Technology that tells

New technologies are fine so long as there’s something useful to be gained from the cost and effort expended in incorporating them into your life and work. There has to be sufficient incentive and it’s not always there.

The smart meter in the house for reducing energy usage may be a case in point. It can show how much electricity a kettle or a heater consumes, but it won’t stop you having tea or wanting to keep warm.

IMG_4296 I have always been a fan of GPS (Global Positioning system) devices. Sat-navs have sold so well because they save time – and fuel – in getting from Point A to an unfamiliar Point B. Now I’m looking out for a Garmin Forerunner 310XT training device. For runners, walkers, swimmers and cyclists this is really useful for plotting and detailed analysis of your course and performance with the data uploaded wirelessly via your PC to a website for storage.

P1010273 But the GPS based idea that has got me really excited these last three weeks in the US has been Seattle’s OneBusAway app, which is downloadable free onto an iPad, Blackberry or other smartphone. Feed in the bus numbers and stops you are likely to use and you’ll get a map display and a constantly updating list of bus arrival times. (See opposite).

This simple idea has been developed by University of Washington graduate student Brian Ferris, using open source software. The app accesses King County data publicly available, is being developed for other platforms and has already been downloaded for 40,000 individual iPhones. It is used weekly by 25,000 individuals.

P1010425 As Ferris says in an interview with Government Technology (7th July 2010), “People are more satisfied with public transit, spend less time waiting, take transit more frequently, feel safer at bus stops and actually reported walking more.” A safer, healthier, less congested and greener Seattle – no wonder other cities are looking to copy the idea. No smart grid city of the future, worth its salt, will be without its own OneBusAway app!

Nor is there any doubt about the incentive! Could the car virtually disappear from downtown Seattle?

US trains to take the strain?

P1010133 Eleven years after our first annual visit to see our family in the US, we have this month for the first time “let the train take the strain”. We caught the return Amtrak train from Seattle down the west coast to Portland in Oregon, some 170 miles away. It was a pleasant 3+ hours journey in comfy seats with bags of legroom and plenty of passengers. The two-level coach, which had more the feel of a small apartment, provided superb views over Puget Sound and the forest areas of Oregon.

Cars remain the travel method of choice for most in the US, so we train riders are not typical. The average US citizen takes only 1.3 trips by train a year compared with the 30 taken in the UK. But despite this it’s starting to look like the US is taking issues about congestion, travel modes and CO2 emissions more seriously. Several states like California are developing specific high speed rail policies.

P1010148 President Obama kicked off the issue in January with a $8 billion plan under the Recovery Act, offering support to schemes giving priority to upgrading existing rail routes. The thinking is that high speed trains mostly on the East and West coast would provide an incentive for more travellers on shorter journeys to leave their cars behind in the garage.

But trans-continental rail travel is a different ball game. It’s a journey of 2400 miles from New York on the east coast to Seattle. Opening up the west took place in three stages. First came the expeditions of Lewis and Clark in 1804-06, followed by the journeying across the plains by the settlers with their horses and wagons. The steam trains arrived in the 1850s and by 1869 the first transcontinental line had been completed. The Great Northern railway finally reached Seattle in 1893.

P1010363 The railroads created over 100 years ago are still owned by private companies, which concentrate on moving 40% of the nation’s freight slowly around the continent on huge long trains. There’s an inherent conflict here with the needs of high speed passenger trains, which need dedicated lines for a faster service and defined journey times. Providing such high speed routes in Europe and Japan has been a long term investment costing millions of dollars, which are now in the post global financial crisis not available in the US or anywhere else.

This is an area to watch over the next five years and could not only help to reduce US carbon emissions but also provide thousands of jobs for Americans to replace those lost in the motor industry, as it goes into long term decline. In the meantime we’re looking to try out the train next year from Chicago to Seattle.

Lazy days and easy cooking

Send a few emails out this month and you are sure of a good crop of automated “I’m away from the office til Friday” type of responses. Half the country seems to be on holiday. So what better time to create a new dish from a simple recipe, which has your family and friends clamouring for more?

P1010119 Spurred on by our daughter Chloe’s recent gift of a glorious book on Moroccan cooking, I tried out last week a beetroot with cumin salad (opposite). It’s delicious – and done in a few minutes, once the beetroot’s been cooked. Next year we will be definitely growing them at The Larches!

We’re building up a bunch of easy recipes in The Larches’ virtual café – where you will find the beetroot dish. Try it out or one of the other recipes over the holiday, while the sun bakes the garden and the hills.

We are always trawling for good easy to prepare recipes for the virtual café. Why not email me at one of your own so we can add it to the collection? BTW you won’t get an automated response!