Lens selection survey

Fellow photographers: if you had the following collection of SLR bodies and lenses, which piece of glass would you aspire to next?


  • Canon Rebel G film SLR
  • Canon Elan 7N film SLR
  • Canon Rebel XS digital SLR

In practice, I expect to be using the Rebel XS far more than the film bodies, from this point on.


  • Canon 50mm f/1.8
  • Canon 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 USM II
  • Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS

Ideally, it should be useful for both full-frame and 1.6x factor, APS-C sized cameras. The APS-C equivalent focal lengths for those lenses are 80mm, 44.8-168mm, and 28.8-88mm. In general, I prefer the wide-angle look to the telephoto look, though I would be interested in anything that significantly expands the potential or usefulness of the SLRs above.

Distributing hydrogen

Among a number of other strong points, this WWF report (PDF) on “The end of the oil age” highlights some of the problems with hydrogen as a fuel, particularly for vehicles. One major issue raised is the difficulty of transporting the stuff:

Despite having a high specific energy (i.e. energy content per unit mass) of 142 MJ/kg, the physical density of hydrogen is just 84 g/m^3, which means that one kilogramme of the gas occupies around 12 m^3 at normal temperature and pressure (NTP). By comparison, one kilogramme of natural gas displaces 1.4 m^3 and packs a specific energy of 54 MJ/kg. This means the volumetric energy density of hydrogen is only one-third that of natural gas, making the cost of a hydrogen pipeline around six times higher than a natural gas pipeline of equivalent energy capacity. The IEA projects that worldwide investment required to develop a hydrogen pipeline network might be in the order of US$ 2.5 trillion, while noting that the energy required transporting hydrogen via pipeline is on average 4.6 times higher per unit of energy than for natural gas. This equates to an efficiency loss of ten percent over a distance of 1,200 km; the same energy would move natural gas 5,000 km.

As an alternative to pipeline distribution, like natural gas, hydrogen may be either compressed to around 200 atm or chilled close to absolute zero for transportation via truck or ship. Both processes are energy intensive, resulting in additional efficiency losses in the hydrogen supply chain, and super-cooling requires venting that can further deplete the stored fuel. According to one study, it takes 22 tube trailers at 200 atm or 4.5 liquid hydrogen tankers to carry the energy contained in a single gasoline tanker of the same gross weight.

Comparing the hydrogen distribution efficiencies with our electron pathway, we know that electricity grid transmission and distribution (T&D) losses of around 6-8% are typical in OECD countries. Whether carried by pipeline, tanker or ship, it is therefore inconceivable that centrally-produced hydrogen will ever match the efficiency of the electricity grid. Only if it is synthesised at or close to the point of use would hydrogen avoid significant energy losses associated with distribution. Even then, mindful that our guiding principle is the exclusive use of energy from sustainable renewable resources, hydrogen produced in localised facilities would still need to be compressed for storage and/ or delivery directly to the vehicle, which would of course incur further energy losses.

As I have said several times before, hydrogen is a low quality fuel, difficult to handle with low energy per volume. Even with electrolysis at 80% efficiency, the report concludes that hydrogen vehicles would have an overall efficiency of 28%, when production, transport, and the operation of fuel cells are taken into account. Given that vehicles using hydrogen fuel cells would actually be using electricity to drive their motors anyhow, it seems more sensible to focus our efforts on battery technology, which the report concludes to be 23% more efficient, with a lot less new infrastructure to build.

Income tax revenues in California

Surprising statistic of the day: according to The Economist, half of the state income taxes in California are paid by just 144,000 wealthy individuals. They represent about 0.39% of the state’s population of 36.5 million.

That can be interpreted in two rather different ways. On the one hand, you could highlight the degree to which that represents a heavy tax burden on a small number of people. On the other, you could say that the fact that so few people pay so much of the tax demonstrates just how concentrated wealth has become. Either way, it is an interesting figure.

Disorder and bad behaviour

Research conducted by Kees Keizer of the University of Groningen has demonstrated that the willingness of people to litter and steal increases when they are in disorderly surroundings. When experimental subjects were exposed to law- or rule-breaking, they were significantly more willing to litter, trespass, and steal. This is suggestive of how even relatively subtle cues in our surroundings and the behaviour of other people can affect our behaviour, perhaps in ways we aren’t consciously aware of.

One could certainly theorize about the social and evolutionary roles of such behaviour. When an individual is in an orderly situation, the costs associated with rule-breaking may be higher. It is clearer that they are making an individual contribution to the problem, and the absence of other violations suggests that enforcement exists and is effective. Conversely, those surrounded by disorder often have more of a need to fend for themselves, as well as less of a risk of being singled out and punished.

It would be quite interesting to see this kind of research extended, and some of its conclusions used to create new policies. The kind of harmful anti-social activities that could theoretically be combated seem very numerous: from the corruption of government officials to insider theft in the workplace to the dumping of toxic materials in parks or bodies of water. While this study provides no direct evidence that modifying the environments in which people find themselves can alter their behaviour, it does seem plausible and worth looking into.

Junk medicine and Canada’s cabinet

Given the evidence that acupuncture doesn’t work (except possibly for some kinds of pain and nausea) and chiropractic is downright dangerous, it is a bit saddening that Gary Goodyear – Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology – has fellowships in both.

Is it too much to ask that the cabinet minister in charge of science actually have scientific training or, at the very least, not be personally invested in demonstrated forms of pseudo-science? The chiropractic connection is especially worrisome, given the kooky beliefs espoused by practitioners (such as that all illness is caused by ‘subluxations’ of the spine) and the evidence that chiropractic treatments cause vascular damage, especially when necks are manipulated or it is practiced on adolescents or children.

4^2 + 3^2

On the occasion of my 25th birth{}day (intentionally misspelled to protect against spam robots), I will briefly enumerate the best things that happened in the past year:

  1. Spending the summer with Emily
  2. Surviving an Ottawa winter, without losing any fingers or toes
  3. Visiting Montreal and Toronto many times
  4. The well-attended party in North Van last December
  5. Taking about 10,000 photos (a few of them quite good)
  6. Meeting some friendly locals
  7. Being visited by some non-local friends
  8. Learning a lot about climate change, the environment, and government
  9. Adventures in beardedness
  10. Seeing both my parents in Ottawa
  11. Writing a lot about climate change
  12. Camping, canoeing, scaring geese, eating pike
  13. New Year’s at Nick’s
  14. Interacting with voles, bulldogs, Goliath beetles, groundhogs, and Mr. Mistoffolees
  15. NYC and Vermont
  16. Cycling along rivers and canals
  17. Moving from a cubicle to an office; mitigating an office flood
  18. Spending time with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Bennington
  19. Paying down student debt (though not so much as to not get a new computer and camera)
  20. Reading several good books
  21. Seeing Obama get elected
  22. Formally graduating from Oxford
  23. Having 46,157 blog visitors, including 1,234 on August 4th, using 32,119 different computers.
  24. Introducing Sasha to roller-coasters
  25. Spending time with Tristan, Gabe, Alison, and Meaghan

Hopefully, the coming year will involve the same sort of contact with friends and family, though a few Grand and Operatic Events of Colossal Magnitude and Importance would not go amiss.

Drug tests and false penises

In another drug war skirmish, the owners of a company selling fake penises and urine for beating drug tests have pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy in an American federal court. The situation demonstrates how any security situation generates countermeasures. Banning outside alcohol from football games led to the Beerbelly, just as submarine warfare led to aerial sub-hunting patrols and new convoy techniques. Of course, some threats and responses are higher-risk than others.

Surely, none are worthy of concerted government attention than ferreting out the recreational marijuana users (as opposed to the users of legal alcohol) from within the workforce.

Climate change mitigation cost-benefit analysis on different timescales

Peter Lilley, a British Member of Parliament, seems to have rather missed the point of climate change legislation. He is kicking up a fuss about how the UK’s Climate Change Bill might have costs larger than benefits in the period between now and 2050. Of course, the whole point of climate change mitigation is to avoid the worst effects of climate change and not leave future generations with a severely damaged planet. Almost by definition, the majority of the benefits associated with such an approach will accrue in the distant future.

Even if mitigating climate change has serious net costs between now and 2050, we still need to do it, at least if we care at all about the welfare of future generations and the integrity of the planet. That being said, we can certainly hope to mitigate effectively at a relatively low cost (taking advantage of mechanisms like carbon pricing to secure the lowest cost emission reductions first). We can also work to maximize the co-benefits of climate change mitigation, such an enhancing energy security and reducing other types of air pollution.

It is also entirely possible that we will end up spending more money on climate change than we should have, or than would have been possible if we had taken the best possible approach from the outset. To use an analogy, it is possible for a speeding car to brake too sharply to avoid hitting a pedestrian. Doing so jostles the driver and may damage the car, but it is a less undesirable outcome than braking too hesitantly and ploughing right into the person. When you are making a decision with important consequences and lots of uncertainty, erring on the side of caution and expense is the prudent and ethical approach.

Two scenarios for Canada’s 2020 electricity situation

This previous post on Canada’s new commitment to generate 90% of its electricity from sources that do not emit greenhouse gasses by 2020 was a bit too wide-ranging, since it sought to consider all possible mixes that satisfied the 90% criterion. A more reasonable approach is to consider two plausible scenarios.

In the first scenario, electricity demand rises by 10%. Assuming that means 10% more generating capacity is required, that means increasing Canada’s electrical capacity to 132 gigawatts. Doing so while achieving the 90% target would mean scrapping 20.4 gigawatts of emitting capacity (about three times the capacity of all of Ontario’s coal plants) and building 32.4 gigawatts of non-emitting capacity (six giant dams or about thirty five nuclear reactors).

In the second scenario, energetic conservation efforts cause demand to fall by 10%. As such, we would be able to cut our total generating capacity to 99 gigawatts. Producing that while reaching the 90% target would mean scrapping 23.1 gigawatts of emitting capacity (3.5 times Ontario’s coal plants) and building 23.1 gigawatts of non-emitting capacity (under five giant dams, or about twenty five nuclear reactors).

The numbers might work out a bit differently if you did the calculations based on terawatt-hours of electricity use, rather than gigawatts of installed capacity.

Modes of transport and distances travelled

Adding once again to our ever-present debate about the ethics of air travel, a study from the University of California, Berkeley concludes that the major reason planes are more problematic than trains or buses is that people simply travel farther in them. This has two major implications.

For one, it suggests that efforts to curtain short-haul air travel may have limited benefits. If a high-speed rail corridor between Toronto and Montreal would only lead to incremental improvements in emissions reductions, the better course may be to try to discourage as much travel as possible. This may be especially true given another major conclusion of the study: that a very significant share of the environmental impacts of travel arises from the infrastructure (roads, rails, airports), rather than the emissions of vehicles themselves.

For another, it suggests that investing the time and money to travel by bus or train may likewise be less green than would be ideal. The problem may not be choosing to go from Ottawa to Vancouver by air; it may be an inescapable problem of making the trip in the first place.

It is well worth having a look at the webpage for the study, as it contains a lot of additional information. The study’s conclusions were also described on Slate.