Which Berners-Lee?

Tim Berners-Lee, carbon expert?

It’s not every day that you read a story about Tim Berners-Lee that doesn’t mention his primary claim to fame, that he invented the World Wide Web. It’s even less frequent that you see him referred to as a “climate-change expert” without mentioning his long history in computing. That would be because the author of How Bad are Bananas?, the book featured in this story in today’s Star, is not Tim Berners-Lee as identified in the third paragraph, but is in fact Mike Berners-Lee. The Star has already issued a correction and fixed the online version of the story, but I predict ongoing confusion for poor Mike: Amazon.ca currently catalogues the book under Lee M. Berners.

Also listed in the Star‘s correction today is a story about thorium, which originally stated that it has two fewer atoms than uranium. Let’s see, if uranium has one atom and thorium has two fewer, would that make thorium, with its -1 atom, antimatter? No wonder people are so excited about it.

The end of civilization as Sue-Ann Levy knows it

According to Sue-Ann Levy, the world is going to end tomorrow because she is going to have to pay $0.05 for every plastic bag she gets from a store. Her column earlier this week all but proclaimed it so, listing this gem among her complaints:

Nevertheless, I don’t know how we can possibly be expected to remember to cart some sort of plastic bag around with us everywhere to hold purchases we might make on impulse.

Speaking only for myself here, I remember to “cart some sort of […] bag” with me the same way I remember to cart my wallet around every day: I put it in my pocket before I leave the house.  In fact, there are lots of things that I remember to take with me every day: my wallet, watch, keys, and Leatherman chief among them. It’s really not rocket science. I assume that Sue-Ann carries a purse with her everywhere and will learn soon enough to keep a little reusable bag tucked away in there. I also expect that she will admit this to absolutely no one.

An aseptic life

When I was young, the stories of so-called bubble boys were considered to be tragedies, living without contact with the outside world because contact with the germs could kill them. These days, living as a bubble boy is a lifestyle choice for some.

The plastics industry recently released a study (PDF) under the alarming headline “Reusable grocery bags may pose public health risk.” Yikes. But just a second here, this doesn’t really pass the smell test.

Just a few short weeks ago, the plastics industry was extolling the virtues of plastic bags: they’re the most environmentally friendly choice, so practical and extensively recycled that they form the very foundation of Western civilization. Hell, they even recommend  that we all “Say YES to reus[ing]” plastic bags! That Big Plastic has suddenly changed its tune from “we’re so good” to “they’re so bad” is telling, and is a real sign of desperation. I’m glad to see that the plastics industry is stooping to this kind of FUD in a last attempt to scare people into using disposable bags.

Just how FUDdy is the plastics industry’s shrieking on this matter? Well, their study claims an “elevated bacterial count of 1,800 colony-forming units (CFU)” on a 16 square inch sample of a reusable bag. Sounds bad. But what does that really mean in context? Well, for starters, the study compares the bacteria level on reusable bags to the safe level in drinking water. That’s pretty pointless seeing as bags (reusable or not) are not drinking water. But let’s play along anyway.

In particular, the study claims that the level of 1,800 CFU is “three times the level of 500 CFU considered safe per millilitre of drinking water.” That is factually true, but one millilitre is not a lot of water: it’s about a fifth of a teaspoon. So a single teaspoon of drinking water can have as many as 2,500 CFU and still be considered safe. A whole cup of water? More than 117,000 CFU and it’s still safe. So to put a different interpretation on their own study, a cup of safe, filtered, potable water may contain sixty-five times the bacteria count found on their scariest, dirtiest reusable bag. Rinsing that bag off would stand a good chance of making it dirtier. Maybe drinking that reusable bag wouldn’t be so bad after all.

The rest of their comparisons are equally suspect: mould on the surface of the bag is compared to mould per cubic metre of air; coliforms on the bag (5) are compared to the recommended level in a millilitre of drinking water (0) instead of the safe level in Ontario (5 per 100 ml from a well). And so on, and so on.

It’s difficult to take anything in the paper seriously, and it’s too bad that none of the mainstream media outlets that reported on the paper really took the author or the industry to task. Most of them chose instead to merely rewrite the press release’s lurid headline and repeat the claims without providing any context. Everyone involved here ought to be ashamed: the plastics industry for commissioning the paper, the researcher for putting his name to this disgraceful and alarmist tripe, and the reporters for not raising a critical eyebrow. Adapt or die, all of you.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been using the same two reusable bags at the grocery store and farmers’ market for about 6 years now. They’ve never been washed. Are they covered in bacteria? Almost certainly. But so is everything else in the world. Unless you’re lucky enough to be a bubble boy.

Even in Toronto…

It can happen here.

Got that, everyone? Snow is going to blanket southern Ontario, even the city of Toronto. That’s right, the super-futuristic protective weather dome that normally steers all precipitation away from us and maintains a comfortable 21° temperature year-round is malfunctioning, with the result that even the city of Toronto will be snowed upon. The low pressure system, tracking from Windsor to Ottawa will veer as many as no kilometers off its path, ensuring that even the city of Toronto will see at least the minimum amount of snow expected from the storm.

Yes Canada, it’s winter out there. Even in the city of Toronto.

(The Weather Network storm watch has been updated since the above screen cap was taken late this afternoon; Toronto is no longer singled out as if snow is as unexpected here as it is in Miami.)