Monday, December 28, 2009

Blizzard at Saginaw Forest

Blizzard in Saginaw Forest

Out here at Saginaw Forest, there was a short blizzard that fell across the landscape. I stepped out and took some photos. Brrr.... cold!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Photos from Saginaw Forest

Snow shadows
Snow shadows -- the snow on the north side of the trees hasn't melted.

South-facing slopes
Walking around the Third Sister Lake, you get to see what slope aspect does to snowmelt.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Holiday Card 2009Christmas and New Year's greetings to you! As I just overheard in the cafe, "May the season make sense to you and yours." I like it, and I'm using it here!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Solstice

Snow-covered lakeWoke today at 6:30. Saw in the dawn.

There was a dusting of snow over last night that covered what we got over the rest of the weekend, refreshing the field with a new whiteness.

Public drunkenness during Christmas? Well, it happened, methinks.

Tis that time of year again when one hears lots of Christmas carols being sung. Usually the same ones over and over and over and over and over and over again. Sometimes, we are lucky, and get away with not having to hear more modern Christmas songs (although if you want to listen to depressing Christmas songs, that is also easily done). Sometimes, there are interesting non-standard takes on Christmas music, but what about some of those songs of the season that were less about Christmas - per se - and more about the merriment of the season, or of the warmth of human kindness?

Two songs come to mind: Good King Wenceslas and The Wassail Song. True, the first song - GKW - takes place on the day after Christmas (on Feast of Stephen - December 26). It makes references to God and the divine sanction by which they rule. Still, in a modern day, we can all be like King Wenceslas in our own way, and I think that such a song - one that doesn't directly call for the worship of God, but instead looks at the kindness of one man (a king) toward another (a poor man).

Lyrics (via Wikipedia):
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

The second song - The Wassail Song - is somewhat more interesting to me. It's a song about singing songs and getting paid (in beer and spirits) for singing those songs. It was written during the 17th Century, and looking at the definition of "wassail," we learn that it means drinking alcohol to wish one good health. The song - in more recent variations - has been re-named Here we come A-Caroling. Why is this, I wonder? Does it have anything to do with the major impact (on the US at least) of the temperance movement of the 1910s and 1920s (and which still continues to today)? Well, I can't say that it was that particular temperance movement, but it is clear (to me at least) that someone decided to "clean up" this song that is usually only sung around Christmas -- although it can be a good New Year song, too. Let me know what you think:

Lyrics (via Wikipedia):
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.


We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours' children,
Whom you have seen before.


Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.


We have got a little purse
Of stretching leather skin;
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.


Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf.


God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go


Good master and good mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.


Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett on religion and evolution:

I love his proof at the end to show that street lamps are more interesting than stars.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Now I've seen everything.

Ok... I'm stealing PZ Myers' title on this one, but it's quite pithy and smart. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I recently had to explain to a Taiwanese student why an ecological modeling paper didn't include humans and human drivers. I had also had the problem of trying to explain to a Japanese student the difference between "natural resource management" and "environmental protection"; the two terms were nearly synonymous to him. That got me to thinking consciously about something that I had grown up understanding: Eastern and Western philosophy place Man (i.e., human beings) in different places in relation to nature. As a person who straddled the divide while I was growing up, this didn't seem to me to be such a problem in terms of reconciliation, but I suddenly could imagine how such differences could pose roadblocks to implicit understanding between peoples.

The term "natural resources" itself is an interesting one. After all, what is a resource in this case other than an "available source of wealth; a new or reserve supply that can be drawn upon when needed" (or something very similar to that notion) which happens to be supplied by nature? The term resource is implicitly a socially constructed idea that implies conscious action (such as accumulation of resources) and economic capital (wealth) in order to carry out a goal. In other words, it is a term that is based on the outcomes of human society.

However, what is, then a "natural" resource? If it is something that is drawn from nature, then isn't potentially everything a natural resource (including humans)? Well, that depends on what you consider "nature" and what you consider "non-nature". Based - I believe - on the famous Cogito ergo sum, the mind (the seat of the conscious rational self/the ego) is separated from the body (the unconscious emotional self). Eventually, the mind/body separation became analogized into a split with man/nature. Of course, this dichotomy of man and nature can be traced back to the Greeks, as well; one could argue that Descartes merely pushed it one step further. So if what is natural are those worldly things that are not "of man" (as opposed to the supernatural, which - presumably would be ascribed to God), then man is - by default - not a part of nature.

What does that mean as a consequence, though? That people can't live together with nature - and remain somehow "people" or something else? Hmmm... (I'm not trying to say that this is the way things are, just trying to figure out the implication of this point of view). Just some thoughts for now. Very rough.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

High winds bring power lines down across I-94

On my ride home, I encountered very strong gusts of winds (possibly as high as 80 kph!). Right. In. My. Face.... Urgh... That's one thing that I don't like about my ride home -- uphill and usually into some wind. All that means there is a good chance that there will be powerlines brought down.

... and as I climbed up to the crest of the hill on Liberty Road, I noticed that the light at Stadium Blvd. was out. "Uh, oh..." Climbing slowly up Liberty Road toward Maple Road, I saw police cars with their lights on, blocking northward access. Pulling up to a police car, I asked the officer what was going on.

"Power lines are down," he yelled to me above the wind. "There are also lines across 94."

"Can I get to Kroger?" I asked. (Kroger being just north of the blocked intersection.

"No. The power's down all over the Westside."

"Do you know if it's out at Scio Township?"

Pause... "No. I don't know. Maybe."

Powerlines down across I-94With that, he suggested that I make my way home along the sidewalk, which I decided that I would do -- what with all the headwind that I would have to cycle in to. However, cycling up to the pedestrian crossing side of the bridge over I-94, I noticed traffic backed up both ways along I-94... headlights focused on a black cord lying across the four lanes; firefighters walking back and forth.

It turns out that there were more powerlines down on the west side of I-94, but looking even further up the road, I took heart after I saw lights on further toward Wagner. And sure enough, I arrive home, in the middle of the forest, and there -- in the middle of the forest, away from any house or subdivision -- is electricity.

Snow at Saginaw Forest

The snow this morning had turned mostly into slush underlying a thin top layer of white. However, it covered all the ground, with the trees remaining seemingly undisturbed by its entrance.

Morning snow and the lake

How are the 2009 Toronto Bluejays a good analogy for understanding what climate change is?

On November 11, 2009, I posted this entry, but without any graphics showing the baseball trends. I have republished it here with the baseball trend graphs (and removed the November 11th version).

Although the Bluejays won 9 of their final 13 games, this fact doesn't mean that they had any shot at being in the playoffs. Why? Because if you look at their season record, they won only 46.3% of their games, whereas the Yankees won 63.6% of their games (and went on to win the World Series). In other words, the long-term trend of the Bluejays in the 2009 season was of not being in the playoffs, let alone the World Series. Why does all this matter? Well, it's not because I'm a Bluejays fan, but because it's a good analogue of climate trends:

Even through annual temperatures may appear to have been stable or dropping in recent years, looking only at that short-term trend tells one as much about the direction of climate change (either of increasing temperature or decreasing temperature) as looking at the 69.2% winning trend of the Bluejays right before the end of the regular season: bupkis.

The winning trends of teams over 162 games of the 2009 regular MLB season is what determined which teams would go to the play-offs and eventually to the World Series. Therefore, if we look at a representative segment of the Blue Jays' and the Yankees' seasons, you will note that the Blue Jays had a strong downward (i.e., losing) trend over the last season (R^2=0.8236), while the Yankees had a strong upward (i.e., winning) trend over the last season (R^2=0.7743).

Note: For comparison purposes, I have presented the data of all games from 5/6/2009 (one month after the start of the 2009 regular season) to 10/4/2009 (the last game of the 2009 regular season). The percent-wins were calculated based on how many games each team had won since 4/6/2009 (the start of the 2009 regular season). However, the percent-win values for the first month were not included in the trendline calculation due to the strong effects that the starting percent-win values would have on the trendline (i.e., no team can start with a percent-win value of anything other than 0% or 100%, thus skewing the trendline calculation.) On 5/6/2009, the Blue Jays were playing their 30th game, and the Yankees were playing their 27th game.

In an analogous way, it is the long-term trends of temperature increases and decreases that determine how and how quickly climate is changing. If we look at the past ~150 years, we see the following yearly global temperature anomalies:
The trend seems to be in the upward direction: climate change is going in a positive anomalous direction. However, if you look at just the last few years of temperature data, you see something different:

Here, it looks like the overall trend is that of a temperature decline. However, like baseball, looking only at the last few cases (or games) does not tell you about that team's chances at making the playoffs (the Yankees 8 of their last 13, as opposed to the Bluejays winning 9 of their last 13). In the graphic to the left I have selectively chosen the data-frame, and I have not only selectively focused on only the end of the season for each team, but I have also not included the final three games played by the Blue Jays -- all of which they lost. In so doing, I highlight a short-term trend in which the not-going-to-the-playoffs Blue Jays appear to be much better than the definitely-going-to-the-playoffs Yankees. I even re-calculated the percentages (using the same ingenuous method for both teams) to make it look as if the Blue Jays would be a sure-thing for getting into the playoffs. I even get a much stronger trend than in the comparison above, with a whopping R^2=0.9964 for the Blue Jays (and a winning percentage of 90%!) and an equally impressively predictive R^2=0.9694 for the Yankees (who have a "mere" winning percentage of 64% over this same period). If these games were somehow the critical set of eight games that would determine the entirety of the season, then one would be justified in saying that these trends are significant predictors of the overall outcome. However, this small snapshot of a trend at the end of the 2009 season tells as much about the likelihood of either team reaching the World Series as looking at recent years' temperature data tells one about long-term climate change.

Therefore when a person who stayed in on February 4, 2009 in Ann Arbor, MI said, "See? It's -9 degrees outside! Global warming can't be happening!" That person is as incorrect about drawing a conclusion as the person who went to see the Bluejays beat the Red Sox on September 30 and says, "Did you see that win? We're going to go all the way this year!"

(Okay, I'm rehashing the analogy that Keith Olbermann read on one of his shows in early October - a story from - but it was a good analogy, so I am repeating it here... but with no mention of the horrible Op-Ed by George Will, and no mention of the complete blindness with which he answered the assertion laid out above. However, you can go read the ThinkProgress story and have a chuckle if you'd like.)


Alfine gearshifting leverTonight, there is SNOW!!! What that means is that I had to work on changing out my road-type tires for studded tires. The work took about an hour, because I couldn't figure out how to remove the back tire because the Alfine's internal gearshifting cable assembly thingy was not as easy to remove as I was shown at the bike store. (Not that they didn't show me how to do it -- they did -- but I was just too silly to realize that I wasn't paying enough attention to what was going on.)

Anyway, after the removal of the wheels, putting the tires on was not too difficult. I say not too difficult, because the tires -- being well oversized -- were a little difficult to actually fit over each wheel. It wasn't because it was too tight, but it was actually awkward to fit the really large tires over wheels that were on the small end of what they were meant to fit. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that I got it done without too much difficulty, but I wasn't expecting it to be so difficult to do. However, I'm not an expert bike mechanic (not even an amateur one), so it's a good thing that I did this tonight, instead of tomorrow morning before I had to leave for work. (I can only imagine how much stress I would have trying to get this done in the one hour that I normally allow myself between waking up and leaving for work in the morning.)

Studded Tires!
The end result is quite nice. Of course, with much thicker tires, I'm sitting about an inch-and-one-half higher than I was with the road tires. I'll have to stop in at the bike shop to lower that seat just a tad so that I can ride with a little more peace-of-mind than riding so high on icy roads. (Of course, it will mean that I will likely be riding with a less-efficient ergonomic layup, but I wonder how bad that would be.)

If the traction of these tires are as good as the ones I had for my last bike, then this will make my travel to and from campus more secure. However, I will also have to be aware of drivers who don't have such traction on their cars; just because I can stop on a dime on ice doesn't mean that I am necessarily safe, especially if people might still be driving around on summer tires or (even if they are on winter or all-weather tires) don't recognize that they are driving on ice.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The funniest thing I saw today

As I was watching Kina Grannis' cover of Fireflies, I saw this shoutout at the end of the video:

"to australia - thank you
for always being there.
[love] from Guam"

As a person born on Guam, I just found this quite funny for some reason. I normally don't watch the shout-outs and birthday announcements, but for some reason, I decided to watch them this time. ... and I suppose that it's a good thing, because (as the title says it) it was the funniest thing that I saw today.

Another response to climategate

In another response to "climategate" we have this editorial cartoon from the Houston Chronicle that seems to sum up at least what I'm feeling and thinking about this whole thing:

I suppose the adage of "not being able to see the forest for the trees" wouldn't really have reinforced the message of global warming...

Sticking with the visual media responses to climategate, I also saw this video from Greenman3610:

Will put on studded tires tonight!

Based on the expectation of snow, sleet, and rain tonight and tomorrow morning -- and possibly through Thursday -- I'm going to put on my studded tires tonight. I've been told that the carbide steel studs would hold up quite well over the season, being harder than the asphalt on which I'll be riding. Although I can purchase new studs for later replacement, I hope that I won't have to do it for a while.

I'm looking forward to doing that change-over, but am a little concerned that I might screw up the replacement of the rear tire and Alfine internally geared hub. Since it's a horizontal bracket with a disk brake, I will have to be careful to align the wheel properly after I put tension on the chain. If it doesn't happen, the people at Great Lakes have said that they will help me out, but I want to make sure that I can do it myself.

Wooden green "supercar" from Japan

When some people think about cars, Japan is one of the places that come to mind, what with its large international car companies like Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and Subaru as well as smaller companies like Isuzu and Mitsubishi. However, apart from the Toyota Prius, many people don't know about the different types of green cars that are coming out of Japan.

Recently, a Japanese wood furniture company made a "green" trike with a wooden frame:


via Inhabitat

Monday, December 07, 2009

Hulu's putting up cancelled shows?

Okay, I know that some of the shows on Hulu have not been on the air for years, but this weekend, I learned that What About Brian was canceled back in 2007, just as I was getting into what I had thought were merely back-episodes. Oh, well, life goes on.

Friday, December 04, 2009

New tires postponed

Although I purchased two new Nokian studded winter bike tires and tubes for a price of $300, they haven't gone on the bike yet. I thought that it wouldn't be proper yet to put them on, since there isn't enough ice on the roads to warrant their studded use.

Hulu: bane or benefit?

I'll admit that I have a problem with Internet addition. I like to read things and see things and the Internet is therefore so much more of a drug to me than TV -- especially since there are so many options for free streaming media these days. That brings me to Hulu.

I started using Hulu last year at some point after I moved out to Saginaw Forest, and have subscribed to a number of different shows. Of course, since I can watch these shows at any time I want, I am freed of the normal scheduling strictures that I would have to follow if I were to watch them on cable -- but at the cost of waiting a day before watching the show. Oh, well, so I don't get to vote for Dancing with the Stars, and I don't get to see The Daily Show on the same day as it was recorded. I instead get to watch them on the pop-out screen as I do work.

Of course, that's also a problem, since it is always there -- calling for my attention. And now I just started watching What About Brian. Well, "started" is an understatement -- I just watched the entire first season last night. Well, it played through an episode or two as I caught some shut-eye at around 5am. See? Dangerous!

So... benefit is that I don't have to pay for cable. The bane is that it feeds an addition. I could just quit it all together... (except that the programming is just so easy to watch).


Going to get some winter tires for the bike

With the small flurry of snow last night -- and the ice on the roads over the long Thanksgiving weekend -- has made me realize that I need to finally bite the bullet and get some studded tires, since even a warm winter in Michigan will be below freezing. Therefore, I ordered some winter tires for my bike: nice studded tires to help grip the ice and packed snow. Unfortunately, one of the companies that manufactures studded 29" wide tires has stopped making them, so I'm forced to go with a much more expensive (but supposedly far superior) brand. I'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

How to deal with sign-carrying people you don't agree with

Via BoingBoing.

Why don't Conservatives want to conserve?

I read this over at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish:

I have never understood why it is conservative to take an attitude toward the natural world of how best to exploit and use it entirely for short term benefit. (My first ever publication was a paper for Thatcher called "Greening The Tories"). The conservative, it seems to me, will not be averse to using the planet to improve our lot, and will not be hostile to the forces of capitalism and self-interest that have generated such amazing wealth and abundance in the last three hundred years.
But a conservative will surely also want to be sure that he conserves this inheritance, for its own sake and also for his future use. He will want to husband the natural world, not rape it and throw it away. He will see the abandonment of all values to that of immediate gratification as a form of insanity, if not evil.
I found this interesting for several reasons because I had a discussion with a South Korean labmate about what is "conservation" as an idea (i.e., something different than "enviornmentalism" or "preservationism"). Andrew's connection between political conservativism and conservation of natural resources seems non-relatable, at least in the modern era.

The current Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) used to be called the Michigan Department of Conservation (MDC). What was it that they were trying to conserve? Trees, rivers, and natural places? Ummm.... Not so much. More like they were in charge of conserving the ability to continue to hunt (deer and fowl) and fish. In conserving these abilities, one had to maintain natural areas, however, it was in the end done to maintain human use of these places.

The more modern environmental movement - in contrast - sought to remove humans from nature and repair the damage caused by them. In some way, the environmental movement became aligned with the left-wing social movements of the time, and that political relationship has continued (in some manner) to today. Over the years, though, environmental science (especially ecology) has changed from one that excluded human activity to slowly incorporating the impacts that humans have caused and can cause, slowly moving itself from a viewpoint more in-line with environmentalism to one that is (now, from my point-of-view) somewhere between an understanding that there are human uses (more like conservation) and a desire to remove humans from nature (more like environmentalism).

Alongside this shifting in the science, as well as the continued political ties of environmental groups to the political left, has come - in fits and starts - an understanding of some conservation groups to side with environmental groups in calling for more protections on existing areas of low human impact (i.e., "natural places"). National conservation organizations - like Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited - have come to understand that climate change and diminished habitat would have future consequences on hunting and fishing activities that so many of their members liked to pursue. Similarly, these groups didn't have any strong allegiance to the political right, even though hunter groups may have had more political alliances to the right due to association with the NRA (although this is speculative).

Moving against climate change legislation, however, made good political sense at the time for "national security" reasons (national coal is less dangerous than foreign oil), "economic" reasons (subsidized coal is cheaper than non-subsidized wind or solar), "job security" reasons (coal companies hire many people that would "suddenly" become unemployed if coal had to become ramped down), "nationalist" reasons (the UN and the IPCC isn't going to run our country), "anti-tax" reasons (cap-and-trade being called "cap-and-tax"), etc. It tied into anti-governmental-regulation (i.e., "mommy-state") sentiments that were supported by many right-wing groups at the time. Such a stance could be used to link anti-climate-change stances to being against abortion, gun control, taxes, and "big government" generally speaking. However, it moved, as Andrew stated, against some of the core values of what "conservation" stands for.

It moved against the idea of conserving that very thing that is most dear to us: our world. It is from that world that we receive everything from which we can build our lives and society. We derive not only food, water, clean air, and shelter from the world, but we also derive social and personal identity from it as well. These are the fundamental things that are necessary for success in life -- those things from which we can build the self-made man. Working against those things means that one is undercutting future generations' ability to make the most of themselves. These are values that Andrew lists:
These are deeply conservative instincts, humble in the face of nature, conscious of the need to preserve for the future, aware of the limits of exploitation. These conservatives aren't utopian tree-huggers. They do not worship Gaia or see no give and take with the natural world. They believe in the harvest but also in the need for fallow years and for care and husbandry of animals and plants and environments. And they love their home for its specificity and its beauty, and do not want to see its stability and future gambled away on the casino of greed.
I would argue that for the same reasons, conservatives should be in favor of public transportation, and there have been a few articles over at that also support this feeling. One particularly good one (in my opinion) was on November 16, 2009, showing a short film about the new book Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by William Lind. In another example of how public transportation might actually align with conservative values was written on April 29, 2009, and it quotes extensively from Andrew's posts on the same topic at around the same time.

So... what's up with conservatives and conservative values? Especially when it comes to those things that conservatives should be lining up in support of? Is it that they are opposed to them because of propaganda from sources that they -- for one reason or another -- trust? If so, then when propaganda finally clashes with reality, there could be problems ahead. Chinua Achebe wrote - somewhere in Things Fall Apart - "The truth that is a lie is harder to accept than the lie that is the truth" (or something like that, I can't find it anywhere in internet searches).  However, I think this is where that ironic statement "reality has a well-known liberal bias" rings true: that for whatever reason, the justifications of conservatives against conservation for propaganda "conservative truths" will eventually have to deal with a reality that shows "liberal bias."

Why denialism is pernicious

This past weekend, while I was in Scottsdale, AZ, I was able to take some time off and thinking about stuff that I had been mulling over prior to getting to AZ. Most of this stuff has been about the role of science in directing policy-making. However, I realized something: that is wrong with the my thinking about this sort of thing. The thing that was wrong was the impact that out-and-out denialism of scientists and the institutions of science as well. Where did this come from? How did it arise? Why is it effective, and how effective is it? Can/has science denialism affect science-based policy implementation?

Surely part of this comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of what science is. That science has been conflated with some sort of religion has made it into a practice that has been attacked on it's religious grounds - with people saying that since science is a religion, one form or other of it cannot be supported by the state; the separation of church and state argument.

However, even if people don't equate science with religion writ large, the misunderstanding still has had the problem of drawing false equivalences. From the definition of "materialism" to the definition of "theory, law, and hypothesis", and the implication of falsifiability vs. provability, many definitions of terms used among scientists and members of society hold different meanings and implications. Still, the meanings of words matter to understanding, and if people can turn meaning on its head or against its original use, the perceptions done by others of it would be problematic at the minimum and cynical at the maximum.  ... and yet the misinterpretations between scientific and social understanding continues to be expanded, maintained, and [falsely] argued.

Another part of this denialist reaction likely comes from mistrust of scientists. In my mind, some of this mistrust comes from unethical activities that have been publicized in the media. However, why do people just assume that if geneticist Hwan Woo Suk was unethical, all geneticists are unethical? Is it because the work he fabricated results for was related to a series of topics that many people find problematic - stem-cells and (through them) cloning? It's as if the pillorying of this scientist was done because it fit a previously determined narrative in which people who do stem-cell research are unethical, and once one is found, that only proves (falsely) the narrative correct. The same sort of hew-and-cry with the recent "climategate" that erupted with the leaking of e-mails between climate scientists: there is some evidence of climate scientists were trying to hide something, which fits into the theory of some global conspiracy of climate scientists trying to get everyone to emit less carbon (for some strange reason).

Still, if people are mistrusting scientists, using these justifications to deny the science, what are the implications? Well, due to the nature of science -- that it describes and investigates the causes and effects of physical phenomena -- ignoring the results of scientific studies carries implications. Denying the existence of climate change due to a few e-mails is unlike denying the existence of the Easter Bunny due to a classmate saying he doesn't exist are two very different beasts. On the one hand, there is no evidence of the presence or absence of an Easter Bunny, or even the physical, measurable impacts of no Easter Bunny. (In fact, there are many parts of the world in which the Easter Bunny doesn't even exist, or has existed.) However, there are predicted and predicable impacts to natural systems that would come out of a changed climate. These predictable impacts have (slightly less) predictable impacts on biology and (even less) predictable impacts on human society. Would it make sense to act on the possible presence or absence of climate change? Without any evidence, sure. With evidence of only the physical impacts, possibly. With evidence of the physical and biological impacts, quite possibly a good idea. With evidence of the physical, biological, and social impacts, most definitely yes.

And yet... people work at trying to keep the status quo alive and well. People with invested interests. It hurts when your truth gets overturned. It hurt the Catholic Church when Galileo showed that the evidence pointed toward the Earth not being in the center of the Creation. Similarly, it will likely hurt those invested in carbon-based fuels if climate change action is taken, and it is the same in other endeavors, too. Those that have a lot to lose also probably have a lot of incentive to maintain their point of view, and are likely to make efforts to keep their version of reality the only one that is forwarded. Thus, we see lobbying efforts by coal companies against climate change legislation; tobacco companies against tobacco legislation; and health care insurance companies against health insurance legislation.

End result: denialism has consequences on social association with science, with the type of science being done, and with the policy reactions to the scientific (and non-scientific rational) findings that go against certain invested "truths." Eventually, the truth will out. Hopefully, though, it isn't after preventative action can be taken.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Responses to 'climategate'

I like to read many different blogs and the recent hacker-released e-mails to and from scientists at East Anglia University has been causing a small furor over the blogs that I read. Termed "Climategate" (although I prefer "Climate-denialistgate"), the basic background is that last Friday (November 20, 2009), a bunch of hacked e-mails were dumped on the Interwebs and Climate Change (CC) denialists started crowing that this proved that CC is a sham, a fraud, a conspiracy of epic proportions.

Since that time, I've been curious as to the responses to these crowing claims of the end-of-CC-science. I've compiled a few of the ones that I particularly liked, below:

From Aguanomics, Dave Zetland makes an interesting economic argument:
Someone asked my opinion on the theft and revelation of data and emails related to climate change research. From my brief readings, it appears that some academics were blocking the views (preventing publication) of others they disagreed with, as well as -- perhaps deleting "inconvenient" data.

Since the blocked people were climate change skeptics (not anti-deconstructivist poets), this is a big deal for NON-academics.

My opinion is that this kind of sabotage, censorship, backstabbing and favoritism occurs all the time (just look at the editors of a journal and how many of their students and colleagues publish there...)

My opinion is that this is going to give WAY too much impetus to the "climate change is not happening" crowd.

And, you may ask, how can I trust the CC scientists, now that they are revealed to be "typical" humans? Because the gains (in career, fame, money, etc.) to ANYONE able to show that climate change is NOT happening, is all a hoax, etc. are extreme. With that kind of reward on the table (from Exxon?), anyone with a plausible analysis showing that it's not happening would be a rockstar.

But there isn't anyone, because climate change IS happening.

That line at the beginning -- Since the blocked people were climate change skeptics (not anti-deconstructivist poets), this is a big deal for NON-academics -- is great. So true. Looking at the comments that accompany many of the posts, this is so blatantly obvious (except apparently to the non-academic denialists). However, no one really can state the blindingly obvious of anything and everything statistical as Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight:
It's the global warming scandal of the century, says Michelle Malkin!

The exposure of the warmist conspiracy, says Andrew Bolt!

The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming, bleats James Delingpole!

A stunning tour de force -- four stars, says Leonard Maltin!

OK, so that last quote is made up. But the others aren't. What is it these conservatives are so excited about?

Apparently, the networks of University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit were hacked into last night. Approximately 160 megabytes of files, containing hundreds or thousands of e-mails and documents were leaked as a result of the security breach, reports The Guardian.

... Jones is talking to his colleagues about making a prettier picture out of his data, and not about manipulating the data itself. Again, I'm not trying to excuse what he did -- we make a lot of charts here and 538 and make every effort to ensure that they fairly and accurately reflect the underlying data (in addition to being aesthetically appealing.) I wish everybody would abide by that standard.

Still: I don't know how you get from some scientist having sexed up a graph in East Anglia ten years ago to The Final Nail In The Coffin of Anthropogenic Global Warming. Anyone who comes to that connection has more screws loose than the Space Shuttle Challenger. And yet that's literally what some of these bloggers are saying!

Perhaps, though, a farce can truly be called "ripened" once it gets to the point of parody. And via Climate Progress, there is a link to the Carbon Fixated blog's parody response to this whole "conspiracy":

If you own any shares in companies that produce reflecting telescopes, use differential and integral calculus, or rely on the laws of motion, I should start dumping them NOW. The conspiracy behind the calculus myth has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed after volumes of Newton’s private correspondence were compiled and published.

When you read some of these letters, you realise just why Newton and his collaborators might have preferred to keep them confidential. This scandal could well be the biggest in Renaissance science. These alleged letters – supposedly exchanged by some of the most prominent scientists behind really hard math lessons – suggest:

Conspiracy, collusion in covering up the truth, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.

But perhaps the most damaging revelations are those concerning the way these math nerd scientists may variously have manipulated or suppressed evidence to support their cause.
However, I like what most of the bloggers say: that scientists are human, and it shouldn't be surprising that some of them act ... human. However, being and acting along the foibles of humanity doesn't change the underlying testable veracity of CC science. I think Megan McArdle made a good comment in her blog on The Atlantic:
Scientists are human beings.  They react to pressure to "clean up" their graphs and data for publication, and they gang up on other people who they dislike.  Sometimes they're right--there's a "conspiracy" to keep people who believe in N-rays from publishing in physics journals, but that's a good thing.  But sometimes they're wrong, and a powerful figure or group of people can block progress in science.


That doesn't mean their paradigm is wrong; rather, it means we need to be less romantic about the practice of science.  No scientific consensus is ever as powerful as its proponents claim, because no scientists are ever as perfect as we'd like to imagine.

The more ardent defenders of the emailers are glossing over the fact that in some cases, they really seem to have behaved quite badly, and with less-than-stellar scientific integrity.  But I have yet to see the makings of a grand conspiracy, rather than the petty bullying of the powerful over the weak, the insider of the outsider.  I'll take the statements of this particular group of scientists with a little more salt in the future.  But as far as I can tell, the weight of the evidence--and what we know about the history of the planet, and carbon dioxide--still seems to be on their side.
That's true: the science has the weight of the evidence, regardless of how much of an asshole one (or more) scientist may be. The paradigm isn't wrong just because of the possibly petty feelings of one scientist. Indeed, if anyone of the denialists were to consider how Kuhn proposed how paradigms get overturned, the denialists need to provide a better theory than the current one (thus the reason why the particle theory of light, the ether, and hollow earth theory all took a long time to die out, even though more and more evidence mounted against them).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What would the Earth look like with rings similar to that of Saturn?

Ahh, the wonders of the imaginative combination of astronomy, astrophysics, some mathematics, and Photoshop:

Working in public increases my productivity

I don't know why I get more work done when I'm in a coffee shop. Maybe it's because the idea of sitting in the coffee shop and playing online makes me guilty that I don't do it, thus improving my productivity. Maybe it's the idea that the people around me are judging my progress depending on what they see on my screen, thus improving my productivity. Maybe it's the relatively slow Internet connection (caused by over a dozen other people using a common-pool resource) that limits my surfing of the Web to necessary items, thus increasing my productivity. Maybe it's the fact that I am paranoid and don't want to leave my computer alone on a table to do other things like talk to other people, go to the toilet, go outside to take a breather, thus improving my productivity.

I know it's not due to the expensive coffee ($2.10 for 20oz/$1.60 for a refill compared to ~$1.00 for roughly 60oz of home-brewed coffee) and some sort of economic rationality of not wanting to waste my time. I know that it's not due to the time of day or the weather outside, from which a retreat into a cozy coffee shop is welcome relief. I know it's not that I schlepped my computer 4 miles from my house to downtown, either, since I don't easily get work done in areas other than cafes to which I bring my computer.

Okay, so, yes, I AM taking a break from work to write this. But in actuality, it is a break after about two hours of work -- the most productive two hours that I've had in several months. ... and I'm hungry, so will be going back to the forest to make some dinner.

When 1-in-1000 is no longer 1-in-1000

I started an interesting post over at Climate Progress, which made me think about the following question before I even finished that post to read the punch line:

What happens when a 1000-year-flood occurs? Well, to answer that question, first we need to answer the question of what a 1000-year-flood is. Simply put, such a flood is the statistical probability of such a flood happening once over a given period of time. In other words, every year, there is a 1-in-1000 chance that such a flood will happen, however, that kind of flooding can happen more than once during a millennium (or not at all). To that extent, calling these events 1000-year-floods (or 1000-year-storms, or the like) is a bit of a misnomer. However, what happens when the chance of deluge increases -- one expected consequence of climate change?

If we are going to enter into a period of greater rainfall intensity -- and, consequently, more flash-flooding -- then the number of expected large floods should also increase. If we continue to term floods as 1000-year-floods (or 300-year-floods, or any other X-year-floods), then shouldn't they change to meet the new understandings of flooding? I mean, if a 1000-year-flood for a particular stretch of river is currently listed as a discharge of 10,000 cfs, that means that every year, there is a 1/1,000 chance that a discharge of 10,000 cfs will be reached. However, let's assume that climate change will change the hydrological impacts for that region, increasing the intensity of flooding such that a 10,000 cfs discharge has a 1/700 chance each year. That will mean that the same 10,000 cfs discharge will now be a 700-year-flood.

What does that mean for planning? I mean, 1000-year-floods are such rare occurrences that they are unlikely to be planned for due to a variety of reasons (including prohibitive cost for construction and maintenance). However, what of the smaller floodings that are important thresholds for planning? If current 200-year-floods (which are usually cited as the minimum required limit for planning) will occur more often, then that means that future 200-year-floods will have a higher discharge than currently. That means that existing minimum-required designs will be less capable of protecting against a range of statistically likely flood scenarios. Let's assume that a current 200-year-flood occurs at a discharge of 1,500 cfs, and city flood-water management systems are developed to protect against a likelihood of flooding of 1/200. However, if the future 200-year-flood occurs at a discharge of 1,700 cfs (and the 1,500 cfs discharge were a 150-year-flood), then the existing infrastructure will only be able to protect against a likelihood of flooding of 1/150. The laws would have to change to set flooding to a lower level of safety (the old 200-year-flood discharge level), retrofits will have to be undertaken, or insurance measures would need to be undertaken by those living in the zones affected by all floodings below the new 200-year-flood levels.

Just another way in which future planning and laws will be affected by climate change.

UPDATE: the CP blog post only recounts the increased number of recent deluges in the UK, US, and Australia, but not the implications of what it means for planning.

Pre-Mardi Gras video

Next Mardi Gras, "Your Disco Needs YOU!"

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Explaining climate vs weather

A person wrote a comment in a Treehugger entry that seems to have not recognized the difference between temperature and climate forecasting. (At least that was my perception.) This is something that people seem to have a problem understanding, so I decided to make the effort to describe what the difference is. Even when you say that climate is the long-term weather patterns, that doesn't really make sense for lots of people; that definition of "climate" remains a string of words without a significant meaning, especially since climate predictions usually revolve around temperature values, which (at least in my head) makes it seem more akin to concepts of weather.

Starting off, weather forecasting is determining the temperature, wind, cloud cover, and precipitation conditions on a day (or hour) in the future. Climate forecasting is determining the character and timing of the seasons.

Even if one knows what the climate is, that knowledge doesn't help one too much with weather forecasting. For example, if one lives in Southeast Michigan (as I do), then one would know that the climate of the region is that of four seasons, with relatively cold winters and warm summers; rainy springs and falls; snow melt usually coming around March; prevailing winds from the west-southwest; a mean air temperature of around 50F; and an average monthly precipitation of 2.8 inches. However, knowing all of this doesn't allow one to know what the temperature, precipitation, and wind speed will be tomorrow or even this weekend. All one can say with absolute confidence is that it is more likely to be like weather expected in the autumn than it is weather that would expected any other time of the year. In other words, the climate model of ascribing characteristics of a "Continental Temperate Zone" tells one as much about weather patterns occurring now as future climate models tell one of future weather.

In the same way that one cannot predict the weather this weekend even though one knows the climate of this region (although I can make informed predictions based on knowledge of my regional climate), one cannot predict the weather of the future from climate models. However, one can say that if average annual temperatures increase by 2C (~3.6F), certain trends in weather patterns (i.e., physical responses around the globe, including glacial melting leading to sea level rise, warming of oceans leading to more intense storms, melting permafrost leading to releases of formerly trapped methane, etc.) will be seen.

The problems of percentages

This morning I read a Treehugger entry on how much greater New York City is now that their bicycling metric has increased by 26% over the last year. I don't have any problem with the article message, or it's tone, except that the writer states:
"[the increase] is a lot by any measure, though it is lower than the 35% increase in 2008."
That's an example of a poor understanding of mathematics. Why? Well, the increase in cycling went from 255 in 2008 to 321 in 2009, an increase of 66 points. The increase from 2007 to 2008 was 62 points. In other words, the two years' increases were roughly the same in terms of absolute value, but not in terms of percentage.

A percent growth means that the total value must increase in ever-greater amounts. In other words, a percent growth rate of 1% means that the initial value will double after 70 years; 2% will double in 35 years; 3% will double in 24 years; and so on. If the percent growth of 26% is continued, it would take only 3 years to double the initial value; in this case to go from 321 to 642 (which would be awesome).

On the other hand, a "mere" growth of 64 points per year (the average increase over the years) means an ever-decreasing annual percentage growth. Declining from the "lower" value of 26% it will sink to 17%, 14%, 12%, 11%, and so on in succeeding years (slowly approaching a 0% increase limit). Of course, the value will still have doubled by 2014 if the increment stays constant; two years slower than if the 26% growth rate was maintained.

Thinking in terms of percent growth is problematic, since thinking of percents in this way is actually implicitly implies that one is looking at growth rates. However, a growth of 0% is not the same as a growth rate of 0%. A growth of 0% from 2008 to 2009 would have meant a value of 255 in both years. However, a growth rate of 0% would mean that 2009 would have been 317 (instead of 321). In other words, the growth rate from 2008 to 2009 was relatively close to 0%.

But let's look at the overall benefit: in the twenty years since 1989 (the low point in the graph), the metric has increased by 418%. That's awesome!

Stupid Homophobic Hateful Legislation ... sung to a tune we all know

Come one everyone, you know the chorus now!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New haircut

New Haircut
Got a haircut at the Douglas J Aveda school. Not too bad of a job for $16 (which included free coffee, scalp massage, shampoo, and cut), so I'll likely go back there again.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sometimes I like to read blogs. (Well... many times.) The topic of global warming (aka. 'climate change') is also one of my interests here on this blog -- especially the politics of global warming. Recently, Senator Kerry presented testimony in front of the Senate Environment Committee and Public Works.

Well, apparently the Washington Post excoriated Senator Inhofe (R-OK), and the people over at Climate Progress did a commentary of the blow-by-blow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chopping wood


Today I chopped up some firewood. The temperature is supposed to dip below freezing tonight, so I think it would be good to make sure that I have some wood chopped and ready to be burned.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama wins Peace Prize

Well, since I don't listen to talk radio, I will have to wait for the analysis of the talk radio analysis of the Nobel committee's decision to award Barack Obama the Nobel prize for peace. As some people have already pointed out:

In 2007, Al Gore shared the peace prize with climate scientists who brought forward the understanding of global climate change to the world. If I recall correctly, the right-wingers had a field day with it: having used Al Gore as a point of ad hominem attacks in the past, they now were able to use the "international conspiracy" angle to attack global warming as some giant left-wing conspiracy. (Of course, many people just continued to attack Al Gore directly.)

Now, in 2009, the Nobel committee has awarded Barack Obama with the peace prize "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." I wonder how quickly the right wing talk shows will have a conniption fit, and whether they will play the "he-hasn't-done-anything-yet" card or the "he-doesn't-cooperate-with-Republicans" card. (Or use another card, perhaps attacking the Nobel Peace Price recipients as being "too liberal" or questioning why the Nobel committee has the "right" to make these massive awards.) I admit that it is probably a little too early to say whether Obama's actions now merit the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, since there is still time in his presidency to either do worse or better than the ideals of the prize imply. (Remember that Kissinger won the Peace Prize, too, even though he was influential in supporting Latin American dictators...)

Among the blogs to which I have subscriptions (mostly scientists' blogs and eco-conscious blogs), the awarding of Obama has been met mostly with non-committal interest, pointing out that he hasn't actually done anything concrete to merit the award. PZ Myers states that not being Bush and not blowing up anything for a year is likely to have made any American president look like Gandhi. Chad Orzel mirrors Myers' tone, also indicating that it likely a mea culpa for Kissinger.

An interesting slant on this is from the people at Climate Progress blog, who hypothesize that the Nobel Peace Prize - the most political of the prizes awarded by the Nobel committee - might have been additional political pressure on the Obama administration to live up to the ideals of multilateralism and international cooperation. Kind of like trying to create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Of course, the people at Climate Progress see it in the lens of "looks like he'll be going to [the climate conference in] Copenhagen after all."

Right now, I'm leaning toward the position that the people at Climate Progress are making:
While some may argue that this award is premature, I disagree. This is a clear statement by the Nobel Committee not merely of the importance of US multilateralism to genuine progress toward global peace, but also of their understanding that climate change has become a critical international issue.
The prize is worth lots of kudos in the international arena, and if the United States is to play a major leadership role in the world, then bolstering the president is a good thing, even if the move was thinly veiled politics.

Looking at the list of Nobel Peace Laureates, only two presidents have received the award while in office: Teddy Roosevelt (ending the Russo-Japanese War) and Woodrow Wilson (setting up the League of Nations). Jimmy Carter won the prize in 2002, 22 years after the end of his presidency.

At the end of the day, though, at least Steven Chu will now not feel so alone as the only Nobel Laureate in the administration. :D

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Pulling the sheet over the hoophouse

The other day, I helped SJ Brines put on the plastic sheeting for his third hoophouse. Quite an experience. The video is of the first of two sheets to go onto the hoophouse.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

1 October = -1 C

Fireplace heatingIt's the morning of the first day of October, and it's literally freezing. What a great way to start the month. Yesterday, I was happy to have the people from Plant Operations come out to the Forest to turn on the pilot light for the furnace -- can't figure out why it didn't turn on when I did it... It was good to come back to a warm[er than outside] house. I also made a fire in the humongous hearth and went to sleep downstairs.

This morning, I hung the temperature-sensor fan above the furnace so as to have some heat circulation in the main room. We'll see how it goes this autumn and winter.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Looking outside at the world

Looking outside at the world
Originally uploaded by umlud
Ahh, a sunny September Sunday afternoon. I mowed the lawn in anticipation of the SNRE campfire Homecoming event this Friday evening (lots of set up this week). Across Third Sister Lake, the trees are just starting to change color (although other areas have more marked leaf-change). If the trees on the opposite shore turn with the same simultaneity and suddenness as they did when the leafed out, then I expect that I will just wake up one day to see an entire shoreline of red-leafed trees. Ahhhh....

The nights are not yet "crisp," but is a little cool, so the feeling of autumn (for me) still hasn't come. But it seems close.... Very close.

Something I should have thought of...

Via Daily Kos:
I, ________________________, do solemnly swear to uphold the principles of a socialism-free society and heretofore pledge my word that I shall strictly adhere to the following:
I will complain about the destruction of 1st Amendment Rights in this country, while I am duly being allowed to exercise my 1st Amendment Rights.
I will complain about the destruction of my 2nd Amendment Rights in this country, while I am duly being allowed to exercise my 2nd Amendment rights by legally but brazenly brandishing unconcealed firearms in public.
I will foreswear the time-honored principles of fairness, decency, and respect by screaming unintelligible platitudes regarding tyranny, Nazi-ism, and socialism at public town halls.  Also.
I pledge to eliminate all government intervention in my life.  I will abstain from the use of and participation in any socialist goods and services including but not limited to the following:
  • Social Security
  • Medicare/Medicaid
  • State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP)
  • Police, Fire, and Emergency Services
  • US Postal Service
  • Roads and Highways
  • Air Travel (regulated by the socialist FAA)
  • The US Railway System
  • Public Subways and Metro Systems
  • Public Bus and Lightrail Systems
  • Rest Areas on Highways
  • Sidewalks
  • All Government-Funded Local/State Projects (e.g., see Iowa 2009 federal senate appropriations)
  • Public Water and Sewer Services (goodbye socialist toilet, shower, dishwasher, kitchen sink, outdoor hose!)
  • Public and State Universities and Colleges
  • Public Primary and Secondary Schools
  • Sesame Street
  • Publicly Funded Anti-Drug Use Education for Children
  • Public Museums
  • Libraries
  • Public Parks and Beaches
  • State and National Parks
  • Public Zoos
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Municipal Garbage and Recycling Services
  • Treatment at Any Hospital or Clinic That Ever Received Funding From Local, State or Federal Government (pretty much all of them)
  • Medical Services and Medications That Were Created or Derived From Any Government Grant or Research Funding (again, pretty much all of them)
  • Socialist Byproducts of Government Investment Such as Duct Tape and Velcro (Nazi-NASA Inventions)
  • Use of the Internets, email, and networked computers, as the DoD's ARPANET was the basis for subsequent computer networking
  • Foodstuffs, Meats, Produce and Crops That Were Grown With, Fed With, Raised With or That Contain Inputs From Crops Grown With Government Subsidies
  • Clothing Made from Crops (e.g. cotton) That Were Grown With or That Contain Inputs From Government Subsidies
If a veteran of the government-run socialist US military, I will forego my VA benefits and insist on paying for my own medical care
I will not tour socialist government buildings like the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
I pledge to never take myself, my family, or my children on a tour of the following types of socialist locations, including but not limited to:
  • Smithsonian Museums such as the Air and Space Museum or Museum of American History
  • The socialist Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Monuments
  • The government-operated Statue of Liberty
  • The Grand Canyon
  • The socialist World War II and Vietnam Veterans Memorials
  • The government-run socialist-propaganda location known as Arlington National Cemetery
  • All other public-funded socialist sites, whether it be in my state or in Washington, DC
I will urge my Member of Congress and Senators to forego their government salary and government-provided healthcare.
I will oppose and condemn the government-funded and therefore socialist military of the United States of America.
I will boycott the products of socialist defense contractors such as GE, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Humana, FedEx, General Motors, Honeywell, and hundreds of others that are paid by our socialist government to produce goods for our socialist army.
I will protest socialist security departments such as the Pentagon, FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, Department of Justice and their socialist employees.
Upon reaching eligible retirement age, I will tear up my socialist Social Security checks.
Upon reaching age 65, I will forego Medicare and pay for my own private health insurance until I die.
_____________   _________________________
Signed       Printed Name/Town and State

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cutting wood

Cutting wood
Originally uploaded by umlud
I purchased a cutting wedge (the blue thing on top of the wood) at the hardware store. That little wedge really helped me cut up a lot of the hardwood that I have lying around.

Although I haven't measured it, the amount is somewhere between 2 and 3 cubic feet of wood. I've got about 6 more cubic feet of this wood to cut. Maybe this weekend...

Cutting down another elm

Cutting down another elm
Originally uploaded by umlud
The university has cut down another elm tree. While this is a sad thing to me, I do understand that they are slowly dying - if not from the remnants of Dutch Elm Disease, then from something else. I wonder what the university will put up inn its place... (Maybe a disease-resistant elm?)

Fixing the pipes

Fixing the pipes
Originally uploaded by umlud
Every year, there is construction (or reconstruction or refurbishment) on campus. This year, there are updates that are being done on the pipes leading to/from the Chemistry building. The work began in the early summer and continues daily, slowly moving toward State Street.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Meant to curb your sugar cravings...?

I wrote about the need to change how people eat in this country, and that especially in the light of the health care debates the case for better eating isn't being discussed. Well, apparently, I am not alone in thinking this way. Via PhysOrg, there is a report of an effort that may - admittedly - have died before even leaving the gates (but at least I have experts from the NEJM on my side):
(AP) -- In a bid to ramp up the public health battle against obesity, a group of nutrition and economics experts are pushing for a tax of 1 cent on every of ounce of sodas and other sweetened beverages.

Proposals for a hefty soda tax though have repeatedly fallen flat. The idea was even floated as a way to help pay for health care reform, but government officials on Wednesday said that's not likely to happen.

The experts' plan was released by the influential New England Journal of Medicine, in a health policy article by Arkansas' surgeon general, New York City's health commissioner and five national experts on health and economics.

A soda tax would generate tax revenue while discouraging people from consuming extra calories, the authors contend. They cited a series of studies that showed higher rates of obesity and diabetes among women who drank more sugar-sweetened beverages. They argue that a steeper soda tax would borrow the same strategy that helped drive down cigarette smoking while bolstering government revenues


Taxes on soda aren't new - 33 states charge sales tax on soft drinks. But generally they are fairly small, with the average soda tax rate being 5.2 percent. On a 12-ounce can of soda that costs $1, that translates to about 5 cents.

The latest proposal in Thursday's issue of the medical journal calls for a 1-cent-per-ounce sales tax, an amount more than double the average state tax. It would increase the levy on that $1 soda can to 12 cents.

A national tax of that amount would generate nearly $15 billion in its first year, said proposal author Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The money could be used for child nutrition and obesity prevention programs, the authors suggested. The tax also would lead to a yearly 2-pound weight loss for soda drinkers, on average, they estimated. For people who drink who drink a lot of soda, it could be more, Brownell said.


Thompson, the Arkansas surgeon general, said one reason soda taxes fail is that consumers don't view sugared beverages as an important source of their weight problems.

"That's a new concept" that may take a while to gain wide acceptance, he said.
However, neither the House or Senate bills mention anything about taxing sugary drinks (let along soda/pop). And if what Thompson says is true, then it will take a long time before anything like a soda tax is seriously contemplated. However, the numbers are out there, doing a simple search of "Coke calories" turns up this website. The numbers are there. People just have to look for them, think about their implications, and act accordingly. (A lot to ask, I know.)

Religious states have greater teen pregnancy rates

From my PhysOrg news ticker, I see this story: "Teenage birth rates higher in more religious states." The provisional paper (submitted to Reproductive Health is available online) makes the claim that at the state level, religiosity was positively correlated with teenage pregnancy. From the paper's abstract, here's the summary of the results:
Increased religiosity in residents of states in the U.S. strongly predicted a higher teen birth rate, with r = 0.73 (p<0.0005). Religiosity correlated negatively with median household income, with r = -0.66, and income correlated negatively with teen birth rate, with r = -0.63. But the correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate remained highly significant when income was controlled for via partial correlation: the partial correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate, controlling for income, was 0.53 (p<0.0005). Abortion rate correlated negatively with religiosity, with r=-0.45, p=0.002. However, the partial correlation between teen birth rate and religiosity remained high and significant when controlling for abortion rate (partial correlation=0.68, p<0.0005) and when controlling for both abortion rate and income (partial correlation=0.54, p=0.001).

What does this all mean? Well, the authors sum it up in their abstract's conclusion in this way:

With data aggregated at the state level, conservative religious beliefs strongly predict U.S. teen birth rates, in a relationship that does not appear to be the result of confounding by income or abortion rates. One possible explanation for this relationship is that teens in more religious communities may be less likely to use contraception.
What this means is that there are no strong outliers in the dataset, and this still is a positive correlation even if you take abortion rates and income into account. They also seem to have chosen to remain cautious with their list of explanations, and don't make the jump between this correlation and the religious right's opposition to actual sex eduction in schools (i.e., they don't make the jump to say that abstinence-only education, strongly supported by those with high levels of religiosity, doesn't work).

It would be interesting to see what sort of explanation abstinence-only supporters would give for this study.

Panda robots?

This story touched on so many things for me, including species conservation, robot celebrities, robot teachers, and cultural assumptions of human-robot futures. Via AFP:
TAIPEI — The world's first panda robot is taking shape at a cutting-edge lab in Taiwan where an ambitious group of scientists hope to add new dimensions to the island's reputation as a high-tech power.
The Centre for Intelligent Robots Research aims to develop pandas that are friendlier and more artistically endowed than their endangered real-life counterparts.
"The panda robot will be very cute and more attracted to humans. Maybe the panda robot can be made to sing a panda song," said Jerry Lin, the centre's 52-year-old director.
Well, this could be an interesting way of tackling the charismatic megafauna issue to conservation ... by making them even more charismatic... Of course, this is probably not like your parents' robo-panda, either.
The robo-panda is just one of many projects on the drawing board at the centre, which is attached to the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, the island's version of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Taipei-based centre also aims to build robots that look like popular singers, so exact replicas of world stars can perform in the comfort of their fans' homes.
"It could be a Madonna robot. It will be a completely different experience from just listening to audio," said Lin.
Of course, if you were to have a robot of Madonna, the world tours would be very easy to make, and could literally make Madonna (or another robo-artist) embodied and immortal. Furthermore, the artists who are made into robots can also continue to write and sing songs, being able to use their body doubles for their touring and music promotions. The term "world-tour" takes on a different meaning when you've got an army of robot doubles taking to the stage throughout the world...
Lin and his team are also working on educational robots that can act as private tutors for children, teaching them vocabulary or telling them stories in foreign languages.
There is an obvious target market: China, with its tens of millions of middle-class parents doting on the one child they are allowed under strict population policies.
"Asian parents are prepared to spend a lot of money to teach their children languages," said Lin.
Robots running amok are a fixture of popular literature but parents do not have to worry about leaving their children home alone with their artificial teachers, he said.
See? No worries in China about some Frankenstein's monster giving private tutoring lessons to your kids. Because there are different cultural norms than in the West. If this were proposed here, I think that - other than techno-utopians - there will be a hew and cry from people on all sides, including parents who might have some image of Terminator mixed together with Kindergarten Cop.

Of course, when this sort of technology gets into the hands of a wider audience, I predict one of two things happening: the film industry using them and the adult sex toy industry using them. However, in the former case, it might well be easier to make use of computer generated images than to bring in a robot (the technology for that is, after all, far more advanced than robots).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Processed food, obesity, health care, and societal costs

I suppose food is on my mind today (although I don't really know why, since I've eaten enough)... However, this graphic from Next Generation Food got me thinking about something else in the health care debate - something that isn't discussed: the health cost of the food we eat.

A 2005 (I believe) publication from the American Heart Association showed that 30.4% of adults in the United States were considered "obese," based on BMI. (Now, while I do have an issue with the use of BMI as a metric for individuals, at a population level, its trend does seem to work better.) What I want to draw attention to, though, is the link that the AHA makes between obesity and health and financial consequences:

The publication lists correlations with life expectancy and obesity, and has a nice table (on page 14) of increased likelihoods of diseases, too. For example, for people with a BMI greater than 35, there is a:
  • 6.16 times greater possibility of developing type-II diabetes,
  • 5.48 times greater possibility of gallstones,
  • 3.77 times greater possibility of having hypertension,
  • 2.39 times greater possibility of arthritis,
  • 1.75 times greater possibility of stroke, and
  • 1.67 times greater possibility of heart attack..
With regard to financial costs, the publication cites a 1999 paper ("The costs of body mass index levels in an employed population") that showed that as BMI increased, so did the number of sick days, medical claims and insurance costs. Furthermore, they cite a 2002 paper ("The Effects Of Obesity, Smoking, And Drinking On Medical Problems And Costs") that showed:
Obesity is associated with a 36 percent increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 77 percent increase in medications, compared with a 21 percent increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 28 percent increase in medications for current smokers and smaller effects for problem drinkers.
How does work in with the health care debate currently going on in the United States? I can see it working itself into the conversation in two ways: current denials to those who are BMI-obese and future population-level costs if it isn't effectively addressed in the future. In the first case, the husband of a friend of mine was declined health insurance because his BMI was too high. This is why I use the term "BMI-obese," since I am categorized as "obese" by the BMI table. (My previous entry on BMI talks a lot about the problems with BMI as a modern-day scale as well as the logical problem of using it as an individual measure.) Since he cannot get medical insurance, he is one more of the 40 million Americans on the uninsured lists due to a "pre-existing condition". It is likely, too that many people who are BMI-obese may have their insurance dropped if this fact is found out, or may have it drastically increased.

In the second case, let's assume that pre-existing conditions cannot be a cause for dropping (or not enrolling) a person to health insurance. Under these circumstances, the costs of the truly obese (as opposed to BMI-obese) will be borne by all of the payers. However, if rates of obesity continue to increase, then that cost burden will also become greater and greater. If there is not mechanism to award people who are healthy (as opposed to only penalizing people who are not healthy), then the financial problems of obesity will not go away.

What does this all have to do with processed food? Well, in addition to what the numbers and charts show in the graphic above, food purveyors want their customers to purchase their product. What manufactured food does is prey upon the human evolutionary desires of sugars and fats, and thus give us sugary drinks and fatty foods, which we (in turn) consume with all the evolutionarily pressured gusto we can manage before going back for more (and more and more). This cycle tends to lead to obesity in a population and (if left unchecked) obesity of a population, which (in turn) leads to increased health care costs as well as increased macro-economic costs.

That's enough navel-gazing for right now on this topic. However, it's likely to not go away from my mind any time soon...