Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kill the hydrogen car?

The Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is in Toronto this week - and in Ottawa and Vancouver - touting his own unique brand of green-ness (hydrogen-powered Hummers?), looking for partnerships and deals and vows of solidarity in his inimitable style. In particular, it seems he is looking for Canadian interest in the hydrogen highway concept which is receiving so much hype in California and British Columbia ion particular.
But, having just seen "Who Killed The Electric Car?", I am in two minds about hydrogen as the way forward for vehicle transport. Although the documentary (which I would recommend, incidentally) is not principally about hydrogen transport, the recent ballyhoo about hydrogen appears, according to the film at least, to be one of the guilty parties responsible for the demise of the once popular electric cars (in addition to big oil, greedy auto companies, ineffectual government and an unimaginative general public, among others).
As a practical and cost effective option, hydrogen cars are still many years away, despite the money being pumped into them, and there are still many questions about the costs and benefits of the power required to produce hydrogen fuel, vehicle efficiency and range, a refuelling infrastructure, etc, etc.
I am starting to prefer the plug-in hybrid option, not as the answer to all the world's problems, as some people almost seem to be suggesting, but as a good medium-term solution, and of course in association with some pretty drastic medium- to long-term changes in electricity generation.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Under-representing Ontario

Conservative legislation, supposedly aimed at better reflecting Canada's new population demographics by creating more federal seats in the fast-growing provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, is set to bring the seat allocations of Alberta and B.C. (where, coincidentally, the Tories have a strong election base) into line with the other provinces, but curiously to leave Ontario (you guess it, poor potential Tory territory) substantially under-represented, albeit less under-represented than at present.
The 22 proposed new ridings, not expected to actually come into force until 2014 anyway, have been allocated 10 to Ontario , 7 to B.C. and 5 to Alberta. Using the government's own predicted populations for 2011, in all other provinces the percentage of seats will be within 1% of the relative proportions of their populations. Ontario, however, is expected to have 39.4% of the population and only 35.2% of federal seats, a shortfall of 4.2%. By 2021, as populations continue to grow, the Ontario shortfall is expected to worsen to 4.8%.
By my own calculations, that would leave Ontario under-represented by as many as 14 seats (of which a sizeable majority is likely to be non-Conservative) after the changes, and presumably up to 14+10=24 seats under-represented at the moment.
Coincidence? I think not.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Those wacky Hutterites

I allowed myself a wry smile at the news that Hutterites in Alberta are now no longer required to have photos on their drivers' licenses.
There are apparently upto 30,000 Hutterites in Western Canada, some of whom are daft enough to believe that the Second Commandment in the Bible, which forbids "graven images", prohibits them from willfully having their picture taken (or, in their rather cavalier interpretation, "not being photographed is one of the Ten Commandments").
The judge ruled that their Charter rights were being infringed in this case, but now they are worrying about how to get round the US customs requirements, so we probably haven't heard the last of this nonsense.
Forgive my apparent lack of patience and cultural sensitivity here but, at the risk of sounding like a fascist red-neck, it seems to me that sometimes things are taken too far in the name of religious tolerance.
I don't object to people holding wacky religious views (so long as they don't impinge on others), but if you move to a country or province with certain laws then you have to live within them like everyone else, whether you like them or not. By all means, go ahead and try and change them through your vote, but if that doesn't work out then maybe you should be looking elsewhere.
If there were a religion which prohibited clothing and required mandatory euthanasia at age 30, would we be obliged under the Charter of Rights to suffer their pasty, naked flanks and sanction their joyous funeral pyres?
Gosh, I sound like a fascist red-neck. Who'd have thought it?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Nous sommes Canadian, eh?

And while I am on the subject of statistics, there were some interesting stats in yesterday's Globe and Mail about language and bilingualism in Canada (based on the 2001 census):
  • 59% of the Canadian population are native English speakers, but 85% of the population can speak English.
  • 23% of the population are native speakers of French, but 31% are able to speak French.
  • Almost 18% of the total population were functionally bilingual, up from 13% in 1971. Noticeably, almost 25% of the 15-24 age group were bilingual in 2001.
  • Among major Canadian cities, Montreal, Moncton and Ottawa-Gatineau lead the way in biligualism with 53%, 47% and 44% respectively.
  • Predictably enough, Vancouver and Edmonton were the least biligual with 7.5% and 7.7%.
  • Toronto, the target of most English-speaking immigrants, did not fare much better with 8.5%.
  • In terms of absolute numbers, there were most bilingual speakers in Montreal (1,792,750), then Ottawa-Gatineau (464,485) and Toronto (393,415).
No great revelations maybe, but interesting enough per se. Now, can anyone explain to me why French is not taught in kindergarten, indeed not until Grade 4?

Trivial Pursuits from The Skeptical Environmentalist

I have been ploughing (very belatedly, I know) through Bjorn Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist" - 500-odd pages of closely-argued, oh-so-earnest commentary on the state of the world, and why all environmentalists have always got it wrong, and how all is peachy with the world.
It's an interesting read, and a necessary book - environmentalists over the years have become so used to being in the position of trying to bring perspective and a voice of reason to arrogant scientists, complacent governments and an apathetic general public. But, in these days of mainstream environmentalism, someone is needed to question their own dogma.
The book is the work of a little-known Danish statistician on a mission to trash the consciousness-raising efforts of the World Wildlife Fund, the WorldWatch Institute (he clearly has a very personal grudge against Lester Brown), Greenpeace, Norman Myers and others, and in the process to self-publicise himself as a controversial and fascinating world figure.
He lambastes these organizations for shoddy logic, self-serving interpretations and selective or misrepresented data. Some of this is admittedly probably justified but, unfortunately, it seems to me that he employs some of the same techniques himself in his fixation with proving that not just SOME environmental concerns are bunk, but all of them.
It's fascinating (and instructive) to see how statistics can be manipulated in the hands of a master (for example, his conversion of a 150% increase in cancer deaths since 1950 into a 30% decrease).
But don't worry, I don't intend a detailed critique of this tome here - there have been many such, and by much better qualified individuals and organizations than myself.
What the book does contain, though, is scads of demographic data and easily digestible graphs and tables, much of which I found fascinating (I'm a bit of a sucker for facts and figures and statistics), and I just wanted to share a few of these Trivial Pursuits-type snippets and gobbets with you (without the contentious commentary and interpretations):
  • The number of people who have ever lived on the earth is estimated to be between 50 and 100 billion, and 6 billion (or 6-12%) of those are still alive today.
  • In 1950, New York was the only city with more than 10 million inhabitants; today there are about 20 such megacities, the vast majority of them in the less developed parts of the world.
  • Until around the 15th Century, average life expectancy was in the region of 20-30 years; current life expectancy varies from 39 in Sierra Leone to 81 in Japan, with an average of 77 in the developed world and 65 in developing countries.
  • A plague in the late 6th Century cost over 100 million lives, 4 times the toll of the Black Death of the late 14th Century (and in a less populated world). The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed around 20-25 million worldwide.
  • Annual working hours for an employed person in Western Europe and the USA fell from almost 3,000 in 1870 to less than 1,600 in 1990.
  • In the US, television ownership went from less than 10% to 87% during the 10 years of the 1960's. A similarly steep curve applied for microwaves and VCRs in the 1980's (up to 80% and 70% respectively).
  • Also based on US data, women in 1965 spent 24% of their time on housework and men 7%; by 1995, this had changed to 16% and 9% respectively. Employment work over this period went up from 11% to 17% for women, and down from 28% to 23% for men.
  • US energy consumption rose from 10 exajuoules in 1900 to over 100 exajoules in 2000. World energy production over this period increased from around 18 exajoules to almost 400 exajoules, of which about 38% was oil, 22% coal, 21% gas, 7% hydro and renewables, 6% nuclear and the remaining 6% traditional fuels such as wood and charcoal.
  • The energy reaching us from the sun is equivalent to about 7,000 times our present global energy consumption.
  • In the US, cars kill about 57 million birds each year and 97 million birds die colliding with plate glass; wind turbines kill about 70,000 birds each year.
  • Cement for building constitutes about 34% of our total expenditure on raw materials, followed by aluminum (for cans, cars and airplanes - 12% of expenditure), iron (mainly for the production of steel - 11%), copper (for electrical products and currency - 8%), gold (for jewellery and electrical products - 8%) and nitrogen (for fertilizer - 6%).
  • The total amount of gold which has ever been quarried since antiquity would make a cube with sides of just 17 metres; upto 85% of it is still in use.
  • Of the 13.6 billion cubic kilometres of water in the world, oceans make up 97.2%, polar ice 2.15% and freshwater 0.65% (of which 0.62% is groundwater).
  • Each year, the equivalent of 30cm of water falls as precipitation (after evaporation) across the entire land mass of the world.
  • Kuwait has available only 30 litres of water per capita per day, followed by UAE (174 l), Libya (275 l) and Saudi Arabia (325 l) - less than 2,74o litres per capita per day is considered chronic water scarcity. By comparison, the UK has 3,337 l, USA 24,420 l, Australia 50,913 l, Russia 84,235 l and Iceland a whopping 1,660,502 litres.
  • 69% of water is used for agriculture, 23% for industry and just 8% for households. The water subsidy to farmers in the US is estimated to be over 90%.
  • A ton of grain requires about 1,000 tons of water for irrigation. 1kg of edible beef requires 16kg of grain feed.
Ah, the world we live in! I could go on, but I risk boring you.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My top 100 albums

Purely in the interests of personal nostalgia, and absolutely not in the expectation that this will be of interest to anyone else, I have been thinking about my favourite rock albums of all time. I didn't see any way of including classical music in the comparison, and my interests in jazz, folk, world music, etc, pale into insignificance in the great scheme of things.
This is not my estimation of the best music ever made or anything of that nature. It is simply a list of the albums which have had the most impact on me over the years, and to which I have probably spent the most hours listening over the years. It doesn't necessarily reflect my tastes now.
It follows my progression from hard rock (in my pre-teen and early teen years) through prog and jazz-rock, the punk revolution and post-punk new wave, most of it biased towards my native Britain, of course. Things peter out somewhat in the early eighties, and interestingly the only music from more recent years that make the list is some trip-hop and some of the more experimental electronica. How much that says about me and how much about the music, I'm not quite sure.
The only simplifying rule I used (in order to prevent chaos and impossible value judgments) was just one album for each artist, and even that was hard enough. They are listed in chronological order:

Santana - Abraxas (1970)
Led Zeppelin - IV (Symbols) 1971)
Genesis - Nursery Cryme (1971)
Deep Purple - Machine Head (1972)
Jimi Hendrix - Hendrix in the West (1972)
Wishbone Ash - Argus (1972)
Yes - Fragile (1972)
Black Sabbath - Vol 4 (1972)
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Trilogy (1972)
Uriah Heep - The Magician’s Birthday (1972)
Premiata Forneria Marconi - Storia di un Minuto (1972)
Focus - Focus III (1972)
Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
David Bowie - Aladdin Sane (1973)
Montrose - Montrose (1973)
Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells (1973)
Status Quo - Piledriver (1973)
Roxy Music - Stranded (1973)
Mahavishnu Orchestra - Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973)
Budgie - Never Turn Your Back on a Friend (1973)
Gentle Giant - The Power and the Glory (1974)
Rick Wakeman - Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974)
Queen - Queen II (1974)
Tangerine Dream - Phaedra (1974)
Frank Zappa - Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
Blue Oyster Cult - On Your Feet or On Your Knees (1975)
Camel - The Snow Goose (1975)
Joni Mitchell - The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Todd Rundgren - Initiation (1975)
Jeff Beck - Blow By Blow (1975)
Renaissance - Scheherazade (1975)
Kraan - Live (1975)
Jean-Luc Ponty - Upon the Wings of Music (1975)
Thin Lizzy - Jailbreak (1976)
Boston - Boston (1976)
Brand X - Unorthodox Behaviour (1976)
Colosseum II - Strange New Flesh (1976)
Al DiMeola - Elegant Gypsy (1976)
Steely Dan - The Royal Scam (1976)
Return to Forever - Romantic Warrior (1976)
Lynyrd Skynyrd - One More from the Road (1976)
Kansas - Leftoverture (1976)
Soft Machine - Softs (1976)
Bothy Band - Old Hag You Have Killed Me (1976)
AC/DC - Let There be Rock (1977)
Rush - A Farewell to Kings (1977)
Utopia - Ra (1977)
Allan Holdsworth - Velvet Darkness (1977)
Jethro Tull - Songs from the Wood (1977)
Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks (1977)
The Damned - Damned Damned Damned (1977)
The Jam - This is the Modern World (1977)
The Clash - The Clash (1977)
Steve Hillage - Green (1978)
Gong - Gazeuse (1978)
Bill Bruford - Feels Good To Me (1978)
UK - UK (1978)
Bob Marley - Babylon By Bus (1978)
The Rezillos - Can’t Stand the Rezillos (1978)
Buzzcocks - A Different Kind of Tension (1979)
Magazine - Secondhand Daylight (1979)
Human League - Reproduction (1979)
Gang of Four - Entertainment (1979)
The Fall - Dragnet (1979)
Wire - 154 (1979)
Stiff Little Fingers - Inflammable Material (1979)
The Undertones - The Undertones (1979)
Penetration - Coming Up For Air (1979)
The Slits - Cut (1979)
Public Image - Second Edition (1979)
Siouxsie & The Banshees - Kaleidoscope (1980)
The Dead Kennedies - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
The Psychedelic Furs - The Psychedelic Furs (1980)
Killing Joke - Killing Joke (1980)
Comsat Angels - Waiting for a Miracle (1980)
Joy Division - Closer (1980)
The Sound - Jeopardy (1980)
UB40 - Signing Off (1980)
The Cure - Boys Don’t Cry (1980)
Beat (English Beat) - I Just Can’t Stop It (1980)
Echo & the Bunnymen - Crocodiles (1980)
The Teardrop Explodes - Kilimanjaro (1980)
U2 - Boy (1980)of
Talking Heads - Remain in Light (1980)
Simple Minds - Sons and Fascination (1981)
A Certain Ratio - To Each (1981)
Passage - For All and None (1981)
Girls at Out Best - Pleasure (1981)
Au Pairs - Paying With A Different Sex (1981)
Robert Wyatt - Nothing Can Stop Us (1982)
Scritti Politti - Songs to Remember (1982)
Billy Bragg - Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy (1983)
David Sylvian - Brilliant Trees (1984)
Peter Gabriel - So (1984)
Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation (1988)
Radiohead - Pablo Honey (1993)
Portishead - Dummy (1994)
Autechre - Tri Repetae + + (1995)
Bjork - Post (1995)
Massive Attack - Mezzanine (1998)

So there, it's done, I've got it off my chest.
Now, having tackled music and movies, do I dare start thinking about my favourite novels?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tax plastic bags

Ontario's (strategically pre-election) announcement that it wants to cut plastic bag use by 50% over 5 years is lame indeed. It seems unclear how they intend to do this. And why just 50%? And why over 5 years?
Why not follow Ireland's 2002 PlasTax example. By charging a 22¢ (Canadian equivalent) tax on disposable plastic shopping bags, they reduced demand by over 90% almost overnight, and saved millions of litres of oil and reaped the environmental benefits in the process. Many other countries, including some third world countries, are seriously considering following suit.
In Canada, we use about 10 billion plastic shopping bags a year (an estimated half-a-trillion worldwide, or about a million each minute). The vast majority of these end up in our landfills where they gradually break down over a period of up to 1,000 years into tiny particles which contaminate the soil and water. A minority end up round the necks of sea mammals and birds, or in the stomachs of land mammals, or flapping in the breeze on fences and roadsides.
Only 1-3% of plastic bags are recycled, and the economics of recycling are not appealing (and many which are collected for recycling apparently end up dumped in India or China where they are incinerated under laxer environmental laws).
Paper bags are not much of an improvment - it takes 4 times as much energy to produce paper bags as plastic bags, it adds to deforestation and chemical pollution from paper mills, and only 10-15% of paper bags are recycled anyway.
The new generation of biodegradable bags are an improvement in some ways, but they require as much energy for production and transportation as traditional plastic bags, they can lead to contamination of plastics recycling streams, and may make people blasé and lead them to litter even more (even though they still take upto 18 months to break down).
(Most of this information is taken from ReusableBags.com, incidentally).
Reusable cloth shopping bags are by far the best solution. Now, if only I could remember to take them with me when I go shopping...

Friday, May 04, 2007

How much will carbon reductions cost me?

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - the third part of their 4th major assessment - purports to demonstrate how carbon emissions can be reduced and to give some idea of how much it might cost.
This latter issue has been a sticking point for many people and, in particular, many governments, not least those of the United States and Canada.
IPCC gives some concrete measures whereby carbon emissions could be mitigated, breaking it down into the sectors of buildings, industry, energy supply, agriculture, forestry, transport and waste (in order of potential savings).
The indications are that the costs may not be as cataclysmic and prohibitive as some pundits have claimed, especially when predicted annual GDP growth rates are taken into account. What we are looking at is a slight reduction in annual growth, rather than a massive, depression-causing hit to the world economy. Not exactly news, but more ammunition against the nay-sayers, I guess.
I still maintain that, however wobbly some of the science behind global warming predictions may be, (and some of it is, let's admit it), most of the ameliorating measures needed to tackle it - increased energy conservation, more clean renewable power generation, more recycling and reuse of pretty much everything, more reforestation and less deforestation, more and better public transit, etc, etc - need to be done anyway if we are to lead a sustainable existence on this planet.
And I am banking on the current climate change bandwagon to achieve a good part of my own private agenda.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Yo, wazup dawg!

I was intrigued by a recent perusal of the Urban Dictionary, which defines some of those weird words and phrases and street slang teenagers are supposed to use these days (although I am convinced most of them are apochryphal and unlikely to be encountered on ANY street let alone those of our middle class Toronto neighbourhood).
In addition to giving you the skinny on chavs and moshers, demonstrating the difference between phat and shibby, and the cultural significance of preps and snaking, there is also some fascinating insights into the way the language is adapting and mutating as we speak (example: 'ghey', meaning lame or weak, but supposedly attempting to take the homosexual meaning out of 'gay'), and some new words which are just too cute not to have been invented back in Anglo-Saxon times (such as noob, fark, guap, dap, etc).
It also includes user-contributed definitions of some more normal words and phrases. There is a lot of smut, some of it quite enjoyable smut admittedly, and many poorly-spelled and poorly-thought-out contributions, but some I found rather witty and provocative:
  • tattoo - dermatological graffiti
  • erotica - pornography with bad lighting
  • World War II - One of the few sequels that surpassed the original
  • crusade - a commerically successful action movie set near the end of the eleventh century
  • agnostic - an atheist who admits that he could be wrong, and thinks that this makes him something else
  • depression - the common rational reaction to self-awareness
  • wife - a prostitute with a life-long contract to a single client
  • hope - the delusion that your situation is not as objectively bad as it is
  • originality - the art of concealing your source
  • idiot - a person who occupies a position or opinion opposing your correct one