Monday, 30 June 2008

Brisbane's Touch and Go Card

If you make a mistake in using the ticketing system in Brisbane's public transport, you are penalised. Isn't it time we were given the right to charge the system a penalty when the system screws up?

Here's an example to illustrate the point.

Public transport in and around Brisbane is on a single ticketing system (with the exception of the airport train, which operates to its own rules). Recently a smart card system called Go Card was introduced, with different pricing rules. Although the price per zone is the same, the Go Card has more generous transfer rules, making it possible to do a reasonable long trip with stops of up to an hour as a single trip, as long as you don't do more than three transfers.

The Go Card is cumbersome in operation. You have to touch a reader both whenever you enter and exit any vehicle except a train; with trains you have to touch the reader as you enter or exit a station. At no point is there any mechanism to force you to touch the reader, like a gate that is opened by touching the reader. So it's easy to forget, especially if you are in a hurry. If you do forget, a penalty is charged in excess of the likely maximum fare for the trip you were on. So, for example, if you are taking a trip that should cost $2.70, you may be charged $3.

The Go Card has had a bad press because it relies on a GPS system to tell where you are and if the GPS system has lost coverage, it fails to record your attempt at touching the reader. The effect is as if you forgot to touch the reader, and you are penalised. You can reverse the penalty by a cumbersome process of complaining by phone, and reversal of the penalty takes several days.

Considering all this, although I bought a Go Card, I did not use it much. I did however try it out in one mode, where the generous transfer policy made it cost effective. I had a trip that included:

  1. a train to the city centre
  2. a City Cat ferry
    a bit of shopping
  3. a City Cat back to the city centre
  4. a train back home

These four individual trips combine as a single trip because only three transfers are involved, provided there's a gap of at most an hour (and the last trip starts within three hours of starting out).

So let's see what happened the second time I tried this. Spot the difference? How did this happen? On the way out of the City Cat, I missed the reader. Why? Because I had to run to make the train connection. The concept that different modes of transport should have synchronized timetables has apparently not reached Brisbane.

The effect of this was that despite the fact that every trip up to the one where I missed the reader registered as a continuation of the initial trip, the whole transaction was split. I was charged $2.70 for the inititial train trip, and $3 for the City Cat trip, a penalty of 30c over the $2.70 it would have cost me to do two zones on the ferry. The total penalty though was actually $3.00 But that's not all. I still had to get home from the city. I now had to buy another ticket costing $2.70 (not reflected on the Go Card because it was now below the minimum balance permitted for buying another ticket). So the whole trip cost me $8.40. This contrasts with $4.10, which I would have paid without a Go Card, had I bought an off-peak daily.

So for one mistake, I ended up paying more than double the price I would have paid for a paper ticket, or $5.70 more than the trip should have cost on the Go Card.

How should the system actually work? The necessity to "touch on" and "touch off" every time introduces redundancy, a concept widely used in systems design to correct for errors. In the case of my trip, for example, the missing touch does not create the possibility that I had cheated. The City Cat only does zones 1 and 2, and I had up to that point only travelled in zones 1 and 2. A smart system would have picked up the fact that although something was missing, I was still on a continuous sequence of trips. My exit from the Cat could only have been in zone 1 or zone 2; the worst case for the rules for transfers would have been had I jumped off the cat immediately after my card was read, and somehow found my way back to the city centre. The gap in the record is less than the allowed transfer time.

But isn't this a whinge? Shouldn't I expect to be penalised if I make a mistake? It would be fair if I could penalise the system when it made a mistake. I would settle for $5 every time a train didn't show up when it should, or a bus, train or ferry was more than 5 minutes late. This is less than I was penalised for this mistake.

Fair's fair. How about it, Queensland Transport? You penalise us for mistakes. We should be able to penalise you for mistakes.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Great Brisbane Rates Kerfuffle

The Brisbane city council's 2008 budget has resulted in widespread angst and anguish over a proposed change in the property rates formula for units (apartments on community titles, what the Americans call condos). The proposal is to add a parity factor, an Orwellian name if ever there was one, to ensure that some people pay on a higher scale.

The issue as I understand it is that dwellings are assessed on the basis of the rateable value of their land, and not the building. This formula may in some cases mean that an apartment is rated less than a house of equivalent value. For example, an upmarket penthouse which is 1% of the area of a large unit block on land worth $40-million may be rated at a value of $400,000 – despite being worth several million dollars.

Applying this formula can therefore an result in rateable values not equivalent in comparison with market value. The Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman (this is what they call mayors of big cities here, after the UK practice) obviously felt that this was inequitable, citing examples of million-dollar penthouses being assessed at a lower rate than houses in the outer suburbs that sell for much less. The obvious fix would be to change the valuation formula so that it correctly reflected the true resale value.

Absent that, the approach in the latest budget has been to add in a "parity factor" that increases the rent of units on higher-valued land. The problem is that this formula does not take into account the size of the land, or the number of units. This, a smallish $20-million block of land with a small number of luxury apartments on it has the same multiplier as a largish block of land of the same value, with hundreds of apartments on it. Worse, if you have multiple buildings on a single block of land, the exact same configuration of buildings would have a lower multiplier if the land were subdivided. To take an extreme case, if 10 buildings were on a block of land worth $10-million and the land was not divided, they would attract a multiplier near the top of the scale. If that land had instead been divided with one building per subdivision and each block of land was now worth $1-million, the multiplier would be zero.

Some ratepayers have found that this new formula results in increases of the order of 700%.

Or does it?

Others interpreting the formula, including city council employees and opposition councillors, have interpreted the table defining the formula as having the same effect as something like an income tax table. It's worth quoting the text of the current Australian Tax Office income tax table here for comparison. The key thing to note here is the wording in each category, which defines the amount to accumulate to the total, e.g., "$3,600 plus 30c for each $1 over $30,000". Remember the important bit: so many cents for each $1 over the current threshold.

Right, now let's look at the table in the budget papers. Look for page 290 (or page 18 of the PDF document). Observe here the crucial difference in the wording. Each entry in the table under the heading "factor 1" is just a number, a small fraction. It is not so many cents in the dollar.

Let's look at how this formula, if applied exactly as specified in the table, applies in the case where your unit is on land valued at $20-million. Each row of the table says something like for the following portion of the value of the property, factor 1 is x, and factor 2 is y. Factor 2 is 0 in all cases but one, so let's focus on factor 1.

  • Band A of the table says you add 0 on for the first $1-million: so for, 0
  • Band B of the table says you add 0.0110 on for the next $4-million: that's 0.0110
  • Band C of the table says you add 0.0150 on for the next $5-million: another 0.0150
  • Band D of the table says you add 0.0175 on for anything over $10-million: another 0.0175

Next step: how do we combine all these values? The difference of opinion comes in the wording in the table saying "for each dollar of rateable value of the land upon which a community titles scheme is constructed from $1,000,001 up to and including $5,000,000" (to take Band B as an example). My interpretation of this is that the relevant factor 1 should be weighted according to the fraction of the purchase price that is covered by this band. For example, for our hypothetical $20-million property, Band B represents a quarter of its value. Doing the same for all the bands results in the following:

  • Band A: 0
  • Band B: 0.0110 times 0.2 ($4-million is a fifth of the value); that's 0.0022
  • Band C: 0.0150 times 0.25 ($5-million is a quarter of the value); that's 0.00375
  • Band D: 0.0175 times 0.5 (the value over $10-million is 50% of the total): another 0.00875

So the overall total of Bands A+B+C+D should be 0 + 0.0022 + 0.00375 + 0.00875 = 0.0147. to complete the formula, we must add 1, then divide by factor 2, which is also 1, resulting in a final calculation of 1.0147.

In other words, the increase over the normal general rates calculation is 1.47%.

Is this right?

I argue that the interpretation others are placing on the formula requires that it be rewritten (taking Band B as an example) to read something like this:

    1.1c for each dollar of rateable value of the land upon which a community titles scheme is constructed from $1,000,001 up to and including $5,000,000

Without this wording to read it the way I did is perfectly reasonable. To read it otherwise requires an interpretation that is not actually in words in the budget papers. The description of the calculation clearly tells you to that "The parity factor referred to in Table 'B' is calculated to be the sum of factor 1 divided by the sum of factor 2" – and the table has a heading of "factor 1" over the fractions, and not over the descriptive text describing the bands. It is therefore a stretch to say that "factor 1" is calculated as the given fraction times the dollar amount represented by the band. There is nothing in the text suggesting you should do so. It is in fact not entirely clear that the weighted average that I calculated is correct either, but that is the best interpretation I can put on this document.

The conclusion?

The city council should not have made this change without consultation. Not only has it had unintended consequences of penalising people who are not wealthy in the intended form, but the wording in the budget papers is open to another interpretation with a radically different effect.

I'm not a lawyer or an accountant; I would be curious to see if the council's interpretation would stand up in court.

Peak Oil and Climate Change

Peak oil is increasingly on people's minds as they refuel, watch air travel costs escalate, and wonder why no one warned them it would happen. Possibly, just possibly, this is the wake-up call that will liberate us from shorty-term politics, and focus everyone on long-term solutions.

But should this have been such a surprise?

For starters, let's look at where the oil price is. As I write this, it's already gone off this chart (source: WikiPedia; sorry about the caption with the error in the start year: that was how it was on WikiPedia) to over $140 a barrel. Some of course are saying this is just a bubble, that speculators are driving the price up. This seems unlikely since the last time we had these conditions in a bad way (instability in the Middle East encouraging speculators), around the end of 1979, the price spiked to $39, about $100 in today's money, and we've already exceeded that level by 40%.

There are two new factors since 1979: new demand from developing economies, especially China, and the threat of a decline in production as we hit peak oil. With BP chief executive Tony Hayward declaring an end to the era of cheap energy, we have to sit up and take notice. No energy company would talk up the long-term price if they weren't sure, because doing so increases the push for alternatives.

So what is peak oil theory? In 1956, Shell oil geoscientist M. King Hubbert made the observation that since oil extraction lagged discovery by a specific period of years, oil production in the USA would peak somewhere around 1971. This picture (source: WikiPedia) illustrates his model (blue line) and reality (black dots). He was ridiculed in 1956; by the mid-1970s, we should have been basing future planning on his model.

What about the worldwide peak? That's more difficult. In the USA, once cheap sources of oil were depleted, there was the option to move to the rest of the world. Once oil extraction has gone worldwide, we don't have another planet to move to, so depletion of cheaper resources leads to a switch to more expensive resources.The picture therefore in recent times (source: WikiPedia) is blurred, with predictions ranging roughly around 2008-2016, but some putting the peak way out into the future.

Wherever the exact peak, we've had warning of this for decades. Aside from the very obvious risks or relying heavily on one commodity, the source of which may not always be politically stable, the threat of a sudden price spike as we are experiencing today is nothing new. So why aren't we throwing out politicians who have failed to work on long-term solutions? In some parts of the world, notably Europe and Japan, there are alternatives to cars, trucks and planes in the form of high-speed intercity rail and good urban public transport networks. Countries like the USA and Australia, on the other hand, are terribly positioned for expensive oil. Many of their cities have developed unplanned urban sprawl, and their inter-city rail networks are decrepit.

For further thoughts on what Australian politicians deserve, see my views at the Australian ABC's QandA web site.

But back to the main topic.

What, you may ask, are some of these more expensive forms of oil extraction? Some are obvious, like deep sea wells. Others include tar sands and oil shale. Pushing these to the limit some claim is available starts to touch on an aspect of practicality: net energy. Some of the more extreme claims of available oil do not take into account that the energy cost of processing some of the less viable forms of oil exceeds the energy you could extract.

The "more expensive to extract" option that I find most fascinating though is the notion that it is now becoming possible to drill for oil in the Arctic. Could it be something to do with this I wonder? Look at NASA's temperature trend since 1880 (source: NASA GISS) – not that different to graphs published by others. It shows a distinct upwards trend.

Now, there are people out there claiming that climate change is a hoax. A fair number (though I will not argue all or even a majority) are funded by oil interests. Could those taking oil dollars please tell us how, if climate change is a hoax, it has suddenly become possible to drill for oil in the Arctic?

For the more visual, I also talk about this at YouTube; go there to rate the video or post a comment on it (or if lazy, just view it here).

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Death by a thousand blogs

The fact that anyone who has an internet connection to the outside world can publish anything they like doesn't mean that everything published on the net is good. On the contrary, it's likely that as the fraction of the world's population with internet connectivity grows, more drivel will be published -- unless there's a mechanism to edit or select content. For example, although anyone can edit most material on WikiPedia (material subject to malicious edits, or wars over content does get locked down), the fact that the information is in one place on the whole makes it possible to arrive at some sort of reasonable standard.

When it comes to blogs, though, there is nothing to stop anyone from posting whatever they like (aside from laws on libel, copyright, and anything that applies if you live in a police state).

So if you try to find out something, it's possible that you will find a slew of drivel -- especially if there's a campaign going to push a point of view.

Let's try a few experimental searches.

First, the claim that Einstein said humanity would die out if bees disappeared... Search for the words Einstein bees. What do you see? Of course the internet is a moving feast so the hits you will get will not be the same as mine. What I found was a fair number of articles putting the case that this quote was a myth, as well as a few that treat the quote as fact. In this case, it's not hard to determine that the quote should at best be treated with suspicion.

Next, try this one: bumble bees can't fly. Again, there's a fair mix of articles, and it's not hard to arrive at the conclusion that the original story may (possibly) not have been a myth, but certainly has become a bit garbled. A bumble bee's wing area is insufficient to generate lift (taking into account its weight) but that calculation is based on the theory of fixed-wing aircraft. A bumble bee's wings aren't stationary, so the mathematics doesn't apply.

Here's another: HIV causes AIDS. This time the majority of the hits on the first page (when I did this on 24 June 2008) were articles supporting the conventional theory, with a small number opposing – the group who for whatever reason claim that HIV does not cause AIDS.

So it seems we have a general pattern: while there is a fair amount of garbage or controversial material, you get a good balance and can find the most plausible position fairly easily. Relatively few authoritative-looking sources are making strong claims that are hard to dismiss, against the "correct science" position.

How about this one? Search for passive smoking harm. This time, while the majority of articles agreed with the conventional position, I found some surprisingly vehement articles in mainstream media, not just amateur blogs, pushing the line that the science has to be wrong.

Next, let's go to a more current issue, climate change. A couple of searches will illustrate the point. Try climate models fail to predict. Now this one is admittedly a bit different from the others by addition of the words "fail to". But the result is startling. Almost the entire first page of hits is articles claiming that climate models are not able to predict future climate change. Take out the word "fail" and you do get a very different result. With that in mind, I tried adding "less" onto the end of the smoking search: passive smoking harmless. The result? A slew of articles claiming that environmental tobacco smoke was harmless, research to the contrary was fraudulent, etc.

There are two questions that arise out of this experiment. How is the ordinary person with no training in searching to arrive at a reasonable mix of articles? How is someone without a research background to tease apart the mythology from the worthwhile content?

Taking the climate change one again, I spend a good fraction of my blogging time debunking climate change myths. The claim that models have no predictive power is only one of these (in fact, the IPCC validates the models in their previous reports by comparing them against subsequent measurement). Another is the claim that solar variations (search for sun explains all climate change) are sufficient to explain all climate change. Again there is a mix of articles, including some that clearly overturn the claim. This time around, bizarrely, if you change the search to the negative, sun does not explain all climate change, you get a higher fraction of hits pushing the case that climate change is purely down to the sun.

So what's the take-home point from this?

Blogging is not science. Neither, for that matter, is journalism. Blogging seldom is even as good as amateur journalism; very occasionally a whole lot better. Whatever the case, beware of following the line of least resistance, and only reading the material that comes up in the first page of searches. It's not that hard for a small number of people (possibly with an agenda; now who could care so much, I wonder, about confusing people about how harmful tobacco is?) to generate a lot of material, aided and abetted by the gullible who copy their line.

Information on the net is free, but so too is junk. Making life-and-death decisions based on a web search without digging deeper to understand the underlying science, whether it's how to tackle the HIV pandemic, how to deal with the health threats of tobacco or what to do about climate change is silly. Yet many people seem to do exactly this. South Africa delayed its response to HIV by almost a decade. Progress worldwide against public smoking was delayed even more. And the rate of progress on climate change, it appears, is more in the hands of the blogosphere than of informed decision-makers.


Monday, 23 June 2008

Robbing Units to Pay Whom?

The recent Brisbane City Council budget included double digit rate rises for many ratepayers. Single digit rate rises were promised at the election: did Campbell Newman mean by this a raised middle finger? Because that's what he's delivered. The updated rates calculation includes a multiplier based on the value of the land a unit is situated on, which does not allow for how many units are on that land. So a $20-million block of land with 200 units on it gets the same multiplier as the same land value with 4 units on it, resulting in absurd general rates increases of up to 700% for modestly-priced units – at least according to the Labor opposition in council. Campbell Newman claims that the maximum increase is "only" 150%.

On 19 June, I attended a Labor meeting at City Hall. There, angry inner-city unit owners had picked up the idea that they were being asked to pay for the tunnels wanted by residents of suburbs like Kenmore. This may not be strictly accurate in that the tunnels blow-out, as far as I can tell, is only hitting the budget next year. Nonetheless, I suspect this is news to the people who attended the Greens rally on 12 June, protesting the Kenmore bypass. No one there spoke in favour of tunnels; the most popular alternative to the bypass was better public transport.

What I find a bit rich about Labor's attack on the rates increase is that they voted for the tunnels project, and they also have a long history of talking public transport, while failing to deliver. If Labor doesn't want inner city unit owners to be slugged with an unfair rates increase, who, exactly, are they proposing should pay for their unfunded, fiscally irresponsible welfare for tunnel builders policy, which they share with the Liberals?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Easy Low-Fat Gelato

How do they make low-fat gelato at Italian ice-creameries?

Most home ice-cream recipes are relatively high in fat, because this makes it easier to set the ice-cream to a nice texture. If you use an ice-cream machine it also works better with a high-fat mixture. If you make ice-cream by hand, the lower the fat content, the more you need to take the mix out of the freezer as it sets, and give it a thorough beating to stop it setting solid.

There are two things you need to do to get the right texture: aerate the mix, and prevent icicles forming.

Here (in a change of pace) I present a relatively easy technique for making low-fat gelato, with a new wonder tool I discovered, which you can buy at most kitchen stores.

To start, you need some fruit. Frozen fruit works really well. As illustrated here, I'm using about 500g (about a pound for the neolithics) of freshly hulled strawberries. Frozen actually works better; I should probably have put them in the freezer a few hours for the best result.

Next step: add sugar. My approximate measure is to about half the height of the fruit. You can judge this to taste. Too little, and the mixture is likely to set too hard. But you can regulate that by adjusting the milk content.

Next, add milk. I add slightly less than covers the fruit. You need to judge this as it can vary for fruits. Too much, and it sets too hard. Too little, and you have something more like a sorbet; maybe not such a bad thing. I have a little too much in this mix. What kind of milk? As pictured here, I am using low-fat soy. Just about anything vaguely like milk works. I've used soy, oat and rice milk, with equally good results.

At this point, I start using the wonder new tool: a potato masher. This turns out to be a good combination of the features you need. It can crush fruit, it can aerate the mix, and it can mix in the sugar. If you are starting with frozen fruit, it will be hard going at first, until the coolth transfers to the milk, and the fruit thaws slightly. Once that happens, start mashing more vigorously. Your aim is to break up the fruit, while mixing the sugar in thoroughly and adding enough air to soften the overall texture. Do this right, and it will set reasonably soft without stirring during the freezing stage.

In this case, I have slightly too much milk in the mix, and need to do a bit of stirring in the freezing phase. In the end, I lost patience and let it freeze hard. It was still not too bad; to serve, I had to shave it off rather than take scoopfuls.

Even with the sort of mistakes you can make, you still end up with a result that tastes a lot better than factory ice-cream and you know exactly what went into it.

Some may say there is a bit of justice in the fact that I had to do a bit of stirring. Read the rest of my blog to see for yourself.

If you use a plant-based milk, you can make a pretty good totally vegan dessert. Who says only carnivores have fun?

One warning: since you are using uncooked ingredients, you should not keep this gelato as long as you would keep a factory frozen product. Freezing doesn't kill most microbes; it does however slow their growth. So if there are some bad bugs in the original fruit (which I hope you remembered to wash), freezing won't kill them. But I've never had to keep one of these much longer than I'd have kept the fruit in the refrigerator, so I have not had a problem with proliferation of frozen microbes.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Electric cars, trains or buses: which is cleanest?

There's been some debate in Australia in the wake of prime minister Kevin Rudd's announcement of financial backing for Toyota to build a hybrid Camry in Australia on whether hybrids represent a big saving in carbon emissions or not. This is an old debate, starting with a claim that a Toyota Prius's lifetime energy cost was higher than a big SUV, when you took into account manufacturing and the environmental cost of the battery.

That's an old story and well trawled over so there is little point in going over that again.

The bigger picture story is should we be fussing over conversion to electric cars or hybrids, when electricity is mostly generated from carbon emitting fossil fuels? An electric car or hybrid can add some efficiencies like regenerative braking, so it should overall have better efficiency than directly burning fossil fuels in the engine -- even if as in the case of a purely electric car or plug-in hybrid, it gets some power from fossil-fueled mains electricity.

I argue that instead, we should be looking at how to get as many people as possible into public transport. Even without changing the mode of energy, there are huge savings to be had there. If we work on an average of 50 litres/100 km for a diesel bus and 10 litres/100 km for a car, and 30 times as many people in the bus, the bus uses one sixth of the fuel per passenger, a saving of nearly 85%. A hybrid or small car will do significantly better, but a bus will still win easily, provided it is reasonably full. A train may not do better because electricity in most countries is mostly generated from very dirty sources, with a relatively low efficiency. A diesel engine may have an efficiency of up to 45% (with the rest wasted as heat); a coal power plant may be as low as 30%. Add in transmission losses, and an electric train is getting quite low value for the emissions produced -- though still significantly better than a car carrying the typical 1.5 people.

Buses then are the obvious quick fix. But as with cars, they have the problem that every bus has to be changed once improved technology is available.

Longer-term, trains are a better strategy to pursue, because cleaning up power generation for them fixes every train.

So, should the Australian government be encouraging local manufacture of hybrids? I do not see any great harm in it. But it is really only a very small part of the solution. The big ones are encouraging more use of public transport, putting in more train lines and services and cleaning up power generation.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Australian (Anti-)Environment Foundation

In a recent article, I explored the link between organized tobacco's obfuscation of science, and the climate denial industry, based on facts reported by George Monbiot.

Today, The Australian features a letter from one Max Rheese of the Australian Environment Foundation (AEF), in effect claiming that global warming is a hoax.

I'm tired of arguing how global warming didn't end in 1998. Instead of going over that territory yet again, I decided to mosey over to the AEF's web site to see exactly what kind of organization they are. After all, with "environment" in their name, one would expect that they would at least occasionally run up against industry, even if they are coming at the matter from the right.


Here is a list of articles from their web site, with a brief commentary on each; you should of course check the originals:

  • Are environmentalists on the road to Damascus? On Line Opinion, 2 April 2008 – "it is now accepted by the head of the IPCC that whether global temperatures are benchmarked from 1998 or 2002, they have plateaued or fallen". True or false? The "facts" on which this is based are from an article by Christopher Pearson in The Australian which wait for it: quotes Jennifer Marohasy, another member of AEF as a source.
  • The Greens: illogical and treacherous, On Line Opinion, 12 May 2008 – the main thrust of the article is conveyed by this sentence: "The greens tell us that ethanol from maize, wheat or sugar, and biodiesel from palm oil is somehow more environmentally friendly than oil from oil wells." What's the reality? Do a search on "biofuels" and you will find, as you should expect from an evidence-based approach, an evolving position in which the Greens are moving away from supporting biofuels wholeheartedly to conditional support, taking into account what we now know of the risks of displacing food crops and replacing rain forest with palm oil plantations. Illogical and treacherous? What do you call attacking the Greens for a position that's way out of date?
  • Fighting for Red River Gums, The Land, 8 November 2007 – you fight for trees, it seems, by opposing increasing their protection through enlarging national parks. That wasn't so obvious. Under attack: Victorian Environmental Advisory Council (VEAC).
  • Red Gum Lock-up is not the Solution, The Age, 15 October 2007 – this time, it's the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) which is under fire for wanting to enlarge national parks.
  • Global warming zealots are stifling scientific debate, The Age, 12 July 2007 – ahead of the screening in Australia of The Great Global Warming Swindle, we are told that "If the conclusion that humans are changing climate by carbon dioxide emissions requires the omission of validated astronomical, palaeontologic and geological evidence, then the popular view of humans causing climate change is not science. We are seeing a revival of a form of zealous Western politics intertwined with poor theology, poor economics and poor logic." The Swindle movie relied on quotes out of context, manipulated data and a focus on the views of a discredited minority position. That, it seems, is perfectly sound.
  • The Great Great Barrier Reef Swindle, On Line Opinion, 19 July 2007 – the Great Barrier Reef will not only survive global warming but thrive. I suppose it takes a Marine Physicist to understand ecosystems properly. All those biologists clearly are ignorant, and corals around the world alleged to be dying of coral bleaching are probably actually dying back because global warming's too slow.
  • Climate recantation: IPCC models don't predict and are unscientific, Courier Mail June 28 2007 – This article quotes a few statements by an IPCC lead author, on a blog run by Nature in which he clarifies some aspects of what the IPCC reports. None of this is a mystery and is well known to scientists who read the research and IPCC reports. A few quotes are taken out of context and made to seem as if they destroy the entire basis of climate science. Read the original blog entry and decide for yourself. An example: "In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all." This is no big deal. The IPCC (more accurately, the scientists whose work the IPCC summarizes) can't predict future greenhouse gas emissions because those are a factor of too many unknowns (economic growth, future technology, climate change mitigation policy). This is a problem with predicting future climate because emissions are an input to the model. So instead of predicting, they model a range of scenarios (low to high emissions, varying a number of inputs like population growth, carbon intensity of economic development and economic growth). Since they do not know how the economic and political side will play out, they can't say what the probability is of a given set of inputs. That the inputs are hard to predict doesn't mean you can't reasonably accurately model a scenario on the basis of "what if the emissions followed the following trend". If you don't understand why that is not predicting but is nonetheless useful, try again. If you still don't get it, see if they have a vacancy at the AEF. Or maybe The Australian. If desperate, try the Courier-Mail.
  • High price for load of hot air - climate change hysteria is costing us billions, Courier Mail June 18 2007 – more climate change denial.
  • GM: debate the science not the values, On Line Opinion, 4 June 2007 – "Anti GM groups have argued that the introduction of GM technology will have adverse effects on the environment without providing any evidence to substantiate their claims." I haven't done a comprehensive literature review on the subject but such evidence definitely exists. I am not making a value judgment on the quality of that evidence, just noting that the statement that there is no such evidence is manifestly false.
  • GM Canola or Nothing Soon, The Land, 26 April 2007 – pro-GM propaganda without any science, or consideration of environmental issues.
  • Green hypocrisy and environmental vandalism, On Line Opinion, March 2007 – opposition to legislation controlling land clearing (they may or may not have a point on this specific issue, but the irony here is that much of the legislation banning land clearing arose out of the Howard government's sleight of hand on Kyoto, where they had changes in land clearing in Australia scored as greenhouse gas reduction).
  • Integrity in the public debate - whose view? On Line Opinion, January 2007 – Two sentences sum it up: "Indeed the AEF has much stronger links with forestry and farming groups than it has with IPA." And: "AEF’s values, which are on the website for all to see, demand debate based on science and evidence not ideology." Consider their list of articles as evidence of a kind ...
  • An alternative perspective on land clearing, On Line Opinion, December 2006 – an earlier version of the "land clearing is good" article.
  • Fired-up forests have more impact than the loggers, The Age, November 2006 – logging is not so bad because major fires can be more destructive. Maybe, but this is a rather relativistic argument, isn't it? If you clearcut an old-growth forest, it's hard to see how a fire could be more destructive.
  • Integrity in the Public Debate - Whose View?" - Not Published by The Age, 2006 – This is a new one on me: you don't normally cite the place that didn't publish you. Good on The Age. In any case they managed to publish this later at On Line Opinion. Crybabies.
  • First Conference for New Environment Group, Border Watch, Mt Gambier, South Australia and The Daily Mercury, Mackay, Queensland, September 2006 – PR for AEF, nothing of real substance.
  • Not easy being green but we'll prosper, Herald-Sun, August 2006 – Two sentences again: "The green lobby has demanded and been given the mantle of environmental guardians and as a result have become rich and influential beyond their due." And: "Many of its members are pro-biotechnology, pro-nuclear power, pro-modern farming, pro-economic growth, pro-business and pro-environment." Guys, why did you pick industries that have no financial clout to back you when the traditional greenies have gone where the money is: the poor and the marginalized. Don't spend too much time wallowing in self-pity. You may drown.
  • Green group wants practical policies, The Land, August 2006 – One sentence: "A couple of years ago some farmers, foresters, fishers, university professors and others, got together in Ballarat to start a new environment group, the Australian Environment Foundation (AEF) – an environment group that believes in taking an evidence-based approach to issues." Guys, where's your evidence? Everything since this article has been bluster. Not a single paper listed on your site has appeared in an academic conference or journal, not even a third-rate one.
  • No More Excuses, The Courier Mail, August 2006 – proposal to get on with water alternatives, recycling, desalination. Other than that the article says nothing about environmental impacts (e.g. the arguments against desalination) at least it actually is about alternatives. Not just a beat-up on environmentalists.
  • Facts Catch the Loudmouths on the Hop, The Sydney Morning Herald, October 2005 – in favour of Kangaroo culls and eliminating feral invaders like cats. A fair start: whether you agree with culling or not, he knows what he's talking about.

There we have it. The vast majority of the articles (pretty much everything after the earliest two) are beat-ups on real environmental organizations, propaganda for climate change inactivism and defense of industry positions.

Despite the claim of being "evidence-based" there is no serious research behind any of the articles; taking words of others out of context is fair game, as is perpetuating myths like it stopped warming in 1998, and presenting opinion as fact.

After all this, that the AEF is accused of being a front for a conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) should come as no surprise. Their denial of this claim is not very convincing (see "Integrity in the public debate - whose view?" above). Sadly, Australia's national daily is unable to see this for what it is, and allows these people free publicity without warning the public.

As for global warming being a hoax: methinks it's the AEF that's the hoax.

No wonder so many people are still buying large cars and SUVs; what a pity for them that the only signal they are getting that they are doing the wrong thing is that they can't afford to refuel...

Drop the PIN

Banks in Australia are starting to push the idea of using a PIN instead of signing for credit card transactions.

This sounds as if it should be more secure. After all it involves the new wonder magic "technology". However, there is a serious downside to using a PIN instead of signing: if someone spots you typing the PIN and steals the card, they can use it on an ATM. If they steal the card without knowing the PIN, they can only use it to make a purchase, with a range of risks that don't apply to using the card at an ATM.

If the thief only has a signed card without a PIN, the thief can only use it to make purchases, with a bunch of risks, all of which could result in arrest:

  • through bad luck, they use the card with someone who knows you
  • the forged signature is not good enough and they are unlucky enough to encounter one of the more vigilant shop assistants
  • they were not quick enough, and you already reported the card stolen

On the other hand, if they are able to see you typing the PIN and steal the card, they have the option to go to the nearest ATM and draw cash to the limit of your card. At worst, if they mis-spied the PIN or you were very quick to stop the card, the machine swallows the card. While some ATMs have cameras, it's not that hard to find one in an isolated spot and cover your face, so the risk of being caught is slight.

How likely is it that someone will spy on you, spot the number and nick your card? It's a lot more likely when you are shopping than when you are using an ATM:

  • You have distractions: there may be screaming kids, you are watching your stuff, moving bags around and checking that the total matches what you thought you'd spent.
  • The keypad is easier to see: an ATM is designed to screen you from an observer, unless they are looking over your shoulder. Some PIN pads have limited screening in around the key area, but many do not.
  • You are more likely to leave the card lying around because of the distractions and not notice someone taking it.

A study by a Czech university has shown that it's not terribly hard for a determined thief to see what you are typing, even if the keypad is shielded.

How does this all apply to EFTPOS transactions with a debit card? Pretty much the same except with your debit card, the thief can only steal money you already have, whereas with your credit card, any cash withdrawn at an ATM will attract interest at a rather unfavourable rate.

Is there a better technological fix? Yes. Having the customer sign electronically on a pad that records not only the signature but details of pen strokes would make it much harder to forge a signature.

So why are banks doing this? Because it takes responsibility for security away from merchants and their own systems. In other words, it makes it the cardholder's problem.

What can you do?

If offered the option of a PIN, just say no.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Sound Science and Climate Change or What are the Denialists Smoking?

George Monbiot, in his book Heat, reveals the link between organized tobacco and organized climate change denial. I followed up his references and the documents he found make for interesting reading: memos from APCO, a PR firm, to Philip Morris on how to fake a grassroots movement (what we'd call astroturfing today). I strongly recommend reading Heat but in the meantime here are some examples, in which APCO is discussing the strategy for setting up The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC).

In proposing a European version of TASSC, the following are suggested, in a document dated March 25, 1994:
  • Preempt unilateral action against industry.
  • Associate anti-industry "scientific" studies with broader questions about government research and regulations.
  • Link the tobacco issue with other more "politically correct" products.
  • Have non-industry messengers provide reasons for legislators, business executives and media to view policies drawn from unreliable scientific studies with extreme caution.
And what were those "broader questions"? Here's a list from the same document:
  • Global warming
  • Nuclear waste disposal
  • Diseases and pests in agricultural products for transborder trade
  • Biotechnology
  • Eco-labeling for EC products
  • Food processing and packaging
So the agenda was this: confuse the public on the merits of science in the tobacco arena, but create a smokescreen (how appropriate) by having similar debates in other areas and – here's the critical point – ensure that the same people were involved so it would be harder to see the whole thing for what it was, a front for tobacco. Here's another snippet (document dated September 30, 1993):
APCO recommends that we steer away from launching TASSC in Washington, D.C. or the top media markets of the country. Rather, we suggest creating a series of aggressive, decentralized launches in several targeted local and regional markets across the country. This approach:
  • Maximizes recruitment efforts. Stresses that TASSC is a grassroots effort that will fight unsound science on both the local and national levels.
  • Avoids cynical reporters from major media. Less reviewing/challenging of TASSC messages; increases likelihood of pick up by media.
  • Limits potential for counterattack. The likely opponents of TASSC tend to concentrate their efforts in the top markets while skipping the secondary markets. Our approach sends TASSC's messages initially into these more receptive markets - and enables us to build upon early successes.
  • Allows for a national coordinating effort. Publicize, in each market, a national 800 number, the supporters of TASSC and the existence of the TASSC Public Information Bureau.
Now, of course, it is unlikely that the majority of people who have taken a pro-industry stance on these matters are in the pay of organized tobacco or their successor in the climate change debate, Exxon, but the planting of these seeds is all that's necessary. As uninformed members of the public pick up a perception that there's a vast groundswell of scientists who disagree with the position they see from the mainstream media, they are conned into thinking the debate is real. It's even possible that some genuine scientists were sucked in (I've noticed how most of those are retired or late-career scientists, playing on their standing, but likely to be out of touch with the latest science). Sadly, some of the mainstream media consequently pick up the spin as real, the approach of seeding it in less critical media having done the job of giving the position legs. Reporters in publications like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and The Australian, seeing the story coming at them from many sources, mistakenly believe what they are seeing represents a genuine grassroots movement of concerned scientists. So why, now that this whole thing has been exposed, do some of these publications continue to take the inactivist position so seriously? Because no one likes to admit to being a dupe. Or maybe because no one likes to admit that they need to make major lifestyle changes to eliminate a social harm – in other words, that they are part of the problem. This is why climate change persists as a misreported issue. And why the original "junk science" myth, tobacco is not that harmful, persisted so long, in smokey editorial offices. So, what's to be done? We must recognize that in the Internet age, knowledge is not created centrally, but by networks of potentially disorganized individuals. APCO tapped into this concept in an era when the Internet was not as universal as it is today, so they needed significant funding to set up their astroturf operation. The good news is that, today, you do not need major funding to set up a genuine grassroots movement. All you need to do is to recruit friends who recruit friends, via personal networking sites like FaceBook. So, now you know what to do: take the message out there. The climate inactivist movement is an outgrowth of the tobacco denial movement, and just as bogus. Equip yourself with the facts by reading sites with real science (to which you will find pointers on this site: I do not claim to be a great primary source; for example, the RealClimate site is run by real climate scientists). This article is another take on APCO's role in creating TASSC.


I add new links here as I discover new data sources:
Finally, a really good authoritative book by Naomi Oreskes, published in 2010, details the whole denial industry right back to its roots:
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Monday, 2 June 2008

If biofuels are the answer, what is the question?

One of the biggest problems with both climate change and the growing threat of peak oil is that it's all too easy to fall into the trap of subsidizing special interests, rather than actually tackling the real issues.

Either we accept that these problems are real (singly or collectively) and we focus on solutions, or we don't. In either case spending good money on non-solutions is idiotic. If there is a real problem, we need to solve it. If there isn't, why are we wasting valuable resources on unnecessary research, industries that don't stand up to competition and that, in any case, wouldn't solve the problem if it were real?

My own position is that there is far too little cause for doubt on climate change to mess around: we should stop navel contemplation and get on with solving the problem.

I am a little less certain on peak oil. Hubbert's original theory worked well for a single market, the US (he accurately predicted the US peak as 1970-5975). When US oil discovery peaked, it made sense for oil companies to switch their focus to other parts of the world, rather than pursue diminishing returns (oil that was harder to find, harder to extract, or both). The same equation does not apply worldwide: oil companies can't start exploring another planet for oil. So more expensive exploration and extraction in combination are very likely to push the peak well out beyond Hubbert's calculation.

However: the key issue is that we are starting to deplete the cheaper resources, coincidentally with massive growth in new economies (especially China but also India), so prices have only one way to go, and that is up. Add that to climate change, and there is a powerful argument to look for alternatives to fossil fuels.

Biofuels are at best a small part of the solution because there isn't unlimited agricultural land available to turn over to fuel production. At worst, they exacerbate the problem, as in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia where massive amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted through deforestation for oil palm plantations.

Wikipedia has an informative article on the world leader in ethanol, Brazil.

To put matters into perspective, world ethanol production in 2004 was 10,770-million gallons. In the same year, the US alone consumed nearly 14 times that amount of petrol (gasoline for American readers: over 3 billion barrels, about 140-billion US gallons).

Brazil is in a favourable position for growing a lot of sugarcane for fuel; it is unlikely that their production could be scaled up through enough other countries to make a meaningful dent in the problem, even if so doing would not displace food crops, or result in other environmental disasters.

The US could significantly increase available agricultural area for biofuel crops with a total cessation of feeding food, grown on land that could produce human food or energy crops, to farm animals. Not only would this be a more efficient form production, but the cows would have less fat, reducing the human obesity problem. However, it is only in comparatively wealthy countries that this kind of land exists for conversion. In poorer countries, cows eat grass. And not many countries are in the position of Brazil, with a significant fraction of farmland available for sugar cane.

In any case, oil, coal and biofuels are an incredibly inefficient way of storing solar energy. A plant stores between 3 and 6% of the incident solar energy, compared with solar cells, which are supposedly inefficient because they 'only' covert 15-20% to electricity (do a search on "solar cell efficiency": there are some far better efficiencies in research labs). Add in all the other losses from converting plants to a usable form of fuel and the losses from burning them to create the form of energy we actually want (motion, electricity, etc.) and they turn out to be incredibly inefficient. In the case of fossil fuels, the stupendous inefficiency of their production is masked by the fact that we waited hundreds of millions of years before bothering to use them.

If we can find an efficient way of storing electricity, we will solve the entire energy problem with the exception of the real hard case, air travel.

The long-term solution is energy sources that do not require burning carbon or hydrocarbons. If we are serious about dealing with climate change and the threat of peak oil, we should be putting massive resources into solving this problem. In any case, it's stupid to put waste big money on non-solutions.