How not to lose things

A fair number of people I know have a great deal of trouble keeping track of small personal effects: wallets, sunglasses, keys, and the like. When they encounter someone who does not have this problem, they assume it’s because of some inherent superiority of memory. In my experience, this is not the case. What differs between those who lose things and those who do not is the degree to which they are systematic.

Be systematic

The first vital aspect of being systematic is to maintain consistency in where things are placed. One’s keys should always be in the same pocket when out or at work, and always on the same table of shelf when at home. One’s gloves should likewise always be kept in the same place, at least during seasons when they are required, and moved to a consistent but less accessible place during the summer. All this is made dramatically easier by choosing clothes with a similar array of pockets. Having a single jacket with lots of pockets is an enormous boon: I always know that my wallet is in the right-side breast pocket, while my camera is in the left. The small sub-pocket under that holds a four-colour pen. The inside left pocket has a pair of liner gloves, while the inside right pocket has an iPod Shuffle and space for valuable things carried rarely. Having a consistently used bag with lots of pockets is similarly useful.

Trust, but verify

The second vital aspect is frequent auditing. If you have followed the advice of using the same pockets at all times, this will soon become automatic and second nature. You learn to be intuitively aware of the presence or absence of objects from their designated spaces. If they are not there, you know to seek them out immediately and return them to their designated position.

Never trust yourself to remember a deviation from the system. Moving something into the wrong place – perhaps to make it more convenient to carry something else – will only produce anxiety while you are tying to remember the deviation and frustration when it leads to things being misplaced or not immediately accessible.

Fashion is your enemy

The real trouble begins when you have a wardrobe that has dramatically different elements: trousers with no pockets, multiple jackets, purses with differing internal compositions. For those who insist on such variety, I can offer no aid. Unless your memory is much better than mine, you are probably doomed to lose things relatively often.

Some level of variety must certainly be dealt with by anyone, and this can be accomplished by having a number of set collections of gear with defined associated positions. One might have a ‘no jacket because it is sunny out, still carrying photographic gear’ option, as well as an ‘out biking in the countryside, repair tools required’ configuration. In my experience, it is feasible to maintain a good number, provided they are as similar as possible (wallet always on the same side, non-included items left in defined positions at home) and they are always identically configured. Objects only carried rarely are by far the easiest to lose. I virtually never carry an umbrella (preferring to rely on waterproof clothing), so I constantly forget them when I have been carrying one for whatever reason.

Naturally, there are plenty of people for whom the above is too much work for too little value. The point is less to convince people that they should or should not adopt such a system and more to argue that losing or not losing objects is a reflection of planning and habit, rather than inherent cognitive characteristics. That said, a certain fascination with gear and a somewhat compulsive nature certainly help in the initial development and constant refinement of such an order.

Laughter in the Dark

Milan’s foot in Nick’s living room

Nabokov’s book is a cruel one: a love story without love, and a mystery with the ending announced in the opening lines. It lacks everything that saves Lolita from being a hopelessly ugly story, notably the sense that there is something of value in what transpires, if only for the descriptions it evokes. When the characters in Laughter in the Dark are aware at all, it is generally only for the shallowest of self-serving purposes. The only character with any force of understanding – Paul – is nonetheless unable to effectively protect anyone of importance to him. He just ends up carrying the grief that is beyond the capabilities of everyone else in the book.

As with Nabokov’s other work, allusions to other literature are fairly frequent. While Lolita calls most loudly to Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry, Laughter in the Dark spends a fair bit of time whispering to Anna Karenina, though Margot and Rex acutely lack the depth of character that partially redeem Anna and Vronsky. The German setting creates an alien and alienating feeling quite different from Lolita – the book with which this one must inevitably be compared. The characters all seem better suited to vindictiveness than joy, as demonstrated by everything from the shallowness and hypocrisy of Albinus’ interest in Margot (abandoning his family, but immediately inclined to kill her for straying from him) to the uncalculated malice underlying the triumph of her confidence trick.

Nabokov has a talent for irony and devastating understatement. At several points, I was moved to mark the margin with a hasty exclamation point. The clarity of his work is well displayed in this novel, though his talent mostly evokes an appreciation for how trivial, manipulative, and unredemptive human relations can be at their worst. The straightforwardness of the language is extreme even for Nabokov, who does not generally play games with opaque and experimental prose. Laughter in the Dark is intensely cinematic. Particularly during the last portion – in which Albinus has lost his vision – you can imagine how the shots would be framed, how his willful blindness and the callousness of his tormentors would be displayed on celluloid.

Having read this book, I think I will need to go back and read Lolita and Anna Karenina again – though that was inevitable before I ever picked up this volume.

FutureGen and the cost of CCS

The American Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that it is cancelling funding for the $1.8 billion FutureGen project: a demonstration ‘clean coal‘ power plant to be built in Illinois. The reason cited for the change of position is “ballooning costs.” This makes it pretty unlikely the 275 megawatt plant will be built. Previously, the utilities involved would have been paying less than the cost of an ordinary coal plant, with the DOE paying the rest. Now, they would be paying more than three times as much for a carbon capture ready plant that would not, from the outset, actually capture any carbon.

This raises some serious questions about carbon capture and storage (CCS). A lot of climate plans depend on it, including those as diverse as George Monbiot’s and that of the Government of Alberta. The big question is whether this is evidence that all CCS is ruinously expensive, or simply evidence that this particular project was badly planned.

Some environmentalists are cheering this development, which might make sense if it’s just an example of a big taxpayer handout to industry being averted. Others, however, seem keen to see CCS undermined completely. It is true that it is an untested technology; only four installations in the world use anything like it. It is also true that it could perpetuate fossil fuel usage and slow the development of renewables. At the same time, it must be recognized that building renewables isn’t a purpose in its own right. It is a means to low-carbon and reliable energy. If that can be achieved through a combination of coal and CCS, we should probably be happy – especially given the strong likelihood that many coal rich countries (the United States, China, etc) are likely to burn as much of the stuff as they can get out of the ground for the foreseable future, with potentially ruinous climatic effects.

[Update: 12 June 2009] It seems that the Obama administration has decided to revive the project.

Australia’s geothermal potential

Docks near Lonsdale Quay

For a country using 83% coal to power an economy that produces 25.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per person, Australia’s Innamincka desert could prove a blessing. This is not because of the sunshine hitting it, but because of the way geothermal energy has suffused the granite under it.

Initial tests have found that the granite is at approximately 250ËšC, meaning that each cubic kilometre can yield as much energy as 40 million barrels of oil. If it proves viable to use this heat to boil water and drive turbines, the share of Australian power derived from renewables could increase considerably. According to Emeritus Professor John Veevers of Macquarie University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the rocks could “supply, without emissions, the baseload electrical power at current levels of all consumers in Australia for 70 years.”

Naturally, it is not sufficient to just have hot stones within a drillable distance. It will have to be economical to construct the power generation equipment. There will be a need for water to use as a heat carrier. Finally, it will be necessary to build transmission capacity to link new facilities with Australian cities.

In a sense, a geological formation like this is like the oil sands in reverse. Both exist in large countries with economies that depend to a considerable degree on primary commodities. Likewise, both exist in states with shockingly high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions. There are questions about commercial viability and water usage of both projects, but the broader issue with Innamincka is how many megatonnes of carbon dioxide can be kept out of the atmosphere, rather than how much will be produced through a bituminous bonanza.

On cameralessness and camera-sight

For nearly a month now, I have been walking around without a decent camera (the one on my phone is too low quality to count). At the outset, I was wondering if it would change the way I looked at the world. It seems plausible that a person carrying a camera might become overly concerned about the possibility of recording experiences and thus become less immersed in the situations themselves. While I think that remains true in some circumstances, I find that the general result of not carrying a camera is simply loss of acuity in sensation. Having a camera forces you to pay more attention to what is happening around you: the quality of the light, the details of natural and man-made objects nearby, brightnesses and distances and angles.

As Tristan and I discussed while he was visiting this weekend, one’s sensitivity extends to include consideration for the kind of equipment being used. You do see a bit differently when you are carrying black and white film than when you are carrying colour; you care more about textures and relative brightnesses and not at all about colour temperature. Probably, there are differences in how you see based on whether you are carrying a camera loaded with 35mm film, one with a small digital sensor, or one with a larger sensor more capable of low-grain performance in low light. It is a bit like Michael Pollan’s description of what happened to his vision when he was collecting mushrooms: our visual systems are quite happy to optimize themselves for the task at hand.

Thankfully, my repaired camera is in the process of being mailed back to me. It is notable that Canon repaired it for free – essentially acknowledging that the problem arose because of a defect in manufacturing. I thus feel vindicated in saying that the Future Shop staff were wrong to reject an exchange, on the basis that I had abused the camera. I won’t be making the mistake of giving them more business anytime soon.

[Update: 31 January 2007] Oh, trumph and celebration! My camera has been returned and seems to be functioning properly. No more photos of the day from weeks past!

Commodities are a relatively poor investment

Pool table

For a collection of reasons, the world is experiencing a commodity boom. Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel, while gold and platinum are setting new records. That said, it is still questionable whether commodities are a good long-term investment. While they boom sometimes, there will also be times when a glut or changes in demand cause prices to plummet.

Looking at the trends from 1985 to present, you can see a sharp divergence in asset performance between different classes of investment. The average dollar invested in global real estate in 1985 would be about $7.50 today. An investment in stocks would have yielded about $6.50, while bond growth would have left you with about $4. Investing in a basket containing all traded commodities would have yielded a return of about $2.60, while investing in just oil would have yielded less than $2.00 (oil having seen sustained growth in price only since 1998 or 1999).

None of this is to say you can’t make a fortune trading commodities. It just suggests that if you want to put money away for a few decades, not think about it much, and live well off it later, investing in equities is the way to go. Given the costs of management versus the extra returns, it is probably best to invest in index tracking funds, but that’s an issue to comment on another time.

Hurricanes, insurance, and the Everglades

After being endorsed by Charlie Crist – the governor of Florida – John McCain said something rather unintelligent today:

We’ve got to provide home insurance for every person who lives in the path of a hurricane. We are going to have to work together to save the Everglades and other great environmental treasures of this state.

The first huge problem with this is the transfer of wealth that is being proposed here. People who live on the coast in hurricane territory have every expectation of getting hit by hurricanes again and again. Having the taxes of people sensible enough to live elsewhere used to subsidize insurance for those in the risky area is quite unfair. It is also rather imprudent, as it encourages the continued occupation of hurricane-prone areas, with all the implications for death and property destruction that implies.

I could see some justification for a one-off relocation fee for people living in hurricane areas – especially if weather patterns have changed and made a previously safe area dangerous. I cannot see the logic behind using taxes to encourage people to live in dangerous areas, at a time when extreme weather seems to be getting ever-more-potent.

As for saving the Everglades, it is not at all clear that the people living nearby are helping them. The oil companies are most certainly not doing so. Indeed, the canals cut through the Everglades to allow ships passage to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico may well have exacerbated the storm surges that breached the levees in New Orleans.

Improving energy efficiency through very smart metering

Milan Ilnyckyj

With existing technology, it is entirely possible to build houses that allow their owners to be dramatically more energy aware. For instance, it would be relatively easy to build electrical sockets connected to a house network. It could then be possible to see graphically or numerically how much power is being drawn by each socket. It would also be easy to isolate the energy use of major appliances – furnaces, dish washers, refrigerators – thus allowing people to make more intelligent choices about the use and possible replacement of such devices. In an extreme case, you could have a constantly updating spreadsheet identifying every use of power, the level being drawn, the cost associated, and historical patterns of usage.

Being able to manage electrical usage through a web interface could also be very helpful. People could transfer some of their use of power to low-demand times of the day. They could also lower the temperature in houses and have it rise in time to be comfortable by the time they got home. Such controls would also be very useful to people who have some sort of home generating capacity, such as an array of solar panels. A web interface could provide real-time information on the level of energy being produced and the quantity stored.

While all of these things are entirely possible, there do seem to be two big barriers to implementation. The first is in convincing people to install such systems in new houses or while retrofitting houses. The second is to make the systems intuitive enough that non-technical people can use them pretty well. The first of those obstacles would be partially overcome through building codes and carbon pricing. The second is mostly a matter of designing good interfaces. Perhaps an Apple iHome is in order.

European expansion and energy policy

The European Union is in the midst of a big internal fight about how to divide climate change mitigation obligations between members. The poorer states that joined recently say they should have easier targets so their economies will be able to grow more rapidly. States that have already made big investments in renewable technology think they should be called upon to improve by a lesser margin. France wants credit for its determined use of nuclear power. In many ways, the arguments are global disagreements writ small – an excellent illustration of which is Poland.

Poland has by far the biggest coal reserves in the EU – about fourteen billion tonnes worth. Germany is in second place with about six billion. The German GDP per capita is also US$39,650 at market exchange rates, compared to US$10,858 for Poland. Thankfully, the European Union has much more robust mechanisms for dealing with these distributional questions than exist in the world at large. There are European courts and European laws; there are also funds for regional development. Perhaps equally important is the recognition that interaction between EU states will be relatively intense for the indefinite future. This creates a stronger incentive to come to an acceptable settlement.

As such, the EU is an interesting test case for broader ideas. Given the lack of global institutions with similar strength, it is far from certain whether EU approaches could be applied worldwide. What does seem fair to say is that if Europe – with its relative wealth and strong institutions – cannot devise a system of burden-sharing for climate change mitigation, it will probably prove impossibly difficult on a global scale.

Google’s commitment to renewables

Hilary McNaughton

Google.org – the philanthropic arm of the internet search giant – is seeking to use the cognitive and financial resources of its parent to improve the world. Google has promised to eventually fund the organization using 1% of its equity, profit, and employee time. The real question is whether they will prove able to leverage their particular advantages and achieve outcomes of real significance. There is much reason to hope that they will.

From an environmental perspective, the awkwardly named “RE<C” initiative is the most exciting. The goal is to “develop electricity from renewable energy sources that is cheaper than electricity produced from coal… producing one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity – enough to power a city the size of San Francisco – in years, not decades.” This is certainly an ambitious undertaking. One reason for that is because the true price of coal is not being paid: all the environmental pollution associated with coal mining and burning is being left off the balance sheet, at least in America. If Google can produce renewable technologies that outperform coal economically even in the absence of carbon pricing, it will start to look feasible to begin dismantling the global fossil fuel economy.

It is probably fair to say that meeting this goal would be a more significant contribution to human welfare than everything Google has done so far. Here’s hoping all those brains and dollars come together brilliantly. Of course, as much as we might hope for such a technological rescue, it’s not something to bet on. Even in the absence of breakthrough technologies in renewables, the path to a low-carbon future is pretty well marked out: carbon pricing, regulation in demand inelastic sectors, energy conservation, and massive deployment of existing low-carbon technology.