Sunday, March 29, 2015

With CSS, More Seems to be Less

In the beginning -- at least for my purposes here -- there was HTML.  Tags gave straightforward markup capabilities, but large amounts of the actual presentation were left to the readers' discretion.  Some people like serif fonts; some people don't.  Some people need bigger text to read comfortably.  Some people don't like 36-point headlines.  In an online world, those are choices that ought to be left to the reader.

Then the Web was increasingly taken over by commercial concerns, who hired graphics design professionals to lay out more sophisticated pages.  Professionals who took much greater advantage of the newer HTML capabilities to force the pages to look the way the professionals thought they should.  Color!  Giant text!  Tiny text!  Five fonts for different purposes on every page!  Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of the professionals seemed to have taken degrees in Ugly and Hard to Read.

Some Web browsers gave their users tools to fight back.  One of the reasons I settled on Firefox early on was that it let me override part of the ugliness.  I could specify fonts that were usually honored and a minimum font size (a maximum would also be nice, if anyone at Mozilla is listening).  From time to time I would look over someone's shoulder to see how they experienced the web.  I gloated internally, about how much more consistent in appearance "my" web was compared to theirs.  How much easier to read.  How much more visually attractive, because of my superior taste in fonts [1].

Then came CSS, and the widespread adoption of various CSS libraries, and the use of JavaScript to set CSS properties, and the widespread adoption of JavaScript libraries that did all sorts of things besides the feature or two the page developer needed.  Some browsers helped the readers out again, by allowing the user to have their own style sheet that was applied to all pages.  But CSS has, among other things, specificity rules that make it possible for the page developer to identify a particular element at such a fine grain that none of the browsers will honor the user's choices.  In fact, the specificity rules can get so complex that developers need specialized tools to debug their pages, trying to figure out why some bit of text here or there isn't in the font/size/whatever that they expected.  The image accompanying this post is a portion of a screenshot of Firebug, one such tool, showing part of the CSS cascade that resulted in a piece of text on a downloaded page ignoring my font choices.

I suppose I shouldn't feel so strongly about this that I'm sitting here considering the question, "How hard would it be to write a Firefox add-on that (reasonably intelligently) overrides the font choices for all of the content on every page?"  Guess I've finally turned into a full-blown curmudgeon.

[1] Not to mention faster, because Firefox had Adblock, and it's amazing how much faster the front page of a newspaper site loads if your browser simply skips loading 30 advertising elements from DoubleClick's under-engineered servers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Will Distributed Generation Kill the Big Utilities?

A friend of mine wrote an interesting piece for Utility Dive this week.  The basic premise is that the rapid growth of edge generating capacity – think rooftop solar – will outpace the country's transmission and distribution grid's ability to cope with the added complexity.  I'm an advocate of renewable energy supplies, so think it's a question worth considering.  I think of the problem in terms of three questions: (1) Which grid?  (2) Can such a collapse happen?  (3) Will such a collapse be allowed to happen?

Which grid?  I continue to be disappointed by pieces written as if the US had a single network for transmitting electric power.  There are three: the Eastern, Western, and Texas Interconnects are synchronized AC networks that have minimal AC-DC-AC connections between them.  The history that led to three grids is straightforward.  The Great Plains are a relatively empty buffer nearly 500 miles wide that split the country.  The yellow line on the figure to the left (you should be able to use your browser's "view image" option to see it full size) runs roughly down the middle of the GP, and comes relatively close to the dividing line between Eastern and Western Interconnects.  Texas was able to opt to be its own grid and did so, hoping to avoid federal interference.  Note that El Paso, the only major metro area in Texas that is west of the GP, is part of the Western, rather than Texas, grid.  Each of the three grids has a different degree of complexity, different renewable resource portfolios, and a somewhat different political environment.

Can such a collapse happen?  In order: least likely for the Texas grid; somewhat more so but not a significant risk for the Western grid; quite possible for the Eastern grid.  The fundamental difference is a simple matter of complexity.  The Texas grid serves about 27 million people, and the large majority of the demand is inside the triangle formed by Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio.  The Western grid serves about 70 million people, and the large majority of demand happens in half-dozen or so large population centers: Seattle-Portland, Northern California around San Francisco Bay, Southern California, Las Vegas, Phoenix-Tucson, Front Range Colorado, and Salt Lake City.  A small number of single-state situations, and limited interconnect problems.  The Eastern grid, covering 205 million people across 36 states, is a whole 'nother matter.  I've written before about the relative complexity of the grids as illustrated by low-carbon studies done by the various national labs.  There are plenty of nuts-and-bolts studies for the Western grid that all come up with similar plans.  Such studies for the Eastern grid simply don't seem to exist because the problem is so much harder.

Will such a collapse be allowed to happen?  In Texas, not just no, but hell no.  A single state legislature, a single PUC; they can regulate the snot out of distributed generation in such a way that it's useful, but not threatening to the collapse of the grid.  In the West, probably not.  Most of the individual Western states have statutory requirements for large renewable share of total supply and are already thinking about intrastate distributed generation.  There are only a couple of interstate grid topologies that make sense.  The Western Governors Association spends considerable effort looking at the regional transmission grid as a whole.  When it comes to the Eastern grid, though, I throw up my hands.  When people write about the US having an aging, third-world, rickety electric grid, they're largely writing about the East.  Too many jurisdictions, too many places to connect... yeah, it could be allowed to happen.

My bottom line is that I acknowledge the risk my friend writes about; I just don't acknowledge that it's a national problem.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

My Name is Michael, and I'm a Pack Rat

Sometimes the first step to solving a problem is to admit that you have one...

Out in my garage is a galvanized steel bucket. Here's a picture of my daughter with the bucket. She's carrying about three small rocks in it, destined to be mulch for weed control, because she needed to be helping. My daughter now has a daughter of her own just about that age, who looks equally serious when taking on an important task like moving rocks. (I know because the granddaughter and I took a walk around the neighborhood the other day, and stopped to spend a few minutes returning the neighbor's rocks that someone had kicked out onto the sidewalk to their proper place in the landscaping. It was clearly Important Work.) The bucket is stained with this and that these days, and there are other better buckets in the garage, but I'm not about to get rid of it.

I have a piece of software called "scraps" that I use every day. I wrote the first version of it something more than 30 years ago, with the intent of using it instead of writing things on scraps of paper that I would promptly lose. Do you want to know the name, address, and phone number of the dentist who pulled my wisdom teeth the year after I moved to New Jersey and went to work for Bell Labs? It's in there, down at the bottom of a scrap titled "Dentists" that has contact information for every dentist I've seen since then. For no more than it does, an unconscionable amount of time has been spent porting that hunk of antique C code to every operating system I've ever used, from assorted versions of UNIX to DOS to Linux to Mac OSX...

There are a large number of bookcases in our house. The overflow from those are stashed away in bankers' boxes down in the basement. Some of the books in them are textbooks from when I was an undergraduate, and not just books from my major. Some of the books are trash fiction that filled long hours on business trips in the days before portable computing, that I'll never read again. (Sorry, Eric Van Lustbader.) I've been trying to get rid of some of them, but seem to be incapable of throwing any away until I have a suitable EPUB version stored and properly backed up. (It's astounding the range of out-of-print books that people have scanned and put up on the internet.)

My name is Michael, and – among other vices – I'm a pack rat...