Gyms in Ottawa

Do any readers have experience with gyms in Ottawa? I am thinking about joining one as a complement to cycling – especially for the winter months, when the roads are all serious ice hazards. Benefits would include being close to LeBreton Flats, being open at unusual hours, being inexpensive, and offering a discount to government workers.

Any advice or suggestions?

The value of private cars in cities

Squirrel near Mud Lake, Ottawa

In the midst of the discussion about the ethics of traveling to Vancouver, the issue of how cars have benefited and harmed people living in urban areas came up. It is undeniable that they have been a major transformative force, when it comes to the shape and character of cities.

To me, it seems that private cars in cities do more harm than good, for a slew of reasons:

  1. They kill a lot of people: both drivers and pedestrians.
  2. They take up a lot of space and alter urban design in negative ways, contributing to sprawl and vast areas of just residential or just commercial zoning.
  3. Sprawl reduces natural and agricultural space. It also leads to people commuting, which is a major waste of their time.
  4. They pollute and emit greenhouse gasses.
  5. They are loud.
  6. They cause neighbours to know one another less than they otherwise would.
  7. They help make many states dependent on oil exports, and frequently involve them militarily in Middle Eastern conflicts.
  8. They have made roads into hostile spaces for everything but automobiles, whereas previously they were more versatile public spaces.
  9. The roads they require are built with public money, though they do not provide value to everyone, and contribute to serious negative externalities.
  10. They use energy quite inefficiently, since they move faster than is sensible, and the mass of the vehicle itself far exceeds that of passengers and cargo.

If it were possible to re-design cities, I think it would be better if they excluded cars entirely within their cores and had a lot of dedicated transit and bicycle routes. Stores could be permitted to have delivery vehicles for large items, and taxis could continue to exist, but the use of private cars within city limits would ideally be eliminated.

What points would people offer to defend private cars in cities? Also, are there and indictments against them I missed?

Interesting Ottawa author

Those with an interest in reading some things with an Ottawa connection should have a look at local author and performer Sylvie Hill’s website. It includes things like more than eighty of her weekly ‘Shotgun’ columns for Ottawa XPress, articles on art, book reviews, a thesis on sexual frustration in Joyce’s Ulysses, editorials, Ottawa news (not frequently updated), and more.

Balancing the environment and economy

Two mechanical diggers

When dealing with climate change, politicians often talk about the need to ‘balance the economy and the environment.’ I think this is a misleading categorization for two reasons.

Firstly, the balance has always been tilted virtually 100% towards the economy, in Canada at least. When the government talks about the need to scale back climate mitigation programs for economic reasons, they are talking about scaling back a handful of ineffectual programs that are not proving effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The ‘balance’ dial between environment and economy is already twisted sharply towards the latter.

Secondly, even if we completely ignore the natural environment, the need to mitigate emissions remains. The Canadian economy could not survive the consequences of unrestrained emissions and climate change, with a temperature increase of 5.5°C to 7.1°C by 2100. If we care at all about the state of the economy 20, 50, and 80 years out, we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The economic analyses of mitigation that have been undertaken in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere have painted the same broad picture: it is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly at a modest cost, provided you start early. The costs associated with inaction are much higher than those associated with this mitigation programme. To succeed, the whole economy needs to be pushed in the direction of decarbonization – a fact that remains true regardless of what balance you care to strike between economic health across the long term and environmental protection.

Hashing with Wolfram Alpha

Separately, I have discussed both the Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine and the practice of hashing information. The fact that WA allows anyone to do so easily has relevance for things like making bets online, in situations where players want to conceal their guesses until everyone else has put theirs up.

Here is an example. Say you want to place bets on who will win the next Republican presidential primary. You don’t want those who post later to have the advantage of knowing what others have already posted, so you do the following:

  1. Choose a hash algorithm (MD5 should be fine, but SHA is more secure)
  2. Have each participant put their guess into WA. Say I think it will be Sarah Palin. I would enter: “SHA “I think the primary winner will be Sarah Palin, though I fear what she will do with the country” into Wolfram Alpha, and it would spit out something like “f7ca 4adf 11c7 5b56 f355 1635 5b50 2eca 5950 5349”
  3. Note that the supplementary text, in addition to the name, is vital. Otherwise, it would be trivially easy for the other players to check the hashes for likely guesses and learn what people have chosen. Incorporating a salt into the hashing algorithm would be ideal, but WA doesn’t seem to have that capability.
  4. Have each participant post the hash of their response, saving the exact text somewhere secure to them.
  5. When the outcome is known, those who guessed correctly can confirm that fact, by providing text that hashes into their original post.

A somewhat roundabout and nerdy solution to a relatively unimportant problem, perhaps, but it illustrates some of the ways hashes can be used to prove what you said earlier, without having the content of your earlier message immediately accessible – a general ability with many applications.

One more fact about salts: they are the most straightforward way to foil attacks using rainbow tables.

Endless Canadian delay on climate change mitigation

Fiddlehead ferns

Jim Prentice, Canada’s Minister of the Environment has said that Canada might not impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions until 2016. This is simply preposterous. It makes a mockery of this government’s pledge to cut emissions to 20% below 2005 levels by 2020. It is also hypocritical. This government argued that they could not meet their Kyoto Protocol targets due to the inaction of their predecessors. They argued that the short time left before the deadline would require them to simply shut down Canadian industry and services to homes (See: The Cost of Bill C-288 to Canadian Families and Business) Of course, dallying until 2016 would put whatever government was in charge then in an even tighter bind.

In order to meet this government’s 2020 target, Canadian emissions will need to fall by about 170 million tonnes over the next eleven years: a task equivalent to making the entire province of Alberta carbon neutral. Obviously, waiting until 2016 to begin dooms the project to failure. That ignores the fact that even the 20% target is insufficiently ambitious, when you consider the risks associated with different global emissions pathways and the fact that rich, developed states must lead the way on the transition to low- and zero-carbon sources of energy.

The idea that we could do nothing substantial for another seven years is an affront to ethics, good sense, Canada’s international obligations, and our reputation as good global citizens. If Canada cannot show the leadership or vision necessary to appreciate the risks of unconstrained climate change, as well as the opportunities in moving the energy basis of our society to a sustainable basis, our best hope is that we will be made into a pariah state by our most important trading partners. For Canada to maintain growing emissions for another decade would be shameful, but not a global crisis in itself. For the United States, European Union, China, and Japan to do so would quite probably doom future generations to a world very different from ours. If those states do show the fortitude required to begin the transition to carbon neutrality, they will be quite justified in imposing stiff carbon tariffs against a Canada too blind or selfish to see upon or act as must be done.

UBC’s footprint reduction contest

The University of British Columbia is holding a contest where participants will set out plans on how to make the Point Grey campus “net positive” in terms of energy and water, as well as reduce greenhouse gas output. The grand prize is $5,000, second prize is $3,000, and third prize is $1,000. The contest is open to UBC community members (ie: Student, Staff, Faculty, Researcher, Resident or Alumni).

Net positive water output seems like something that could be achieved fairly easily. You would capture and purify rainwater, use it to cover all on-campus activities, and export a bit into the water system beyond. It would require infrastructure spending, but it seems clear that it could be done.

Net energy output (in a zero carbon way) might be trickier, though I presume it isn’t necessary for the campus to be exporting power to the grid all the time. As long as net exports are positive, it seems fair to call the campus “net positive” on energy. Wind and solar are the obvious renewable options, though UBC isn’t really an ideal location for either. My guess is that the best option would be to install wind and solar capacity, while retrofitting buildings to make them much more energy efficient.

Contest guidelines are online. (PDF)

Limits of aquaculture

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), near Mud Lake, Ottawa

Seen from a simplistic and very selfish human perspective, ecosystems are devices for converting sunlight into human food. Sometimes, this happens fairly directly: sun hits soybean leaves, soybeans grow, and people eat them. In the case of the fish we eat, it is generally much less direct: sun hits phytoplankton, zooplankton eats that, they get eaten by fish that can eaten by successively larger fish, finally the largest fish get caught and eaten by us. In at least one important sense, this pyramid of energy use is quite different from the terrestrial one. In terrestrial agriculture, we manage the initial sun collection and can increase its amount in various ways. We are not, and perhaps never can be, farmers of plankton at the scale necessary to sustain the global marine food web. The effort involved in boosting the global plankton supply significantly would presumably be very large, given the immense biomass involved. Also, since energy is lost in each conversion, the amount of additional high-level species that would result from any increase would be smaller than the amount of additional plankton generated.

We are seriously overfishing the stocks that depend on the energy from existing phytoplankton stocks. If we start growing tuna and salmon in farms, feeding them fish from progressively lower in the marine ecosystem, we will eventually hit the bottom (if we keep having enough fuel for all those fishing boats). It is a fallacy to think that fish farms are like livestock farming on land. In the latter case, we are responsible for providing the inputs. In the former, we are still gathering from natural ecosystems, and doing so at an unsustainable rate.

Two partial solutions seem to exist. Firstly, we can get more fish per person by eating more plentiful species with lower trophic levels (closer to being creatures that eat plankton). That means anchovies for dinner, rather than tuna. Secondly, we could conceivably feed fish in farms using food from the land. That allows us to increase the basic solar energy being collected, and sustain a larger amount of tasty fish as a result. Of course, extending land-based agriculture entails other financial and environmental costs. Not least among these are the marine dead areas produced by pollution and fertilizer runoff.

The sensible way to run global fisheries is to avoid activities that cause disproportionate harm (dynamite fishing, catching juvenile fish) and then eat the sustainable portion of the output from different trophic levels. This means basically accepting a total level of sustainable human fish consumption for different species, then resisting political and financial pressures to exceed that limit. Of course, the record of human societies on doing this is dismal. We basically only fish sustainably when we are physically incapable of fishing more. Partly as a result of that, the general outlook for the world’s marine fisheries is dire.

Increasing renewable capacity is much harder than increasing energy consumption

David MacKay’s book (described here) makes an excellent point about the asymmetry between energy supply and demand, in terms of the difficulty or ease of increasing either:

It’s so simple for me to consume an extra 30 [kilowatt-hours] (kWh) per day. But squeezing an extra 30 kWh per day per person from renewables requires an industrialization of the environment so large it is hard to imagine.

For instance, buying a car and traveling 50 km per day in it means adding 40 kilowatt-hours per day (kWh/d) to your energy consumption. By contrast, surrounding all of the United Kingdom with wind turbines – with 15 per km of coastline, extending 4 km out to sea – would produce 16 kWh/d for every UK resident, if the wind was blowing all the time, and probably about 1/3 of that in actuality.

Statistics like that deepen my suspicion that a world without fossil fuel consumption will be one where there is much less energy consumption going on, overall. While increased efficiency can offset part of that, it also seems extremely likely that some very energy intensive activities will need to cease.

Waxman-Markey worse than useless?

Cardinal - near Mud Lake, Ottawa

In a very depressing piece of analysis, Grist columnist Gar Lipow argues that the Waxman Markey climate change bill emerging in the US will do worse than nothing, when it comes to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. This is because of how it issues permits (downstream, rather than upstream), its problematic use of offsets, and the fact that most permits (80%) will be given away, rather than auctioned.

Lipow concludes that: “Because of the flaws I’ve mentioned, it essentially requires no emission reduction in practice for at least a decade. Any short term benefits come from non cap-and-trade provisions, such as the Renewable Energy Standard.”

Muddled climate policies that get captured by industry are a major danger, throughout the developed world. Unless you get the details right, it is easy for carbon pricing policies to give a huge amount of money to the dirtiest polluters, increase consumer prices, and fail to effectively mitigate emissions. While it is urgent to begin mitigation, it is also necessary to note the trade-off between a quick and deeply flawed approach and a slower but less problematic one. To begin with, we need policies like the Vienna Convention on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer: too weak, but not hopelessly flawed. Additional political and scientific work turned that instrument into the relatively effective Montreal Protocol. If we don’t display wisdom and overcome entrenched interests in drafting climate policies, we risk blocking the chances of any such progression in climate legislation.