Monday, December 12, 2011

If you wish to bake an apple pie from scratch…

There's no such thing as a self-made (wo)man. You couldn't possibly do any of the things you do "from scratch." You are a cell in a complex organism. You have to play nice with the rest of the cells. Because you know what we call a cell that doesn't get along with the rest of the cells in an organism? Cancer.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Truer Words

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."
- Jack Layton

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pathetic Fallacy

After last week's core service "review" pandemonium, the city continues to come apart at the seams as buildings and raised highways fall apart in sympathy with the administrative dismantling of our once great (or at least Good) city.

Admittedly, ours is not the only city which threatens to crush its citizens, but then again, who *wouldn't* want to crush Montreal drivers.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I originally typed this out in an email response to a friend who sent me this link:

Woman Faces Jail Time For Growing Veggies In Front Yard

I have to say this is pretty deplorable. The idea that the only thing you should grow in your front yard is water-insatiable grass is so wrong-minded. I'm glad that people are making a big stink about this, because codes should not keep people from growing food in their yards.

But, I would argue that people going to jail over vegetable gardens are just a symptom of a deeper problem. And you can blame The Government if you want, but bad government is yet another symptom of the real problem, which is lack of community.

In the above case, the city planning code just says the front lawn must be "suitable" which can be interpreted in lots of ways. If worse comes to worst and people are starving then vegetables are going to be pretty damned suitable. So the problem is less about the code and more about what some busy body neighbour found "suitable." So either the arrested gardener didn't know that neighbour, or they didn't like one another very well. Both problems could be easily solved by more community spirit.

But everyone is too busy trying to trade their time in front of a computer screen or behind a steering wheel for numbers in a spreadsheet somewhere that represent the memory of little pieces of paper and metal that they can then trade for food and electronics and fossil fuels so that they can hunker down harder and outcompete their neighbours. Because every number in your neighbour's column is one that isn't in your column.

So,we can change the code so it's okay to grow a garden in your front lawn but then people will be complaining about some other godamned ridiculous thing, or the code will be set down to include tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers but not arugala or zucchini. Or countless other things that are always wrong with that sort of solution.

Or, we can spend less time hating each other and "competing" with each other. And then people will want to let their neighbours grow gardens because they get to share in the produce sometimes and because who gives a rat's ass if it takes a few hundred dollars off the average property value on the street, is being able to sell your house for a slightly-higher profit more important than enjoying your life while you're in it?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I tried to view a webpage called "30 Creative 404 Error Pages" and got this:

Yes. I know. It's not a 404 error page. But, y'know. Still funny, I think.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Wrong question

There are a lot of headlines in the news right now asking why His Corpulence will not be attending the Gay Pride Parade. But I think this question misses the point entirely. The real question is: how could the people of the largest city in a country built on acceptance and tolerance, with an enormous and thriving gay community have elected a mayor who would shun the biggest gay event of the year in his first year in office? The parade is obviously a very big deal to a lot of the citizens of this city. If it is this important that the mayor attend, maybe this needs to be made a campaign issue. I think, at the very least, it would make a good indicator as to whether we're electing a tolerant mayor who wants to help all the people of the city, or an angry fat innumerate moron who is ideologically hellbent for (next) election on tearing everything great about this city to the ground.

If you're one of those people who is asking the question, "why would the mayor go to the Pride Parade? Ick," I highly recommend you go yourself. You really have to experience it firsthand. Even if the party isn't your style, it's hard to argue against something that brings so many people so much joy. And hey, who knows, maybe you'll surprise yourself and have a good time anyway.

Ultimately, it is the mayor's personal decision as to whether he attends the Pride Parade and maybe cajoling him in the headlines will change his mind. But I think the headline space is more appropriately used for real political matters. I can't call my councilor and ask him to make Rob Ford attend the Parade, but I can certainly call and write and ask him to push very hard against the mayor's handpicked whipped councilors on the Public Works Committee's recent decision to spend 10s-to-100s of thousands of dollars on removing bike lanes which are, by all accounts, not in anyone's way.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


And in the category of "don't quitcher day job", I would like to point out that I also write occasionally for the wonderful food blog Vivre Pour Manger. I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but plugging it every now and again doesn't hurt. Everyone who writes for Vivre Pour Manger is an amateur food lover and cook and all around great person, including Tiffany, with whom I once took a cooking course taught by Rob Rainford at George Brown. Plus, pretty pictures of food! Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nothing to blame but blame itself

I got some engaging feedback yesterday from a mysterious commenter who goes only by MZ*. One thing MZ said that caught my attention was "I'm not sure it's the electorate to blame."

I feel like I need to explain a little bit where I'm coming from.

I am a lazy, selfish man. Like most men, I suspect. And I think the adjectives apply equally well to women and people of whatever other gendered noun they choose to identify with. People are, by-and-large, lazy and selfish. Now, there's something a little tricky in there: I think that most people associate the word "selfish" with words like "greedy," "inconsiderate" and "thoughtless." I think of it more as seeking to improve my own happiness to the greatest extent possible. And by "lazy" I don't mean "not willing to do work." I mean "not willing to do more work than necessary."

I am optimising for most personal happiness for least personal work. Think of it like value. Imagine you want to buy a refrigerator. You're standing in the appliance store looking at two nearly identical models: they're they same size, the same power rating, the same colour. The difference is that they're made at different factories to different quality standards and you know from reading the internet reviews that, while they both will do an exactly equal job of keeping your food cool, keeping your electricity bill low and looking good in your kitchen, one has a motor that will crap out after 3 years while the other lasts 12. So fridge A costs $600 and lasts for 3 years while fridge B costs $1200 but lasts for 12 years. It seems painfully obvious to me that you should buy the $1200 fridge because, assuming that you want a fridge for at least the next 12 years, fridge B costs you $100/yr while fridge A (and its 3 additional replacements over the 12 years) wind up costing you twice that much, $200/yr.

I'm spelling this out painstakingly not because I think you, dear reader, are an idiot, but because I feel there is a lot of evidence that while fridge B seems like the obvious choice, many, many people will opt, metaphorically, for fridge A when given a similar situation to the above proposition. And there are lots of reasons for that -- maybe you simply don't have access to $1200 and need a fridge now. Or, perhaps, you have somehow been tricked into thinking that $600 is a more reasonable price for a fridge. And we're none of us immune to this kind of behaviour economic thinking. Although I talk a big rational talk in the privacy of my own blog, I've certainly bought fridge A in many situations over the years.

But I like to think and talk about these kinds of things, because I am lazy and selfish. If I allowed myself to get tricked into buying fridge A then I am not on my optimal happiness-for-work curve: either I've worked $100/yr too hard to pay for the refrigeration I need or I have lost out on $100/yr I could have spent on something in addition to fulfilling my refrigeration needs.

I think that there is quite a lot of evidence that we, as a society, are not living on the optimum happiness-for-work curve. That doesn't mean that everyone is miserable, or that everyone is working too hard. Just that the overall level of happiness is lower than it could be for the amount of work people are doing. Could we all be a lot worse off? Certainly. But, as I am fond of saying, "things could be worse," is not generally meant as a challenge.

Which brings us back to the original point.

Blame. I am not, in general, all that interested in blame. I think that blame is useful only insofar as it helps point to the source of a problem and suggest a solution. When I say "the problem is", I'm not trying to point the finger at someone and shame them (which is I think what blame evolved for) because that's not really a meaningful punishment in modern society.

What I have figured out, over the years, is that I am happiest when surrounded by other happy people. And there tends to be an amplifying effect: if I put a little work into making someone else a little happier, they can put some more work into making still others happier and eventually this will all return to me in happiness dividends. Admittedly, I have only ever tried this on fairly small groups, but I have no good reason to believe that it doesn't extend to the much larger communities of which I am a member in the modern, global world°.

And so, again, when I say "the problem is" what I am really saying is "I think I am working harder than I have to for the level of happiness that I am experiencing and I think the reason for that is." What I want is for you to be happy. Because when you are happy, it is easier for me to be happy.

* This reminds me of the time someone donated to a friends' marathon run under the anonymous name mz-197 and to this day, nobody seems to know who it was.
"mz" is the mass-to-charge ratio. The marathon guy worked on mass-spec data.
Why is there no "d" in "refrigeration"? It feels wrong to spell it that way...
° There is, of course, always the problem of freeloaders. But this entry is far too long already, so I'm not going to talk about it here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The sky is falling

Get used to it. Maybe get an umbrella. A really strong one. Parts of a major expressway in downtown Toronto started falling on the street below this week. Initial reactions by officials were that everything is fine. Which, of course, it is not. It may not be a big structural issue for the Gardiner to have its superficial outer layer flaking off, but it sure is a big health issue for anyone walking or driving on the Lakeshore underneath it.

This is just another piece of crumbling infrastructure which we can't pay to keep up. Which, it turns out, is built into the North American way of life. Someone pointed me at this series of articles this week. They are very well reasoned and full of evidence in the form of case studies. I strongly recommend you take the time to read them all, but if you are really pressed, I'd say read #2 and #5.

And then, remember this: whatever you're paying – in taxes, for goods, for services – it's not enough. And if you don't pony up, eventually the sky will fall on your head.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

specious, adj.

Pronunciation: /ˈspiːʃəs/

  1. Of language, statements, etc.: Fair, attractive, or plausible, but wanting in genuineness or sincerity.

  2. This article:


My favourite thing about technology is how easy it makes bad parenting.

From the Toronto Star:

Also, does anyone really think that a kid who can download a full Bluray quality movie in 8 seconds is going to be spending any time at all in the park?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Best. Graph. Ever.

For the record, I don't actually think this is the best graph ever. But I do think it does an adequate job of answering one of the questions I asked in a previous post. Or at least, one of the subquestions. In any event, I think the point is quite clear: compensation is not correlated with performance.

But who cares if they're doing the job they're being paid lavishly for, at least the gains are being spread around evenly, right? You got an 8000% raise this year, didn't you?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Little Questions

Thursday, March 31, 2011

fortnight, n.

Pronunciation: /ˈfɔːtnaɪt/

A night on which I build a fortress out of the couch cushions. Synonyms: weeknight.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No. It's not.

The Seattle Stranger's Slog asks, "Is Utopia here?"

Having read Saint Sir Thomas More's Utopia some time ago, I can tell you that an "artificial leaf" isn't going to cut it. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. It's a short read and has a lot of interesting things to say.

Okay, onto the meat of the post.

I would first like to object to the nomenclature being used here. This is not really photosynthesis which uses light, water and carbon dioxide to make sugar and oxygen; this is photoelectrolytic splitting of water – it uses water and light to make hydrogen and oxygen.

And this is not going to create Utopia. The idea that this will "make each home its own power station," seems... not well thought out.

First of all, there is the water. A real leaf has whole piles of systems dedicated to collecting, purifying, reserving and transporting water. I'm going to guess this system needs pure distilled water – about 6L of it for a 20 kWh system. 6L of water may not sound like much to people living in developed countries but it may turn out to be difficult to obtain in areas where a device like this could do the most good. And if you have enough sunlight to split that entire 6L, you only get 20 kWh of energy, which is approximately the average daily energy consumption for Africa in 2008 so realistically you'd probably want more in order to continue to have electricity if you have a cloudy day or two.

The second barrier to entry is of course the fuel cell. The catalyst described in the press release uses light to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen; you then need a way to turn those into electricity. I don't know a lot about buying fuel cells but the Fuel Cell Store sells a 1 kW PEM fuel cell for $4000. That doesn't exactly sound like developing world household price to me.

And finally, there is the problem of storage. Hydrogen is not very dense. If you wanted to store that hydrogen unpressurized, you'd be looking at 7 and a half cubic meters of storage space. If you want to pressurize it, that's going to cost you some energy, making the whole system less efficient. And let's not forget the other obvious problem about storing hydrogen.

All that having been said, I think this is a useful scientific discovery – a stable, inexpensive catalytic surface for photoelectrolysis. Perhaps very small systems can be made cheaply that would provide a few hours of reading light for people in the developing world. And I can see this being used in the developed world if it is cost-competitive with traditional solar PV at a system level, that is, if the cost of the electrolysis unit and fuel cell less per kW than PV cells. But if past experience with commercializing research like this is any guide, we can expect at least 5 years, probably more like 10 or 15 before that is even a question anyone has to ask.

My complaint here is not with the discovery, but rather the way it is being reported. Science can be useful without leading to an instantaneous paradise. Not every discovery is the Holy Grail of something. In the "what have you done for me lately?" world of academic funding, it's hard to be humble, but I think in the end, by providing expectations to the public which can never be met by any single scientific discover, we're only making things worse.

Update:While following up on this a bit, I discovered a news article with enough technical detail that I was able to figure out which publication was being described. It turns out that it will, in fact, run on non-pure water.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oddly Specific

This is probably not going to be very helpful for the vast majority of my modest readership. But, I would like to put it out there on the internewts so that it can help some academics overcome a rather annoying problem with a literature search tool. Scopus doesn't export to BibTeX very well. And then when I try to keep my bibliography straight by using a tool called BibDesk, it explodes with complaints everywhere. I have put together this little sed script which gets rid of, for me at least, all thing errors and warnings in an exported scopus BibTeX bibliography.

#!/usr/bin/sed -f
# change comma separated author list to "and" separated
/^author/ {
s/[a-z] *\([a-z] *\)*,/ and /g
s/[a-z] *\([a-z] *\)*}/}/g
s/\([A-Z]\.\),/\1 and/g
# fix keys with accents and spaces in them
/@[A-Z][A-Z]*{/ {
s/ //g
# fix quotation marks (there are other
# ways to do this, I just like this one)
# escape percent signs
# escape dollar signs (this could cause
# problems if there are math sections
# in abstracts or titles)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Fickle Finger of Fate

Some food for thought, on the subject of why social security nets are for everyone, not just the poor. (See also: Filthy Lucre [which has an unfortunate subtitle, but is worth reading even if you think you love capitalism])

Paul Krugman, in his post about the decreasing value of higher education:
but remember, the Luddites weren’t the poorest of the poor, they were skilled artisans whose skills had suddenly been devalued by new technology.

If you think you are so rich and powerful that you don’t need such insurance, consider this. The stock market collapse of 1929 at the onset of the Great Depression wiped out substantial quantities of wealth. The typical stock was worth only one sixth its pre-crash value once the bottom was reached. Whatever insurance existed in the stock market evaporated as the crash unfolded.

It wasn’t the poor jumping out of windows on Wall street. If you think it can’t happen to you, think again.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I Probably Think This Post Is About Me, Don't I, Don't I

I'm enjoying a little self-satisfaction today; Torontoist picked up my Ford Nation passport cover last night. So as a result, I'm being a little vain – checking my flickr stats, hit count on the Torontoist page and google analytics on the blog. It's nice; the numbers aren't big, but they're big for me.

One thing I still find funny is that, according to google analytics, people still arrive here by googling for hummingbirds coming from cocoons. My post is hit number 3 when I search for it. Unfortunately, not too many people stay long on the site when they arrive that way, but occasionally they surf around a bit or leave a comment on the post. But even in the sea of people showing up from flickr and Torontoist (and my own facebox sharing), I still see a few hits for hummingbirds coming from cocoons.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Easy Does It

It would appear that some of my previous posts have raised the hackles of some Lt. Colonel in the Ford Nation armed forces. Well, tough. I think the second you run for public office, you open yourself to all manner of criticism, lampooning, etc. So I don't ever feel bad for criticising a politician.

You might say his weight has nothing to do with his official position and is therefore not fair game. Au contraire, I retort. I think Ford's weight problem has everything to do with the political woes of this city. Because first of all, he is not simply a bit chubby. We're not talking about someone who could stand to get a bit more exercise but is otherwise healthy. We're talking about someone who is probably morbidly obese or super obese* (worst. superpower. ever.). The health problems that come with that are a serious concern in a civic leader. For example, what if he dies in office? That would be chaos for the city.

But that is really just the obvious problem. The bigger problem is what his weight problem represents -- that is, his lack of self control. While it's possible that there are some genetic factors here, his machiavellian brother has half the same genes and isn't morbidly obese. What is more likely is that diet and exercise are the culprits here. But controlling his diet and exercise is not really his style. And that kind of behaviour spills over into council, for example, when a vote doesn't go his way. And of course this lack of maturity is why so many people love him so much.

Self control is hard, but the new mayor peddles easy answers, such as "Toronto has a spending problem, not a revenue problem." This sounds really good because the problem is easy to fix and falls on someone else – someone else is wasting my money. And then, lo and behold, when it turns out Toronto does have a revenue problem, it's someone else's problem again. And when that someone gives him the same hard line he's been running all around the city, he throws a temper tantrum and threatens to begin a war by inventing a sovereign nation.

Because that's the easy answer. But it's an easy answer that is unlikely to accomplish anything but short-term self satisfaction. This city needs a leader who is interested in more than instant gratification. Great things require hard work.

The mayor's weight problem is just symptom of the mayor's lack of self control. And the mayor is a symptom of voters'.

* According to this extremely unscientific source, Don Cherry is 5'11" tall and Rob Ford is a bit taller than Don Cherry in the photos from the infamous inauguration, so if we give him 6'1" and take a wild guess at his weight being 300lbs, we get a body mass index of 39.6.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Worship This

According to Wikipedia, most municipal leaders in Canada are called "mayor". Some small areas villages and rural areas still use the term "reeve". There is one exception to this. Niagara-on-the-Lake gets a "lord mayor" instead or a mayor or reeve. This is apparently in recognition of the fact that Niagara-on-the-Lake was once the capital of Upper Canada.

Mayors in Canada are styled "Worship", as in when talking directly to a mayor you say "Your Worship" and when talking about a mayor you say "Her Worship" or "His Worship". What I would like is for Toronto to get an exception to this rule, the way Niagara-on-the-Lake gets an exception to the "mayor" thing. I think that present and future mayors of Toronto should be henceforth styled "Corpulence". As in "Your Corpulence, Mayor of Toronto, I am writing you to ask that you use the considerable weight of your office..." and so on.

I can't find out where these stylings come from, so if you have any information about that, please leave it in the comments. I asked a librarian friend and she didn't know either but she said she suspected that it's a matter of tradition and that the way to "officially" change it would be to simply get people using the term. So, I beseech you to use the considerable weight of your conversation to make my (admittedly petty) dream come true.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

Newsflash: Toronto gets cold in winter!

Toronto has issued an "extreme cold weather alert" for this weekend. Because the temperature is supposed to get down to -18ºC. Seriously? There are cities in Canada that would kill for -18ºC right now (all below -18ºC at time of posting).

I think what's really going on here is this: "Alerts are issued to step up support services for homeless people..." Which I think is important. Minus 18º streets are not a place for anyone to sleep.

But can't we find a way to provide extra services for the homeless without sounding like a city of giant pussies?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remember Acid Rain?

A facebox friend of mine, an old coworker, asked today "remember acid rain?" As an air quality researcher, I do, in fact, remember acid rain. It comes up fairly regularly in my work and in discussions with other people at the university. But the point he was trying to make was that acid rain was a big, big deal for a long time. I remember the news and the people talking at my grade school. But now, the news never (hardly ever) talks about it anymore. My friend then asked if there was any other thing which seems to be following the same pattern. I assume he meant climate change.

Acid rain occurrence in the developed world has been greatly reduced through regulation. I think a lot of that was because people are inherently afraid of acid. It sounds dangerous. Another part is that people didn't really have to do anything. Regulations were made and cars, gas and industrial processes changed, but most people didn't have their daily routine changed.

CO2, on the other hand, is not something that most people would think of as bad. It's plant food, right? Everyone makes it, therefore it can't be bad. And global warming, well, I mean, who wouldn't want things a bit warmer? And the solutions require major, major changes in the way the developed world runs. Instead of saying you have to improve the catalytic converter on your car, you need an electric car, or a hydrogen car, or no car at all. Instead of scrubbing the effluent from industrial processes, it's an end to industrial farming. On top of that, it's a very slow process. It's basically a recipe for people to avoid dealing with it:

So, while acid went away in the media, it was in large part because regulations have helped decrease it to a point where other stuff is more important / interesting. We can only hope that climate change goes away from the media for the same reasons.