Tater’s Takes

May 30th, 2011 by Potato

What a crazy couple of weeks. This last week in particular featured back-to-back all-nighters as I tried to finish my thesis revisions. The crazy thing is the revisions weren’t even that bad, I just have enough trouble writing the fluffy bits that go around the sciency bits the first time around, and re-writing them seems to completely drain me. Since this week was largely fuelled by my discovery of delicious home-made onion rings, I’m afraid to even step on a scale to see where I’m at now. Anyway, it’s over, the latest revised version is out of my hands, and I just slept 24 of the last 30 hours; feeling much better now. I’ve got the penultimate exam to study for now, and hopefully a week of working out to make up for the weeks featuring dozens of hours in a chair per day…

On with the links!

The Neurologica blog has a few neat posts, including a follow-up to the CBC Marketplace report on homeopathy. A homeopathy advocate complained to the CBC, but their review found that the report was fair. “The achievement of balance does not mean mathematical equivalence; rather, the important principle is that different views are, in the words of the CBC policy, “reflected respectfully.” Also, a post about human echolocation.

A pair of articles in the Financial Post on condo speculators and using the housing bubble to sell out and fulfill your dreams. I know a few people my parents’ age who realized in the last few years that they could sell their house and retire off the proceeds if they moved even just a little ways outside the GTA. I’m surprised it hasn’t been more.

Google’s using its search data to discover interesting trends, such as uncovering the spread of flu-like symptoms. There are a lot of other possibilities for the correlation of search terms with real-life events, like getting a leading indicator of unemployment.

The CDC has created a clever page to use the threat of a zombie plague to inspire disaster readiness for more mundane emergencies.

Via BoingBoing, an interesting case in Texas on radiation in the drinking water, and the implications of margin-of-error. On the one hand, I can see the rationale for using the most liberal interpretation of the stats: who wants to tell a bunch of Texans that there’s slightly elevated levels of radioactivity in their drinking water (less than the margin-of-error above the limit), especially if the regulatory thresholds are set conservatively anyway. But, it’s not proper to consistently subtract the margin of error like they did. That’s the most optimistic interpretation of the data, but not actually the correct one. If it was a one-off reading, you could perhaps make that argument, but when it consistently happens then no, you know that the “true” value you’re measuring is indeed above the threshold.

Germany has decided to shut down nuclear power by 2022. I find that surprising: that’s a big shift to make in a deceptively short time period. According to the article, 23% of Germany’s power came from nuclear prior to the Japanese tsunami. In the wake of the fear that followed, Germany promptly shut down its 7 oldest reactors, and I’m surprised to see that sentiment following on for so long to have this much impact even on their newer reactors. 23% is a lot of power to have to find elsewhere. For comparison, roughly 8 years ago Ontario vowed to shut down our coal plants within 5 years, and it was a challenging goal to meet — indeed, the goalpost was moved to 10 years down the road pretty quickly (2014). We’re pretty close here in 2011: 8 of 19 units have been shut down, and the remainder are seeing less utilization. And coal was just about 20% of our energy mix before the phase-out. So the Germans have some pain ahead of them, and some hard choices: what on earth are they going to use to replace that much baseload power? Or will they have to pick one fifth of their things to turn off when the brownouts and rolling blackouts threaten?

Tater’s Takes: Mother’s Day

May 11th, 2011 by Potato

It’s been another rough few weeks over here. I have revisions to make to my now-complete first draft, and though there aren’t that many, they’re taking me forever. I had hoped to be done these almost two weeks ago. I seem to have serious issues concentrating (also why there haven’t been many blog posts here), and my stress levels are once again through the roof. But it’ll be over soon (just months now!) and then I can worry about what to do with the rest of my life. To try to get my science groove on I’m even going out to give some rah-rah science! outreach talks at high schools soon, which I hope goes well.

Mother’s day seemed pretty hectic here, with dinners and brunches and last-minute shopping. I ended up getting a new pizza cutter for myself while I was at Caynes. I’m impressed enough with it that I had to give it a quick mini-review: it cuts through pizzas way better than my old ones. That might be because it’s new and sharp, but even then it seems to do a better job than they ever did: I’ve always had to go back-and-forth to get a clean cut, but this did the job in one swipe. It has a rather heavy handle (vs. the cheap plastic or wood handles of my other two), and the blade disc is held securely with no play: the other two both had fairly significant wobble in the roll of the cutter.

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from the Globe & Mail, and had a brief mention in an article as a result… but although it was my website and Potato identity that brought me to his attention, the article had no mention of either. So at least my quasi-secret identity remains safe, and I don’t have to write a tedious “welcome, G&M readers” post. However, if my understanding of comic-book lore is correct, this reporter is now in grave danger, as those who possess the information of a person’s secret identity — especially reporters with privileged sources — are abducted with uncanny regularity: whether by targeted schemes or pure evil happenstance. Fortunately, I believe the last time I updated my arch-nemesis page I selected “the geese who block the bike path by the river” and they are not the hostage-taking sort of villains.

Rob Carrick agrees with my earlier post that TD’s e-series funds are great, but hard to buy. I think it’s really weird that the fund you have to trade online requires faxing/mailing in an application to open an account, but weirder still that people like me have to write third-party user guides on how to actually manage the things.

CC weighed in before I got around to publishing this post, saying that he didn’t find the e-series that hard to set up. I don’t find it that hard from the instructions either, and have helped people set them up… but Wayfare did run into issues, mostly with the branch staff being clueless and trying to sell her on higher-MER funds, and with that conversion step not going through right away. Plus some of the other steps (like withdrawing under the HBP) are a little less clear, as Krystal found out. As much as I love the e-series funds for average investors, something’s not right when the best instruction sets and knowledgeable people are outside of TD. Anyway, I’ll repeat my best advice: use TD Waterhouse.

Deliquencies are rising in Alberta as the housing market there flattens out. I consider it more evidence that delinquencies are a trailing measure, so not very relevant in a discussion on the health of Canada’s housing market, but take it however you want (i.e.: too small to be meaningful at all is also a good way to take it).

A little article on Home Capital Group also points to some more warning signs: “He said the company is being cautious when considering loans that will go toward properties in Vancouver or downtown Toronto, because the markets are showing signs of overheating.”

Canadian Business revamped their website, breaking the RSS feeds and leading to many 404 errors for old links to their articles. The ability to comment also seems to have disappeared. But, I’ve found Larry MacDonald again, and now he seems to be moving towards believing that Vancouver at least, is in a bubble.

I’m a bit late on this, but Freddie Mac actually reported a profit this quarter. The preferreds I own (a very small speculative bet) are actually in the black now by over 30% (given the timeline though, still no better a performance relative than the index). I still don’t expect a final resolution for years yet, and this only suggests that rank insolvency is perhaps not as much of a risk — but political risk still looms large, as it didn’t look like the conservator allowed them to repay any significant portion of the bailout. Despite the recent run-up, they’re still only trading for 10 cents on the dollar, quite a reasonable discount given the return to profitability. Though I was tempted to buy more on the news, I figure I’d hold pat with my thimble-full of exposure. There’s still lots of risk here, and I don’t need to bet any more than I already have.

A short post by Saj Karsan on learning from your history, but not letting randomness influence that. I can’t dig it up now, but Michael James had a similar idea some time ago: a good decision is not necessarily the one that lead to the correct outcome in the way things played out, but one that made the most sense given the information available at the time.

A cute tongue-in-cheek site about the benefits of coal-fired electricity.

Tater’s Takes – UBB, Copyright, and Nuclear Power

March 18th, 2011 by Potato

It’s been a tumultuous year so far, and the snow hasn’t even melted yet! The big news story has been the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which has killed thousands of people and caused billions in dollars of damage. Oh, it also put some nuclear reactors into partial meltdown which added salt to the wounds by possibly making a few hundred more people sick, and releasing radiation into an area around the plants. But since it’s the ongoing story which will take weeks to fully play out, since people are afraid of the very word nuclear, and since fear-mongering sells papers, it’s been the headline story all week. Not that I am free of blame — I’ve re-read my radiation safety training materials and spent a lot of time brushing up on nuclear power generation this week, and have been soaking up the Fukushima stories.

While I do want to help everyone who’s going out of their minds keep perspective, I also don’t want to minimize the tragedy: the workers are being very brave while facing a terrifying situation, and are making personal sacrifices to try to minimize the damage to the rest of Japan. There have been fires, explosions, and meltdowns, leading to some radiation release (though whether the panicked mobs in Tokyo have anything to fear is an open question)…

Oh yeah, and there’s a civil war in Libya, demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, and crackdowns in Bahrain.

Joe Kelly over at Nerd Boys has a few posts on UBB up. He even tabulates the UBB fees by various ISPs.

Michael James reports that AT&T in the US has introduced UBB, which has sparked some outrage… at 1/10th the price of Canadian UBB.

Something I haven’t really drawn enough attention to is the very framework the CRTC laid out for making its decisions. They state that when congestion occurs, it should be corrected first by network infrastructure upgrades, then by economic incentives (i.e.: UBB), then by throttling and other traffic control measures. The thing is, there’s no structure to those guiding principles, leading to perverse incentives with UBB: an ISP can make more money by encouraging congestion, then charging UBB than it can by upgrading the network to stay ahead of traffic growth. Anyway, it was back in my 5-page submission if you read that, and if not, you probably want to focus on other things now.

Michael Geist, who has been debating Dan McTeague about proposed copyright reform, points out that despite calling for severe penalties for copyright infringers, Dan McTeague himself appears to fit the criteria for a repeat infringer. Zing!

Laser pulse pistol. Yes. The future is here.

On the profiteering side of the Japanese tragedy, Financial Uproar discusses investing in Tepco, which I was actually just talking about today with Netbug. I saw a lot of parallels with the BP situation there. Though there is an ADR, it trades on the pink sheets and is quite illiquid: TD Waterhouse wouldn’t let me put in a bid online, I had to call. I decided to sleep on it, but it’s now up ~20% in Tokyo tonight, so I may have missed my chance.

National Post: Language used to describe Japan’s atomic crisis borders on reckless hyperbole.

An old Scientific American article about how the emissions from coal plants are more radioactive than those from nuclear power plants. However, the mercury, particulate, and greenhouse gas emissions of the coal plants are far bigger concerns, not to mention mining issues.

And finally, I think my favourite link in the round-up: A post showing the deaths per TWh for different power generation methods. There’s lots of room to quibble about an order of magnitude here or there, but the end result is that coal is several orders of magnitude more deadly than nuclear. And coal never provided us with medical advances like radiotherapy or diagnostic nuclear medicine.

Radiological Accidents: Some History

March 16th, 2011 by Potato

There’s Chernobyl, everyone knows that one. Then a handful of other accidents involving nuclear power generation, with the most famous perhaps being Three Mile Island, though the impact of the non-Chernobyl accidents have been pretty minor.

In the early days of research, there were a fair number of accidents, especially with enriched fuel, and a bunch of military accidents.

But after Chernobyl, most of the worst civilian radiological accidents come from the medical side. As much as people rail against nuclear energy, I don’t hear a lot of people trying to ban nuclear medicine.

The biggest cause of accidents seems to be the escape of radiation sources, with the Goiania, Brazil accident being perhaps the best example. There, a medical clinic moved, and left behind a radiotherapy device. These guys came in to the abandoned, half-demolished structure, and stole the Cesium-137 source at the heart of the machine, to sell for scrap. In dismantling the source, they got a large dose of radiation, and then later did sell the core for scrap. The scrap dealer noticed this blue glow in the material, and — I kid you not — decided it was magic.

He invited his friends and family over to check it out, made jewellery and body paint out of it, and spread this stuff all over. People were putting it on their bodies to increase sexual potency, ingesting it, and selling it. It took over two weeks before it was realized that a disaster was unfolding. 4 people died, many others got sick, and something like the equivalent of 100 transport truck containers of contaminated waste were produced.

There are also a number of cases of accidental over-exposure from radiotherapy or imaging, though those seem to be more accepted as there is always some background medical mistake risk.

Japanese Crisis & Nuclear Power

March 15th, 2011 by Potato

I don’t know what to say about the disaster striking Japan. The size of the earthquake (now being reported as a 9.0) was tremendous, one of the largest earthquakes ever, and the following tsunami overwhelmed even one the countries best prepared for tsunamis.

The focus now is on the nuclear plants that are in partial meltdown. There is a lot of fear out there, and some of the coverage has been hyperbolic. The situation is still unstable, and it could of course get a lot worse from here.

As someone who supports nuclear power, who is a scientist, and who has been trained in radiological disaster management, I have to ask myself if these events would change my views, and I would have to say so far, no. I do think there could have been more done at the plants for saftey backups (e.g., the ability to run a backup turbine off the decay heat to power the cooling pumps), and that a safer (in my non-specialist and Canadian opinion) CANDU design probably should have been used in a seismically active country like Japan. But, nuclear power is one of the few options to meet the power requirements of the world, and especially countries like Japan, with high population densities and few hydroelectric options.

Plus, I think it’s important to keep in mind the scope of the problem so far. First off, this is not a separate nuclear power problem, this is a result and an extension of the one of the worst earthquakes and tsunamis ever. This is the worst-case scenario for these reactors, and these are old reactors. The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami are still being tallied, but are in the several thousand range. There are workers in the plants that will likely have health effects from radiation exposure (unclear how many at this point), but most of the general public near the plant was evacuated days ago. Radiation has been released into the environment, with the highest numbers I’ve seen peaking at 12 mSv/hr close to the plant, but generally much lower than that. A typical background dose is in the range of a few mSv per year, and a CT scan might be several mSv. The Canadian occupational limits are 20 mSv/year. So even close to the plant, a person could take their sweet time evacuating and still have no health effects.

What the ultimate outcome will be is still an open question, and it will take several days until the decay heat from the cores is gone and any further fire/explosion/breach risk dissipates. However, the actual impact of the nuclear disaster looks like it will pale in comparison to the impact of the tsunami and earthquake natural part of the disaster. Yet, already the fear is enough to compromise the development of nuclear plants around the world.

I know there must be burning questions out there, ask away and I’ll try to answer them!