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July 24, 2014

The Difference Between Owning a Car and Being Mobile

It makes the news when a city like Helsinki announces that, by 2025, its suite of mobility-on-demand solutions will be so comprehensive that it will be quite pointless to own a car. But in fact, the trend in many large cities has been going that way for a long time.

Compare these two pictures of Oxford Street, London's shopping paradise, the first taken in the up-beat 1950s, the second this summer.


Oxford Street, 1955. Photo by Ben Brooksbank

In the days just after the War, Oxford Street was already lined with shops. There was enough space for three cars abreast in each direction. The sidewalk was fairly generous. Private automobiles shared the road with the famed double-decker buses, and the iconic London taxis, all black.

July 6, 2014

The Difference Between a Road and a Means of Transport

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times sighs, "America’s infrastructure is now so wretched that, in some areas, the only people who drive straight are the drunks. Anyone who is sober swerves to avoid potholes."

So yes, the Federal excise tax on gasoline, which helps pay for highway maintenance, has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1993, quite unaffected by inflation or the slowly decreasing use of gasoline. And states and local authorities are broke.


Photo by Sascha Pöschl.

But the way road infrastructure is built and managed could also be a lot better. My dad, a retired civil engineer, always says that construction is far easier than maintenance. He especially sighs at "vanity" projects in developing countries, where developed-world roads are built, complete with beautiful overpasses and glorious bridges, but where maintenance funds are not assigned, so that the steel and concrete glory starts to crumble faster than you can say "repair funds".

July 2, 2014

Up! Holland up!

Some time in the course of the 2010 World Cup, I looked out of the window of my dad's flat in Holland and spotted, right on the parking lot, a diminuitive Volkwagen up!, all decked out in orange and with the works "up! Holland up!" painted down its sides.

I grinned. It was a brilliant marriage of the name of Volkswagen's tiniest car, the up!, and the fighting song of one of Europe's smallest nations. Very much tongue in cheek, it goes, "Hup, Holland, hup! Don't put the lion in its undershirt." It is sung in the key of good nature, by supporters of Dutch teams at international sporting events.

June 29, 2014

Counter Coulter

There was a bewildering article about soccer written by one Ann Coulter, who is apparently a conservative political commentator. From what I can tell - it's not easy to read through the article's ranting - she seems to say soccer is a liberal plot to make Americans like the metric system, and will inevitably lead to the nation's moral decay, QED.

It's hard to fathom how a columnist is so willing to write about something she doesn't understand. I don't think Coulter has watched a soccer match in her life. Or not a good one, anyway. It's the only way someone can claim that "Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer".

June 23, 2014

Soccer Flags

You wouldn't necessarily notice much in the US, except in ethnic neighbourhoods, but football fever is on. As in: soccer! Mostly you can tell because cars have started to sprout from their side windows these small flags, fluttering in the breeze, and indicating the country supported by the driver.

As of this writing, it's early days in the 2014 World Cup tournament, so things are still relatively mellow. But as the final matches approach, the countries whose teams have made it to the semi-finals will suddenly break out in the national colours. In the Netherlands, everything turns an eye-watering orange, in one of those country-wide nods to the royal house originated by William of Orange.

June 16, 2014

Google Car: the case for the improbable

When I was a freshman, and an international student newly arrived in the United States, I learned to my astonishment that "breakfast cereal" means not Kellogg's corn flakes or Alpen Muesli - the only ones I had encountered before - but an entire isle of variously shaped and coloured offerings. My first grocery shopping trips where always whole-afternoon affairs.

I also found out about this game called football. Where feet are hardly used at all. Apart from that the rules were all mystifying to me: even the shape of the ball was something I'd never seen before, like a lemon gone wrong. Of course, there are plenty of other games with obtuse rules, such as cricket or snooker, and odd ways of keeping track of the score, such as in tennis or snooker, and creative and unusual orders of hitting the balls, such as in pool - or snooker.

My freshman year was the first year my dorm had gone co-ed. There were plenty of kind upperclassmen who were eager to explain the rules of football to a foreign newcomer. But I waved away the kind offers, and set out to divine the rules just from watching the games. It was a jumble. Here were these guys with shoulders like the Incredible Hulk's and legs like Rudolf Valentino's, huddling, bending, throwing the ball in the wrong direction, and then all running around in incomprehensible patterns that made my friends shout an appreciative "Yeah!" I remained throroughly mystified.


[The Obamas' dog probably has a better idea of why he's running than I did about the rules of football.]

But one day I wandered outside, into a pickup game of touch football. My friends invited me in, on the principle of learning by doing. It was kind of them: really, I had no clue what was going on.

May 31, 2014

Size Creep

When I was pregnant, I started wearing men's T-shirts over skirts of which the waist had ferocious stretch. After all, my waist was going through a ferocious stretch. It was very comfortable to wear clothes that matched that.

By the time I was ready to buy new clothes again, it was a decade later, and I had all but forgotten what my size was. A store assistant sized me up and said, "You'd be a six, ma'am. Maybe a four."

From the way she turned away from me I could tell that my face was set to maximum incredulity. It was all I could do to keep myself from saying, "You're out of your mind. Before the babies I was a ten. I'm sure I'm a twelve now. There is no. bloomin'. way. that I'm a six."

I tried on a few things.

Whaddaya know. She was right: I'm a six.


[Original painting: The Abduction of Deianeira by the Centaur Nessus (ca. 1640) by Peter Paul Rubens, the painter of all those "rubenesque" ladies.]

I went home and rifled through my old stuff. Sure enough: a decade has passed, and now six is the new twelve. This size creep is downright creepy, if you ask me. I don't like to have my perceptions manipulated, thanks very much.

May 29, 2014

Enough Hockey Sticks for TWO Teams

Now that my eldest has gained admission to a Canadian university, I am reminded that hockey is the Canadian national sport. And that my best friend in college used to play it: she learned to skate in an unbelievably short time, and got so good at running circles around everyone on the ice that she was appointed the captain of my dorm's co-ed hockey team, competing intramurally.

Before games, she would go around the dorm, tear people away from their problem sets and papers, to scrape together enough players to field a team of six (including the goalie). If she was lucky she got a few extras. I would come to some of the games, to shout.


These days, I don't think of hockey much. But I do think of hockey sticks, a lot. Michael Mann, the climate scientist, was the first to remark on how the globally averaged temperature has been steady for nearly 10,000 years - if anything, decreasing slowly - until the onset of the Industrial Revolution. After that global temperatures started rising rapidly. So if you graph global average temperature as a function of time, the data lies on a curve that resembles a hockey stick.


Lots of global warming deniers have tried to beat up on Michael Mann (with non-physical sticks, like law suits) but the hockey stick metaphor has proven robust and, if anything, has become stronger over time. And while globally averaged temperature is the first quantity shown to have time dependence resembling a hockey stick, it is not the only one.

There are in fact enough hockey sticks to field a whole team, plus a few backups.

May 16, 2014

Warning Labels for Gasoline Pumps

A plucky teen has let her voice be heard, even though she is not yet old enough to vote. Emily Kelsall, a sixteen year old living in West-Vancouver, sees clearly the link between global warming and the everyday action of filling a car's gas tank, and wants drivers to see it too. In order to help motorists connect the dots, she has taken a proposal to West Vancouver's municipal council.

The way to get her message out is very simple: put warning labels on the nozzles of gas pumps. Every time drivers fill their tank, they can't help seeing the label reminding them that every mile they drive contributes to the carbon emisssions that are causing climate change, with consequences that we can all feel even today.

Emily Kelsall was inspired to her extraordinary action by hearing a radio interview with Rob Shirkey, the founder of Our Horizon, who points out that municipalities (at least the ones in Ontario) "have the legal authority to require gasoline retailers to put warning labels on gas pumps similar to those found on cigarette packages". And that cities and towns should use that authority.

May 14, 2014

I Bleeping Love Science

Well, that's it. I've come to the end of a broad overview of planetary science as it pertains to climate change. Affectionately known as 12.340x, it's a course (online through edX) on Global Warming Science, given (mostly) by MIT's Kerry Emmanuel.

In contrast to the World Bank's course on climate change that I had taken earlier (through Coursera), this one was all about the science, and explicitly not about policy. In twelve weeks, it surveyed topics like paleoclimate, the composition of the atmosphere over earth's history, heat transfer of all kinds, atmospheric and ocean circulations, the carbon cycle, forcings and feedbacks, and finally a little bit about the models that need to incorporate all of that in order to give us a sense of where we're headed next.

When you start to get into the details of how it works, you get your nose rubbed into it: our planet is stunningly beautiful.

As a single example, take the thermohaline circulation: it's the large-scale ocean flows, driven place-to-place differences of temperature and salt content, that churns the oceans and help transport heat from tropical regions towards the poles.

The "conveyor belt" looks a bit like the blood circulation in the human body. In the Atlantic, waters flow at the surface toward the North Pole (mostly scrunched into a narrow strip: the Gulf Stream), then sinks down, flowing back toward the South Pole at large depth.

May 11, 2014

Road Safety

In 2013 there were 570 road deaths in the Netherlands. Of those, more than half - 320 - were non-vehicle deaths, that is, pedestrians, bicyclists, and riders of scootmobiles: electric mobility aids that share bike paths.

Small numbers. But then again, it's a small country with population less than 17 million. For a more realistic comparison, we divide the road death numbers by the population, and find 34 road fatalities per million, about half the European average.

For comparison, in 2010 there were 32,885 road deaths in the US, or 107 per million, the overwhelming majority were drivers or passengers of vehicles. That seems a lot more until you remember that Dutch people don't drive all that much or that far. Very, very few have the supercommutes that are not uncommon in the US. I mean, in most places in the Netherlands, driving three hours would land you outside the country and in some places, two countries over.

May 7, 2014

National Climate Assessment: Why I'm Cautiously Elated

The National Climate Assessment, the culmination of a four-year effort to catalog the effects of climate change on the United States, is a breath of fresh air in the national discussion of climate change.

Finally, scientists are saying it like it is, without using technical jargon or probabilities: The NCA report states bluntly that climate change has arrived in the United States, and spells out the many ways that it is making life harder - and more expensive - for many of us. That's us, not our children or grandchildren.

The report emphasises that, as we have already started to see, climate change is not about a gradual warming up of the place we call home: it's more properly called climate disruption, or even climate chaos, where wild weather events frequently dominate the news.

The report is huge. But it is not a dry document stuffed with scientific jargon, equations and graphs. It has been presented on a beautifully crafted website that is easy to navigate at several levels, from a cursory look at the key points, to the "highlights" to an in-depth look at the relevant pages of the report itself. The designer(s) of this fantastic site deserve a medal, really.