Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

A Great Loss to the World

The world is still reeling from the loss of one Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, when tonight we learned of the loss of another innovative visionary: Dennis Ritchie, co-inventor of the C programming language on which much of modern computing is based, like it or not.  Mr Ritchie also played a significant role in the original development of UNIX.

So within one week, we have lost two greatly creative thinkers.  Perhaps one could say that the apple has lost its seeds or kernels.

RIP Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie.  You will both be missed, and remembered.


Another Great Blog!

I just have to write to let all of you know, in case you  don’t already, about MNN: the Mother Nature Network.  I personally just discovered the site today thanks to the writing of Chris Turner (@theturner on Twitter).  He provides a skillful skewering of a recent Globe and Mail article on the danger and horror of taking small children along for a bike ride.  Take note: this guy knows his shit!

Marketing of Electric Vehicles

Okay, I admit it.  Electric vehicles present an enticing field, and are worth every penny of research and development funding.  There is, however, at least one thing that really bothers me, specifically the marketing of these vehicles.  I am willing to accept that advertisers are in the business of deception, intentionally pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes (I don’t have to like it, though).  When I see a commercial that effectively encourages people to push their heads in the sand, though, I have a big problem.

While there have been a couple of ad campaigns over the past couple years that have prompted me to think in this way, the most recent one takes “ridiculous” to a new level.  Actually it’s rather clever, and if it wasn’t for the reveal as a car ad I would be rather impressed.  This particular ad shows people using every-day electronic and electrical tools and devices, but has them all powered by gasoline (read: fossil fuels).  That’s right.  Gas-powered alarm clocks, toasters, cell phones, dental drills.  Then we see a gentleman fuelling his hybrid vehicle, while a fully-electric vehicle quietly drives off.  (I’m not as interested by the brands here as I am in the implications, but the hybrid shown is a Chevy Volt, and the electric car is a Nissan LEAF.  Chevrolet is understandably unimpressed by this spot.)

The spot (you can watch it here) seems to imply that, by owning and driving a 100% electric vehicle, you are not participating in the carbon economy, at least as far as your vehicle is concerned.  Of course, this could not be further from the truth.  Every aspect of the vehicles existence and life-span is touched by the dusty, oily finger of carbon.  Design, development, manufacture (collectively: production); transport and delivery; fuel; maintenance and repair; and disposal.  This will be the case until we have an economy and infrastructure that is not based on fossil fuels.  Of course, people don’t like to be reminded of these matters.  Especially the people with the power.

How do you fuel an electric car?

A simple schematic of a coal-fired power plant. (GEOS 24705, University of Chicago)

It seems to me that people have in their heads that electricity is free and readily available, created by some magical creature.  While it is often readily available, it is by no means free.  Nor is it necessarily “clean.”  Therefore, people don’t really think of electric power as a fuel.

So how do we get this electric fuel?  In North America, electricity is generated primarily by burning coal.  Coal is carbon, and produces a fair amount of energy on burning.  Of course, coal contains other ingredients such as sulphur and nitrogen, so burning one kilogram of coal yields around 700 kcal (2.9 MJ) rather than the 12,000 kcal (50.2 MJ) of pure carbon.  The nitrogen is often released as gas or as NO2, while sulphur transforms to SO2 (an acid rain gas).

Yes, there is electricity generated at hydro dams (more in BC and Central Canada than in Alberta) and nuclear reactors (Central Canada), but all of those facilities and infrastructure was built using coal and fossil fuels.  The same goes for solar power, but that is a whole other story.  The point is that the majority of electricity available in North America is generated by coal combustion.


As I said before, my main problem with this particular ad is the implication that electric vehicles are at least partly removed from the carbon economy.  This sort of disingenuous messaging is dangerous.  People already tend to take electric power for granted.  I am guilty of this as well.  However, this particular message has the effect of perpetuating this habit.  Indeed, it is possible that electric vehicles in general could have that effect, since the energy source is far removed from the fuelling point.  Of course, it seems the auto industry relies on disingenuous advertising, and on people conveniently “forgetting” certain important facts, to sell its wares.

This Just In: Auto Execs Think Differently Than Consumers About EVs

A study by IBM’s Institute for Business Value has found that consumers and auto executives have very divergent views when it comes to electric vehicles (EVs).  I really doubt this is all that surprising.  Some of the survey results are summarized in the graphic below.  I highly recommend checking out the whole article, as it is interesting.

As I said, I’m not surprised that there is a disconnect between the two populations.  What surprises me is the magnitude of the disconnect.

(Via EarthTechling)

Preparing for a New Term…

My next and final term at SAIT Polytechnic begbins tomorrow.  In preparation, I’ve been cleaning up around the house, but also I have checked out what is already available online.  Some instructors have posted information and assignments already.  Even if it is only the course outline and schedule, it is helpful.

The courses I am enrolled in for this term are:

  • Advanced Environmental Considerations
  • Water & Wastewater Treatment
  • Field Safety
  • Environmental Microbiology
  • Environmental Project Management
  • Solid Waste Management
  • Subdivision Planning, Design, and Land Use
  • Environmental Technical Project

That is eight courses, two of which have laboratory components to them, essentially taking the number of courses to ten.

Advanced Environmental Considerations is considered to be a “capstone” course that will include three major term projects.  The very first part of the course, which has already been posted, looks at the analysis and interpretation  of data collected during field school.  Specifically, we collected data on selected parameters of water chemistry at the beaver ponds in Kananaskis Country (see Field School Day 4).  The (seemingly contrived) research question is whether there is “something in the water” that is making some beavers reproduce at a higher rate than others.

The Environmental Technical Project is a week-long work study project that the MacPhail School of Energy calls a “practicum”.  I fail to see how a true practicum can be completed in a single week, but I guess I will see (and hopefully be impressed).  When I hear of practicums (practica?) from other programs or from the University of Calgary, they are semester-long work projects.

I was rather concerned about the Environmental Microbiology course, as I have absolutely zero background in biology.  I studied physics and chemistry in high school, and went straight to geophysics in college/university.  Suffice it to say that my true love has for a long, long time been physics and mathematics.  After talking to the instructor, Shannon Buckley, though, I am really excited about the course.  I don’t delude myself that it will be supremely easy, but I am excited and interested to find out how microbiology is applied to or involved in environmental studies.  For example, one thing that we learned in Site Reclamation (third term course) was that bioluminescent bacteria are used to determine the toxicity of various drilling muds.  I look forward to learning more about this, and possibly doing the test myself.  I’ll keep you posted.

Another course that I am looking forward to is Suburban Planning, Design, and Land Use.  I have joked with my friends many times that city planners don’t actually plan.  Rather, what they do is throw a bunch of needles or toothpicks on a gridded table.  Whatever pattern they form is what the new roads and parking lots in a community will take.  (This is, of course, based on opinion and the experience of living in a city full of labyrinthine communities with more turns than a meandering stream.)  I also was not encouraged after reading James Howard Kunstler‘s The Geography of Nowhere.  If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to do so.  Kunstler makes many cogent observations while discussing the history of America’s development and geography (Canada follows many, if not most, of the same patterns), examining how we went from beautiful, walkable communities to suburban centres  where walking is all but incomprehensible.  In a way, this is a history of car culture.

Given the number of major projects EVT students suffer through encounter in the third term of the program, Environmental Project Management is a course that might fit better in the second semester than the fourth.  Nonetheless, I’m sure it will be an interesting and useful  project that will allow us to learn from the mistakes of past group projects.

Finally, I am really interested in the (waste)water treatment course.  I really enjoyed the  second-term course involving water chemistry (atmospheric chemistry was the other component) and look forward to learning more.  This course involves a laboratory component, and I rather look forward to actually doing some experiments in water chemistry.  The most disturbing point is that the course text, Chemistry for Environmental Engineering and Science, is available at the SAIT bookstore for approximately CDN$215.  I kid you not!  I managed to find a soft-cover version of the exact same edition of the text for a total of CDN$70 (including shipping) on (I’ll update if there are any customs charges).  Of course, I cannot say whether such deals will be available for long, let alone for future years, but if you can find a paperback version of the same edition as that required you will certainly pay much less.

I am really hoping that I will be able to keep this blog updated more than I did last term.  Blogging about school and research is fun, and can be useful to future and current students alike, so long as it is understood that this is one person’s opinion rather than a definitive assessment.

How Does Your Favourite Bottled Water Fare?

Given that the ads for (and labels on) bottled water everywhere give consumers the impression the water they are buying is clean and pure, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) had some questions.  After all, if you are drinking the water, do you not have the right to know exactly what is inside?  What source did the water come from?  Is the water purified?  If so, how?  Have any contaminants been found?  Well, most manufacturers disagree, simply refusing to answer one or more of these questions.

The EWG has therefore done some testing of its own and produced a report card.  The results are somewhat disturbing, if unsurprising.  You can check them out for yourself here, but here are some highlights – well, lowlights, really:

  • EWG Recommends (A): Filtered Tap Water
  • Best Transparency (B): Gerber Pure Purified Water, Nestle Pure Life Purified Water, Penta Ultra-Purified Water
  • Worst Transparency (F): Cumby’s Spring Water, Market Basket Natural Spring Water, Sahara Premium Drinking Water

Of course, many of these are American brands that are not available in Canada.  But everyone should still be aware of what’s out there and what’s going on.  Apparently it is only in California that bottled water brands must disclose information about their water source and quality.  Still, many ignore this law, essentially counting on the Powers That Be to turn a blind eye.

I suggest using filtered tap water and a stainless steel water bottle.

No Facebook, No Problem

No Facebook!

Just say NO to Facebook!

Every now and then I find people coming to this blog using search strings such as “no to facebook” or “no facebook”, so I thought I would write something about it.

At this point I am resisting Facebook on principle.  I have not succumbed to the great pressure from friends and family wondering “Why are you not on Facebook?”, and I’m not about to bow to such pressure now.  I also just don’t see the need to have my life available to everyone in one place.  Not everyone needs to know about some party I just had or went to and any shenanigans that (may or may not have) happened.  Of course, such problems can be avoided with limited profile management and self-censorship, but why open up yet another online presence to manage in the first place?

I just recently got a new cell phone – the HTC Desire Z.  I love it.  It comes complete with a Facebook app and widget, but it also is intimately interlinked with Google (seeing as they produce the Android operating system the phone runs on).  So, I’ve decided to get a Google account and use the infrastructure that is there.  I have a Google Calendar that I use (though it’s mostly filled with classes through the end of April 2011), but for personal security reasons it is not public.  Email, either from my home account or Gmail, gets pushed to my phone almost instantly.  I can edit my Calendar from my phone, on the go.  I can send SMS messages, make phone calls, and much more.  For my professional life, I’m available on LinkedIn.  I’m about as connected as I want to be, and I don’t need or want another platform to look after and maintain.

If you have similar ideas of the Facebook phenomenon, please feel free to leave a comment below.  Or maybe you think you can convince me to play the game.  I’ll welcome all sides of the argument.