Musical introduction

111 Sussex

For many years now, I have wanted to know more about the history and details of music. Other than listening, my musical experience is all more than a decade old, and consists of (badly) playing the recorder and autoharp in elementary school. From time to time, various friends with musical knowledge have given me some informal background information, but I would appreciate something more comprehensive.

Can anyone suggest a book that does a good job of laying out what things like chords, octaves, syncopation, fugue, etc, etc actually mean? I tend to appreciate books that combine technical with historical elements best. Something that covers the evolution of music may be ideal.

Vermont’s regulatory victory

Well known as a progressive place, Vermont seems to have recently struck a notable blow in the fight to develop regulatory structures to address climate change. A heated court case had developed between car manufacturers and the state government about whether the latter could impose tough emission limits on cars and light trucks. William Sessions, a federal judge, found in favour of the state’s right to do so. You can read the entire judgment here: PDF, Google Cache.

Among the arguments brought forward by the auto makers (and rejected by Sessions) were that the regulations were unconstitutional, impossible to meet with existing technology, economically disastrous, ineffective, and anti-consumer. The case also involved a reasonably complex jurisdictional issue regarding California’s special exemptions to set environmental policy more broadly than other states.

There do seem to be a suspicious number of cases where industries have followed this trajectory in relation to new regulations: saying that they are unnecessary, saying they would be financially ruinous, then quietly adapting to them with little fuss once they come into force. The phase-out of CFCs in response to the Montreal Protocol is an excellent example. This trend is explicitly recognized in the ruling:

Policy-makers have used the regulatory process to prompt automakers to develop and employ new, state-of-the-art technologies, more often than not over the industry’s objections. The introduction of catalytic converters in the 1970s is just one example. In each case the industry responded with technological advancements designed to meet the challenges…

On this issue, the automotive industry bears the burden of proving the regulations are beyond their ability to meet…

In light of the public statements of industry representatives, history of compliance with previous technological challenges, and the state of the record, the Court remains unconvinced automakers cannot meet the challenges of Vermont and California’s GHG regulations.

The fact that Chinese cars have to meet better emission standards than American ones strongly suggests that the objections of industry are bogus. Given the price inelasticity of demand for gasoline (people keep buying about the same amount when the price goes up), regulating fuel efficiency and emissions does seem like an efficient way to reduce GHG emissions in the transport sector.

Cycling in southern Ottawa

Ottawa bike path

This was an ideal day to explore the Ottawa environs par velo. It was bright and pleasantly cool, and the fall leaves are changing colour. Mostly, I explored the paths south of Centretown on the side of various watercourses: the Rideau Canal, Rideau River, etc. I found Carleton University by accident, and discovered a very nice 10km loop that begins and ends at my house: you head north through the Lebreton Flats to the Ottawa River, then take the riverside paths to the Rideau Canal locks beside Parliament. Ride up that hill (it is good that it is near the beginning of the route), then follow the path alongside the canal until you reach the point where it widens to a well-sized lake. At one end of that lake is a kind of grey floating pavilion, which is actually at the southern foot of Preston Street. Returning to the road system there, you can cycle through Little Italy and back to my flat in a few minutes.

All told, I went a bit more than 46km. The bulk of it was excellent, though my hill-climbing muscles definitely need some re-conditioning after more than two months of bikelessness. Another well-learned fact is that it is foolhardy to cycle along most of the major roads in Centretown. It’s just one red light after another, with irate drivers all around you furious that you seem to be delaying their arrival at the next stopping point by up to three seconds.

I think a bit more random wandering in in order, before I get a cycle map. As with the lake pavilion / Preston situation, it is quite satisfying to have two pieces of your mental map of a city click together on the basis of exploration, rather than the consulting of a pre-prepared guide.

Bike helmet debate

I had no idea there was such an active debate about the utility of bicycle helmets. My assumption had always been that they provided unambiguous protection from direct contact between hard materials and the skull and had a limited secondary value in diminishing momentum at the time of collision by crushing.

Some of the arguments against helmets linked above do seem to have some merit. If it can be demonstrated that they significantly reduce bicycle usage, the general health benefits lost may well be more significant than the avoided injuries associated with unhelmeted crashes. It would also be interesting to see a properly controlled experiment on whether helmet wearing decreases the caution employed by both riders and cyclists.

Walking to and from work every day, I spend twenty minutes beside a noisy six-lane road. That road has certainly increased my aesthetic opposition to private automobiles. Along with the carbon emissions, cost of roads, need to stay cozy with oil producing governments, and other standard externalities associated with the automobile, all the space they take up and noise they produce should be considered as well. There is no uglier element in most cities than the various bits of infrastructure that cater to cars (some bridges excepted).

Wheels and muscles

Ottawa Critical Mass

The new bike and I did Critical Mass tonight. This is the third city where I have participated, along with Oxford and Vancouver. This one had the narrowest demographic; every person there looked like they were a stereotypical leftist undergraduate. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it would be good for the event to represent a wider cross section of the bike-using community.

In any case, I am planning to put some kilometres on these wheels tomorrow – perhaps heading along the river until I get bored and/or completely lost, then finding my way back by GPS. Suffice it to say, I am thoroughly excited about this new mode of transport.

A banking analogy for climate

[Update: 22 January 2009] Some of the information in the post below is inaccurate. Namely, it implies that some level of continuous emissions is compatible with climate stabilization. In fact, stabilizing climate required humanity to have zero net emissions in the long term. For more about this, see this post.

Every day, new announcements are made about possible emission pathways (X% reduction below year A levels by year B, and so forth). A reasonable number of people, however, seem to be confused about the relationship between emissions, greenhouse gas concentrations, and climatic change. While describing the whole system would require a huge amount of writing, there is a metaphor that seems to help clarify things a bit.

Earth’s carbon bank account

Imagine the atmosphere is a bank account, denominated in megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent. I realize things are already a bit tricky, but bear with me. A megatonne is just a million tonnes, or a billion kilograms. Carbon dioxide equivalent is a way of recognizing that gasses produce different degrees of warming (by affecting how much energy from the sun is radiated by the Earth back into space). You can think of this as being like different currencies. Methane produces more warming, so it is like British Pounds compared to American dollars. CO2 equivalent is basically akin to expressing the values in the ‘currencies’ of different gasses in the form of the most important one, CO2.

Clearly, this is a bank account where more is not always better. With no greenhouse gasses (GHGs), the Earth would be far too cold to support life. Too many and all the ice melts, the forests burn, and things change profoundly. The present configuration of life on Earth depends upon the absence of radical changes in things like temperature, precipitation, air and water currents, and other climatic factors.

Assuming we want to keep the balance of the account more or less where it has been for the history of human civilization, we need to bring deposits into the account in line with withdrawals. Withdrawals occur when natural systems remove GHGs from the atmosphere. For instance, growing forests convert CO2 to wood, while single celled sea creatures turn it into pellets that sink to the bottom of the ocean. One estimate for the total amount of carbon absorbed each year by natural systems is 5,000 Mt. This is the figure cited in the Stern Review. For comparison’s sake, Canadian emissions are about 750 Mt.

Biology and physics therefore ‘set the budget’ for us. If we want a stable bank balance, all of humanity can collectively deposit 5,000 Mt a year. This implies very deep cuts. How those are split up is an important ethical, political, and economic concern. Right now, Canada represents about 2% of global emissions. If we imagine a world that has reached stabilization, one possible allotment for Canada is 2%. That is much higher than a per-capita division would produce, but it would still require us to cut our present emissions by 83%. If we only got our per-capita share (based on present Canadian and world populations), our allotment would be 24.5 Mt, about 3.2% of what we currently emit. Based on estimated Canadian and world populations in 2100, our share would be 15 Mt, or about 2% of present emissions.

Note: cutting emissions to these levels only achieves stabilization. The balance in the bank no longer changes year to year. What that balance is depends upon what happened in the years between the initial divergence between deposits and withdrawals and the time when that balance is restored. If we spend 100 years making big deposits, we are going to have a very hefty balance by the time that balance has stabilized.

Maintaining a balance similar to the one that has existed throughout the rise of human civilization seems prudent. Shifting to a balance far in excess carries with it considerable risks of massive global change, on the scale of ice ages and ice-free periods of baking heat.

On variable withdrawals

Remember the 5,000 Mt figure? That is based on the level of biological GHG withdrawal activity going on now. It is quite possible that climate change will alter the figure. For example, more CO2 in the air could make plants grow faster, increasing the amount withdrawn from the atmosphere each year. In the alternative, it is possible that a hotter world would make forests dry out, grow more slowly, and burn more. However the global rate of withdrawal changed, our rate of deposit would have to change, as well, to maintain a stable atmospheric balance.

Here’s the nightmare possibility: instead of absorbing carbon, a world full of burning forests and melting permafrost starts to release it. Now, even cutting our emissions to zero will not stop the global atmospheric balance from rising. It would be akin to being in a speeding car with no control of the steering, acceleration, or brakes. We would just carry on forward until whatever terrain in front of us stopped the motion. This could lead to a planetary equilibrium dramatically unlike anything human beings have ever inhabited. There is a reasonable chance that such runaway climate change would make civilization based on mass agriculture impossible.

An important caveat

In the above discussion, greenhouse gasses were the focus. They are actually only indirectly involved in changes in global temperature. What is really critical is the planetary energy balance. This is, quite simply, the difference between the amount of energy that the Earth absorbs (almost exclusively from the sun) and the amount the Earth emits back into space.

Greenhouse gasses alter this balance because they stop some of the radiation that hits the Earth from reflecting back into space. The more of them around, the less energy the Earth radiates, and the hotter it becomes.

They are not, however, the only factor. Other important aspects include surface albedo, which is basically a measure of how shiny the planet is. Big bright ice-fields reflect lots of energy back into space; water and dark stone reflect much less. When ice melts, as it does in response to rising global temperatures, this induces further warming. This is one example of a climatic feedback, as are the vegetation dynamics mentioned previously.

In the long run, factors other than greenhouse gasses that affect the energy balance certainly need to be considered. In the near term, as well demonstrated in the various reports of the IPCC, it is changes in atmospheric concentration that are the primary factor driving changes in the energy balance. Things that alter the Earth’s energy balance are said to have a radiative forcing effect. (See page 4 of the Summary or Policy Makers of the 4th Working Group I report of the IPCC.)

What does it mean?

To get a stable atmospheric balance, we need to cut emissions (deposits) until they match withdrawals (what the planet absorbs). To keep our balance from getting much higher than it has ever been before, we need to do this relatively quickly, and on the basis of a coordinated global effort.

Unlocking the iPhone

There is a lot of huffing and puffing going on about people ‘hacking’ the iPhone. At the heart of the matter are the twin definitions of the verb ‘hack’ that are not always well recognized. Many people take ‘hacking’ to mean malicious invasion of electronic systems, for instance in order to steal credit card numbers. An older definition of the word is simply to tinker with technology. In this sense, a ‘hack’ might be a clever modification of a bicycle or a mobile phone.

Apple has been exploiting all the hype about the iPhone to make highly preferential deals with individual carriers. This has happened in the US and UK already, doubtless with more to follow. These arrangements seem to benefit Apple and the carriers, but I doubt very much that they benefit the consumer. It is like Toyota building cars that can only be filled at Shell service stations, then trying to prosecute people who try to remove the restrictions, allowing them to be filled elsewhere. Just as the people own the cars and should thus be free to modify them in ways that do not endanger others, people who own iPhones should be able to tinker with them. Likewise, just as the Toyoto-Shell case is clear-cut collusion of the kind governmental competition authorities police, so too does the Apple-cell carrier situation.

See also: Forbidden features and If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.


Milan’s Ottawa hybrid

I got my new bike today, and it is a thing of beauty. It seems to weigh about half as much as my Oxford hybrid and the components are dramatically sharper and more precise in their operation. I had them swap the grips for some with more traction, as well as replace the pedals with solid metal ones with cages. I have never ridden a bike with the latter before and have mixed feelings about them. With my feet in the cages, it is a bit awkward to stop at intersections. With the cages hanging loose under, they can scrape the ground on the inside of a turn.

In addition to the bike, lock, and helmet, I got a pair of 14L Arkel panniers. They aren’t the most attractive looking things, but the fabric they are made from seems extremely durable and the staff of the shop were very keen on the brand. At present, the left one has an awkward habit of sometimes brushing the back of my foot when my toes are inside the cage. I will need to adjust it somehow to avoid that.

I celebrated the acquisition of the bike and panniers through the purchase of about 35kg of dense foodstuffs: from yams to big tins of beans to salsa. Tomorrow, I am looking forward to Critical Mass. This weekend, I am looking for cycling further afield.

PS. I also want to express the degree to which I appreciated G.M Bertrand Cycles. Their staff was dramatically more helpful than those at any other place I visited. They gave me a good deal, fit the bike to me (with my pedaling on this odd stationary platform), promised a year’s maintenance, installed all the accessories I bought, did the grip and pedal switch for a pittance, and were otherwise exemplary.

Something that caught my interest

Ashley in a tunnel

I learned something new about my student loans today: while I knew there was a ‘grace period’ of six months between finishing school and starting repayment, I did not realize that you got charged interest over the course of it. On the first day of the seventh month, you need to either pay the interest for both your federal and provincial loans (about $500 on every $10,000 of loans) or have that interest added to the principal, increasing each of your subsequent monthly payments.

In any particular month between then and when your loans are fully paid, you cannot pay less than 1/120th of the total amount you owe. This is to ensure that full repayment takes place within ten years of the first payment. Both the federal government and the government of B.C. offer you the choice between a fixed interest rate (prime plus 5%, based on the rates at the time of your first payment) or a floating rate of prime plus 2.5%.

I guess I know what I will be doing with that ‘extra’ paycheque.

Refraction and arctic solar canines

Both for work and my own interest, I am reading Richard Alley’s The Two Mile Time Machine, as recommended back in Oxford by Henry Shue. A relatively informal history of ice core science, it also includes some interesting facts and observations about the polar regions. For instance, I learned about the phenomenon of sun dogs or parhelions.

In the Arctic, ice crystals in cirrus and cirrostratus clouds sometimes produce a refractive effect, framing the sun with a pair of luminous partners. It gladdens me somewhat to know that the Arctic summer has at least one visual effect to compensate for the drowning out of the Northern Lights by constant sunlight. I once had the good fortune Aurora Borealis myself – from Neal’s balcony in the Gage Towers during a period of exceptional ionic activity in the upper atmosphere. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to see a sun dog before the Arctic changes beyond all recognition.