Friday, December 28, 2007


In August 2004, I penned a column humorously suggesting that biodiesel should be made with various kinds of aromas, since the sense of smell is a powerful one that can affect mood and attitude.

Now there is news that makes me hope they won’t take my automotive aromatherapy idea too far. In Canada, scientists have proposed turning used diapers into synthetic fuel.

On the face of it, so to speak, the diaper proposal makes sense,

and appears to work much as do other suggestions for sources of biodiesel. You take the organic material – no pun intended here; I mean stuff made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – heat it up without any air until it starts to break down into those elements, and then refine it. They crack crude petroleum like that, so why not crude Pampers?

And there is no lack of raw material. I’ve seen estimates that Americans alone go through around 18 billion disposable diapers a year. And as we boomers get older, that number is likely to climb. Heck, just collecting the used diapers from all the Wal-Mart parking lots would probably yield a million barrels of fuel a year.

Folks, we’re talking a “Dependsable” source of energy, and a second use of petroleum and wood products. (I wonder if the Vaseline on those diapers would create an octane boost?) While one can think of other castoffs that could also be turned into motor vehicle fuel, apparently there can be problems with, uh, contaminants, if you can believe that.

“If we try to take municipal waste and run it through a system like this, it would be too variable and you’d get all sorts of nasty surprises you’d have to deal with,” one of the researchers said. So liquefying plastic bags and other such materials is probably not going to happen right away.

But with hospitals all around Montreal, there is a continuous supply of dirty nappies. The idea might catch on among young parents concerned about greenness (environmentally, that is). A collection system has been proposed (somehow the image of the peasant collecting bodies in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” comes to mind: “Bring out yer dirties!” “Eh, I’m not full yet!”). As one of the researchers was quoted as saying: “One of the beauties of the diaper is that it is going to be a very consistent input.”

No kidding.

Meanwhile, a bloke in New Zealand is preparing to try to take an experimental craft around the world using alternative fuels, including some biofuel made from his own body fat, collected by liposuction.

Pete Bethune and two pals collectively rendered up enough lovehandles and beer belly to make about 7 liters of biofuel. In many nations whose citizens are developing ever larger waistlines, this rather drastic commitment to the environment might be underwritten as a public health measure. And if the trend toward superhuge portions continues, it could certainly be a renewable resource, as well.

For that matter, instead of converting us all to Soylent Green, maybe we should all be converted into biofuel.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

’Twas the night before ...

I was talking to veteran owner-operator Howard Hart not long ago about a topic on which I was, frankly, idealistic. Until Christmas Eve. The topic was helping strangers and the quandary that presents: When do you let yourself be guided by the “goodness of your heart” and when do you listen to the voice that says “the dude could have a gun and shoot you dead.”

Howard said he used to always help strangers – on the side of the road, in a rest area, in the truck stop parking lot – but it’s too much of a risk these days. I said, “Isn’t it hard to turn the other cheek on somebody down on their luck?” He said something like “Wise up. You simply cannot know if that person has another motive. Heckuva world.”

I think I said something like I had never been one to be “standoffish” if someone needed help. Howard, who has some law enforcement background, laughed and said, “These days, you gotta use your powers of observation.” He reminded me that every once in a while, an incident forces you to sharpen those powers.

The night before Christmas, I got one of those sharpening lessons.

With me in my jammies and husband in jeans, no shirt, we had just settled down to watch the news at 10.

The doorbell rang, followed by an insistent kind of knock. My husband reacted with the “who in the hell could that be” growl and we both proceeded to the front room to peer out the window. My old neighborhood is not the ritziest in town and if I were a drug addict, I probably would not have to leave the block to score whatever I wanted. So caution in my ’hood is always warranted, no matter what time of day.

We could see from the front window that under our porch light, a tall head-shaved teenager in a big parka, obviously half-frozen, was hopping from one foot to the other, blowing on his cupped hands.

I stood close to the door and called out “who’s there?” He yelled, “Neighbor.”

I had never seen the kid before.

I opened the door and he said “Can I ask you a weird favor, man? My car broke down (he pointed down my street) and I need to, um, call for, um, help. Man, umm.” That was followed by some “I am freezing to death” talk and more umms. It was about 18 degrees and yeah, he probably was miserable, but he acted way too edgy and I didn’t ask him in.

I handed the phone out the door to him and he appeared to call someone, begging for this other guy to come and get him. From the one-sided conversation I could hear, I guess the guy said no. Odd, but the kid never told the guy on phone where he was. No location, no details, nothing. Then he told the person on the phone he would walk to some undisclosed place and he could pick him up there. Again, no details.

Based on that weird info, I suspected it might be a ruse.

My husband stepped to the door and talked to him briefly, got the phone back. As the door opened, the kid, with piercings and scruffy half mustache, looked at us from under the hood. Part of me was thinking: This is where he pulls the gun and shoots us dead. My dyed-in-the-wool good Samaritan half was thinking of Mary and Joseph trying desperately trying to find shelter for an impending birth of their child. Sappy, maybe. But it was Christmas Eve and maybe God was putting me to the test.

Then the kid mumbled something, turned and left. I quickly locked the door.

Temps were dropping, lights in the homes along the street were going out, and it was a very long walk to the nearest convenience store.

We watched him from the window as he walked up the street. Then he did an odd thing: he turned around and walked back to our corner. He approached the house across the street and lurked around the bushes by their porch. We watched him curiously. He did not go to their door, but after about 20 minutes or so he stepped back into the light, wandered back up the street, shoulders hunkered, hood over his shaved head.

He was either up to something or was a really dumb, stoned kid in a tight spot. Either way, I made a decision to get involved indirectly. I called our local emergency number and recounted the incident. Soon, a cop car was slowly cruising the street. If the kid was casing the neighborhood, it sent a message. If he needed help, here was someone willing to assist.

Howard Hart was right. It’s a heckuva world.