A Leave of Absinthe

The final Ottawa production of A Leave of Absinthe was certainly entertaining at times, but it somehow failed to rise to its potential. Perhaps fittingly – in relation to a play about drunk people entertaining one another – the actors seemed to find themselves a bit more entertaining than they actually were, at least most of the time.

Much was made of the three supposed stages of absinthe intoxication, though they did not actually end up seeming terribly distinct. Some of the cleverest bits of the performance centred around wordplay, the more engaging character vignettes, and the ongoing interactions of the four actors with a large doll that played a focal role. In particular, the trouser-wearing lesbian character managed to play off an entertaining seduction of the inanimate figure.

In the end, perhaps the opportunities for celebrating absinthe with a sober audience are limited. Alternatively, it may have been that the show lost a bit of its vim as it progressed through the festival.

Wooster Sauce

Ottawa windows

When it comes to an incompetent master / manipulative servant comedy (Blackadder, Yes Minister, etc), one generally expects at least two actors to be involved. Wooster Sauce defies this expectation, with John D. Huston playing master, servant, and all other characters together. His versatility is impressive, though you cannot help but lose some of the comedy and drama that would arise from a two-actor interaction.

Huston works his way through a series of anecdotes, with Wooster narrating the first half and Jeeves narrating the second. The characters are skillfully sketched and the vignettes entertaining. That said, the humour is more of the type intellectually appreciated than of the type that induces open laughter.

The show seemed to be among the most popular in the Ottawa Fringe, so people in other venues should be advised to get in line early. That is doubly important if other people stage it in a large and flat-floored room, as was the case here this year.

Pigs eat more fish than all of Japan

Apparently, 17% of wild-caught fish ends up getting fed to livestock. That’s pretty astonishing, given the increasingly dire state of global fish stocks, and it underscores the way in which most modern agriculture is fundamentally unsustainable.

As long as it is dependent on outside inputs where the supply is growing scarcer, it won’t be a mechanism for feeding humanity indefinitely.

Much better to leave those fish in the sea or, failing that, at least feed them to people.

Ice-free north pole in 2008?

Orange flower

Some scientists aboad the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen are predicting that the North Pole may be ice-free for the first time in recorded history this summer. While this is not the same as saying the whole icecap will be gone, it does seem like the sort of thing likely to have symbolic resonance. At the very least, it becomes a bit harder to argue that no overall warming is taking place when huge chunks of the cryosphere start to vanish.

While there are good reasons to doubt whether this year will really see the pole bare, it is only really a matter of time:

[G]iven the rapid changes now evident in the Arctic, the ultimate fate of the North Pole—in fact, all permanent ice in the Arctic—may be all but assured. Almost all models have the Arctic completely ice free in the summer by 2100.

This raises some worrisome questions. If the sea ice is being lost at a greater rate than anticipated, is that likely to carry over to Greenland? If so, the optimistically low estimates for sea level rise published by the IPCC may prove grossly inaccurate.

US solar moratorium

What is to be done when people are plowing ahead with new coal power plants, despite the threat of climate change, and people are simultaneously forgetting about the expense, risk, and contamination associated with nuclear power? Impose a two-year moratorium on new solar projects, clearly. This at a time when we have eight years or so to stabilize total global emissions, before starting a long and deep decline – from over thirty gigatonnes per year to under five, within the lifetime of those now starting to ponder retirement.

Clearly, environmental issues relating to solar power stations need to be considered – just as bird strikes as so forth must be considered in relation to wind. That being said, a moratorium on the technology at the same time as oil sands and shale oil production are ramping up seems like hypocrisy.

Teaching the Fringe

Brick building with fire escape

Keir Cutler’s Teaching the Fringe is an entertaining hour-long monologue, consisting of the elaborate rebuttal of a letter of complaint written by a woman who attended one of his previous shows. While her comments probably didn’t necessitate such an extensive response, amused audiences will be glad they did.

Cutler manages to express his contempt for the position of the complainer largely through self-deprecating humour. He also uses indirect reasoning to make fun of the weaker arguments. While that may not sound like a compelling show, the premise serves as a fine platform for Cutler’s expressiveness and pleasing verbal style. The gradual process of deconstructing the complaint through humour is particularly gratifying to anyone who has thrown some work of their own into the public domain, only to experience mystifying and half-unhinged responses.

The show’s only truly flat moment arrives with a series of jokes about 9/11. It wasn’t really that they were insensitive, they just weren’t funny. Their painless expulsion would render the performance amusing from start to finish.

Those in Ottawa have two more chances to see it and, judging by some of the autiobiographical references therein, it seems likely to tour other Canadian cities.

CCS skepticism

The headline of a recent Economist article is one that policy-makers around the world should pay heed to: Carbon storage will be expensive at best. At worst, it may not work. There are two over-riding reasons for which the danger of a CCS-flop needs to be borne in mind:

  1. First, many governments are assigning a big chunk of their planned emissions reductions to the new technology. If they find themselves in need of alternatives later, it may prove to be quite a scramble. Likewise, being able to ‘bank’ the CCS reductions now may make their plans seem both more viable and more certain than they really are.
  2. Secondly, the very prospect of CCS is a lifeline to the coal industry. Power plants built to be ‘carbon capture ready’ may never do anything of the kind. If so, citizens should be even more concerned about the greenhouse gasses they are going to spew. Those financing the construction should also be wary, since carbon pricing is more likely than not to be on the way.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t welcome cheap, effective CCS if it does emerge. Not only could it allow the US and China to use their coal reserves while not wrecking the climate (local pollution is another matter), CCS coupled with biomass-fired generating stations could be carbon-negative.

Just don’t count those megatonnes before they’re buried.

Explaining greenhouse gases

Twinned bicycles

Over at ScienceBlogs, Paul Revere has written a three part primer (one, two, three) about the physics of climate change. It begins with the nature of electromagnetism and moves on to discuss the energy relationship between the Earth, the sun, and outer space. It is the sort of thing that feels very basic, but which is nonetheless important to understand through-and-through. In particular, the explanation of black bodies in the second portion is clear and informative.

The discussion of Wien’s Displacement Law is also quite informative. The law holds that every object in the universe emits electromagnetic radiation, and that the most common frequency exists in relation to that object’s temperature in degrees Kelvin. To go from one to the other, divide 2898 by the temperature in degrees Kelvin. The quotient is the peak wavelength, expressed in microns. Human body temperature is about 310 degrees Kelvin, so our peak electromagnetic wavelength is about 9.35 microns long – in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. Since we are pretty similar in temperature to the surface of the Earth, the wavelengths radiated by the planet are in a nearby portion of the spectrum.

It is is ability of greenhouse gases to absorb this infrared energy that lets them prevent energy from returning to space. They are transparent to the dominant wavelengths emitted by the sun, but opaque to those radiating from the Earth. Increasing their concentrations in the atmosphere (through fossil fuel burning, deforestation, etc), causes more of the energy that comes to the Earth from the sun to remain in the atmosphere. As a result of the extra energy, the temperature rises. Incidentally, this is also why people sometimes mention using ground-based mirrors to fight climate change. They reflect light at the same peak wavelength as that of the sun (which passes relatively unimpeded through the atmosphere). By re-radiating at that visible wavelength, rather than the infrared one favoured by greenhouse gases, the energy can be made to escape again. Of course, it would take a massive number of mirrors to balance out the effect of increased greenhouse gas concentrations on the EM emissions from all non-mirrored areas.

One upshot of understanding the nature of these gases is the ability to appreciate how their increased concentration simply must add more energy to our planetary system. The scientific questions that remain are about precisely what changes that energy will generate, and at what rate. The three posts are well worth reading in their entirety.

[Update: 17 December 2009] See also: Greenhouse gases other than CO2

Summer streets

For three Saturdays in August, New York City will be making six miles worth of city streets exclusively the domain of bikes and pedestrians. It’s an impressive undertaking, and a good method for making people think twice about their assumption that streets exist for the sake of drivers. For a long time, city dwellers have mostly assumed the roadways to be the exclusive territory of two-ton steel beasts. Taking them back is a step towards more cohesive communities, as well as a lower-carbon future.

If feasible, I would love to take the train down and have a look.

Hansen on 350ppm

Rideau Canal locks

The most common position among climate change analysts is that we need to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide somewhere between 450 and 550 parts per million (ppm). That is, for instance, the target range endorsed by Nicholas Stern. It is also thought by many to be compatible with the EU goal of generating less than two degrees Celsius of temperature increase, though that is only really plausible at the low end.

In recent Congressional testimony, James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argued that we actually need to cut concentrations from the present 385ppm to 350ppm or less. Basically, his argument is that even stabilization at the present level would have unacceptable consequences: both directly, in terms of impacts on physical and biological systems, and by kicking off feedback loops that will further worsen things. The distinction between the numbers may seem abstract to those not familiar with climate policy, but the practical differences between stabilizing between 550, 450, or 350ppm are massive. Each scenario requires that emissions peak at a different date, and that they fall more or less rapidly afterwards. Even staying below 450ppm requires that global emissions peak within 10-15 years, and that they fall to a small fraction of present levels by 2050.

If accurate, the 350ppm target invalidates a great deal of climate change planning. The general view is that we still have a cushion for additional emissions, to be split up between developed and developing countries. The former would lead the way, showing the latter how they can also do so once they reach a somewhat higher level of affluence. Getting back to 350ppm in a reasonable amount of time requires much more aggressive cuts, universally. It would also require that India and China move to a low-carbon economy long before any significant proportion of their population has reached Western levels of affluence.

Personally, I hope Hansen’s most recent testimony is not as prescient as that he gave twenty years ago. If we need to get the planet on a rapid path towards 350ppm, the disjoint between what is physically necessary and what is politically possible is far wider a chasm than has hitherto seemed to be the case.