Link rot

Anyone who has been running a website for a few years (and paying attention) will be familiar with the reality of link rot. Sites get redesigned or removed from the web and, in so doing, links you have made to them in the past cease to be functional or lead to the right content.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a huge amount that can be done about this. For the people doing the linking, there is only so much effort that can be devoted to making sure old links are still current. It is feasible for a few critical links (blogroll items, links in key posts), but not in the case of hundreds or even thousands of old entries. If the content had been moved, there is at least the theoretical possibility of combatting link rot through updating. If the content is simply gone, there is really very little that can be done.

Those being linked can probably do the most in response. When they move from one type of site organization (or one site location) to another, they can provide tools to help those brought in through old links. The gold standard is to automatically redirect people to the correct pages in new locations. At the very least, sites should provide a mechanism for lost visitors to search for the content they wanted.

European Emission Trading Scheme primer

This document – produced by the World Wildlife Fund – provides a good concise overview of the Emissions Trading Scheme being used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union.

In addition to outlining the basic design of the system, the document describes some of the errors of implementation that have occurred. The biggest of those were probably the over-allocation of permits and their free distribution, as opposed to auctioning. Together, these sharply reduced the effectiveness of the system during its first phase of operations. Hopefully, lessons learned during this period will help to make future emission trading schemes work more efficiently and equitably.

Barack Obama on oil imports

Compared with his 2004 performance, Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention the day before last seemed a bit lackluster. That being said, it was a more specific about the priorities of a potential Obama administration. Energy issues were touched upon a few times – the environment hardly at all – but that is probably not surprising, given that winning the election is the over-riding priority for him now, and talk of effective climate change policies is (sadly) likely to lose more votes than it wins. The speech only mentions climate change once, as one of the “threats of the 21st century” along with “terrorism and nuclear proliferation, poverty and genocide, climate change and disease.” The lack of elaboration demonstrated both the degree to which this speech was aimed at a domestic audience primarily concerned with the state of the US economy and the desire to avoid the mention of polarizing specifics when enumerating challenges – a tactic that was also used in relation to a number of domestic social issues.

One line struck me as ambiguous and potentially problematic:

[F]or the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

If this just means shifting American imports from Middle Eastern states to those elsewhere in the world, this won’t be much of a solution for either climate change or energy security. Let’s say the US buys all of its oil from outside the Middle East. Even so, the world price of oil will largely be set by developments there: particularly expectations about output in volatile areas, as well as confidence in the ability of Saudi Arabia to moderate oil price shocks through reserve capacity. Since the price of Alaskan or Albertan oil moves along with developments in Kuwait and Iran as much as oil
anywhere else, the source of the imports isn’t hugely important when it comes to price or security of supply. If the non-Middle Eastern producers selling to the US can get a better price in Europe or Japan, the oil will follow the money.

A more ambitious and effective plan would focus on ending dependence on oil altogether, regardless of source. That can begin in areas where oil can be easily replaced at present – such as powering urban vehicles – and can progressively move into areas where fewer alternatives now exist. The pledge in the speech to devote $150 billion to developing alternative energy sources hints at an appreciation of the importance of a renewable energy economy. Achieving that requires altering the mechanisms through which energy is generated, transmitted, and used – not just changing the flags on incoming supertankers.

Non-alcoholic beer

For various reasons, I have lately found myself investigating non-alcoholic beers: basically looking for one as tasty as the better alcoholic offerings. So far, my success has been limited. I find this a bit odd, given that the only people likely to buy non-alcoholic beer are those who (a) have a considerable fondness for beer but (b) don’t want to drink the alcoholic form, for whatever reason. As such, you would expect the de-alcoholized offerings to be of a premium variety; those I have found so far have been largely sub-par.

Of the three I have tried so far, unambiguously the worst is Kaliber, which is produced by the St. James’s Gate Brewery. The makers of Guiness certainly have not distinguished themselves with this tasteless, watery offering. Much better than Kaliber, though still somewhat lacking, is the de-alcoholized version of Beck’s. It definitely lacks something of the original, but it is passable. Quite possibly, my familiarity with the normal version of this brew makes the de-alcoholozed version seem worse in comparison.

The best option I have found so far is the President’s Choice ‘Red Brew.’ It is both the cheapest and the tastiest de-alcoholized beer I’ve tried, costing just $7 for 12 cans. The Beck’s, which tastes significantly worse than the PC brew, costs about $12 for 6 bottles – as much as the highly taxed liquor store version. Served cold, the PC brew has a pretty strong and pleasing flavour, suitable for summer work-night barbecues, and the like. It cannot touch quality alcoholic beers – like the Unibroue and McAuslan offerings – but it is at least a respectable beverage.

Are there any other varieties people would recommend? I am not bothered about whether they are actually 0% alcohol (like the Beck’s) or 0.5% (like the PC Red).

[Update: 5 November 2009] Thanks to everyone who provided additional information below. It’s good to see that so many other people are interested in finding tasty non-alcoholic beers. Please keep the suggestions coming.

Steganography challenge

In the past, I have posted a few cipher challenges for the cryptographically inclined. Here is a new one:

The above is an example of steganography rather than cryptography, though the two can be easily combined. Indeed, the same approach used above could be applied in a far more subtle and effective fashion. To save people some trouble, I can tell you that the hidden message is in the actual text shown, not hidden somewhere in the data file.

Here is a hint, weakly enciphered using ROT13: Guvf sbez bs frperg jevgvat jnf vairagrq ol Senapvf Onpba.

Sleep and slime moulds

Since I spent the last fourteen hours sleeping, I don’t have much of interest to convey right now.

As a consolation, here is a time lapse video of slime moulds and fungus growing. I have always found slime moulds rather fascinating. They start of as single-celled, bacteria-eating organisms resembling amoebas. If two with matching mating types encounter one another, they can form a zygote. That, in turn, becomes a macroscopic organism with many nuclei, but no membranes between cells – an “interconnected network of protoplasmic strands.” Once this has eaten everything nearby, fruiting bodies form that disperse spores. These hatch into single-celled bacteria-eating eukaryotes once again.

One of the more odd and charming sections from the Wikipedia entry on slime moulds is this:

In 2006, researchers at the University of Southampton and the University of Kobe reported that they had built a six-legged robot whose movement was remotely controlled by a Physarum slime mold. The mold directed the robot into a dark corner most similar to its natural habitat.

It is disconcerting to consider that an entity consisting of an amalgamation of amoebas can apparently display something akin to preferences when put in control of a robot (though I think the ‘control’ just consisted of watching how the slime mould moved and copying it). This article has a picture of the robot.

In any case, I am hoping that my period of hibernation will reset my brain. During the last few days, it has sunken into something akin to – but nonetheless more profound than – the normal August lull which permeates Ottawa.

The future of plate tectonics

The PALEOMAP project has created some interesting projections of how the continents will be arranged in the distant future. Fifty million years out, Africa will have pushed into Europe, eliminating the Mediterranean. In 100 million years, all the continents will be drawing together. In 250 million years, only two landmasses will be left: a combination of Australia and Antarctica near the south pole and North and South America massed with Eusasia and Africa around a central sea.

The projections may prove entirely incorrect, but it is nonetheless remarkable to see the world thus transformed. It is a reminder of just how variable the world is, over long time horizons.

Export industries, shipping, and the price of oil

The high price of oil and uncertainty about future supplies may have broad macroeconomic impact in the near future. One major area where that could prove true is in terms of where in the world manufacturing takes place. While shipping is generally a small fraction of total costs, the profit margins of some producers – especially in Asia – are small enough that further increases in shipping prices may eliminate their competitive advantage over producers closer to rich markets, such as those in Central America and Eastern Europe:

The cost of shipping a standard 40-foot container from Shanghai to America’s east coast, for example, has jumped from $3,000 in 2000 to about $8,000 today. The extra cost of transporting goods halfway around the world, Messrs Rubin and Tal wrote, is wiping out the often slim margins of Chinese exporters. What is more, if oil and shipping prices stay high, many Western companies that now outsource their manufacturing to China might decide that it makes more sense to shift production closer to their customers at home.

Of course, much will depend on near-term developments in energy prices. Continued economic malaise in Europe and North America could help to keep oil prices moderated (though it is hardly good for exporters, either). A return to a world where economic growth is strong in both developing and developed states, at the same time as hydrocarbon supplies are constrained, may well produce a partial reversal of the globalization trend. The same market forces that made low wages and economies of scale the dominant consideration for placing production may shift towards favouring reduction of energy and transport expenses instead.