Dec 222019

No doubt many will have heard about the “bushfire crisis” that has basically been wreaking havoc for the past month. Here in Brisbane things haven’t been too bad, but we’ve had our fair share of smoke haze and things of course are exceptionally dry.

From where I sit, this is a situation we have let ourselves get into. Some argue that this is all because of the lack of back-burning, and to a certain extent this is true.

Back-burning doesn’t make it rain however. The lack of back-burning is a casualty of a few things, partly a lack of firefighting resources, and also significantly, a hotter, dryer climate.

Climate change has been known about for a long time. When I was growing up in the early 90s, the name used was the “greenhouse effect”. The idea being that all the “greenhouse gasses” we were generating, was causing heat to be trapped in the atmosphere like a greenhouse, and thus heating up the planet.

Back then, there didn’t seem to be any urgency to combat the problem.

So, we’ve just continued the way we always have since the start of the industrial revolution. Some things have improved, for instance electric vehicles just weren’t practical then, they are slowly gaining traction.

Large-scale PV generation in the 90s would have been seen as a joke, now we have entire paddocks dedicated to such activities. Renewable power generation is big business now. Whilst it won’t displace all traditional methods, it has an important place going forward.

Yet, in spite of all this progress, we’ve still got people in government, and in big corporate organisations who cling to the “business as usual” principle.

When South Australia announced they were going to install a big battery to help back-up their power supply, the idea was poo poohed, with many saying it wouldn’t be big enough to make a difference. What it doesn’t have in running-time, it makes up for in very fast responsiveness to load changes.

A coal-fired power station operates by using thermal energy produced by burning coal, to boil water to produce steam which drives turbines that in turn, drive electric generators. A nuclear station isn’t much different — the thermal source is the only bit that changes. Geothermal is basically using a nuclear station that mother nature has provided.

The thing all these systems have in common is rotating mass. It takes significant energy to cause a step-change in rotational speed of the turbine. If the turbine is still, you’re going to have to pump a lot of energy in, somehow, to get it spinning. If it’s spinning, it’ll take a lot of energy to stop it. Consequently, they are not known for reaction times. Cold starts for these things in the realm of a day is not unknown. They also don’t take kindly to sudden changes of load. It is during these times the emissions from such generators are at their worst.

Solar is great during the day when it’s fine, but on a cloudy day like today the output is likely to be greatly diminished, and it’ll be utterly useless at night. If we had big enough battery storage, then yes, we could theoretically capture enough during the sunny days to carry us over the nights and cloudy days. That’s a big if.

So I still see the traditional methods being a necessary evil. The combination of all three options though (renewables, traditional generation and battery storage) could be a winner. Let the older stations carry the evening base-load and keep the battery topped up, ramp them down a bit when we’re getting good renewable output, use the batteries to cover the load spikes.

Nuclear could be an option, however to my mind they have two big problems:

  1. Public perception
  2. Commissioning time

Without a doubt, the modern designs for these things has greatly improved on what graced the sites of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima. They generate waste still, but in many cases the half-life and quantity of this waste is greatly reduced. The biggest problem though is public perception, as there are many who will not differentiate between the designs, and will immediately respond: “not in my back yard!”

Even if you could win peoples’ trust, you’ve got a second problem, getting them built and commissioned in time. If we had started in the 90s, then maybe they’d be doing useful things for us now. That boat has long set sail and is dipping over the horizon now.

Transportation is another area where we’re, as a nation, addicted to fossil fuels. It’s not hard to see why though. Go outside a major capital city, and infrastructure for a purely electric vehicle disappears.

Moreover, the manufacturers, stuck in their echo-chamber, don’t see larger electric vehicles as worth the investment.

Back in 2007, my father was lucky enough to win the Multicap Art Union, and so replaced the Subaru stationwagon he’s owned since 1982 with a Holden Rodeo ute (we had the choice between that or Toyota).

This vehicle was chosen with the intent of towing a caravan with it — something he later purchased. The caravan weighs about two tonnes. Yes, an electric vehicle could theoretically tow it, and could even do a better job, but at the time, no such vehicle was available from any of the available suppliers.

To my knowledge, this is still the case. Few, if any of the electric vehicles on the market here in Australia, have the necessary facilities to tow a caravan even if the motor is capable of it.

Then there’s infrastructure to consider. A pure electric vehicle would probably be impractical outside of major regional centres and capital cities. Once you got away from the network of high-power chargers, you better plan for staying a few days in each town where you charge, because it will take that long to charge that battery from a 240V 10A socket!

Diesel-electric though, could be a winner since diesel engines similarly operate most efficiently at constant speed and could drive a generator to charge battery storage.

A return of the gas turbine engine could also be a good option. This was tried before, but suffered from the typical characteristic of turbines, they don’t like changing speed quickly. Poor throttle response is a deal-breaker when the engine is providing the traction, but it is a non-issue in a generator. They run on a wide variety of fuel types, including petroleum and diesel, so could utilise existing infrastructure, and the engines are generally simpler designs.

Is there research going into this? Not from what I’ve seen. Instead, they trot out the same old style vehicles. Many people buy them because that’s all that’s on offer that fulfils their requirements. Consequently this inflates the apparent desire for these vehicles, so the vehicle makers carry on as usual.

The lack of cycle infrastructure also pushes people into vehicles. When I do ride to work (which I’ve been trying to do more of), I find myself getting up early and getting on the road before 4:30AM to avoid being a nuisance to other road users.

In particular road users who believe: “I paid vehicle registration, therefore this road is MINE!” I needn’t waste space on that assertion, the Queensland government raised about $557M in revenue (page 14) from vehicle registration in 2018-19, whilst the DTMR’s expenditure at that time was over $6bn (page 15).

The simple truth is that a lot of these initiatives are seen as nothing but a “cost”. Some simple-minded people even say that the very concept of climate change is invented simply to slug the developed world. We need to get past this mentality.

The thing is, business as usual is costing us more. We’re paying for it big time with the impact on the climate that these emissions are having. Yes, climate does go in cycles, but what we’re experiencing now is not a cycle.

I can remember winters that got down to the low signal digits here in Brisbane. I have not experienced those sorts of conditions here for a good 15 years now. Yes, this is a land of drought and flooding rain, however, we seem to be breaking climate records that have stood longer than any of us have been alive by big margins.

The “fire season”, which is used to determine when back-burning should take place has also been lengthening. It will get to a point where there just isn’t a safe time to conduct back-burning as theoretically every day of the year will be “fire season” conditions.

This is costing us.

  • It will cost us with property being destroyed.
  • It will cost us with work being disrupted.
  • It will cost us with food production being threatened.
  • It will cost us with health issues due to increasing ambient temperatures and air pollution issues.

Lately I’ve been suffering as a result of the smoke haze that has been blowing through the Brisbane area. I recognise that it is nowhere near as bad as what Sydney has to put up with. Whilst not severely asthmatic, I have had episodes in the past and can be susceptible to bronchitis.

On one occasion, this did lead to a case of pneumonia.

About a fortnight ago I started to go down with a bout of bronchitis. I’ve had two visits to the doctor already, prescribed antibiotics and a puffer, normally by now my symptoms would be subsiding by now. This time around, that has not been the case. Whilst the previous bouts have been stress-related, I think this time it is smoke-induced.

I think once the smoke clears, I’ll recover. I am not used to this level of air pollution however, and I think if it becomes the new “normal”, it will eventually kill me. If I lived in Sydney, no question, that level probably would kill me.

This is a wake-up call. Whilst I don’t plan to join the Extinction Rebellion — as I don’t think blocking up traffic is doing anyone any favours, I do think we need to change direction on our emissions. If we carry on the way we are now, things are only going to get worse.

Jun 022019

There’s a couple of truths in life:

  • You don’t get to choose your biological family
  • You don’t get to choose your place of birth

Now, as it happens I ordinarily do not have any real issues with my family or my place of birth, except on one matter: I have never possessed a driver’s license, and really don’t wish to obtain one.

I can get around just fine on my bicycle when I need to. That mode of transport is not nearly as limiting as people think it is. Sure, it’ll take me longer to get places, and I need to perhaps do more planning than most, but I can get where I’m needed.

Yet, time and time again, I run up against the same problem: people assume that people my age, drive cars. People then make the leap to suggest that you’re a useless person if you don’t drive.

I did try to obtain a learner’s permit some time ago. I tried the written test twice: at $20 a pop, at a time when I was unemployed. I wasn’t sure how I was going to fund obtaining a vehicle and paying the necessary fees, but I figured I’d try the first step.

I failed both attempts on one question.

I decided that an identity card was more important: I researched what documentation was required, paid my dues, handed over said documentation, wandered out with a new 18+ card. I figured if I needed to try the driver’s license again, I’d be back.

That was in December 2007. The requirements for obtaining a license have since become more onerous, and let’s face it, there are too many cars on the road today. I’d be looking at taking about 200 hours off from work in order to get the necessary log-book time up and spending tens of thousands of dollars on driving lessons. It isn’t financially worth it.

I re-discovered cycling about 6 months later. I bought a folding bicycle, and started using that to get around, and realised that this was a viable mode of transport for me. Over time, I did longer and longer trips.

The longest I’ve gone unsupported was about 82km. A ride from my home at The Gap to the park at Logan Central takes about 3 hours each way with a couple of rest stops en route. I get going early, take my time, and get there without any trouble.

My work is at Milton, a run of about 10km: I can get there in an hour: faster than public transport. In the early mornings, my times tend to be closer to 45 minutes.

In short, there is just no useful purpose for me to have a car. More to the point, I’d have nowhere to park it. What limited space is available at the front of our property is occupied by a caravan and the neighbours’ numerous cars. If it weren’t for the caravan in fact, it would be all cars belonging to the neighbours.

Moreover, my body actually needs the physical exercise. It’s a fact that moving around is required to keep bodily functions working. You don’t move around enough: bowel movements slow down. I already had one bowel-related health scare this year.

I have not been riding much lately due to scheduling — and I feel my health is suffering greatly because of it.

In spite of this, I still get people, family included, shaking their metaphorical car keys in my face suggesting I should be driving too.

It’s as if, as a non-driver, you’re not welcome in this society. You’re seen as a waste of space — you don’t belong here. We’re seen as “shits” that are there wasting other peoples’ money.

I’ve had a lifetime of that sort of treatment for numerous reasons.

Back in the late 80s, the argument was that I had an Autism diagnosis, therefore I should be going into institutionalised care. Then the same condition was used to argue that I belonged in a special school. At high school, the same reasoning was probably used to put me in the lowest-grade maths and English classes.

I am generally able to focus on a task and do it well. This is probably the reason why I wound up doing double Bachelor-level IT/electronics degrees at uni, and passing both.

I could have instead just been institutionalised. Occupying a tax-payer funded bed. I’d be a record in the NDIS system today. Completely un-employable, generally useless. Definitely not earning >$60000/year doing full-stack software development. There is income tax being paid amongst that — whether my day job is actually worth what I get paid is a debate I’ll leave for others.

The fact remains that I work for a living, and pay my own way.

However, there is a difference to laying out a PCB or writing a code module; and manoeuvring ~600kg of metal travelling at 50+km/hr through suburban roads. One requires focus and patience, the other requires millisecond-level decision-making and reaction times.

I am not someone who thinks well at speed, and I would make no friends driving a car along Waterworks Road at 30km/hr in the morning peak-hour traffic. At 30-40km/hr, I can just manage on the bicycle. I can do up to 60km/hr, but I’m not comfortable at all going that speed!

In a car, you are expected to do the speed limit (50-60km/hr in the case of Waterworks Road). Brisbane’s drivers are not forgiving of anyone who can’t “keep up”.

There are people who have no place driving a car, and I would count myself as being a member of that group. I avoid being on the roads much of the time for that very reason — as a courtesy to drivers who would likely prefer to not be stuck behind a slow cyclist like myself.

Coupled with the health problems: me taking up driving would be an early death sentence. If this is really what is expected, I might as well stop now and get the dying bit over and done with, it’ll be one less person on this planet consuming ever dwindling resources.

It’ll be more humane for me to just quietly go, then to be constantly in and out of medical care for “this” medical condition, or “that” medical condition, costing my employer sick-leave, costing my health fund, occupying resources in our health system, simply because I didn’t get enough exercise.

If a non-driver like me is as useless as people make out, then I guess it won’t hurt anyone that I’m gone. … or maybe we can re-think the “non-drivers are useless” concept. One of the ideas in this paragraph is wrong. I’ve given up trying to decide which!

May 012016

Well, looks like this project is very much thrust into the spotlight having been covered in Hacklet 105 . Mine’s probably the least technical of the lot, it’s definitely worth having a look at what the others are doing, as there’s some really innovative ideas there. Many thanks to @Mike Szczys and @Adam Fabio for the shout-out. 🙂

One thing I haven’t done with this project yet, is to actually post the background of why I’ve started this. A big part of this was I wanted to get permission from the family of a work colleague of mine so that I could mention him by name, but at this stage, permission has not been given, so I have to keep things anonymous.

On the 12th of February, a colleague of mine was cycling to work over the Go Between Bridge here in Brisbane when he lost control on a bend as the bridge joins the Bicentennial Bikeway. This is an off-road, dedicated cycleway, so no cars, and supposedly no pedestrians, however many seem to not understand what a sign with a bicycle symbol and the letters O, N, L, Y mean. (I usually ride past and comment: “Funny bike you’re riding!”. Since this accident though, I intend to be a lot more assertive.)

(Above: the crash scene. That blood smear is still visible on the path today.)

I’m no crash investigator, but I did study physics, and I cycle as my sole means of transport myself, having no driver’s license. (And no interest in getting one either.) I’m familiar with what that bridge is like to cycle over, having done it many times shortly after it opened when I worked at West End.

Looking at the scene though, it was apparent to me that my colleague was going much faster than was sensible for that stretch of road, and something caused him to lose control just prior to the bend.

The resulting impact with the railing was devastating: in addition to a few broken bones elsewhere in the body, he suffered skull fractures, and what I understand now to be a Coup-Contrecoup injury to the brain.

I remember that morning arriving at work early (we both were early birds, and had he not crashed, he would have beaten me that morning), sitting down at my desk and preparing to do battle with U-Boot and an industrial PC, when at 6:34AM, the office phone rings. It was then I learned that my colleague was in a serious condition in hospital, and I then found myself frantically looking for contact details for his wife. (Which were nowhere to be found.)

We later learned he’d never regain consciousness, having lost all executive function in the brain. The only bits that worked, were the bits responsible for low-level muscle control. From bright mind, to persistent vegetative state. He passed away about a fortnight after his accident.

During his brief time in ICU, we were told by one of the people there that these sorts of injuries were common in bicycle and motorcycle accidents. That worried me.

That tells me that perhaps, something is wrong with these blocks of foam we insist on strapping to our heads, and that we’ve missed something. This is one of the first goals I’d like to pinpoint, but so far, has been the most difficult: trying to get hold of data that would statistically prove or disprove how “common” these injuries are.

There’s no point in protecting the skull itself if the brain is to get shaken around to the point that the person winds up with total mental incapacitation.

Research seems to suggest that helmets have had a big hand in reducing the incidents of these injuries, but the fact that it’s still “common”, seems to suggest there’s lots more work to be done.

The standards are focussed on linear acceleration, and single impacts at no more than about 20km/hr. Is that sufficient? I regularly find myself doing 40, and I’m no speed demon. (Hell, I’ve accidentally found myself doing 71km/hr once!) I think it’s time the standards were revised. The question is: how?

My colleague was a key member of our team, and one of the brighter minds I know. While he shouldn’t have taken that bend at such speed and expect to get away with it, he did not deserve to die. I can’t save him, but perhaps I can help save someone else. That’s what this project is about.

Apr 022016

Doing a bit more searching, previously I had stumbled across one article by Bike Magazine Australia entitled “Lifting The Lid”.

I did try to get in touch with the author via the email link on the website, but heard nothing. However, it appears, that article is a reprint of this article , which was published by Bicycling magazine in June 2013. I thought it might’ve been older than that.

There’s also a furious rebuttal by the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. Well lets face it, being provocative helps magazines sell sometimes, although it pays to not be too provocative.

However, I feel the author has a point, even if he gets some details wrong.

It appears that the AIM system mentioned in the article is still in its prototype stage. I doubt this one is royalty free, but for sure it’ll be one to watch, owing to its safety features, and the fact that it’s a very different construction, should make for a cooler helmet to wear in summer.

Mar 062016

I was doing some thinking last night, then it occurred to me. We are trying to do simulations of crashes using linear motion. Dropping a helmet vertically. That’s linear.

For sure, it’s a good-enough approximation when you hit something head-on… or is it? If you come off and fly through the air, then maybe, you’ll strike something dead-level.

More probable though, is you’ll follow an arc, under projectile motion. The most likely scenario is that as the bicycle/motorcycle tilts over, you follow it. It’s not going to be a direct-to-the-ground vertical drop of your head, but rather, a circular arc.

So how do we test for it? I suppose like this:

Feb 252016

One of the stated goals is to try and determine how statistically significant TBI is in motorcycle and bicycle accidents.

Null hypothesis here will be that motorcycle accidents will have a much higher prevalence of TBI than in bicycle accidents, down to the typical routes and speeds alone.

Nick Rushworth, executive officer of Brain Injury Australia has been most helpful in pointing me to some statistics on New South Wales road crashes as well as some more general statistics from 2004-05 on TBI cases in general . His assistance in this has been a big help.

The Queensland Department of Main Roads also produces a number of reports, as well as a request form. Transport for NSW also provide statistics. I think the data is there, we’ve just got to figure out a means to drill into it.

Jun 142015

What is it? Well, the term “quaxing” originated from Auckland’s councillor, Dick Quax who stated:

@lukechristensen @BenRoss_AKL @Brycepearce no one in the entire western world uses the train for their shopping trips

@Brycepearce @lukechristensen @BenRoss_AKL the very idea that people lug home their weekly supermarket shopping on the train is fanciful

@Brycepearce @lukechristensen @BenRoss_AKL sounds like that would make great Tui ad. “I ride my bike to get my weekly shopping – yeah right”

While I’ve never described it as “quaxing”, and likely will not describe it that way, this is how I’ve been shopping for the past 5 years.

This, is my shopping trolley, literally… it gets unhitched and taken into the shop with me.

Shopping on the bike, "quaxing" to the twitter-croud.

Shopping on the bike, “quaxing” to the twitter-croud.

Now true, strictly speaking, Australia is not the “western world” geographically speaking. Neither is NZ; any further east and you hit the International Date Line. However this is a “westernised” country, as is NZ. Isn’t it funny how people assume cycling is merely a third-world phenomenon?