Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Here's an interesting poll result:
While 64% of Americans say they significantly changed their driving habits earlier this year as gas prices soared, only 12% now say they have reverted to their old habits as pump prices have plunged in recent months.
This agrees with data from the EIA: Gas prices are down about 45% from this time last year, while gas demand per person is down about 5%.

Oregon Wants to Track Your Car

The governor of Oregon wants to replace the gasoline tax with a "mileage tax," proportional to the amount of miles you drive. The state's gas tax revenue is declining, and the thinking is that people who drive buy gas-efficient vehicles are somehow cheating the government because they use less gas per mile traveled and so pay less tax per mile traveled, when the impact of their vehicle on the road stays more or less constant.

Sure, it makes sense in theory. But it's a very bad idea, I think. One is that it will require a great deal of expensive new infrastructure -- GPS units in all vehicles, and units in all gas pumps that will read the chips whenever you get gas and calculate how much you owe. It's another thing that can go wrong and will no doubt be costly to fix. Etc. All that sounds expensive.

And I can't imagine that the difference between taxing on mileage and taxing on gallons is going to be very different for most people, except for people who are trying to do the right thing by driving an efficient car, who have less externalized costs on the climate (but not, granted, on the roads).

How do out-of-staters pay taxes, if at all? And I read some comment that asked if you will get reimbursed for miles you drive on private property -- a good question if, say, you own a farm.

But mostly, it's a horrible idea for privacy reasons. The government will now be able to know where you are at all times, by reading your GPS unit.
In more than one interview with the Democrat-Herald and others, James Whitty, the ODOT official in charge of the project, tried to assure the public that tracking people’s travels was not in the plans....

The final report detailed the technical aspects of the program. It also stressed the issue of privacy.

“The concept requires no transmission of vehicle travel locations, either in real time or of travel history,” the report said. “Accordingly, no travel location points are stored within the vehicle or transmitted elsewhere. Thus there can be no ‘tracking’ of vehicle movements.”
This last paragraph cannot possibly be true. If all you want to do is calculate mileage between gas pump visits, a non-GPS unit would do that sends your odometer's reading to the pump when you get gas.

Why then use GPS units?

But if you have a GPS unit someone in the government will be able to track you. And we all know that these sorts of programs quickly get expanded by power hungry authorities and bureaucrats, just like the drive-through toll collection system did. If the data is there, authorities will demand it in the name of crime prosecution or finding missing persons. All such data collection technologies get abused in this way -- all of them. It is a law of nature -- you know it, I know it, and Whitty knows it. And it will happen here, too.

This is a bad idea, and not an elegant solution to the problem.


Here is the task force's final report (Nov 2007).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Radio Interview

I'm going to be interviewed on the radio tomorrow, talking about global warming.

I'll be on The Lars Larson Show here in Portland (KXL 750 AM), guest-hosted by Rob Kremer, at 1:00 pm PST. You can listen online here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Arctic Sea Ice Update

Sea Ice extent in the Arctic continues to be a horse race with that of recent past years, and has now slipped to 4th place. But, since it shouldn't be covered like a horse race, I'm going to stop with this graph unless something dramatic happens:

(Click to enlarge; vertical axis in sq km.)

Hansen's AGU Lecture

James Hansen's Bjerknes Lecture at the recent AGU meeting is well-worth reading -- it's thought-provoking and I learned a lot.

For example:
  • it's simply a good review of the state of much of today's climate science
  • clearly shows the effects of this past year's relatively strong La Nina
  • shows ice age climate forcings and, from that, calculates a climate sensitivity of 3/4 C per W/m2, or 3 C for 2xCO2 and says he's "nailed it". (On his blog, Anthony Watts criticizes this but gets it completely wrong, thinking that Hansen used Mann data of the last 1400 yrs when, in fact, he uses ice-agey data of the last 20 Kyr.)
  • gives lots of pretty charts neatly summarizing lots of data.
  • shows a new method of calculating recent past and future climate, based on response functions, that is 100 trillion times faster than computer climate models. (This calculation actually shows a relative flattening of global temps for the first decade of this century, then resumed warming.)
  • says he believes that our climate will "possibly" runaway if we burn all our coal and with runaway with "dead certainty" if we burn all coal + tars.
  • repeats that our target goal for CO2 needs to be 350 ppm.
and lots more. I understood many of Hansen's points better than I did last May when I said I thought his "Target atmospheric CO2" paper had a lot of hand-waving arguments. (This paper has since been published in Open Atmos Sci J (2008) v2 p 217. You can download it here.) I mean, it's not the kind of rigorous calculation that physicists like, but it depends on a far smaller chain of hand-waving reasoning than I thought. But what do I know?

Anyway, it's worth an hour of your time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Still Milgram

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University repeated some of the famous Stanley Milgram
experiments of 1961, and found more or less the same (depressing) results -- people are willing to hurt other people if they are told to do so by an authority figure.

Serreze on Arctic Ice

The NSIDC's Mark Serreze responded to my question about the recent data on Arctic sea ice extent, using their own data:
We are quite certain that the almost complete lack of increase in ice extent since about December 10 is real. We cross checked using data from the AMSR (advanced microwave sounding radiometer) instrument and we see the same pattern. This gives us independent confirmation. Past 10 days has also seen a very unusual atmospheric pattern. It has been very warm over the Arctic Ocean, and wind patterns have favored a compact ice cover. While the lack of increase in ice extent is certainly quite unusual, I would not read too much into it right now at is appears to be weather related versus climate related. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next week.
This is, after all, a weather fluctuation, so you can't put too much into it. But then, the slight gain in sea ice this past summer could well have been a weather fluctuation too. You can only really trust the long-term data, which is, of course, bad.

Lambert on Sea Ice

Tim Lambert has more details on Arctic sea ice, and concludes:
Given that there is now no possible cherry pick that the denialists can now use to make it look like Arctic sea ice is increasing, I predict that they will start talking about Antarctic sea ice.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sea Ice at Record Low

Arctic sea ice extent is now at a record low -- as of yesterday, below even last year's number. This is based on IARC-JAXA data (International Arctic Research Center - Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has the same result:

Note: This is ice extent, which is not the same as area (though easier to measure). (For that matter, what really matters is volume, but though I hear people are working on ways to measure that, they're not there yet.)

Here's a way of thinking about the difference between extent and area: imagine a checkboard with lots of checkers on it, more than usual. Some places the checkers will touch, but there will be spaces between them. Their extent is the area of the entire checkerboard, but their area is the area of the checkerboard minus the gaps in-between all the checkers.

Thus, extent is always greater than area.

There are, of course, uncertainties associated with each day's measured ice extent, but the IARC-JAXA site doesn't give them (as far as I have been able to tell). So to within the precision of the satellite measurements, today's numbers are essentially the same as last year's. But the ice extent growth rate is very small in the last few weeks:

Ice Extent growth rate, Nov 30 - Dec 21 (thousands of sq-km/day):

2002 55
2003 84
2004 67
2005 64
2007 79
2008 53

Why is this happening? Warmth. Here's the NSIDC commentary from Dec 3 (2008):

The period of very rapid ice growth that characterized October and early November has ended. The rise in ice extent over the past three weeks has been much slower, and should continue to slow until the expected seasonal ice extent maximum is reached sometime in March. Air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean stayed well above average during November, partly because of continued heat release from the ocean to the atmosphere and partly because of a pattern of atmospheric circulation transporting warm air into the region.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Energy Policies

"We need to pick a target CO2 concentration and work backwards to get to an energy policy, rather than guessing at an energy policy with fingers crossed, hoping for a climate outcome that is tolerable."

-- Saul Griffith

Via: Only in it for the Gold (Michael Tobis)

The Farmer's Almanac (Mis)Prediction

Joseph D'Aleo was the first Director of Meteorology at the cable TV "The Weather Channel," and, now, a noted global warming skeptic.

He was also chosen as the weather expert for this year's "The Old Farmer's Almanac," published in the tiny town of Dublin, NH, which you would most likely miss if you were to drive through it on NH's Rte 101.

D'Aleo gets a lot of publicity from his GW skepticism. So how well does he do in forecasting the weather?

Not very good, from what I can tell. Not very good at all.

I bought a copy of The Old Farmer's Almanac 2009 about two months ago, complete with its hole in the upper left-hand corner so you can hang it by a string in your outhouse. For the Pacific Northwest, here's what D'Oleo predicts for this time of year:

Dec 14-18: Occasional rain, mild
Dec 19-23: Rain, then sunny, mild

Needless to say, our weather in the last several days has been anything but this: lower temperatures than normal, with cold, lots of snow, and very little sun. Not "mild" in the least.


The Farmer's Almanac says their weather forecasts are based on a "secret formula" devised by the Almanac's founder, Robert B. Thomas, in 1792. Thomas "believed that weather on Earth was influenced by sunspots, which are magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun."

The Farmer's Almanac claims an accuracy rate of 80% for their weather predictions. I have no evidence to back that up, and they present none either.

I don't believe them for a second.

Serreze on Arctic Ice

For a really good review of the state of knowledge of Arctic Sea Ice, you can listen to Mark Serreze's (of NSIDC) lecture at last week's AGU meeting:

Winter Solstice

In case you worship witches or something, the Winter Solstice is tomorrow at 12:04 UT (7:04 am EST, 4:04 am PST).


We're having a wonderful winter storm here for the last two days, all over Oregon. Here in St. Helens it's been snowing on and off for about two days, and right now we have about 4 inches of snow. There's a high chance of snow for the next several days, and chains are required on the highways, to get into Portland. (Portland freaks out at times like this.)

Here's a St. Helens weather cam, about 1.5 miles from my house:

Dock Ellis dies

Dock Ellis wasn't exactly a hero of mine, but he was a Pittsburgh Pirate and that was essentially the same thing. He died yesterday at age 63. I remember him pitching a no-hitter, though I didn't know until much later that he said was under the influence of LSD the entire game:
I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the (catcher's) glove, but I didn't hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times. The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn't. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder. They say I had about three to four fielding chances. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn't hit hard and never reached me.
Perhaps not his best moment, but who can say? But maybe this was:
Incensed that the Reds were bullying his Pirates, he hit Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen in succession on May 1, 1974, and tried to hit Tony Perez but missed. After aiming two pitches at Johnny Bench's head he was pulled.
Man, the Pirates back then were a great team.


Here's Ellis explaining his no-hitter (with the bonus of the call by the legendary Bob Prince):

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hitchens Gives Warren the Business

Christopher Hitchens lets Rick Warren have it with both barrels -- deservedly so:
As Barack Obama is gradually learning, his job is to be the president of all Americans at all times. If he likes, he can oppose the idea of marriage for Americans who are homosexual. That's a policy question on which people may and will disagree. However, the man he has chosen to deliver his inaugural invocation is a relentless clerical businessman who raises money on the proposition that certain Americans—non-Christians, the wrong kind of Christians, homosexuals, nonbelievers—are of less worth and littler virtue than his own lovely flock of redeemed and salvaged and paid-up donors.

This quite simply cannot stand.... A president may by all means use his office to gain re-election, to shore up his existing base, or to attract a new one. But the day of his inauguration is not one of the days on which he should be doing that. It is an event that belongs principally to the voters and to their descendants, who are called to see that a long tradition of peaceful transition is cheerfully upheld, even in those years when the outcome is disputed. I would myself say that it doesn't need a clerical invocation at all, since, to borrow Lincoln's observation about Gettysburg, it has already been consecrated. But if we must have an officiating priest, let it be some dignified old hypocrite with no factional allegiance and not a tree-shaking huckster and publicity seeker who believes that millions of his fellow citizens are hellbound because they do not meet his own low and vulgar standards.

Via: Portland Mercury blogtown.

Arctic Sea Ice

So this is a little interesting: lately this year's sea ice extent in the Arctic is not growing nearly as fast as it did in the last two years:

(y-axis units = sq km). Here's this year's area compared to last year's:

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Holdren for Science Advisor

Science magazine is reporting what would be another excellent choice for the Obama administration: John P. Holdren reportedly for science advisor.

Holdren is past president of AAAS, and has heavily focused on climate change, energy technologies, and the dangers of nuclear weapons and proliferation.

Like Chu, hard to imagine a better choice.

Food Stamps in Oregon

Wow: 1 in 7 people living in Oregon are now receiving food stamps.

Oregon seems to have a lot more trouble with hunger than most states, which I haven't understood yet.

Knutti quote

If I had a convincing argument that climate sensitivity is small I would send it to Nature or Science today, and I would be famous tomorrow, and the world would be happy because the climate problem is not as bad as we thought. Unfortunately, the data suggests otherwise.
--Reto Knutti, Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zurich

(via Benny Peiser's CCNet list).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


"A real revolutionary goes where he is needed."

-- Che Guevara, Che

Deming's opinion

David Deming -- a professor of geophysics at the University of Oregon -- is a politically active academic who is, if he were on the other side (like James Hansen), be criticized by skeptics.

But Deming is OK because he's on their side.v But his views are extreme and, more important, wrong.

Just look at this op-ed piece he published in The Edmund Sun on Sept 24, 2008, in which he wrote:
Obama is a vapid demagogue, a hollow man that despises American culture. He is ill-suited to be president of the United States. As the weeks pass, more Americans will come to this realization and elect McCain/Palin in a landslide.
He could hardly have been more wrong.

Why doesn't this matter?

Skin Cancer in Australia

Did you know that the number of cases of melanoma in Australia are up 50% in the last decade?

I'm sure it has nothing to do with the ozone hole above them.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Sunday night -- a cold night here in Oregon, in the 20s, with some ice on the roads, which this state takes as a sign to completely shut down but which back in New Hampshire would have been a sign of encroaching spring -- I went to the local theatre here in St Helens and watched The Day the Earth Stood Still with about six other people. The Columbia Theatre is one of those great old-fashioned theatres that everyone loves and which no one attends, and you wonder how they stay open, especially considering that the Boise paper mill here in St Helens, which employs about 10% of the town, is closing in a month.

Spoilers ahead.

I liked this movie alot, and if you like SciFi movies you probably will too. The first 20-30 minutes presented the most realistic depiction of an alien invasion of Earth that I have ever seen on film. As was the depiction of a "gray goo" of microbots (not nanobots) that swarmed around ready to cleanse the Earth of anything relating to humans.

The rest of the movie wasn't bad. It wrapped up a little too easily, with Klattu seemingly becoming convinced of humanity's potential by a sappy hug in a cemetary. But who sees a SciFi film for anything like that? The depictions were cool. Gort was a bit old-fashioned, just with a twist.

Check it out, preferably on a cold, icy night with six other people in the theatre.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Steven Chu quote

Here's a quote from Steven Chu, Obama's choice for Energy Secretary: 
"Stronger storms, shrinking glaciers and winter snowpack, prolonged droughts and rising sea levels are raising the specter of global food and water shortages. The ominous signs of climate change we see today are a warning of dire economic and social consequences for us all, but especially for the poor of the world," Chu has said. "The path to finding solutions is to bring together the finest, most passionate minds to work on the problem in a coordinated effort, and to give these
researchers the resources commensurate with the challenge."
Not sure where this is from (or that it matters) -- it was sent around today by LBL media. Can you really imagine a high-level governmentperson who actually gets it?

Hadley November Anomaly

Hadley's global temperature anomaly (HadCRUT3) is in for November: +0.386°C.

I don't like playing the month-to-month temperature game, but if you want to, note:
  • the last two months of 2008 (YTD) were warmer than the corresponding months of 2007.
  • four of the last five months of 2008 (YTD) were warmer than the corresponding months of 2007.
  • RSS and UAH MSU's also have Nov-08 warmer than Nov-07.

Cooling = Warming?

Can anyone make heads or tails out of this paragraph from the Associated Press, especially the last sentence?
Mother Nature, of course, is oblivious to the federal government's machinations. Ironically, 2008 is on pace to be a slightly cooler year in a steadily rising temperature trend line. Experts say it's thanks to a La Nina weather variation. While skeptics are already using it as evidence of some kind of cooling trend, it actually illustrates how fast the world is warming.
La Nina I get. "Slightly cooler" I get. But a "cooling trend" as an illustration of how fast the world is warming? That I don't get.

(No I don't believe we're in a cooling trend. But I also don't see how one, if it existed, would necessarily be evidence of global warming.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Credit Where It's Due

You have to give Bush credit: he deftly dodged both shoes thrown at him, and barely flinched at the second one. The journalist had pretty good aim, too, and still Bush wasn't hit. Then he quickly managed a joke about it. Well played on all sides.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Guardian article

I have an opinion article in today's Guardian: "Let's Get Real on the Environment."

Here's an excerpt:
The world desperately needs to get serious, including President-elect Obama, Europe's leaders and every UN bureaucrat who dined handsomely in the evenings in Poznan. The truth is, the world is not going to be cutting greenhouse gases anytime soon. If ever....

Not one of us – you, me, Obama or the greenest activist anywhere in the world – is willing to live without the comforts fossil fuels provide us – heat, light, instant hot food, convenient transportation, modern agriculture and airplane travel....

Given this, what can we do? Be realistic, first of all. Let's fund geo-engineering research to the hilt, exploring how we can someday modify our planet's natural systems to produce a slight atmospheric cooling. It is our destiny.

But most of all, let's open our eyes and begin to be honest. You will fly to Jamaica this winter instead of cutting your greenhouse gases. Fine. Can we please accept this and begin to move on?

Friday, December 12, 2008

No Gore Effect in Poznan

The UNFCCC has been meeting in Poznan, Poland for the last nine days in a huge climate conference, COP 14.

So how has the weather been in Poznan over this time? 5.4°F above average.

In fact, every day of the conference has seen higher temperatures than usual, and no day has been less than 3°F above normal.

In fact, every daily high and every daily low for each day of the conference has been above normal -- one day as high as 10°F above normal.

Where are all the people always proclaiming about the "Gore Effect?" (Gore spoke in Poznan today.)

Here's the data: http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=pW5aV1sypLjIpjKn5rwQtTQ


(Yes, it is sad that one must debunk such an absurd, illogical notion as the "Gore Effect.")

Watch Global Warming As It Happens

The Wilkins Ice Shelf seems about to break away from the Antarctic Peninsula -- it's been hanging on by a narrow bridge (a few km x about 100 km) for months, and the bridge itself has been collapsing in the last several months -- even during the Antarctic winter.

Now you can watch the breakup in near real-time: the European Space Agency has a Webcam on the area via satellite. The latest images are only about a day old, and it will be updated daily.

This area of Antarctica has warmed about 2.5°C in the last 50 years. The Ice Shelf is floating, so its breakup won't raise sea level.

Prof. David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said in July:
"Wilkins Ice Shelf is the most recent in a long, and growing, list of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula that are responding to the rapid warming that has occurred in this area over the last fifty years.

"Current events are showing that we were being too conservative, when we made the prediction in the early 1990s that Wilkins Ice Shelf would be lost within thirty years - the truth is it is going more quickly than we guessed."

The Ice Shelf is floating, so its breakup won't raise sea level. This site from last March has a nice video of a flyover over the bridge. The BBC says the area of the Wilkins Ice Shelf is about that of the Isle of Man, or about 570 km2.

ESA adds:

In the past 20 years, seven ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula have retreated or disintegrated, including the most spectacular break-up of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002....

By the way, did you know they have seals down there wearing "hats" that provide temperature data? (If we can do that in the ocean, why can't we outfit mammals on land and do the same thing?)


Here's a map of where this is all taking place:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chu as SecEn

The Obama team continues to move along like a dream -- now he has chosen Steven Chu of LBL as the Secretary of Energy.

I mean, wow. I have gotten so used to...well...hacks in high Cabinet positions that it seems unbelievable we will actually have someone who is intelligent, rational, and forward-thinking.

I mean, do you remember James Watt, Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration? A complete wack job. He actually said, when speaking to Congress:
"I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations."
And -- and this is, sure, exactly what you want in a high-level politician anywhere, let alone one tasked with managing your country's land:
"After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."
People aren't weird even in the Bush Jr. administration.

After office (and after being indicted for influence peddling, he spoke in front of a group and said:
"If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used."
What a nightmare.

Or remember Spencer Abraham? Bipedal incompetency.


So why should we expect Chu to be any better? Because he's a physicist!

Sure, I'm biased. But I really do believe that physicists -- or, at least, some of them -- are some of the smartest people on the planet. And, more than that -- and I've know a lot of them -- probably the most educationally balanced people on the planet.

Historians or English majors can get away with not knowing much about quantum mechanics or professing their fear of algebra, but physicists are expected to know about the Shakespeare and the French Revolution and the politics of the US Civil War. It's simply part of being an educated person. And they can convert Joules to BTUs!

Sure, Chu is forward-thinking. That's great. But mostly he's very, very smart, too smart to be easily fooled or suckered by politics or bullshited to.

I'm not saying he can walk on water. But at least he knows what its index of refraction is.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Oregon Conflicts of Interest

In Oregon, Governor Ted Kulongoski's Global Warming Commission is chaired by Angus Duncan, President and CEO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

Who is the BEF? Among other things, they sell carbon offsets.

This is very inappropriate. It's hardly different than an oil company executive sitting on a federal panel about climate change -- or, as happens frequently in the Bush Administration, any corporate representative serving on a study in which their industry has an interest.

I've seen no coverage of this at all in the media.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


"I did it for fun."

- Linus Torvalds, NPR

Gas taxes

Today I passed a gas station charging $1.799/gallon.

That is amazingly cheap compared to what we're used to -- my maximum was $4.339/gal, on 6/17/08.

So now is the absolute best time to implement a $1/gal gas tax.

Obama should do it on Day 2.

Gasoline demand in the US is at 8.6 gal/person/week. A $1/gal tax would thus raise about $130B/yr -- and gas at the pump would still be $2.80/gal, a dream compared to last summer. Every dime of this revenue should go into R&D for alternative technologies.

Imagine what we could do with $130B. The Apollo project cost about $25B total. That's about $160B in today's dollars.

This has always been true of America: put lots of really smart people in a room, and they will figure out just about anything.

Let's get started.

Allen vs. Lomborg

Climateprediction.net -- the people who look for spare PC time around the Internet to run climate models -- has a nice debate video between Bjorn Lomborg and Myles Allen that took place in October. I learned a lot from it in a short period of time -- it's worth checking out.
  • I have never heard audio or video of Lomberg before -- I am amazed at how American he sounds, with no trace whatsoever of a Danish accent.
  • I like the simple way that Allen quantifies the debate -- to me it is a different perspective:
    • 0.5 TtC = 1°C warming (though I wonder if this simple rule takes into account the logarithmic dependence of temperature and CO2 level)
    • Let 1°C warming be defined as = 1 GWU (global warming unit)
    • (TtC = trillion tons Carbon)
    • total carbon burned so far = 1 GWU
    • reserves of conventional oil and gas = 1 GWU
    • reserves of coal = 5 GWU
    • unconventional reserves = 3 GWU
  • Overall, I think I agree with Allen -- I think Lomborg neglects to consider what happens in 2100+, when, if we don't curtail GHGs soon, will be in serious straits. Also, Lomborg is only talking about $50B -- chump change today. Can't we contain malaria and provide clean drinking water across the world and cutback on GHGs? Don't we have to? You can't long ignore a serious problem in your life just because you have other problems. We had $700B to bail out Wall Street at the drop of a hat (literally -- I heard yesterday that the Treasury Department can't even keep track of all the money because it's heading too fast out the door). Why can't the entire world find $50B?
  • Why do they introduce these speakers like it's a TV game show?

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Tomorrow is the beginning of a 12-day meeting in Poznan, Poland on the climate -- the "14th Session of Conference to the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change."

The UN says, yet again, that this will be a "milestone on the road to success" embarked on by the Bali conference (COP 13, Dec 2007), to COP 15 (Dec, 2009) in Copenhagen, at which the negotiations are supposed to conclude.

I guess. At this point it's nearly impossible to separate out what is diplomatic preening and actual intent. Nothing serious, of course, has yet been done about climate change, yet the diplomats seem very sure they're making process -- at least, that's their story and they're sticking to it. But it strikes me as akin to the perpetual dieter who says, OK, tomorrow I'm definitely going to start my diet, and this time I really mean it. Just after I eat this pizza.

I suppose it takes a certain kind of mindset to be a diplomat, and I'm sure I don't have it. The current economic crisis has many countries saying this isn't the right time to be cutting emissions.
Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, predicts that participant countries will invoke all kinds of reasons to avoid making changes, citing their monetary difficulties. (Softpedia News).
Maybe everyone is just waiting until Bush leaves office. What will the excuse be then?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Atheism and Economic Calamity

What caused the current economic crisis? Atheists, secularists, and the fact that we can't say "Merry Christmas" anymore. I kid you not. This sound piece of critical thinking actually appears in the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

NOAA has a press release out this morning about the 2008 hurricane season -- it was more active than usual:
...a season that produced a record number of consecutive storms to strike the United States and ranks as one of the more active seasons in the 64 years since comprehensive records began....

The storms included [16 named storms], eight hurricanes, five of which were major hurricanes at Category 3 strength or higher. An average season has 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

“This year’s hurricane season continues the current active hurricane era and is the tenth season to produce above-normal activity in the past 14 years,” said Gerry Bell, Ph.D., lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

Bell attributes this year’s above-normal season to conditions that include:

  • An ongoing multi-decadal signal. This combination of ocean and atmospheric conditions has spawned increased hurricane activity since 1995.
  • Lingering La Niña effects. Although the La Niña that began in the Fall of 2007 ended in June, its influence of light wind shear lingered.
  • Warmer tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures. On average, the tropical Atlantic was about 1.0 degree Fahrenheit above normal during the peak of the season.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Involuntary Microchipping

I don't know if anyone has proposed a law that says something like "any technology that can be abused will be abused," but if there is not such a law there should be. This proposal falls into that category:

Indonesian AIDS patients face microchip monitoring

...legislator John Manangsang said by implanting small computer chips beneath the skin of "sexually aggressive" patients, authorities would be in a better position to identify, track and ultimately punish those who deliberately infect others with up to six months in jail or a $5,000 fine.

Of course, as always, they claim there is a dire need for such violations:
"The health situation is extraordinary, so we have to take extraordinary action," said another lawmaker, Weynand Watari, who envisions radio frequency identification tags like those used to track everything from cattle to luggage.

This is exactly the way these things start. Once you start looking around you can find all kinds of good reasons for chipping people -- how about fighting terrorism? Protecting children from kidnapping (until the kidnappers gouge the chip out, at least)? Infectious diseases? Then people say, look, Indonesia does it and it doesn't seem to be a big problem....

I can foresee a black market for chip extraction. Though they'll make that illegal too.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ricky Gervais Fame - Eskimo's and Global Warming

Bush Cooling?

Today's meme seems to be: the planet has cooled during George Bush's regime.

This conclusion seems based on the following graph, which has been around for a month or two now:

I first saw this graph on a post of Lorne Gunter at the National Post in Canada (who I consider and extremely biased, unreliable source on climate change news and analysis). I asked him how it was derived -- how the trend line was calculated-- but he didn't respond. Nor has anyone else I've asked since.

It looks very suspicious to me: the graph dips awfully suddenly in the last two years, while not lurching upward at all during the El Nino warm period circa 1997-99. Until I see this calculation, I simply can't believe it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sci Am article

I have an article in the Dec 08 issue of Scientific American: Planck Satellite Mission Set to Explore Cosmic Secrets, about the European satellite that will launch this spring and zero-in on most cosmological parameters, including distinguishing among models of inflation.

"Inflation" is the extremely fast expansion -- exponential -- of the Universe that occurred very early on -- at about 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang.

Yes, it does seem absurd to talk about such times. But, amazingly, today's particle physics does in fact predict such an expansion, and when it's probed deep it predicts quite precise values for some very subtle and esoteric parameters, such as the "spread" of values of the fluctuations from the norm of the cosmic microwave background.

In essence, the Universe is like a big old fire, now extinguished, whose heat has all rushed out to the extreme edges of what we can detect. We can look at this heat and determine that its temperature is about 3 Kelvins: -454°F.

But, like any piece of heat, the remnants of this fire are not monothilic, but has variations in it, fluctuations, just like if you look at an ember in a firepit and see it glow in one basic color but with some variations -- a bit hotter, then a bit cooler, always in flux.

These variations have been measured by satellites already launched, and they have found that the variations are quite small. But NOT zero. They're only about 10 parts per million --a very tiny part of the average temperature -- like looking at a big group of humans and detecting variations in height of 20 microns or so. In othr words, very small.

But, amazingly, today's satellites have measured these fluctuations, and today's high-energy particle theories have predicted it. And they are in surprising agreement. People, like George Smoot of LBL, have won the Nobel Prize for precisely this. It is an immense achievement, both intellectually and practically.

But thereare still more details to be rung out of the cosmic microwave background, and this is what the Planck mission will do. This will enable theorists to distinguish among competing theories of "inflation."

It is, when you think about it, quite amazing. Measurements of extremely small features of the universe -- glowing embers in a huge fire -- will enable scientists to determine which of their cosmological models make sense. Cosmology has truly been one of the greatest boones to modern physics.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

NASA Recomputes

NASA GISS has recomputed their October temperature anomaly: +0.58°C.
  • That's warmer than last October (+0.53°C), so those silly people who look at short-term statistics must now conclude that the globe is warming again.
  • This is the fourth warmest October since records began, all of them since 2003.
  • Year-to-date, this is (so far) the 9th warmest year on record, all of the larger once being since 1998.
  • I'm sure skeptics will find some statistical combination that will allow them to still claim global cooling.
UPDATE: GISS has adjusted its October number to +0.55°C. (Such adjustments take place all the time, even many months in the past.) All the above still holds.

Naval Sonar

Somehow I think this decision would have been different if there were more cetaceans on the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Temperature Data

I have been out of it for awhile.... but I see that NASA GISS posted a large temperature anomaly of +0.78°C for the month of October, only to take it back a day later when several people pointed out that the October data for many stations in Russia were the same as those of September.... (As posted, it would have been the 4th warmest month of all time.)

Which is, frankly, a good catch. Props to the collective journalistic effort of the blogosphere. We need more of that (including when temperatures are reported as very low; but this is probably unlikely, just due to basic human nature).

Of course, correcting data is as old as science itself. It is a fundamental part of science, and won't ever, ever go away. Science doesn't proclaim the truth -- it zeros in on it.

Still, though, suspicious things are going on. Anthony Watts at Watt's Up With That says that the NASA GISS data set is no longer reliable:

But, of course (and you know what's coming next) it was reliable enough a mere nine months ago when he used it to show "global cooling":
The GISS ΔT was -.75°C, which is larger than the satellite data from UAH ∆T of -.588°C and the RSS RSS ∆T of -.629°C

GISS January Land-Sea Anomaly
click for larger image

The ΔT of -.75°C from January 2007 to January 2008 appears to be the largest single year to year January drop for the entire GISS data set.

This is yet one more indication of the intensity of planet-wide cooler temperatures seen in January 2008, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, which has seen record amounts of snow coverage extent as well as new record low surface temperatures in many places.
This is just one more example of what can only be considered intellectual dishonesty by some of the skeptics, which we have seen before.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Letter to the Editor

This letter to the NY Times sums it all up very neatly:
To the Editor:

That day has dawned, the day dreamed of by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when a man is judged by the content of his character rather than by the color of his skin....

(Rev.) Connell J. Maguire
Riviera Beach, Fla., Nov. 4, 2008


Inhofe is reelected to the Senate. Just to keep things interesting.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama Wins

It's 10:03 pm EST, and ABC News says Obama has 207 electoral votes. He needs 270 to win, and is bound to win California (55), Oregon (7), and Washington (11). That will give him a minimum of 280 EVs.

It's over. Obama has won.


I am relieved. Earlier in the evening it looked closer than I expected, in Virginia, and in Indiana.

I am happy to see Shaheen win in NH, and, as a godless atheist scumbag, Dole lose in NC.


Simply put, I thought that if McCain were elected this country would be effectively had the fork stuck in its ass -- further down the dark path, hopelessly far right-wing, hopelessly militaristic, nationalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, anti-science, soon to be bankrupt, corporations controlling absolutely everything, privacy at serious risk, perhaps even religious diversity, the Constitution even more of a ripped mess that it is after these last horrible eight years.

Obama at least represents hope. Some hope. I'm enormously proud that my country elected an African-American to the presidency. Frankly, I never thought I'd see it. A page has definitely turned.

But the US is a big ship and does not turn around easily. I thought Clinton & Gore represented hope in 1992, but they turned out to be a big disappointment and in may ways just more of the same -- run by corporations and their donations and their influence, overtly political at any cost, and self-indulgent to the point of self-destruction.

Every four years everyone thinks things are going to change big-time -- and yet things hardly change that much. A little forward, a little back. Why should this be any different?

I don't think the vast right-wing conspiracy (of course, it exists) will work any less hard during an Obama presidency. Can he hold all that off? He has the dignity and coolness to possibly do it. It won't be easy. It's not like we're out of any woods.

But Obama is clearly unique, like, I imagine, JFK was. Some things about him still worry me. His opposition to same-sex marriage, which surely he knows is an unjust position, is, I hope, based on political survival and thus reversible when the time is right. I'm disappointed at the extent to which he injects religion into his own attitude about governing, but perhaps that is only political survival too.

On health care, which is by far the most important issue to me, I think he is disappointing. I can't see him overcoming the huge corporate medical block. The number of uninsured will probably decrease under his presidency, but even he admits that not everyone will be covered. Single, childless, self-employed, pre-existing conditions, I fully expect to be one of them, and that angers me deeply.

Some of the things I saw in the election certainly make me worry about mankind, but I suppose all elections have been like this.

Anyway, I guess this is a start. Finally.

Has Global Warming Stopped?

Christopher Monckton has a little item out titled "Global Warming Has Stopped." It's the usual chart, starting at 2002:

Here's why I think this is just simply wrong. If you plot the globally average temperature (I'm using the NASA GISS data series) since, say, 1990, you get:

Red bars are monthly temperatures in Celsius; the yellow line is the 5-year moving average.

If you think global warming has stopped in recent years, just because the yellow line is flat for the last couple of years, then why wouldn't you have drawn the same conclusion in 1997, 2002, and 2005 (especially 1997)?

You would have. But obviously you would have wrong each time, as global temperatures resumed moving upward after each period.

So what is unique about this latest pause? Nothing. So you can't say "global warming has stopped."

NOTE: This is essentially the same argument made by Bill Chameides. Monckton accuses him of being "dishonest" and accusing him of tampering with the data.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Springsteen Reloaded

I'm sorry, but this is funny:

See more Pete Hulne videos at Funny or Die

The EAS Has Landed

I called NASA, and they said the ISS's EAS (ammonia tank) came down last night and landed in the ocean between Australia and New Zealand.

Heads Up

Last year the International Space Station threw some junk overboard -- a 635 kg, refrigerator-size ammonia tank -- and last night it came back to Earth. Somewhere. No news yet that I can find of where it landed.

NASA predicted it could have come down in as many as 15 pieces (the largest being 18 kg), impacting the Earth at about 100 mi/hr.

If you find something strange in your front yard, first take a picture, second send it to me, and third call NASA.

PS: Much, much larger things have fallen out of orbit.

Sunspots Again

After some months of puzzling quiescence, the first sunspots of Solar Cycle 24 are beginning to appear -- four in the past month. Spaceweather.com says:
In a year of almost no sunspots, four is significant. It means that the sun is beginning a slow ascent out of solar minimum to a more active phase of the sunspot cycle. Solar minimum is not a permanent condition!
You can't keep a good Sun down.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

How I Voted

President: Barack Oback (D)
US Senator: Jeff Merkley (D)
US Represenative: David Wu (D)

There are other races, but these are the most important.

Friday, October 31, 2008

High School Dropouts

I find this absolutely flabbergasting:
The U.S. is the only industrialized country where youths are less likely than their parents to earn a diploma, the report says, citing data compiled by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development....

One in 4 kids is dropping out of school, a rate that hasn't budged for at least five years. Among minorities, more than 1 in 3 drop out.
Sometimes it seems the United States is coming apart at the seams. And honestly, I am not so sure even a Obama presidency can reverse this.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Tyranny of Oil

This looks like it could be a good book:

The Tyranny of Oil: The World's Most Powerful Industry--And What We Must Do to Stop It

by Antonia Juhasz

Antonia Juhasz, a leading industry critic and expert on corporations and globalization, gives us the hardest-hitting expose of the oil industry in decades. In The Tyranny of Oil she investigates the true state of the U.S. oil industry — uncovering its virtually unparalleled global power, influence over our elected officials, and lack of regulatory oversight, as well as the truth behind $150-a-barrel oil, $4.50-a-gallon gasoline, and the highest profit in corporate history. Exposing an industry that thrives on secrecy, Juhasz shows how Big Oil manages to hide its business dealings from policy makers, legislators, and, most of all, consumers. She reveals exactly how Big Oil gets what it wants — through money, influence, and lies.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Kris Kristofferson: "Don't let the bastards get you down."

Sinéad O'Conner: "I'm not down."



I understand a few things -- calculus, how to make your way up a steep mountain with a heavy pack on your back, one-loop QED calculations, how to make animals feel at home -- but I don't understand music at all. I know that I like it. But I don't know how to make it, or read it.

And I've always thought I'm missing something for that.... I'd just like, for once, to be part of something like this DCFC's experience here onstage from about 5:00 to the end.... I'd like to know what that is like....

What is it like?

My Rule About Voting

I will not vote for any candidate who does not have a Web site -- I don't care if they're running for dog catcher or sidewalk gum scrapper.

If you don't understand that the Web is the greatest innovation since the printing press and the absolute best way to communicate with your potential supporters, and to let them know who you are and what you stand for, then you do not deserve to be part of any government in the 21st century.

Example: Steve W. Blanchard, running for City Council Position #2, St Helens, OR. Sorry dude.

Monday, October 27, 2008

More NF3 Nonsense

Here's a piece of giant misunderstanding about the NF3 news announced last week, from the Hindu Times:
'NF3 contributes more to global warming than CO2'

New York (PTI): Carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the most potent gas responsible for global warming.

They do correct themselves (or, at least, provide the right answer) later in the article. But the headline is seriously misleading.

Monday stuff

Just some things that have crossed my path:
  • is bisphenol-A safe? It's a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics, and has been in the news a lot lately.... The FDA released a recent report on it, claiming that it is safe. Guess who wrote the report? Yes, that's right: the plastics industry.
  • Bisphenol-A sales in 2007: $6 billion.
  • The Heartland Institute is holding another climate change conference in New York next year. The theme is: "Global Warming Crisis: Cancelled."
    "All of the event's expenses are being covered by individual and foundation donors to Heartland," said Dan Miller, executive vice president of the institute. "No corporate dollars earmarked for the event were solicited or accepted."
    They don't say which foundations.
  • The IEA says not nearly enough money is being spent on researching Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). "To date, only four full-scale CCS projects exist in the world; none of these projects captures carbon dioxide (CO2) from a coal-fired power plant."
  • Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion has sold 1.5 million copies. Still, Dawkins thinks science is losing the battle against religion.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Nitrogen Trifluoride Scare

Thinkprogress again fails to deliver a trustworthy picture on climate change. Today they write:
In an upcoming issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, NASA reports that “new research indicates a powerful greenhouse gas might be at least four times more prevalent than has been thought.” The level of nitrogen trifluoride — which “is thousands of times more effective at warming the Earth’s atmosphere than an equal mass of carbon dioxide” — has increased by a rate of 11 percent per year. Previously, “emissions of nitrogen trifluoride were thought to be so low the gas has not been considered a significant potential contributor to global warming.”
These are all true facts, and makes NF3 sound very scary. But what they don't tell you is that current NF3 emissions contribute only 0.15% of the total global warming effect of current manmade CO2 emissions.

UPDATE: The AGU issued a correction overnight. The correct figure for NF3's contribution is 0.04%.

Gore quote

"When I hear of a new outrage, I have to download some old outrage to make room for it."

-- Al Gore, Harvard, Oct 22, 2008

Exponential Growth

Here's a very interesting graph from New Scientist:

Of course, most of these parameters were much larger during the Medieval Warm Period.

Southwestern Pennsylvania

Yesterday on Hannity and Colmes, Karl Rover said this about southwestern Pennsylvania:
ROVE: But it’s a conservative part of the state, and then if you take the far southwestern corner over there near Pittsburgh and the suburbs, that’s coal country, and that’s the kind of people who really do cling to their guns and their faith, and took a lot of — you know that was part of the state where Obama might be expected to do well.
I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, in a little place up in the mountains too rural to even be considered a village, and Rove is simply incorrect. People there have guns, sure, for hunting, but they are by no means fanatical about it. Yes, my dad took me to shoot rats at the dump, and a few times we had to pull over so he could shoot a groundhog or two in a field. I wasn't ever much interested, personally. Faith? Hardly. Growing up I never heard anybody in my family or extended family talk about faith or religion. We went to church for awhile and then gave it up. I went to Bible summer school one year and mostly remember it for the girls there. No one in my family goes to church. No one in the community or nearby communities talks about religion, if at all. There is no evangelicalism. Religion was not discussed in schools or anywhere else. The churches are modest and not ostentatious. The biggest religion there is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In my visits back there I don't see that it's changed much back there.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hadley's September Anomaly

Hadley has September at +0.371°C above the long-term mean, their coldest September since 2000. That compares to NASA GISS's +0.49°C.

Program Alert

Tomorrow night: Heat, on PBS's Frontline, about climate change:
For the past 18 months, veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith and his production team have tracked this complex story around the world. Now, in a wide-ranging, two-hour special edition, they report on what they've seen, and it isn't pretty. From the First World to the Third, the demand for energy continues to grow, driven by the needs of emerging giants like India and China, where environmental concerns take a way backseat in the headlong rush to development. Smith and his colleagues spent weeks in these two countries....
Preview here.

You can watch the full program here (after tomorrow).

A quote from the program:
"The western model of growth is inherently toxic."
-- Sunita Narain, Centre for Science and the Environment, India

McCain Concedes

In any great endeavor--and we've all had a couple, whether it was in athletics, or finishing college, or perhaps your true love, or something else -- there comes a point where -- and we've all been there -- you have failed. You have previously keep going, kept plugging away, been inspired by some motive or image or person or dream, but at some point, it suddenly sinks into your soul that you're not going to make it. The goal is too high, or the pain is too much, or you just don't have what it takes. Your shoulders slump. Your trick knee acts up. After that you keep at it, but it's just going through the motions, and deep, deep down you know it. You just have to let it work its way out. And it does and you feel a great disappointment and some part of you, at least, moves on.

McCain has reached this point. He's lost. There's nothing more he can do.

On Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked John McCain how he would feel if he lost the presidential race to Barack Obama:
"Oh, sure,'' Mr. McCain said. " I mean, I don't dwell on it. But, look, I've a wonderful life. I have to go back and live in Arizona, be in the United States Senate representing them, a wonderful family, daughters and sons that I'm so proud of and a life that's been blessed. I'm the luckiest guy you have ever interviewed and will ever interview. I'm the most fortunate man on earth and I thank God for it every single day.''

"So if the world turns an unfortunate way on November 4th, don't feel sorry for John McCain?" Mr. Wallace asked.

"Don't feel sorry for John McCain and John McCain will be concentrating on not feeling sorry for himself,'' Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Wallace said, "And you might just be president."

"You never know,'' Mr. McCain said.

You don't talk this way if you're winning, or if you're thinking you're winning, or if it's close and you know you really need to dig in and find out what kind of man you are, or even if it looks kinda bad but you know life takes strange twists and turns and you still hope of winning. You don't even concede the question.

You talk this way when you know you know you've lost.

And his side knows it. Read The Corner -- the coming loss drips off nearly every post they write.

If you're a progressive, or a liberal, or a Democrat, or if you see America as perched on the edge of a cliff -- i.e., if you're not "pro-American"-- enjoy the next two weeks. They're as good as it's ever going to get.

Marc Morano

Marc Morano: disputes the validity of climate models, except when they're in his favor.
Volz noted that the IPCC does not even call the climate models "predictions" and instead refers to them as "projections" or "story lines." Volz said the projections might be more aptly termed "fairy tales." (CNSNews.com, 5/14/02)
Also in September, American Craig Loehle, a scientist who conducts computer modelling on global climate change, confirmed his earlier findings that the so-called Medieval Warm Period (MWP) of about 1,000 years ago did in fact exist and was even warmer than 20th-century temperatures. (via Planet Gore, 10/20/08)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Palin on SNL

Perhaps the only thing worse than a vice-presidential candidate who won't give a press conference is one who goes on television and mocks the country about it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Investing in the Economy

In their endorsement of Obama, the LA Times writes:
On paper, McCain presents the type of economic program The Times has repeatedly backed: One that would ease the tax burden on business and other high earners most likely to invest in the economy and hire new workers.
I never understand this. Why is it that only rich people's money creates jobs and investment? Money is fungible. If you're middle-class -- or, frankly, any-class -- and you get a tax break, you're going to either (1) spend the money on, say, soap, which will increase soap demand and create jobs in the soap industry, (2) put it in savings, which will funnel though your bank into investment firms that invest in small and large businesses, or (3) pay off debt, which again puts more money in the hands of banks and credit bureaus, enabling them to either invest the money or loan it back out again to people starting companies, etc.

Am I missing something?

Oil Prices and all that

Roger Lowenstein, today's NY Times:
Well, gas still costs $3.50 a gallon, and the price of a barrel of oil, last week close to $80, still is four times what it was all of six years ago. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider that in the half-dozen years of the housing boom, residential home prices rose only 125 percent, whereas oil prices, even now, are 300 percent higher than they were six years ago. So the energy issue is still here. Remember the winter after Katrina, when home-heating-fuel prices caused an uproar? This winter they are likely to be much higher.

When the new president takes office, high energy costs will be — as they are already — a drag on the economy, one that is becoming conflated with the credit crisis. Last month, the U.S. auto industry sold fewer than one million cars — its slowest sales rate in 15 years. Tight credit and high gas prices each contributed to that. There is no way to completely unravel the two, but here is one fact: In the early part of this decade, when oil was cheap, Americans spent only 2 percent of their income on gasoline. Recently they have been spending about 4.5 percent — more than twice as much. And you can bet that the percentage is higher among families with lower incomes.

Cp here.

Linear Correlations - A Love Story

When I was a dumb undergraduate, a sophomore I think, I decided I wanted to take a one-on-one course with a professor and do something experimental. He didn't really care what and sent me off on my own. I decided to try and measure the change of the index of refraction of glass with temperature.

One afternoon a week I went to a little room with a bunch of old equipment, including an oven and a spectrometer. I found some glass slides and a lamp and a thermometer and started to make measurements, heating up the glass, watching diffraction fringes change, etc. etc.

At the end I plotted my results, and they were all over the place. I mean, simply scattershot. I took out my trusted HP calculator (remember Reverse Polish Notation?) and plugged away and came up with a best-line fit. And when I took it to my professor (Bryon Dieterle), he pretty much laughed right in my face and told me you can't just draw a stupid line between a seemingly random set of results, and anyway, I hadn't considered the uncertainties of my data (or my result) and that was actually most of experimental science. I felt pretty humiliated -- I could go back and show you the exact spot in the hallway he told me all this, almost like it was the Kennedy assassination. Then he explained uncertainties in terms of partial derivatives and it started to make sense. I think he gave me an A-.

I was always a lousy experimentalist -- I still panic at having to change a flat tire -- but in fact that humiliation taught me a great deal about what data analysis was all about and insisting on good data and precise data and not being stupid about it and all that. Anyway.

So when I see something like this

from the blog Stochastic Democracy, more or less endorsed by Matthew Yglesias here, I have to laugh. You can't just take a scatterhot of points and draw a line through it because that's what your calculator (now Excel) tells you. Sure, you can, but it's meaningless -- it's a blob! -- and it's more important to understand that it's meaningless than going through the nitty gritty details of calculation slopes and intercepts and Pearson coefficients.

I don't know the moral of this story, except that you can do a lot of stupid things with the linear correlation function on your spreadsheet. Be sure to think first.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Voting By Mail

Oregon has Vote-by-mail, and it seems more and more states are heading in that direction, such as Colorado (as reported in the NY Times article today).
With Election Day less than three weeks away, the number of people voting by mail has exploded in Colorado, a pivotal battleground state up for grabs in November. Nearly half of the state’s registered voters have requested ballots by mail, compelling the Obama and McCain campaigns to kick-start their get-out-the-vote efforts — and devise new and imaginative ones.
I appreciate the convenience, but I do not like this trend. I much preferred, in New Hampshire, going to my community's polling station -- it made me feel like a citizen in a community. Sure, it was usually a cold snowy mess, and I hardly ever knew anyone there, and I'm not that social to begin with, but for that day, at least, I felt part of something. I saw people with placards. I got to see people voting. There was something about that.

It helps a little bit that in NH, during primary season, as soon as you come out of the building a couple of pollsters descend on you (I always declined to answer them). You feel a little special.

But I think the breakdown in community is ruining our country, and so I hate to see anything that contributes to its decline. No doubt we will all, in 8 or so years, be voting via the Internet, making it even worse. Voting rates may go up -- that doesn't necessarily mean it's a better system.

Obama to Classify CO2

Obama would classify CO2 as a dangerous pollutant, his energy adviser said today, possibly immediately upon taking office.

You can expect a slew of jokes about Obama outlawing our ability to breathe, live, "We call it Life" and all that. (Here's a giveaway: Bill Clinton might have been the president who didn't inhale, but Obama will be the first one unable to exhale.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tonight's Debate

I'm not going to live-blog tonight's presidential debate.

I'm not going to try and listen and watch and type and read blogs all at the same time. I'm not going to jump to conclusions or imply that my instantaneous, brief reactions are of any value to the rest of the world.

Instead, I'm going to sit quietly and listen carefully. I'm going to watch how a candidate responds (or doesn't) to the questions, and how his opponent responds to that. I'm not going to go write something and thereby miss the next minute of the debate. I won't jump around and look to see what ThinkProgress or Kevin Drum or Andrew Sullivan had to say in the last 45 seconds, as if the world depends on it, and when the debate is over I will turn off the computer, read a little Matt Ridley, and let my brain sleep on what I have just heard.

McCain and Honor

From Willamette Week, a biting but spot-on comment:
As for John McCain, what five-plus years in a POW camp couldn’t do—make McCain forfeit his honor—the hunger to be president has.

Fixing FFFD boxes in Firefox

Perhaps you're experiencing strange little boxes with "FF FD" in them when using Firefox 3.0. Here's the fix that worked for me:

View >> Character Encoding >> Auto-detect >> Universal

More in the Firefox Support Forum.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Smashing Bugs

Once when I was an undergraduate I was in a backyard sitting at a picnic table reading Messiah's book on quantum mechanics. A bug landed on the page and I instinctively swiped him off, killing him completely, leaving nothing but a thin red smear across the page.

Suddenly I realized: my God, what had I just done? I had obliterated a life without hardly even thinking about it. I had reduced it to essentially nothing.

I still think about that when I find a bug where I'd rather he not be. (I still have Messiah's book, too.) Sure, I kill my share, but often I'll simply coax them onto a piece of paper and take them outside. (And yet, I have not committed to vegetarianism.)

So there is something becoming in this video of Obama brushing a spider off his shirt:

In my book this speaks highly of his as a person.

World's First Nuclear Accident, in Idaho

It's often said that there have been no fatalities from nuclear accidents in the US, including Three Mile Island, but I was doing some research today on another subject I was surprised to come across this:
On January 3, 1961, the first and only fatal nuclear reactor accident in the United States occurred at the NRTS ["National Reactor Testing Station," near Idaho Falls, Idaho]. An experimental reactor called SL-1 (Stationary Low-Power Plant Number 1) was destroyed when a problem control rod was removed incorrectly leading to core meltdown and explosion. All three military personnel working in the reactor were killed. Due to the extensive radioactive isotope contamination, all three had to be buried in lead coffins. The events are the subject of a book published in 2003, Idaho Falls: The untold story of America's first nuclear accident.
By the way, Idaho National Laboratory's budget is about $800M/yr. Who knew?