Thursday, 29 May 2008

Why There Isn't More Solar Power

It costs too much, it happens at the wrong time, and the panels are made of the wrong stuff. But there's good news on the horizon.

When you can get coal electricity for 1.2c, why would you pay 25c for solar power? That's why China built 600 massive coal power stations in 2006, and why huge amounts of power in Australia, England and America comes from coal. It's also a reason why those countries are leery about the Kyoto Protocol. (China has coalmines which have been burning like tyre fires for decades, polluting more than all the vehicles in America put together, and no-one knows how to put them out. Except maybe use all the coal that's safe to mine.)
There's also the problem of delivery. Solar only makes power when the sun is out, but people's power usage spikes from 6-10pm. Power companies don't need power at midday, and so they pay less for it at that time. The power can be stored in battery banks, but that adds even more to the cost and reduces the total because of conversion losses.
If that weren't enough, the chief element of solar panels, silicon, is in short supply. The world can produce enough silicon each decade to power about 50 million houses in a First World country--and that's if everyone halted all production of computers and cars, the two main consumers of silicon.

But this year, a product from the Palo Alto Research Center (the guys who came up with the computer mouse, laser printers, and the internet) has shifted the goalposts.
Cruel schoolboys have always found ways of turning science to their own evil purposes. The concentrated rays of the sun will fry an ant in seconds, and it is precisely this principle which PARC have used. By using plastic lenses in a fresnel pattern--like those uses in stage spotlights--they have cut the amount of silicon needed to 1/500th of a regular panel. At one stroke, the cost of solar panels is reduced by orders of magnitude. The scattered rays of the sun are focused in tight beams on small squares of silicon, delivering twice the energy of similarly-sized panels despite the massively reduced collector surfaces.

The only problem with the new panels is the heat concentrated on small areas. IBM have solved this problem in one way by using computer processor's heatsinks to draw away heat with copper and other materials, dispersing it with long spines. Other, smaller companies have used the heat to generate further electricity using a Stirling engine, which runs on heat. In this way, their products utilize the sun's energy twice over.

For a long time there have been few options to create the power we use; often a choice between the unpalatable and the disastrous (as Galbraith said of politics). There has developed, over the last few decades, a clear mandate for renewable sources of energy, but finding a strong candidate was difficult. Breakthroughs like the products from PARC and IBM overcome the stumbling blocks of power generation we know to be inevitable. Their efforts mean that we can implement widespread changes sooner, rather than doling out this public good--clean power--slowly and grudgingly.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Strolling Around

There's a very small window of opportunity to be a tourist. It begins to close after three days, and within a few weeks you stop looking at a city with the vigor of an explorer and gradually fall into the head-down trudge of a workaday local.
Aristotle's school of philosophy, called the Lyceum, was actually just a gymnasium. His students would step outside and discuss their ideas while walking in the grounds. For this reason, it was called the Peripatetic School (school of walking around). I find that wandering through the city allows my thoughts to decompress. I don't know if it's the oxygen, the exercise, the multisensory input, the ability to see a long distance--all of these would help--but bigger spaces seem to lead to bigger thoughts.
There is a French term, flâneur, which describes someone who takes as much pleasure in the urban environment as most people would in the countryside. It was Baudelaire's word for "a botanist of the sidewalk." There are environments which encourage walking, and Toronto is one. Denver is another, while Manhattan and D.C. grumpily submit, and Los Angeles denies the activity exists except on a treadmill. Christopher Alexander's book, A Pattern Language, springs to mind. A classic tome on architecture and spaces which exude human feeling, it is a book which should be tethered to the hand of anyone who has a hammer or a drafting pencil in the other.


Saturday, 24 May 2008

72 is the new 300

January 2000:
Jim Lehrer: Finally for the record, you have not lost your desire to be President of the United States have you?
John McCain: Certainly it’s been put in deep cold storage. Ha ha...
Jim Lehrer: You haven’t lost it?
John McCain: Well, in 2004, I expect to be campaigning for the reelection of President George W. Bush, and by 2008, I think I might be ready to go down to the old soldiers home and await the cavalry charge there.


Thursday, 22 May 2008

Top 10 Art Museums In The World

Musee du Louvre, Paris -- Sept'08
Vatican Museums, Vatican City
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles -- Sept'07
Musee d'Orsay, Paris -- Sept'08
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Art Institute of Chicago
Tate Modern, London -- Sept'08
Prado Museum, Madrid
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. -- Apr'08

John Adams

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

John Adams

Monday, 19 May 2008

Sunday, 18 May 2008


I have developed kind of a thing for notebooks over the last few months, to the point where I wonder if it's healthy.

The one that looks like it has a banknote peeking out the top is what I'm using as a wallet. And a map book. And a scribble pad. And a day planner. And the repository of all my hopes and dreams.
I've not yet spent more than $8 on any single notebook. But the fact that I have twenty, made in six countries (plus some duplicates that didn't make the cut) may be a cause for concern.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Live Studio Audience

Today I was part of the kind of live studio audience television shows pushing authenticity and verisimilitude are so fond of.
The Hour is an interview-style show which runs on weekdays in Canada (though Fridays are recaps). It has probably been the only Canadian show I've watched with any regularity, and succeeds in pulling in top names for anything-goes style chats which run about 10-12 minutes. Richard Branson, Alan Alda, Tony Blair, people like that. Videos online here:

Today it was some famous-in-Canada singer who looked fresh from the Britpop cookie cutter: curly unkempt hair, skinny jeans, sneakers, wrinkled T-shirt, Diesel jacket. The clips they showed were appallingly derivative, but you wouldn't think so from the dog-whistle screams of the girls behind me.
Part of the same episode but taped earlier in the day was an interview with the director of 'Groundhog Day', 'Ghostbusters', and other yesteryear Bill Murray vehicles. He spoke mainly about his childhood flight from Nazi Europe and his son, who directed 'Juno' and 'Thank You For Smoking'.

Sprinkled throughout the taping, and especially at the end, was Q&A time with the host, a clear-eyed frontman called George last-name-Greek-and-unspellable. The audience was maybe 100 people, so we got a decent back-and-forth going on. I asked about bias, authenticity, culture, and comedy. Other people were more focused on former guests, and on their own personal soapbox issues.
As with any corporate event with plebs from the street, giveaways ran at a rapid clip. I won two T-shirts, a travel mug, and a magnetic bottle opener. I gave away my third shirt but then swapped it for the mug, literally taking it from the hands of the poor guy next to me; I was an Indian-giver (First-Nations-giver in Canada). My second magnetic bottle opener found a home with the 50-year-old woman on my other side. She seemed nonplussed.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Hillary Wins Second-Dumbest State

Hillary Clinton triumphed in the second-least-educated state of America today, West Virginia.

The graph below shows the parts of the country whose population's education did not reach the age of 15. West Virginia, in the central east, is outlined in yellow.

The only state dumber than West Virginia is its neighbour to the west, Kentucky. It is polling similar numbers and will vote against the black guy on May 20.

Sunday, 11 May 2008


Watching a documentary on the German philosopher Nietzsche put my own thoughts about life into a more explicable order. He lived at the same time as Henry David Thoreau, and they explored similar themes. Recent thought at the time, such as Darwin's On The Origin Of Species, pulled the rug out from under the ancient moral order dictated by the church. Thinking men of the time turned their intellect to the exploration of morality, and were ever pulled deeper into the greatest subject of research: what it is that makes us human.
Nietzsche lost his brother and his father, a parson, at a young age. He studied for the church but dropped out in favour of linguistics (known then as philology), writing a letter to his sister that faith returned nothing but itself; "if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search." He spent many summers in the Swiss Alps, walking the mountain trails and writing and thinking about Man and self-evident, objective morality. Like Thoreau, he needed to step away from the hubbub of society to allow the delicate skeins of first philosophies to wick together.
It cannot be ignored that the syphilis Nietzsche contracted as a young man rendered him bedridden one day in seven (and eventually led to his dementia), or that his philosophy was, in part, a wish-fulfillment restoration fantasy. But the concept of the ubermensch (superman/overcoming man) was an aspirational ideal which stood outside the fantasies of religion. The idea that we could, through self-directed activity, improve our own lives without divine assistance was revolutionary and paved the way for the therapeutic techniques of Freud and others.

In a Godless universe, we revert to first principles and the scientific process of hypothesis and observation to gauge what is good, or true, or worthwhile. We can survive by eating; we can increase by socialising; we can improve by learning. The finer points of life and society are negotiated in the crowded throng of interaction and ineptitude or luck. It is only by recognising the chaotic foundation and loose self-ordering of our lives that we may come to an acceptance of misfortune. Then, finally, we can let go of the poisonous superstitions of religion, dogma, and otherworldly paternalism.

Nietzsche believed that the individual could be self-promoting. He despised anything which disenfranchised individuals, subjugating them to a 'greater good'; it is for this reason that his appropriation by the Third Reich, three decades after his death, is particularly galling. Their recognition of the Superman was of an shining Aryan clone, not of a Rousseauean solitary walker. His 'overcoming man' was a lonely figure in the mountains, a Zarathustran ascetic who lived beyond the ken of clamouring peasants. As Hamlet has it:
...infinite in faculty, in moving and form how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in comprehension how like a god!
The death of God that Nietzsche talks about brings with it a heavy burden; we can no longer outsource our moral thinking to a man in a robe. But the tremendous journey of locating our own first philosophy is the most important part of understanding what it is to be human, of living with our eyes open and alert, curious about the world and its wonders.

Saturday, 10 May 2008


My new lodgings are an improvement over my last, if only for the increased space. Unfortunately, that space is filled with Mexicans.

Ethnic groups are defined, in my mind, by how high I have to turn up my headphones to drown them out. For example:
American students ... 5
The homeless ............. 3
British (northern) ...... 6
British (southern) ...... 3
Jewish retirees ............ 7
Bad comedians ......... 5
Most small monkeys 5
Europeans .................... 2
Australians (men) ..... 3
Australians (women) 8
American Idol ............ 4
FOX News ..................... 7

Mexicans cannot be drowned out. They vibrate at a harmonic pitch immune to negation of any kind. This may be because they sit in large circles, operate three or more noise-making devices at once, or burst into a scattered cacophony at unexpected times. This makes them exceedingly difficult to drown out. I have only encountered this level of audio pollution once before: French Canadians.
There are certainly similarities between the two groups. Both, for instance, grow beards that look accidental; both are confused with people from real countries; both order beer from the bottom of the menu; both speak dialects that make other native speakers giggle and frown simultaneously; and both travel in single file to hide their numbers.

The end result of all this is that I have been through my entire music collection, as well as samples of oceans, rainforests, and white noise, and nothing will cancel out the amarinthine outpouring of audial blather. I am at my wits' end, so I'm worn out from travelling, too.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Lost & Evicted

I remembered a store I visited last time I was in Toronto called Essence du Papier. It was as pretentious as it sounded, and I wanted to buy some notebooks from their vast selection. Problem was, they were in the 31km of underground stores that is the PATH system. Navigating your way around is like diving into a tunnel after a Viet Cong soldier. There's no grid, half the tunnels are dead ends, signs are ambiguous, and the six subway stations and twelve food courts look identical. To make things worse, all the stores have above-ground addresses... which don't exist above ground.
I took three hours and easily thirty flights of stairs, going up and down, before I located the store. It didn't have what I was after, but they pointed me in the direction of a store that did: "Go along here for a while, then turn left and go up, then back, then past the bank, then back, then up, then when you see the street you're almost there." If I hadn't asked the name of the store I would still be shambling around the vast subterranean straightaways.
Later I took the subway up to the museum and saw the Jurassic exhibit there. Upon closing the rain was falling steadily outside, so I looked for places to kill some time before walking back home. I bought a pen in a Grand&Toy, then lingered in the building foyer outside. After a few minutes a German-sounding security guy told me,"No-one can stand here. Leave now." After three days of being back in Canada, where people hold doors open then apologise for not being completely out of your way, this came as something of a shock. I walked down Yonge St in what was a much lighter rain.
Reflecting on the incident in my head, a number of details sprang to mind. The list of institutions in the building included the Israeli Consulate. The guard was not in sight until he spoke to me. The scenario now seemed more like this: camera-viewing Israeli personnel saw a damp, slightly bedraggled young man loitering in the foyer, clutching a bag with wires coming out of it. They sent down their own security guy, who was restrained from outright hostility only because, in the back of his mind, he was pondering five ways he could kill me while leaving one hand in his pocket.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

Any journey to Canada begins with easily the most tolerable border experience in the world. An official who appears to actually possess interests outside the gun range looks at your papers and asks you one or two questions, then sends you on your way. I surrendered my can of pepper spray after he couldn't find anything on it to suggest it was for animals and not for people. So sensible, I knew I wasn't in America anymore.
The only way to avoid spending a night in Buffalo was to take the 3am Greyhound. There are many American destinations I can recommend against, and three hours in the downtown bus terminal early on a Sunday morning in one of the poorest cities in the country is near the top of the leaderboard. A police officer, baton drawn, passed me every 15 minutes or so. Two men with beards stared at me, and at the woman near me whose fat had given up, perhaps for logistical reasons, any attempt at cohesion and divided itself into a loosely-linked sacks.
The bus was a jarring reminder of why I had taken the train all this time. If sleeping on a train is like sitting beside Michael Flatley in full flail, dozing on a bus is like sitting inside a box on a trampoline inside the belly of a dragon who had eaten too much Indian food. By the time we arrived in Toronto at 6am, I had achieved several minutes of sleep thanks only to minor concussion.
The hostel opened its doors at 10am, which meant that for four hours I wandered the streets with other people who had nowhere to lay their heads. Many also had nowhere to spout their theories on dance music stealing their thoughts, though for sheer brevity the man who constantly shouted,"The lights! The lights!" won my attention most fully. The ambiguity of pointing to crossing signs was what sealed the deal for me; for the tiniest moment, I wondered if there was something terribly wrong with the system, instead of with the man.

It is good to be back in Toronto. Awaking after a few hours of sleep, I looked out the window and felt at home in a way I had not for a very long time. If I'm able to gather enough of the pocket lint that is currently my life, I may be able to put together something cohesive, and even, and firm, and strong.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Ripping Off Uncle Sam

After booking my final train ticket, I took a brief tally of how much I cheated Amtrak out of during my lemming-like dash around the continental United States.
My month-long pass cost $360. I used it fifteen times for rail travel that would otherwise have cost about $1400; by my fourth trip I was ahead. But other, invisible losses were incurred by America by my choice of travel: about half my trips were overnight and prevented me from spending greenbacks on accommodation.
Had I flown, I would only have made one trip with the same money and used the dubious services of security personnel twice, for departure and arrival. By train, I was able to suck up valuable National Security minutes thirty times over. While you can't really put a price on security, in the States it usually runs about $6 an hour if facial expressions are anything to go by.
Other expenses I ground under my freeloading heel were pamphlets, maps and the Prozac-assisted goodwill of information centres in my eleven major and five minor destinations. I would sail into the tourist-trap, blue-carpeted, middle-brow urban caves, gather fistfuls of glossy materials, resolutely refuse all tours and services, ask tricky questions, and slip out in a masterfully efficient series of maneuvers. I would later toss 90% of my magpie's hoard and tear all extraneous pages from the remainder, creating a burden for garbage collectors (if I was walking) or service staff (if I was sitting).
Other costs to America were less tangible. Going by the Peter Pan principle of "Every time you say you don't believe in fairies, a fairy dies", I tried to wangle an unpatriotic statement from anyone I talked with for any length of time. Most Americans, presented with the laundry-list of sins Global & Domestic their nation is responsible for, will crumple like a wet paper bag. They are alone; no-one is waving a flag at them; Fox News is switched off; apple pie is not on the menu; Mom is many leagues away; all the guys on the money are long dead; they don't remember half the words to the national anthem. Suddenly the figleaf of God Bless America doesn't stack up against a century of reckless colonialism, cronyism, nepotism, McCarthyism and Bushisms. If I can raise the self-awareness/-loathing in America just a little, their stock goes down, baby. And mine, by comparison, goes up. I figure.

Why would I want to hurt America? Because it's dirty, and self-aggrandising, and socially unequal, and gullible, and imbalanced, and uneducated, and immoderate, and fat, and noisy, and proud, and believes in things that every other First World country abandoned as medieval twenty years ago. It has a deadly pack instinct which makes it emotive and violent and a lightning rod for other emotive, violent countries. It engages in international relations with the wit, wisdom and reserve of a guest on Jerry Springer.
All of these things make it the carnie sideshow of the world. My Amtrak pass was really an admission ticket to the carnival. See the bearded lady! Watch the man jump through the flaming hoop! Laugh as the bear on the tricycle chases the midget on the bicycle! The glory and squalor of the nation were in plain view, waiting for me to be fascinated and repelled by their very strangeness.
I ripped off America. Now I have to ensure nothing stuck to me; though if I missed something, I'm sure I shall smell it eventually.

Friday, 2 May 2008


After 27 hours on the train from Miami, I had a three-hour stopover in Manhattan and everything was flung into fast-forward.

I visited three information booths, walked through Madison Square Garden, bought a bus ticket from Buffalo to Toronto, stopped by Madame Tussuad's and Ripley's, photographed Times Square, bought a black-and-white cookie bigger than my outstretched hand, went through Bryant Park, climbed three storeys of the New York Public Library and photographed the interior, bought some water and soda at a 99c store, stopped by three electronics stores, bought a memory card, strolled down Fifth Avenue, jaywalked blatantly without seeing the cop beside me, saw the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, photographed the Flatiron Building, wandered around a Duane Reade, ate a huge slice of New York pizza, bought a postcard, and went back to Penn Station.

I still had an hour to kill, so I bought a New York Times and stood around in what seemed like a Zen-like state of stillness.
The train station had police every twenty metres, plus store guards, Amtrak security, and two guys with huge sidearms, dressed in Army fatigues. They didn't want to be photographed. There was also a sniffer dog and nowhere to sit, anywhere, in a place where people routinely wait for hours at a time. I sat on the second rung of a ladder propped up by a wall until two men photographed me and a maintenance guy told me to get off. The train was delayed by 20 minutes but boarding occurred at breakneck speed, to my surprise and delight.

I liked Manhattan. Everyone is thin and young and has stuff to do and places to go. There's a natural staccatto rhythm to the city and an utterly indifferent tone; crossing lights are suggestions, not commandments, and dawdlers are aware that they are in the vanishing minority. They glance carefully around when they drop below 5km/h, all too aware of the rapidly-moving packs of hipsters and cellphoneniks.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Why America Can't Get It Up

The alternating glory and squalor of American cities puzzled me for a long time. How could their denizens switch with such rapidity between ignoring the hideously unimproved and unmaintained, and revelling in the rarefied heights of neoclassical perfection?
I don't think I was asking the right question. The American landscape has two layers: a foundation of pragmatic industry, and a gleam of self-aggrandizing hubris. No explanations are necessary for the dirt, the mess, the unkempt busyness; instead of wondering how citizens could live in such contrasting aesthetic conditions, I should have pondered why the glorious monoliths were contrived at all, over what is a base of rust and sweat.
Objects of beauty in the American public sphere are paens to power. Nowhere exemplifies this so much as Washington D.C., which is a sprawling mausoleum of the past (surrounded by suburbs of the poorest, most homocidal men in the country). U.S. public works are relics of a Cold War mentality, where the poplace required continual assurances of greatness, invulnerability, uniqueness, and empire.
It is little wonder, then, that the Twin Towers site remains vacant. There is no precedent for memorialising America getting totally fucked. Without the usual lazy go-to sentiments such as Glory or Tradition, officials prevaricate endlessly over the issue. How do you construct a phallus that represents impotence?