My wife and I have been (sort of) vegetarian for twenty years now. I say “sort of” because we do eat fish regularly, and we’re not obsessive about avoiding foods that might have animal stock in them. More simply, we avoid eating meat. However I often find it hard to explain this to people, partly because it doesn’t seem to fit with anyone’s standard notion of vegetarianism. Reaction tend to fall somewhere between being weirded out by the idea of a diet that’s not based on meat to a detailed quizzing of how I decide which creatures I’m willing to eat. The trouble is, our decision to avoid meat isn’t based on a concern for animals at all.

The reason we went meat-free many years ago was threefold: it’s cheaper, healthier and better for the planet. Once we’d done it, we also found ourselves eating a more varied and flavourful diet, but that was really just a nice side-effect.

The “better for the planet” part was based on several years of reading about issues in global equity and food production, which I have found hard to explain to people in a succinct way. In other words, yes, it would require me to be boring for an entire evening’s dinner party, which I would prefer not to do.

Now I can explain it much more succinctly, with just one graph (h/t to Neil for this):

21. July 2011 · 21 comments · Categories: advocacy

Whew, it’s hot out there today. Toronto was the hottest place in Canada this afternoon. The humidex hit 51. Environment Canada tells me that above 45 is dangerous, and around 54 means “heatstroke imminent”. I just stepped outside to see what it’s like and … it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My better half has forbidden me from cycling home in this, so I’m pondering what to do next. This feels like a taste of “Our future on a hotter planet”. So, some idle thoughts…

To many people, living comfortable middle class lives in North America, climate change is some vague distant threat that will mainly affect the poor in other parts of the world. So it’s easy to dismiss, no matter how agitated the scientists get. If you follow this line of thinking, it quickly becomes clear why responses to climate change divide cleanly along political lines:

  • If you care a lot about fairness and equity, climate change is an urgent, massive problem, because millions (maybe even billions) of poor people will suffer, die, or become refugees as the climate changes.
  • On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with a world in which there are massive inequalities, where some people live rich lavish lifestyles while others starve to death, then climate change is a minor distraction. After all, famines in undeveloped countries are really nothing new, and we in the west are rich enough to adapt (Or are we?).

The dominant political ideology in the west (certainly in the English-speaking countries) is that such inequality is not just acceptable, but necessary. So it’s hardly surprising that right wing politicians dismiss climate change as irrelevant. No amount of science education will change the mind of people who believe, fundamentally, that they have no obligation to people who are less fortunate than themselves. As long as they believe that they are wealthy enough that climate change won’t affect them, that is.

But doesn’t a heatwave in a Canadian (!) city that makes it dangerous to be outside change things completely? We Canadians are used to the cold. We know how to dress up, and we embrace winter through a variety of winter sports. You can’t embrace extreme heat in the same way. If the body cannot cool down, you die. No matter how rich you are.

If people start to understand that this will be the new normal, it changes the issue from a question of equity to a question of health. Our elderly relatives are at risk first. And small children. But even a healthy adult can’t avoid heat stress if the body cannot cool down enough. What’s unusual about this heatwave (and the one that hit Europe in 2003) is that it doesn’t cool down much overnight. And nighttime temperatures are rising even faster than daytime temperatures. That’s a massive threat to public health, especially in cities.

And with that thought, how am I going to get home?

19. July 2011 · 5 comments · Categories: blogging

One of the favourite jokes amongst my kids right now is the one about Youtube, Twitter and Facebook all merging to make a new service called YouTwitFace:

And now, just as I was getting used to Twitter (I finally signed up in April), along comes Google+.

But I haven’t yet figured out how to connect up Twitter with my WordPress blog and my Facebook page. Facebook seems like a good way to keep in touch with people, except some of my “friends” keep polluting the news stream with stuff about their fantasy lives on virtual farms and stuff, and the whole thing seems overburdened with unnecessary features. Twitter seems to have a much better signal-to-noise ratio (although maybe that’s because I’m only following a bunch of workaholics, or at least people who keep their personal lives separate).

Now what I really want isn’t another competitor. I want an automated blend of the best aspects of the existing services. I want to combine my facebook newsfeed and my twitter feed, while filtering out the farmville crap. I want to automatically include the RSS feeds from blogs that I follow, but filter out duplicates for those people who also tweet and/or link their blog posts in facebook. I want my blog to create automatic tweets when I post (I’ve now tried several different WordPress plugins for this, and none of them work). And for tweets announcing new blog posts, I want more than Twitter offers – I at least want to know which blog it is. Twitter tends to give me just the title/subject of the post and a cryptic URL. I actually like Facebook’s approach best here, where you get a brief excerpt from the blog post in the feed.

And now if I start using Google+, I have another feed to blend in. Blending the feeds ought to be easy, from a technical point of view. But if it’s easy, why aren’t there simple pushbutton solutions already? Do I really have to write my own scripts for this? Does everyone?

It’s enough to make me sign up for the Slow Science Movement:

We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.

11. July 2011 · 3 comments · Categories: advocacy

Okay, so it’s a few years old, but I’d never seen this series of videos by National Geographic before. I’m not convinced you can slice the impacts into 1 degree increments with any reliability, but this series does a nice job of getting the big picture across (much better than Lynas’ book, which I found to be too lacking in narrative structure):

What’s uncanny is how much of what’s presented in the 1 degree video is already happening now.

Next year’s International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE), to be held in Zurich, has an interesting conference slogan: Sustainable Software for a Sustainable World

In many ways, ICSE is my community. By that I mean, this is the conference where I have presented my research most often, and is generally my first choice of venue for new papers. This is an important point: one of the most crucial pieces of advice I give to new PhD students is to “find your community”. To be successful as a researcher (and especially as an academic) you have to build a reputation for solid research within an existing research community. Which means figuring out early which community you belong to: who will be the audience for your research results? who will understand your work well enough to review your papers? And eventually, which community will you be looking to for letters of support for job applications, tenure reviews, and so on? And once you’ve figured out which community you belong to, you have to attend the conferences and workshops run by that community, and present your work to them as often as you can, and you have to get to know the senior people in that community. Or rather, they have to get to know you.

The problem is, in recent years, I’ve gone off ICSE. Having spent a lot of time in the last few years mixing with a different research community (climate science, and especially geoscientific model development), I come back to the  ICSE community with a different perspective, and what I see now (in general) it is a rather insular community, focussed on a narrow, technical set of research questions that seem largely irrelevant to anything that matters, and a huge resistance to inter-disciplinary research. This view crystallized for me last fall, when I attended a two-day workshop on “the Future of Software Engineering”, but came away very disappointed (my blog post from the workshop captured this very well).

I should be clear, I don’t mean to write off the entire community – there’s some excellent people in the ICSE community, doing fascinating research – many of them I regard as good friends. But the conference itself seems ever less relevant. The keynote talks always suck. And the technical program tends to be dominated by a large number of dull papers: incremental results on unimaginative research problems.

Perhaps this is a result of the way conference publication works. Thomas Anderson sets out a fascinating analysis of why this might be so for computer systems conferences, in his 2009 paper “Conference Reviewing Considered Harmful“. Basically, the accept/reject process for conferences that use a peer-review system creates a perverse incentive to researchers to write papers that are just good enough to get accepted, but no better. His analysis is consistent with my own observations – people talk about “the least publishable unit” of research. The net result is a conference full of rather dull papers, where nobody takes risks on more exciting research topics.

There’s an interesting contrast with the geosciences community here, where papers are published in journals rather than conferences. For example, at the AGU and EGU conferences, you just submit an abstract, and various track chairs decide whether to let you present it as a talk in their track, or whether it should appear as a poster. Researchers are only allowed to submit one abstract as first author, which means the conference is really a forum for each researcher to present her best work over the past year, with no strong relationship to the peer-reviewed publication process. This makes for big conferences, and very variable quality presentations. Attendees have to do a little more work in advance to figure out which talks might be worth attending. But the perverse incentive identified by Anderson is missing all together – each presenter is incentivized to present her best work, no matter what stage the research is at.

Which brings me back to ICSE. Next year’s conference chairs have chosen the slogan “Sustainable Software for a Sustainable World” for the conference. An excellent rallying call, but I sincerely hope they can do more with this than most conferences do – such conference slogans are usually irrelevant to the actual conference program, which is invariably business as usual. Of course, the term sustainability has been wildly overused recently, to the point that its in danger of becoming meaningless. So, how could ICSE make it something more than a meaningless slogan?

First, one has to acknowledge that an understanding of sustainability requires some systems thinking, and the ability to analyze multiple interacting systems. The classic definition, due to the Bruntland Commission, is that it refers to humanity’s ability to meet its needs, without compromising the needs of future generations. As Garvey points out, this is entirely inadequate, as it’s impossible to figure out how to balance our resource needs with those of an unknown number of potential future earthlings. A better approach is to break the concept down into sustainability in different, overlapping systems. Sverdrup and Svensson do this by breaking it down to three inter-related concepts: natural sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. Furthermore, they are hierarchically related: sustainability of social and economic activity are constrained by physical limits such as thermodynamics and mass conservation (e.g. forget a sustained economy if we screw the planet’s climate), and economic sustainability is constrained by social limits such as a functioning civil society.

How does this apply to ICSE? Well, I would suggest applying the sustainability concept to a number of different systems:

  • sustainability of the ICSE community itself, which would include nurturing new researchers, and fixing the problems of perverse incentives in the paper review processes. But this only makes sense within:
  • sustainability of scientific research as a knowledge discovery process, which would include analysis of the kinds of research questions a research community ought to tackle, and how should it engage with society. Here, I think ICSE has some serious re-assessment to do, especially with respect to it’s tendency to reject inter-disciplinary work.
  • sustainability of software systems that support human activity, which would suggest a switch in attention by the ICSE community away from the technical processes of de novo software creation, and towards questions of how software systems actually make life better for people, and how software systems and human activity systems co-evolve. An estimate I heard at the CHASE workshop is that only 20% of ICSE papers make any attempt to address human aspects.
  • sustainability of software development as an economic activity, which suggests a critical look at how existing software corporations work currently, but perhaps more importantly, exploration of new economic models (e.g. open source; end-user programming; software startups; mashups, etc)
  • the role of software in social sustainability, by which I mean a closer look at how software systems help (or hinder) the creation of communities, social norms, social equity and democratic processes.
  • the role of software in natural sustainability, by which I mean green IT topics such as energy-aware computing, as well as the broader role of software in understanding and tackling climate change.

A normal ICSE would barely touch on any of these topics. But I think next year’s chairs could create some interesting incentives to ensure the conference theme becomes more than just a slogan. At the session on SE for the planet that we held at ICSE 2009, someone suggested that in light of the fact that climate change will make everything else unsustainable, ICSE should insist that all submitted papers to future conferences demonstrate some relevance to tackling climate change (which is brilliant, but so radical that we have to shift the Overton window first). A similar suggestion at the one of the CHASE meetings was that all ICSE papers must demonstrate relevance to human & social aspects, or else prove that their research problem can be tackled without this. For ICSE 2012, perhaps this should be changed to simply reject all papers that don’t contribute somehow to creating a more sustainable world.

I think such changes might help to kick ICSE into some semblance of relevancy, but I don’t kid myself that they are likely. How about as a start, a set of incentives that reward papers that address sustainability in one of more of the senses above? Restrict paper awards to such papers, or create a new award structure for this purpose. Give such papers prominence in the program, and relegate other papers to the dead times like right after lunch, or late in the evening. Or something.

But a good start would be to abolish the paper submission process all together, to decouple the conference from the process of publishing peer-reviewed papers. That’s probably the biggest single contribution to making the conference more sustainable, and more relevant to society.

I’m a bit of an Information Visualization junkie. I love good well presented data (I’m a fan of Tufte) and I dislike visualizations that are badly presented and/or misleading. I posted last week about various graphs showing relationships between urban density and transportation fuel consumption, some of which were hideous, some elegant, and some possibly misleading. I bemoaned the lack of access to the raw data, and a lively discussion followed about the believability of the relationship plotted on the graphs.

Yesterday I came across an interesting case, in the leaflet distributed to Torontonians from the city council, showing revenue and expenditure data. From a data visualization point of view, it looks like a series of poor choices were made, and I’m glad someone cared enough to point them out. But when you interpret these choices in the context of a right-wing Mayor who was elected on a tax-cutting, pro-car, anti-transit platform, it would appear these weren’t just mistakes – they were part of deliberate (if subtle) attempt to mislead:

  • The leaflet shows a pie chart of revenue sources (in $billions) along side a pie chart of capital expenditure (in $millions), setting up a false impression that transit projects gobble up the majority of the city’s budget. The deception is enhanced by the fact that the largest segments in each pie are the same colour, and of a similar size. A quick glance therefore leaves the impression that nearly all our property taxes go to the Toronto Transit Commision.
  • The leaflet fails to distinguish between gross and net expenditure. So a bar chart of budget items shows that the TTC (at $1.5 billion) is by far the most expensive item, followed by employment and social services. But the net cost of the TTC to the city is only about $0.5 billion, because most of its costs come from fares, while employment and social services are largely funded by the province. If you look at net costs (which is what most homeowners expect in answer to the question “how does the city spend our property taxes?”), the Police Service is by far the biggest item.

It’s the steady drip drip drip of this kind of misinformation that allows certain politicians to generate support for cutting budgets for transit and social services. Surely we should be investing in the kinds of community programs that reduce crime, so that we can trim that massive policing budget?

Here’s the chart on (gross) expenditures that they used:


and here’s the chart they should have used:


Over the past month, we’ve welcomed a number of new researchers to the lab. It’s about time I introduced them properly:

  • Kaitlin Alexander is with us for the summer on a Centre for Global Change Science (CGCS) undergraduate internship. She’s doing her undergrad at the University of Manitoba in applied math, and is well know to many of us already through her blog, ClimateSight. Kaitlin will be studying the software architecture of climate models, and she’s already written a few blog posts about her progress.
  • Trista Mueller is working in the lab for the summer as a part-time undergrad intern – she’s a computer science major at U of T, and a regular volunteer at Hot Yam. Trista is developing a number of case studies for our Inflo open calculator, and helping to shake out a few bugs in the process.
  • Elizabeth Patitsas joins us from UBC, where she just graduated with a BSc honours degree in Integrated Science – she’s working as a research assistant over the summer and will be enrolling in grad school here in September. Elizabeth has been studying how we teach (or fail to teach) key computer science skills, both to computer science students, and to other groups, such as physical scientists. Over the summer, she’ll be developing a research project to identify which CS skills are most needed by scientists, with the eventual goal of building and evaluating a curriculum based on her findings.
  • Fabio da Silva is a professor of computer science at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) in Brazil, and is joining us this month for a one year sabbatical. Fabio works in empirical software engineering and will be exploring how software teams coordinate their work, in particular the role of self-organizing teams.