Sunday, December 12, 2010

The great disappearing toad mystery solved...

A while back, I wrote about a paper that appeared in the Journal of Zoological Douchery - or some such - where the authors reported that all the toads in an entire swamp had mysteriously disappeared just prior to the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in Italy.  Said authors had traveled to Italy to study said toads and were somewhat "annoyed" to discover that there were no toads to study.  So to justify their stay on the Italian Riviera, said authors wrote a "paper" on the fact that there were no toads there because the toads had cleared out prior to the earthquake and ascribed this disappearance to a disturbance in the ionosphere or some such nonsense.

I don't doubt that this mysterious toad disappearance has continued to bother most people.  Why did the toads leave?  Are they okay?  Are extraterrestrials involved?  Can we blame it on global warming?  (This last from noted thinker, Al Gore)  After all, we can't just have toads disappearing without explanation.  Fortunately, this month's Geology magazine has come to the rescue and shed some light on this mystery.  A paper by Toshiko Terakawa used focal mechanism tomography - read "a way to let us publish awesome looking 3-D color pictures in our article" - to infer that the L'Aquila earthquake was caused by high pressure carbon dioxide infiltrating into the fault zone.  This infiltration had the effect of lubricating the fractured rock surfaces, causing them to slip.  Dr. Terakawa notes that the infiltration was accompanied by a "diffuse degassing."  In other words, a great deal of carbon dioxide was seeping up out of the ground in the days prior to the earthquake.  One might imagine that with all this carbon dioxide coming out of the ground, life down at toad level might have become generally unpleasant...not only is it getting hard to breathe, but your favorite swamp water is slowly turning into one big Scotch and soda minus the Scotch.

In a second paper in the same issue of Geology, Francesco Pio Lucente presents his analysis of the 188 foreshocks that preceded the main earthquake.  Dr. Lucente's analysis is not particularly relevant here, but note:  There were 188 small earthquakes leading up to the main event.  So, imagine if you will, you're a toad living in the L'Aquila toad swamp when the whole place starts jiggling like a Jello mold on a folding card table.  I suspect that to whatever degree the toad brain can conceptualize "This sucks" it did and they cleared out to more stable - and breathable - swamp land.

Mystery solved.  You're welcome.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hey, kids! Let's do some math...just for fun.

This month's issue of Geology has an article with the rather arcane title of "Covariability of the Southern Westerlies and atmospheric CO2 during the Holocene."  As I was reading it - yes, yes, yes, I do read this kind of stuff for "fun" and I don't have a life and I do need to get out more, but let's focus for the moment - I started to wonder how much CO2 is dissolved in the ocean.  Okay, so here is where the math comes in...I'll go slow.

Carbon dioxide can exist in water either as a dissolved gas, as it is in club soda or, more importantly, beer, or it can react with a water molecule to form a bicarbonate ion.  So the total amount of CO2 in the ocean is going to be the sum of the amount of dissolved gas and the amount tied up as bicarbonate ions.  A few minutes Googling will give you these numbers which are 90 milligrams of CO2 per kilogram of seawater and 104.6 milligrams of CO2 as bicarbonate per kilogram of seawater.  Keep in mind that the salinity of the ocean varies with temperature, location, and depth, so these are rough numbers, but we're going for order of magnitude here.  A little more Googling tells me that there are 1.37 million trillion metric tons of water in the world's oceans...again, this is a rough number, the CRC Handbook gives a number 20% higher.  Punching a few buttons on a calculator reveals that there are an estimated 2.67 hundred trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide in ocean waters right now.  Keep in mind also that this is just the "free" carbon dioxide available in sea water.  If all this CO2 were magically removed, it would be replenished by the dissolution of the calcium and magnesium carbonates that make up the bulk of sea floor sediments.  Consequently, it can be assumed that the levels of free CO2 in the ocean are more or less constant and that sea water represents an inexhaustible source of carbon dioxide.

How big are these numbers compared with what is bandied about by the anthropogenic global warmng types.  I will quote the estimable Department of Energy's numbers for annual fossil fuel derived carbon emissions:  averaging 26 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year between 2000 and 2006.  One suspects that these numbers are as inflated as James Hansen's temperature measurements, but let's just go with these for the moment.  What these numbers tell us is that it would take a hundred years of coal-burning, SUV-driving, natural gas-heating, airplane-flying carbon emissions at the present record-high levels to amount to one percent of the carbon dioxide reserve in the ocean.

Let me further point out that the solubility of carbon dioxide goes down sharply as the temperature goes up, which is why it is never a good idea to open a warm can of soda.  Between 0 deg C and 20 deg C (roughly the range of ocean temperatures these days) the solubility of carbon dioxide in water decreases about 5% for every degree of temperature increase.  Consequently, if the average temperature of the ocean increased one degree, that would have the potential for releasing 13 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - the equivalent of 500 years of current levels of fossil fuel-based emissions.

Which brings me back to the Geology article I mentioned earlier.  Without boring you with the grisly details, the authors discovered that there was a direct correlation between the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (as determined from Antarctic ice cores) and how hard the Southern Westerly winds were blowing (as inferred from pollen populations taken from South American lake sediment samples).  These winds, to quote the authors, “…constitute the major driver of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the formation and overturning of North Atlantic Deep Water, and the up-welling of CO2-rich deep water.”  In other words, 14,000 years ago, strong winds in the Southern Hemisphere drove ocean currents that caused CO2-rich water in deep ocean basins to rise to the warmer surface where it devolved carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

This combination of westerly winds and ocean currents seems to have been operating for at least the past 800,000 years and, arguably, since the opening of the Atlantic Ocean about 40 million years ago.  The correlation between the Southern Westerlies and atmospheric carbon dioxide described in the Geology article would suggest that this has been the dominant mechanism for fixing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for the past 14,000 years.

The take-away here:  The world's oceans represent a very large and temperature sensitive reservoir of CO and air and ocean currents provide a mechanism for the exchange of CO2 between the ocean and the atmosphere.  In the geologically recent past, this exchange has been the primary mechanism for fixing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  This begs the question that has been dodged and ignored by the Jame Hansen/Phil Jones/Michael Mann crowd:  Are the present high levels of atmospheric CO2 an artifact of rising global temperatures as opposed to the cause of them?  

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Technology: Telecommunications Issues

I never answer my house phone.  Why?  Because anyone we want to talk to calls me or the redhead on our mobile numbers.  Since we never use our house phone, I had thought to disconnect it, but then I realized that, for $25 a month, I had a decoy number that would attract telemarketers (Do Not Call List ?...yeah, right.), political groups, alumni associations (how do those fuckers keep finding me?), pollsters, etc.  Any form that I am required to fill out that wants a phone number gets the house number.  Any douchebag who asks for my number, in those social situations where "Bite me" is an inappropriate response, gets my house number. Stockbrokers calling me with a "hot stock tip"? Buwuhahahaha! "Damn! That sounds awesome...but I need to read the prospectus first.  Overnight it to me and then call me tomorrow at (house number)."

Of course, I have an answering machine, so when these undesirables call, they get a message telling them to leave a message -- I'm thinking of changing it to something really smarmy (We're Very Sorry we missed your call and You Are Very Important to us, so Please, Please, Please leave a message and we'll get right back to you...WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER, YOU LOSER!!!  This last part won't be in the message.) -- and I dutifully hit the "Delete All" button when the display flashes the "Memory Full".

The other advantage of this strategy is that it turns my house phone into an entertainment device.  Here's the scenario:  I'm at home, I'm bored, and the phone rings.  I look at the caller ID and see that it's my alma mater.  I answer:

Me: Hello.
Earnest Student Volunteer:  This in MaiXiang from Small Eastern Technical School calling.  Can I talk to Dr. Wrath?
Me:  Dr.Wrath?? You've got a lot of fucking nerve calling here, missy!
ESV:  What? Why? What?
Me:  This is Squirrely's brother.  He never got over that Stonehenge Day incident at Small Eastern Technical School and dissolved himself in a vat of acid yesterday.  All that was left was his IHTFP t-shirt, which was polyester so the acid had no affect on it.  It was horrible and in all the papers out here.
ESV:  Oh, I am so, so sorry.  That is awful...
Me:  Oh, cry me a fucking river, chickie.  I've got 500 gallons of acid in the garage here that used to be my brother, the EPA pounding on my door, and I don't know whether to call a funeral home or a toxic waste disposal unit....[click]


Me:  Hello.
Telemarketer:  Sir...I wanted to let you know that we have a special on cleaning carpets this week.
Me: Well, that's fucking awesome, because we have 35 cats and pretty much gave up on the litter box thing two years ago.  How soon can you be here?
Telemarketer:  [click]

$25 dollars a month...I'm just saying.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Methane bubbles...

There are media reports coming out that, in addition to oozing a few bazillion gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon site is on the verge of unleashing a massive methane bubble that will cause global warming on an inconceivable scale, leading to the planet heating up to where we will all be immolated and life as we know it will end.  These reports claim that the same thing happened 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian period when there was a mass extinction, allegedly caused by a methane bubble of indeterminate origin, that wiped out 90 percent of the species then living.

This is absolute and shameless douchery on the part of anyone who is propagating these reports.  There was, indeed, a mass extinction at the end of the Permian period.  It was so massive that life on Earth came very close to being wiped out and it took the biosphere something like 75 million years to recover.  To put this 75 million number in perspective, homo sapiens has been dragging its knuckles around the planet for about 20 thousand years.  Whatever happened at the end of the Permian period was some powerful bad juju, but the fact of the matter is that no one has a clue what happened.

The problem is that the geological record from 250 million years ago is very sparse.  The boundary between the Permian and the Triassic period, where the extinction event occurred,  has been preserved in only three places in the world; South Africa, central Russia, and reportedly, in a section of China.  That limited geological record tells us that at the end of the Permian period, there was an abundance of life and, at the beginning of the Triassic period, bupkus, nada, zilch.  The boundary between the Permian and the Triassic, where it has been preserved, is characterized by a thick layer of black, carbonaceous gunk...the remnants of trillions of tons of animal and plant life that checked out.  Oxygen isotope samples indicate a substantial increase in temperatures at this boundary (maybe 10 degrees Celsius).  This is what is known about the Permian mass extinction.  Truth.

So, what caused this catastrophe? -- and this was a catastrophe.  No one knows.  The extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period that wiped out the dinosaurs was recent enough that the geological record is mostly preserved and it is, at this point, unambiguously clear that it was caused by a big honking meteorite/comet slamming into the Earth at cosmic speeds off-shore from the Yucatan Peninsula.  Buh-bye dinosaurs.

The Permian extinction is much more mysterious.  The temperature increase suggested by oxygen isotope samples led some geologists to speculate that extreme global warming caused it...and indeed, there is evidence of massive volcanic eruptions in India at about that time period (India being far to the south and not part of Asia at the end of the Permian period).  However, estimates of the carbon dioxide released by those eruptions showed that the warming associated with that release was far short of what would be required to cause the indicated temperature rise.  It was then speculated -- and let me stress the word "speculated" -- that the temperature rise attributable to the volcanic emissions was enough to cause sufficient warming at the poles to stimulate the release of massive methane bubbles that were enough to account for the indicated temperature rise.

However, other geologists have looked at the record and claimed that the temperature rise is an expected consequence of the death and decay of virtually every living thing on the planet, which releases methane on a massive scale.  These geologists would claim that the origin of the Permian extinction is unknowable based on presently available information, but it is not inconsistent with a massive meteor impact or a massive solar fluctuation.  Other geologists have rejected the idea that the Permian extinction was the result of a single catastrophic event and have argued that the assembly of the supercontinent, Pangea, at the beginning of the Permian period radically altered ocean and air circulation around the globe, which set in motion climatic changes that most species then living were unable to adapt to and became extinct.  Keep in mind that the geologic record from that time period is so incomplete that it is impossible to determine whether the Permian extinction occurred suddenly or over the course of several hundred thousand years.

The moral of this story, kids, is that any "science" you read in the mainstream media has nothing to do with science.  It is junk science being used to push an agenda.

A very accessible book on the Permian extinction is Michael J. Benton's "When Life Nearly Died".  An even more entertaining and readable discussion of the Cretaceous (buh-bye dinosaurs) extinction is Walter Alvarez' "T-Rex and the Crater of Doom".  References to alternate explanations for the Permian extinction can be found in Frank Decourten's "The Broken Land" and Scott Baldridge's "Geology of the American Southwest'.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

...and another thing.

Since I am on the subject of the current global warming douchery, let me make a few things clear:
  1. "Climate" is caused by an extremely complex interaction of ocean and air currents that has only recently begun to be studied and is a long way from being understood with any degree of certainty.  With 6 billion people in the world dependent on intensive agriculture for survival, spending billions to perpetuate Al "Call me Mr. President, baby" Gore/Phil Jones/James Hansen pseudo-science instead of using that money to understand real climatic changes that have historically caused disruptions in human societies is truly criminal.
  2. Solar radiation is the source of energy that drives the ocean and air currents that cause "climate", but the details of this interaction are no more well understood than the connections between ocean and air movements and climate change...and causal effects are neither simple or obvious.  For example, shortly after the last Ice Age (about 11,000 BC), warming in the Arctic released massive amounts of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean.  This influx of fresh water disrupted the Gulf Stream which caused cooling in Europe and northern Asia and essentially returned this part of the globe to Ice Age-like conditions for the next 1000 years (yes...1000 years as in "10 centuries").  This time span is referred to as the Younger Drydas Period.  At the end of this period, the Gulf Stream restarted -- no one knows how or why -- and Europe warmed up again.
  3. The UN IPCC report that Al "I think I'll go get a massage, Tipper" Gore claimed was the "nail in the coffin" for proving global warming is science practiced at the high school science fair level.  The "forcing model" that is the basis for all of the dire warming claims is almost embarrassingly rudimentary...a one-dimensional model that adds up things that trap heat in the atmosphere, subtracts things that reflect it back into space and comes up with a number that predicts how fast the earth will warm up.  Even if you assume that this simple-minded model reflects something remotely connected with reality, if you look at the margin of error assigned to all of the individual "forcing" factors, the margins on subtracting factors (variable albedo, airborne particulates, etc.) are so great that the model actually predicts cooling if these subtracting factors are higher than the IPCC "scientists" have assumed them to be.
  4. Something I was unaware of until a recent conversation with an actual climate scientist:  All attempts to use the "forcing model" to predict actual climate change have failed...and this has not been from lack of trying or shortage of supercomputer time.  In other words, if you take the temperature increases predicted by the forcing model and plug them into an actual climate model, the results have never reflected the reality.  For example, these climate models consistently predict that increased global temperatures will result in much dryer, hotter weather in the midwest United States and this obviously has not happened.
  5. Finally, how does one actually measure an average global temperature?  Using a strictly local phenomenon (temperature) to determine a global effect is an exercise fraught with peril.  So how do you do it to come up with a meaningful number?  Obviously, you take temperature readings all over the world and calculate an average.  However, to arrive at this average, you need to take into account things like variation of temperature with altitude, seasonal variations, variation of temperature with latitude (the farther north you go, the cooler it becomes), and environmental variations (a maritime climate will be warmer than a continental climate at the same altitude and latitude).  This can all be done, but you need to be extremely careful with how you sample temperatures to insure that you don't skew the results, especially since there are a lot of subtleties involved.  For example, suppose you have a sampling station that has been used to monitor temperature over 50 years or so.  If this station is in a location that has become increasingly urbanized over that time period, it will measure an average temperature increase purely due to the fact that vegetation is being gradually replaced by concrete.  James Hansen's models of temperature change in the United States in the 20th century embarrassingly ignored this issue.  Determining this average global temperature requires an enormous amount of processing of an enormous amount of data...and there is a lot of room for error -- or outright fraud -- in doing this calculation...and it is really the validity of these calculations that is the heart of the global warming controversy, as we have learned from the revelation of the flim-flam in Phil Jones' "research" group.
Rant over...

Friday, June 25, 2010

The curious case of sunspots...

The scientists at NASA (Motto: It's not rocket science...hell, what we do isn't even science) have announced that there has been a curious absence of sunspots for the past few years and this absence has been the most prolonged in the past 100 years....and there is hand-wringing at NASA that this may just be the calm before the Sun unleashes solar storms on a epic level.  This last is pure douchery as there is no clear idea as to what drives the sunspot cycle within the Sun...but NASA climate change dogma requires it be said.

Lack of sunspot activity is by no means unprecedented.  The sixteenth century marked the beginning of systematic astronomical activity and the presence or absence of sunspots received a great deal of attention.  Astronomers through the next three hundred years noted periods of unusually low sunspot activity.  These periods were even named after their discoverers, the Sporer Minimum (1425-1575), the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715), and the Dalton Minimum (1790-1820).  Long periods of low sunspot activity are well documented and yet, NASA, in its hand-wringing report of a couple of years without sunspots, fails to even mention these precedents.  Why?

There is really no big mystery here.  Large portions of the NASA budget are dependent on climate change research and by "climate change" we mean "catastrophic anthropogenic global warming threatening life-as-we-know-it that will require massive government funding (to NASA) in order to save us from ourselves".  Historical sunspot minima are especially inconvenient in the present context for NASA climate doomsayers because low sunspot activity correlates to reduced solar luminosity and the previous minima coincide with the coldest periods of the so-called "Little Ice Age" that occurred between roughly 1380 and 1850.  Imagine that...variations in solar intensity being a primary driver of climate changes.  Note that the NASA report implies that sunspot activity has been high for the past 100 years.  Hmmm...increased solar intensity over the same period of time that mankind has supposedly been raping the planet with carbon emissions? Coincidence?  I think not.

Imagine the budgetary disaster at NASA if they started talking about 30 to 60 years of cooling temperatures ahead.  James Hansen might actually have to start doing real science instead of just making shit up.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Welcome to Stalag 1050

The Fortress of Solitude is situated on a corner lot in an undisclosed location near Las Vegas.  For reasons unexplained, the original builder built the house facing away from the corner.  Consequently, the backyard faces the street.  This is not as much of an inconvenience as one might think as the lot grade is about four feet above street level and the back yard is surrounded by a four foot block wall.  So, the Fortress of Solitude is, literally, a fortress.  Were we set upon by barbarians, jihadists, or angry Harry Reid supporters, I could, at my leisure, pour boiling oil on them from the safety of my fortress parapet.  "Buwuhahahahaha...that looks like it hurts, you heathen bastards! Here...let me crack open another cold one while the next pot of boiling oil heats up.  Hahahahahaha!"

It's a sweet set-up, but with one minor drawback.  It is a corner lot and the city decreed at some point that there had to be a street light on this particular corner for the Greater Public Good.  What this "Good" might be in a neighborhood where a couple of 50-somethings, i.e., me and the redhead, are considered the "young punks" is an impenetrable mystery...regardless, there is a street light on the corner, immediately adjacent to the backyard of the Fortress of Solitude.  Now, when we originally bought the house, this streetlight was your garden-variety 400W high pressure sodium lamp.  Distracting -- when the redhead and I would sit in the backyard to enjoy the evening or take a late night swim in the heat of the summer -- but tolerable.  In truth, I've always harbored something of an affection for high pressure sodium lights as one of my first tasks as a callow youth at the General Forge and Foundry Co. just out of graduate school was to figure out why low wattage high pressure sodium lamps were failing long before their big brothers.  I did and now, you can go out and buy a 50 watt high pressure sodium lamp for your illumination're welcome.

But I digress...anyway, for years I enjoyed whatever late night frolicking might be in order under the pale yellow-orange glow of "our" streetlight.  But then, about a week ago, I head into the backyard one evening in the midst of a typical Las Vegas windstorm to secure lawn furniture, fish random debris out of the pool, wrap my windchimes in duct tape, and tie my garbage cans down so I don't have to go on a "treasure hunt" to find them in the morning.  I'm doing all these things -- of course, I have belayed myself to the house with 13mm climbing rope to insure that I, myself, am not the subject of a morning "treasure hunt" -- when, suddenly, it hits's brighter than freaking daylight out here!  Either someone has detonated a thermonuclear "device" over Las Vegas or...Yes! That's it!...We have a new street light.

...and there I was, looking up at a five eleventy-bazillion lumen Ha-Larc street light that was lighting up my backyard like it was a prison compound.  WTF?  When did this happen?  Apparently, the city decided that a mere 400W high pressure sodium lamp was not bright enough to protect the neighborhood from...what?  An impending zombie apocalypse or vampire outbreak?  Clearly, they wanted to insure that any miscreants that might be lurking around the neighborhood at night will need to wear sunglasses.

The redhead basking in the near-demonically bright street light that has turned the Fortress of Solitude into Stalag 1050.

Obviously, this situation is intolerable and demands action, but what?  My first thought was an act of vandalism that might, say, cause the light to break.  The redhead counsels a more mature approach where we go to the city and complain.  Yeah, right...and when those complaints fall on deaf ears, as they inevitably will, we become the lead suspects when I implement my campaign of vandalism.  What about the homeowner's association? she suggests.  I remind her that we have been locked in a mortal, tag-team, battle-to-the-death with the stormtrooper-like compliance committee for nine years now.  It's unlikely we will find sympathy with that group of nebbishes, douchebags, and busybodies.

No.  I am afraid that vandalism is the only viable approach.  But how to put the light out?  Of course, the Fortress is equipped with an array of handguns, any of which would easily do the job.  However, I suspect that my neighbors might look in askance and the local constabulary disapprove if I stood out in my backyard and started banging away at the light with my Desert Eagle.  Similarly, treating the streetlight as a stationary clay pigeon and ending its reign of illumination terror with a shotgun blast would, no doubt, attract unwanted attention and draw protests from neighbors who might be peppered with errant 00 pellets.  It then occurred to me, if I opened a bedroom window and crouched in the bathroom, I would have a straight shot at the streetlight with my AR-15, with the bedroom muffling the report and hiding the muzzle flash.  Yes, that could work...but if I missed, I would end up sending 5.56mm rounds into the new housing development down the wash...and I'm just wanting to put out a street light, not snipe my distant neighbors, even if most of them are refugees from the People's Republik of Kalifornia.  No.  Sadly, I don't seem to be properly equipped for the bit of skulduggery that's needed.

However, a little Googling provided this.  Hmmmm...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Seriously...Western civilization as we know it is in peril!

I started this blog to occasionally critique technical reporting in newspapers, which really is abysmal and almost always pushing an agenda.  I thought, as I have some credentials and experience in things science-related, I could do my part to improve the general public's understanding of the usually complex technical issues that are being reported by total morons.  However, in doing so, I have discovered that I have turned a blind eye to some critically important, no, Mortally Important issues that are not being addressed at all by the mainstream media and even the so-called blogosphere, which prides itself on being on top of everything, continues to ignore.

I am, of course, referring to the crisis of near galactic importance that has been brewing at Starbucks ("brewing" "Starbucks"...get it?).   The coffee juggernaut has apparently changed its frappacinno recipe (OH! SWEET MOTHER OF GOD! NO! NO! NO!). I am indebted to Sheri Gilmour for bringing this to my attention, because although I am a regular Starbucks customer, I usually just go in, wade through the sea of small children, cranked up on sugar and caffeine, who are wilding in the store, stand in line behind a bunch of douches who are demanding a soy mocha-frappa-skinny-latte with whipped cream and an extra pump of some syrupy bullshit, and order - call me "old school" - coffee.  Consequently, I was blissfully unaware to the mind-boggling crisis that is shaking the very roots of our way of life!  A few minutes on will convince you of the enormity of the disaster in the making.  Long time Starbucks customers have actually threatened to NOT BUY THE NEW FRAPPACINNO!  Other customers are experiencing symptoms of stress.  Still others have complained that their dear sweet children have pitched a booger and refused to drink the new frappacinno...and it goes without saying that grave concerns have been voiced over the impact that this new recipe will have on the environment.

Of course, predictably, there are those drawing parallels between this fiasco and the New Coke disaster of the 1980's and others pointing out that this is only a harbinger of the end of the world in 2012.  There are even hints that the new recipe is the work of Dark Corporate Starbucks Overlords who have changed the recipe to advance their Evil Agenda.  There does seem to be some disagreement as to what this agenda actually is, but rumors of increased profits, sterilization of the undesirable, and take-over by the Republican Party abound.

I don't know...I'm just a simple rustic living in the distant provinces.  I go into a store and buy a whatever, taste it and think, "This tastes like crap."...I just walk down the street and buy something at Peet's that I might like better, but that's just me.  But I also realize that my simple world view is sometimes too simple.  It would seem that there are many people in this world convinced that Armageddon is here, life as we know it is ending, and unspeakable Evil is afoot.  Out of respect for them, I am begging everyone who reads this to take action.  Call, email, write your entire congressional delegation.  Hearings must be held!  Call, email, write your favored media outlets and demand to know why this is not being reported.  Organize grass-roots efforts to protest this abomination!  But most of all, contact Reynolds Aluminum and tell them to beef up production of aluminum would seem that a lot of Starbucks customers have lost their hats.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Scary climate change...

As the Eyjafjallajokull volcano reminds us that Nature doesn't just mess with people in the third world, I'd like to direct people's attention to two very informative books dealing with climate change...and this would be real and documented climate change, not the Al Gore/James Hansen junk science silliness that everyone considers "climate change" these days. Presented for your edification: The Long Summer and Flood, Famines, and Emperors, both by Brian Fagan. Fagan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UC-Santa Barbara who has written extensively on the effect that the vagaries of climate have had on past civilizations. The two books I've cited are both very readable and, I'd say, reasonably accessible to the non-technical reader.

In both books, Fagan references anthropogenic global warming and makes the expected worrisome comments about a future of human-induced climate change. However, his careful cataloging of ten thousand years of climate changes provides a powerful argument for a more measured interpretation of recent climate "changes". Two general observations stand out in reading Fagan's books. First, all significant climate change since the end of the last Ice Age has been driven by changes in ocean and air currents. Second, and more significant, is how frequently the phrase "we don't know why.." appears in Fagan's descriptions.  Fagan admits that the mechanisms that drive changes in ocean and air currents are poorly understood and this is a significant revelation in a time when climate "scientists" are making dire and, apparently, precise predictions on the effects of the average global temperature changing by a few tenths of a degree.

What is known about ocean and air currents is that they are driven by convection; warm air (or water) rises and cool air (or water) sinks.  Temperature differences between the poles and the equator provide an engine for the movement of air and water on an inconceivably massive scale.  Throw in some continents, island chains, ocean basins, and deep ocean trenches and you have a lot of quasi-stable ocean currents set up that defy modelling...and this fact points to the very heart of the intellectual dishonesty of the climate change gloom and doomers.  Even if we assume that human activity has caused the average global temperature to rise (and let me stress that this is an "if" that puts us close to the realm of science fiction), we don't know how that is going to change the climate and we know so little about movement of air and water on a global scale that it is impossible to say that a global temperature rise would be a bad thing.

What Fagan does point out is where the very real danger of climate change lies.  An astounding 70 percent of the world's population live in regions that would be affected by a significant El Nino event such as those that ended the Mayan civilization in Central America or drove the Anazasi out of the New Mexico deserts.  Both of these cultures were dependent upon very intensive farming on a limited amount of available land.  When an El Nino event triggered a multi-year drought, both cultures collapsed.

Fagan points out that with the earth's present population of 6 billion people, essentially all agriculture is as intensive as that feeding the Maya and Anazasi cultures and that literally hundreds of millions of people are currently dependent upon the agricultural output of marginal lands that would become untenable in a major El Nino event.  As Floods, Famines, and Emperors makes clear, the shifting of trade winds and ocean currents in the central Pacific that characterizes an El Nino is a global event that affects weather around the entire globe in ways that are not clearly understood - again, let me stress the "not clearly understood" aspect here.  A significant El Nino could cause agriculture to crash in places as far away as sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and China with the resultant famine and subsequent unrest destabilizing governments and economies around the world.

...and here lies the true crime of the scientists and bureaucrats who have built reputations, careers, and institutional empires on anthropogenic global warming.  By squandering billions and billions of research dollars in their attempts to "prove" human-caused climate change, studies of the real and historically documented threats that climate change presents to humanity have been left largely under-funded.  Fagan's books would suggest that it is only a matter of time - as in years, not decades or centuries - before we come to regret our ignorance.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who are these "scientists" in the Union of Concerned Scientists and what are they concerned about?

Because of these standards, Americans will drive vehicles that save them money at the pump, cut the country's oil dependence and produce a lot less global warming pollution.

Thus quoth Jim Kleisch, Senior Engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists referring, of course, to the recently mandated automotive fuel efficiency standards. In and of itself, Mr. Kleisch's statement is not particularly notable...walk into any wonk drinking establishment in Washington these days and you'll hear something to this effect two, maybe three, times before you've finished your first beer. However, it was Mr. Kleisch's title that caught my attention, "Senior Engineer" with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Impressive...and I'm left wondering as to what qualifies one to gain a "Senior" title at the UCS.

A Google search (72,100 hit's on "Jim Kleisch") later I find that Mr. Kleisch's official title is "Senior Analyst/Engineer" with the UCS and that he specializes in "clean vehicle technologies." Fair enough. A little more searching reveals that he has held the following positions:
Senior Vehicles Analyst
Union of Concerned Scientists
Senior Engineer
Union of Concerned Scientists
Research Associate
ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy)
Vehicle Analyst
ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy)
Research Associate
American Councils
Principal Vehicle Analyst
American Councils
American Councils

Wait...none of these jobs sounds particularly engineer-like. The UCS rounds out Mr. Kleisch's bio with "He holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Ohio University, and a master's degree in environmental and energy policy from the University of Delaware" and helpfully adds that "Mr. Kleisch has been widely cited in the national media, including the Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Washington Post and has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and the BBC." No papers in refereed journals or issued patents, but Mr. Kleisch has been quoted by Rolling Stone magazine...sorry, Jimmy, your professional credentials are entirely not impressive.

What I'm not seeing here is anything "automotive" in Mr. Kleisch's background or anything even vaguely related to engineering. Yes, he does have an EE degree, but there's no evidence that he has ever engineered anything, electrical or otherwise. What he has done in his brief career -- looking at the picture in his bio, I'd put Mr. Kleisch in his mid-30's -- is be a policy drone, who probably considers recharging his Starbucks card on-line to be an engineering feat...and yet, the Union of Concerned Scientists drags Mr. Kleisch out for a quote supporting their "Clean Energy" agenda and slaps a "Senior Engineer" title on him to give his musings an aura of technical credibility. This sort of obfuscation is unforgivable. There are very real issues associated with the oil-based economy that is currently driving the industrialized world. Issues of sustainability, of transfer of wealth and political power, of emission of pollutants, but for the UCS to attempt to drive the conversation by inventing a faux expert to issue feel good statements on cue is intellectual dishonesty in its most cynical form.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Earthquake predicting toads?

A story has shown up in newspapers and web news sites over the past days about a report that toads have the ability to "predict" earthquakes. The report even showed up on the prestigious journal, Nature's blog. Commenter "karl" at the end of the Nature blog report captures the gist of my thoughts on this particular scientific amusement.

The source of this report of almost magical powers in toads is a paper published in the Journal of Zoology by a Rachel Grant who noted that the toads around L’Aquila, Italy stopped doing their normal toad stuff and cleared out of the area shortly before an earthquake there. Granted, this is an interesting observation, but one wonders why the reviewers for the Journal of Zoology did not return this paper to Ms. Grant with a three letter review: "WTF??"

One group of toads acting oddly before one earthquake is interesting, but as Ms. Grant herself admits, "purely anecdotal." The J.Zoo. (was we scientists like to abbreviate journal titles) paper does make a weak attempt at a causal explanation:
The team suspect the strange toad behaviour was triggered by pre-seismic perturbations in the ionosphere, which were detected by very low frequency radio sounding.
As I said, weak...the ionosphere extends from 43 miles above the earth to 250 miles above the earth. Ms. Grant would speculate that stresses in the Earth's crust miles below the surface have some affect on the upper atmosphere that a male toad hopping around in a swamp, bent on finding female toads, is particularly sensitive to...I won't say this is utter nonsense, but I need a little more explanation for how this near magical communication takes place.

So how does something like this ever make the light of day? Here's my opinion: Ms. Grant and her team are studying the spawning behavior of common toads in Italy -- and why Italy? Don't common toads exist in Ms. Grant's native England? Call me cynical, but my boondoggle sensor is going off here. In any case... -- in the middle of their study, the toads clear out, which Ms. Grant understandably finds "annoying". The toad studiers go home with nothing to show for their efforts and then, boom! There's and earthquake back in the Italian toad swamp and, all of a sudden, Team Toad has something to write about...not much mind you, but it's better than admitting you couldn't find any toads to study. Paper written, Ms. Grant gets to add another line to her curriculum vitae -- and is one step closer to tenure -- and J.Zoo. gets to pad their next issue so they don't look like a loser journal than nobody reads or publishes in.

Has the body of knowledge we call "Science" been advanced? Maybe a wee tiny bit. This is a credible observation -- we hope -- and there might be a real, physical connection between the toads disappearing and the earthquake. Ignoring the ionospheric silliness, it's possible the toads were sensitive to very low frequency vibrations that were precursor to the fault slipping or were getting away from a release of radon gas -- or something -- prior to the quake. The way Science generally works in these matters is: 1) Make observation, 2) Form hypothesis, 3) Test hypothesis via experiment, 4) Compare experimental result with observation, and 5) Return to Step 2, as necessary. Jumping from the observation stage to publication is just a lazy person's way to pad their resume.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fuzzy thinking apparently continues in Barcelona

Maria Cheng continues to report on the Barcelona breast cancer conference today: and the topic du jour is the effectiveness of breast cancer screening. In an article practically devoid of anything substantiating, the experts would seem to be arguing that 1) Too many women are being screened for breast cancer, 2) Too much screening is bad because of "false alarms and unneeded biopsies", 3) It really doesn't help the women being screened all that much, and 4) Patients need to be screened prior to being screened for breast cancer. Interestingly enough, there is no discussion reported as how this screening of the screenees would be done. Also absent is any substantiation of the statement that screening doesn't really help that much. I think I need the words "help" and "much" defined a little better here.

There is a statement in the article:

U.S. researchers last year estimated five lives saved per thousand women screened.

If your mother, wife, or daughter were one of the five, would you consider breast cancer screening "not much help"? There are roughly 60 million women in the US over the age of 40. If only 20% of them were being screened, this would be 60,000 lives saved. How in the name of God does this get called "not helping very much"?

But the telling statement comes towards the end of the article:

Jorgensen (Karsten Jorgensen of the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen) said screening has become more of a political issue than a medical one. Officials have spent so many years convincing women to get mammograms that it will be difficult to now change policies, especially with a very vocal and powerful breast cancer lobby.

Political? Policies? Obviously, we are several steps away from a doctor advising his female patients, based on their lifestyle, family history, etc. whether they should have a mammogram when they turn 40. This is about money, plain and simple. Health care costs, among other entitlement programs, are driving the European economy into bankruptcy and the medical community meeting in Barcelona is trying to rationalize cutting costs.

In fairness, I am drawing conclusions based on Ms. Cheng's reporting of the Barcelona conference and obviously there is a lot more discussion and information being distributed that I don't have access to. If I am maligning the intent of the conferees, I apologize but will still hold Ms. Cheng to task for bad reporting.

In the interest of full disclosure, my mother died of ovarian cancer and my mother-in-law died of breast cancer. Do I want my wife and daughters to be screened? Absolutely. Would I pay for it myself? Without question. If medicine ever came to a point where they would be denied screening based on a bureaucrat's view as to what was an "acceptable" cost, what can I say? Aux barricades, chers concitoyens

Friday, March 26, 2010

Breast cancer, diet, and exercise...I smell a rat

"Up to a third of breast cancer cases in Western countries could be avoided if women ate less and exercised more..." -- Associated Press

When stories like this show up on the front page of the paper, they always get my attention. I'm naturally a skeptic and am always suspicious when technical subjects get sensationalized. Normally, when I read something like this, I suspect statistical douchery. For example, suppose you search a database and find that the breast cancer mortality rate for women who don't exercise is 27 deaths per 100,000 and the mortality rate for women who exercise is 18 deaths per 100,000. In the world of cancer research where the competition for funding is fierce, you may rush a paper into publication that states that exercising can reduce breast cancer deaths by a third. However, suppose you do a little additional searching of the data base and sort the exercising and non-exercising groups by household income where you find that the death rate for breast cancer in both groups is much higher for low income households than high income households. You also find that, since high income households have more disposable income and more leisure time than lower incomes, a much greater percentage of exercisers belong to high income households. Consequently, your original exercise correlation was merely telling you that poor women have a higher breast cancer death rate than women who can afford more frequent doctor visits, regular screening, etc.

Purely statistical correlations such as the one I've hypothetically described above are entirely useless when it comes to reducing breast cancer rates. However, when they are used to identify mechanisms by which cancer cell growth is triggered, they can be a valuable tool. To continue the above example, suppose you used the exercising correlation to look into the hormone levels of exercisers and non-exercisers and found that the exercisers had lower levels of certain hormones that have been associated with cancer occurrences. This is useful information.

So...with this in mind, I went on the Internet to track down the source of the "one-third reduction" number. The report ended up being based on a talk given by Carlo La Vecchia at a conference in Barcelona. The source of La Vecchia's figures was cited to be a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. If you go to the IARC website, you'll find that the figures come from a report (Volume 6) that was written in 2002 and is now out-of-print. from an 8 year old report suddenly makes front page news. What the hell? First, understand that in any technical field, 8 years ago was ancient history. I am supposed to believe that a supposedly critical connection between diet and exercise and breast cancer was announced 8 years ago and that there have been no follow-up studies that have made more recent or updated data available? I think not. So what is going on here? Here are my best guesses:

1. Carlo La Vecchia wanted a boondoggle to the Barcelona conference, so he submitted an abstract for essentially a throw away talk using old data. Consequently, he gets the University of Milan to pay for his trip. Meanwhile, Maria Cheng, the AP reporter, is at the conference looking for something, anything, she can write a story on. La Vecchia mentions his 25 to 30 percent reduction in breast cancer number, Cheng grabs that, rounds it up to "one-third", makes a few calls to some breast cancer workers she knows who give her some broad general comments, and she's got an easy byline.

2. The story has an interesting quote by La Vecchia, "What can be achieved with screening has been achieved. We can't do much more. It's time to move on to other things." By "other things", the professor is obviously talking about preventing breast cancer through diet and exercise, which will, of course, require tens of millions of dollars in new funding to study...and as he has just established himself as the lead expert in this subject -- if only by dredging up some work probably done 10 years ago -- La Vecchia looks to be leader in the clubhouse as the recipient of a good chunk of that money.

3. A potentially darker interpretation of the timing of this story, since it is coming out of the Associated Press, who can't issue any story without injecting their political agenda into it, is that it is intimately connected to the recent health care debate. Anyone with a brain recognizes that the health care bill that just passed is going to result in higher taxes and reduced services -- if you don't believe this, please email and tell me about the rest of your life on Planet Pollyanna...I'll bet it's nice there. Taxes will go up, but tax increases are never very palatable to the American public, even during prosperous times. Any congress person that votes for a significant tax increase these days might as well go home and campaign for their successor. Reducing services is much easier to slip by the public, since they won't know they're missing them until they need them. Herein lies a possible subtext in the AP's story...if you're a fat woman, who drinks, doesn't exercise, and is diagnosed with breast cancer, then "I'm sorry, ma''ve brought this on yourself. We need to save our very expensive treatment for people who are more deserving. Why don't you go take a walk and quit eating Big Mac's?" The AP article mentions drinking (bad), exercise (good), and obesity (doubly bad)...I'm surprised they didn't go for the trifecta and throw in smoking.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

China...thoughts from one who's been there and returned.

A common topic among many conservative commentators is the looming threat of China as an implacable enemy intent on the destruction of the United States and our way of life. However, to the likes of Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh, I have to say, "World communism as you knew it is dead. The harsh realities of the global marketplace drove a stake through the heart of that vampire in the late 80's." Is China an implacable enemy? Hardly. Are they our friend? Don't kid yourself...

To understand China today, you need to understand what really happened at Tienanmen Square. The impression that was left with the American public was that the powerful Communist government called in the full force of its military to brutally suppress a peaceful protest by Chinese students. A Chinese acquaintance who was a student at the time had a somewhat different story: The protest that was centered at Tienanmen Square was far more widespread than a collection of students and the military was called out only when the the government was faced with imminent collapse in what was quickly becoming nothing less than open rebellion in the populace. If we accept that this was the case, can Americans who moralize about the brutal government response at Tienanmen claim that our own government would respond any differently? I think not...

In any case, Tienanmen Square did serve as a wake up call for the Beijing government that economic reform was long overdue and, to their credit, radical and, literally, world-changing reform was made to happen in short order. The odd hybrid of socialism and capitalism, "planned capitalism" if you will, that exists today in China is the result of that reform. Nothing drove home to me the rapid and decisive nature of this change more than when I visited Beijing in late 1999 (ten years after Tienanmen Square) and found a McDonald's open for business across the street from Mao's Tomb. Ten years earlier, anyone standing at that spot would have been watching tanks running over students in the nearby square.

China has grown its economy over the past twenty years through the massive export of manufactured goods. It has, and still does, encourage foreign manufacturers to build plants in China as well as growing its own native manufacturing. This economic growth has provided for order of magnitude increases in the standard of living of the Chinese people, which of course, was the whole point of the post-Tienanmen economic reforms. However, this growth has not come without problems. There's an old joke that says, "Cocaine will make you a new man...and the first thing the new man wants is more cocaine." Prosperity is like that...once people get a little, they want more. Consequently, the Chinese government is faced with the dilemma of maintaining economic growth to feed the increasing demand for more "stuff" from the increasingly prosperous Chinese people.

Economic growth in China means continued export of manufactured goods on a massive scale, which in turn requires a healthy appetite for those goods in the world's dominant economy, i.e., the United States. A weak American economy threatens the economic health of China. China has lent hundreds of billions of dollars to the United States, not as part of a diabolical plot to destroy the U.S. economy, but as an almost desperate attempt to prop up the primary customer of Chinese manufactured goods. The lessons of Tienanmen Square are constantly on the minds of Chinese leaders. They stay in power only as long as the Chinese people are prosperous and economic growth continues.

China should be viewed as a fierce and determined economic competitor. The Cold War is over...capitalism won, but that is small consolation for the United States. Just as the most fervent Christian is the recent convert, China has not so much embraced capitalism as it has roped it, saddled up, and is riding it like a stolen horse. However, the economic growth that has stabilized Chinese society is not sustainable. Even now, wages in China are rising rapidly and I have spoken with Chinese factory owners who are seriously contemplating moving operations to Vietnam, among other places, to, ironically enough, take advantage of cheaper labor. The Chinese government has also started to recognize that their "growth at any cost" strategy has brought many areas of the country to the verge of environmental collapse - I've spent a lot of time in the industrial zone south of Shanghai and have yet to see anything resembling a blue sky and even tap water in downtown Shanghai is too polluted to drink. Correcting what can only be called "environmental atrocities" while necessary, will have a distinctly negative impact on China's global competitiveness. I don't know how the Chinese government will end up addressing the issue of economic sustainability, but I do know that whatever actions they take will dominate the world of Realpolitk for at least the next 20 years.