, energetic effort to engage the community on this proposal, making sure to understand what our vision is for that part of town, and then making sure that if we do annex the property that it actually accomplishes that vision. I know there is some discussion about seeking permanent protection for the property by purchasing the development rights through a conservation easement after the city annexes it. A conservation easement is exactly the right strategy, since it will provide permanent protection, but doing the annexation and then attempting to the conservation easement makes little sense to me; the annexation will likely increase the property value, so the city would be negotiating with less leverage (after the property owner has already been annexed) for a property that would then be more expensive as a result.

Council’s formal support for the annexation is one step of several before the deal happens, and you still have an opportunity to weigh in. If you have any thoughts about Council’s declaration of support for this annexation, or the apparent lack of enthusiasm for soliciting community input, or the idea of requiring a conservation easement as part of the deal in the first place (as opposed to something we hope might happen later), I encourage you to email or call Council and express your views.

cityofgolden@cityofgolden.net

Kudos to councilors Saoirse Charis-Graves and Pamela Gould, incidentally. Both supported tabling the resolution to give the community some time to learn about the proposal and weigh in before the Council’s vote.

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2. Your Input Mattered: Proposed City Street Giveaway on Hold

In my last newsletter (back in December), I wrote about a proposal for the city to give Arapahoe Street between 13th and 14th to the Calvary Church. Much like the annexation proposal above, street vacations involve the community permanently giving away an asset – one of our streets – to a private entity. I expressed two main concerns: a) maybe we shouldn’t be permanently giving away a street in downtown Golden, and b) that City Council was gearing up to give away this city street with barely any public input.

Well, a bunch of community members weighed in expressing their concerns, and before City Council got to the decision point Calvary Church withdrew its request. Your input – making a fuss about something that looked like it was about to go through without any real discussion – had a real impact on what happened in our community.

This proposal could return, and hopefully if it does City Council will make a more vigorous effort to let folks know it’s happening and to encourage input from community members.

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3. A 2016 Election Endorsement: Ed Perlmutter for Congress

The Presidential election is getting all of the political buzz these days, and for good reason, but it’s worth remembering that the November ballot will include a bunch of other offices and issues. One person I’m proud to support early and enthusiastically is Golden’s long-time Congressman Ed Perlmutter.

Ed has always been thoughtful and fair, he’s always been a strong advocate for Golden, and he has always been straightforward with us about where he stands and why. He’s incredibly hard-working, genuinely friendly and accessible, and champions many of my own views and values: supporting public education and public schools, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, ensuring that veterans get the health care they deserve, and campaign finance reform (including reversing Citizens United).

I know there are some Bernie supporters mounting a primary challenge against Ed, and I admire their energy and commitment, but as a Bernie supporter myself I can say without qualification that Ed is the right guy for CD7.

4. Golden Bike Library Arriving in June

From the Department of ‘Hey, That’s Pretty Cool’ comes a new two-year pilot program set to launch in June: the Golden Bicycle Library. Thanks to grant funding from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Denver Regional Council of Governments, Golden residents and visitors will be able to check out one of 40 bikes from the Golden Visitor’s Center. In the second year of the program, the city plans to create an additional bike library location at Golden’s light rail station (at the Jefferson County building).

The winding road to the revolution

When we started filming Waking the Sleeping Giant a year ago, our plan for a documentary film was based on a straightforward premise: there is something really important and potentially monumental happening out there across the country, a deep frustration at the way the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and at the expense of ordinary working Americans.

My Waking the Sleeping Giant co-producer Jon Erickson passed through Golden over the weekend on an epic road trip from his home in Vermont. He’s now in Des Moines for a very long day of Iowa caucus filming.

My Waking the Sleeping Giant co-producer Jon Erickson passed through Golden over the weekend on an epic road trip from his home in Vermont. He’s now in Des Moines for a very long day of Iowa caucus filming.

When we started filming, the most exciting opportunities for movement building seemed to be around a growing economic populism on both sides of aisle. The left wing version was readily apparently in the political energy around people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but it was quite apparent on the right as well. Minimum wage ballot measures passing in red states and Republican presidential candidates opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership and rallying against the economic elite were just two of the most visible signs.

And there are people across the country that recognize the potential to build a new political movement rooted in this widespread political anger and love, to borrow a phrase from Zephyr Teachout. Bernie Sanders, for instance, explicitly called out the opportunity to create a political revolution by building alliances with strange bedfellows … working people on both sides of the partisan divide who understand how the billionaire class has taken over the political process and the American economy.

But a couple of interesting things happened on the way to the revolution. First, the terrorism/national security narrative has almost completely drowned out the economic fairness narrative on the right. GOP presidential candidates are saying very little now about these issues, and if there ever was the opportunity to transcend party lines with an appeal to taking on the billionaire and corporate class it is less clear now.

Second, a well-organized and highly motivated race-focused movement ran headlong into the class-focused campaigns of the left-wing standard bearers like Bernie. #Blacklivesmatter activists aggressively disrupted campaign ClintonSanders, and O’Malley events, protests against police violence have forcefully intruded into the politics of large cities and of Democratic politics writ large, and now all three Democratic candidates are aggressively incorporating racism into their political critique and policy positions.

Bernie’s campaign has offered an object lesson in the success of race-focused activists to force a shift in priorities. Although Bernie has always taken strong pro-civil rights positions, his most consistent and vigorous prescription for tackling inequity of all kinds had been focused on jobs and economic fairness. In the face of intense pressure from #BlackLivesMatter and other race-focused activists, Bernie now explicitly acknowledges that job creation, stimulating the economy, and reducing the power of corporate America are insufficient; his political agenda now overtly and prominently includes a broad range of attacks on structural racism and race-based violence.

Although our film has from the beginning been a story about the effort to build a 21st century movement built around economic and political fairness, over the span of a nearly 2-year production schedule (not to mention the nine months prior in pre-production) the story itself is changing. It’s exhilarating and slightly terrifying at the same time. Something important is happening out there – a rejuvenated political movement is afoot – and we’ll follow it wherever the story takes us.

Bernie's Socialism & the American voter

One of the stories I find most interesting about the 2016 presidential race is Bernie Sanders’ head-on engagement with his self-described identity as a democratic socialist. Most rational observers would have predicted Bernie would distance himself from the label as he launched and then ramped up his presidential campaign last spring. But like nearly everything else about Bernie’s campaign, he defied expectations and did exactly the opposite, leaning in to the label, and even going so far as to give a high-profile speech devoted to defining what he means by the label.

Here’s the fascinating thing: across a huge swath of Bernie’s positions, his views align with the majority of Americans. In other words, while most Americans don’t identify as democratic socialists (as Bernie does), and while the label itself might sound radical, most Americans actually agree with Bernie on a wide range of issues.

To wit:

This is obviously a snapshot, and the story is much more complex and nuanced, but I think one of Bernie’s most important insights is that more Americans than not genuinely believe much of what he believes. This is an insight that has carried him over the years from low single digits in his early statewide races in Vermont to reelection in the U.S. Senate with more than 70% of the vote. The extent to which he can communicate this to enough voters (and overcome the power of the party establishment) to win the primary and then the general election remains to be seen (although he has so far shredded every prediction about his ability to draw crowds, raise money, and earn support among voters). But if his policy and political views sound radical I think it’s largely because there is a sizable gap between how far rightward electoral politics has shifted (and the way the media reports on American politics) and the things that Americans actually believe.

(Big h/t to Fusion for pulling a bunch of these links together.)

Golden update: "Street vacation & sustainability"

Hi everyone –

I’m still thinking through how best to use this email list, but I got a lot of positive feedback after my election-related emails, and once in a while community issues come up that I want to make sure folks know about, so my plan for now is to send out an email every now and again flagging issues I think community members may be interested in.

Here are two:

1. City Council Considers Giving Away a Portion of Arapahoe Street

On Thursday night, City Council is slated to make a decision about the proposal to give Arapahoe Street between 13th and 14th to the Calvary Church. I haven’t decided what I think about it yet, but it does seem like the sort of issue that the community should know about and have a chance to weigh in on, and I don’t have the sense that many folks know it’s happening.

As the staff memo explains, “Calvary Church is now returning with a new proposal, which is a request to vacate the entire block of Arapahoe Street between 13th and 14th Streets, but without a private drive or improvements to Miners Alley. Calvary’s stated intention is to create a pedestrian and plaza space that would serve the needs of their planned “campus” environment, as well as create amenities, such as seating and landscaping, that is open to the public and establishes a better pedestrian link between CSM to the south and downtown and Clear Creek to the north.“

Calvary has proposed variations of this street vacation for many years. Unlike their 2014 proposal, however, the current proposal would simply give Calvary that stretch of Arapahoe without making any vehicle and pedestrian improvements to Miner’s Alley. This is one of several concerns with the proposal.

Another concern is the uncertainty about what the community’s future mobility needs will be. Planning Commission voted 5-2 against the proposal for this reason, specifically because they weren’t convinced that the public right-of-way won’t ever again be “necessary for public use or convenience.”

I’m a fan of Calvary and deeply appreciate their many contributions to the Golden community. But even so, I’m skeptical about street vacations since they basically mean the city permanently hands over a community-owned asset to a private entity. They are definitely a big deal, in any case, and deserve a lot of thought and scrutiny.

If you are interested or concerned, I encourage you to weigh in with Council either by email before Thursday evening, or in person at their Council meeting on Thursday night (City Council Chambers, 911 10th St., 6:30pm). You can download the staff memo to City Council if you want more details.

2. Golden Sustainability Summit in the Works

City Council and the Sustainability Advisory Board (I think it’s on the board’s agenda tomorrow night) are talking about pulling together a sustainability summit this spring. I like the idea … if it’s done well it could be a great opportunity to re-engage community members in this ambitious community-wide effort, celebrate what we’ve accomplished so far, and identify where we are falling short and how we’re going to get there. I’d love to hear your ideas about what the summit might look like and how it could be organized to make sure we get strong community involvement and that we give the Golden Sustainability Initiative a good boost. You can email me at jacobzsmith@gmail.com. I’ll compile all the ideas folks send and pass them on to the board members and city staff. Or feel free to email Theresa Worsham (TWorsham@cityofgolden.net), who staffs the board for the city.


That’s what I’ve got this time. If you’ve got any thoughts about how I can best use this email list – still 1,000 folks strong – and provide info that’s useful to community members, please shoot me a note. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Happy holidays everyone –

Jacob

Why Golden should accept Syrian refugees

Here is the letter I sent to the Mayor and Council today:

To the Honorable Mayor and City Council,

I write to express my support for the City of Golden clearly expressing its openness to welcoming Syrian refugee immigrants along the lines of the Golden Relief Group proposal.

Our country has a long, complicated history with immigration. Although we are, truly, a nation of immigrants, wave after wave – Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, and others – have faced fear, anger, and hostility from those already here.

Yet these very waves of immigrants have contributed in vast ways to our scientific and technological innovations, profoundly enriched our civic and cultural life, and have made extraordinary contributions to the economic health of our communities and of the entire country. This is as true in Golden – the Swedes, Chinese, Germans (including, for instance, the Coors family), Sherpas, and others that have contributed so much – as it is anywhere else in the country, and the vast majority of us in Golden are either immigrants ourselves or the descendants of immigrants.

We live in a time of economic and security uncertainty, to be sure, and the threats we face are real. But we shouldn’t let that fear cloud our generous spirit, our good judgment, and our values. Is it possible that someone who enters the country as a refugee does so with intent to harm Americans and undermine American democracy? Of course, but – according to our own national security experts – the real risks lie elsewhere, and the screening systems for immigrants are thorough and detailed (and if our screening system needs strengthening then let’s fix it rather than merely pretending to do something useful by grandstanding against Syrian refugees).

At a moment of rampant anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant demagoguery, when national politicians call for a national database to track Muslims, suggest that Syrian refugees are the equivalent of rabid dogs, and argue that we should accept only Christian refugees while banning those of other faiths – there is an opportunity for Golden to add some sanity and decency to the conversation.

These are the very people – refugees fleeing their own war-torn country in search of a better life – we should welcome into our communities, offer safe haven to, and create opportunities for becoming engaged and productive members of our towns and cities, as we have for so many immigrants before them.

As Governor Hickenlooper said just a few weeks ago, “We can protect our security and provide a place where the world’s most vulnerable can rebuild their lives.”

As a community built by immigrants, and one that has benefitted enormously from the ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity that results from their arrival and integration in the community, and as a community that genuinely values diversity and inclusivity (including the City Council’s 2006 affirmation of “our commitment to inclusion as a fundamental aspect of our community”), I believe it would be appropriate and laudable for the City Council to make clear we welcome Syrian refugees.

Respectfully,

Jacob Smith
601 Cheyenne Street
Golden Colorado 80403

Golden update: "Please remember to vote"

A few weeks ago I shared my voting recommendations for the 2015 City of Golden and Jefferson County School Board elections. You can link to that post if you want the details, but here’s the summary version. Most importantly … if you haven’t voted yet you’ve got just two days left!

Please don’t mail your ballot! If you do it probably won’t arrive at the county in time for your vote to be counted.

The only way to make sure your vote counts at this point is to drop it off:

  • At Golden City Hall (911 10th Street in downtown Golden) – 24-hour ballot drop off.
  • At the main Jefferson County building (aka the Taj Mahal – 100 Jefferson County Parkway) – 24-hour ballot drop off.
  • If you prefer to or just want to vote in person, you’ll probably want to go to the Jefferson County building (100 Jefferson County Parkway) on Monday between 730am – 530pm OR on Tuesday between 7am – 7pm.

If you have any questions, call the Jefferson County Elections Division (303-271-1811) or visit their web site.

My voting recommendations:

  • Mayor of Golden: Marjorie Sloan
  • Golden City Council District 1: Saoirse Charis-Graves
  • Golden City Council District 2: Casey Brown
  • Jefferson County School Board District 3: Ali Lasell
  • Jefferson County School Board District 4: Amanda Stevens
  • Jefferson County School Board Recall District 1: YES, and vote for Brad Rupert as the successor
  • Jefferson County School Board Recall District 2: YES, and vote for Susan Harmon as the successor
  • Jefferson County School Board Recall District 5: YES, and vote for Ron Mitchell as the successor
  • Jefferson County Public Library Ballot Issue 1A: YES

Feel free to check out the more detailed explanations for each of the races in my last blog post.

Golden update: Election Special

The presidential race is getting all sorts of attention these days, but there’s an election coming up here in Golden a whole lot sooner and with more immediate implications for our community. Yup, we’ve got two city council seats up, plus the mayor’s term is up, and that’s all in addition to an extremely important Jefferson County school board election.

But first things first. I had a terrific time during my two-year stint in D.C. and now I’m thrilled to report that I’m back home in Golden. I haven’t figured out a plan yet for this email list – this is the list I built and maintained while I was mayor – and I’m open to thoughts about how to use it in a way that’s useful. But for right now, at least, I want to offer a few thoughts about the upcoming election here in Golden.

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1. Mayor of Golden

I supported Marjorie Sloan when she ran for mayor after my term ended four years ago and I’m supporting her again now. Although I think there are still some important challenges that still need attention – protecting the remaining unprotected open space around Golden and tackling our long-term financial challenges are two – Marjorie has maintained a steady and competent hand on the tiller. She’s also navigated two really challenging situations: Mike Bestor’s retirement and the hiring of a new city manager, and finalizing an agreement to end the beltway war and actually build some projects that will be immensely valuable to the Golden community. I will vote for Marjorie and hope you will too.

2. Golden City Council
For the District 1 seat (the southern half of the city) I’m supporting the incumbent, Saoirse Charis-Graves. Saoirse takes her role incredibly seriously, she works incredibly hard, and it’s tough to imagine someone who more earnestly understands the responsibilities of representing her community on the Council. And she has a vision for Golden that I think most Golden residents share: a livable, safe, thriving community where the city government communicates effectively and is responsive to community needs and concerns. I recommend a vote for Saoirse.

For the District 2 seat (the northern half of the city) I encourage you to support Casey Brown. Most new members of City Council take at least a couple of years to figure out what’s going on enough to have any real impact on anything at all. Casey won’t have that problem; his experience ranges from the Campaign Election Board to the Parks and Recreation Board to even chairing the Planning Commission. He helped kickoff and lead the Golden Vision 2030 process that most of the candidates at the forum last week cheered and celebrated. If ever there were a City Council candidate who will be able to have a real impact advocating on behalf of his constituents from the day he is sworn in, it’s Casey. Casey is also genuinely the nicest and most accessible guy around. Call him or email him or corner him at the grocery store and he’ll actually listen, and think about what you say, and do his best to help. He’s the sort of guy you want as both your City Councilor and your neighbor. If you like the idea of giving Golden residents more power to protect and support their neighborhoods, and making sure the City Council has the tools they need to preserve Golden’s historic small-town character, Casey is the guy. Finally, I’ll mention that Casey also has a real backbone, and he’ll call people out – city staff, land developers, whomever – when he thinks they’re doing sloppy work or trying to pull one over on the community. He’s professional and respectful about it, but he’s not shy, either. And frankly we really need some more of that on the Council. I recommend a vote for Casey Brown.

3. Jefferson County School Board
There are two important things happening in the school board election. First, there are two open seats on the board for which Golden residents will get to vote. I’m supporting Ali Lasell and Amanda Stevens for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

Second, there is an effort to recall the other three school board members (“the school board majority”). I want to be really clear that I am very skeptical of recalls. Many of you probably remember Marion Olson’s attempt to recall six members of the city council, including me, over policy disagreements. If you don’t like someone’s policy choices, vote for someone else in the next election (and for those of you who weren’t in Golden at the time, community residents so fiercely and widely opposed the recall that we killed it before it ever got to the ballot … not only did Golden residents disagree with Marion’s policy views, they widely supported the City Council’s vision).

Recalls should be reserved, in my view, for willfully misleading voters, gross negligence, or severe ethical violations. Sadly, and truly unfortunately, the situation on the Jefferson County School Board is actually that bad and a recall is actually the appropriate response. It seems like these issues have been fairly well covered in the local press, but in case a recap is helpful, the school board majority:

  • Has repeatedly gone out of its way to conceal information, limit public oversight, restrict public input, and make important policy decisions in secret behind closed doors. The point of Colorado’s open meetings and sunshine laws is to ensure that government decisions are made transparently; the school board majority has ignored and even flouted these rules. And as anyone who lived in Golden during my time as mayor knows, I believe these are some of the most important responsibilities of our elected representatives. A healthy democracy absolutely depends on honest and open access to the workings of government. And the school board majority has aggressively done the opposite.
  • Attempted to inject an overtly ideological agenda into the curriculum, sparking mass student protests (which was both ironic and impressive, since part of what the school board was trying to censor was the role of dissent in American history and politics). This debacle was particularly revealing and offensive. The proposal included the mandate that AP History classes “not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” History teachers were understandably concerned, since the history of the U.S. is, in many ways, a history of people challenging authority in the name of fighting injustice and expanding liberty … the authors of the Declaration of Independence, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, etc.
  • Forced out the beloved, highly regarded, and widely respected Cindy Stevenson as superintendent despite her impressive record of success. And they replaced her with a novice superintendent (despite Jefferson County being the state’s largest school district) at a salary that was $80,000 more than they were paying Ms. Stevenson.
  • Are aggressively pushing an agenda that, in my view, is anti-public education, anti-teacher, and anti-kids. It’s an ideological agenda explicitly modeled on the far-right wing ideological agenda that’s been unfolding in Douglas County over the past decade. The results there: an exodus of the best teachers to other school districts, a national reputation that is now suffering, wasting millions of dollars on ideologically-fueled litigation (which they’ve lost, by the way), and, ultimately, the quality of the education itself suffering.

We made the mistake of electing people whose goal seems to be to weaken the very thing – the Jefferson County Public School District – they were supposed to be safeguarding. All of these school board elections are fundamentally about whether we will let our schools here in Jefferson County follow the same path as the schools in Douglas County – an ideological battleground that comes at the expense of our kids and our communities – or whether we’ll put our schools back on a thoughtful, non-ideological path.

Which brings me back to the two open seats. Ali and Amanda, in my view, are moderate, thoughtful candidates who actually support the idea of public education and are committed to putting our kids’ education above ideology. Their opponents, on the other hand, are supported by the same Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity organization supporting the Douglas County craziness and the school board majority in Jefferson County (and which has a rich history of attacking and undermining public education).

My recommendation: vote for the Clean Slate for Jeffco candidates:

Ali Lasell
Amanda Stevens
Brad Rupert
Susan Harmon
Ron Mitchell
4) Measure 1A for Jeffco Libraries

This is a proposed mill levy increase to support Jefferson County’s public library system, and I encourage you to support it. It’s a modest increase, and it should go a long way toward restoring library hours, investments in books and other materials, fixing the things that need fixing, and generally improving our libraries.

I don’t love this measure because the problems it is trying to address run deeper than a mill levy increase: we have a public library system that answers to a Board of County Commissioners that doesn’t prioritize or – apparently – care much about public libraries. But I also think it’s a mistake to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and this measure should help improve what is now a broken system, and it should make it easier for the hard-working and committed folks who run our libraries across the county to do a better job despite the lack of support from the Jefferson County Commission. Please consider voting yes on Measure 1A.

It sounds like ballots are now in the mail and should start arriving in our mailboxes any day. Your ballot has to be received by 7pm on November 3, so I’d encourage you to fill it out and mail it back quickly. Alternatively, you can drop it off at the Jefferson County building (100 Jefferson County Parkway) or at Golden City Hall (911 10th Street). You’ll find more general election information on the Jefferson County elections page.

Whatever you do, and whatever opinions are on the races I talked about here, please vote! It matters.

"Crouching Tiger" takes on the theater industry

Lots of indie filmmakers have been experimenting with alternative distribution strategies in recent years, but aggressive attempts by major production companies and distributors to give consumers alternatives to the big screen at the time a film debuts are rare. Here we are again: Netflix, Imax, and the Weinstein Company are releasing a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sequel simultaneously in theaters and via Netflix streaming. The theater companies have maintained a stranglehold on the release windows, typically ensuring that films enjoy three months or more in theaters without any competition from home entertainment platforms.

The problem, as Variety’s Brent Lang reported, is that the theater chains are fighting back: “Four of the largest theater chains in the U.S., including AMC, Cinemark, Carmike, and Regal, tell Variety they are refusing to screen any so-called day-and-date releases in their Imax theaters.” We’ll see how this scuffle plays out, but what I find most interesting is the chains’ feeble attempt to justify their pushback because giving consumers the choice would harm those very consumers.

“While a homevideo release may be simultaneously performing in certain Imax locations, at Regal we will not participate in an experiment where you can see the same product on screens varying from three stories tall to 3-inch wide on a smart phone,” said Nunley. “We believe the choice for truly enjoying a magnificent movie is clear.”

And Carmike spokesman Robert Rinderman said, “We are committed to an exclusive theatrical release for the enjoyment of our valued guests. We are therefore opposed to showing day and date releases at our entertainment complexes.”

Mike Langdon, a Cineplex spokesman, argued that theaters remain the best way to see a movie and that the theatrical release window would be undermined if it agreed to screen the film.

Naturally, Netflix sees it differently. From Indiewire, quoting Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos:

“Theater owners stifle this kind of innovation at every turn. The reason why we may enter this space and try to release some big movies ourselves this way is because I’m concerned that as theater owners try to strangle innovation and distribution. Not only are they going to kill theaters — they might kill movies,” he said before suggesting that Netflix would like to premiere movies the same day they open in theaters.

But as Indiewire’s Paula Bernstein writes, “independent films are already challenging the traditional theatrical model with multi-platform releases, including day-and-date VOD releases and ultra-VOD. So it was only a matter of time before Netflix wanted to jump on the day-and-date bandwagon.”

I know the ‘incumbent threatened by disruptive innovator defends market share through brute market power instead of innovating to outcompete challengers’ narrative is overly simplistic when it comes to movie theaters and film distribution, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, either.

Girl Bilbo: unexpected adventures in pronoun switching

My biggest delight of the week: Michelle Nijhuis’ aeon magazine piece about gender pronoun switching while reading The Hobbit to Sylvia, her five-year old daughter.

And last year, when we started to read J R R Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937) together, she listened patiently to the first two chapters. Then she told me, matter-of-factly, that Bilbo Baggins was a girl.

Well, I said. That would be nice. But Bilbo is definitely a boy.

No, she said. Bilbo is a girl.

Michelle conceded and discovered that Girl Bilbo not only worked but worked really well. As she explained in an earlier post on The Last Word on Nothing website:

Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

I think the world, for each of us, is bounded by our ability to imagine would else could be, and for kids beginning to find their place in the world those boundaries are all the more defining and important. Exposing girls and boys both to a wide universe of role models seems especially important, and yet children’s literature may not be doing such a great job of this. As A Mighty Girl points out, “The gender disparity in children’s literature remains high — according to a 2011 study of 6,000 children’s books, only 31 percent had central female characters.” And as Michelle notes, even that 31 percent may not be offering the most useful model:

More insidiously, children’s books with girl protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroines to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow.

The response to her original The Last Word on Nothing piece about the experience, which she just reflect on in aeon magazine, included plenty of supportive comments but plenty of criticism as well. In pushing back against the critics, Michelle cites no less an authority on storytelling than Joss Whedon: ‘All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend … Art isn’t your pet – it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.’

For me the math is pretty straightforward: a terrific classic tale + the precocious and brilliant Sylvia reshaping her world + her mom as willing co-conspirator = awesomeness.

A new jump in electric flight

Although we can’t predict improvements in battery technology with Moore’s Law-style regularity, it’s very clear that technological advancements are making it easier and cheaper to store larger amounts of energy using increasingly lighter materials. This is great news for rooftop solar, utility-scale renewable energy, and electric cars. It’s also great, it turns out, for some less obvious applications, like the electric airplane.

Chip Yates’ electric plane can keep up with gas-powered competitors. Yates Electrospace Corporation photo

Chip Yates’ electric plane can keep up with gas-powered competitors. Yates Electrospace Corporation photo

 

Last week pilot and airplane tinkerer Chip Yates was officially recognized for having set five world records for electric planes. He flies a highly modified 258 horsepower Rutan Long-EZ. With a top speed of 220 mph, his Rutan Long is now the fastest electric plane on the planet.

Giant underwater balloons and other energy innovations

If you’re a fan of wind power, check out this design for high altitude inflatable wind turbinesAn MIT-born company called Altaeros is working on a Buoyant Airborne Turbine, potentially enabling low-cost electric power anywhere in the world, providing emergency power in the aftermath of natural disasters or even general purpose power in remote off-grid locations.

For energy storage, how about giant balloons filled with compressed air and stored deep underwater? Water pressure keeps the air compressed in an underwater CASE (compressed air energy storage) system, which might work extremely with in conjunction with offshore wind farms.

And MIT researchers have found a highly efficient way to convert solar energy into steam using a spongelike structure consisting of graphite flakes and carbon foam. The material converts 85% of the incoming solar energy into steam and works even at very low solar intensities. If the team can scale the technology, it may have very useful applications for desalination, hygiene systems, and sterilization, especially in low-grid or no-grid environments (which are often places that desperately need effective water and sterilization technologies).

flotsam and jetsam

Richard Renaldi does some very cool photography, but his ‘Touching Strangers’series is especially fascinating. The gambit: asking complete strangers to pose as couples might reveal something interesting. It does.

YouTube, Pakistan, censorship, and hugs. H/t to Ethan Zuckerman.

For the most part, when we think of drones we think of unmanned aircraft, but autonomous vehicles are making inroads on land and under water, as well. ‘Underwater gliders’ are particularly cool, not because of their nimbleness or speed (they have neither) nor because they can autonomously respond to environmental stimuli (they can’t) but because of an ingenious propulsion system that enables month- or multi-month long data collection journeys on battery power alone and because they can operate in a coordinated “gliderpalooza” fleet gathering extensive data about water temperature, density, carbon dioxide sequestration, and other characteristics.

Don’t mess with the ocean.

Normally you have to travel pretty far north to see the aurora borealis, but that wasn’t true last month in Golden, Colorado.

Nina Simon, the best museum blogger around, makes the case for not killing off underperforming arts nonprofits.

Drone anxiety

On August 6, 2013, the Town Board in Deer Trail, Colorado, about 55 miles east of Denver, voted on a proposal to establish drone-hunting licenses and to offer $100 bounties for shooting down unmanned aerial vehicles.

It was a provocative act generating chuckles, accolades, a Colbert Report segment, and a stern warning from the FCC that shooting at drones is illegal. The proposal was so controversial within Deer Trail that the board deadlocked at 3-3, setting up a special election in December.

The circus atmosphere of Deer Trail’s proposal belies the complexity of the policy questions, but what I find even more intriguing are the cultural issues.

Military-grade drones have increasingly captured our attention since their first documented use for a targeted assassination in 2002. And while there are some indications that the Pentagon and the CIA may be tempering their use of drones, there’s little reason to think that drones will cease to be a major component of our arsenal.

MQ-1 Predator in flight (DoD photo)

MQ-1 Predator in flight (DoD photo)

I find it interesting and little puzzling, though, that the use of drones for overseas operations has provoked such a domestic backlash. Full-sized military drones aren’t that much different in most respects from conventional combat aircraft. They fly, they release weapons, and people – sometimes including civilians – die. The difference can’t just be their ability to fly unobtrusively, since many of them tend to be both audible and visible (while there are plenty of military aircraft, not to mention spy satellites, that are capable of discretely gathering enormous amounts of high-resolution data). It can’t simply be their ability to carry and fire lethal weapons, since that’s not limited to drones, either.

Despite the similarity with conventional combat aircraft, there is clearly something different about drones and how we use them that provokes such concern from across the political spectrum. I suspect it’s in part their presumed pervasiveness. The disassociation between the killer and the killing (which I think amplifies the sense that the U.S. treats military action like a video game) is often cited (including in this terrific ‘short history of drones’ piece in The Nation).

But I also wonder if the notion – to some extent accurate already – that drones carrying lethal payloads can be designed to act autonomously is at the heart of the anxiety. The idea that an aerial robot armed with missiles could, on its own, based on computer code and on sensor input, decide when to kill, without any human intervention … I think this is truly a terrifying thought for many people.

And it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to conceive of how such a scenario could go terribly wrong, on an ad-hoc basis or even more systemically. Forgot Skynet becoming self-aware; one well-designed virus or one clever team of hackers and it’s easy to imagine all sorts of devastation (even aside from the ordinary array of drone-caused civilian casualties). Interestingly, one of the arguments in favor of “lethal autonomous robots” is precisely that they are better protected against hacking.

And while we may not need to worry about autonomous Terminator assassins anytime soon, gains in autonomous behavior, learning algorithms, and modular robotics, and truly impressive. One recent favorite are ETH Zurich’s autonomous, self-improving quadrocopters.

On the military drone side, then, I suspect that the fear of autonomous, lethal robots more than anything else may underlie our growing anxiety about drones.

What I find equally interesting is what’s happening on the civilian side of the drone universe. Interest in what was formerly the realm of niche hobbyists – small, radio-controlled model aircraft – has also been exploding. Some of this was the result of technological advances in remote controlled aircraft. Improvements in batteries (size, weight, and capacity) have meant smaller, more agile aircraft that are easier to design and fly (enabling many enthusiasts to sidestep the complexities of liquid fuel entirely, for instance, and requiring much less skill and practice to operate). Advances in unusual designs like quadcopters (as well as improvements in electronic control systems) has resulted in aircraft that are both safer and cheaper to build.

 

Drone with Go Pro camera attached (Flickr user Don McCullough photo).

Drone with Go Pro camera attached (Flickr user Don McCullough photo).

And the possibilities for small, inexpensive aircraft – formerly called RC model aircraft but increasingly folded into the ‘drone’ label – are apparently limitless. Crop dustingfarmland surveyspost-disaster surveys and photographsdelivering medicine during natural disastersdelivering pizza during football games, and on and on.

Despite their origins in the hobbyist world, and despite that they aren’t designed to carry munitions, domestic drones are getting caught up in the growing drone anxiety just as their military siblings are. We’re seeing this partly through the vernacular … “drone” is increasingly used to refer to any remotely controlled aircraft, whether large or small and whether domestic or military. We’re seeing this on the policy side, as well, with many communities adopting or considering total bans on drones, and many states considering tight restrictions on their use. And the advocacy groups – libertarian, Tea Party, anti-surveillance, the ACLU, and others – their focus isn’t on the potential future lethality of domestic drones so much as it is about their surveillance capabilities.

I don’t think the anxiety about domestic drones is just a conflation with their lethal military siblings. Instead, I suspect it’s the Moore’s Law-driven advances in consumer surveillance technology that has so many people worked up. Powerful, high-resolution cameras are now inexpensive enough to be widely accessibly and lightweight enough to fit on small drones. When combined with innovations in wireless communication technology, remote piloting over longer distances becomes much easier to accomplish. Even more sophisticated sensors, such as Safecast’s Geiger counters for monitoring radioactivity levels around nuclear facilities or waste sites, could easily be attached to inexpensive drones.

If this is right – military drone anxieties fueled by the fear of lethal autonomous robots and domestic drone anxieties fueled by fears of an expanded surveillance state (not to mention the ease with which your neighbors, your business competitors, and your political adversaries can spy on you) – then we may be headed for an enormous policy and political collision. While the proposed Deer Trail bounty (stay tuned: the election is on December 10) may not represent a particularly thoughtful and nuanced approach, it embodies a deep and widely-shared apprehension about the likelihood that drones will become a pervasive, intrusive part of everyday life. Technology always outpaces policy, but in this case the tech may have already lapped the policy a few times, and it might be worthwhile for communities and policymakers to think more seriously about what we want our increasingly drone-infused world to look like.

Self-assembling robot cubes and the electric grid

For years, the notion of modular, self-assembling cubes was an example of an idea that worked better as a conceptual model than as a functional design. Ryan Whitwam of ExtremeTech explains:

When studying modular robots, researchers often use the sliding-cube model. This is a simplified design concept where two cubes are connected face-to-face, but can also slide up and over each other without changing orientation. This model is useful for developing the algorithms that govern self-assembly, but building a working version of the model is surprisingly difficult.

Modular robots aren’t new, but real-world versions require complicated designs with a complex assortment of servos and they tend to be pretty limited in what they can do to very specific purpose-built tasks. Robotic cubes that can self-assemble in complex ways haven’t been an option.

John Romanishin, a researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, thought it must be possible, and based on a design he’s been pursuing since 2011 he finally cracked the code. His breakthrough was to combine a suite of cleverly arranged magnets with a tiny, high-powered flywheel, all inside of a small cube. The flywheel, capable of up to 20,000 rpm, spins and then halts suddenly, its angular momentum is transferred to the cube itself, the cube is propelled into its new configuration, and the magnets secure it in the right location with the right alignment.

These two videos are worth watching if you’ve got a few minutes. In the first video, Romanishin and colleagues explain the principles of the system.

The second video shows off a bit more about how it works in practice.

In both videos you get a sense of just how sophisticated the action might be at some point, with multiple cubes operating independently to create or rearrange complex structures, much like ETH Zurich’s autonomous, self-improving quadrocopters.

Early hints at the potential for sophisticated, coordinated behavior by modular robots is exciting (if simultaneously disconcerting), but the flywheel technology on which it’s based – in contrast – is remarkable for its simplicity and efficiency. Flywheels, which are found in everything from toy cars to to reciprocating engine crankshafts to potter’s wheels, are essentially energy storage devices. Apply torque, store energy, and then release as needed. In modular cubes, that energy can be applied for the sake of propulsion. By using flywheel technology on the electric grid, it just so happens, allows you to store energy produced from a power plant elsewhere on the grid and release it when you need it, just like any other energy storage system.

On a grid dominated by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power generation, storage isn’t typically a major challenge because you can operate those generation plants to meet whatever the demand might be at that time. It’s an incredibly inefficient system because you have to invest an enormous amount of capital – power plants and transmission are expensive – in building enough capacity to cover all of your peak energy demand. It’s also inefficient because the type of power plants that can ramp up quickly to meet peaks in demand as they occur are particularly expensive to operate. It’s a stable system, but expensive, inefficient, and highly carbon intensive.

The growth in clean energy sources offer a way out: they have nominal carbon emissions, they are quickly approaching so-called “price parity” where the cost is competitive with the cost of fossil-based energy.

But clean energy sources like wind and solar don’t work the same way. For one thing, they are highly variable. Turbines turn when the wind blows and not otherwise, and solar panels convert solar energy into electricity only when the sun shines. In addition – and this is especially true with wind – they may not generate electricity during peak hours, precisely when the demand is highest.

Wind, especially, often blows the hardest at night when the demand for energy is at its lowest, and often doesn’t blow much at all during those hours of the day when demand peaks. Without large-scale storage systems, you can’t use the clean energy to offset dirty fuels. As we transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy generation, in other words, the importance of getting storage right, and of driving innovation in storage technology, is quickly escalating.

Thankfully, we’re seeing huge strides in storage technology. One example: Abengoa’s Solano solar thermal plant just began commercial operations last month, the largest parabolic trough concentrating solar power plant anywhere and the first in the U.S. to use a thermal energy storage system. Solar energy captured during the day is stored in the form of molten salt, enabling the plant to increase power supply in the even peak hours even as the amount of solar radiation dwindles.

Abengoa’s Solana concentrating solar project with thermal storage. (DOE photo)

Abengoa’s Solana concentrating solar project with thermal storage. (DOE photo)

Where do flywheels fit in? Flywheels are too expensive, at least for now, to store large amounts of energy for sustained use, and too industrial, as well, to work effectively in a residential context where a homeowner might want to pair her rooftop solar system with a storage system to provide electricity at night or on cloudy days. Beacon Power’s 20 MW flywheel array, for instance, involves ten shipping containers, each of which is surrounded by ten five-foot diameter cylinders. It might be a bit much for a backyard.

But unlike many storage technologies, flywheels can dispatch energy to the grid extremely quickly, fully ramping up in a matter of seconds. The organizations charged with maintaining the reliability of the grid, such as ISO-New England, already have to manage variability in demand and supply, including predictable changes like the increase in demand that soars when summer temperatures climb.

As the percentage of variable-supply clean energy sources on the grid grows – Vermont is aiming to meet 90% of its energy needs with renewable energy sources by 2050, for instance – this becomes a more complex problem, and storage systems that can dispatch almost instantaneously to balance the load will become even more important.

Ethan Zuckerman explains the “frequency regulation” problem really well:

The electrical grid is all about stability. The US grid provides power at 60 alternating cycles per second. When demand for power balances the amount of power being consumed, the grid remains stable at 60Hz, but if there’s an increased demand, the frequency will tend to creep downward. That’s a bad thing, as many electrical systems will fail in unpredictable ways if the frequencies drop below 59Hz or so. (Same goes for high frequencies, caused by generating more power than there’s demand for) … If lots of people get up during the NFL playoffs and microwave a plate of nachos, the demand for power spikes, and the frequency drops.

(Ethan deserves a hat tip, by the way, for his thoughtful framing of the flywheel/Beacon Power story in terms of of our difficulties with infrastructure innovation). A system that can provide 20 MW for 15 minutes – Beacon Power’s flywheel, for instance – is precisely what grid operators need for frequency regulation: a moderate amount of energy that can be dispatched instantly for a long enough period of time to bring other, slower-ramping energy supplies online (or for the spike to pass).

Flywheels aren’t the only option for doing this, incidentally. Isothermal compressed air energy storage shows some promise, as do supercapacitorssuperconducting magnetic energy storage systems, and other emerging technologies. But advances in flywheel technology are very much a part of the enormous disruption facing an industry that hasn’t changed much in its fundamental architecture for a century.

And perhaps flywheels, hidden inside modular self-assembling robotic cubes, will be part of the next major disruption. Maybe cubes with embedded photovoltaic cells that can self-assemble into whatever shape might be appropriate? Self-repairing solar assemblies on satellites or other extreme environments? Or maybe their role will be more straightforward: perhaps the cost and efficiency of flywheel systems will drop enough in the coming years to make them competitive for smaller storage or load balancing needs in community microgrids or even for individual homes.