Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Solar panels a thousand times more efficient?

I have a roof full of solar panels, and they are great, but they don't supply enough power for our daily electrical needs (about half, actually). Imagine, then, if I had solar panels that were a thousand times more efficient.

Well, that's the promise of a totally new kind of solar panel being developed in Germany. Researchers at  Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg have produced a solar panel using alternating crystalline layers of barium titanate, strontium titanate and calcium titanate, instead of the traditional silicon-based cells. The new cells use about 500 alternating layers of these ferroelectric and paraelectric materials, each about 200 nanometres thick. This arrangement apparently separates the positive and negative charges in the same photovoltaic device, thereby increasing their efficiency by orders of magnitude (somehow).

It is still early days in the development of this new technology, and I have no idea how rare or expensive the ingredients (or whether the supply is controlled by China!) But, nevertheless, it is an exciting new avenue that seems to have lots of promise for the future.


Friday, October 08, 2021

UN declares a clean environment to be a human right

The UN Human Rights Council has voted to recognize that access to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental human right. The motion, jointly proposed by Costa Rica, Morocco, Maldives, Switzerland and Slovenia, noted that the global environmental crisis, particularly climate change and poor air quality, leads to some nine million premature deaths every year.

The motion passed with 43 votes in favour, with just Russia, India, China and Japan abstaining (the Council is made up of 47 rotating countries; Canada and USA are not currently members). Britain initially opposed the motion, but eventually came around and voted for it because of its committment to deal with climate change, but stressed that the fact that it is not legally binding was a major factor in this decision...

It's true that the ruling doesn't have any actual legal standing, but it does send a powerful moral message, and it is thought that it may have some significant impact on legal cases currently underway in various countries concerning climate change and other environmental matters.

Many emvironmentalists are lauding the decision as a game-changer, but the more hard-nosed economists and politicians are pretty much ignoring it as so much hot air (which seems appropriate). Me, I'd like to think it might be important, but the cynical part of me, which grows as I age, has lower expectations.

Alberta whining about equalization again

Alberta is whining again. Well, what's new? How many times have I written those, or very similar, words?

This time, the provimce has decided to add in a referendum question to the upcoming municipal election ballots, asking for Albertans' views on equalization. The question asks: "Should section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 - Parliament and the government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments - be removed from the constitution?” 

Equalization - established back in the 1950s, and enshrined in the Canadian Constitution in 1982 - is part of a system of provincial transfer payments, along with the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer. It is a system of wealth redistribution, based on the putative "fiscal capacity" of the various provinces. The "have" provinces effectively pay tax funds into a pot to be shared among the "have-not" provinces, in the aspirational belief that Canada is a country, not just a collection of private fiefdoms. 

Quebec is by far the largest recipient of equalization payments (although PEI receives the most per capita), and Manitoba and the Maritime provinces also benefit. However, it is not the case that the "have" provinces contribute these funds directly: as the Library of Parliament explains, "Equalization is financed entirely from government of Canada general revenues", i.e. it is raised through federal taxes on all Canadians.

Many in Alberta, though, want to keep all the fortuitous advantages of its natural resources, particularly after a couple of (relatively) lean years in the province. This is a selfish, dog-eat-dog, deeply conservative attitude, profoundly uninterested in the common good. It's not even that they want to conserve the fruits of their honest labour; they just happen to live in a place that has a bunch of lucrative fossil fuels. But, hey, that's Alberta.

The people of Alberta have been force-fed the idea that the province is being unfairly treated by the country by their Conservative government for years, and specifically the idea that the equalization formula is unfair to Alberta. So, it is more than likely that the referendum will return the response the current government wants. Not that this will have any actual practical effect, of course - ending equalization payments is not within provincial jurisdiction - it's all about political optics. And the foundering Kenney government needs all the help it can get right now.

But the reality is that Alberta is still by far the richest province in Canada, and is in no position to complain. According to StatsCan, Alberta had a median family income of $101,780 in 2018 (not sure why 2018 should be the latest figures available), way ahead of Saskatchewan ($89,760) and Ontatio ($89,270), not to mention lowly New Brunswick ($77,020) and Nova Scotia ($78,920).  The territories of Yukon and Northwest Territories had even higher median incomes than Alberta, but they are tiny economies and populations which have to deal with an extremely high cost of living.

Just for good measure, the Canadian Income Survey for 2019 shows that the median after-tax income for families and unattached individuals in Alberta was $72,500, compared to $66,600 in Ontario and $65,700 in British Columbia (and $53,300 in Nova Scotia and $55,600 in Quebec, at the other end of the scale).

So, don't cry for Alberta. Despite decades of mismanagement and short-sighted investment decisions, it's doing alright thank you. Of course, the oil nd gas won't last forever, so it does need to get its act together soon. But for now, it remains a "have" province, and it owes it to the less fortunate parts of the country to contribute its dues. That's the Canadian way.

Just so you know, the other referendum question onnthe upcoming ballot is "Do you want Alberta to adopt year-round Daylight Saving Time, which is summer hours, eliminating the need to change our clocks twice a year?” Heady stuff!

Monday, October 04, 2021

Supreme Court or Santa Claus Convention?

There was a great picture of Canada's Supreme Court in this weekend's Globe and Mail.

But it's really hard not to think of a Santa Claus Convention.


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The day of the "peep peep peep" reversing alarm isnover

Every morning I wake up to the "peep peep peep" sound of reversing alarms from the construction machinery just up the street. It's not quite the dawn chorus. In fact, it's possibly the most annoying noise I hear all day. And I do hear it all day...

But, you say, that's the point of reversing alarms: they have to be annoying and intrusive or people won't notice them. But that's just the thing - they are SO ubiquitous now that people don't really notice them any more for the purpose for which they were designed, only as a vague annoyance in the distance, and a contribution to the overall noise pollution that assails our cities in this modern day. There's also some evidence that the vehicle drivers nowbpay LESS attention while reversing, relying instead on the alarm to warn pedestrians and other workers out of the way. This thing has come full circle.

The beep-beep reversing alarms have been around since the 1960s, when they were introduced in the USA and Japan. They spread rapidly in the 1970s, as studies showed that they did indeed cut down on the carnage on our construction sites, and soon became mandatory on work sites around most of the world.

By the 1990s, though, questions were starting to be asked about how effective they really were, and noise pollution concerns were starting to starting to be taken more seriosusly. By the early 2000s, a more broadband "sshhhh-sshhhh" white-noise reversing alarm was developed, which is supposedly more directional, gentler on the ear and easier for pedestrians to pinpoint. I think this is what I hear from our garbage trucks each Tuesday, and it's marginally better, but still pretty nasty.

It seems to me, though, that the development of obstacle detection radars and 360° camera monitors, such as I have in my car, are a much better solution than either of these options. Even relatively budget cars now feature these, so the cost cannot be that high, although retrofitting older vehicles is probably a tougher sell. Do we even know that new construction vehicles are being fitted with these features? Probably not: inertia is a powerful force, and laws will need to be adapted. 

In the meantime, we are stuck with that excruciating "peep peep peep". All day.

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Ryder Cup: an embarrassment or a celebration of macho culture?

I don't know much about golf, and I've never knowingly watched a match, even on television. I've never seen the point in whacking little ball around a field. But it is undeniably a popular spectator sport, and one of the most popular golfing events is the annual Ryder Cup competition between the USA and Europe.

However, this is not a genteel sporting event. This is not St. Andrews or Augusta. This is a raucous, alcohol-soaked bro-fest (and make no mistake, you don't see many sis's at the Ryder Cup). This is drunken guys yelling "U-S-A" (or "Fra-a-ance" or "Ger-ma-ny"), booing the opposition, cheering the opposition's muffed shots, and generally being boorish. In particular, it's a bunch of macho guys wearing baseball caps backwards, being steotypical Anericans (and a few brave stereotypical Europeans) and generally making a hyper-partisan spectacle of themselves, while a game of golf continues somewhere in the background.

As it turns out, the Americans won this one handily - the home team almost always wins the Ryder Cup; maybe it's something to do with all that booing? - although the Europeans still lead the series, which began back in 1979. But the score is almost secondary to the event itself, that celebration of manliness and buffoonery. Some golfers roll their eyes at it; some just lap it up.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

German Word of the Day - Merkel-Raute (Merkel rhombus)

 Named after the rhomboid hand clasp that Angela Merkel has long favoured:


She (and it) will be missed.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

China enters a new phase where optics are no longer important

The release of Canada's two Michaels at the exact time that Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was released from her house arrest and flew home to China - the two flights probably passed each other somewhere over Northern Europe - gives the official lie to all the outraged Chinese claims that there was no link between Ms. Meng's arrest and the incarceration of the two Canadian civilians.

No-one outside of China seriously doubted that the detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig was anything other than an arbitrary and spurious tit-for-tat action that is best characterized as "hostage diplomacy". But China has been at pains to insist that this was not the case, in a vain attempt to have it appear slightly less egregious in the eyes of the world. 

Most commentators - including me, I have to say - were predicting that, once Ms. Meng was released, through the intercession of American lawyers and diplomats (and almost certainly Joe Biden himself), the two Michaels would NOT be released immediately, because that would too obviously link the two events, which would be bad optics for China.

Yesterday's bland admission that, yes, the detentions were indeed targeted hostage diplomacy after all, heralds a new phase in China's relations with the rest of the world, one in which optics really don't matter to them. Long used to splendid isolation (other than what bought support they can glean from their aggressive investment and development projects in South America and Africa), China is clearly signalling that it now believes itself strong enough not to need to observe the diplomatic niceties followed by most of the rest of the world. 

China now believes it can do pretty much whatever it likes with complete impunity, because no other country dare cross it due to its economic and military power. It is up to the rest of the world, or at least those who are not completely economically beholden to China, to show that this is not the case. Canada, as a middle power at best, should take solace from the fact that it has a whole network of supportive allies in North America, Europe and parts of Asia behind it, while China is essentially, and eternally, alone.

And, of course, now that the two Michaels are out of the picture, Canada is under pressure to make its long-delayed decision on whether or not to allow Chinese company Huawei to participate in the rollout of Canada's 5G telecommunications network. Actually, Rogers, Bell and Telus, having seen the writing on the wall, are all now pursuing 5G contracts with Eriksson, Nokia and Samsung anyway, so maybe the government may not need to put their neck on the line by making an official statement (or maybe they have already been speaking to Rogers, Bell and Telus behind the scenes for that very reason).