Ever since I wrote about peak oil last year, I’ve been collecting references to “Peak X”. Of course, the key idea, Hubbert’s Peak applies to any resource extraction, where the resource is finite. So it’s not surprising that wikipedia now has entries on:

And here’s a sighting of a mention of Peak Gold.

Unlike peak oil, some of these curves can be dampened by the appropriate recycling. But what of stuff we normally think of as endlessly renewable:

  • Peak Water – it turns out that we haven’t been managing the world’s aquifers and lakes sustainably, despite the fact that that’s where our freshwater supplies come from (See Peter Gleick’s 2010 paper for a diagnosis and possible solutions)
  • Peak Food – similarly, global agriculture appears to be unsustainable, partly because food policy and speculation have wrecked local sustainable farming practices, but also because of population growth (See Jonathan Foley’s 2011 paper for a diagnosis and possible solutions).
  • Peak Fish – although overfishing is probably old news to everyone now.
  • Peak Biodiversity (although here it’s referred to as Peak Nature, which I think is sloppy terminology)

Which also leads to pressure on specific things we really care about, such as:

Then there is a category of things that really do need to peak:

And just in case there’s too much doom and gloom in the above, there are some more humorous contributions:

And those middle two, by the wonderful Randall Monroe make me wonder what he was doing here:

I can’t decide whether that last one is just making fun of the the singularity folks, or whether it’s a clever ruse to get people realize Hubbert’s Peak must kick in somewhere!

As a followup to my post earlier this week about how dangerous cycling is in Toronto, I decided to take my camera with me on my daily commute. Over two days, I managed to take snaps of the many wonderful uses of bike lanes – it turns out these are incredibly versatile strips of land. Which means the city would be crazy not to maintain them properly, right? Eh? Oh:

Well, anyway. Here’s my ABC of the many wonderful uses of bike lanes.

Bike lanes are for: Ambulances, in case of accidents:

Bike lanes are for: Bi-modal parking, because sidewalks just aren’t big enough:

Bike lanes are for: Council vans, because there’s nowhere to park the fleet:

Bike lanes are for: Deliveries, so every store should have one:

Bike lanes are for: Excavating, to save us digging up car lanes:

Bike lanes are for: Free parking, just right for a quick bit of shopping:

Bike lanes are for: Going around, because we like the scenic route:

Bike lanes are for: Hydro vans, because mobile workshops are cool:

Bike lanes are for: Idiots, who swim against the flow:

Bike lanes are for: Junk piles, because trash is expensive to haul:

Bike lanes are for: Kerb repairs, a safety margin for the crew:

Bike lanes are for: Lorries, although Canadians call them trucks:

Bike lanes are for: Manhole covers, spaced carefully across the lane:

Bike lanes are for: “No stopping” signs, though nobody knows they’re there:

Bike lanes are for: On-kerb parking, which the police just happen to ignore:

Bike lanes are for: Patching practice, because road crews have to learn:

Bike lanes are for: Quantities of dirt, which are just too big for elsewhere:

Bike lanes are for: Rails. Streetcar rails. You never know when you’ll need them:

Bike lanes are for: Spillovers, because building sites are so small:

Bike lanes are for: Timber piles – look how much will fit:

Bike lanes are for: Unexpected doors, that open in your face:

Bike lanes are for: Very large scoops, just waiting to make more holes:

Bike lanes are for: Washrooms, because even cyclists need to pee:

Bike lanes are for: TaXis, they’re out there cruising for fares:

Bike lanes are for: Yellow diggers, and yes, that’s the second one today:

Bike lanes are for: Zooming along, on the few occasions they’re clear:

Note: All photos were taken by me, this week, on my commute to work, except for the taxi, as the one I was trying to snap drove away too quick (see: Taxi photo credit). Click the photos for bigger versions on Flickr.

30. November 2010 · 2 comments · Categories: humour

Prem sent me a picture this morning which beautifully illustrates the way the media portrays science. On the left, the Wall Street Journal (page D1). On the right, the New York Times (page A1).  Both today:

Reminds me of one of my favourite cartoons:

14. March 2010 · 6 comments · Categories: humour

The Subversion book (it's turtles all the way down)

Here’s the funniest comment from when I visited NCAR the other week. We were talking over dinner about how just about anything the scientists say and do now will be twisted out of context, to try and prove a conspiracy. Never mind “tricks” and “data manipulation”. What happens when the ignoranti find out that the tool used to manage the code for the climate models is called Subversion?

Here’s the abstract for a paper (that I haven’t written) on how to write an abstract:

How to Write an Abstract

The first sentence of an abstract should clearly introduce the topic of the paper so that readers can relate it to other work they are familiar with. However, an analysis of abstracts across a range of fields show that few follow this advice, nor do they take the opportunity to summarize previous work in their second sentence. A central issue is the lack of structure in standard advice on abstract writing, so most authors don’t realize the third sentence should point out the deficiencies of this existing research. To solve this problem, we describe a technique that structures the entire abstract around a set of six sentences, each of which has a specific role, so that by the end of the first four sentences you have introduced the idea fully. This structure then allows you to use the fifth sentence to elaborate a little on the research, explain how it works, and talk about the various ways that you have applied it, for example to teach generations of new graduate students how to write clearly. This technique is helpful because it clarifies your thinking and leads to a final sentence that summarizes why your research matters.

[I’m giving my talk on how to write a thesis to our grad students soon. Can you tell?]

Update 16 Oct 2011: This page gets lots of hits from people googling for “how to write an abstract”. So I should offer a little more constructive help for anyone still puzzling what the above really means. It comes from my standard advice for planning a PhD thesis (but probably works just as well for scientific papers, essays, etc.).

The key trick is to plan your argument in six sentences, and then use these to structure the entire thesis/paper/essay. The six sentences are:

  1. Introduction. In one sentence, what’s the topic? Phrase it in a way that your reader will understand. If you’re writing a PhD thesis, your readers are the examiners – assume they are familiar with the general field of research, so you need to tell them specifically what topic your thesis addresses. Same advice works for scientific papers – the readers are the peer reviewers, and eventually others in your field interested in your research, so again they know the background work, but want to know specifically what topic your paper covers.
  2. State the problem you tackle. What’s the key research question? Again, in one sentence. (Note: For a more general essay, I’d adjust this slightly to state the central question that you want to address) Remember, your first sentence introduced the overall topic, so now you can build on that, and focus on one key question within that topic. If you can’t summarize your thesis/paper/essay in one key question, then you don’t yet understand what you’re trying to write about. Keep working at this step until you have a single, concise (and understandable) question.
  3. Summarize (in one sentence) why nobody else has adequately answered the research question yet. For a PhD thesis, you’ll have an entire chapter, covering what’s been done previously in the literature. Here you have to boil that down to one sentence. But remember, the trick is not to try and cover all the various ways in which people have tried and failed; the trick is to explain that there’s this one particular approach that nobody else tried yet (hint: it’s the thing that your research does). But here you’re phrasing it in such a way that it’s clear it’s a gap in the literature. So use a phrase such as “previous work has failed to address…”. (if you’re writing a more general essay, you still need to summarize the source material you’re drawing on, so you can pull the same trick – explain in a few words what the general message in the source material is, but expressed in terms of what’s missing)
  4. Explain, in one sentence, how you tackled the research question. What’s your big new idea? (Again for a more general essay, you might want to adapt this slightly: what’s the new perspective you have adopted? or: What’s your overall view on the question you introduced in step 2?)
  5. In one sentence, how did you go about doing the research that follows from your big idea. Did you run experiments? Build a piece of software? Carry out case studies? This is likely to be the longest sentence, especially if it’s a PhD thesis – after all you’re probably covering several years worth of research. But don’t overdo it – we’re still looking for a sentence that you could read aloud without having to stop for breath. Remember, the word ‘abstract’ means a summary of the main ideas with most of the detail left out. So feel free to omit detail! (For those of you who got this far and are still insisting on writing an essay rather than signing up for a PhD, this sentence is really an elaboration of sentence 4 – explore the consequences of your new perspective).
  6. As a single sentence, what’s the key impact of your research? Here we’re not looking for the outcome of an experiment. We’re looking for a summary of the implications. What’s it all mean? Why should other people care? What can they do with your research. (Essay folks: all the same questions apply: what conclusions did you draw, and why would anyone care about them?)

The abstract I started with summarizes my approach to abstract writing as an abstract. But I suspect I might have been trying to be too clever. So here’s a simpler one:

(1) In widgetology, it’s long been understood that you have to glomp the widgets before you can squiffle them. (2) But there is still no known general method to determine when they’ve been sufficiently glomped. (3) The literature describes several specialist techniques that measure how wizzled or how whomped the widgets have become during glomping, but all of these involve slowing down the glomping, and thus risking a fracturing of the widgets. (4) In this thesis, we introduce a new glomping technique, which we call googa-glomping, that allows direct measurement of whifflization, a superior metric for assessing squiffle-readiness. (5) We describe a series of experiments on each of the five major types of widget, and show that in each case, googa-glomping runs faster than competing techniques, and produces glomped widgets that are perfect for squiffling. (6) We expect this new approach to dramatically reduce the cost of squiffled widgets without any loss of quality, and hence make mass production viable.

25. November 2009 · 7 comments · Categories: humour

(with apologies to Maurice Sendak)

The night Mike wore his lab coat,
and made scientific discoveries of one kind and another,
the denialists called him a fraudster
and Mike said: “I’ll prove you wrong!”
So they sent his emails to the media without any context.
That very night on his blog,
a jungle of obfuscating comments grew,
and grew,
until the discussions became enflamed,
and spilled out into the internet all around.
And an ocean of journalists tumbled by,
with a high public profile for Mike,
and he argued away through night and day,
and in and out of weeks,
and almost over a year,
everywhere the denialists are.
And whenever he came to a place where the denialists are,
they talked their terrible talking points,
and quoted their terrible quotes,
and showed their terrible cherry picking,
and demonstrated their terrible ignorance.
Until Mike said “Be still!”
and tamed them with his Nature trick
of showing them actual data sets without blinking once.
And they were baffled, and called him the biggest denialist of all,
and declared him king of the denialists.
“And now”, said Mike, “let the data speak for itself.”
And he sent the denialists off to look at the evidence without their talking points.
Then Mike, the king of all denialists said,
“I’m lonely”,
and wanted to be where someone actually appreciated rational discussion.
Then all around, from far away, across the world
He saw evidence of good solid scientific work.
So he said “I’ll give up arguing with the denialists”
But the denialists cried
“Oh please don’t stop – we’ll eat you up, we need you so”.
And Mike said “No!”
And the denialists talked their terrible talking points,
and quoted their terrible quotes,
and showed their terrible cherry picking,
and demonstrated their terrible ignorance.
But Mike stepped back into his research, and waved goodbye.
And worked on, almost over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day,
in the sanity of his very own lab.
Where he found his peer-reviewed papers waiting for him.
And they were all accepted.

(PS, if you’ve no idea what this is referring to, trust me, you’re better off not knowing)

Update: I should have added a link to an even better humorous response! And this one too!