Electoral statistics

This website presents the 2008 American Presidential election, as represented by an expert in baseball statistics. At this time, the message seems to be that Clinton has a better chance of beating McCain than Obama, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. This election has already repeatedly confounded early polls and conventional wisdom. A lot will happen before November.

May Critical Mass

Ottawa Critical Mass

Following Ottawa’s interminable winters, Critical Masses of decent sizes have resumed. While some thin-skinned individuals were scared away by a few low-lying clouds, it was ideal cycling weather: warm and overcast, with no danger of discomfort of any kind.

For the most part, this was a civilized ride. There were a lot of first-time participants, so it was unusually important for people who knew what’s what to direct the mass. There were a couple of insane things done by taxicabs. The mass was heading up along the eastern edge of the Rideau Canal, along a two-lane road. Unwilling to wait a few minutes, to taxicabs decided to gun it the wrong way up the road, beside the mass. The second cab came within a couple of metres of crashing spectacularly into oncoming traffic.

Anyhow, here are some videos from yesterday’s mass:

I look forward to the ride next month.

American climate change impacts report

Because of a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, a judge in Oakland California ordered the release of the Climate Change Science Programs (CCSP) assessment of climate change impacts in the United States. In total, the public release of the report was delayed for three years. The report – Scientific Assessment of the Effects of Global Climate Change on the United States – is now available online. It is not unlike the impacts report previously released by Natural Resources Canada.

None of the contents of the CCSP report will be surprising to those who have been paying attention to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been releasing. Indeed, that is not surprising. The IPCC is looking at the same scientific evidence when they reach their judgments. One thing that would have been helpful would have been a more comprehensive effort to estimate the total economic damages associated with different plausible levels of climate change. It is information of that kind that seems most salient to those making hard choices about what actions to take.

‘Door prizes’ for cyclists

Bike wheel

The ‘door prize’ is apparently the most common type of accident to injure bike riders in cities. Riding along beside a row of parked cars, someone opens a door on the driver side, leaving too little time for an approaching cyclist to stop. The cyclist thus slams into the door, quite probably injuring themselves. Sometimes, it can be lethal.

Awareness seems like the first mechanism for avoiding such accidents. While it is theoretically possible for cyclists to ride in the middle of lanes, doing so requires extremely thick skin, so as to endure the endless rage of motorists who want to go faster. Cyclists can avoid door prizes by keeping an eye on whether someone is sitting on the driver’s side of a car: as well as for clues like lights being on and engine noise. Well justified concern about the door prize risk makes me do this, though I find that it makes me less situationally aware overall. Having to check one parked car after another leaves less time and mental focus for evaluating other threats, such as cars passing you on the left or making right turns in front of you.

Drivers can be aware that cyclists may be passing them and do more to check for cyclists before opening doors. Glancing at the side-view mirror and back over their shoulder only takes a moment, and will protect the people stepping out of their cars from oncoming vehicles, as well. Doing so is sometimes an explicit legal obligation, as under section 208 of the Manitoba’s Highway Traffic Act:

No person shall,

(a) open the door of a motor vehicle upon a highway without first taking due precautions to ensure that his act will not interfere with the movement of, or endanger, any other person or vehicle; or

(b) leave a door of a motor vehicle upon a highway open on the side of the vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than is necessary to load or unload passengers

Section 203 of British Columbia’s Motor Vehicle Act is similar, as is section 165 of Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act. Drivers can also partially open doors for a little while, so as to make them more visible to anyone approaching.

Potentially, some kind of automated system could help. I don’t know how much it would cost, but it should be possible to set up a motion sensor that looks backwards on the driver’s side of a car. While it might sometimes be obstructed by vehicles close behind, one would think it would more likely be able to spot cyclists that drivers might have missed. Some kind of light could then give a warning against sudden door-openings, or even prevent doors on that side from being opened.

Arguably, the best solution is to isolate car and bike infrastructure from one another in city centres. I would personally be delighted if most downtown areas were car-free. There would be dramatically more social space, less noise and pollution, and arguably more of a neighbourhood feeling. In the absence of such a transition, perhaps we can aspire to more bike lanes physically separated from car traffic (by a barrier, not a painted line), as there are in the Netherlands and some other European states.

Border guards and copyright enforcement

According to Boing Boing, Canadian border guards may soon be in charge of checking iPods and other devices for copyright infringement. If true, the plan is absurd for several reasons. For one, it would be impossible for them to determine whether a DRM-free song on your iPod was legitimately ripped from a CD you own or downloaded from the web. For another, this is a serious misuse of their time. It would be a distraction from decidedly more important tasks, like looking for illegal weapons, and probably a significant irritant to both those being scrutinized and those waiting at border crossings.

Hopefully these rumours of secret plans – also picked up by the Vancouver Sun are simply false.

Nitrogen trouble

Vandalized corner

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only human-generated gas about which we ought to be concerned. As this article highlights, the environmental consequences of nitrogen are also significant:

The release of reactive nitrogen into the environment has a “cascade” effect, according to two papers published in the latest issue of Science. James Galloway of the University of Virginia, the lead author of one of the papers, says that every single atom of reactive nitrogen can cause a cascading sequence of events which can harm human health and ecosystems.

In the lower atmosphere the oxides of nitrogen add to an increase in ozone and small particles, which can cause respiratory ailments. The reactive nitrogen in acid rain kills insects and fish in rivers and lakes. And when it is carried to the coast it contributes to the formation of dead zones and in the creation of red tides (a kind of toxic, algal bloom that can form in the sea). It is then converted to nitrous oxide which adds to global warming.

Marine dead zones and air pollution are threats at a lesser scale than those posed by climate change, but this is nonetheless further evidence of humanity’s ability to alter chemistry on a global scale.

Health and organs

Today, I registered for the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). Once I get the card, I will no longer need to pay $60 up front and time I want to see a doctor.

I also took the opportunity to register as an organ and tissue donor (any organ or tissue they want, for transplant or medical experiments). If I do manage to die in a sudden and non-organ-destructive manner, there is no reason for which my loss should not be someone else’s gain.

Monbiot to King Abdaullah

Sunglasses

British journalist and climate change agitator George Monbiot has written an interesting open letter to King Abdaullah of Saudi Arabia. He comments on the degree to which remaining oil supplies in Saudi Arabia are one of the biggest geopolitical mysteries out there, and how Saudi Arabia retains a unique influence to manage oil prices. He also comments on the contradictory policies of western leaders who both assert that they want to solve climate change and continue to envision a world in which oil is cheap and plentiful:

In other words, your restrictions on supply – voluntary or otherwise – are helping the government to meet its carbon targets. So how does it respond? By angrily demanding that you remove them so that we can keep driving and flying as much as we did before. Last week, Gordon Brown averred that it’s “a scandal that 40% of the oil is controlled by Opec, that their decisions can restrict the supply of oil to the rest of the world, and that at a time when oil is desperately needed, and supply needs to expand, that Opec can withhold supply from the market”. In the United States, legislators have gone further: the House of Representatives has voted to bring a lawsuit against Opec’s member states, and Democratic senators are trying to block arms sales to your kingdom unless you raise production.

This illustrates one of our leaders’ delusions. They claim to wish to restrict the demand for fossil fuels, in order to address both climate change and energy security. At the same time, to quote Britain’s Department for Business, they seek to “maximise economic recovery” from their remaining oil, gas and coal reserves. They persist in believing that both policies can be pursued at once, apparently unaware that if fossil fuels are extracted they will be burnt, however much they claim to wish to reduce consumption. The only states that appear to be imposing restrictions on the supply of fuel are the members of Opec, about which Brown so bitterly complains. Your Majesty, we have gone mad, and you alone can cure our affliction, by keeping your taps shut.

The letter is a somewhat cheeky way for Monbiot to make his points – appealing to the autocratic ruler of a foreign state to help temper the bad policies of his own government – but it does share the intriguing quality of most of his writing.

More and more, people need to gain an appreciation that concerns about climate change and energy security do not always push us in the same policy direction. Concern about climate change tells us to change our infrastructure, cut back on energy use, and use the energy we have more intelligently. Energy security often presses us towards a desperate search for alternative fuels, regardless of what environmental consequences their production may have.

Ottawa Coolness Assessment I

Coolness evaluation contract

During my ten months in Ottawa, I have had significant difficulty identifying aspects of the city that might be considered cool. Thankfully, someone much cooler than me is in the city and willing to conduct an authoritative evaluation. Below is an awkward combination of a United Nations Security Council resolution and terms of reference for a contractor:

Date: 27 May 2008

Preamble:

  1. Appreciating that Ottawa is the capital of Canada and a significant city within Canada.
  2. Acknowledging that capital cities and significant cities are centres of arts and culture.
  3. Recognizing that Milan Ilnyckyj has failed to find evidence thereof up to the present date.

Hereby resolves that:

  1. A special rapporteur shall be appointed to identify what, if any, artistic or cultural merit is possessed by the city of Ottawa.
  2. The rapporteur shall devote a minimum of one hour per day to this task.
  3. The investigation conducted shall continue for one month past this date unless specifically authorized to do otherwise.
  4. The rapporteur appointed to this task is to be Emily Rachel Horn originally of Surrey, British Columbia.

Signed: Emily Horn, Milan Ilnyckyj

We shall see what she produces in the course of her official duties.

Organ harvesting and natural revulsion

In a macabre tribute to utilitarian principles of welfare maximization, New York City is getting a special ambulance to collect, protect, and convey the organs of the suddenly deceased. The idea of being harvested for organs certainly makes people squeamish; most of us don’t like being reminded that we are basically delicate bags of goo. That being said, the opportunities to save lives here should trump our feelings of discomfort, just as they do in all manner of other uncomfortable medical procedures, from prostate examinations to pap smears.

Our feelings of revulsion are largely intuitive throwbacks to a world before we understood the nature of contagion and disease. Arguably, they are an increasingly useless (possibly even harmful) collection of caveman instincts.