# Posts Tagged ‘environment’

## Synthetic Biology

Posted by Patrick on November 30, 2012

Last week, Quirks and Quarks had a segment about synthetic biology [1]: a new branch of science whose goal is to design and construct new biological functions and systems not found in nature. [2]

The explicit assumption of this branch of science is that DNA is a kind of computing code.  Indeed, Canadian researcher Andrew Hessel says that DNA is a “tremendous medium for encoding information: it’s far more robust and compact than even electronic data storage, and it’s really the code of life.  So we’re looking at it through the lens of computing [...], which I think is a remarkable shift. [1, 2:17]  Seen through this lens, these researchers want to reprogram living organisms to make them do new and useful things.  Imagine, for example, “bacteria that breath CO2 and pee straight diesel fuel” [1, 2:58].  These researchers believe that this technology could save the world.

Whether or not you get excited by the possibilities that we may finally live in harmony with nature (by controlling it even more drastically), two things concern me.  The first is implicitly outlined in one of Hessel’s comments:

“I think this is the most powerful technology we’ve ever made.  The only thing that I think compares to it is electronic computing.  And really, we’ve seen how electronic computing has revolutionized and continues to revolutionize the world.  I think this is even more powerful because now we’re talking about programming not electronic processors, but living processors.”  [1, 3:48]

This technology is the most powerful we’ve ever made… Are we wise enough to foresee all the consequences of reprogrammed organisms?  At one level, DNA works like computer code and new (and better programs) can be written, but biological organisms also interact with one another and evolve.  Do we seriously think we’re smart enough to understand all these interactions?  Taken as a whole, this new field would be orders of magnitudes more complex than the entire Internet, which is by no means simple.  This time though, programming “bugs” may be more dangerous than simple computer glitches.

Maybe you think that spreading FUD is not the most compelling line of reasoning.  After all, the same has been said about other fields of science before.  Nuclear physics was supposed to lead to global planetary destruction, and we’re still here.  Fare enough.  Maybe we are (or will become) smart enough…

My second concern is not so much about the technology itself but the legal infrastructure surrounding it: we live in a world where companies like Apple Inc. patent things like “rectangle with rounded corners”. [3]  Patents on software are just as ridiculous and detrimental for innovation since:

[They] block individuals from taking part in [...] development and distribution [...]  This may not seem relevant to most people but it’s the same as the freedom to write a book. Most people will never write a book, but some people will and society as a whole benefits from what is made by the few [...]  [4]

If the evolution of synthetic biology is inevitable, I hope it doesn’t follow the insane route that commercial software and electronic devices have taken.  Exploring such a powerful science requires openness, collaboration, and governmental oversight, not secrecy and commercial control.  If we are going to engage in geo-engineering and massive biological reprogramming, the legal model of the Free Software Foundation [5] is probably the best place to start, if not the only one that will be safe and sustainable.

1. Quirks and Quarks: Using DNA to Save the World,
<
http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/episode/2012/11/24/november-24-2012/#4
>
2. Wikipedia: Synthetic Biology,
<
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_biology
>
3. The Verge: Apple finally gets its patent on a rectangle with rounded corners,
<
http://www.theverge.com/2012/11/7/3614506/apple-patents-rectangle-with-rounded-corners
>
4. End Software Patents,
<
http://endsoftpatents.org/
>
5. Patrick Truchon, Free Software,
<
http://ptruchon.pagekite.me/wiki/doku.php?id=freesoftware
>

## CO2 Levels (a depressing story)

Posted by Patrick on November 27, 2011

A few days ago, I listened to an ABC radio podcast on All in the Mind entitled “The case for moral enhancement”. [1] I was expecting the ethical minefield of eugenics to be discussed (which it was), but I was surprised by the turn of the conversation towards the end: 0ne of the reasons why we’d want to enhance our moral compass is because we didn’t evolve to deal with problems that affect the entire population of the planet.  In particular, one of the professors grimly said that “it’s wishful thinking to think that people are going to voluntarily deal with climate change”.  Heavy stuff!

Today it was CBC radio’s Quirks and Quarks turn to tackle the issue of climate change. [2] Again, it was nothing short of depressing.  Very…  Depressing…  One of the guests said that our inability to deal with the problem not only means that we’ll face catastrophic repercussions, but it also says something pretty grim about ourselves: “Can we not deal with an ethical issue about the lives of billions of people around this planet?”

Because I like to understand the information contained in graphs, I clicked on the one posted on the Quirks page [2], which led me to its source on wikipedia [3], which lead me to the source of the raw data [4].  I decided to import that data into a spreadsheet to see what information I could extract from it.

Using two simple functions, and a method called “least squares” [5] to scale them properly, I managed to find the proper parameters that model the CO2 concentration as a function of time.  Visually, the orange graph (the model) follows the blue graph (the data) pretty well, so the model I found is pretty good (within that range of time anyways).

I found the equation of the model (the orange graph) to be:

$\LARGE \text{C} = 270+2.7\sin\big(2\pi(t-0.06)\big)+45 \cdot 2^{(t-1958.208)/37}$

It looks complicated, but there’s basically three pieces to this function, each with their own particular meaning.

The first part is just the number 270.  What it means is that if we go back in time by more than a few hundred years, the average CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would have been around 270 ppmv (compare that to today’s 390 ppmv !)

The second part is responsible for the oscillation of the concentration due to seasons.  The number 2.7 in front of the sine function means that the concentration increases from its average value by 2.7 ppmv in the winter and decreases by 2.7 ppmv in the summer.  So the total variation (of about 5.4 ppmv) is pretty small (compared to the average increase).

The third part is what we’re responsible for.  It says that the difference in CO2 from the ancient average of 270 ppmv will double every 37 years.  This is a bit tricky so here it is again: if you look at the concentration of CO2 today and subtract that from what it was hundreds of years ago, that difference will double in 37 years time.  For example:

• The concentration was around 315 ppmv in 1958, which is a difference of 45 ppmv from 270 ppmv.
• 37 years later (in 1995), the concentration was 360 ppmv, which is a difference of 90 ppmv from 270 ppmv (double the previous difference of 45 ppmv)
• Another 37 years later (in 2032), the concentration should be (if the trend continues) 450 ppmv, because there should be a difference of 180 ppmv from 270 ppmv ( double the previous difference of 90 ppmv)
• And in 2069? 720 ppmv, because it’ll be 360 ppmv more than 270 ppmv…

So according to this model, if the trend continues (ie, we keep doing what we’re doing now), the atmosphere will reach levels of CO2 comparable to that of the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event 34 million years ago (which were around 760 ppmv) [3] in a time scale of a few 37-year periods!  And I thought the podcasts were depressing…  The next graph shows this extrapolation in both direction.  The model (in orange) is graphed (without the seasonal variations) between 1750 and 2100 with the actual data (in blue).  The future looks completely crazy, but other data suggest that the past is actually pretty spot on. [3]

Now, to be fair, the assumption that “we keep doing what we’re doing now” implies at least two things that are very unlikely:

1. Our population will continue to grow exponentially.
2. Our resources of fossil fuels will continue to match our growing demands.

In reality, we’ll either find ways to turn this around, or we’ll suffer from other problems that will curb our population explosion and our ability to consume so much fossil full.  One thing is certain: we can’t let that orange curve go that high.

1. All in the Mind, The case for moral enhancement,
<
http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2011/3360688.htm
>
2. Quirks and Quarks, The Rocky Road to Durban,
<
>
3. Wikipedia, Mauna Loa Carbon Dioxide-en.svg
<
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mauna_Loa_Carbon_Dioxide-en.svg
>
4. NOAA ESRL DATA,
<ftp://ftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/ccg/co2/trends/co2_mm_mlo.txt>
5. Wikipedia, Least Squares,
<
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_squares
>

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

## Home

Posted by Patrick on June 5, 2009

Source [2]

HOME [1] is a documentary by aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertran. The full featured film is freely available in HD from the project’s youtube chanel [2], and while I’m waiting for Miro to finish downloading it to my local hard drive, I’m watching the preview [3] and the talk he gave at TED [4].

“Yann Arthus-Bertrand is an aesthete with the soul of a moralist. He uses the beauty of the world to beguile you into a photograph in which a larger lesson awaits. His lesson is about the planet in jeopardy.” [5]
Richard Lacayo, Time

1. HOME website, <
http://www.home-2009.com
>
>

>
4. TED: Yann Arthus Bertrand, <

>

5. TED: Speakers Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Photographer, <
http://www.ted.com/speakers/yann_arthus_bertrand.html
>

## Energy and the Environment

Posted by Patrick on April 10, 2009

Definitively not a book to be judged by its cover![1]

I just started reading one of the most refreshingly clear book I’ve ever read about the energy and environmental crisis. What’s so different from David JC MacKay’s take on the problem is that he makes himself very clear from the get go that his aim is not to debate an ethical point of view.

“Debates about energy policy are often confusing and emotional because people mix together factual assertions and ethical assertions.”[1, p.17]

Instead, he “simply” aims at explaining the numbers as clearly as possible so that we can then have informed ethical discussions:

“[if] we need to know how the one “huge” compares with another “huge,” namely our huge energy consumption, [...] we need numbers, not adjectives.”[1, p.3]

But this book is not just about listing the right numbers, it’s about understanding them. You’d think that such required reading should be a little dry, but surprisingly, his writing style is … kind of entertaining!

At the end of the second chapter, just before diving into the real meat of the book, he summarizes his goal:

“Throughout the book, my aim is not only to work out numbers indicating our current energy consumption and conceivable sustainable production, but also to make clear what these numbers depend on. Understanding what the numbers depend on is essential if we are to choose sensible policies to change any of the numbers. [...] I will need to use equations like

\text{kinetic energy} = \frac{1}{2}mv^2

However, I recognize that to many readers, such formulae are a foreign language. So, here’s my promise: I’ll keep all this foreign-language stuff in technical chapters at the end of the book. Any reader with a high-school/secondary school qualification in maths, physics, or chemistry should enjoy these technical chapters. The main thread of the book (from page 2 to page 250) is intended to be accessible to everyone who can add, multiply, and divide. It is especially aimed at our dear elected and unelected representatives, the Members of Parliament.

One last point, before we get rolling: I don’t know everything about energy. I don’t have all the answers, and the numbers I offer are open to revision and correction. [...] The one thing I am sure of is that the answers to our sustainable energy questions will involve numbers; any sane discussion of sustainable energy requires numbers. This book’s got ’em, and it shows how to handle them. I hope you enjoy it!” [1, p.28]

If that wasn’t good enough he licensed the ebook Creative Commons by-nc-sa [2]:

This is a free book

This is a free book in a second sense: you are free to use all the material in this book, except for the cartoons and the photos with a named photographer, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence. (The cartoons and photos are excepted because the authors have generally given me permission only to include their work, not to share it under a Creative Commons license.) You are especially welcome to use my materials for educational purposes. My website includes separate high-quality ﬁles for each of the ﬁgures in the book. [1, p.viii]

1. David J.C. MacKay. Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. UIT Cambridge, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9544529-3-3. Available free online from <www.withouthotair.com>
2. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike: <
>

## Ultra Fast Charging Batteries…

Posted by Patrick on March 13, 2009

Imagine what you could do with a battery that can recharge in a matter of minutes or seconds…

• Completely recharge your laptop while you’re having breakfast.
• Recharge your fully electric car while taking a bathroom break at a truck stop.

According to Nature [1], a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge found a way to use existing materials to build lithium ions batteries that can recharge super rapidly.

What I love about reading news online is the Comment section. Here, someone posted:

“Hmm, here’s a provocative article from The Register which indicates this technology (and in fact, Nature’s reportage) is less than meets the eye. It might be a good idea for Nature to follow-up, and to refute if necessary: www.theregister.co.uk/2009/03/12/fast_charge_battery_bubble_stab/
Posted by: M Williams

“It is true that discharge rates are the standard for measuring battery speed, but the team also measured some full charge-discharge cycles that were just as fast. For those who are subscribers, it can be found in figure four of the paper.
Posted by: Geoffrey Brumfiel”

As a reader, what excellent opportunity to exercise critical thinking…

1. NatureNews, <
http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090311/full/news.2009.156.html
>

## plane graveyard…

Posted by Patrick on February 7, 2009

Cool Google Map of a plane graveyard…

View Larger Map

## State-wide Electric Vehicule Network

Posted by Patrick on December 13, 2008

Could we be witnessing the rebirth of the electric car? [1]

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle has unveiled a plan for the island state to create an electric car network by 2012. [2]

For all their advantages (quiet, more energy efficient, less maintenance, no use of oil, much cheaper to operate, etc), electric vehicles have two big disadvantages: shorter range and longer re-fueling (charging) time. These two disadvantages are enough to discourage even the most interested early adopters from making the switch away from the mainstream (archaic and harmful) internal combustion engine. With the proper infra-structure, however, these disadvantages can be circumvented.

Charging an electric vehicle from home, for example, takes about 5 hours. The limiting factor used the be the batteries, which had to be charged slowly, but now, it’s the homes, which can’t deliver enough power to charged the new generations of batteries in about 10 minutes. Hawaii is exploring the idea of scattering fast charging stations across the island. [3] They are also exploring the idea of having battery swap stations, where they would take your empty battery, put in a full one, and recharged the empty one (slowly) during off-peak hours.

I can’t help but longing for such a system to be even considered here in Taiwan. I love my electric scooter [4] for all the above advantages. But I also have to make sure that I never get farther than 30 km away from school (where I charge it for the price of about 50NT / 2000km). A rise in popularity would mean that I could chose a different, more powerful, model. [5] It would also mean much cleaner and quieter streets, and could potentially drive Taiwan to invest in clean energy production…

1. Wikipedia: Who Killed the Electric Car?
<
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_killed_the_electric_car
>
2. Daily Tech, Haiwaii Endorses Plans for Electric Cars,
<
http://www.dailytech.com/Hawaii+Endorses+Plan+for+Electric+Cars+/article13578.htm
>
3. State of Hawaii, Proposed Electric Vehicle Rapid Charging Sites,
<
http://hawaii.gov/dbedt/ert/cc/evchgmap.html
>
4. EVT, <
http://www.evt.com.tw/html/evt_info/english/index.htm
>
5. Wikipedia: Electric Motorcycles and Scooters,

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

## How well does it fail?

Posted by Patrick on October 31, 2008

I changed my mind about my previous post [1], where I was so impressed about this (still pretty cool) electric motorcycle. Something I didn’t ask myself at the time was: “how well does it fail?”

Of course, we’re happy when things work the way they should. But we should always consider what happens when things go wrong. This cool motorcycle needs a small computer in order to stay balanced in the forward-backward directions. What would happen if the power suddenly shot off? In a split second, you’d find yourself falling head first at up to 60km/hr (or on your butt, if that’s any better) For that reason alone, I think this type of transportation will never get approved…

This filter question can also be asked about other things. In fact, the first time I heard it asked explicitly was in an argument for Wikipedia. In one of his talks [2], Cory Doctorow was comparing Wikipedia to the Britannica, saying that although Wikipedia is not perfect, compared to the Britannica, “it fails beautifully”. The fact that Wikipedia keeps a history the changes made to its pages provides as much information about a topic, if not more, than the current version of the “truth” being displayed…

In an unexpected turn of event, this post will end with a short announcement:

Wikipedia has put together a downloadable “DVD” of its best educational articles, after reviewing and polishing them. The result is “Schools-Wikipedia” [3] I put a copy of it on our server for internal browsing or copying. [4]

1. Patrick Truchon, Futuristic Electric Transportation,
<
http://ptruchon.wordpress.com/2008/04/27/futuristic-ele…transportation
/>
2. Internet Archive, The Totalitarian Urge
<
http://www.archive.org/details/Cory_Doctorow_The_Totalitarian_Urge
>
3. Schools-Wikipedia,
<
http://schools-wikipedia.org/
>
4. HIS Wiki, Student Corner
<
http://secondary.hisdomain.hdis.hc.edu.tw/wiki/doku.php?id=student:home
>

## “Organized” cycling…

Posted by Patrick on October 13, 2008

In England formal demonstrations have to be notified to the police in advanced. Are 400 cyclists getting together every last Friday of the month to cycle across a bridge part of a demonstration? That’s what the highest court in England will have to decide next week… [1]

Anyone seen V is for Vendetta ? [2]

1. BBC, When is a demo, not a demo,
<
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7667183.stm
>
2. Wikipedia, V is for Vendetta,
<
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V_is_for_Vendetta
>

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

## Carbon Pricing…

Posted by Patrick on September 29, 2008

This weekend, Bob McDonald, host of the excellent science show Quirks and Quarks, [1] interviewed top environmental economists about their solution to reducing green house emission: “carbon pricing”. [2]

The idea of carbon pricing is simple enough: put a price on emissions. A carbon tax, or a cap and trade are two examples of this, but they’re not the only ones. What’s important is that the focus be on emissions not on the energy source. An example of why this focus is important is with the price of oil. As oil gets more expensive (because of scarcity, not because of taxation), we might think that people will use less of it, but because the focus is not on the emissions:

“We shouldn’t assume that high oil prices solve this problem [...] [because] on the supply side, we’re making more investment to get coal, oil sands, [etc] that we can use to make gasoline [...] So if you don’t price emissions, rising oil prices can actually lead to rising emissions.”

They also discuss other ideas like the pros and cons of regulation vs pricing, whether we should focus on changing people’s behaviour (like driving) or changing the technology we use (like using clean cars), and what this will mean to a country’s international competitiveness.

All in all, this interview is an excellent primer for anyone wanting a glimpse at big picture solutions. Especially for Canada, in view of the up-coming federal elections…