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Posts Tagged ‘Environment

The science and politics of CO2

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Here is a nice article in the NY times about the origins of the research on atmospheric Carbon dioxide levels and where things are at the moment.

I found it massively interesting and informative. Hoping you will do too.


Written by clueso

December 23, 2010 at 1:47 pm

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The future of transport.

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We did a fair amount of car travel lately and one of the things that instantaneously struck me was how inexpensive it works out to be compared to public transport, at least in Britain. After filling up with about 50 GBP of petrol, four people could travel about 350 miles with some fuel still left over. Doing the same journeys in public transport would have been hideously expensive and even inconvenient as we would have had to change trains/busses and still not gone door to door. As a fan of public transport, this fact is slightly disconcerting, but there is not escaping it and it got me thinking about whether my previous unreserved support for public transport was really wise.

Cars, rail and busses all have their strengths and weaknesses, which makes them suitable in different conditions. Rail is extremely well suited for mass transit and are probably the most efficient way to move large numbers of people/goods from point A to point B thanks to its massive carrying capacity, low friction between rail and wheel and possibility of high speeds. The setup cost for rail however is quite large and the flexibility of the infrastructure is almost negligible as only trains can travel on tracks. Naturally, the best utilised train systems can be found in one of the megacities or as a link between two large cities. Connections between small rural towns via rail is probably a bad idea because a lack of passengers may mean that it will simply be carting around a load of air from one place to another, which is a horrible waste of resources.

Cars overcome disadvantages of low carrying capacity and lower speeds by their immense flexibility. They from door to door, do not have scheduled stops or changes, share a common infrastructure with other modes of transport like busses, trucks, pedestrians, cyclists etc. The marginal cost of passengers in addition to the driver is almost zero. In a car, one starts when one wants to start, pauses when one wants to stop and continues when everybody is ready to go again. While this may sound like a utopian transport solution, a single look at the gridlocked roads and parking areas we have in large parts of the world today is enough to illustrate the problem with cars. The problem is that while the individual car may be an efficient way to get around, a collection of cars is not always the optimal solution. Cars clog up massive amounts of road space and it is even worse if people are not car sharing. The second problem with cars is that they cannot(as yet) be folded away and put into one’s pocket and therefore, huge swathes of land have to be sacrificed to build car parks where car simply sit all day and do nothing while their owners go about their business. Yet another minor problem is that throughout the journey, at least one passenger has to dedicate time to control the car, which may not be fun if a travelling group of four people want to play a four person card game.

Busses are a sort of compromise between cars and rail, in that they share infrastructure with other modes of transport and have higher carrying capability, thus lowering costs a bit and boosting flexibility. But they nevertheless suffer from having to stick to timetables and requiring a large number of passengers to reach their optimal operating level.

It is a general consensus nowadays that we cannot continue touting private transport as a solution for all travel requirements and that more public transport is the way to go in the future. The really fantastic thing would be if the transport system of the future will include a new mode of transport that will plug in the gaps and overcome the shortcomings of the current modes of transport. The requirements are stringent. The new mode will have to be cheap, must be available on demand, must go from door to door without stops and must be “public transport” in the sense that the passengers do not have to bother about parking, but can just get out and walk away at the end of the journey. A bit like a taxi without a driver, because the driver I am sure is the most expensive component of the taxi.

An interesting solution may be the technology marketed by Advanced Transport Systems a British company which is deploying a small network at London Heathrow airport and which should be functional from some time this year. A driver-less car running on a guided track, sort of like a personalised train carriage would combine the flexibility, convenience and low personal cost of cars with the share-ability of public transport. This system could possibly be adapted to a nationwide system by building guided paths along a country’s highways so that anyone from anywhere could take one of these taxis on those journeys into those areas not very well served by rail. The guided paths may also be able to run small vehicles during periods of low demand or larger bus like vehicles when demand is higher. By centralising the control of these vehicles it will be easier to react to changes in demand quickly and to ensure that customers get a non-stop journey almost every time they travel. By using the internet or mobile networks to do bookings, it may even be possible to get door to door service.

A combination of such a flexible system with efficient rail links on high traffic routes seems to be a much better solution than the transport system that exists today. Unfortunately, I do not hear too many people in power actively promoting such schemes. For a politician to put forth such an idea would probably be considered “courageous” and that is why no one has suggested it so far. I will however, remain optimistic and hope that such smart and flexible transport solutions will form an integral part of future transport systems.

Written by clueso

October 5, 2009 at 11:56 pm

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The population bomb.

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I am sure the world has always been fraught with problems. Sometimes they are complex problems with no specific textbook fix, such as eliminating poverty or trying to create a framework and secure lasting peace. Others may have more specific solutions, such as eliminating a disease for which a vaccine exists. One thing we can be sure of, is that there have always been problems, there are problems today and there are likely to be problems in the future.

Most people will be familiar with the current batch of global problems, such as global warming, energy security and availability of food and water resources for a burgeoning human population. Most people will probably also be able to rattle off the proposed solutions, such as harnessing renewable energy sources, genetic modified crops, carbon caps for countries etc. What is surprising is that not too many people think of aggressive population control campaigns as part of the solution.

That most (if not all) of our current batch of problems can be solved with a lower population ought to be common sense. After all, if there were only hundred million humans on earth, we could drive between the rooms in our house, probably fly to work in one 747 per person and natures clean up processes would take care of all that we throw at it. The problem is that there are six billion of us aspiring to super rich lifestyles and there simply aren’t enough resources to support that.

The idea of controlling population is certainly not a new one. Prof. Albert Bartlett has spoken on this topic numerous times and there is a new society which calls itself The Optimum Population Trust and which campaigns for the steadying, or even negative growth of population both in the UK and in the world. While it is heartening to see that this movement is organising itself well, my heart sinks a bit when countries like India, already bursting at the seams with 1.1 – 1.2 billion people start getting all in a tizzy about how the large population is no longer a problem.

Fewer people on the earth will mean lower consumption of natural resources, less difficulty in meeting food and energy demands with available resources, a huge reduction in the decimation of the environment and possibly even a reduction in global conflict, since there are less people who have time to spare and get on each other’s nerves. It seems like a simple, elegant and effective solution to a lot of today’s problems, but somehow I don’t think that the UN/G20/whoever will be deciding to aggressively promote the idea of having only one/two children as a policy more beneficial for the long term future of the world.

Maybe having just one child should be added to the list of the current crop of “green” practices. It may be the most effective contribution in the long term…

Written by clueso

May 17, 2009 at 11:30 pm

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The story of stuff Part II

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As promised before, here’s my take on the story of stuff video in the last post…

First off, I agree with the video creator(author?) that we are currently suffering from having too much of stuff around. There is so much around, that we have to be coerced into buying things even when we are not in need of it. Thanks to current advertising and attitudes, we are exposed to subtle messages saying that if we do not own an XYZ watch of a blah blah car, we ought to commit hara-kiri from shame and we land up buying new things and getting rid of the old just because thats the way things are done. To recount some personal experiences, one of my father’s colleagues once told me that he bought a new car every three years, without exceptions, and in fact it seemed as if he had a problem with people who did not do so. There was no talk about whether a car still ran fine, or developed some problem that would make it uneconomical to maintain or anything. It was like a deadline, and the job of changing had to be done.

Second example, me in Hyderabad, where I worked for quite a while. A combination of living close to my office, then travelling a lot out of town without knowing if I will coming back to the same apartment or not and a powerful desire not to drive in Hyderabadi traffic had made me put off buying any kind of vehicle. Once when I was chatting with a friend of mine, I was asked why I allowed this “self imposed loserhood” to overcome me. Does the lack of a car or a bike really mean someone is a loser?If a person owns a not so flashy mobile phone, does it mean that they are not successful enough or are they just pragmatic and have their heads screwed on better than the rest of us? Though I like to think otherwise, sometimes I find myself judging other people from their material possessions, which I find somewhat scary because then I wont do too well with other people. 🙂

However much I dislike the way this functions, I cannot deny that they are pretty much the reason that the world is functioning smoothly in todays age. If this vast consumer appetite hadn’t been created it’s hard to imagine what the people who currently work in the factories that feed it would do. Countries like India and China, alone home to about one third of the worlds population, are currently at a stage where their economies are heavily reliant on their manufacturing prowess. If the millions of people who derive their livelihoods from these factories were left unemployed, there would for sure, be big trouble. Unfortunately, human “needs” are simply not enough to employ the current world population of 6 odd billion people and so till things change, I guess this lifestyle is necessary and till then I will be a reluctant supporter of it.

The only “change” that I can see that will be able to reverse this trend is a lowering in population levels, something which is happening already in most of the developed world and should hopefully start to happen soon elsewhere. But the problem is that we should be able to draw a line saying “This level of prosperity is enough”. Every country that has a declining population is moaning about labour shortages which are perilous to economic growth. Until there clear limit to how much the economy should grow, I guess we will need more people, there will be an increase in the population growth drives some countries are launching and the current consumption cycle will probably just continue.

To end on a lighter note, I should confess that I have a vested interest in this lifestyle holding sway over people. Thanks to the “use and throw” culture, I have been able to land up amazing deals on second hand , but almost new, computer components, furniture, books, DVDs and a whole lot of other stuff I would not have spent my money on otherwise. So far there has been absolutely no setbacks from my second hand shopping so I am looking forward to a bright future trawling the second hand market 🙂

Written by clueso

February 21, 2008 at 1:59 pm

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The story of stuff part I

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Thanks to Cubaholicus for a pretty interesting and informative video at


I obviously have views on the matter, but will blog about them later, allowing everyone to watch the video and form their own opinions first 🙂

Written by clueso

February 19, 2008 at 1:23 pm

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The paperless PhD…

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I have just started on the long process of adding a title of “Dr.” to my name and one of the first things that struck my environmentally conscious brain is the amount of paper every PhD student/supervisor generates. There are loads of research papers, results sheets, graphs and God-knows-what that gets printed on “single” sheet paper, which after 15 minutes of usage, gets chucked straight in the bin. It makes me think that graduate students around the world are probably responsible for a major chunk of the deforestation we hear so much about.

“How can I do a (nearly) paperless PhD?” was the first question that came to mind and I decided to pursue it right at the start when the actual project work is light and I have some time to spend on the extra curricular stuff. The oft-quoted reason for the reckless paper use is “so that I can highlight the important bits and make my own notes, which I cannot do on a pdf”. Come on people, in this day and age, surely you need a better reason. A google search that took me something like 20 minutes told me about this piece of software called “PDF-XChange Viewer” which allows the user to view, highligh, add comments, draw figures and a million other things to pdf files. If you thought that was the best part, wait till you hear that its FREE!!! Those interested can check it out at PDF X-Change Viewer.

Once most of my colleagues have printed out the paper and scribbled all over it, they are then caught in the death trap of “having” to store that paper, because it not only contains published information, but also their own personal thoughts. Considering that a PhD student may spend around 3-4 years reading quite a lot of articles, I shudder to think about the state of one’s desk if one tries to keep a hard copy of each and every paper they ever printed and scribbled on. So then students start using files, with coloured stickers on them to categorise information etc etc and finally landing up being “cutting edge technology researchers” who use 19th century methods for information handling.A much more elegant solution is in combining PDF-Xchange viewer with another bit of software called JabRef (again freely available at JabRef). Once a paper has been read and scribbled over with PDF-XChange Viewer, it can be saved as a softcopy and loaded into a JabRef database. Jabref has cool features that allow classification of papers into groups (such as “Must Read”, “Can ignore”, “Maybe in future”) so that searching for an article becomes something like

1. Find the proper group

2. Leftclick on the mouse.

3. rapidly read through the list till you find the titles/author/journal you are looking for. (It is also possible to sort on the basis of all these fields to help the search.)

as compared to…

1. Scan whole folders to try and remember which one can contain the paper.

2. Lift the folder and lay it on the table, while trying to avoid getting a hernia in the process.

3. Open the folder.

4. Spend 5 minutes sneezing from all the dust.

5. painstakingly turn page after page till you find the paper you were looking for. By the time you find it, its probably time to go home.

I don’t think I need to enumerate the advantages of the XChange viewer + JabRef combination, they ought to be pretty obvious. So if there are any PhD students reading this, why not give it a spin? You will be making it easier for yourselves and doing the environment a favour 🙂

Written by clueso

January 31, 2008 at 12:36 pm

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