Thursday, December 22, 2011

Where does Ontario's electricity come from? (Winter edition.)

Lately I've been involved in some arguments about just how effective solar panels are at reducing CO2 emissions. That's a topic for another post and it will be an occasion for extended ranting--stay tuned--but in the meantime, the debate has forced me to go digging for some data on the composition of electricity in Ontario.

Ontario (like many places) has a bunch of different generators in its electricity mix; each of them has its pros and cons, and they get cranked up to meet demand at various times according to a fairly complex set of criteria. What I wanted to know is, what combination of generators is providing power, and in what proportions, at any given moment.

What I found was the time-series data, going back a month, for the output of all the major (over 10MW) generators in Ontario. The data is disaggregated by hour, so you can graph exactly how much of each kind of generation is contributing to the system during any given sixty-minute period.

So I did. Here are the charts for four one-week periods, starting November 19th, 2011 and ending December 16th.

First, the basics. These charts are for seven-day periods, beginning on midnight Saturday. Each day, you see a sort of double hump in electricity production. It's low overnight, ramps up to a bit of a peak around mid-morning, drops off a bit around lunchtime, and then ramps up to a higher peak in the early evening before dropping back down at night. It sort of looks like a graph of someone's heartbeat...

Since you can't really store electricity (well, you can, but not at this scale) that production curve is a pretty close match for the demand curve--how much electricity people in Ontario are using.

The humps are less pronounced on Saturday and Sunday (left-hand sides of the graphs.) That's because people are sleeping in, they aren't all making coffee and toast at the same time, and of course a lot of businesses are closed so they're not drawing so much power.

There's a ton of interesting stuff in there--so much that I'll have to break this up over a series of posts. Check back later.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective (Part 5)

This is the fifth in a series on the Back To The Future franchise as seen by a city planning nerd. Frame grabs are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for commentary purposes.

We left off
with a quick look at Hill Valley's downtown, and specifically its central Courthouse Square, in five different time periods. The Courthouse Square, more than any other single location in the franchise, is our anchor--it's what tells us what year we're in, and what is going on in that period.

Our first introduction to downtown is in 1985, when Marty cruises through on his little four-wheeled death wish on his way to school. Growing up in the suburbs, I was--well, whatever the opposite of "streetwise" is, with a relatively blind eye to the poverty and decrepitude of the inner city
. So I never really noticed, until years later, just how crappy and run-down Hill Valley 1985 is.

How crappy and run-down? If you've arrived at this blog, chances are you've seen the movies at least once and you know the story. So rather than rehashing it, maybe the best way to describe the change in Hill Valley over three decades is to imagine an alternate version of Back To The Future--one in which a teenager from 1955 is accidentally whisked thirty years into the future:

Our guy knows the Courthouse Square as a public green, occupied by people who to all appearances are there by choice. Pedestrian paths crisscross the green, providing shortcuts to well-dressed adults and comparatively well-behaved minors on their way to and from their various no-doubt-wholesome engagements. The streets around the square are lined with a variety of businesses--a travel agent, a stationery store, a record store, two movie theatres, a corner cafe and several others.

When he arrives in 1985, he is shocked to discover that the Courthouse Square has been paved to make a parking lot:

Surprisingly, given the 1980's shall-we-say muscular approach to foreign affairs, even the war memorial...

... has been torn out to make room to park one more Buick.

Our naïf from 1955 might conclude that, for all the talk about honouring the sacrifices of its soldiers, his country is more fixated on keeping its cars running--indeed, that the former talk is usually just a pretext for the latter. (And since this is 1985, not 2015, he could say so without being hauled off to Guantanamo to be pounded in the ass by the Taliban for the rest of his life.)

As for the businesses, they've been replaced by marginal operations including an occult bookstore, a bail bondsman, payday loan joint, and a shop dedicated to the sale of, um, adult accessories.

The travel agent is still there, oddly enough. Maybe it thrives because anyone who finds themselves in downtown Hill Valley is overcome by the urge to get out of town, fast.

Not everything has changed, of course. For instance, the movie theatre...

... is still there, albeit with different programming and slightly more talented actors.

A running joke in the original movie was that everyone in 1955 thought Marty was a sailor because of his "life preserver." I expect that our guy from the fifties would observe that half of downtown Hill Valley's business is now dedicated to sex industries and conclude that the entire town has been taken over by sailors on leave. Hopefully someone will clue him in before he passes the window where a dozen women in skintight costumes wave at every passing male, lest he misread their intentions...

Not that the entire town has been given over to marginality, sleaze and Spandex. The other movie theatre from 1955...

... is now a church, albeit of the evangelical thunder-and-tarnation variety.

(Spoiler alert: Just as the B-movie actor from 1955 is President in 1985, in the sequel our guy goes to 2015 and finds that every single candidate for the Republican nomination got his or her start preaching at that church!)

If our guy sticks around 1985 for awhile, he'll learn that suburbia has sucked the life out of downtown, to the point that no one lives there anymore. But this is not quite true:

All in all, our guy from 1955 will notice a pretty drastic change. It's summed up rather nicely by the sign, which in 1955 promotes Hill Valley as "A Nice Place To Live..."

But at bare minimum a town's motto has to be something people can say with a straight face, and if you can't say something nice... say nothing at all.

As I've suggested earlier, BTTF is a remarkable piece of storytelling, not least because it makes us believe that Marty really, really wants to get back to this decrepitating shithole. But it sets a bit of a challenge for the sequel. Having established that Hill Valley is basically Frank Capra's Pottersville, we need to come up with an alternative so bad it makes this place worth saving.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scary Perry

Like the proverbial human brain, I haven't used 90% of the capabilities of this media-friendly Mac I'm working on. I have been practicing with my new digitizing tablet, which holds great promise for online smartassery, but tablets have a learning curve like Kilimanjaro and so far I've mainly succeeded in creating a pretty fair impression of a recovering stroke victim.

Meanwhile, this weekend the recent Rick Perry campaign ad (which by now should need no introduction) hit the Internet. Okay, I said it needs no introduction but regardless of your political leanings, surely all reasonable people can agree that this is the most vile, mendacious and small-minded campaign video ever to come out of a mainstream candidate's media office.

Within a couple of days, it crossed three important thresholds. Firstly, it became the most-Disliked video ever to hit YouTube. Secondly, it spawned a cottage industry of video mashups mocking it. Thirdly, and most significantly, it actually prompted me, a notorious late adopter, to open up a new piece of computer software and start farting around with it. The result is clumsy, amateurish and probably nothing that hasn't been done better elsewhere online.

But goddammit, I just couldn't not.