Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Breaking Bad

The best show you're probably not watching (and, look, I'm not watching any of them either, as I haven't even had a TV for almost two years, but that doesn't matter anymore, given sites like SurfChannel.com) is Breaking Bad, about a too-smart-for-his-own-good high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque. It appeals to me because (1) it's very well written (better than Weeds), and (2) it's set in Albuquerque, where I went to college and where a couple of my parents still live.

Walter White's house looks pretty much exactly like my mother's house, which is a bit weird.

Anyway, this series keeps getting better and better, as evidenced by its recent inclusion of Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk is the Bill Murray of the new millenium, times two, divided by i times the square root of pi. In other words, he's not even on the same plane as the rest of us, which just adds to his appeal. He probably makes a nice mid-to-(barely) mid-upper class living in Hollywood, though if there was any justice he'd now be living in Jack Nicholson's pad, dating skinny bitches like Lara Flynn Boyle, telling 5 out of 6 directors to go to hell.

Man, the world needs more Odenkirks.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sea Ice blips

Stoat links to this IJIS plot of Arctic sea ice extent for the last several years. My question is, why is there a weird upward blip in the data every year about June 1st?

UPDATE: I asked JAXA, and here's what they told me (it's along the lines of what we all expected):
Current version of data processing makes an erroneous bias of
sea ice extent on June 1st and October 15th which are seen
in the graph of sea ice extent as a small blip on these dates.
The apparent bias arises due to a switching of some parameters
in the processing on both dates. The parameter switching is
needed because the surface of the Arctic sea-ice becomes
wet in summer due to the melting of ice which changes
satellite-observed signatures of sea-ice drastically.

We are planning to improve the processing to make the gap
much smoother soon.


Swine flu

This swine flu issue seems already to be getting out of hand -- I mean, only 20 cases in the US so far? No deaths? Let's not forget that the regular flu kills, on average, about 100 people in the US per day.

One interesting thing, though, is that, like other flus, this strain seems to disproportionally affect young adults. Here's a graph of the Spanish flu from Wikipedia:



Young adults (ages from about 18 to 25) are in the prime of their lives -- why are they more susceptible than those younger and older than them? Is it that they're more social than those groups?

(And why are they more social? I've found this in my own life, even though I don't really understand it. When I was younger I used to run around all over the place doing all kinds of things. Now I don't. What's changed?)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Caprica

If you are wondering if you should rent or download Caprica -- the prequel to Battlestar Galactica that is set to be a series next year --the answer is, definitely yes.

Caprica is great science fiction in the soft sense of the word. That is, there are no big starship battles with phasors and no one gets sucked into a quantum singularity and no one shapeshifts or teleports anywhere. Frankly, you can't even tell it wasn't set in 2012, or even 1972.

And it really has essentially nothing to do with Battlestar Galactica. Which just makes it all that much better.

But it does have the subtle tone of the near-future, told via its personal impacts on individual lives. Its characters live in a world you can identify with, full of concerns about money and status and health and beauty and sex, and not some 23rd century version of Star Trek, where no one seems the least bit concerned about money or fatty foods or loneliness or their own damn neuroses that can ruin everything.

People in Caprica are real. They love. They hurt. They do stupid things for stupid reasons. And they can't escape their times, meaning the future rolls over them just as much as they do the rolling.

You'll learn how the Cylons were born -- but that could have occurred a hundred different ways. The real reason behind their creation comes down to one reason, as it always does -- human weakness. We want what we cannot have. And it inevitably leads to our downfall.

Rent it. Download it. It doesn't matter is you've ever seen BG. Start anew.

NOM ad parody


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Boehner's Boner

Minority Leader John Boehner's denial of the scientific consensus on climate change, offered this morning on ABC's This Week, is so comical, so stupid, and so incredibly ignorant that I don't know if I want to move to France, slit my wrists, or give him an award:

Boehner replied: "The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know when they do what they do you've got more carbon dioxide."

This is wrong in so many ways it's scary. (1) No one has ever claimed that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen (2) there are thousands of substances that are perfectly safe at one level of exposure and dangerous at another (say, water), and (3) the worst part of cow flatulence is its methane (CH4), not its carbon dioxide (CO2). Pound-for-pound methane is 20 times more effective in trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Livestock flatulence and manure is responsible for about one-third of global methane emissions.

So, yes, let's please take our scientific advice from Mr. Boehner.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cheezeburger Shit

I'm not exactly sure why, but something about this picture that appears in this afternoon's NY Times seems to perfectly illustrate...everything that is wrong with our world.


It's just...everything, from this guy's oh-so-fashionable glasses, to his button-down, no-risk shirt, to the juvenile stuffed cat perched on his supposedly mature shoulder, to the fact that he didn't create any of this (only somewhat funny to begin with) Cheezeburger stuff, but just bought it to make money, and the fact that he'll probably make a snarky million dollars off of it while so much real and good and important literature sinks to the bottom of the resale bins.

Sometimes there just seems no hope.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pirates and Snipers

I am not exactly a pacifist, but not really pro-military either. We -- the US and the world -- spend far too much on instruments of death and not the mechanisms of peace. But if I am ever captured by pirates, or by anyone, I hope there will be a few Navy snipers nearby, clinging somewhere to a ship's fantail, peering through their night vision scopes and confident of their expertise to take out my captors with a single shot, on rough seas with every one of us bobbing up and down in the dark. That's a little comfort in a very cold world.

Monday, April 13, 2009

1% of the Sun

Here's an amazing number:
"When the Soviet Union exploded a three-stage bomb yielding nearly 60 megatons on October 30, 1961, it was estimated that, for a moment, the energy flux exceeded 1 percent of the entire output of the sun."

-- Project Orion, George Dyson

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Over to Audio

I've been blogging for about 7 years now, on and off, since, I think, back on October 10, 2002, when I lived way up in the mountains in New Hampshire, with the most marvelous view of Lake Winnipesaukee that you can possibly imagine.

I miss living up there. I remember that one March we had four snowfalls of three feet or more. I was forever, it seemed, shoveling a trough up to the driveway and digging my car out of the snow and ice. I had to stuff rags in the door frame to conserve heat. But I seemed to be making lots of money and had a budget for everything I needed, and lots more. Maybe I just lived on a lot less.

Anyway, I have concluded that I'm not a very good blogger. I appreciate the readership of all of you, to be sure, but the truth is I struggle to get more than a mere 100 hits a day, even after all these years. Whatever it means to be a successful blogger, I don't have it. Maybe I don't post enough. Maybe I'm too analytical and not opinionated enough. Maybe I'm just a lousy writer.

Also, I think that except for some big time names, blogging is winding down. It seems to be taken over now by the magazines and places like Politico, and all those guys linking to each other. I don't want to be part of that, like the poor Matthew Yglesias who is so terrified of not posting on each and every little development in the day that he freaks out. That strikes me as a ridiculous way to live -- and think -- though maybe not if I was getting 100,000 visitors a day.

Even Kevin Drum, who was once one of my favorite bloggers, seems now to be kind of mailing it in. What do I really learn there? A short comment on a news story. No big deal.

Frankly, all that blogging by these types just seems to me to be a bunch of words with little insight or meaning. It's great Drum or Yglesias can make a living at it. I can't. It's time to face that.

So I'm cutting back severely on my blogging and focusing on a few other things: (1) income, which is not so easy as a freelancer right now in the recession, (2) book-writing, and (3) the podcast show I mentioned briefly last fall. I really want to talk to scientists, mostly climate scientists, about the state of their science, and the state of the world. Climate change seems to me to be the most important subject in, perhaps, the history of civilization, and we are doing essentially nothing to try and solve it. And those working the hardest aren't getting heard from enough. The Chris Horner's of the world go on all kinds of sympathetic venues where they spread a skeptical message, all along avoiding any hard questions by real interviewers with real knowledge. I'd love to interview him, if he's willing to entertain a few honest questions. But most of all I want to interview the real scientists producing the real science.

I also want to let scientists talk about science. There is a terrible dearth of understanding about science in this country, and it's seriously harming us. Some scientists talking about what attracted them to science in the first place can't hurt. Nobody is personalizing them.

So I'm going to seriously cut back on blogging and setting up a podcast shop, perhaps someday to be a video shop. I don't know how I'll afford this -- I'm applying for some grants here and there. (If you or your organization have an interest in a partial sponsorship, please contact me.) The main cost isn't the Web space, but some of the Web programming and especially the ~ 1 day/week preparing to do a decent interview.

We'll see how that goes. I'm just trying to stay ahead of the future. After a few years of this, and after my beautiful cat Eli passes, I'm going to get a dog and a pickup truck with a camper bed in the back and travel around, with a laptop and WiFi and just two changes of clothes, writing about everything I see -- especially all the labs, department projects, and undercovered scientists I can possibly visit.

Thanks.

PS: Wow, I can't believe that after all these years none of my regular readers has anything to say about the demise (?) of blogging, or maybe just of my blogging, or of the potential role for a weekly podcast of interviews with scientists. Or do I just look weird here? Or have I cried wolf too many times?


Ice Age Movie

OK, this is just a kid's movie: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

Of course, the dinosaurs lived about 64 million years before the really famous ice ages, and ice ages and dinosaurs don't necessarily have a lot of overlap.

Anyway, films like this are bound to screw up kid's notions of what happened when. I mean, my 4-yr old nephew sucks down information like a Hummer consumes gas, and (and this is a bit scary) he doesn't miss much. So this movie is bound to confuse him, until his obsessed uncle comes along and tries to set him straight, which no doubt probably confuses him even more.

Although I did teach him to add small integers.

Heck, I was confused until about 12th grade because some idiot teacher in the 7th grade said that pi was equal to 22/7. I'm sure he or she, the first time they mentioned it, said it was an approximation, but you can only do so many substitutions for it on the blackboard before you ruin even semi-smart people.

This movie will not help with American's scientific literary, which is already killing us.


PS: And now that I think about it, why were there so few ice ages before about a million years ago? Orbital factors?

Oil Prices and the Recession

I've proposed before that last year's spike in oil prices help caused our current recession, but no one else seems to buy this. But here's more evidence that it was a significant factor:

This chart is from Paul Schwartz from the Council on Foreign Relations, via Kevin Drum.

Spikes in oil prices sure do seem to have something to do with starting recessions -- and last year's spike (red) was bigger than usual.

To me this makes a lot of sense. Oil prices were up sharply at this time last year:

In the course of a year and a half, everyone with debt obligations, mortgages and the like, quickly found themselves paying over twice for oil and gasoline what they were. This doesn't just affect your gas tank, it quickly bleeds through all aspects of the economy, since everything you buy gets on the shelf via oil-based transport. Monthly inflation rates doubled or more.

I don't know what this cost the average consumer, but I would guess a few hundred dollars a month. And since you can't really live without gas for your car and food from the store, people had no choice but to pay the higher energy prices and...for those near the edge, skip on their mortgage payments. After so many defaults the whole system just tipped over.

This certainly isn't high-grade economic analysis. I've just surprised that I've never (I think) even once in the last year and half seen any professional note the role high oil prices might have played in causing this recession.

PS: Here's something Brad Delong said in August 2006, and something I wrote. He was clearly right. I wasn't.

PPS: John Fleck informs me that James Hamilton has been writing about the oil shock here.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Ponnuru on Same-Sex Marriage

Sure, there are people who have always defended bigotry and prejudice, but you don't usually see it in a young, educated person. That makes the black-is-white argument of Ramesh Ponnuru all that more ridiculous:
But nobody can plausibly claim that Iowans meant to ratify same-sex marriage when they approved a constitution including equal-protection language.
In other words, Iowans did not mean "equal" when they voted for "equal." Sheesh.

Quote

"When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. It is much more nearly certain that we are assembled here tonight than it is that this or that political party is in the right. Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise one is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless.

-- Bertrand Russell.
Via: The Irascible Professor


Arctic Sea Ice Update from NASA

NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center gave a press conference this morning on Arctic Sea Ice, and here is the most important graph: a sharp decline in "old ice":

"Old ice" is what sticks around year-after-year (here, one, two, or more years). It's the thinner ice that melts away every year.

As the chart shows, "old ice" is decreasing in percentage, and what's interesting is it continued to decrease (and sharply) last year, even though 2008's sea ice extent was slighter higher (at minimum) than 2007's. So when climate change deniers say that sea ice area is increasing (2008 compared to 2007) and this is a sign of a cooling globe, that's not the whole story.

Multiyear ice is only about 1 meter thicker than first-year ice; the average thickness of all of it is about 9 ft (3 m).

Here's the sea ice extent:

All six of the lowest years have occurred in the last six years, since satellite monitoring began 30 years ago.

By the way, total Arctic sea ice volume is about 16,000 km3, which is about the volumes of Lake Superior + Lake Michigan.

The NSIDC's Walt Meier said that it's "fairly unlikely" that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer by 2013 or 2014, which some people have been suggesting, but that it's not out of the question and anyone would have been "laughed out of the room" if they suggested that 5 years ago.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The House Dog's Grave

The House Dog's Grave (Haig, an English bulldog)

I've changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you'd soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read--and I fear often grieving for me--
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope than when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dear, that's too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. . . .
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

Robinson Jeffers, 1941

Friday, April 03, 2009

Can you say, "Positive Feedback?"

Now here's a new idea from Todd Wynn of Oregon's right-wing Cascade Policy Institute: we can't cut back on carbon-producing energy production because we're going to need that energy to deal with the climate change caused by carbon-producing energy production:
...politicians frequently introduce bills that declare an emergency and attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing energy costs through a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade program, or by eliminating access to reliable and affordable sources of energy. These policies are the wrong solution to helping Oregonians with future changes in global climate and may greatly disadvantage Oregon if changes in climate were to occur.
I think even my young nephew can figure out what's wrong with the argument.

Next?