Climate Change – Part I – The Basics

Introduction

Climate change is a global issue that has wedded science to politics while simultaneously transcending the social responsibilities held by both institutions. A polarizing subject in many ways, climate change is considered as one of the most daunting challenges humanity currently faces; at its crux is an initiative towards global communication, and environmental responsibility.

To this day, there remains a schism between the public, and the scientific community when it comes to understanding climate change, and what it essentially means for our world. In a manner that follows the development of various other issues over the course of history, climate change highlights a certain measure of conflict in science, and ignorance.

Investing the time to learn the basics can prove the difference in being knowledgeable and informed or confused and manipulated. This is particularly crucial as climate change is a phenomenon that has wide implications to civilization, and overtly emphasizes the need for humanity to collaborate with each other in tackling the problem.

In this three-part series, we will address various facets of this issue ranging from the basics of the science behind the phenomenon as well as the consequential symptoms  or effects of climate change for the present, and the future. We will conclude by discussing the options that we must consider in our transition to achieve progress.

Let’s begin!

Dissecting Weather and Climate

Le’ts review the difference between weather, and climate. Simply, weather is local, and short-term while climate is long-term, and doesn’t relate to one single location. More precisely, the climate of an area defines the average weather conditions in the given region over a long period of time. The time period being considered generally involves changes taking place over tens of thousands of years. So, whenever we pass by a few winters that aren’t as cold as usual, it does not necessitate a change in climate. Such events are rather anomalies that don’t represent any long-term change.

Moving forward in our discussion, it is also imperative that we don’t underestimate the effects of small changes in climate. To put in perspective, the “Ice Age,” often talked about by scientists involved a world where the Earth’s average temperature was only 5 degrees Celsius cooler than modern day temperature averages. Small changes in climate can equate to major effects around the world. 

Climate Change or Global Warming

We often hear the phrases climate change, and global warming used interchangeably in describing climate transitions but there is a subtle difference. In the early 20th century, scientists used the term climate change when writing about events such as ice ages. But once scientists recognized the specific risks posed by human-produced greenhouse gases on the Earth’s climate, they needed a term to describe it.

Wallace Broecker’s paper in the journal Science, in 1975, entitled “Climate change: Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?” introduced the word global warming into the public lexicon.

Soon enough, the phrase global warming gained currency, and the term global change emerged as a way to describe all modes of large-scale impact on the planet, including issues such as the Antarctic ozone hole.

The planet as a whole is warming, but scientists prefer the term global change or global climate change. The reasoning behind this is that global warming can be interpreted as a uniform effect (warming everywhere on Earth), while a few regions may in fact cool slightly even if the planet were to warm up. In fact, it is a popular opinion that climate change sounds less frightening to the ear than global warming; the latter though catches more attention in the public eye. A few scientists, and activists also prefer to use global warming to imply human involvement in the process of describing climate transitions.

So, is the planet really warming up?

The short answer: YES! After laboriously working through a century’s worth of temperature records, various independent teams of scientists have converged on a rise of 0.8 degrees Celsius in the average surface air temperature of Earth when comparing the periods from 2003 – 2012 to 1850 – 1900. While this degree of warming may not sound like a big deal, it does make a big difference when it is in place everyday. Small changes can become amplified into bigger ones. Any warming can serve as a base from which heat waves can become worse. The effects are particularly pronounced in certain locations like the Arctic which has experienced an overall warming. Apart from the numbers, there’s a wealth of environmental evidence to bolster the case in favor of the Earth’s warming up. Without going too much into detail,

(1) Ice on land, and at sea has melted dramatically in many areas outside of interior Antarctica and Greenland.

(2) A lengthening of the growing season around much of the Northern Hemisphere.

(3) The migration of various forms of life, including mosquitoes, birds, and other creatures to higher altitudes, and latitudes due to the increasing warmth. Likewise, the migration of many forms of marine life moving poleward (the shift in ranges is 10 times the average for land-based species).

Other observations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlight the warming trend of the last 50 years being nearly the double of the last 100 years; a vast increase in ocean temperature to greater depths (the oceans absorb 80% of the heat of Earth’s climate system); increasing droughts; increased precipitation in eastern regions of the Americas, and northern regions of Europe, and Asia; drying trends in Africa, and the Mediterranean etc.

How Global Warming Works? 

Global warming is caused by an increase in the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is not bad on its own, and is in fact a natural circumstance of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is also the reason why the Earth is warm enough for life to survive.

The greenhouse effect, in essence, involves a play of energy balance on the Earth’s. When sunlight reaches our planet, 30% of its gets reflected or scattered back to space by clouds, dust, or the Earth’s surface. More than 20% of the sunlight is absorbed in the atmosphere, mainly by clouds, and water vapor. Lastly, almost 50% is absorbed by the Earth’s surface including land, forests, pavement, oceans etc.

Now, all this energy doesn’t stay permanently on the Earth. If it did, the Earth would literally be on fire. In fact, the Earth’s oceans, and land masses re-radiate the heat, some of which makes it into space. Most of it though is absorbed by clouds, and greenhouse gases which in turn radiate the heat back to the surface, and some out to space. Since the heat doesn’t make it out through the Earth’s atmosphere, the planet becomes warmer. It is basically an energy imbalance scenario where there is more energy coming through the atmosphere, than that leaving the Earth.

The two main components of air include nitrogen (78%), and oxygen (20%) gas, both of which aren’t efficient in absorbing radiation from the Earth due to their two-atom structure. On the other hand, other gases with three or more atoms can capture energy far out of their scant presence. These are the greenhouse gases, the ones that keep Earth inhabitable. That’s all well, and good, but the same gases also warm the Earth. The more greenhouse gases we add to the atmosphere, the more our planet warms. The major players involved include: Carbon dioxide, Nitrous oxide,  Methane, and to a lesser extent, Water vapor.

 Greenhouse Gases: What’s Happening? 

The greenhouse effect is driven by naturally occurring substances in the atmosphere. This is predicated by a necessity for balance referring to the radiation cycles of the Earth mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been pouring huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere thus tipping the balance toward an amplified warming of the planet.

Carbon dioxide makes up less than 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere, most of which is due to early volcanic activity in the planet. Today, we are pumping huge amounts of the gas into the atmosphere as the gas is produced when fossil fuels are burned, as well as when people, and animals breathe, and when plants decompose. Extra carbon dioxide results in more energy absorption, and an overall increase in the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, the average surface temperature of the Earth has gone from 14.5 degrees Celsius in 1860 to 15.3 degrees Celsius in 1980.

Nitrous oxide is another important green house gas, and while we don’t release great amounts of this gas through human activity, nitrous oxide absorbs much more energy than carbon dioxide. For example, the use of nitrogen fertilizer on crops releases nitrous oxide in great quantities.

Methane is a combustible gas, and the main component of natural gas. It also occurs naturally through organic material decomposition. Other man-made processes that produce methane include: extraction from coal, digestive gases in large livestock, bacteria in rice paddies, and garbage decomposition etc. Like its fellow compatriot greenhouse gases, methane also absorbs infrared energy, and keeps up the heat on Earth.

Apart from their devastating effects, it takes a long time for the planet to naturally recycle these various gases. For example, a typical molecule of carbon dioxide can stay airborne for more than a century. Thus, greenhouse gases have both a potent, and a long-standing impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. A few other gases that make up for the rest of the greenhouse players include the Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), water vapor, ozone etc. Water vapor is particularly interesting, as it isn’t a very strong greenhouse gas, but makes up for this in sheer abundance. As global temperatures rise, oceans, and lakes release more water vapor, up to 7% more for every degree Celsius of warming, which adds to the warming cycle.

What’s next? 

In conclusion, the mechanisms involved in climate change, or global warming, are largely positive feedbacks that amplify the warming of the planet: the evaporation of water from the oceans doubles the impact of carbon dioxide increase, and melting sea ice reduces the amount of sunlight reflected to space etc. While not all feedbacks are certain, it is a grounded truth that the planet has to constantly readjust to the changes we make in our environment, in the case of global warming, the consistent addition of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So far, I have laid the  basic groundwork for the symptoms we can expect to see, as a consequence of global warming, in our environment. Moving on in Part II, we will consider those changes in greater detail, and what they entail for the future of our planet.

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Cages

A few months ago, I had visited my family at Bangalore, India. Returning to my homeland was a nostalgic experience. During this period, my family, and I took a trip to a biological park.

While I enjoyed my time at the park, the excursion accompanied a fair share of contemplation on my part particularly with regards to the treatment of the world’s wildlife, and environment.

As much as I enjoyed observing the various species of animals that the park hosted, I felt a certain measure of guilt, remorse, and even anger at the state of said animals within their caged amenities.

I felt distraught that the freedom of said beasts, so majestic, was dampened within these structures, structures that were all too human; built around our ego, and will for dominance that have left us blind to the truth that we all depend on the measured balance of the ecosystem for survival.

While we pride upon our intellect to differentiate, and set us apart from the beasts, it grieved me to think, that in this modern day, and age humankind continues to  digress to a base notion of primacy in its interaction with other species on this planet, and the environment.

Ruminating on these thoughts, I passed by a message upon our departure from the park. Carved along the head of a rock, the message read, (as I recall, it was a quote by the founder of the institution)

 The survival of man is dependent on the survival of animal, and plant life.

Providing poetic irony to my reflections, the message inspired me to write the poem below, a brief meditation on the Cages that imprison human nature.


Cages

Decrepit,
Those shadows stare,
The blackened soot of their vacant eyes,
Clamoring against the leering smiles,
Forcing open the void from whence,
Comes that onerous resonance,
Tarnished ivories gaping amid the sputum,
Coagulating in the filth of their stature,
Wrinkled by the posture of their pride,
Dictating their steps,
Upon the earth they tread,
Mutely claiming what they desire,
Declaring their supremacy,
In these rusted chains,
So to rest,
Behind these bars,
Where this existence caged,
In limbo dwells,
Awaiting the spell,
That falls to the ground,
Submitting to the prejudice of vanity,
In ignorance of an action,
That remains,
Human, all too human…

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“They’re animals, all right. But why are you so goddamn sure that makes us human beings?” – The Long Walk, Stephen King

 

Electricity: Principles, and Applications!

Electricity is an ubiquitous phenomenon. It is now ingrained in the various facets, and activities of our daily lives, to the point where its existence, and influence is very much taken for granted, with nothing more than a modicum of appreciation, for the singular force that powers the technologies that serve as the foundations of modern-day society. So, what exactly is electricity?

Honestly, it’s a difficult question. In my opinion, one of the greatest delights of being a physicist, involves a deep admiration for the unknown, and an acknowledgment of my own lack of knowledge. It has motivated me to persevere, and strive hard to learn as much as I can about the world that we occupy, and its myriad mysteries.

Electricity is one such mystery.

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It certainly is…

If I were to teasingly paraphrase Master Kenobi’s words,

“Electricity is what gives technology its power. It’s an energy field…it surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

In a way, this is true (a more precise statement would substitute electromagnetism for electricity), as we find electricity everywhere: from the lightning overhead, to the crackling static sparks of warm laundry, and even the functional impulses of the human nervous system. Electricity powers our world, and our bodies.

In this article, I’ll try to illuminate, to my best effort, the nature of electricity, its origins, and its practical applications.

Off to Miletus

Science finds its origins in the experimental method, which in ancient times, largely concerned the observation, and analysis of the surrounding world. The Greeks were stalwarts of both ancient philosophy, and science, and among them lived a philosopher of high regard, named Thales of Miletus (624-546 B.C.).

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KNOW THYSELF!

Thales was one among the legendary Seven Sages of Greece, a title given by ancient Greek tradition, to seven early 600 B.C. philosophers, statesmen, and law-makers who were renowned for their wisdom throughout the centuries.

Now, while the Greeks didn’t fully understand electricity, they certainly were aware of its existence. Thales is considered to have been the first human to have studied electricity. He found that by rubbing amber, or fossilized tree resin, with fur, he was able to attract lightweight objects like dust, and straw. He also noticed that lodestone (a naturally magnetic material) attracted bits of iron (magnetism is a close friend of electricity, but much about that later.) The word electricity is coined from the Greek word elektron, which also means amber. Thales’ work involved the first experiments of electrostatics, the study of stationary electric charges or static electricity.

Centuries would pass until electricity would find a foothold in modern science, and engineering. During this transition, and particularly in the 1700s, electricity was conceptualized to be a fluid. Familiar names such as Luigi Galvani, who asserted electricity to be the source of animation or animal motion, William Gilbert, an amateur scientist, who repeated Thales’ experiments, and Ben Franklin, who proved that lightning is electric in nature, and is constituted of positive, and negative elements, are among the many personalities who helped the scientific community form a clearer picture on how electricity works.

In the end, it was a French scientist named Charles Augustin de Coulomb, who summed up the work of his peers, and through his experiments, formulated what is now popularly known as Coulomb’s Law. 

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Coulomb’s law states that like charges repel, and opposite charges attract, with a quantified electric force that is proportional to the product of the two charges, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Despite all this progress, the fundamental nature of electricity still eluded the scientific community.

Enter the Atomic Theory

Matter, as we now know, is composed of atoms. An atom is in itself composed of subatomic particles such as protons, and neutrons, concentrated in a nucleus, and surrounded by orbiting electrons. (A particle physicist may offer a slightly different description, as we have now found that protons, and neutrons are also made of constituent particles called quarks.)

Scientists discovered the existence of electrons in the early 19th century. This discovery set the stage for the rise of subatomic theory, and the beginning of the modern era of electricity, followed immediately by a rush of advances in technology.

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There are various types of materials, but in the world of electricity, there are two primary categories: electrical insulators, and electrical conductors. Electrical insulators are materials that don’t conduct electricity very well. Wood is a wonderful example of an electrical insulator. Material or matter interactions are predominated by the sharing or exchange of electrons. But insulating materials are very reluctant in sharing electrons. This is because the electrons in insulators are tightly bound to their atoms.

Conductors,as you may have guessed, allow for this interaction, as their electrons can detach from their atoms, and fly about freely. These loose or free electrons make it easy for electricity to flow through these materials, aptly confirming their namesake as electrical conductors. Most metals are conductors. The motion of electrons transmits electrical energy from one point to another.

This simple premise opens the gateway to the many applications of modern day electricity each of which was the answer to a fundamental question:

(1) How can we make electricity flow from one point to another? Generators

(2) How do we make electricity? Power plants

(3) How do we contain this electricity? Circuits

Generators 

Electricity is the flow of electrons. A generator helps stimulate this flow, using a magnet! We’ve often observed how we can move paperclips, and small bits of metals about a surface using a magnet. This is the principle behind the working mechanism of a generator. The motion of the paper clip is in response to the motion of electrons induced by the magnetic field.

Electricity, and magnetism are equal proponents of the other, as by running electricity through a metal wire, one can form a magnetic field around the wire! Such observations are definitive of a link between electricity, and magnetism, which eventually culminated in the successful formulation of Maxwell’s Laws of Electromagnetism.

But for now, let’s focus on electricity! Ultimately, the generator is a device that uses a magnet near a wire or conducting material to create a steady flow of electrons, and is the foundation of a power plant where electricity is made!

Power Plants

Power is the rate of doing work. It is defined as the ratio of energy consumed per unit time. To cause a particular change in a system, a necessary amount of energy is required, along with a specified interval of time in which the change is allowed to occur.

In physics, it is common to confuse work with power but they are distinct quantities. Work is the net change in the state of a system. A person carrying a crate up a set of stairs does the same amount of work whether he runs or walks, but more power is required for running while carrying the crate up the stairs, as the work being done is accomplished in a shorter period of time.

Power plants make use of this concept. They work to provide electricity over a period of time. But to do so, a power plant requires a generator. Michael Faraday conceived an early form of a generator where coils of copper wire are rotated between the poles of a magnet to produce an electrical current. In order to rotate the disk, a crank was utilized. This would be similar to the motions of using a pencil sharpener.

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Crank the handle!

These old fashioned pencil  sharpeners consist of a wheel, an axle, and a wedge. The handle serves as the axle that turns a wheel that is attached to the gears inside the sharpener to sharpen the pencil.

Now, imagine using a similar apparatus to crank out electricity for a neighborhood! It isn’t practical or viable! We would have to put a lot of work over a long period of time to generate even a reasonable amount of electricity! We have a generator, but the challenge is to apply the technology in an efficient manner to provide mass outputs of electricity.

In order to convert the input of mechanical (of cranking the handle) energy to a viable output of electrical energy, power plants seek the help of mother nature. There are many sources of electrical energy from hydro-electrical energy, to wind energy etc. All these technologies function using a fundamentally similar approach towards a common goal of producing electricity in mass.

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Falling water has often been used as an energy source in ancient farms to modern day dams, and hydro-electricity plants, that use the enormous kinetic energy (or moving energy) delivered by falling water to crank out electricity. Engineers begin by building a dam across a river to create a reservoir. This reservoir of water is allowed to flow through the dam wall along a narrow channel called a penstock. At the end of a penstock, there is a turbine, or a large propeller. The shaft from the turbine goes up into the generator. When water moves across the turbine, the propellers spin, causing the shaft to rotate which in turn causes the copper coils of the generator to rotate. As these copper coils spin about the magnets, electricity is produced. Power lines carry this electricity from the plant to homes, and distant areas. Et voilà!

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Senator Palpatine was the owner of a very powerful, and efficient electrical generator!

Now, while we have been successful in using a generator to “generate” electricity, there must be a means to contain this system of moving electrons. The answer to this involves the use of electrical circuits!

Electrical Circuits

An electrical circuit helps monitor the flow of electricity. A simple circuit would look like this:

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Circuits are pretty much analogous to subway maps. The more complicated the circuit, the more complicated the map. During my early years in Edmonton, I felt quite confident about my ability to get around the city, using the LRT (Light Rail Transit). This was partly due to how simplified the system was, 

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I remember proudly mentioning to Leina, my partner, that if I were to ever travel to Japan, I should not have a problem finding my way about the city, only for her to show me the Tokyo subway map, and challenging me to find a particular route:

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My answer speaks for itself. But, just as we gain familiarity with our knowledge of our daily routes to work/school through the frequent use of public transport, by understanding the central principles of circuit theory (which sometimes, depending on how deep you want to go in the field,  may involve a good undergraduate degree in electronics or so), one may eventually find their way about a circuit board like this,

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Breadboards are a great first step to getting your hands dirty with circuits!

Now, what does this all have to do with electricity? Circuits are necessary to monitor, and regulate electricity. No matter the source of electricity, be it a battery, a fuel cell, or a solar panel, the source of electricity generally has two terminals, a positive, and a negative terminal.

With reference to the simple circuit shown at the beginning of this section, electrons are pushed out of the negative terminal at a certain voltage (think of it as a force/pressure used to push the electrons, similar to how we may use a pump to push water out of a pipe). The electrons then flow from the negative terminal to the positive terminal through a conductor of choice (like copper wires). These wires form a closed path from the negative to the positive terminal, forming a circuit. A load, such as a light bulb, in the middle of the circuit may use the electricity flowing through the wire as a power source to generate light. While electrical circuits can get exceedingly complex, these basic principles of electron motion from the source generator, through a load, and back remain the same.

This concludes our discussion. Generators are the core mechanisms involved in making electricity, and are housed in power plants, which distribute the output electrical power to homes, and businesses, via power lines, and electrical circuits.

So what’s the point of all of this? 

The point is…electricity is awesome!

My Masters thesis focuses on a simple circuit involving what is called a Single Dielectric Barrier Discharge (SDBD) Plasma Actuator. While I could write a book (which I have indeed, namely, my thesis) on the device, and its mechanisms, a simple description should be good  for now.

An actuator is a device that converts an electrical input to produce a mechanical output (like the human body, neural “electrical” impulses from our brain, translate to our mechanical actions.) The SDBD plasma actuator does the same but does so using a medium known as a plasma, which is basically a soup of charged particles. Placing this device on an airplane wing, and turning it on, helps modify the airflow over the wing, reducing turbulence, and drag, while enhancing lift.

What’s this drag? For example, when you’re in a car, and you reach out the window, you can feel the force of the air against your open palm. This force is often referred to as the “drag” that your hand feels as air flows past it. It’s the same as when you walk through water, you feel its resistance, making your collective motions slower.

Airplanes are no different, feeling this frictional drag as they move through the atmosphere. The SDBD plasma actuator helps nullify this drag to a certain extent, aiding in the airplane’s motion through the air. But, in order to get the device to work in the first place, we need an electrical current! The SDBD plasma actuator is a Micro-Electro-Mechanical (MEM) System. Electricity is practically everywhere! 

My goals for this review had been to talk about this physical force that is the primary benefactor of our daily lives, and a central principle behind the future of a technologically advanced human civilization. I hope I haven’t left anyone behind in the explanations provided above. I’ve tried my best to make the discussion concise, and enjoyable for those with, and without a scientific background. I hope everyone enjoyed reading this article!

References

  • “Electricity.” Britannica Encyclopaedia. August 22, 2016 https://www.britannica.com/science/electricity
  • Young, Hugh D., Freedman, Roger A., Ford, Lewis. University Physics. 2008.
  • Gundersen, P. Erik. The Handy Physics Answer Book. Visible Ink Press. 2003.

 

Blackouts, Thunderstorms, and a long weekend!

It has been a unique summer in Edmonton.

The myriad thunderstorms, hail, and the unexpected blackout made for an adventurous, and delightful long weekend. A most notable account would involve the consistent hail that battered against my balcony windows, followed by severe lightning flashes that struck close to my apartment, persuading me to disconnect my electrical devices (lest they got fried), along with the ensuing thunder that caused my eardrums to ring periodically.

The whole scenario had its share of perks, namely some delicious dining at home, lots of board games, romantic walks in the rainfall, and pure, unadulterated procrastination. The highlight of the weekend was the blackout the day before yesterday. I could attribute the event to be equivalent to what this guy had to experience,

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I’m stuck in an ATM vestibule with Jill Goodacre!

A lightning strike near our neighborhood resulted in a loss of electricity across the entire block, lasting for three hours.  I enjoyed the  throwback to a world without electricity. Having just returned from Chapters, following the purchase of an updated summer reading list,

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I’ve opted to begin with “Brave New World.” A book review should be due in the near future! The best part of the purchase was the 3 for $10 sale!

Leina, and I passed the hours, reading, and discussing the significant contributions of electricity to modern day life. It was relieving to not be bogged down with the usual streams of technology governing our daily entertainment.

The experience also provided ample food for thought, particularly on humanity’s dependence on technology, as well as the plight of third-world nations that may struggle for such basic (as would seem to those who live in first-world countries) resources.

All of which leads me to the subject of my next critical blog post: Electricity: Principles, and Applications. The post will be a brief review of the theory behind electricity, as well as its principal applications in our daily lives. The review will follow upon the format of various other popular science articles, and I hope to make it concise, and understandable for all my readers.

Meanwhile, I will spend the week continuing to edit my thesis. A preliminary date for  my defense has been chosen, though it is yet to be confirmed. Apart from this, I’m also  busy finishing up my second novel!

The long weekend was apt for inspiration, and I have several writing, art, and music projects aligned for the future! I hope to fill the absence until I post Electricity with brief updates on my daily thoughts, adventures, and blog modifications!

I hope everyone had a great weekend!