Friday, November 30, 2007

More on Faith

Bob Parks, in his weekly What's New column, gets to the heart of Paul Davies' essay in the NYT the other day on science and faith:
It’s time we had a little talk. The New York Times on Saturday published an op-ed by Paul Davies that addresses the question: "Is embracing the laws of nature so different from religious belief?" Davies concludes that, "until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus." Davies has confused two meanings of the word "faith." The Oxford Concise English Dictionary on my desk gives the two distinct meanings for faith as: "1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof." A scientist’s "faith" is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word "faith," therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites. Davies, who won the 1995 Templeton Prize is not the only physicist to make that mistake. "Many people don’t realize that science basically involves faith" Charles Townes said in his 2005 Templeton statement. On laser physics I would happily defer to Townes, but this is a matter of the English language. Here we defer to the dictionaries. The judges who awarded Townes’ the 2005 Templeton Prize cited a single line from his 1966 article The Convergence of Science and Religion: "Understanding the order in the Universe and understanding the purpose of the universe are not identical, but they are also not very far apart." They are a universe apart ( In any case, the "purpose" of the universe is not on the science agenda. Suicide bombers no doubt believe they are part of some divine "purpose."
Speaking of this Davies' essay, there were a lot of good, on-target responses, many in this same line (as was my response), in the Letters section of the Times a few days later.


John Whitehead, a environmental economist at Appalachian State University and a blogger at Environmental Economics, says he believes that greenhouse gas emissions are a leading economic indicator and that the US's 2006 decrease of 1.5% foretells a recession next year....

Oregon storm

Oregon is expecting a big storm this weekend -- snow in Portland on Saturday, and a "once in a decade" storm with high winds and heavy rain early next week. Winds will be hurricane strength on the coast, up to 100 miles an hour. The storm is called an "extratropical cyclone," and doesn't have the actual structure of an actual hurricane, just the winds.

Good. Portland doesn't get enough storms -- just endless gray skies and misty rain....

Correction - Bali Carbon Footprint

Yes, I made an embarrassing factor of 1000 error in my Bali footprint calculation, dividing something by 1000 when I should have divided by a million. Mea culpa. So the Bali footprint is actually about 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide, equal to 8,000 Earthling-years.

Put another way, each Bali participant will, over the course of less than two weeks, expend about what the average Earth inhabitant expends in 8 months.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Geothermal Energy

Two geologists calculate that the "accessible" geothermal energy in the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, is 9 x 10^16 (90 quadrillion) kilowatt-hours, 3,000 times more than the country's total annual energy consumption.

Not only that, it's reliable. Though not necessary local.

No Science Books

As one author pointed out on a listserv I'm on, the New York Times "100 Notable Books of 2007" did not include even one science book.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bali Carbon Footprint

The IPCC Conference on Climate Change is taking place this Dec 3-14 in Bali, Indonesia.

The conference will have about 12,000 participants from 189 countries, and since Bali is in the middle of nowhere we can assume that the average participant flies 1/4ths of the Earth's circumference to attend, or about 6,000 miles.

Passenger air travel costs 0.18 kg CO2/passenger-mile, for long-distance flights. Of course, many participants will be taking private jets, which will throw this calculation way off.

So the total carbon emissions for travel to-and-from the conference are 26 MMT CO2 (million metric tons).

The average American emitted 24.1 MT CO2 in 2006, so travel to-and-from the Bali conference is equivalent to 1.1 M American-years of carbon expenditure. Or about what the city of Portland, Oregon spends in two years.

Of course, Americans are energy pigs. Worldwide carbon expenditures in 2006 were roughly 20,000 Tg CO2 (=20,000 MMT CO2), for 6.3 B people. So

Bali carbon expenditure = 8.2 M earthling-years

This is just for travel, and does not include travel on private jets, which is likely to be large.

Per-day costs for food, lodging, etc. are assumed here to be the same, as many of these dignitaries no doubt live the high-life, just as they would in a first-class hotel in Bali.

As some people have said, I'll start thinking global warming is a crisis when the people telling me it's a crisis act like it's a crisis. You have to wonder where the Bali participants are coming from.

Note: Correction here.

More Deadline Nonsense

Atop James Hansen's claim that if we don't act on climate change within 10 years, made about 2 years ago now, comes the pronouncement by IPCC head Rajendra Pachaur that actually it's only five years, starting....NOW!
“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
Joseph Romm, ever gullible, says
In short — time’s up! America — we better pick the right President in 2008.
Oh my god, kiddies, here it is -- the entire future of the planet revolves on the 2008 election!


This just keeps getting more and more absurd, and I wish Hansen, Pachaur, and Romm would just stop the nonsense. A few years this way or that isn't going to make much, if any, difference. Even a decade or so. When we get around to cutting greenhouse gases -- and you can bet it sure won't be by 2012 -- we'll start to make some difference. Until then, we won't. The problem only gets about 1% worse each year, not 10% or something like that. How much worse will the problem be if we delay action by a decade? About 0.3°C, more or less. Not really that much, in the grand scheme of things.

So please, enough with the scare tactics. The real facts are bad enough.

Berkeley GHGs

Berkeley, CA claims a 8.9% reduction in greenhouse gas emission in the last five years.

Supposedly, 75% of the world's energy is consumed in cities.

Seattle GHG emissions

Portland, Oregon is not the only city claiming significant greenhouse gas reductions. Seattle says its 2005 overall emissions are 8% below 1990 levels, down to 11.5 MT per capita. (That compares to Portland's claim of 14.4 MT/capita, and an overall United States average of 24.1 MT/capita.)

According to an email from John Fleck, Albuquerque is claiming a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2005.

I don't know. It is not intuitively obvious that Seattle should have a 20% lower carbon footprint than Portland, especially when it is farther north and has noticeably cooler weather, especially in the winter. And when I hear traffic is significantly worse up there.

Hydrogen Cars and GHGs

It's not clear that hydrogen cars will reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all, says the Reason Foundation. In fact, they might even rise. It depends on how you make the hydrogen gas.

Bush just talked about hydrogen for show, anyway. I mean, what have you actually heard him say about it since his initial words?

Internet brownouts?

Could there be Internet brownouts within two years?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Shark vs. Octopus

A shark versus an octopus -- who would you bet on?

Think again....

Open Range

Boss Spearman: "I ain't wastin' a good bullet to ease your pain, you son of a bitch."

-- Robert Duvall, Open Range

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Full Metal Jacket

Q: How can you shoot women and children?
A: Easy--you just don't lead'em so much. Ha ha ha ha. Ain't war hell? Ha ha ha ha.....

-- Helicopter gunman, Full Metal Jacket

Ducks vs. Beavers

When I lived back in New England, I grew to be a Red Sox & Patriots fan, mostly because they were winning. (Nothing will ever replace my growing-up love of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then the Steelers, but that was then.)(Oh yeah, and Notre Dame. Remember watching their highlights on Sunday mornings?)

Since moving to Oregon I've tried to get into local sports...but it is just not working. The only professional team in town in the Trailblazers, but I just couldn't care less about basketball and so I couldn't care less about the Trailblazers. Seattle (Mariners, Seahawks) seem far too far away, so that leaves only college football.

Which means Oregon and Oregon State. The problem is, I can't tell them apart.

One of them is the Beavers and one of them is the Ducks. They are both in small towns about a hundred miles south of Portland, but I cannot figure out which is where, and I don't care enough to really remember it all. One of them -- I think -- is very good this year, almost ranked #1, but I can't remember which one.

People in Oregon seem very attuned to this all and really in love with one of these teams. (Maybe it's the other.) I don't know. I just feel disconnected and, so, these sports and their enthusiasts just seem silly.

I miss the enthusiasm of my youth.

Science and Faith

Paul Davies' essay in the NY Times is the kind of tiresome nitpicking that scientists ignore because there's just no return in talking about it. Of course scientists have "faith" in the laws of physics -- these laws have proven themselves handily over the last X hundred years (X=3 for gravity, 1.3 for electromagnetism, 0.6 for QED, 0.3 for QCD, 0.0 for string theory). "Faith" just means they use the laws until something better is established. So what--that's a pretty meaningless definition of "faith?" The moment one of these laws shows evidence of making a false prediction, physicists abandon it like a bad memory, and work like maniacs to find a better law. This is far, far different from religious people, who will tolerate no unapproved thoughts about their "deity" and who stand by their proclaimed "god" at all costs, without any physical proof whatsoever. You can't disprove the existence of a Christian god (say), because Christians are not amenable to the ways of reason. Scientists are.

Case closed.

More on Portland GHGs

So how do Portland's transportation-sector GHGs compare to the national average?

I could only found US transportation GHGs from 1990 to 2004 -- a person can go crazy searching for the exact data -- available here. I extrapolated to 2006 -- I'm not going to go through the details -- and got 1,985.5 MMT CO2e for the US Transportation sector GHG emissions in 2006. Dividing by the 2006 population given here, we get

per capita US transportation GHG emissions, 2006 = 6.6 MT CO2

That compares to Portland's claim of 5.6 MT.

So Portland is claiming that its per-capita transportation emissions are 15% below the national average.... Is that reasonable, for a city?

What I Like

What I like: when I lean back in my desk chair and watch a video or something on the computer, I let my right hand dangle down from my shoulder towards the floor (I mouse left-handed), and my cat Eli quietly comes around and brushes into my right hand, looking to be stroked. It's always quiet and subtle and meaningful, like he likes it as much as I do.

Movies From the Library

Portland is many things, but one thing is does have it a really good library system. And now they're offering free, full-movie and TV downloads for a fair selection of movies and programs. I don't know of any other library doing that....

Big Casino

"Well there's lots of smart ideas
In books I've never read
When the girls come talk to me
I wish to hell I had."

-- Jimmy Eat World, Big Casino

Has Portland Really Cut its Greenhouse Gases?

Once again Portland, Oregon has claimed to have significantly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions, but once again the claim is subject to a lot of questions.

You might recall that this happened with its last report in 2005, when an error was found nullifying the same claim.

This past week Portland (well, technically Multnomah County, though they are nearly the same place, and I will use them interchangeably here) issued a report on its 2006 greenhouse gas emissions. (The report, titled "Portland Global Warming Overview," November 2006, is available on this page. It's a PowerPoint presentation. There is a written report, though they say it's still a draft.)

The Portland Tribune wrote a news story about the report last week.

Basically, Portland's claim is
Greenhouse-gas emissions... are down to just 0.1 percent above 1990 levels in Multnomah County, according to the city’s Office of Sustainable Development.

That decrease, city officials said, comes despite the area’s 15 percent population growth since 1990.

Here's a graph. Here are some numbers from the report, for Multnomah County:

TOTAL GHG emissions, 1990: 9.78 MMT CO2e
TOTAL GHG emissions, 2006: 9.79 MMT CO2e

(Units are million metric tons of CO2-equivalent). Per resident the numbers are:

per capita TOTAL GHG emissions, 1990: 16.8 MT CO2e
per capita TOTAL GHG emissions, 2006: 14.4 MT CO2e

So while total GHG emissions in the US are up 17% from 1990 levels, Portland has essentially stayed the same, despite a 15% increase in population over that time, and per capita emissions are down 14%.

Is this believable?

The report attributes the decrease to a variety of factors, such as increased use of public transportation (up 90% since 1990), a recycling rate of 63% ("the highest in the nation"), a quadrupling of the bicycle commuting rate to 4.4%, green buildings, planting more than 750,000 trees and shrubs since 1996, and other factors (see the draft report, p. 2).

But there are some questions.

1) diesel: Transportation accounts for about 40% of local greenhouse gas emissions, the largest sector, but Portland's numbers do not account for diesel fuel sold/consumed--that number is only available on the state level, they say. How big an error is this? At least 10%, I think.

Here's my reasoning: 130 B gallons of gasoline are sold in the US in 2006, and 50 B gallons of diesel. Gasoline emits 8.8 kg/gal CO2, while diesel emits 10.1 kg/gal. (Though diesel cars tend to get better gas mileage, so per-mile the emissions are about the same.) So total US CO2 emissions in 2006 were:

gasoline: 1214 MMT
diesel: 505 MMT

Let's assume that, per resident, Portland residents use the same amount of diesel as US residents. (This might not be exactly true, as Portland is high in hybrid car registration, but it seems to me the assumption should be approximately true.) The US population in 2006 was 299,398,484, and Multnomah County's was 681,454. Taking the ratio we get

gasoline emissions, Multnomah County, 2006: 2.8 MMT
diesel emissions, Multnomah County, 2006, 1.1 MMT

Diesel emissions are 42% of gasoline's emissions, and 11% of the claimed GHG emissions.
Including diesel fuel, Portland's emissions would be 11% higher than claimed, or 10.9 MT/resident.
2) Airplane emissions: The report excludes air traffic, though (according to the Tribune) CO2 emissions at Portland International Airport were 0.45 MMT in 2005. That's a additional 5% error.
Including diesel fuel and airplane traffic, Portland's emissions would be 16% higher than claimed, or 11.4 MT/resident.
3) estimation of transportation-related CO2 emissions: Total transportation emissions for Multnomah County given by the report are:

1990: 3.79 MMT CO2e
2000: 3.95 MMT CO2e
2006: 3.89 MMT CO2e

It appears that most, if not all, of the criticisms of the Cascade Policy Institute still stand: the city is using gasoline sales as a proxy for miles driven, even though the manufacturers of the emissions software program used by the city say not to do this. For full details, download the Word document in the 6th paragraph of this Cascade Policy Institute article -- the remainder of this document outlines several reasons why one should be quite skeptical of the claim that 2006 transportation emissions are only 2.6% higher than 1990 emissions, though population is up 15%.

(And if you're wondering, fuel efficiency is essentially unchanged over this time period, nationwide.)

Car registrations are up, gasoline sales in a neighboring county are up sharply since 1990, total commuters in-and-out of Multnomah County are up sharply, total miles driven in the state of Oregon are up...and more.

Has public transportation, bicycling, and compact zoning really made that much of a difference? It seems hard to believe. The Tribune reports:
Armstrong admitted that the gas numbers are not perfect, but said better fuel-efficiency has more than compensated for those increases.
But, as I noted above, fuel efficiency is not any better since 1990, nationwide. Is Portland's higher hybrid registration rate really that much of a factor?


Of course, you might argue that what matters is not the absolute numbers but the trend, and as long as you are consistent in your methodology (consistently excluding diesel fuel sales, for example) you can at least extract the trend from the data. That's not a very scientific or analytic argument, though, given the complexity of the situation. So I don't know. At this point I'm not sure anyone can make any conclusions about the numbers given the significant gaps in the methodology.

People like Nicholas Kristof will probably still buy the claim, though.

Australia and global warming

The anti-Kyoto Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard(*), has been defeated by the pro-Kyoto challenger John Rudd. Rudd has proclaimed global warming will be his first priority. Maybe now Australia will join the 21st century.

* Howard did make a recent, semi-conversion from being a climate skeptic. Politically motivated, no doubt.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Popping the Universe's Bubble

Oh boy. As if it's not bad enough that humans are destroying the planet, now we may be responsible for destroying the Universe, too.

Specifically, Saul Perlmutter appears to be the one to blame :-). Wait until the conservatives and anti-science people get ahold of this one.

Physicists Lawrence Krauss and James Dent have a paper out that says our (well, Perlmutter's) discovery of dark energy in 1998 may have changed the quantum state of the Universe and shortened its lifetime.

Of course, this story comes from Britain (originally from New Scientist), and my rule of thumb for any science story from Britain is to treat it essentially as a press release -- that is, assume it's hyped until someone shows that it's not.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Out of It

I have been out of it for about three weeks now, with a bad case of the flu, or some damn virus.... All I know is I feel like I've had three or four different, serious colds all on top of one another, or maybe in serial.... but all I've been able to do for most of the last several days is sleep or cough my lungs out. Apologies for the lack of blogging. I'll try to get back into it in the next day or two.

In the meantime, I recommend getting a flu shot.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Mexican floods

I really love this picture that currently appears atop the Drudge Report, about the floods in Mexico:

Is there any better illustration of the precariousness of life? One day you're going to bed, the rain hard on your roof, your beloved dog at your feet -- you, worried about the storm, he, dreaming of rats and squirrels and kibble in the morning -- and you both wake up to an unimaginable flood and suddenly you're swimming for your life, you and your dog, out there, all alone. You're half hanging on to him for support and half because you don't want to lose him, and the dog, the poor dog, is just wondering what ever happened in life that it has come to this, and he wants you to make it as much as you want him, even more than yourself, and all you and he can do it strive for the shore, together, alone.... and it all happens so fast. Today is nothing like yesterday and yet, what did you ever do to deserve this? What did he?

Life is surely no easier for a human than for a dog, but probably no less, and sometimes, in a rare moment of struggle and love and candor, all you have is one another, just you and your dog. And so you swim.