Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In response to an opinion about global warming and global conspiracy

Urgh. I can't tell if Greenwald is attempting farce or attempting to shove his face in his arse. (Face + Arse = Farce? No, too easy.)

If he is not trying to be an arse, then he does not make a good scientific argument. Where does any statement say that "Western" industrialization is the culprit of global warming? If he were to read the scientific literature, he would find that industrialization, primarily from the West (due, of course, to the much longer time frame of industrialization IN the "West") is pointed to as the culprit.

However, Mr Greenwald starts off by making the first wrong assumption: that all Lefties are Global Warming enthusiasts (and that a "Lefty" publication might print something that isn't from a "lefty"). The rest of his argument depends on this assumption. This is like saying all Jews are Zionists, all British have bad teeth, all Germans are Nazis, all Indians love curry, all Americans are Indian killers, all French are arrogant, etc. If I were to judge Mr. Greenwald's state of mind on anything alone, it must start at his first premise - which is as shallow as the connections I made in the previous sentence. Continuing on, the only Google mentions of the Dr. David Whitehouse who wrote the article, show him to be a climate change skeptic, presumably with a degree in astophysics (since the majority of his discussions of science over on the BBC pages deal with outer space and - interestingly - science fictiony type things, like teleportation). That a person with a science degree in the effects of physics OUTSIDE the purview of the Earth has any equivalent credential to state anything credible on the status of science looking at the effects of physics INSIDE the atmosphere, is like saying that Jerry Falwell is a good interpreter of the Torah (after all, Falwell's bible and the Jewish bible are based on the same thing, right?). These two reasons are why I don't hold Dr. Whitehouse scientific credentials as highly as Mr. Greenwald, but to continue to state that Dr. Whitehouse's time as the online science editor for the BBC somehow makes him more credible than Gore is also a stupid argument to make. Gore has a whole team of people working with and for him and is wrapped up in global warming science and education - trust me, I met the man, and the former Whitehouse (President's mansion on Pennsylvania Blvd this time, not some self-aggrandizing former editor for the BBC) science adviser who worked for him - and know first hand (as opposed to Mr. Greenwald's who-knows-how-many hand) how committed to obtaining more information he (Gore) is on this subject (global warming). So, to sum up this lengthy, rambling paragraph:
  1. Not all Lefties agree with the idea of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or are anti-Western/US.
  2. AGW not caused by THE WEST, but by industrialization, which is primarily found (by weight of history) in the West. (Sorry, no evil anti-Western/corporatist conspiracy here, unless Mr. Greenwald is trying to tell us that industrialization didn't have a major history in the West!)
  3. Dr. Whitehouse is not an expert on atmospheric physics (for the basic physical science of AGW), economics, public health, ecology, biology, virology, or any other "ology" that might relate to impacts on the ground resulting from AGW. Dr. Whitehouse appears to be an ASTROphysicist.
  4. Mr. Gore deals every day with the issue of AGW, and if not "every day", then a damn sight more time than Dr. Whitehouse's "illustrious" career at the BBC allowed him to do.
But let me continue to the next paragraph. "For starters, the anti-Western trend in left wing thought is all-encompassing." What? I'm a "Lefty". Does that mean that I am "anti-Western"? Let Mr. Greenwald tell me to my face and we shall have to engage in a duel of honor! But seriously, this is characteristic of a starting sentence of a diatribe. What makes him think that anything he has to tell me after this point I won't take with such a large bucket-full of salt that I will find even the thought of digesting what he has written unpalatable? Admittedly, I am writing (in my reply to you) in a very sour tone, but I don't expect Mr Greenwald or anyone else to read this, nor am I trying and pick apart his argument to anyone else but you (or anyone else with an understanding of my own thought processes and appreciation of my sarcastic sensibilities who may be reading this over your shoulder). But if my mental digression was bad then what is this?:

"It's easy to point to the slave trade and colonial rule, and make a sound moral determination in the non-West's favor. Deeper digging produces some compelling counter-arguments, but if you're looking for a go-to stance then "the West is evil" is a lay-up. In regards to global warming, the logic proceeds as follows: atmospheric warming is caused by CO2 emissions; CO2 emissions are the result of industrialization; industry is synonymous with the West. Thus, global warming is caused by the West, (the U.S. in particular.)"

Mr. Greenwald now sound like a little Mr. Inhofe. In fact, in his next paragraph, he almost sounds like he's come up with a brilliant new formulation of the good Senator's statement of, "Global warming is the biggest hoax perpetrated on the American populace." Oooh, SIR!

Now, if Mr. Greenwald wanted to give me a scientific (or mathematical) discussion on how you can discern from an apparent 6-year trend (temps of 2001-2007) something that is somehow characteristic of a 30-year time frame (along which climate is supposed to be measured), then the point just prior to the paragraph above would have been the best place to catch me. Indeed, if he showed anything in his statement that would have shown me something other than data, it would have been good. However, he only later shows data (with no discussion). With no attribution. Data which has as much to do with a connection between CO2 emissions and AGW as the Pope does to the presence of heaven. Do you see what I'm getting at? Just by stating that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven does not prove that there is a heaven, that there are keys, or that the Catholic Church is their keeper. Similarly, all the numbers show is that countries did not conform to Kyoto, and is really more an illustration of the lack of enforcement mechanisms in the Protocol than proof of a non-connection between CO2 and AGW. (That the US's emissions only increased slightly in comparison to Europe is something for which I can refer Mr. Greenwald to Mr. Peter Gleick at the Pacific Institute.) That Mr. Greenwald does nothing in discussing the major jumps in CO2 emission from China and India, or the major decreases in world forests - especially the tropical rainforests; the deforestation of the Amazon alone caused a major spike in Brazil's CO2 and CO emissions - since 1990 is strange (or maybe this doesn't fit his own world view).

In the end, Occam's Razor (i.e., the idea of parsimony) is something that I have to go back to. Is this all a major conspiracy forged by the UN (an organization which has proven itself to be incapable of finesse and unilateralism on anything other than recent anti-Americanism) and lefties (that Mr. Greenwald never really provides good definition for)? Or is this the cumulative impact of 6 billion people living today, and the several billion that came before us? Along this line, I have to go with the second option.

The first option shows a humanity about it that makes it tempting to believe. In this scenario, there is a conspiracy being carried out by a cabal of "them" against "us". In such a scenario, "they" are either so all-powerful that "they" can do anything they want; are all-knowing that "they" can act independently (but in complete harmony with each other), even appearing to be at cross-purposes; or are so well-entrenched into the system that no one can get rid of "them." These are all cornerstones of any good (or bad) conspiracy theory. However, conspiracy theories require so many contingencies that they fall apart. (Of course, that they do fall apart only goes to show that the conspiracy is really true!) Mr. Greenwald might as well have said, "The Jews did it!" After all, this is a tried-and-tested conspiracy theory that has shown to hold traction over centuries. (Maybe Jewcy is the wrong forum, though.)

The second option is less viscerally tempting because it is so vast and (strangely) inhuman. In this scenario, the cumulative impact of an unimaginable number of actions (greater than any human mind can conceive on his/her own) has an unintended impact on everything. This is something that many rational people don't want to hear. We think our actions (on the whole) rational. We like to think these things. We like to hear of studies that show that a group is smarter than an individual. The idea that billions of small (or large) actions can lead to a bad cumulative impact that is not seen immediately baffles the brain. However, we've seen it countless times in the past: acid rain, ozone hole, fisheries collapse, radiation poisoning, environmentally-caused cancer, altered hydrology due to land-use change, groundwater pumping, etc. The longer the natural world's response to a collective and cumulative action, the less likely we are to accepting a connection. We aren't hard-wired to think in these terms. We are more likely to think in conspiracies, as Mr. Greenwald apparently does.

One final note. With an MA in general psychology, I'm surprised that Mr. Greenwald has fallen prey to the conspiracy frame of mind, and apparently being unable to tell that he is. Of course, this might be the difference between obtaining an MS and an MA in that field.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Day of the Ninja

Thanks to Tom Cruise's film, The Last Samurai, and some online ninja jokesters, today is (among other things) Day of the Ninja!

Just be warned... (You never know where they strike, you see.)

Now don't you wish you weren't so happy to conform to pirate speech on Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day?

End-of-Prohibition Day

On this day in 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. For those of you who don't know (and don't want to read the whole Wikipedia page), the important part of that amendment was the following:

"The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed."

Ooh. Such a well-crafted sentence that leaves nothing to doubt. No wiggle-room. Of course, article 3 of the amendment required that a requisite number of states ratify the amendment within seven years. Surprisingly, the majority of states that ratified Amendment 18 also ended up ratifying Amendment 21. Only South Carolina stuck to its original pro-Prohibition vote by being the only state to reject the 21st Amendment in 1933. (Similarly, Connecticut and Rhode Island rejected the 18th Amendment while voting for the 21st.)

So, go out and enjoy the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the return to states the power to set alcohol production, sale, and consumption laws! (Responsibly, of course.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The role of decoration

The role of decoration in the lifestyle of people is always exploited in commercials, and no more than at Christmas - aka 'shopping time'. Is it naive of me to wonder how we got to the point we are at, with Christmas advertising starting earlier each year? The blatantly consumption-ist crapmercials have started and one knows the tackiness of certain items are their only draw. Why else would a major lumber/hardware big-box store (Lowes) only focus their commercials on the ditzy hausfrau asking the sickeningly cheerful young store clerk where silly "seasonal" such as the dancing holiday turkey, a giant inflatable snowglobe, and other crappy lawn and home "ornaments" that will likely be of shoddy construction material and quality? The irony of going to a home improvement store that supposedly takes pride in its quality - "Let's build something together" - to buy poor quality tacky crap. (Urgh.)

Living in the US, one expects it, though, no matter how one might cringe at the incessant blare of consumerist drivel, made even more sickening thanks to fundamentalist nutters' (who have a microphone in the form of Bill "O, Really") "War on Christmas" awareness campaigns, as well as greater exhortations for greater consumption to help (in some unknown and unproven way) the troops. In such ways we celebrate the birth of Jesus/the end of the year/the winter solstice/winter. Again, urgh.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Beowulf (in 3D)

I just watched the new film Beowulf (in 3D). The film was quite a good one - creating an easy means to access the much more difficult to read translated book. However, to people who haven't read the book, this film is not (surprise, surprise) a faithful translation of the original Old English "classic" epic poem. (For example, in the book, Grendel's mother wasn't a gold-tinged Angelina Jolie look-alike with - strangely - high heels and tail.)

The major drawback (in my opinion) was the diminution of the role of the hero in epic poetry and ancient societies. Having watched Troy in recent days, the parallels between the heroic characters Achilles and Beowulf become clear. Having recently watched Troy has also shown me how apparently shallow the hero theme (fighting for glory and immortality) was explored in Beowulf (yes, they talk about being sung for eternity, but it wasn't pressed to the same extent as in Troy). I feel this theme was altered slightly to try and show Beowulf as a human being with his own failings culminating in a desire to (in the last act) redeem himself by righting the wrongs he helped create as a young man. True, in the original Beowulf, the character (to my recollection) wasn't really trying to redeem himself of any wrong, but ended trying to die a glorious death in combat. The women in his life were mentioned only secondarily in the text (again, if I recall correctly). Although this type of character is alien to the modern viewer, I don't feel that the way to mainstream the film is to alter (some might say "explore") the character, but be explicit that it is set in a context of heroism and (like in Troy) possibly show the dichotomy of the heroic and the politic.

If you want to watch an action film, then this isn't the film for you. The action sequences (although bloody and hair-raising) are only quick blasts of action spritzed sparingly in the rest of the film.

No, the plot changes and plot twists that aren't in the original text (at least in the copy I recall reading) weren't really a bad thing, in my opinion. In fact, they possibly lent more continuity to the storyline. Of course, how the director decided to show this new script did have a negative outcome on the role of the hero (see above), however, since I feel that the plot changes did not force the diminution mentioned above, I'm not going to say the changes were all bad.

The film is very enjoyable in 3D, and if it wasn't for watching it in that format, I would say that the whole thing might not really be worth it... The fight scenes are all well choreographed, and when Beowulf strips down completely, the animators took great pains to make sure his (erm) penis wasn't showing. (Still, a little beefcake for those interested in that sort of thing.) However, for being a "bear of a man," Beowulf wasn't really rendered as being really "bear-like" (not hirsute or brawny enough to really be called "bear").

The cinematography was well drawn and directed. The characters were still somewhat plasticky in their look - many of them were (while being well rendered) were not realistic looking (interestingly, Beowulf was significantly more real-looking than any other character in the film). However, the inorganic items (the pebble beach, the flames, the castles, the cliffs, etc) were really great.

One last gripe and I'll be done: the thing is a period piece - taking place sometime after the fall of Rome, but not too much - and as such, one would like to see some realism along that vein, but in some interesting respects Beowulf falls down on this. Hrothgar's castle keep (while never entered in the film) is a major tower built along a scale that would never be seen until the Crusades. At the end of the film, the keep has expanded to massive tower proportions, and the stoutness of the castle walls would have made the castle builders of the 16th century envious. Additionally, Beowulf is seen wearing what looks to be plate armor. Where did he get it? That technology wasn't going to be around for another few centuries. (One might argue that it was colored leather, but it seemed to me to be rather shiny for leather.)

See the film (if you can see it, in 3D). It makes a good part of a collection alongside 300 and Troy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Scientists as Policy Advisers

One of the greatest problems of having scientists serving as policy advisers is that scientists are trained in an area that is NOT policy advising, and unless they are lucky, their advice should not be taken, except with a major grain of salt. Part of this reaction stems from (I believe) mainly two points. First was the age of planning that peaked in the 20th Century, to which many people are still reacting to, and basing their viewpoints on. The second is the understanding that stakeholder engagement is becoming more feasible, even with possibly complex scientific issues.

The first issue (the spectre of the age of planning) is important because it is the major legacy with which we (as members of society in the US) focus our lens on the science adviser. From a 1955 publication entitled Natural Resources and the Political Struggle (Wengert, 1955), the roles of science and planning are outlined thusly:

In the field of resource policy, there has been a pronounced effort to rationalize programs and proposals in scientific terms and to city the authority of science as justification for particular policies. In no other field is the role of the expert more significant for particular policies. In no other field is the role of the expert more significant, and concomitantly the tendency to abdicate private, lay judgment in favor of the specialist more evident.


The history of resource policy is the history of science and technology in the service of the nation. The political struggle marking that history has involved scientists and intellectuals whose object largely has been to convert the public and the politician to a recognition of the importance and significance of the results of science. The struggle represents the deliberate attempt of intelligence to subdue and control the environment.


Another significant characteristic of the political process in its dealing with resource policy is the extent to which planning has been an important factor in reaching decisions. ... To the question of how the planning job can best be carried out there is and can be no single or simple answer.

Perhaps because resource policy has been intimately related to science and the use of research data and because scientifically trained men have been leaders in the resource policy field, planning techniques have been emphasized as means for identifying resource problems and preparing solutions for them. ... The issue today in the field of resource policy is not whether there shall be planning, but rather who shall plan and to what ends.
I hope this illustrates that planning was considered important in conducting policy advice (usually by people who knew the physical system - the scientist). Taking a quote from John Wilkinson (1964) - apparently mis-attributed to Charles de Gaul - "generals are always fighting the last war, and educators ... are always instructing the last generation." Here I mean that many of those in the policy arena are learning from those who grew up in the paradigm of planning; it colors their viewpoints and attitudes toward the "correct" role of science. (A possibly interesting discussion would be the role of planning in policy and how it differs from science.)

The second point - greater possibility for useful stakeholder engagement - is being proven with increased ability to disseminate technical information (especially those affecting natural resource use/extraction) spatially through the use of GIS and terrain viewing programs, both of which can be altered to show potential policy futures. In areas where visualization in terms of maps and computer wire models are less useful, the various models (both procedural and statistical) underlying most forms of scientific forecasting can be tweaked to produce output that are more amenable to the consumption of different stakeholders. With the understanding that stakeholder engagement is a requisite quality for robust "good" policy, use of science in illustrating the most likely (i.e., conservative estimate) impact of the major factors of interest to each stakeholder can be input to a model. In more sophisticated models, such factors can even be taken synergistically to illustrate the impact of more fine-tuned policy decisions.

Because of the continually growing strength of scientific understandings of how discrete (i.e., disciplinary) systems operate more accurate predictions are able to be made within a single system. This lends itself to being able to plan the impacts of a policy decision within the boundary conditions of that system. However, like a piece of science fiction depicting a possible not-too-distant-future, the change of only one (or a few) variables on an otherwise unchanged world-of-today makes for relatively easy writing, but does not provide a plausible future. Who would have guessed the massive synergistic impact of the internet on the totality of life in the West, including e-mail communication; increasing connection speeds; search engines; increased web page complexity; flash programming; YouTube; online databases; Google Earth; etc. The lesson here is to understand the impacts of synergy on a network of systems.

However, within certain constrained situations, science can still pull together forecasts with variables working in synergy. The requirement, though, with anything in modeling, is how much is constrained and how it is constrained. What this means, though, is that science can still inform planning, but it can now do so through stakeholders or committees including non-scientists as participating members. The role of the expert scientist becomes constrained more to the efficacy, reliability, and accuracy of the model, and not on their "Best Professional Judgment" of a situation, based on their own ingrained bias.

Science still is working in the form of "planning," but it becomes possibly multi-system in analysis, and usable by stakeholders in investigating possible futures based on policy inputs (with the understanding that the constraints and uncertainties are understood by all). By the simple (ha!) process of making the output of a policy scenario legible and accessible to non-experts (and allowing for possibly easy iterations of inputs from stakeholder representatives and outputs from expert scientists), decision makers are empowered by the science, rather than by the scientist. (True, scientists still have opportunities in manipulating the science behind the model - the meta-science - but in a complex system model operated by several different experts, the possibility of having major favorable outcomes without raising suspicion becomes exponentially more difficult, and I'm therefore discounting this possibility, at least for the near future.)

Yes, we have been here before - trusting models to solve our problems, forgetting that models have intrinsic uncertainty and various levels of external validity problems. However, we have also come a long way, being able to work strongly within disciplines to answer those difficult-to-solve problems of yesterday (at least to some extent). We are entering an age (I feel) where thinking of how to integrate knowledge across somewhat arbitrary disciplines (and subdisciplines) is becoming feasible and a new area of scientific interest; just how do you integrate economic factors with social factors, physical environmental factors, ecological factors, etc.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A useful website - I only wish it extended to Ann Arbor!

I found this website via another one: The reason it's so great is that it provides directions for people who don't drive (gasp!). Unfortunately, it currently only serves Birmingham, Edinburgh, and London. However, if you were visiting a friend in Edinburgh, and wanted to get from where they lived (arbitrarily selected as "St. Margarets Place") to Princes Street (where the upscale shops seem to be), then using standard mapping technology will not provide you with the best answer, especially if you are walking or cycling. (Additionally, since the traffic is limited on Princes Street to buses and taxis - which I still think is the case - using a standard mapping program will not provide you with an adequate answer.) The total distance using GoogleMaps is 2.5miles, and takes the walker/cyclist along Clerk St (A7) - a pretty busy road that isn't along the most direct path between points A and B. Is this the best way for a pedestrian/cyclist to go?

In steps Typing in the start and end points in this interface, you find out that the shortest walkable distance is 1.5 miles, and you can cut through the city parks and go through the castle district (such a great direct road!). Of course, this is merely the most direct path; no mention is made of the great vertical changes one encounters along this path (meaning that while it may be faster for a pedestrian, it might be easier for a cyclist to actually fight traffic on Clerk St than cycle up and down the castle hill to get to Princes Street beyond).

Still, cutting the walking distance by 1 mile is probably a good thing (in my book), plus offering the option of walking through the parks rather than sticking to the streets is also nice. And not having to worry about calculating in the one-way street systems one might find in a city center is yet another bonus.

Now if someone could do something similar to this for other cities. Maybe even tying it in with the public transport routes and schedules to provide a person just visiting a city with the best method of getting from A to B (especially if you are visiting NYC for the first time and need to integrate the subways and buses in your trip to make the most of your MTA card purchase).

If you know of something like this - where public transportation routes are included in providing directions - then please tell me about it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The problem with scientists and language.

This is a topic that I touched on a few months ago, but I thought it would be good to get back to it again. (urgh.)

The topic is how scientists (and engineers) like to increase the precision and accuracy of their statements (when their statements are the written interpretation or verbalization of their painstaking scientific research). However, when these statements mix with the language of everyday life, it comes into contact with the common vernacular, and it becomes easy for the language of the scientist to be misunderstood or twisted to another end.

Even communication between disciplines this happens. One example I will draw upon is the word "diameter." In a common vernacular, most people would mean the distance from one side of a roughly circular object or area to the other ("What is the diameter of the Capitol dome?"). In mathematics, the diameter is defined as being twice the radius, which is itself described as the straight-line distance from the center of a circle to its edge. When talking about modeling hydraulics, the diameter has been used interchangeably with width, especially when talking about pipes or culverts. However, there is another definition of "diameter" which has apparently nothing to do with any of these definitions (which all refer to a specific type of width measurement). This is the use of "diameter" in network theory. Here, the diameter refers to the minimum distance between two nodes. While it may still talk about a specialized idea of "length," it divorced from the idea of "circularity" to which most definitions of "diameter" refer. Without an understanding of this specialized definition of diameter, a discussion of its use in modeling river networks makes for a confusing ride, since one does not know whether the person is initially talking about the width of the river, or its "branchiness".

This example in mind, it becomes even more muddied when talking to people in the "real world." Take, for example, the two differing understandings of the word "THEORY." Conducting a definition search of the work on WordNet Search provides the following three definitions:
  1. a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena
  2. a tentative insight into the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena
  3. a belief that can guide behavior
The first definition is the one used primarily in science as the definition of "theory", but in the common vernacular is thought of as scientific "laws". The second is normally termed a "hypothesis" in science, but in the common vernacular it is this term that is most often called a theory. The last definition is more akin (imho) to a definition of faith, and I'm going to focus this section of discussion on the implications of the first two definitions.

The first definition of "theory" is complicated by scientists who have decided to elevate certain very well explained theories to "laws". However, a scientific "law" is still a scientific theory, coined as something immutable by either the scientist after whom the law is named, or by the community of scientists that study in the discipline. To the hoi polloi, however, this distinction is filtered through a lens of social understandings of science and law to mean that there must be some sort of progression from being a "theory" to becoming a "law":

theory ==> law

This is exacerbated by textbooks parroting this viewpoint, and extended to include a progression from a lowly hypothesis into (eventually if the hypothesis is close enough to the truth) a law:

hypothesis ==> theory ==> law

However, it is not accurate: the "law of gravity" is a theory. Newton's "Laws of Motion" are actually scientific theories. True, scientific laws are different from theories in that they have withstood the vast test of time and scrutiny. However, they are not immutable.

What the average non-scientist considers a "theory" is similar to what scientists would consider a "hypothesis": the stated assumption of physical cause and effect. However, this is the same thing as a "theory" in everyday use. A police investigator makes "theories" as to how a murder occurred. A lawyer makes a "theory" as to why the defendant made the decisions he made leading up to the murder. Indeed, to be generous, people may well place "scientific theory" at a level somewhere between "everyday theory" (aka "hypothesis") and "scientific law" (aka "tried-and-tested scientific theory"), meaning that - in a science context at least - the word "theory" is something a little more than a mere guess.

However, this muddle of language becomes a major point of contention when dealing with politics in science. The detractors will point to problems with a scientific theory well understood in the scientific community and use scientific uncertainties surrounding the mechanisms around which the system works to try and tear down the original theory. This is like stating that since we do not know how sub-atomic particles work, the Big Bang Theory is incorrect. Or stating that since we do no have evidence of speciation through the process of natural selection, Darwinist evolution is wrong. Or that since winters are still cold, the predictions of global climate change are wrong. To use a non-scientific example, it would be like making the argument that the Holocaust did not happen because the scale was too vast to possibly have occurred. This is is obviously nonsensical and patently false logic: we have overwhelming documentation of the Nazi atrocity; physical evidence of it; experts who study it; and people who lived through it (and its post-War impacts).

The language of science endeavors to be precise, however, the language of society tends to be generalized, especially the English language. Trying to pin down the meanings of what a string of words with a very specific scientific meaning in the context of a social exchange brings with it the problems of language usage on both parties. On the one hand, language flows from a group that tries to conserve the meaning of language to describe a very specific instance or instances, and on the other hand language is received by a group that attempts to assess the general meaning of a phrase. It is no wonder that miscommunication occurs.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

How evolution isn't like a broken clock.

Here is a fantastic short video explaining away the strawman argument of ID/Creationism that a broken clock, shaken in a box will not create a working clock. (This argument is similar to another strawman argument of a tornado being unable to be reconstruct an airplane from its constituent parts.)

Anyway, I hope this doesn't come down from Youtube anytime soon.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Development issues in the US

So… one of the messages from the readings on technology transfer and development is the unapplicability of “Northern” methods of agricultural technology within the “South”. Much of the South’s problems stem from colonial and post-colonial relationships with it and the North. One of the greatest questions I had as a child and traveling around East Asia was why certain methods were deemed to be “gospel” and others merely laughable attempts at order. (And why was order always such a sought-after goal?)

Some of the cultural mindset presented in the reading can easily be seen by the reactions of new transplants in Phoenix, AZ to xeriscape: “Why is everything dead?” With the mindset that a yard (a type of landscape taken from a culture matched with a certain climate) must be a green plot of land, people in the Southwest have produced the most bizarre type of scenery I’ve seen in the country – turgid cacti growing on fertilized and watered monoculture lawns, and probably wonder why their water bills are so high and why their expensive saguaro cacti keep turning spongy and dying. This is akin to what Scott wrote in his chapter:

The logic of beginning with an ideal genotype and then transforming nature to accord with its growing conditions has some predictable consequences. [Farm experiment] extension work essentially becomes the attempt to remake the farmer’s field to suit the genotype. This usually requires the application of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, which must be purchased and applied at the right moment. It usually also requires a watering regimen that in many cases only irrigation can possibly satisfy. (pg. 302)

The recent ongoing drought has made more people cognizant of the problems that are occurring, viz. water in their region, and some have taken on the idea of bringing the “native” Arizona to their neighborhood.

Of course, one looks at the near-entirety of US agriculture and you see this form of agriculture, much of it in areas that could arguably be better for not enduring the agricultural demands placed upon it. How is the readings on technology transfer any different when it is massively subsidized by internal governmental forces as compared to subsidized by an external government? How do the rural monuments to high modernism – the high dam, the monocrop agricultural field – affect a local mindset? In Arizona it has created the ability to have (prior to the spread of the cities) citrus groves, and green lawns. It has allowed the continuation of flood irrigation throughout the Southwest. It has produced the food that feeds the nation, all growing in land that is termed the “breadbasket” of the nation. However, if you look at metrics behind the numbers providing this surplus of food, you see a disturbing trend: high levels of groundwater consumption and elevated levels of fertilizer and pesticide application (and leaching) to name two. These have knock-on/peripheral impacts that aren’t felt by those in the region, and by us presently. However, when excess nitrogen fertilizers reach the nitrogen-poor waters of the Gulf of Mexico, they produce anoxic “dead” zones which negatively affects local shrimping and fishing. As groundwater levels drop, the per unit cost of extracting deeper levels increases, cutting into the farmer’s margin. When these resources eventually dry up, then farming will become impossible in these regions. Eventually another source of food will have to be found, or behaviors in production will have to be reconsidered drastically.

The possibility of even contemplating the possibility of using corn (!) to fuel the nation’s transportation needs is an great example of how we have entrained our vision along those of high-modernist constructs (i.e., technologies). It would have been ludicrous to even imagine the possibility of growing a nation’s fuel source. And on paper, it seems like it might be possible. However, this is when the calculations don’t take into account “the externalities.” The saying, “the real world is an externality” proves a point here: fueling the nation on corn ethanol is very potentially more polluting than continuing to use petroleum. The problems lie in the variation across space and time; production energy costs; distribution energy costs; and pollution costs.

What is the appropriate social context of a dam? This seems to be a paradoxical question, since we in the US assume dams as part of our landscape – and in Michigan, a part of the landscape that is usually thought of as being “Western” and “over there.” I would argue that much of the United State’s cultural ideation of “dams” has moved strongly away from the thousands of dams that dot Michigan’s waterways (many of which I have to contend with in fieldwork and research). I wonder even how many University of Michigan students think of Argo Dam or Barton Dam over that of Hoover Dam or even Glen Canyon Dam when the word “dam” is mentioned. However, is Hoover Dam in the “appropriate social context”? Upon examining the social context upon which it was built, a liberalist like myself might say that it was a high-modernist statement of man’s dominion over nature, and triumph over the desert. However, as the big dams grew up around the country, controversy came about as to their use and impacts; the social contexts changed, and people no longer felt it was “good” to put large dams along the Colorado River, especially in the Grand Canyon. Large-scale prostrative kow-towing to high-modernist ideals in the form of NAWAPA were dropped from consideration. Yet, obsolescence of ideology sometimes comes with concrete legacies. The lessons of the big dams of the West come as a package with their looming presence.

The above aren’t discussions of the problems of exporting technologies to developing countries, but examples of our own developing understandings of the problems surrounding the experiments that we have been unwittingly conducting with our own use of high-modernist methods. While we may laugh at the “backward” methods of those farmers producing enough for their own needs with their own local knowledge – the “craft” of farming – we should be cognizant of the experiment our previous generations have left running in the background.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Another story about a warm autumn.

I was walking on to campus today and saw this in Kerrytown. Yes, it is a Prunus blooming in autumn. (For those of you who don't know, Prunus species bloom in the SPRING.)

This isn't PROOF of global warming, but it is proof of a really warm October.

If you really want to have a scare about global warming, all you need to do is check out the forecast report from UNEP and a report of the actual measured numbers of global climate change.

Check out photos from the UNEP report.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Heisman Day

No, today is NOT the day that the Heisman trophy is awarded to some very successful NCAA football player. To day is the birth date of John Heisman, after whom the trophy is named. John Heisman was born this day wa~ay back in 1869. He started coaching in 1900 at Clemson University, and moved to Georgia Tech four seasons later. He also coached at University of Pennsylvania for one season and one season in Washington and Jefferson College before completing his final four seasons at Rice University.

So, why is John Heisman so famous? It wasn't only because of the now-coveted trophy that bears his name. John revolutionized the game during his career, creating many of the things we take for granted today including the backward hike (it was originally rolled or kicked backward, like in rugby) and was a major proponent of legalizing the forward pass (yes, it had originally been illegal, like in rugby). However, what we remember him most for today is his name and that trophy. However, throughout the majority of John's coaching career, the "Heisman Trophy" didn't exist.

The Heisman Trophy started out as an award given out by the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City (to where John had retired) to the best football player east of the Mississippi River. Two months after John Heisman's death in 1936, the trophy was renamed the Heisman Trophy in his honor. It is now awarded to the best NCAA football player in a season.

Now, as of this writing, Michigan has only won the trophy three times:
The University of Michigan's major rivals (Ohio State University and Notre Dame University) have each won the trophy seven times. This year, however, UMich has a very strong candidate in Mike Hart.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hello Kitty AK-47?

Yes! Even YOU can get a fuchsia-colored, hand-knitted stock-covered AK-47 sporting everyone's favorite KAWAII manga character: Hello Kitty. Yes, is offering this magnificent masterpiece for just dollars more than a mere $1K. On the site, you can also find a number of different "dolled-up" guns and gear; enough to make you wonder what "lateral thinking" went into the design of these things.

(Needless to say, I will not be making this purchase at this time.)

How to eat sushi: an instructional video.

... or not. You decide.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Personal health benefits of not driving.

I've been hypothesizing for some years that if only Americans walked, cycled, and rode public transportation (thus needing to walk or run to make a train/bus/tram/etc.), that obesity levels would be decreased. (I also think that if companies didn't sell sizes in 3XL or greater, people would have less incentive to allow themselves to become obese - but this is a less tenable hypothesis, I think.)

Well, No Impact Man has posted a graph showing relationships between people in different countries. I would argue that he shouldn't have used a line graph, since a line graph shows an implicit relationship between values on the x-axis. Categorical data - such as countries - should be shown as columns or bars. However, the apparent inverse relationship between obesity (red) and daily physical transportation activity (green). Of course, there are several possible variables that are affecting these results, including diet, portion size, affluence, and stress to name a few.

Results like this, however, seem interesting to me. However, I would like to know if something like this relationship could be replicated within a country, or even within a major city served by public transportation (such as NYC). Would you be able to find a similarly inverse relationship based on borough, distance-to-work, or diet? Similarly, would there be a difference between people who ride public transportation vs cycle? (I'm assuming that there is - but this raises the additional question of whether cyclists are a self-selecting group...)

Ahh... the internal mental debate continues.

Of course, you could probably show a relationship between %urbanized and obesity. (I'm hypothesizing that more rural communities are more obese than highly urban communities.) Anyone with data?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Portlands of the World.

When most people in the United States say Portland, they are likely referring to one of two cities: Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon. Even in Michigan, it isn't always obvious which Portland someone is talking about when referring to the name (although they seem like you should intuitively know of which city they are speaking.

Today I decided to type "Portland" into Panoramio and see how many there are in the world. The website happily complied, and informed me that all these countries (and states/provinces) have cities named "Portland" (I've tried to link to Google Maps where possible, but when impossible, I'm using Falling Rain, or Panoramio's link):
The next time someone asks you if you've been to Portland, ask them which of the thirty-four Portlands around the world they are referring to. (And these don't take into account cities/towns/villages that are called "Portland" in a language other than English.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Checking to see if this works.

I'm checking out whether Saginaw Forest shows up as a "County Park" or not. It shouldn't since it is managed by SNRE and owned by the U of M. I'm also checking to see how easy it is to embed a map like this into a blog entry. Doesn't seem too difficult.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Weather back to normal.

It might not be a lot of news to many people out there, but finally the weather has come back to normal. With such warm temperatures continuing through the first week in October (leading to two consecutive days of record high temperatures, and almost a week of near-record temperatures), I can only say that I really wished that I had taken photos of all the undergrads walking around in shorts and t-shirts with the leaves changing. Now, however, there are people in various layers of clothing - from shorts and t-shirt to heavy jackets and scarves. Perhaps this is more amusing (perhaps I will even get a photo before acclimation starts to set in).

One other sign that temperatures are getting to where they should be is that temperatures in the building have been roasting today. So much so that I had to practice what my parents called "Russian air conditioning" (basically opening a window during winter to let the uncontrollable heat escape). I know that this is not environmentally-friendly of me, but one of the things that has been done to the rooms is disabling the thermostats (thus providing the occupants with a sense of control, but with about as much control as an armadillo in a Dime commercial.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On Panoramio

I found Budapest's "Cemetery of Communist Statues" on Panoramio. True, some people label their photos "statue garden" or something similar, but I really like the idea of a cemetery for statues remembering a former regime. Kind of like the consolation prize equivalent of a memorial. I never looked for it when living there, and I'm happy now that I can use Panoramio and Google Earth to see these things. (It makes me want to fly back and check it all out. Ahhh, nostalgia.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Big logs are difficult to move.

NOTE: This blog entry is an anecdote of me moving a large log from one end of a private park to another.

For those of you wanting to find plans on how to make a sawhorse, check:
AND, for those of you wanting to find information about log-trailers, check:

And now on to my (rather banal) story:

Yesterday, I helped move the large log that will be used for the cross-cut sawing competition in this Friday's SNRE Campfire [Homecoming] Event. The log was from a recently-downed pine, and therefore still pretty "wet". It was located on the far side of Third Sister Lake (with reference to the campfire site) and off the trail a little ways. The process of events went thusly:
  1. Arrived at Saginaw Woods (just west of A2) at 2:00PM(-ish);drove to far side of Third Sister Lake.
  2. Helped caretakers pull rowboat onto shore; discussed plans of dragging assessed log to water and floating it across the lake.
  3. Cleared brush, moved small dead pines to make a "trail".
  4. Started cutting the log with a chainsaw; I drove back to caretakers' house; one caretaker rowed back to other side of lake to get rope for tree moving.
  5. Collected three ratcheting straps and re-crossed the lake.
  6. Arrived at the other side of the lake; gasoline for the chainsaw ran out.
  7. Caretakers returned to cabin to get more gasoline; I continued to clear a path.
  8. Caretakers returned with gasoline, and proceeded to continue cutting the tree; I continued to clear a path.
  9. Chainsaw oil starts to run low; one caretaker and I return to cabin and fetch more chainsaw oil as well as a two-man crosscut saw; chainsaw stops going as we re-cross the lake.
  10. We use the crosscut saw to cut the log section (work proceeds MUCH faster than with the chainsaw).
  11. We realize that the tree length is VERY heavy (not easily moved).
  12. After much cajoling, we (three) move the tree segment onto an upturned dolly, but (even with some wheels on one end) the tree proves unwilling to easily move.
  13. We realize this method will be a non-starter if we try and move the tree over mucky ground on wheels, and realize we will have to move it up the short slope to the path (and eventually around the lake).
  14. I recall the presence of a light-weight boat trailer near the cottage, however, we would still need another set of wheels for the other (non-wheeled) section of tree; we cross the lake in the boat (for the last time in the evening).
  15. One caretaker leaves to get another set of wheels to move the tree; I collect a crowbar, axe, and metal plate from the garage, put them on the boat trailer, and wheel the boat trailer to the other side of the lake. (This last bit isn't too difficult, since I attached another strap to the boat trailer to act as a sling, thus taking much of the weight off my arms, and onto my shoulders.)
  16. Arriving at the other side of the lake, we set up the trailer on the path to take the log, and proceed to clear a trail from the log to the path.
  17. The caretaker returns with extra wheels; they get strapped onto the log after much levering and swearing.
  18. The log is dragged over the cleared trail to the path with the trailer. This required a lot of re-levering to keep the log on the cleared trail, with the help of the crowbar and lots of tugging.
  19. Once on the path with the trailer, the log needed to be turned to face the trailer (again with the help of the crowbar and tugging, but this time with a little swearing, since we had moved from packed dirt to sand and gravel).
  20. With the tree and trailer lined up, it was now time to put to log onto the trailer. The trailer was tipped up to bring the back-end to bear, and used as a lever to hoist the log onto the rollers (usually used to keep a boat in line whilst winching it onto the trailer). Due to a lack of a winch on the trailer, one of the ratcheting tie-downs was used instead. The process required further tugging and the occasional use of the crowbar. Each time the log was moved up the trailer, the ratcheting tie-down (which was standing in for a winch) had to be reset. However, once the log was in place, it acted as a nice counterweight, thus making the weight of the trailer (at the hitch end) effectively neutral.
  21. We all proceeded to move the trailer back around the lake to the location of the festivities.
  22. Arriving back at the cottage, we realised that the height of the log on the trailer (roughly 2.5 feet) would not be adequately high enough to get it onto the high saw horses (roughly 4 feet) used in the cross-cut sawing competitions. A solution was reached that would require pulling the log further up the trailer, thus allowing the log to be strapped to a sawhorse once the trailer was tilted up. (I'm sorry, I cannot really describe this process better.) This was done after much grunting and pulling.
  23. With one end of the log placed onto a sawhorse, the original plan of dragging it fully onto that sawhorse came up against another proverbial brick wall as we realised that the friction force of bark on wood was going to be far more than we could handle between the three of us. This meant some more re-thinking of our stratagem. We decided to use two of us to bodily lift the end of the log still on the trailer high enough to wedge a second sawhorse underneath. This was done with a lot of swearing and grunting, but the second sawhorse was now present holding the whole thing up at 4 feet.
  24. Now we just needed to move the saw horses together so that there would be enough of the log sticking out one end to actually have overhang for the competitors to cut. Using the same method as in the previous step proved to be too difficult due to a lack of leverage, and for a second we thought we were going to be in a bind. However, I tried lifting one end of the section of the log by bracing myself between the ground and the log. I was able to lift it enough that - by sections - we could slowly move the sawhorses together.
  25. However, as the sawhorses came together, I was moving closer to the center, requiring that I lift more of the weight of the log each time. (Did I mention that the log was heavy?) The only reason I could do it was because I just happened to be the right physical dimensions so that I could wedge myself under the log and lift with my legs and still not have my back bent. Luckily, I was able to continue doing this until the sawhorse was slightly past flush with one end of the log. This meant that I could start lifting at the very end of the log - leverage works.
  26. With two final lifts at the log-end, the sawhorses were flush with each other, and we could bind them to the log (thus preventing the possibility that it might fall off (or be pushed off by people walking through the forest and looking for a laugh). We ended at about 8:30PM.
  27. After showering off, I realized that my back along my shoulders was bruised from the lifting of the log, but at least it is now done. And when people comment that it must have taken a lot of people and possibly some machinery to move the log into place, I can say that it took only three people. (Pride is sometimes good, I feel.)
So, in short, it took three people (and some ingenuity) almost six hours to move a log from one side of a small lake to the other. However, we learned a few things:
  • Using a boat trailer to move a log along a road makes log-moving really easy (especially when you have the trailer balances so that the weight of the logs counter-balances the weight of the trailer).
  • A two-man crosscut saw is much faster than a chainsaw when cutting through a newly-fallen tree (and uses much less gasoline and oil).
  • Applying wheels to a log is a great way of moving a log through the forest along a cleared trail.
  • Three people can move a fecking huge log, but not without a lot of effort.
  • Mosquitoes don't care that it's the beginning of October - if it's hot enough for mosquitoes, they will persist.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

China, coal, and CO2

UPDATE (2/12/2008): China's coal and CO2 problems continue to be an important story in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Just a few days after reading Bush's climate change proposal, I read a blurb on Grist about China's own CO2 emissions proposal. This led me to wonder if there are numbers estimating China's CO2 emissions up to now, and projections of CO2 emissions into the future.

Doing a quick Google search for "China coal" and "China CO2" netted a few different graphical analyses, and I found something that (I thought) was interesting. Use of a metric which is effectively "CO2/GDP". This is an interesting metric, because it allows for someone to measure the energy "efficiency" of China's economy viz burning coal. It can also be used to guesstimate the amount of CO2 production through economic means. However, it does have some issues (which I will not get into at this point).

In their 2007 paper ("Forecasting the Path of China's CO2 Emissions Using Province Level Information"), Maximilian Auffhammer and Richard T. Carson state:

Our results suggest that the anticipated path of China’s Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions has dramatically increased over the last five years. The magnitude of the projected increase in Chinese emissions out to 2015 is several times larger than reductions embodied in the Kyoto Protocol. Our estimates are based on a unique provincial level panel data set from the Chinese Environmental Protection Agency. This dataset contains considerably more information relevant to the path of likely Chinese greenhouse gas emissions than national level time series models currently in use. Model selection criteria clearly reject the popular static environmental Kuznets curve specification in favor of a class of dynamic models with spatial dependence.
If you've taken a course in environmental economics, the environmental Kuznet's Curve is something that you have to learn about. Since I'm not an expert in economics, nor focusing on that topic here, I will leave for now, with only the link (I am sending this draft on to some people who I know might be interested in it, though). However, I will draw people's attention to the list of graphs toward the end of the paper (pages 24-27). The numbers seem to agree with the estimates presented below (just more evidence of reliability, perhaps even of verifiability).

Another point that I find interesting is how estimates of China's future CO2 emissions become higher with each passing year. Starting with the World Resource Institute's estimate, they noted in November 2006, "Surging Chinese Carbon Dioxide."

Graph taken from here.

And over at Mongabay, there are a couple stories about CO2 emissions - globally (in 2005) and in China (in 2006). I took the graphs presented on each web page, matched up their trends, and displayed the two forecasts outward from 2010 (produced in 2005 and 2006) of China and the United States. You will notice that the US forecast is effectively the same forecast from 2005 to 2006, but China's forecast was shifted upward by roughly 1,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions by 2025.
Modified from Mongabay

(Get ready for the conceptual bridge statement coming up.) The IOC had concerns about pollution and population at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968 - something that is much more of a concern at Beijing 2008 (even greater than when Athens held it). If the 2008 Games are going to be China's equivalent to a debutante ball, then it had best make sure that it's streets are truly bright, clean, and inviting. (I really don't like using the metaphor of a debutante ball, but it was the best thing that came to mind when thinking about how to metaphorize a "coming out" party.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Perceptions of science

"This failure [of climate change science in anticipating social impacts of climate change] strongly reflects the power, and danger, of a science policy dogma that asserts that more scientific understanding must lead to more societal benefit, and thus allows problems rooted in socioeconomics and politics to be redefined as agendas for scientific research."
(Sarewitz, et al. 2004)

Sarawitz et al were writing in 2004 - when the shift in climate policy was happening; a shift from mitigation to adaptation. Now, climate models predict a period of hundreds of years of warming under the most optimistic cases of global climate change. In the summer of 2007, SNRE led a conference called "Confronting Climate Change" where the expected impacts from climate change in various aspects of existence were assessed with behavior change adaptation in mind. There continues to be a sense that mitigation is important, but greater societal good will come out of an intelligent anticipation of climate change. Perhaps in this way science is starting to move in the direction of iterations between social needs and science research.

Sarewitz et al discussed this as "A third possibility [of science policy] would be to extend the notion of science policy itself to give equal weight to the processes of knowledge creation and use."

When I read this part - and the rest of the article, I was like, "OMG! A breath of fresh air." This line of reasoning seems to follow on what Gibbons et al discuss as "Type 2" science, and is a method by which recent groundwater policy was decided in Michigan.

Sidenote: Does this "third possibility" herald a paradigm shift in science practice, science policy, or public perceptions of science?

Sarewitz, D., G Foladori, N. Invernizzi, M.S. Garfinkel (2004) "Science Policy in its Social Context" Philosophy Today (Supplement 2004)

I'm a peacemaker?

From a link to Enneagram Personality Test, I'm apparently a 'peacemaker'. I hope that this means that I'm not synonymous with the B36, an Old West style revolver, or a reference to the United State's imperialistic past.

People of this personality type essentially feel a need for peace and harmony. They tend to avoid conflict at all costs, whether it be internal or interpersonal. As the potential for conflict in life is virtually ubiquitous, the Nine's desire to avoid it generally results in some degree of withdrawal from life, and many Nines are, in fact, introverted. Other Nines lead more active, social lives, but nevertheless remain to some to degree "checked out," or not fully involved, as if to insulate themselves from threats to their peace of mind. Most Nines are fairly easy going; they adopt a strategy of "going with the flow." They are generally reliable, sturdy, self-effacing, tolerant and likable individuals.


Nines frequently mistype themselves as they have a rather diffuse sense of their own identities. This is exacerbated by the fact that Nines often merge with their loved ones and through a process of identification take on the characteristics of those closest to them. Female Nines frequently mistype as Twos, especially if they are the mothers are small children. Nines, however, are self-effacing whereas Twos are quite aware of their own self worth. Nines also mistake themselves for Fours, but Nines tend to avoid negative emotions whereas Fours often exacerbate them. Intellectual Nines, especially males, frequently mistype as Fives, but Fives are intellectually contentious whereas Nines are conciliatory and conflict avoidant.

Is this me? I dunno. I never thought of myself as a "Nine".

Sunday, September 30, 2007

WTF? 1

Sometimes I take photos of things that make me go, WTF? Here are some from the month of September.

Someone decided to plant a whole yard full of tree-of-heaven. (Just what we need - a large garden of invasive trees.)

I would have taken a photo of the neighboring houses, except this one on sat on two (or maybe three) lots, completely covering it with an overlarge 'traditional' style house with a three-door garage and 'grandmother' suite.

Just out of curiosity - wouldn't "WATCH FOR CHILDREN" be just as useful a sign? Does this mean that I don't have to watch for hearing children? How do I know which child is the deaf one? What happens when the child grows up?

Yes, Pizza House, I would like to have my Vegetarian Italian sub sandwich with EXTRA MEAT! (Please.)

There aren't enough places for brunch on Sunday mornings in A2

Apparently, there are only a few places to eat brunch on a Sunday morning in Ann Arbor. (I forgot to take a photo of Angelo's, and Afternoon Delight but (trust me) there would have been a ridiculous line outside those establishments as well.)

The Broken Egg

Of course, there are other places to have a good brunch without having to wait too long: Amadeus, aut Bar, and Frank's to name just three.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bush's Climate Change Speech: A brief analysis.

On the September 28, 2007, President George W. Bush gave a speech to leaders of the industrialized world about the challenges his government will spearhead in dealing with climate change. (Big, heady stuff, no? From a speech like this, one would expect things that were synonymous with the following word and phrases:
  • Leadership
  • Innovative approach
  • Focusing on the problem
  • Detailed discussion of mechanisms
  • Foresight
Well, I've done a brief analysis of the speech, and this is what I found. First, let me show a graphical interpretation of the different parts of the speech. Realizing that the speech itself was 20 minutes long (from 10:09 to 10:29), and assuming that the president didn't speak any faster or slower on any part, you can see that roughly 25-30% of his speech was spent on introductory remarks, welcomes, and concluding remarks (slightly longer, in fact, since there were pauses for applause). This is slightly odd - talking in generalities rather than on specific points of the problem - for a man who gathered 15 of the world's industrialized leaders together for.

He spent longer discussing the benefits of having energy compared to the challenges that are faced by climate change. Odd, since the meeting was to discuss the issue of climate change - to stand in counterpoint to the UN's own meeting on climate change.

He gave three discussion points on the advancement of three different areas of clean technology: clean energy, safe nuclear, and clean vehicles, spending less time on the clean vehicles than on either energy topic. If you were to generalize the topic to "non-CO2 energies", then you can say that the president spent more than double the amount of time on energy production compared to vehicles. He spent less time on technology transfer - almost a side note in comparison to other discussion points.

Finally, he discussed issues of deforestation for about as long as he discussed safe nuclear power. This is the only restoration/conservation topic that the president lent any discussion toward. Now, people might say that deforestation is an important player in anthropogenic climate change, and I would agree with them. However, there are other non-energy, non-deforestation levers that can be tugged. Things like CO2 sinks (of which I'm wary), seeding the waters with algae (again a topic of which I am wary), and carbon credits (which requires strong government oversight and regulation to manage) to name a few. These were left out as major talking points.

Moving from general content to specific talking points, let me take a few quotes from the president's speech to world leaders.

First, the president leads his argument with statements on energy security:
"This growing demand for energy is a sign of a vibrant, global economy. Yet it also possesses -- poses serious challenges, and one of them, of course, is energy security. Right now much of the world's energy comes from oil, and much of the oil comes from unstable regions and rogue states."
Next, the president says that there is not one solution to the problem:
"No one country has all the answers, including mine. The best way to tackle this problem is to think creatively and to learn from other's experiences and to come together on a way to achieve the objectives we share. Together, our nations will pave the way for a new international approach on greenhouse gas emissions."
Then, a few minutes later, the president comes out with an apparent solution that will (likely) be his energy policy:
"Electric power plants that burn coal are the world's leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The world's supply of coal is secure and abundant. And our challenge is take advantage of it while maintaining our commitment to the environment. One promising solution is advanced clean coal technology. The future of this technology will allow us to trap and store carbon emissions and air pollutants produced by burning coal."
Let me take this point first. The president links the need for electricity and power to energy security. He then says (after stating that issues of energy security and environmental protection have come closer) that coal is abundant and secure (thus saving you from the messy political entanglements surrounding oil). However, this is a disingenuous statement, and here is why: "oil" is not our abundant source of electricity energy. Coal is used as an energy source to produce electricity. In many countries electricity production is derived primarily from coal and natural gas, or from nuclear sources some countries (i.e., France and Japan). In fact, if you look at total energy use in this country, roughly 1/3 goes to the transportation sector, which primarily uses oil-derived products. This means that 2/3 of all energy produced and used in this country comes from non-oil sources. Should we do something to clean up existing coal power plants? Yes, of course. Should we rely primarily on coal power plants in the future? Well it depends on how non-emitting they are. If you are going to propose coal as an alternative for oil, Mr. President, you had best get your facts straight on what the coal and oil are used for in driving your economy!

Also, for the entire section discussing clean energy technologies, the president does NOT mention anything other than clean coal. (No wind, no hydro, no solar, no biofuels, nothing.) These don't get mentioned until just after his section on nuclear energy (which I accidentally mixed in with the nuclear energy discussion points in my diagram above - sorry). However, he lends only one paragraph toward discussing both wind and solar energy. He doesn't discuss how much monetary input his government has given wind or solar power. Only saying that wind power production has increased 300% (a 3-fold increase from piteously small to still piteously small), and that he launched the Solar America Initiative. Compared to the amount of money invested in creating a zero-emissions coal-fired power plant (stated at $2.5 billion), the Solar America Initiative was given $159 million (6.36% of the zero-emission coal plant), with an estimated future funding level of $200 million (8% of the zero-emission coal plant). I wouldn't call this a real investment in renewable energy production sources.

The president states:
"We're investing millions of dollars to develop the next generation of sustainable biofuels like cellulosic ethanol, which means we'll use everything from wood chips to grasses to agricultural waste to make ethanol."
Erm... again, millions of dollars to help decrease all the greenhouse gas emissions of the country's vehicle emissions (with the possibility of technology transfer), versus billions of dollars to create a zero-emission coal-fired powerplant? How is that equitable? How does ethanol begin to translate into a viable fuel source for the developing world (where food shortages may make ethanol production a non-starter), or to countries like Japan (that would have to import ethanol, due to a lack of arable lands, thus incurring a CO2 cost from importing their fuel). Also, the president doesn't discuss the problem of energy use in transforming cellulose or sugars into ethanol.
"We're offering tax credits to encourage Americans to drive fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles."
And how does offering tax credits in the US help in the world? Are you proposing that other countries do the same? No. You don't this is a throw-away statement that isn't followed up with any policy implications that other industrialized countries might try. Oh, and by the way, what was the tax credit and structure? Oh, you aren't mentioning that it was of a limited time? You aren't mentioning that it only really helps people who are rich? Oh, well, so forget it then.
"We're on track to meet our pledge of investing $1.2 billion to develop advanced hydrogen-powered vehicles that emit pure water instead of exhaust fumes. We're also taking steps to make sure these technologies reach the market."
And where is this hydrogen coming from? Well, you need to use electricity to split hydrogen from oxygen in water, and you need energy to do it in other reactions as well. So, where is this electricity coming from? Well, currently, it comes from an electricity grid that is powered primarily by coal. True, by shifting greenhouse gas emissions from non-point sources (a fancy way of saying mobile sources that used to be effectively non-trackable in an era before GPS) to point sources (a fancy way of saying a big non-movable polluting source) you can dump regulation into a forum that already exists (the Clean Air Act) rather than needing to create a new forum.
"We've asked Congress to set a new mandatory -- I repeat, mandatory -- fuel standard that requires 35 billion gallons of renewable and other alternative fuels in 2017, and to reform fuel economy standards for cars the same way we did for light trucks. Together these two steps will help us cut America's consumption of gasoline by 20 percent in 10 years. It's an initiative I've called 20-in-10."
Well, Mr. President, looking at the 20-in-10 webpage, there is an interesting caveat listed:
"The EPA Administrator and the Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy will have authority to waive or modify the standard if they deem it necessary, and the new fuel standard will include an automatic "safety valve" to protect against unforeseen increases in the prices of alternative fuels or their feedstocks."
So, this "safety valve" is controlled by the EPA administrator, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Secretary of Energy. Hmm... All these posts are appointed by the president, right? There is very little democratic oversight on these people, right? And the "safety valve" can effectively make this policy null-and-void if they so choose? All, I really have to say is, "Hmm..."

Also, the 20-in-10 webpage says that this plan will help America lead the world to energy security. How does this "ambitious fuel standard" lead the world? The last time I checked, Europe, Japan and China all had proposed fuel economy standards much higher than our own. This would mean that US auto manufacturers would have to sell effectively different vehicles in Europe, China, and Japan as compared to the "domestic" consumer (if they choose to meet the minimum requirements of each country). I think this statement is empty propaganda. (Sorry.)
"Today the United States and Japan fund most of the research and development for clean energy technologies."
Well, maybe, if you include "clean coal" technologies, and don't count the EU as a single bloc. However, if you take out "clean coal" and do count the EU as a single bloc, I would imagine that the picture would be very different.

Okay, enough for now. I think you can see how a little close reading of the text of the speech may give someone who is a little skeptical (like myself) reason to doubt that veracity of the statements. But enough about me. What about the other delegates? What were their opinions on this fine meeting?

Well, Deutsche Welle leads off their story by saying:
"Europeans expressed disappointment at US President Bush's speech on climate change in which he urged the world's worst polluters to cut emissions but stuck to his opposition to mandatory targets on global warming."
The [London] Times was not very happy with the president, saying:
"President Bush yesterday rejected calls from Britain and the European Union to take a tougher approach on global warming when he renewed his opposition to binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking at his own climate-change conference in Washington, which European diplomats dismissed as a cynical attempt by the White House to derail UN efforts on a new global-warming accord, Mr Bush called on polluters to cut emissions, but only through voluntary steps."

Well, if I was a leader invited to the conference, I wouldn't know what I was supposed to think when Mr. Bush made - as one of his concluding statements - this brilliant feat of iterative reasoning:
"We will harness the power of technology. There is a way forward that will enable us to grow our economies and protect the environment, and that's called technology."
(Also, as a side note, calling upon your version of a Christian God twice in a speech may not endear you to some other world leaders. Just thought I should let you know that.)