Most visited posts of 2008

As the year comes to a close, it seems worthwhile to link back to the posts that got the most attention over the past twelve months:

1) By far the most popular was this post on Greyhound bus security, arguing that incorporating airport-style security into the bus system doesn’t make sense. Largely because it got linked by Bruce Schneier, the post was viewed over 2,000 times – more than 1,000 of them on the first day when it was linked.

2) Second post popular was this post on Health Canada’s climate change report. It’s not much of a post, really, when it comes to new content from me. What it does do is make the PDF files of the report available for easy download: something Health Canada itself opted not to do.

3) The third most popular post came very early in 2008, and was about how high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission could be a major enabler for renewable electricity generation.

4) The fourth post once again demonstrates the power of getting linked on a popular site. Zoom directed a lot of people towards my odds guessing experiment, the results of which were posted subsequently.

5) Finally, the fifth most popular post of 2008 was my flowchart for voting in Canadian elections. Strategic voting was a big issue in Canada this year, as was the difficulty of interpreting any electoral result. Voters are simply trying to express so many different preferences through such a narrow channel that knowing precisely what any vote means is impossible.

Taken together, these posts demonstrate a few basic realities of the blogosphere: (a) the small fry get a lot of attention when they can catch the eye of bigger fish, (b) failing that, it pays to be Google-bait, (c) it pays to be the one providing access to something popular, and (d) posts with the most substantive content won’t necessarily get the most traffic.

My thanks to the 36,418 absolute unique visitors who stopped by this year, viewing 117,400 pages. Hopefully, next year will be even better, both in terms of the quality of writing, photography, and discussion and in terms of how many people participate.

Grid technologies to support renewable power

Indistinct Vermont barn

The MIT Technology Review has a good article about renewable energy and the ways electrical grids will need to change in order to accomodate it. Both key points have been discussed here before. Firstly, we need high voltage low-loss power lines from areas with lots of renewable potential (sunny parts of the southern US, windy parts of Europe, etc) to areas with lots of electrical demand. Secondly, we need a more intelligent grid that can manage demand and store some energy in periods of excess, for use in times when renewable output falters.

The article highlights how the advantages of a revamped grid are economic as well as environmental:

Smart-grid technologies could reduce overall electricity consumption by 6 percent and peak demand by as much as 27 percent. The peak-demand reductions alone would save between $175 billion and $332 billion over 20 years, according to the Brattle Group, a consultancy in Cambridge, MA. Not only would lower demand free up transmission capacity, but the capital investment that would otherwise be needed for new conventional power plants could be redirected to renewables. That’s because smart-grid technologies would make small installations of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels much more practical. “They will enable much larger amounts of renewables to be integrated on the grid and lower the effective overall system-wide cost of those renewables,” says the Brattle Group’s Peter Fox-Penner.

In short, a smarter grid holds out the prospect of overcoming the biggest limitation of electricity: that supply must always be exactly matched to demand, and that prospects for efficient storage have hitherto been limited. The storage issue, in particular, could be profoundly affected by the deployment of large numbers of electric vehicles with batteries that could be used in part as an electricity reserve for the grid.

Providing incentives for the development of a next-generation grid (as well as removing some of the legal and economic disincentives that prevent it) is an important role for governments – above and beyond the need to put a price on carbon. While carbon pricing can theoretically address the externalities associated with climatic harm from emissions, it cannot automatically deal with the externalities holding back grid development, which include the monopoly status of many of the firms involved, issues concerning economies of scale, the fact that the absence of transmission capacity restricts the emergence of renewable generation capacity (and vice versa).

The full article is definitely worth reading.

Liquid lenses for low-cost eyeglasses

Joshua Silver – a retired Oxford professor – has developed a kind of eyeglasses that can be easily ‘tuned’ for a particular individual in the field. This is possible because the glasses contain sacs of liquid silicone and have syringes attached, allowing fluid to be added or removed. Changing the quantity of fluid effectively adjusts the kind of correction provided by the lenses, allowing them to address any degree or short- or long-sightedness.

10,000 pairs have already been distributed in Ghana, and there are plans to distribute 1,000,000 in India in 2009. Silver ultimately aims to produce enough glasses for 100 million people a year.

The Pope on homosexuality and the environment

Dylan Prazak making a monstrous face

Recently, the Pope announced that fighting homosexuality is just as important as protecting the rainforest. These comments have been rightly attacked from many angles. For me, what it highlights most is the ways in which religion can produce poor prioritization of issues. By according certain things sacred or venerated status, they can become a disproportionate focus for attention, a spark for conflicts, and an obstacle to the completion of more important work. Because religions elevate acts that are purely symbolic (say, baptism) to having a high level of perceived practical importance, they can get in the way of the achievement of practical goals, like enhancing and protecting human health and welfare, as well as that of the natural world. To those who say that religion is necessary to make the majority of people act in moral ways, it can be riposted that many of the supposedly moral issues that get the most attention are basically distractions from the real challenges being confronted by humanity.

This is precisely the property of religion that is satirized by Jonathan Swift in the conflict between the Big Enders and the Little Enders in Gulliver’s Travels. Ultimately, the issue of what gender of people a person is attracted to (or wishes to marry) has as much relevance for other people as which side they choose to crack their boiled eggs on. In spite of that, there are those who successfully employ emotions stirred up over such trivial issues as means to bolster their own support by turning people against one another.

Religion isn’t the only force within society that elevates the symbolic to the practical in a potentially harmful or distorting way. Certainly, there are comparable transformations within politics: in which symbols come to be more important than the things they represent, and their defence comes to be a distraction from more important endeavours. Whatever the cause of such instances of ‘missing the point,’ it is to be lamented. It must be hoped that people in a few hundred years will have learned enough to laugh at an idea so silly that protecting the environment and reinforcing traditional gender norms are (a) both desirable ends or (b) equally worthy of attention.

The Name of The Rose

Megan Pini in Bennington

Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose reminded me of both An Instance of the Fingerpost and My Name is Red – the former largely because of how multiple perspectives were employed, and the latter on account of the character of the mystery. All are historical fiction, as well as murder mysteries. All involve the question of which unsympathetic suspect is a murderer. In one form or another, all involve theological disputes. In the end, I found them all reasonably compelling as narratives, but not especially interesting insofar as the major topic under dispute was concerned. Particularly in the case of Red and Eco’s book, the motivations of the murderer turned out to be of fairly marginal interest.

The most interesting aspects of the novel are those concerning the politics of the church and the middle ages, as well as the sections about empiricism and investigation. The more tiresome sections include references to the history of the period insufficiently detailed to make much sense to those not already educated about the middle ages. All told, this is the kind of book best suited to someone with a pre-existing interest and base of knowledge around the time period in question, rather than someone who wandered into it by chance. One well designed element of the story is the ironic contrast between the perceptions of the narrating character (both in reminiscence and during the action), the other characters, and the reader’s own perceptions about some of the issues in question. The sometimes naive observations of the narrator as a young novice are a good mechanism for inducing critical thought.

One annoying choice Eco made was including many untranslated passages in French, German, Latin, and Italian. While I can see what a delight it would be for polyglots to experience these sections in the intended tongue, would it really have been unacceptable to add translations in footnotes or endnotes? Hardly anybody is going to work their way through a Latin-English dictionary word-by-word every couple of pages.

In any case, the mystery itself is well structured and the book well written. Those with a particular interest in the time-place set will probably find it gratifying.

The science section at the Rideau Chapters

Icicles on green wood

The science section at the Rideau Centre Chapters always depresses me. It is often the most disorganized section of the store – tucked, as it is, in the very back corner. Books have frequently been relocated by customers and not re-shelved by staff, and the organizational system is deeply flawed even when properly implemented. For one thing, it has too many confusing sub-sections. It hardly makes sense to have a single shelf set aside for ‘physics’ books, when it is almost impossible to guess whether a specific tome will be in ‘physics,’ ‘mathematics,’ or the catch-all ‘science’ category. To top it all off, the catch-all category has been alphabetized in a bewildering serpent pattern, twisted back against itself and interrupted with random intrusions.

My two final gripes are that the science section is mysteriously co-mingled with the section on pet care (our most sophisticated form of understanding about the universe, lumped in with poodle grooming) and that the science section contains so many books of very dubious scientific merit, such as paranoid and groundless exposes on how MMR vaccines supposedly cause autism (they don’t, though they have saved countless infant lives).

While commercial pressures may legitimately dictate that the pilates section be more accessible, better organized, and more well-trafficked than the physics or biology sections, it is nonetheless saddening.

Learning about photographic flashes

Want to learn how to use an external flash with your SLR camera system? Strobist has an useful ‘Lighting 101‘ series of articles. I have also had Light: Science and Magic by Steven Biver et al. strongly recommended to me.

Since I will be getting my hands on a 430EX II flash on Wednesday, doing a bit of pre-reading seemed sensible. The first photos I produce using it should appear here sometime after I return to Ottawa on the 28th.

Enhancing carbon sequestration in wood

Andrea Simms-Karp and Morty

Ordinarily, wood is a relatively temporary storehouse for carbon. While trees absorb it when growing, they re-release it when they burn or rot. A company called Titan Wood is seeking to enhance the sequestration potential of wood by chemically altering it. In so doing, they increase the span of time for which the carbon will be bound up in a solid form; by making the wood stronger (converting soft woods like pine into a form comparable to tropical hardwoods), they also allow wood to be used in a wider variety of applications, displacing more carbon-intensive building options like concrete, metal, and plastic:

Instead of deforesting tropical rainforests for the highest quality hardwoods, we can essentially make them from trees that grow in northern climates. Wood that is grown via sustainable forestry practices and modified with our acetylation process provides a far more sustainable model for producing high-performance lumber. If the wood is both grown and used locally, so much the better.

Unlike woods treated with existing processes (such as Chromated Copper Arsenate), the resulting material is non-toxic.

In the Netherlands, a heavy traffic road bridge is being constructed from this processed wood (the commercial name for it is Accoya). All the wood being used for the construction is from source-certified sustainable species.

This all strikes me as a neat idea, and a potentially good way to store some carbon in the medium term while transitioning towards more sustainable building materials.

The Seventh Seal

Tonight, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with Gabe. My overall impression is that the film is a bit like high runway fashion: impractical, often incomprehensible, but likely to filter down and become part of many subsequent pieces of mainstream art.

All told, I prefer more straightforward storytelling. Excessively arty and intellectual films annoy me. This film doesn’t quite cross into that territory (unlike films like The Hours and Lost in Translation, which I strongly disliked), but it has a similar rarefied, abstract quality. I don’t feel annoyed for having watched it, but I don’t think I got any of the messages the film-maker intended, either.