Thursday, November 21, 2013

Waist-to-Height Ratio [EBP 4]

This was really the best picture I could find that wasn't a slim-waisted model with a casually draped measuring tape. Source.


I'm sure I don't have to tell you that obesity has become problematic in North America.  In Canada, it could prove to be an especially difficult problem due to the health consequences associated with obesity coupled with the publicly-funded nature of our health care system.  Another problem is that defining or measuring "obesity" is particularly difficult.  The Body Mass Index (BMI) has been widely used since the 1970s, and it is proportional to a persons weight divided by the square of their height.  This has worked fairly well over large populations, particularly for identifying where mortality risks increase, though it has the obvious weakness of not taking muscular or skeletal structure into account.  So, is there a better way?

Really and truly, the thing with which we should concern ourselves is body fat percentage.  This would automatically take into account muscular and skeletal structure and give an accurate picture.  This is also difficult or expensive to measure.  One way is to use calipers to take a flap of skin and measure the fat tissue underneath, but to get an accurate picture one needs to a) own a set of Vernier calipers and b) have the proper training to convert this measurement.  Another way is to pass a small electrical current through the body (usually through the feet) to measure the resistance.  Muscular tissue will have a lower resistance than adipose tissue (or perhaps vice versa), and the net resistance can be converted to body fat percentage.  The problem with this method that it varies not only by gender but also by race, and the test is only calibrated well to white males.  The final common way to measure a persons body fat percentage is to suspend them in a sling/chair sort of apparatus attached to a scale, not unlike the tray you can find in a grocery store to weigh your fruits and vegetables.  The person sitting in the sling is then submerged in a pool and the change in weight due to buoyancy force is recorded.  Since adipose or "fatty" tissue occupies more volume with less mass, it will contribute to the water exerting a greater buoyancy force on the body.  So the greater the change in weight from dry to submerged, the greater the body fat percentage.

It's tricky to describe in words.  Source.

Unfortunately, all methods of measuring body fat percentage involve specialised training, specialised equipment, or both.  And even then, there is speculation that the distribution of fat on the body also appears to play a role in mortality risk.  While I couldn't [easily] find scholarly articles to support the assertion, the hypothesis is that fat in and around the "greater omentum" (i.e. "beer gut"), encases the internal organs and can lead to health complications.  As an interesting side note to this, apparently it also makes surgery very difficult.  But, as always, I digress.

So as it stands, what we should concern ourselves with is body fat percentage, and the most widely-used metric, BMI, doesn't really attempt to approximate this.  At this point, I'm tempted to hypothetically ask if there would be a better way, but my distinguished and top-hatted readers have no doubt already read the title of this post, and know darn well that's where I'm going.  "I bet it's the waist-to-height ratio!" you're probably yelling at the screen, excitedly and inadvertently popping out your monocle.

Excellent guess, it is.  The waist to height ratio (WHtR, and I have no idea why that's the abbreviation) doesn't concern itself with the weight of the subject at all.  The lean waist doesn't tend to fluctuate much with muscular or skeletal structure, so with the exception of very narrow-waisted females, it's a pretty good analog to body fat percentage.  That's all there is to the waist to height ratio, by the way.  You divide the circumference of your waist by your height (using the same units for both measurements).  It's unitless, so you can use centimetres, inches, furlongs, leagues, whatever your heart desires.  Just make sure to use the same units.  The only point of note is to measure your waist as the figures do in the top of this post.  Fashion would define your "waist" as being below the anatomical waist.  The anatomical waist is either the narrowest part of your torso, or about an inch above your navel.

Waist-to-height ratio is also well supported in the literature as a metric of mortality risk, by the way.  An excellent review appears in Nutrition Research Reviews (2010), 23, 247–269.  The data suggest that, though the WHtR has a couple fringe weaknesses like an inability to predict diabetes mellitus in Taiwanese males, it is overall a much better indicator than BMI.  Further, a lot of references pop up with WHtR being a superior metric to BMI when monitoring children's health.  Something to think about.

Finally, it's probably worth discussing what ranges WHtR usually fall in to.  The best summary chart I have found is on the relevant Wikipedia page:

I'll also mention that an excellent discussion with pointers to great references can be found here.  So really, the healthy and normal WHtR for people usually falls between 0.42 and 0.50.  If you're above that, you may be healthy, but WHtR would suggest that you are at an increased risk of health complications, and you may want to consider action.  Similarly, it cautions that should your WHtR fall below 0.42, you are at an increased risk of [albeit different] complications, and you may want to consider action.  It is interesting to note that the body requires a certain baseline body fat percentage in order to function properly.  If you're curious about the complications of low body fat percentage, read up on body building side effects, it's a little disturbing.

So there you have it.  The evidence would suggest that WHtR is a superior metric to BMI for measuring the health of individuals, and should probably see more use as a result.  This is particularly true if you have broad shoulders, a barrel chest, or even wide hips, because your BMI will likely be skewed.  Plus, a cloth measuring tape costs a lot less than a bathroom scale, and never needs to be adjusted.


Update (2015-03-16): I want to include the latest table on the aforementioned relevant Wikipedia page, because it now contains some new, entertaining entries at the low end.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Universal Public Transit [MUt2]

OC Transpo's St. Laurent Station.


In my last post I discussed the merits of enjoying alcoholic beverages for their deliciousness rather than their psychoactivity.  Now, this indeed raises the issue of drinking and driving, which is a legitimate concern.  After just one standard alcoholic beverage, your reaction times are significantly diminished.  So what do you do?  Designated drivers are one solution, but it's rare that people want to be the designated driver.  As a brief aside, Schlag has been known to provide free soft drinks to the designate, because they are a class act and thoroughly wonderful.  Cabs are expensive, and public transit can at times be sporadic and unreliable.  But what if something were to be done about that?

The benefits of public transit include cleaner air, decreased fossil fuel consumption per rider, decreased traffic congestion, lower road maintenance costs per rider, et cetera.  As such, it's surprising that cities don't seem to be trying harder to encourage public transit and alternative modes of transportation.  Cycling is fantastic when you consider that it offers all of the above benefits as well as being almost a non-factor in road wear since it scales to the fourth power of weight.  Since the weight of a bicycle is an order of magnitude less than that of a car, we're talking on the order of ~10,000 times less road wear.  In fact, each bicycle trip saves the taxpayer a dollar or so because of this effect, but I digress.

In short, it is in the best interest of cities to promote methods of transportation other than single-occupant driving where possible.  Now, couple this with the idea of economies of scale.  When the University of Ottawa negotiated the universal bus pass with OC Transpo, the figure they ended on was roughly $350 for the normal eight month school year.  This was a deep discount over the already discounted student bus pass rate of $90/month simply because of the scale involved.  However, consider that the University comprises roughly 45,000 students in a city of almost one million.  When roughly five percent of the population collectively negotiated, the price of the service was less than halved.

Now, what if the whole city did it?

I am not an economist, and this is potentially a flight of fancy on my part, but what if instead of charging for transit based on single users, what if the entire city was involved and the price of the pass was built into property taxes?  I realise that there will be diminishing returns on the discount for increased pool sizes, but if 5% of the population can negotiate to less than half the original price, I feel one could reasonably assume the cost would come to at least about a quarter of what it is now.  Further, I cannot believe that an annual sum of $250 or less would be the deciding factor in whether or not someone could afford to live in a home.

With a system such as this in place, I would hypothesize (or perhaps "guess" would be a more appropriate term) that annual funding would be more stable than it is now, and planning would be easier because the distribution of potential usership [ideally] becomes that of a population density map.  I would also assume that usage frequency would dramatically increase because the cost of the trip is effectively "free," since one needn't go searching for bus tickets or spare change.  Also, it allows lower income individuals to travel to and from work without the financial burden of a more expensive bus pass, making it easier to get and keep a job.  I can tell you from experience that bus fares aren't financially negligible when you don't have a stable source of income.

I would also imagine that this would have spinoffs on tourism and other economic activity as well.  Not only can one easily/cheaply travel to and from work, but one could just as easily travel to that shop that's a few stops down the road, or a tourist could hop on a bus to go, well, anywhere really.  To be clear, I assume that this system would mean you could freely hop on a bus, meaning tourists would be free to do so as well.  Though I also assume allowing tourists to freely travel on the transit system would generate enough income that it would make the expense well worth it.  Further, would a tourist be more likely to travel to a city where they wouldn't have to rent a car and pay for parking?  I think it might be a consideration.

Other fringe benefits?  In a population that is generally regarded as overweight, it gets people involved in semi-active transport rather than driving, which is more or less completely sedentary.  I would imagine service improvements resulting from stable and increased funding would make the trips more pleasant and effective.  Another consideration is the cost of parking lots.  They're surprisingly expensive, a parking space costs hundreds to maintain if it's ground-based, and can get into the tens of thousands to maintain in a parking structure.  That's a cost that can be diminished with such a transit scheme.  And maybe, just maybe, after responsibly enjoying an alcoholic beverage or two, you and your family could simply hop on a bus/subway/LRT to get home rather than having to worry about the hassle of driving.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Utopia [MUt1]

Sir Thomas More, who apparently coined the term "Utopia," and apparent "Mr. McGrumpypants."


I've found myself talking a lot about ideas lately, which is often a sign that I need to blog about something, because for some reason I feel better once it's been hammered out and available to the general public.  It's not logical, but it's a reproducible phenomenon so I'll go with it.

I'm sure we've all had ideas we think would change the world, our country or even our city or neighbourhood for the better.  I, too, have these and shall jot down a couple.  I've gone ahead and tagged the title as [MUt1] so that there will be a handy label available should I decide to write down  more ideas for improving things.

The Public House:

I'm certain that many of you have attended a so-called public house, potentially without knowing what it actually is.  This is where the "pub" gets its name.  A public house, as opposed to a private house, is a place in which friends and/or neighbours can come in, eat, drink and generally be merry.  In fact, it can (and in Britain and Ireland has been known to), function as a makeshift community centre where the locals or regulars may gather, celebrate, discuss, or even mourn together as a group.  This could, if executed properly, fix a problem I see with North American society.

The drinking of alcoholic beverages is an ancient tradition, and I'm not being hyperbolic.  It has been widely hypothesized that beer was instrumental in the building of Western society.  In an era where microbial life was ill-understood and water-borne illness was likely rampant, beer offered a safe drinking water source due to the boiling of the brew prior to fermentation.  The irony here is that the microbial life form yeast was used to out-compete and combat other hazardous microorganisms without a solid understanding of either, but I digress.

The practice appears to date back almost 11,000 years, near the beginning of agriculture and civilisation as we know it.  In fact, beer was so ingrained in our society, we depended upon it so heavily that individuals of Western descent have increased alcohol dehydrogenase concentrations in their gut (I'll clarify that this is the more colloquial use of the word "gut" because I don't actually know where it is).  Alcohol dehydrogenase is a catalyst (or "enzyme" because the catalyst is a protein and we CLEARLY need to memorize more science-y words to maintain exclusivity), which breaks down potentially-toxic ethanol into more biologically compatible or innocuous chemical species.  Let me reiterate that a little more simply, over the course of about 11ka, the blink of an eye from an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies changed to handle alcohol (in the West anyway, in the East the boiled beverage of choice was/is tea).  Either that, or those of us with better physiological tolerances were more likely to thrive and reproduce, as per the genetic algorithm that is life.  Either way, beer is so important to us as a species that it changed us at the same time it helped shape our societies.  It's still helping, by the way.  Beer represents 1% of Canada's GDP, and every dollar spent on beer becomes roughly $1.12 for municipal, provincial and federal governments. For a full hour of fascinating, beer-related discussion, this podcast is highly recommended.

My cousin and I once participated together in this millennia-old tradition.  It was delicious.
Now to the problem which I believe the public house could solve.  See that beer pictured above?  It was delicious, it was shared among friends, and it was thoroughly enjoyed.  It wasn't used solely as a means of getting drunk.  It sure could have been, and it would have been cheap, too.  You can brew about three standard drinks for the price of purchasing one at the Beer Store.  In North America, it seems that we view beer this way, however.  I remember seeing a lot of commercials that would have me believe that beer is only brought out at parties, or when large numbers of friends have congregated.  Never is it advertised as an alternative to carbonated soft drinks, despite the fact that it is much healthier.  Molson-Coors won't tell you that a nice, hoppy IPA is a perfect pairing with a strong-flavoured hamburger.  No, beer is marketed as a party beverage.

What is the consequence of this?  Well, oddly, in a university town where one would assume parties are far more pervasive, you will find more people that appreciate beer as an interesting beverage and not as a means of intoxication.  Places like my hometown in the middle of rural Ontario haven't quite figured this out, and their knowledge is based more on marketing.  This is why I will get strange looks if I order a beer to accompany my lunch, or I can expect a strange look from boomers if I sit down to enjoy a beer in the afternoon whereas they wouldn't bat an eye if I had coffee.

This is a problem.

This is a problem because we, generally as a society, approach beer as nothing more than an intoxicant.  Prohibition is the norm when discussing minors.  Taxation is high to discourage drinking as a behaviour (did you know that those who consume a drink or three a day see a variety of health benefits?).  Regulation is heavy.  And all this when moderate consumption (and the key is moderation, binge drinking is defined as the consumption of four or more standard drinks), is a perfectly healthy behaviour.  Now, guess what happens when we approach beer as an intoxicant and nothing more?  Go watch a frosh week and you'll figure it out pretty quickly.  People leave the relatively supervised environment that is home, and they go overboard.  Not only do they go overboard, but they will associate this going overboard with fun and good times and will learn it as a behaviour.  This behaviour will likely last into adulthood, and beer will remain a beverage of intoxication.

Now, what if we had a place to introduce our children to responsible drinking?  I would say that it could happen in the home, but North American society doesn't seem to be working with that approach.  Perhaps we could introduce a venue in which children could witness responsible drinking.  Having a beer or a glass of wine with a meal, and leaving it at that.  Or perhaps having a conversation over a hard beverage rather than a soft, or caffeinated one.  I'll tell you that soft drinks are very sugary, and can ruin your sense of taste between bites of a meal.  A hoppy IPA will hit you with a quick punch of flavour, and then leave your palate cleansed for the next bite of your burger.  An amber ale often has a gentle hop to it, and a mild sweetness that goes extraordinarily well with a plate of fish and chips.  Granted, a nice sweet soft drink will go very well with a heavily salted pizza, but this is a use of extremes to negate one another.  But I digress, a place in which children could see drinking not as a means to excuse oneself from buying crack, but as a compliment to a meal or a delicious beverage on its own, I believe, would produce a tremendous social benefit.

And here, I will compliment a couple true public houses.  During the day, I wouldn't hesitate taking a child or family member to the Beaufort Pub in Belleville.  The décor is cozy and it is quiet and conducive to conversation.  The food is good and there is a nice selection of beers to accompany a tasty meal.  In fact, when I head down to the Beaufort, I have run into friends, family members, or even people I know through Church and haven't seen in ages.  It's an excellent spot to hang out, and I am genuinely happy to do so.

Then, there is my favourite pub of all, the Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill.  SHLG, or Schlag as I call it (a misspelling originally, but later rationalized and defended), is the finest example of a pub I have come found.  On a Sunday afternoon it is not unusual to see a retired married couple enjoying a meal next to a family and across from some University of Ottawa students and alumni.  All are welcome and it's not weird.  Were I to see a child in a bar (a place that goes to lengths such as increasing music volume to the point where conversation is impossible, causing the patrons to drink more), I might be concerned, but not at Schlag.  The walls are plastered with historical images of Ottawa and the Sandy Hill neighbourhood, the home of University of Ottawa, many embassies, and the historic Laurier House.  They have a wonderful beer selection, and a dedication to pub-style food that is inspiring.  There are the normal daily specials, as well as weekly specials which the chef has concocted.  They go to the point where they offer home-made ketchup to serve alongside the usual Heinz, just in case you prefer one or the other.  It is also the establishment that introduced me to sriracha, and thus I will be eternally grateful to them.  The German expression "mit schlag" means "with whipped cream."  The Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill is the "schlag" of life, it takes whatever it comes with, and makes it just a little bit better.  That is why, after originally misspelling, I will continue to refer to it as Schlag, and wish them many decades of prosperity.

So that was a lot of digression, so I'll briefly outline my point.  We treat beer and wine as a means of intoxication, and it shows in our behaviour.  Alcoholic beverages can play a normal and healthy part in our lives, and it should be treated as such.  I feel the best first step is to lead by example and drink responsibly together, as a community, in front of our children.  I'm sure that many a Maude Flanders is currently shouting in dismay, but to lead by example, one must involve children.  A public house is a perfect venue for this, and I would love to see a better pub culture in Canada.


P.S.  Naturally, drinking and driving is a hazard of increased societal alcohol consumption, but that will actually tie into my next Utopian topic.  At over a thousand words, I'll cut this off here.  And not proofread because, as is apparently the norm, I'm now tired and want to go to bed.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Brief Foray Into Fancy Stats

What happens when I should be working on other things.

I must be back in school, because once again I find myself unable to sleep because I'm busy thinking about something.  Regular readers will recall that this was the reason I started the blog in the first place.  So now, at 01:23, let's go into why I can't sleep.  Fair warning: if you don't necessarily like or care about hockey, go ahead and skip this one.

I was partly inspired by this post by Cam Charron (all my figures are from as well), and recent events.  Tyler Bozak is injured and Nazem Kadri has taken his place as the Toronto Maple Leafs' first line centreman.  In his article, Cam states that the common assertion that Bozak and all-star winger Phil "The Thrill" Kessel is simply not true.  He goes on to point out that the numbers would indicate that Grabovski actually has better chemistry with Kessel.  That, combined with the current fantastic output of Kadri, Kessel and James van Riemsdyk (JvR), led me to question whether or not there would be a way to easily quantify how much better players are depending on their centreman.  That led to the scribbles you see above, which are more neatly recorded below:

While many of my readers will have no problem reading that, and will doubtless find mistakes I made, I'll break that top line down a little bit.  Stated simply, I assume that over the course of a season, a player's total output (goals, assists, points, what have you), could be represented as the sum of his performances with various centremen.  More complexly stated, a player's performance is the linear combination of his performances with different centremen.  The second line says more or less the same thing, but is specific to the points scored, and time with centreman i.  The logical leaps start here.  I say that the total metric achieved with that player would equal the product of the time spent with that centre, T, the [hypothetical] basal scoring rate, B, and the coefficient C.  That means that, I assume, there is some rate at which the player in question would normally generate some metric, this will be multiplied by some coefficient depending on who the centre is and will also be time-weighted.  Now, in a perfect world I would have a giant dataset and would simply plug the above equation into gnuplot and use its fit function to generate all relevant B and C values.  Unfortunately, I don't have access to a large data set, and don't really have the programming ability to mine stats from the NHL.  So I assume that B is equal to the basal, or average scoring rate of a given player (their total metric divided by their total time-on-ice (TOI)).  I don't know whether or not a hypothetical B would differ from an average scoring rate, but the more I think about it, the more I think it would be the same.

In any case, we can see how to easily isolate a Centreman Coefficient from the data.  This data, for the record, is from the Leafs' 2012-2013 season, which is old and only represents a half-season, but is still young enough to be relevant to today's roster.  Let's take a look.

Table 1: Effect of Centres (left) on Wingers’ point production expressed as coefficient.
King MacArthur

Table 2: Effect of Centres (left) on Wingers’ Corsi expressed as coefficient.
King MacArthur
I'll briefly point out to those of you not familiar with #fancystats that Corsi is simply the difference between shots for and shots against a player's team while he is on the ice.  It also correlates very well with puck possession times.  That's why it's used, because the NHL doesn't track offensive zone time, but shots are readily recorded.  Go figure.  I'll also note that I have apparently suffered amnesia about the whole of the Leafs' last season, because I don't remember who anyone played with, so I went with four wingers and three centres.  Also, if you're not familiar with coefficients, look at it this way: in the case of Lupul, he was scoring at roughly double his normal rate when centred by Bozak, and 0 times his normal rate when centred by Grabovski.  You could also call it a multiplier.  So when centred by Bozak, Lupul is like Twopuls, and like no Lupuls when centred by Grabovski (by the by, I'm very tired...).

Conclusions?  Well, barring the fact that I shouldn't have included Lupul's data because he wasn't around very much last season, we can see a couple things.  One, and for reasons I can't really understand, it seems like Corsi and point production are inversely related in some cases.  The only explanation I can offer is that your Corsi might suffer if you rush out and score, and are pulled off the ice, but other than that, I've got nothing.  But then, the Leafs are especially challenging that way.  One surprising thing is that, which point production appears to be supressed by Bozak, he improves the Corsi of his team mates when he is on the ice.  Or rather, his wingers put up better-than-normal Corsi ratings when he is on the ice.  This isn't to be expected, because Bozak is routinely ripped on for his Corsi.  Kessel and JvR really liked playing with Grabovski, though their Corsi figures were suppressed at the same time.  As for Kadri as a centre last year, I'm as confused as you are.  I just... yeah.

Some other notes of interest involve disregarding the whole linear combination thing and just looking at how players perform with others.  The data led to some hilarious conclusions like how different goalies correlated with different metric production.  For the five minutes JvR played with Steckel, his point, goal and Corsi coefficients were 5.7, 11, and 2.4 respectively.  Kessel did very well when Fraser was on the ice, his point and Corsi coefficients were 2.2 and 2.7.  Also, Grabovski and Naz actually played together for 9 minutes, Grabovski scored twice and Naz recorded two assists in that time, and it led to similar hilariously large numbers.

I'll also say that while I can't find the piece of paper where I stashed the information I recorded while dickering with this idea, it appears that Bozak's point coefficient for Kessel was about 1.4 in the 9-10 season and has steadily decreased as the years go by.  I'd be curious to see what happened with the Corsi coefficient over the same period, but I'm tired and I'm not going to do it right now.  Also, considering Kessel for this year thus far, Bozak's point and Corsi coefficients 0.97 and 1.01 while Naz's are 2.01 and 0.76.  Again, why is point production so high when Corsi is so low?

So what to make of all of this?  Sure beats me, I don't even think the results are statistically significant.  I think these coefficients are a nice and simple number to compare how wingers perform with a given centre.  Or even another winger, or goalie, or whatever you feel like calculating.  If anyone is interested, I can always forward the .xlsx I have, though you also have the equations above, which is really all you need.  I'd say I hope you all find this terribly interesting, but frankly I'm happy to have gotten this down in a semi-organized fashion, and can hopefully go to sleep now.


P.S.  Is that the first equation on Vodka and Equations?
P.P.S. All data was for 5 on 5 situations.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Impressions of a Calgarian Summer



I haven't written anything in about half a year.  Or, rather, I haven't published anything in about half a year.  Can you even believe my nerve?  But I digress.  As ~98% of my readers will no doubt already know, I spent the summer in Calgary teaching children how to bike, meeting fantastic people, and generally exploring a region of Canada which I had never previously experienced.  In the true spirit of science and discovery, I feel it necessary to divide this post into headings, and perhaps sub-headings.

A [Surprisingly] Progressive Attitude:

It's kinda solar-power, just a really, really old kind.
The image of a prairie pumpjack might not be the best picture to start this heading, but hear me out.  It is my understanding that this image has become more or less commonplace since the discovery of large oil deposits in Alberta.  It's important though, because my understanding is that this energy production has given way to...


That's right.  There are now large wind farms coexisting with conventional farms all across Alberta, and it's my understanding that the province leads all of Canada in wind energy production.  This was one of the first instances in which Alberta surprised me.  In my home [and supposedly progressive] province of Ontario can't put up more than one windmill at a time without drawing the ire of baby boomers who are convinced that human civilization peaked between 1955 and 1965 and all subsequent change is an affront to God and Country.  Rural Albertans have recognized that wind energy is a great way to make some extra money, so they do it.  They don't complain about the view being ruined.  They don't invoke the most bizarre example of equivocation I have ever seen and say Alberta is "naturally green without windmills."  They just recognize a good idea, and they do it.

Speaking of good ideas...

Another good idea?  Bike lanes.  Lots of 'em.  Calgary currently has 960km of bike lanes, ~350 of which are on-street.  And, as with other bigger Canadian cities like Ottawa or Toronto, I feel safe riding my bike on the roads because drivers are familiar with the relevant laws and are acclimated to the presence of bicycles.  Again, this is in stark contrast to my home town, where being off-sidewalk is the worst kind of nuisance.  Further, I didn't even realise what a good idea segregated multi-use trails would be until I came to Calgary.  I just assumed I would always be slowed by joggers and walkers alike, but Calgary recognized a good idea, and then they did it.  They also have "park and ride" lots near the trails, so you can drive part way into the City, then use the trails to get into the downtown core without paying for parking or dealing with congestion.

I don't believe those bike lanes are fluke, either.  From talking with people, Mayor Nenshi is to be credited with a lot of related successes.  Downtown traffic congestion has been at least partially alleviated by an extensive cycling network, but also free C-Train [light rail] service in the downtown core.  I don't know that I would ever expect similar things happening in Ontario do to anti-change protests, but I'm sure glad to see that they can happen somewhere.  The City appears to take its motto rather seriously.

Come Hell or High Water:


For those unfamiliar with prairie geography, it's pretty flat.  Also, rivers run through that flat land.  The result of this is flood plains, regions in which even the tiniest increase in flow will represent a very large flooding footprint.  As it happens, Calgary is located in a flood plain at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers.  Some regions of Alberta are even named for their predisposition towards flooding (I'm looking at you, High River).  So, when the peak flow of the Bow River in 2005 was a hair under 800 cubic metres per second, one could expect rather unfortunate consequences when the peak flow reaches 1,740 cubic metres per second (for comparison's sake, Niagara Falls sees typical flow rates around 1,834).  In fact, it results in the second most devastating disaster in Canadian history (after the 1998 Ice Storms in Eastern Ontario and Quebec).

When I first arrived in Calgary and went to my temporary apartment residence, I found it strange that the lobby was located on the first floor, the next 7 floors were parking, laundry was above that, and the residential floors only started after that.  Also, while walking down to 17th St SW, I noticed some apartment buildings appearing to be fully on stilts.  Why, I wondered, were all the apartment buildings so weird?  As it turns out, Calgary floods sometimes, and it's best not to have important things on the ground floor when it does.

As a point of interest, while I was evacuating it was interesting how eerily quiet the normally bustling downtown area was.  It was also interesting to see the number of people mounting bicycles to leave the area, likely while they went to stay with friends in the [elevated] suburbs.  The city's emergency shelters actually saw much less than projected use due to families and friends housing evacuees.  I suppose that's something Canadians are good at, though.  I'm sure residents of Gander, NL will tell you as much.

To its credit, Alberta has recognised that flood plains are not a great place to build important things, and have since passed laws making it more difficult to develop floodplains for residential use.  I bet someone thought that would be a good idea, so naturally, they did it.

Closeted Pyromania:

No one will actually tell you this, because nobody seems to notice.  I, however, am here to tell you that Calgarians are a bunch of closeted pyromaniacs.

Canada Day, 2013.
I've been to the most insane of Canada Day celebrations, having lived in Ottawa for five years, give or take.  We had fireworks, we had massive celebrations on Parliament Hill, we drank more than what most doctors will tell you is a good idea.  But never did anyone say "Y'know, maybe our buildings should spew some fire for this occasion..."  And, when I went to see the Stampede's Grand Stand:

I'll take this opportunity to say that the only reason I managed to take this photo was that fireballs spewed forth at regular intervals such that I finally managed to catch an outburst.  There were, of course, several more after this set.  And, not far from where this was taken, you will find the Scotiabank Saddledome.  When the home team scores, there is a large bic-style lighter that will spew flames, because one of the sponsors is a natural gas company.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that when the NHL's former Atlanta Flames found a new home in Calgary, I'm not surprised they didn't change the name.

How to Make Friends and/or Enemies:

To quickly make friends:
- Wait until someone references Edmonton, then say "More like Dead-monton, am I right?"
- Wear a Stampeders jersey.
- Go to a bar and watch a hockey game.
- [This tip applies during Stampede in Calgary, or anytime in BC] Stand outside and wait to encounter someone.

To quickly make enemies:
- "Oh, me?  I'm from Toronto!"
- Loudly proclaim "You know, I think at worst the National Energy Program was a necessary evil."
- Trash-talk Mayor Nenshi.  I'm not sure why you would, but it's theoretically possible.

Within An Hour or Two's Drive:

The Three Sisters in Canmore, AB.  You're just outside Banff at this point, too.  Source.

Lake Moraine, probably the most beautiful spot I have been.

Heading up into the Rockies, into the land of lodgepole pines and glacier fields, you will find Banff National Park.  It is the first of Canada's National Parks, too.  It is the first place that caused someone to sit down and say "This place is so beautiful that we need to protect it."  The resulting town of Banff, AB is an interesting place, too.  The city was created so that tourists would have something to do when they came to visit (tourist dollars were necessary to fund the CP Railway's construction).  Banff wasn't a pre-existing small town that eventually became a tourist trap, it was literally born that way.  The park is beautiful though.  That's really all I can say about it.

Now, if you were to head East...

Horseshoe Canyon and the Badlands.

Hoodoos, a large, dense capstone on top of bentonite clay columns.

Former coal mining country, the badlands of Alberta.  It makes for gorgeous geography.  It also makes for easy paleontology, this area is rich in fossils, and they just fall out of the side of those hills as they erode away.  Dinosaur Provincial Park is nearby, as is the Royal Tyrrell Museum.  It's the polar opposite of the mountains and Banff, in my opinion.  The mountains are quite elevated and usually chilly as a result.  The badlands and hoodoos are very dry and hot, home to cacti and prairie grasses as opposed to the trees and horsetails of Banff.

A fantastic note for me was that, no matter where you were in this range, my asthma symptoms more or less disappeared.  It was the first time since being diagnosed that I could easily forget my medication or even that I had asthma.  I am acutely aware of this fact now that I am living in Southwestern Ontario, and it makes me want to sing a song.

And it's all Big Sky Country.  Sorry, Montana.
Things That Threw Me Off:

One thing that immediately threw me was that many Calgarians will say "Hey?" in place of "eh?"  Several times after hearing "hey" while chatting with someone, I stopped to figure out what I was doing that would cause such an outburst.  Turns out they just say it.

Also, cheese curd.  I met exactly one person who seemed to understand the concept of what squeaky cheese curd was (Nicole, you're my hero).  So many people calling curds "squeaky cheese" when the curd didn't squeak.  As someone born in Eastern Ontario, it was not unlike the Twilight Zone.  Everything was more or less normal, except nobody understood cheese curd.  Weird.  They also don't bag their milk, and find the concept weird and scary.

Another different note was that Western Canada appears to be missing the Southern Ontario style angry tension that pervades whenever one is out of the house.  It's odd and hard to describe, but I think it's summed up nicely by a recent study which divided the United States into three distinct psychological regions.  "Temperamental and Uninhibited," "Friendly and Conventional," and "Relaxed and Creative," are the three regions and are more or less exactly where you'd expect them to be.  Southern Ontario, I suspect, experiences much of the temperamental and uninhibited psychology, while "friendly and conventional" would dominate in Alberta.

In Summation:

Calgary specifically and Alberta in general was fantastic.  My work at bike camp was amazing thanks entirely to the quality of my coworkers' collective characters.  I saw majestic landscapes, I met amazing people, I had fantastic experiences, I was there for a natural disaster, and I would definitely go back.  Fortunately, having a degree in chemistry should facilitate such ambitions.

They seriously need to work on getting Tag No. 5 vodka out there, though.


Monday, June 3, 2013

The Last Month Or So.

The Centre Block of the Parliament of Canada.  Lots... lots of stuff going on  there and thereabouts. Source.


I've certainly not been blogging for a while.  I was laid off from my job as the mining industry went through at least a brief period of tanking, I've moved to Calgary to be a bike instructor, and will start graduate studies in electrochemistry in the Fall, but in London, Ontario.  Also, as has been the case in the past, I checked on my pageviews after an extended absence, and found that the blog had seen a period of increased activity.  I have and will continue to assume this occurs because my loyal, be-monocled and top-hatted readers are frequently checking back to see if there is anything new, and perhaps re-reading my older posts on such fascinating topics as burning garbage or perhaps Bev Oda and why I was exasperated with the government about a year ago.

Well, about that.  Robocalls are still in the news, and not quite resolved, though if I am not mistaken it was deemed to be either the Tories or someone with access to the list kept by the Tories of voters not intending to vote for them.  Voter suppression did indeed happen, but was deemed not to affect the outcome for the ridings in question.  

Other than that, however, is what really hit the fan in the last month.  We'll pause here and remember that the Tories wanted to reform the Senate, making it fully elected and with fixed terms for Senators.  Stephen Harper also promised to never make a Senate appointment.  Honestly, I would forgive him of this.  It was pointed out to me as a second year university student in a history class, that Senate reform, and thus ammendments to the Constitution, are really, really hard to make.  It requires a nationwide referendum which can divide families, and are an exceeding amount of work for all parties involved.  I also suspect this had something to do with a challenge Harper issued to then Leader of the Opposition Stéphane Dion.  I forget what the legislation in question was, but Harper said that if Dion had a problem with it, he should instruct his Senate-majority to refuse to pass the Bill in question.  Well, it happened, and Harper was forced to compromise on some legislation.

Then along came Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy.  I find it slightly amusing that "Conservative Senator" was such a popular career move for members of the CTV News team.  But yes.  These three Senators, along with a Grit, I seem to remember, made some key mistakes on claiming housing allowances.  It was accepted that if one's primary residence was more than 100km away from Ottawa, Senators could claim a housing allowance.  Well, claim they did and, I would argue, rightly so.  Though it later came to light that the claims made by these Senators were improper, rebutted with the statement that the form in question was ambiguous on the definition of "primary residence".  In any case, a report has been issued that used particularly damning language in the cases of Wallin and Brazeau, but curiously soft on Duffy, given that they were all guilty of the same thing.  It was also revealed that it was the Conservative members of the committee that held up the report until the language in Duffy's case was softened.

Further curiosity in the case of Mike Duffy was that Nigel Wright, the now former-chief of staff for the Prime Minsiter, gave Duffy a cheque for ~$90,000 to cover the ill-claimed housing expenses which were to be repaid.  The issue here was that if it was a gift, Duffy needed to report it, and if it wasn't, Nigel Wright needed to report it.  In the days following the revelation of the cheque, Tory MPs defended it as the "honourable thing to do."  This of course means that the phrase must have been included in the talking points each MP receives daily.  I'm not joking, to be clear.  However, Wright was then included in a long and storied tradition of the new Conservative Party of Canada, and was promptly thrown under the bus.

The sad thing is that I'm not surprised.  Before the Tories achieved a majority government, the first election saw creative accounting, and the next saw robocalls from the pseudonymous Pierre Poutine.  We have also been lied to about the true cost of the F-35s.  Ah, yes, the F-35s.

Still Scandalicious.

In the end, to discover the true costs of the F-35s, it took reports from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) and the Auditor General.  The PBO, you'll recall, was installed to make government more accountable when the new Tories first came to power.  Then, when the PBO set about doing his job and finding out what was actually in the latest budget, he was dismissed.  That's right, the last Government budget was so obscure that the PBO set about finding out what exactly they were to spend money on, and was dismissed for his efforts.  This includes the advertisements for Canada's Economic Action Plan, which has basically stopped spending money with the exception of its own advertisements.  Seriously, the last EAP commercial I saw advertised Canada's rich natural resources, as if we hadn't had an economy heavily reliant upon them since we started trading beaver pelts.  And, when the Tories were found to be in contempt of Parliament and subsequently defeated in a non-confidence motion, it was dismissed as a "Parliamentary trick" by Stephen Harper, who used the same trick to defeat Paul Martin's government.

Another issue I've wanted to touch on was the National Round Table on Environment and Economics.  This was in place from 1988 to 2013 (it was axed in 2012 and given one more year).  It worked to research how corporations and governments could work together for sustainable development.  In 2012, it gave one too many recommendations for a carbon tax.  It is the opinion of the Tories that Canadians have repeatedly rejected the idea of a carbon tax, and thus, the NRTEE is full of big smelly-heads and shouldn't receive any more funding.  You'll recall I'm a fan of evidence-based practices.  You'll also recall that evidence-based practices exist because popular opinion isn't always right.  In fact, that's part of the reason we have science, because intuition isn't always right.  But, naturally, if you disagree with the government, you can expect to get axed.

That reminds me.  I hope somebody from the CBC reads this, because their funding is getting slashed, too.  I expect it might have something to do with the fact that their reporting might be critical of the Tories.  Now, it's a common criticism of the CBC that it is hard on the Tories, but honestly, we are living in a time where the National Post is heavily criticising the government.  The National Post.  Yes, the National Post.  The newspaper set up by Conrad Black to give a nationwide voice to conservatism in Canada.  That National Post is running articles almost daily which eviscerate the Conservative Party.  Think about that.

So what do I make of all this?  It suggests to me that there exists in the current government a general disrespect and/or disregard for ethics, accountability and transparency.  The very things that the new Conservative Party of Canada campaigned on.  It suggests a politics of convenience rather than of ideology. It is an excellent example of realpolitik.


P.S. To my friends from high school, I hear your groans.  To all, please comment if I have over-generalized or made glaring errors.

P.P.S.  Scott Feschuk has a humourous examination of the current situation here, not unlike Jon Stewart's famous Bush v. Bush debate.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Ominous, right?  Source.

The picture above is the entrance to the Svalbard facility.  Think about that for a moment.  It's got the name "Svalbard", and it's clearly located in the side of a frozen mountain.  Let's first discuss what it is not.  It's not the lair of a supervillian.  It's not a fortress of solitude for a superhero.  It's not a multi-billionaire's pet project known informally as "Fort Kick-Ass."  It's not the location of a secret doomsday machine (and even if it were, the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret).

No, it is none of the aforementioned things.  Let's take a look inside and see if that gives any clues:
Not terribly ominous, but nonetheless puzzling.  Source.

What is being stored [~130m] in the side of a Norwegian mountain?  Seeds!  Many, many hundreds of thousands of agriculture seeds.  I read about this a year or two ago, I've retained the details of what I read, but not most of the sources, unfortunately.  A great place to start is the TED talk given by Cary Fowler, if you'd like to learn more about it.

Now, why on Earth are we storing seeds here?  Well, you no doubt remember my post on genetic algorithms, but allow me the indulgence of briefly touching on some points here.  Life as we know it is ultimately the product of a grand genetic algorithm, different organisms with different genes competing and co-operating, with the "fittest" surviving to pass on their genes to the next generation.  Now, how does this grand system evaluate the fitness of different species, let alone individuals of a species?  Varieties of pressures exist, plant diversity is often determined by the availability of water and how cold or hot a specific locale gets.  Pressures like this can wipe out or encourage different species.  Fun fact: barley as we know it today is a product of the human harvest of wheat.  Selective pressures which we used to breed good wheat crops also bred usable barley out of the wild varieties that existed.

It could be argued that while these pressures effect* the diversity we see on Earth, a much greater determinant would be mass extinction events.  We are familiar with the end of the dinosaurs which, it was recently [probably] confirmed, was caused by an asteroid impact.  A lesser known but far more devastating extinction event was the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event.  It is hypothesized that a supernova in a nearby arm of the Milky Way created a gamma ray burst which decimated our ozone layer, leaving Earth vulnerable to the UVC rays from our Sun.  This decimated over half of marine life [I have no idea if there was land life at this point, as I didn't look very hard for information].  We are currently living in an extinction period known as the anthropocene in which the natural extinction rate has been accelerated by a factor between 100 and 1000 times.

So things go extinct, this much we have established.  It is the species and thus genetic code that make it through these extinction events that by luck or by adaptation serve as the genetic diversity for the next round of genetic contestants.  In crops [and even humans], diseases, parasites and pests can affect populations much the same way, eliminating vulnerable populations and leaving resistant populations which will hopefully go on to produce another generation of disease/pest-resistant populations.  This effect can be seen when using herbicides in crops.  There is a joke in the field [field?  See what I did there?] that it's easy to find out which weeds are herbicide-resistant, you spray the herbicide in question and see which weeds survive.  The same is true of antibacterial-resistant "superbugs".  You treat people with antibacterial drugs, and the superbugs are left to wreak havoc, C. difficile being an excellent example.

Now, from this we see that genetic diversity can be key to a population surviving some sort of extinction event, at least for the species [and I'm sure I'm butchering this terminology, I apologize whole heartedly].  If you're at all familiar with our current agricultural practices, you might have alarm bells going off in your head. We, as a civilization, tend to grow large monocultures of clones.  You've no doubt heard of the potato famine in Ireland.  The potatoes in Ireland were largely identical species, as only so many were brought over from the New World.  Potato fields were populated of clones, and the genetic diversity was relatively low.  A blight that affected that one variety of potato had an extremely large population at its mercy.  So much so that large numbers of Irish people either died or set sail for America, some of my ancestors among them.

This is why agriculturally useful seeds are being stored at Svalbard.  Various seed banks exist around the world, but they are vulnerable to human conflict and natural disasters.  Banks in Afghanistan and Iraq were recently lost, and are prime examples of why we should store our seeds far away from people.  Svalbard, ideally, should refrigerate itself (it is in and/or around the Arctic Circle), is far enough away from people to avoid conflict, but is reasonably accessible by air.  Most, if not all countries of the world have deposited seeds to the vault, which will be made available to the depositors upon request.

A long time ago (I remember the point of the story, but not the details), a cataloger was wandering through the countryside, taking samples of agriculturally useful seeds.  He came across a family's strain of wheat, and described it as some of the saddest and most pathetic wheat he had ever come across.  Nevertheless, he took samples, and they were deposited and recorded.  A few year ago, the global wheat crop experienced a major disease outbreak (because we planted a large monoculture, as we are wont to do).  Populations were devastated, and costs of bread [leavened and otherwise] increased as a result.  Immediately, efforts went into breeding a new strain of wheat which would be resistant to this new disease.  Where did they find resistance?  You, my monocled, top-hatted, and attractive reader, guessed it.  That pathetic wheat the cataloger had stashed away.  Genetic diversity is key to the survival of the crops we rely on, and it must be preserved if we are to make it in a changing climate.


P.S.  I believe there is a similar effort to Svalbard known as the Millennium Seed Bank in UK.  They not only store agriculturally significant seeds, but also those of threatened (or just regular) plant species.

P.P.S.  Will I ever decide between regular and square brackets?  Keep reading to find out!