Government divesting from fossil fuels

One complication related to the BP oil spill is the anticipated harm that cancelling dividends will do to pension funds. It is not ultimately inappropriate for those investors to lose money. They were benefiting before when BP’s lax safety standards generated unjustified profits. Still, there are political difficulties associated with making people bear the burden of even such limited exposure to BP’s new risks.

Right now, there is a significant conflict of interest when government officials have an individual or collective interest in the continued profitability of the fossil fuel sector. Perhaps the appropriate response is a program of divestment, wherein government pension plans and officials scale down and eventually eliminate their holdings of stocks and bonds from fossil fuel companies. That way, they will individually be in a more impartial position from which to make decisions on climate and energy policy.

Five Republican senators on cap-and-trade

In an interesting illustration of how political tactics shift with circumstances, an article on Grist quotes five American Republican lawmakers expressing their support for a cap-and-trade approach to addressing climate change. At the time, they were concerned about so-called ‘command and control’ regulations, which may have given industry fewer options for reducing emissions. For instance, a government decree that all new vehicles meet a certain efficiency standard cannot be circumvented by cutting emissions somewhere else; by contrast, both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes leave it up to firms and individuals to choose where to cut emissions.

The Grist list includes senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), and John McCain.

The logic of the changed stances is dispiriting. At one point, Republicans saw command and control regulations as plausible enough to be worried about, and were willing to promote cap-and-trade as a preferable alternative. Now, it seems they think command and control is a complete political non-starter, and they have directed their energies towards fighting the less stringent alternative they once opposed.

There are reasons to worry about whether a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system would produce the emissions reductions we need quickly enough, and it is very plausible that additional measures like fuel taxes and efficiency requirements will be needed in addition. All the more reason, then, to create a carbon price as soon as possible. Only by doing so can we begin to get a sense of how quickly and cheaply that approach can lead to a lower carbon world. If it proves cheaper and easier than expected (as has generally been the case for complying with environmental regulation), then the price of emitting carbon can be raised more quickly, reducing climate risks further. If it does not prove effective, early action will at least provide us with that information in a somewhat timely manner, while there is still an opportunity to try other approaches.

Now on Twitter

In the ongoing quest for eyeballs, there is now a new way to follow updates from a sibilant intake of breath and

Each will be updated when new content goes onto the site, for the benefit of readers who prefer to keep track of things that way. It won’t necessarily be every post that goes there, but I am hoping it will be a way to spread awareness of some more interesting or important ones.


By default, WordPress creates Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds that can be checked in an automated way using tools like BlogLines or Google Reader. has a feed for posts and another for comments, as does (comments).


Both sites also have Facebook pages:,

Hunting neutrinos with IceCube

The University of Wisconsin is leading a project to embed a massive neutrino detecting telescope in the Antarctic ice sheet, called IceCube. It will use thousands of Digital Optical Modules (DOMs) to look for the characteristic blue flashes which occur when neutrinos collide with ice. Since neutrinos normally zip straight through everything, collecting enough observations to learn about them is challenging and requires specialized detectors.

The project will try to identify point sources of high energy neutrinos, investigate their connection with gamma ray bursts, and may provide experimental data relevant to dark matter or string theory.


Apparently, Xinhua – China’s equivalent to the CBC – plays two roles. It provides censored information to the general public, expressed in ways designed to bolster support for the government and reduce dissent, and its journalists provide secret reports directly to policy-makers. Xinhua has considerable resources with which to do so, including a staff of over 10,000 and 107 bureaus worldwide. Their most classified reports, called Hong Tou Cankao, may only be distributed to a dozen or so people at the very top of government.

This is a curious sort of arrangement, and perhaps an odd reflection on the current Chinese philosophy of economics and government. On the one hand, the state retains a position of extreme power and control, with little meaningful oversight. On the other, the state recognizes the usefulness of non-governmental actors: whether they are the exporting firms that have been the basis for rising Chinese prosperity or quasi-independent journalists who may have important information to share with those at the top.

It will be interesting to see how long this approach can continue to be viable, or whether China will find itself in a position where it needs to choose between opening up information and influence to a wider variety of actors or clamping down to retain government control, while also stifling some of the elements of China’s recent success. I also wonder what Xinhua’s most classified reports have been saying about climate change.

Black blocheads

These window smashers who show up at every big international gathering certainly are annoying! They dominate the news coverage, obscuring any legitimate messages from activist groups. Furthermore, they act to justify the expense and intrusion of the heavy-handed security that now accompanies these events.

Incoherent rage against miscellaneous organizations (G8, G20, WTO, etc) doesn’t advance any sort of political agenda. It just distracts from serious discussions. Arguably, it also helps prevent the various legitimate organizations that attend these protests from engaging meaningfully with one another. After all, their priorities and agendas certainly do not align perfectly, and they clash on many issues. When protests are mostly angry pageants, it isn’t necessary to consider such substantive matters. The closer you get to actual policy-making, however, the more important it becomes to address contradictions so that something can actually be done.

Is there any way to eliminate the bandana-wearers as a constant feature of these gatherings? Obviously, massive security spending doesn’t achieve that aim. Perhaps a more energetic rejection of such individuals and tactics within the activist community could. Given how effectively the violent minority drowns out important messages, finding some way to keep a lid on them would probably benefit a lot of people.

Search engine optimization (SEO)

If you are trying to make money from a website, search engine optimization (SEO) is a matter of vital concern. An enormous amount of web traffic arises from somebody, somewhere in the world throwing a search query into Google or Bing or Yahoo (but really Google) and then picking from among the results that appear.

This is perhaps an unprecedented situation in human history, because now website developers have an overwhelming incentive to produce pages that appear high in the rankings of popular search engines, when people put popular queries into them. As a result, these website creators are no longer just producing content designed to appeal to human beings – it also needs to stand out as special to the mathematical algorithms that drive the world’s search engines.

For the most part, I would say this is a bad thing. Algorithms can deal with fantastically more data than a person ever could. Google crawls through an impossible number of blog posts every day. At the same time, people are much more clever when it comes to telling a good site from a bad site. They rely on cues that it is very hard to teach algorithms to respond to.

Certainly, the world is much better off as the result of the existence of powerful search engines. That said, I hope that SEO proves to be a dying industry in the long term, as search engines begin to more closely approximate the behaviours and reactions of real human beings. When that happens, web designers and content producers may start optimizing their work for its human consumers, rather than for the robots that are often the intermediary between humans with a desire for certain kinds of information and the humans who can actually provide it.

(Full disclosure: This site does earn money from advertising, but so far that has very much been a matter of paying the cost of web hosting. In terms of income per hour of work, I would be enormously better off working any minimum wage job.)

Blogging out loud

I have attended and enjoyed a couple of Blog Out Loud Ottawa events, at which local bloggers read one selected post in front of an audience. This year, I decided to give it a try. The event is on July 7th, at 7:00pm at Irene’s Pub on Bank Street, just north of Landsdowne Park.

My contribution will certainly be outside the norm, as most people read posts that are narrative accounts of their own personal experiences. I will almost certainly select one of my posts on climate change.

The post is meant to be from between June 2009 and June 2010, but the selection is otherwise up to me. I want to choose something that is informative and accessible, even for people without much knowledge about climate change, politics, or environmental issues.


Open thread: campaign finance

Writing for The American Prospect, Robert Reich describes the system of campaign contributions in the United States as “the biggest corruption of our political process,” defining corruption as “actions causing the public to lose confidence that politicians make decisions in the public’s interest rather than in the special interest of those who give them financial support.” He claims that the increasing size and importance of these political donations is primarily a reflection of changing economic circumstances:

Globalization, deregulation, and technological advances — especially computers and the Internet — have been the driving forces. They have shifted almost all industries in almost all rich economies from being organized around stable oligopolies, in which competitive advantage derived mostly from economies of scale, toward far more intense competition in which competitive advantage comes from innovation — and from favorable treatment by government.

He argues that the issues that now occupy the bulk of Congressional time are those that affect competition between firms within an industry, as well as those that affect competing industries.

Climatologist James Hansen also identifies campaign finance reform as one of the most necessary steps for producing effective climate change policies in the United States, by reducing the influence of status quo entities like big coal companies.

What do readers think about the claim that political advertising ought to be a form of protected free speech? How much does it matter whether it is funded by the candidate themselves, campaign donors, or some other mechanism? Would we be better off if all candidates got a set amount of free advertising, and were barred from using other means to promote themselves in mass media? Would such a policy just drive them to use different approaches to achieve the same end, such as cooking up forms of advertising that can be reported as news? Does the current situation in Canada differ in important ways from that in the United States?

The problem with 3D everything

The 3D craze in all forms of entertainment has spread to the extent that the swag bags for journalists at Toronto’s G8/G20 summit include an iPhone cover designed to let you view 3D media. 3D is all the rage for movies and games, as consumers flock to something novel and seemingly high-tech and entertainment companies sense an excuse to boost ticket prices and (for now) offer something that pirated media does not.

I have one big problem with all of this: while it is easy enough to exploit binocular vision to produce the illusion of three dimensions on a flat screen, doing so doesn’t really take into account how people see. The effect works because of how our brain interprets parallax – the situation in which the perspective on a scene differs slightly when the viewpoint used changes. This is a problem for many point-and-shoot cameras, with viewfinders offset from the lens; you can compose a photo nicely as viewed through the former, only to discover that it doesn’t look so great when viewed through the latter. It also applies to the different perspectives offered by your two eyes. Your brain uses the differences between the two views as one source of information about how far away things are, feeding into our overall awareness about the three-dimensionality of the world.

Parallax is one important way in which our brains make sense of a three-dimensional world. Others include geometric cues, like how parallel lines seem to converge as they approach the horizon. Exploiting these sorts of cues allows artists to make works that seem to have depth. It is also one way in which optical illusions can be created. It is one reason why the very cool hollow face illusion works. Indeed, that particular illusion only works when seen without the benefit of binocular vision, which allows our brains to figure out that we are in danger of being tricked by geometry.

The trouble with 3D is what happens when our eyes go beyond perceiving a scene and into responding to it: specifically, by refocusing. When we see a rhino charging at us, the muscles around our eyes change the shape of our lenses so as to keep the beast in focus. Our eyes also turn inward, toward our noses. Unfortunately, when we are just looking at a false 3D image of a rhino, the re-focusing is not necessary. After all, we are still really looking at the same flat screen. This may explain why watching 3D movies is nauseating for some people; more worrisomely, it could cause people to learn to see in unnatural ways, in a manner that extends beyond the movie theatre experience.

This is not a problem that can be overcome, so long as our chosen mode of producing faux-three-dimensional images relies upon information displayed on flat panels. How important it ultimately will be, I can’t really comment on. Still, it is worth knowing that the exciting 3D experience consumers are being promised is premised on a limited understanding of how people really see moving images.