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.