What’s possible?

Right now, the majority of educated Canadians seem to believe that one or both of the following is impossible:

  1. For the world as a whole to reach carbon neutrality – the state where net greenhouse gas emissions are zero – before 2100
  2. For the global economy to be restructured to run on forms of energy that are zero-carbon and renewable

And yet, both of these intertwined changes seem to be necessary if we are to avoid dangerous or catastrophic climate change.

My question to readers is: what would make the majority of people in Canada and around the world accept those two situations as at least possible? That is a necessary prerequisite to them being seen as desirable and, ultimately, necessary.

Zero History

Zero History is the third novel in Vancouver author William Gibson’s latest trilogy of science fiction set in the present. It is the sequel to Spook Country, which came out in 2007.

Like all of his work, it is clever and well written. This trilogy succeeds in meshing together the trends and technologies of the past with those of the near-future. It also generates some intriguing characters – in this case, the recovering benzodiazapene addict Milgrim is the most interesting. Unfortunately – as is common in science fiction – Gibson does a better job of setting up a mystery than of resolving it. That and a few forgettable, interchangeable characters constitutes the biggest limitation of the work. Once again, Gibson hasn’t risen to the standard he set with his first novel, back in 1983. That said, while Gibson doesn’t display the same ability to tell a story that is compelling from end to end, in this case, Zero History does seem indicative of his maturation as a writer and a person. For instance, whereas the protagonist of Neuromancer was an unrepentent stimulant addict, Zero History explores the psychological processes of addiction recovery in an intriguing and authentic way.

Certainly, one of the interesting aspects of Gibson’s latest work is his exploration of what kind of societal changes may emerge from the most recent real technologies. As he famously remarked: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” In particular, he is concerned with the emergence of wholesale surveillance technologies in areas ranging from international communications to citywide networks of video cameras paired with facial recognition technologies. The ways in which such technologies intersect with the operating practices of governments, criminal syndicates, and special forces groups is certainly something that has cropped up in interesting ways in both reality and other recent fiction, ranging from the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai to the fictional engagement of both police and drug gangs with communication technology on The Wire.

The climax of Zero History is probably the most disappointing part. Without revealing too much about the plot, it seems fair to say that it is a letdown after all the preparation the characters undertake beforehand, and the revelations that follow it do not seem to justify all the earlier intrigue. That said, Gibson’s latest work is a solid piece of fiction and an interesting exploration of some of the implications of emerging and existing technologies. It will also expose a lot of geeks who normally have nothing to do with the world of fashion to some of the elements thereof, in a way that suggests that the industry is not so very different from the high tech sector, with its secrets and large personalities.

BuryCoal update

After months in limbo, Google has assigned a PageRank to BuryCoal.com, significantly increasing the amount of traffic going there.

In order to help drive that site’s evolution, I am planning to put most of my climate-related writing over there now. That should also be helpful for those who are only interested in following that topic of discussion, as opposed to the miscellaneous ones that crop up here. I encourage anyone with an interest in climate change to subscribe to the RSS feed or sign up to get updates by email.

BuryCoal is also looking for contributors, including those who wish to post anonymously.

Ottawa’s ‘Beaver Barracks’

The rather unfortunately named ‘Beaver Barracks‘ is an ecologically oriented housing development, being put up by the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation (CCOC). Two buildings are under construction now, at 464 Metcalfe and 160 Argyle, and they are expected to accept their first residents in November and January, respectively. The building on Argyle will be four stories, while that on Metcalfe will be eight, with a roof terrace. Two additional buildings are expected later. In the middle, community gardens will be put in when construction is finished. The whole complex is located just south of the Nature Museum.

I first found out about the place by means of Zoom’s blog.

Sustainability features

For me, the most notable feature of the buildings is how they will be the largest residential development in Canada heated and cooled using ground-source heat pumps. Sylvie Trottier, CCOC’s Green Animator, sent me some details on the system:

The system we are building is a central distribution loop designed to deliver a specific temperature (70 degree F) to heat exchangers located at each of the four buildings. As well, it will provide this same 70 degree temperature to the domestic hot water system via a double wall heat exchanger. The geothermal ground loop is designed to provide 70% of the peak load of the system via the heat pumps; this design actually provides 90% of the annual load. The boilers plumbed to the central loop are incorporated to assist the geothermal heat pumps in maintaining the design temperature of 70 degrees during the peak demand period. The Domestic Hot Water system (DHW) is connected to the central loop through a double wall heat exchanger. The central loop provides the DHW heat pump with a temperature of 70 degree. The DHW heat pump raises the temperature to 150 degree F. The boiler attached to the DHW system is used for the peak periods when the heat pump system requires assistance in maintaining the design temperature. During the cooling season the heat being removed from the building is captured by DHW heat pump system and used to supply the DHW. This feature enhances the overall efficiency of the central plant system. Also important to note is that the central distribution system will maintain itself through a balance of heating and cooling during the shoulder seasons, when the loop temperature is simply maintained through the space conditioning requirements of the tenants.

The central distribution loop will then feed heat pumps in each unit that will provide tenants with control over their own heating, cooling, and hot water.

Geothermal heating and cooling seem ideally suited to Ottawa, given how the city experiences extremes in both summer and winter temperatures. Other sustainability enhancing features include a green roof, low-flow fixtures, efficient lighting and appliances, and a high performance building envelope.

The architects are Barry J. Hobin & Associates Architects Inc.

Unit selection

I attended one of their information sessions yesterday, and ended up submitting an application to live in B^2 (as I prefer to think of it). My top two applications were for 683 square foot one-bedroom apartments in 160 Argyle, with this layout:

The balcony and windows look south, into what will eventually be the central garden area. For the immediate future, they will overlook a construction site.

Reading floorplans isn’t something I have much experience with, so if any readers have the mental ability to turn these pictures into an image of what the apartments will be like, I would appreciate your feedback.

The other unit I applied for, as a third choice, is a 602 square foot one-bedroom apartment, located on the 5th floor of 464 Metcalfe. It has this floorplan:

The bedroom window would look north, toward the Museum of Nature, with the balcony above the central garden area.

The rent for each unit is $956, plus various expenses. For the units I selected at 160 Argyle, heating and cooling are $62.83 per month. For that at 464 Metcalfe, it is $55.39. HST, electricity, laundry, and internet would be on top of that. Both places are significantly more expensive than my current place, but I think it would be worthwhile for a couple of reasons: primarily, for the benefit of living in a situation where I would be more likely to meet new people, and in order to encourage more sustainable construction.

Lots of other unit types are available: ranging from bachelors to three bedroom units. Heating and cooling costs are set per square foot.

[Update: 1 October 2010] I got word from CCOC. I will be moving into a place modeled on the first floorplan, on 1 January 2011. It will be on the fourth floor of 160 Argyle. It will be my second non-university-residence home.

What will the future condemn?

Over on Climate Progress, Joseph Romm makes a good case that future generations will condemn us for ignoring climate change. He argues that there are three signs of a behaviour that is common in a society at one point, but which is later widely condemned on moral grounds:

  1. “people have already heard the arguments against the practice”
  2. “defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity”
  3. “supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit”

All of these factors seem to be in play, when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and the changes in climate they are producing.

As I have done, Romm compares greenhouse gas emissions now with slavery in previous times. Both were once central to the economic sytems of some places, but both impose intolerable burdens on innocent people.

The Stuxnet worm

There has been a recent flurry of discussion online about a piece of malware that targets the control systems of industrial facilities – specifically, one that seems designed to sabotage one particular facility. The speculation is that the target is either the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran or Iran’s uranium enriching centrifuge cascades at Natanz. If so, the idea would presumably be to slow down the development of Iranian nuclear weapons.

The sophistication of the worm has led many security researchers to speculate that only a nation state would have the resources to assemble it. That said, there are a great many unknown factors in play. The entire situation could be someone’s attempt at misdirection, or making a threat. Assuming the basic elements of speculation are correct, this would be an interesting development in unconventional military tactics. It probably wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented, however. There have already been three generations of Suter: a computer program developed by a British defence corporation, designed to interfere with communications and communications systems in a military context. Suter or similar software may have been used in Israel’s 2007 airstrike on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria.

The Young Turks

When Jon Stewart interviewed former president Jimmy Carter recently, the topic of Stewart’s upcoming ‘Rally to Restore Sanity‘ arose. Carter commented that Stewart was now becoming involved in politics. At the same time, fellow comedian Stephen Colbert testified before a congressional committee.

At the same time as Stewart and Colbert are moving in new directions, a new satirical news source has emerged. The Young Turks is a website and media show sponsored by Sirius Satellite Radio. It has a kind of unpolished authenticity, lacking the production values of Stewart and Colbert’s offerings. It skews younger and edgier, and the website will start playing a Sirius Satellite stream if you leave it alone too long.

Many young people who I know don’t own televisions, and watch only Stewart and Colbert as video news sources. I am not sure how to feel about that, all in all. Neither seems too partisan, in the end. They mock Obama and Democrats about as much as Republicans. At the same time, perhaps it is worrisome that people (myself included) only absorb American news by means of a couple of spoof shows. There is a risk of fostering confirmation bias, and of developing a distorted sense of what political figures stand for and how influential they are.

On the other hand, most people I know also get a lot of print news from online sources (and sometimes even old school printed newspapers). Stewart and Colbert make intelligent arguments in clever ways, and don’t usually seem to misrepresent people too egregiously. Also, watching those shows helps people stay in touch with the general state of discussion about American politics, which probably resides more on television than online, at least for those who aren’t part of the tech-savvy subset of news consumers.

Balancing flash and ambient light

I am taking a photojournalism and documentary photography class through the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa. The first assignment is balancing flash with ambient light, taking photos of strangers outside at night. It is strongly encouraged to take photos in manual mode, rather than the aperture priority mode I normally use. As such, I am learning to adjust my thought process.

Normally, my thinking when it comes to exposure settings looks something like this:

  1. Will the lighting be changing quickly, not leaving me enough time to change settings? If so, choose a suitable ISO and white balance, set the camera to ‘program’ mode and hope for the best.
  2. If not, choose a combination of ISO and aperture that is suited to the light and the amount of depth of field I want.
  3. Make sure the shutter speeds generated are suitable to the situation, subject, and lens.
  4. Adjust ISO and white balance as necessary.

Switching to manual and balanced flash/ambient light requires choosing an appropriate aperture, then selecting a suitable shutter speed that will underexpose the subject before the addition of E-TTL II metered flash. It’s a workflow that takes some getting used to, but which ought to be helpful in the long run.

Particularly during the dancing at the end, my photos from my cousin Ksenia’s wedding could have used a bit of flash to top up the ambient light.

The Canon Nikon rivalry

As an undergrad, I decided to replace my old Pentax SLR, with its dodgy light meter, with a modern camera body. At the Lens & Shutter store on Broadway in Vancouver, I ended up buying a Canon Rebel G and a 50mm f/1.8 lens (because Photo.net had informed me that prime lenses were superior to zooms, especially kit zooms). I don’t recall the purchase in detail – or even whether I went in with a solid sense of which camera I wanted – but that choice locked me into the Canon system I still use today.

Given all the money I have spent on Canon-compatible photo gear since, it was a remarkably casual choice to go with that system rather than Nikon’s offering. To be sure, both manufacturers make great gear, and each has the edge on the other in a few areas. That being said, whereas my choices of Macs rather than PCs, UBC rather than SFU, and Oxford rather than Cambridge were all reasoned and intentional, I think the Canon selection was largely accidental.

The relatively few times I have handled Nikon gear have been odd experiences; the functions are the same with both sorts of equipment – ranging from commonly altered settings like aperture and ISO to less frequently used options like depth of field preview and mirror lockup. What differs is the design, and the precise mechanism through which a desired change is achieved. I imagine the difference is a bit like dancing with a man, rather than a woman, would be: the same general kinds of motion, but with surprising differences to contend with. The nomenclature differs as well. Whereas I have some kind of opinion on virtually every Canon camera produced during the last ten years or so, I have trouble remembering which Nikon dSLRs are full frame and which use crop sensors.

My aesthetic sense is that there used to be a strong presumption among professionals that Nikon was the superior brand, but that this has faded significantly in the last couple of decades. As with Windows and Mac OS, it certainly seems to be the case that the existence of a rivalry spurs innovations that are beneficial for consumers – from image stabilization to sensors with lower noise at high ISO settings. Similarly, the existence of additional brands that sometimes challenge the duopoly with innovative features is useful. If only that competition could help to drive down the exploitative prices of accessories like batteries, lens hoods, and cables…

In the long run, I expect that I will eventually dabble in a few other kinds of photography. When they become a bit older and richer, most photographers seem to try some kind of medium or large format camera system. Given the nature of such cameras, the resulting photos tend to have a high level of beauty and technical quality, but little spontaneity or energy. The other probable avenue is some kind of serious small camera: either something relatively mainstream and inexpensive like Canon’s G9/10/11 series, or some kind of expensive film camera like a Leica M-series rangefinder.

Privacy and the evercookie

In the context of the internet, cookies are little bits of data stored by web browsers that allow them to track visitors. They have many useful purposes. Commerce sites can keep track of what you have put in your shopping cart; sites can store your language preferences and login information; and so forth. This site uses a cookie so that those leaving comments only need to enter their name and email address once. Of course, cookies can also be used in more malicious ways, such as keeping track of what sites you visit without your approval.

Clearing out cookies is something that can nominally be done by all browsers. Unfortunately, this only applies to cookies of the conventional sort. Now, there are a multitude of ways through which browsers can store information through which to identify a particular computer and browser. As a demonstration of that, the ‘evercookie’ developed by Sami Kamkar stores information in eight different ways. Furthermore, it is able to regenerate any of the information if the user deletes it, provided all eight are not deleted simultaneously.

Kamkar’s intention is to show how tracking technology has outpaced the privacy features in browsers. The loss of anonymity is one of two big changes that have taken place on the internet, since the heady days of its birth. The other, of course, is the increasingly intrusive role played by governments.