Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Lena

On the flight to Amsterdam, I sat next to Lena. A little girl not even three years old, I think. With her curly white locks of hair she reminded me of a close childhood friend, though without the round wire rim glasses. Lena was watching 'Jungle Book' on an ipad. A classic, one of the first movies I ever saw. The sound was off, but that didn't matter to her. At times she would poke me excitedly and shout "elephant!" as five elephants gaily marched across the screen in single file. Lena's mother, meanwhile, took care of another, even younger child. Upon touchdown in Amsterdam, Lena stood up in her chair. Together we looked outside, in silence. First we watched a blue jumbo jet being towed. Then the deep orange sun setting. As we were watching, I felt the weight on my arm gradually increase until the kid also put her head to rest on my shoulder. Friends.

A conversation at the station

I had just finished my pint of milk when a man approached me on my bench in Geneva airport train station.
- 'Can I ask you a question?,' he asked.
- 'Sure', I replied.
He held forward a leaflet and pointed at the three lines at the bottom.
- 'Do you think the future will be better, equal or worse than today?'
- 'Better,' I chose, which instantly made me feel better, too.
- 'You're a positive man.'
- 'Maybe so. And what about you, what do you think?'
The man took a seat next to me. This was going to take a while.
- 'I, too, believe that the future will be better. Because', he said, now pointing at the lines at the top of the page, 'God has promised to end all suffering. Do you think God can make the world better?'
- 'Well, I think there are many people who are inspired by their faith in God to do great things for the world,' I said, to stay on the positive side of the coin.
- 'So you believe in God?'
- 'No.'
- 'But if you look at the world, the ingenuity of life, don't you think there must have been a Creator who designed it all?'
- 'To the contrary, sir.'
I remembered having had this same conversation in college one day, and continued:
- 'For me the ingenuity of nature is a reason not to belief in the creation story.'
- 'Then how has it all come about?'
- 'By chance, to a large extent. Would we do it all over again, it would turn out quite different, I think.'
- 'You think that we humans are here by chance. So life is useless then?'
- 'Good question. But useless to whom? To me, my family and some others, my life can be quite useful, I think. The planet, nature, the universe, I doubt they care much.'
- 'Well, I believe the Bible tells the truth. I see that you're a scientific man,' he said, pointing at the book on my lap. 'You've heard about the big bang, I presume?'
I knodded. This could be an interesting question: what if we could do the big bang over again, could the laws of nature turn out different? If not, why not? What if there does exist a theory of everything, that can be captured in "one simple, elegant equation" that is the source code of the universe. Then, fundamentally, the world may be a lot simpler than it looks and it becomes imaginable that some other being wrote that line of code to create this self-learning artificially intelligent app called universe that brought forth the stars, the planets and life as we know it. Would parallel universes, other apps, be the logical next step? I'm afraid I get sidetracked.
- 'Of course,' the man continued, 'God did not create the world in six days, that is impossible. One shouldn't take the creation story so literally. Those six days were in fact six very long periods of time.  He pulled out a purple leaflet. 'Can I offer you this article? It's written by renowned scientists who explain why the Bible tells the truth. You know, science is proving the Bible right, through archeological studies and all.'
That's a bold strategy: throwing in scientists to convince a science oriented person of those things  in the Bible that science did not find evidence for.
- 'The Bible,' he said, 'answers the three key questions: who am I, where do I come from, and where do I go.'
The first I thought was the most interesting to throw back.
- 'Well, If I may ask, who are you?' I asked.
- 'Me? I believe that God created man in his own image. I am a human being, a son of my father, a grandson of my grandfather, and so on, all the way back to the first man and woman who God created.'
- 'Yes, that's where you come from, but who are you?' I tried again.
- 'I'm a man, the son of....' and so on, he repeated.
This wouldn't go anywhere, but the idea that man was created in God's own image I found a comforting thought. It could mean that nothing human is strange to God; that he, too, is a mixed bag of paradoxes.
- 'My faith in God gives my life a purpose,' the man said.
- 'That's great,' I replied, 'because those who do not have a religion have to find their own purpose, which is not always easy.'
- 'Why do you need a purpose if you don't believe?'
- 'Don't you need a reason to come out of bed every morning? To go to work, study, find meaning in the things you do?'
- 'You go to school and to work because you need to live, of course.'
That static, constrained view on every day life surprised me. I don't believe that that is why he came to this train station on a Thursday night to talk about God and the Bible to strangers like me.
- 'You know,' said the man, 'the world as it is, with all its misery, is not what God had had in mind. No, what God had envisaged was a lush garden where humans would live eternally. And look what we've made of it! Something went terribly wrong in the beginning. And now we're exploiting our natural resources and so on.'
I told him that that is what I was working on: sustainable use of natural resources. That in my view this habit of exploitation is not inevitable. There are ways to use natural resources sustainably. He said he was aware of some initiative here and there, but could not imagine these ever getting the scale needed to improve the fate of life on earth.
- 'Isn't that why Jesus drove the traders from the temple?' I asked, entering into his world of biblical stories. He was surprised:
- 'Ah, you do know something about the Bible!'
Then he started to explain in details of that story: that Jesus had driven the traders from the temple because they exploited the poor worshippers who came from too afar by selling them animals for sacrificial offering for high prices because their road was too long to bring their own.
I though it was an excellent parable to teach that the market place should never be the ultimate end and requires bounds to deliver both private and social value. The man had just explained that I shouldn't take the Bible too literally on the creation story, but now I was taking heed of that suggestion he refused my extended hand. I tried to build another bridge.
- 'You know, your vision of a lush garden and eternal life is not so different from mine. The very goal of sustainable development, which is where I find purpose, is a healthy planet that is tended by humanity in a way that it can sustain a life in dignity and good health for all members of current and future generations. The lush garden is the emerald planet; eternal life is that of the species rather than the individual (until the next big asteroid comes around or the sun runs out of fuel etc.). The Bible is a wise book, if you don't take it too literally. As for me, I choose to believe that humans, who, as you say, are God's own image, are capable of bringing closer that vision. I like a Antoine De Saint-Exupéry quote that's in the book in my lap, which says: "As for the future, your task is not to foresee but to enable it." That's why to your first question I replied the future will be better.'
It was time to catch my bus to Grenoble. I told the man that I'd enjoyed talking to him and that, in the end, we have more in common than I thought. Nonetheless, the divide is too fundamental to bridge in one conversation. In his philosophy the vision can only become reality in the afterlife, not on earth, and thus depends on the suffering on earth to continue. And so there is little point in trying to solve the wrongs in the world through human law and governance; the best we can do is to find comfort by submitting to God. In my view, there is no afterlife and the only place the vision could become reality is on earth. Therefore, I have no choice but to be optimistic.
The copy of The Watchtower, which the man hesitantly offered as we parted, I suggested he keep.

Monday, February 09, 2015

À l’Estacade

Chataignes, noix et potiron
Les haricots selon saison
Pommes de terre, fenouil et blettes
Une aubergine et trois courgettes
Des saucisses et saucissons
S’il y en a des champignons
Quelques tranches de jambon cru
Et de l’ail car il n’y en a plus
On mange toujours de produits frais

Au bouchon des Hollandais

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Smart Grids

Today, at the Copernicus Institute symposium on "Making science work for sustainability," I quickly learned about smart grids in the smart grids parallel track. "What are smart grids?" was the question moderator Frits Verheij (DNV-GL) kicked off the day with. "A buzz word? An industrial technology push? Or the solution to saving the planet?" Eva Niesten (Utrecht University) did not have the answer. Her review of the literature concluded that there's "consensus that there's no consensus" on the definition of a smart grid. Technology patents with a smart grid label are currently exploding, Floortje Alkemade (Utrecht University) found. And business models are still predominantly theoretical. In simulations by Wilfried van Sark (Utrecht University), smart grids can provide great flexibility services. And Elwin ter Horst (Smart Grid Value4All) showed how smart grid pilot projects yield promising results in the real world but run into technological, economic and institutional barriers.
From these presentations, a picture of the smart grid as an emerging concept emerged. Exciting times! A lot of experimenting is going on, which is bound to bring forth the elements and architecture that will define the smart grids concept. In the mean time, however, Ronnie Belmans, executive director of the Global Smart Grid Federation, which was established to "bring together Smart Grid initiatives from around the world," had jumped ahead and pleaded for "standardization" and "interoperability." Would that not be a bit too fast, Mr. Belmans? Would it not kill the explorative phase smart grid development is still in, which this day so clearly showed, rushing into a lock-in in inferior technology?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Springtij: energie & klimaat

Van donderdag 25 september t/m zondag 28 september jl. vond alweer de 5e editie van het Springtij Forum plaats op Terschelling. Vier dagen gesprekken over de New Green Frontiers, in wetenschap, techniek, beleid, bedrijfsleven en inspiratie, van voedsel tot financiën, van energie tot biodiversiteit. Alle zintuigen en dagdelen deden mee.

Ik volgde de sessies bij het thema energie & klimaat. Daar ging het er scherp aan toe; men aarzelde niet direct de centrale dilemma's op tafel te gooien. Frans Rooijers, Piet Briët en ik hebben de discussies in een column proberen te vatten, bij het slotdiner voorgedragen door Frans.

Column Energie en Klimaat:

We mogen niet doemdenken, maar leuker kon Leo, onze IPCC-man, het niet maken: we zijn op weg naar +4ºC. Codetaal voor voedsel- en watertekorten, migratie en conflicten, en een zee die meer neemt dan ons lief is. En die gevolgen staan al op de balansen van de fossiele energieproducenten als bewezen voorraden olie, gas en kolen. Driekwart van die fossiele voorraad mag niet als CO2 in de atmosfeer eindigen als we de opwarming onder de 2ºC willen houden. En dat willen we, zegt ook de hele energiesector op Springtij. Energietransitie moet, natuurlijk. Waarom gaat het dan zo langzaam?....Lees verder op de website van Betty de Keizer.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Rigor, relevance, value

In a lecture on peer reviewing, I was taught that, as a reviewer, I should comment on the scientific rigor, relevance, and value of the manuscript (I'm talking about studies in management science, not natural science). Very well, I thought, the 'relevance' of course refers to whether the study addresses an interesting topic from a practical point of view. But, no no, the 'relevance' was meant to be purely scientific: does it address a gap in the literature? Then it must be 'value' that refers to the study's interest to the real world, right? Wrong again. Value means the kind of contribution made to the literature. Wow, so none of the reviewing criteria is concerned with actual real-world relevance! Isn't that a guarantee for academia disconnecting itself from the real world? Or would such a criterion be a harmful constraint on scientific inquiry, and is the disconnect prevented through other mechanisms that may be temporally separated (through research budget allocations for instance)?

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

La Marmotte, encore

A marmot whistles from the grassy alpine slope to my left, but I'm focused on my cadence and the stone building in the distance that marks the top of the Col du Glandon. Barely 8:30 in the morning and already 90 minutes into La Marmotte GranFondo, together with 2000 others. It's the yearly cycling race for amateurs that passes three legendary mountain passes before finishing with the (in)famous climb to Alpe d'Huez. This morning, remnants of last night's cloud deck mixed with early rays of sunlight make for a stunning scenery to climb through. In about 10 minutes I will reach the top of this first of four climbs and hope to find Merijn there healthy and happy. At 6 in the morning, I had dropped her off at the parking lot at the foot of the mountain with her bike and four bottles of sports drink. She would climb up before the riders, carrying the weight of the bottles on her back, in order to resupply my friend Mark and me when we crest the col during our race, which started at 7 AM.
Suddenly, I recognize the rider next to me. It's Henk, the Dutch guy I rode to the finish of the Vercors Challenge with, about 5 weeks ago. Would he have made the 1000 km trip to the French Alps again, just to participate in this race? How many times a year would he do that? What would he do for a living? He could be a lawyer, or a system administrator, or the owner of car dealership maybe. Instead of asking, I focus on dropping him. Why? Why is going fast always trumping the opening of the senses to all that's there to be seen, heard and smelled? The scenery is stunning, the weather nice, the people diverse. Could it make more sense to maximize one's time on the course rather than minimize it? Maybe, if people wouldn't immediately ask your time and rank when you tell them you did La Marmotte. Maybe it’s that bike racing brings a new social order. On the bike, social differences are neutralized and replaced at the finish line by the classification. From that perspective, it would be cowardice not to race, an arrogant rejection of the new order. And what about the joy of racing, the great feeling of satisfaction that is waiting for you at the finish line and which is strongly correlated to the amount of suffering endured to get there? The mountains won't go anywhere, I can devote them my proper attention some day when the clock isn't running. So, let's drop Henk if we can.
Unfortunately, my legs feel mediocre. I have more difficulty pushing the gears than I remember from last year and something in my back seems to block my left leg a bit. Merijn's waving and smiling. Two fresh bottles, a jacket and a kiss and down it goes, into the treacherous descent into the Maurienne valley. In the valley, I'm thinking I ended up in a good group to cover the 25 km traverse to the next col with. But the cooperation in the group is getting progressively worse. One frustrated rider starts screaming at another, but he is complaining to the wrong one, a strong one, instead of the short old Frenchman who, knowingly or not, is constantly sabotaging the echelon and deserves a . As a result, I'm spending much more energy on this flat part than I planned to. As soon as we hit the bottom of the Col du Télégraphe, the group is back to a mere swarm of individuals. The next 75 km over the Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Galibier back to the foot of Alpe d'Huez pass rather quickly. The weather is excellent: neither warm nor cold, some sun, some clouds, but no rain. When I hit the bottom of the climb to Alpe d'Huez I'm glad to discern Petra, Mark's wife, standing beside the road with her pregnant belly of 8 months, holding out a fresh bidon. We exchange bottles as if every second counted, and I drop all excess weight (jacket, arm warmers) at her feet. The speed I have to settle for I find a bit disappointing at first. But as I seem to be leaving behind most of the riders of the group I'd been in in the descent from the Galibier, I cannot be doing so bad. In corner #7, the (in)famous "Dutch corner,"  a bit past halfway up, there's Merijn again! She's holding out a bottle of refreshing water this time, which I partly pour over my head. I control my pace and manage to keep it steady until the top. I've tried a bigger gear, but the effect on my speed was zero. Coordination is giving in on the last steep straight, so this must be all I have today, the legs are done. Behind the finish line I suddenly find me and my salty face standing still in the midst of the colorful fair that is the finishing area in the heart of the ski resort. The abrupt change from a pressurized racing environment to a slow-paced holiday atmosphere confuses me.
According to the official time, I needed four minutes more than last year to finish the race and ended up 159th in the classification. Surprisingly close! All day I'd been disappointed about the speed on the display of my odometer; I was convinced that last year I was significantly faster. Last year, though, I didn't have an odometer, and with only four minutes difference it's impossible that I was really noticeably faster last year. So this innovation had been feeding me negative energy all day, for nothing! I can't believe I spent a good seven hours in the saddle, though. Normally, that would be a very long day, but today they passed very quickly. The loop the parcours makes is awe-inspiring on a regular day, but in an event like this, the magnificent mountain tops and endless roads seem to shrink to a mere backdrop for a cyclists' playground. Come back again tomorrow and the rocky heights will demand your renewed respect.
After finishing I feel a bit dizzy, but the feeling quickly fades. In the finish area I'm looking for Mark, but he's nowhere to be found. Last year, he was waiting right there behind the finish line. What happened? He was racing ahead of me from the bottom of the first uphill, and I did not see him again after that. Then, after about ten minutes, he suddenly shows up next to me, looking exhausted. Sweat drips from his glasses, leaving a trace of salt. He obviously just finished and told me he had a puncture near the Col du Galibier. As he was descending, in the first corner his bike almost slid from underneath him. He stopped, was freezing, but was lucky to find a kind spectator who happened to have a spare tube and CO2 cartridges. The guy replaced the tube and reinflated the tire while Mark was shivering. It had cost him at least 15 to 20 minutes. The malheur had cracked his morale and confidence, but he got back into his rhythm on Alpe d'Huez.
Mixed feelings after the race. I would love to race again next year, faster. But the time and energy that went into preparation was costly, in many ways. What would it take to get fit enough to feel strong, ride with grace, enjoy the effort, the scenery, and sometimes the game? Even more training, possibly. Should I just let go of the racing and maximally appreciate the opportunities the event has to offer. For that, though, I don't need a chip for timing and had better do a randonnée, together with the other old men.