Sunday, December 25, 2011

Travelling on Christmas Day

The ticket price did play a part in my decision of flying on Dec 25 as opposed to Dec 23 or 24. It would have cost about $500 more to fly on the Friday or Saturday leading up to Christmas, and so it was a pretty simple choice for me, especially when one thinks about the problems of onward travel once I was to arrive at Santiago. If I arrived at Santiago on December 24 (having left on December 23), I would have been one of the many many people who were jockeying for tickets and seats on the buses down to Concepcion. Furthermore, if I would have left on December 24, I would have arrived in Santiago on December 25, and would likely have to stay in a hotel in Santiago, since many services would have been shut down (or severely diminished). In other words, it would have been even more expensive and hectic than landing on Boxing Day. (Do they celebrate Boxing Day in Chile? I don't know...)

Still, the travel down will be kind of interesting in itself. It is already 12:40pm, and I am seated in a nearly empty airport, with only light traffic. I was happy to learn that the extra bag that I had packed full of presents would be able to be carried on, saving me $30 on a second-bag check-in fee. However, I had to do a quick series of mental gymnastics to try and remember whether I had packed liquids or sharps in the bag. Ummm..... nope. And with that, I went to the rather light (but also lightly staffed) security line. Of course, they pulled my bag, pulled out all the presents and ran them through again. (Seeing that most of the presents are food-related -- wild rice and coffee -- they came out as quite dense on the screen, causing a little consternation.

Following a re-pack, I walked down to the gate, and tried to get onto the Boingo hotspot (seeing that I would be in an airport for at least another 7 hours in Dallas, I thought that this would be a good expedient). When I pulled out the card for payment, I realized that I hadn't told the credit union that I would be using the card in Chile, and I frantically tried to call them, to be told that they were on holiday hours, and to please call back after the holidays. Oooh, shit. Zipping over to their website, I learned that they wouldn't be open on Dec 26, killing the fleeting hope that perhaps I could Skype-call them when I landed in Santiago tomorrow morning, but no such luck... Fortunately, a quick Google search showed that there are American Airlines Credit Union ATMs at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport; as part of the COOP network, I shouldn't be charged the $2-$3 transaction fees at a non-COOP ATM.

Well, this will be an interesting trip, I think. Not too hectic, either, I hope.

Fingers crossed, and Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

FOXNews badly (as well as subtly) misrepresents the data

This has been going around the Internets for a while. However, I haven't seen (although I haven't looked hard) a site that commented on the placement of the points that come prior to the obviously misplaced 8.6% point.

So I did it by making a graph in Excel and laying it over the FOXNews graph
As you can see, there are a few points that are lying above where they ought to be, and FOXNews was a little generous with their 8.9% and 8.8%, putting them a little lower than what their actual positions should have been. Specifically (and possibly deviously), the visual location of FOXNews' 9.2% is significantly closer to 9.5% than is actually warranted, given their y-axis. This gives the March-June rise in unemployment a steeper visual slope than what is warranted by the actual data.

You could have said that I made the scale wrong, but I'm actually using the scale of the FOXNews graph: see how the grey and black lines overlap at 8.0% the points overlap at 9.0%. If the y-axis is actually linear (and there's no reason to think that it isn't), then there ought not to be any vertical shift between the values as displayed by Excel graphing and their own graph.

Furthermore, you cannot have Excel give you a different data value than the one for the point, unless you do it manually. Excel will also not plot points higher or lower than they ought to be, based on the given y-axis.

Does FOXNews pay their interns enough? Or are they even hiring interns that know how to use Excel? Or is it something else?

In short, while the obviously fallacious positioning of the November value of 8.6% is an obvious misrepresentation of the data, the fallacious positioning of the 9.2% and the 8.8% is a more subtle misrepresentation of the data by showing a steeper rise in unemployment than the axes ought to depict.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Weather forecasts all agree: Thursday's gonna be quite warm and rainy

Mid-December and 56F (14C)? In Ann Arbor? Woah.

If that's the case, then it won't be very fun riding into town.

(Screen capture from

On Bike-Riding

Today, I saw three stories on the benefits of increased amounts of bicycling. The first (on Treehugger) - Graph of the Day: Proof that Bike Lanes Attract Bike Riders - described the benefit of having a transportation manager who is partial to bike lanes: if you build them (bike lanes), they (bike riders) will come.

What's interesting to my nerdy mind is that of the background trend occurring prior to Janette Sadik-Khan's (JSK's) appointment: four years of decline followed by seven years of increase. One point is that the two periods of decline (1986-1989, 1996-1999) have slopes that are not too dissimilar (-7 and -5.3, respectively). What's interesting is that 2006 ought to have been the start of another four-year downward trend (based on the previous years' trend). Taking the average slope of the two decline periods (-6.15), we could (somewhat reasonably) assume that the trend of NYC Commuter Cycling Indicator should have looked more like the blue line:

Therefore, the role that JSK has played in the increased bike presence in NYC is well above the expected. (Well, "expected" here means that things during the 2006-2011 period following the trend of 1986-2005, which - itself - is problematic, since there has been a major push nationwide since the mid-2000s toward greater "greenness".) For those people who want to rip out all the bike lanes, I'm sorry, but - as was asserted (and to which I am inclined to agree, even when you include the annoying cyclists):
The lesson of this chart, then, is that if you build bike lanes, cyclists will appear to fill them. That’s fantastic news, since cities with lots of cyclists are always the most pleasant cities to live and work in — even for people who don’t bike themselves.
To this article, I wrote the following response:
In much of the US, one more person on a bike means one less person in a car, which - for most drivers - means one less car on the road and one less car in the parking lot.

Furthermore, even if 20% of car trips are to destinations within 2 miles from the home (estimates run as high as 40%), taking a bike to those destinations will mean that there will be a significant drop in the amount of gasoline consumption, which ought to also lower gasoline prices somewhat.

Finally, if there is - nationwide - a greater movement toward bikes transport, then there will be a greater understanding among weekend cyclists and non-cyclist drivers alike that a bicycle is a valid form of transportation and not a mere "hobby".
In addition - according to a previous article at Think Progress - adding bike lanes creates more jobs than adding car-only roads. The math apparently comes out as 11.4 jobs created per $1 million for bike lane installation as compared to 7.8 jobs created per $1 million for car-only roads. Why? Because of the tourism, maintenance, and quality of life benefits that are associated with bike lanes.

The second article on this topic of the benefits of cycling came up on ecogeek: EU Could Meet Emission Requirements Through Increased Bike Ridership. It makes the point - thanks to the new world politics of carbon emission reductions - that increased bicycle ridership could have the benefit of allowing countries to meet their carbon-emission-reduction requirements:
A new report released by the European Cyclists' Federation says that a quarter of the required emissions reduction target for 2020 could be met if all of the European Union had bike ridership levels like Denmark.

The Danish people ride on average 2.6 km per day. If all of the EU hit that mark, it would reduce emissions by 55 million to 120 million tons a year. By 2020, that would represent five to 11 percent of the emissions target of a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels. If that level of ridership continued, by 2050 it would represent a slash of 63 to 142 million tons or 12 to 26 percent of the transportation sector targets.

The third article (on Treehugger) - Bikes Will Save You and the Planet (Infographic) - provides a really nice, multi-part infographic that shows some interesting things that not only talk about the "usual" things of saving the planet, but also includes a lot of information about improved public health and serendipitously links to some of the points that I wrote about in response to the first article. (Infographic at the end, because it's quite a long one.)

It's important to recognize that - if we are going to start taking the advice of an ever-increasing number of public policy actors around the world - all efforts that we take that minimize the amount of carbon-emitting energy that we utilize, and - in the United States - this includes our use of personal vehicles. Also, if we are wanting to create societies that are more robust and more resilient to economic slumps, then investing in infrastructure that creates more jobs per dollar would be a good thing. As well, if we start to change the way that we (in the US) think about health care - that we are all in this together as a society - then the manner in which we operate our lives would also change (slowly, perhaps, but in the "right" direction, hopefully). Would that we could increase the benefits of car-pooling to make it more attractive, would that we could implement greater amounts of convenient public transport, and would that we could have greater ability to live closer to where we work so that cycling can be as easy for most people as it is for me. However, until we can realize better ways in which to do these things, small steps - such as taking short trips by bikes that can be used for utility and recognizing that bikes don't have to be only for spandex-wearing fitness gurus and downhill daredevils. ... and all that won't really be done unless and until greater amounts of bicycling infrastructure is built. (Which takes us back to the first article.)

Friday, December 09, 2011

Waiting and waiting for students

I do realize that there is a little bit of snow on the ground this morning. I did, after all, cycle into town. However, with this being the very last day of the writing clinic this semester, it's a wonder that none of the students who signed up for it have actually shown up. It was the same last Monday, when there was some snow, and the Monday before that when it was raining (somewhat) heavily. I suppose that - when considering the choice of getting help with their writing and getting cold (and possibly wet) - most of the students that would come would rather just drop their appointments.

Oh well...

Hurricane Bawbag

I didn't know that a hurricane hit Scotland last week. Where was that on the news coverage here in the US? (Hint: It wasn't, at least anywhere I saw.)

According to the Wikipedia page:
Hurricane Bawbag is the colloquial name given to an intense mid-latitude storm that brought hurricane-force winds to Scotland during the week beginning on 5 December 2011. The storm also brought prolonged gales and rough seas to many other regions within the British Isles. On 8 December, winds reached up to 165 mph (265 km/h) at elevated areas, with sustained wind speeds of up to 80 mph (135 km/h) reported across populous areas. The winds uprooted trees and resulted in the closure of many roads, bridges, schools and businesses. Overall the storm was the worst to affect Scotland in 10 years.

Looking at how this compares to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, the sustained wind speeds in the populous areas would put it at a Category I storm. However in the upland areas, a 165 mph wind speed would put in well within the requirements for Category V!

The Scots - always ready to name their own hurricanes, thank you very much, they don't need a German name for what hit them and not Germany - renamed Friedhelm, giving it the moniker "Bawbag", which is the Scots equivalent of "ball-bag" (i.e., "scrotum"). I suppose if you were to do a reverse translation back into German (and gave it the cultural implication likely behind the renaming of "Bawbag"), you'd likely get "sackgesicht".

And, the Sensational Alex Salmond Gastric Band produced this music video (showing the impacts of Bawbag hitting Scotland):

Now, all of this raises the questions of why is a hurricane hitting Scotland? What is a hurricane doing outside of hurricane season? How come such a storm is so friggin' strong?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Birds moving due to climate change, but perhaps not fast enough

Via PhysOrg:
Tropical birds are moving to higher elevations because of climate change, but they may not be moving fast enough, according to a new study by Duke University researchers.

The study, published Thursday in the peer-reviewed online journal PLoS ONE, finds that the birds aren't migrating as rapidly as scientists previously anticipated, based on recorded temperature increases.
The animals instead may be tracking changes in vegetation, which can only move slowly via seed dispersal.
This doesn't seem too surprising. If, after all, the birds are tied to specific types of plants due to their life cycle, then moving in such a way as to maximize only their climatic preference won't be useful; they'd be missing a key component of their life cycle. The process of species adapting to the effects of climate change are now being discussed and published in the scientific literature.
Evidence from temperate areas, such as North America and Europe, shows that many animal and plant species are adapting to climate change by migrating northward, breeding earlier or flowering earlier in response to rising temperatures.
Indeed, the USDA relatively recently changed its hardiness zone maps due to already changed climate conditions. But that's what's happening in the northern latitudes (and we can expect that analogous things are happening in southern latitudes. However, what is happening with habitat changes in the tropics?
"However, our understanding of the response of tropical birds to warming is still poor," said German Forero-Medina, a Ph.D. student at Duke's Nicholas School who is lead author of the new study. "Moving to the north doesn't help them, because tropical temperatures do not change very much with latitude. So moving up to higher elevations is the only way to go, but there are few historical data that can serve as baselines for comparison over time."

What is going on with tropical species at higher altitudes is important, Forero-Medina said, because about half of all birds species live 3,500 feet or more above sea level, and of these species, more than 80 percent may live within the tropics.
Oh, shit. What this is saying is that about 40% of all the bird species in the world are known to live in the tropical one at above 3,500 feet (~1,000 meters), which means that understanding how this group of species will adapt (or not) to climate change will be crucial when considering the vast diversity of bird species.
The biologists found that although the ranges of many bird species have shifted uphill since Terborgh's [ornithological observations in mountainous central Peru in the 1970s], the shifts fell short of what scientists had projected based on temperature increases over the four decades.

"This may be bad news," Pimm said. "Species may be damned if they move to higher elevations to keep cool and then simply run out of habitat. But, by staying put, they may have more habitat but they may overheat."
One thing that could also be limiting the species' movement is the physiological demands that change as an organism moves to a higher elevation. In addition, there is a problem of dispersal: how are birds and plants from tropical floodplains to find their way to a climate zone high enough to exist at all (especially if their lifecycles are somehow tied to being floodplain species)? Do we expect (and do we see) similar things happening with aquatic species? (I mean, I like birds, but that's not what I study.) I would expect that fishes might be able to move upstream, but they are going to encounter barriers (such as waterfalls) and changes in hydrology (moving from the 12th stream-order mouth of the Amazon to an 11th order tributary will be a major change in hydrology, and thus habitat).

Finally, the brief doesn't discuss the issue of crowding and crowding out. If, after all, all things are moving from lower elevations to higher elevations (and even if there aren't significant physiological effects to take into account with these movements) in order to maintain their climatic conditions, then one needs to recognize that the available amount of actual space diminishes, too (after all, there isn't going to be more room at 5,000 feet than at 3,500 feet), and the fragmentation of populations will increase (after all, not all members of a species will end up climbing the same mountain), which means that the ultimate survival of species will depend on a variety of conditions, including metapopulation dynamics (i.e., sharing gene flow between scattered populations). Too, some species will diminish to a point where inbreeding becomes deleterious or the amount of available habitat cannot support a minimum viable population. And these are only direct effects on species. Remember that there are going to be system-wide effects, too...

National pride makes you happy, but it depends on what kind of national pride

From MedicalXPress:
Research shows that feeling good about your country also makes you feel good about your own life—and many people take that as good news. But Matthew Wright, a political scientist at American University, and Tim Reeskens, a sociologist from Catholic University in Belgium, suspected that the positive findings about nationalism weren’t telling the whole story. “It’s fine to say pride in your country makes you happy,” says Wright. “But what kind of pride are we talking about? That turns out to make a lot of difference.”
This doesn't seem too surprising to me, since when I hear someone on the right saying that "America is the best country in the world" or that "immigrants are lazy" they are being proud nationals, but that is a type of pride that I don't understand (or feel). So, what are these types of national pride?
Reeskens and Wright divided national pride into two species. “Ethnic” nationalism sees ancestry—typically expressed in racial or religious terms—as the key social boundary defining the national “we.” “Civic” nationalism is more inclusive, requiring only respect for a country’s institutions and laws for belonging. Unlike ethnic nationalism, that view is open to minorities or immigrants, at least in principle.
This also makes sense, given the "Take back our country" and "Restoring America" rhetoric that is being used by the right. My questions were always, "take back from whom?" and, "restore to what?" After all, if we elected a Democratic non-White president, then did someone steal our country? And why do they think that the country is broken because we elected a Democratic non-White president? However, conflated with the "Obama is a Kenyan" and the "Obama isn't American" rhetoric together with the "Obama is an atheist" and the "Obama is a [secret] Muslim" rhetoric, it becomes more clear as to why ethnic nationalists (the most vocal of which are on the political right) are certain that Obama has a fundamental hatred of the United States.

On the flip side, we can see that Obama doesn't necessarily hold to this position. In his many speeches, he seems to be more of the civic nationalist; how he speaks about fairness for everyone, including ethnic minorities, LGBT people, women, the poor, and even immigrants. How he doesn't seem to buy into American exceptionalism and the religious triumphalism that is being espoused by his opponents also shows the contrast in  his character.

But let's see what else the article says.
Like other researchers, they found that more national pride correlated with greater personal well-being. But the civic nationalists were on the whole happier, and even the proudest ethnic nationalists’ well-being barely surpassed that of people with the lowest level of civic pride.
Hm! This is interesting. If the article's points hold for Americans (the study was done in Europe), then it implies that the political right wing don't really become as happy with their national pride than people who whole more of a civic pride. Interesting. But what does this have to do with real conditions?
The findings, he adds, give a clue to what popular responses we might expect to “broad macro-economic and social trends”—that is, millions of people crossing borders (usually from poorer to wealthier countries) looking for work or seeking refuge from war or political repression. “It’s unclear what the political implications of the happiness measure are—though unhappy citizens could demand many politically dangerous, xenophobic responses. Ethnic nationalists, proud or not, appear relatively less happy to begin with and more likely to lead the charge as their nation diversifies around them.”
Wow. It's almost like this explains some of the reasons why the views of migration - illegal and legal - exist and are perpetrated in the US.

Now, I'm not saying that this is the answer for everything we see with regard to national pride. However, it does seem to put forward an interesting rubric in determining how and why certain outcomes from national pride manifest themselves.

Paper found here.

Christmas Godzilla

One thing that I love about Japan is how it celebrates Christmas. As an almost completely not-at-all Christian country - one that doesn't even share roots of religion with Christianity, either, Japan is a very ... interesting ... national lens through which to view cultural displays and practices surrounding Christmas (especially living through FoxNews' "War on Christmas" segments).

To that end, I give you: GODZILLA!

(Okay, this one is photoshopped, using this human-sized Godzilla):

This one was from an even in 2000 at Odaiba Aqua City Hall:

This was from 2007, also at Odaiba:

From super-realistic origami to static ring juggling to dancing robots, to automated car parking, to accordion busking, Japan is an interesting place to look at from a non-Japanese perspective. Of course, the longer that I stay out of the country, the more my perspective shifts away from the Japanese. I've really got to get back.

More Christmas kaiju displays at AltJapan.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Talk about coicidence

I was heading in to campus shortly after lunch, and once I pulled up to the gate at Liberty Road, I saw the UPS truck pulling in... with the package that I was waiting for!

This is the third time that this sort of thing has happened (meeting either the UPS or the FedEx truck as I pull up to the gate to leave), and I don't have many things sent to Saginaw Forest by UPS or by FedEx.

Heh. I know that the sample size is small, but it still looks like I've been relatively lucky on this point. This is great, because if I don't get these packages, I have to make my way out to the companies' delivery centers. I know that the UPS delivery center is in Ypsi, and I can only pick up a package there within a 30 minute window at a very inconvenient time (it's been 8-8:30pm the past two times).

Chinese mad about air pollution and vent where they can: online

Yesterday I commented on a story about the thick smog that descended on Beijing to stop flights. Well, there's a follow-up story that speaks to another part of the Chinese experience: a lack of a public (physical) forum to protest. Protests are basically not allowed in China (almost certainly a response to the Tianamen Square riots and massacre... a topic which is also censored in China), and so as environmental conditions go from bad to worse, there is no direct petition of government to address grievances. (Whether that right would be upheld is a different question; that it doesn't exist in the first place is what I'm talking about here.) So what are people doing? Going online and venting there.

According to this follow-up story in PhysOrg, "Chinese go online to vent anger over pollution":
Millions of Chinese went online Tuesday to vent their anger over the thick smog that has blanketed Beijing in recent days, raising health fears and causing hundreds of flights to be cancelled.

Visibility had improved by Tuesday, but 89 domestic and 11 international flights had been cancelled or delayed by late afternoon.

Users of Sina's weibo -- one of China's most popular microblogs -- expressed frustration at travel delays, with one saying it had taken him 24 hours, instead of four, to travel to Beijing from the southern city of Shenzhen.

Some linked the toxic air to other hot issues of the day, such as a manhunt for the bomber of a bank in central China, or a yoghurt drink made by Coca Cola that was deliberately poisoned, killing one.

"The reality has crushed my confidence. No wonder rich people all go to foreign countries to avoid disasters.", China's biggest online retailer, sold 30,000 masks on Sunday, when the US embassy in Beijing rated the air as "hazardous", the state-run Xinhua news agency said.

The US embassy conducts its own air quality measurements, measuring the finest particles, which experts say make up much of Beijing's pollution.

The official government figures are based on measurements of larger particles and often give a better assessment of air quality, leading to accusations the authorities are downplaying how serious the pollution is.

On Tuesday, the US embassy pollution index called the air "very unhealthy" while Xinhua's measurement said it was "slightly polluted."

Weibo user "T_maoyangshenghuo" reacted angrily at comments from the spokesperson of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau saying the smog in Beijing caused "slight pollution" over the last two days.

"Beijing citizens are speechless. Where is the serious pollution? In the brain of the spokesperson?" the message said.

Another web user said there were "always huge differences between the public data and weather broadcasts and the feelings of people."

"Sometimes, I suspect that what we're breathing isn't air, but politics."
YES! Somehow, I doubt, though, that there is a Chinese politician who claims that, "Air pollution is the greatest hoax perpetrated upon the Chinese people."

India to ban "offensive material" from the Internet

Now I wonder how India is going to accomplish this:

Communications Minister Kapil Sibal said talks with the Internet giants had failed to come up with a solution following complaints that he had lodged three months ago over "unacceptable" images.
OMG! The Intertubes has images that someone finds unacceptable? SHOCK! HORROR! Please, quickly, tell me more!

Sibal said the government supported free speech and was against censorship but that some material on the Internet was so offensive that no one would find it acceptable.

Sibal showed some of the offending material to journalists, including fake images of naked politicians and religious figures.
So, this looks like the old: I'm all for free speech. Except for the kind that I don't like and the kind that religious people don't like. Otherwise, I'm all for free speech.
"Three months back we saw that Google, Yahoo!, Facebook had images which could be an insult to Indians, especially religious-minded people," Sibal said.

Sibal said the firms had shown that their "intention was not to cooperate" and that they had explained they were only "platforms" on which people could display material.

"I feel that this in principle was not correct but it is very clear that we will not allow such insults to happen. We are thinking and will take the next step," he said. "We will not allow our cultural ethos to be hurt."
Is it just me, or does this sound like something akin to Ted Stevens claim of the internet being, "a series of tubes"? In other words, it's a totally incorrect idea about what the Internet is. And if it is, then this explanation will not be accepted, because it fundamentally will not (and possibly cannot) be understood by the person lodging the claim:
The Hindustan Times on Tuesday said the Internet companies had rejected Sibal's appeal for screening, saying a huge volume of information was uploaded on to the Internet and that they were not responsible for judging its content.
Luckily, the Internet-savvy population of India (set to grow to 600 million - twice the population of the United States - by 2016) aren't having any of it:
Sibal's call for Internet screening quickly attracted a storm of criticism on Twitter, with many users expressing anger over any attempt to restrict usage.
I would have preferred laughter and mocking. I think that it's so much more effective than criticism. I mean, Ted Stevens - for all that he might have done well by Alaska - is now going to be remembered (by those who saw it and understood it to be an inglorious revelry in his fundamental lack of understanding what the Internet was) with mirth as the "Internet is a series of tubes".

UPDATE (2012/12/08): The US is stepping in (well... kind of):
"We are concerned about any effort to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, while carefully avoiding any direct criticism of proposals in India.

Toner said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would speak at length about Internet freedom in an address Friday in The Hague.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Inaccuracies in Once upon a time

There's a fun show on ABC called Once Upon a Time. Its scenes are split between the modern day (reality, or a TV facsimile thereof) and fairy-tale land (generally shown to be a medieval-esque fantasy version of Europe). The scenes of the modern day are -- I assume -- pretty easy to mock up in the studio, but the fantasy lands...? Where are you going to get those sorts of landscapes that are not so obviously modern and American? One might use CGI for wide shots (especially if you are going to use them again):
but what about for tighter ones?

Apparently Once uses actual locations for shooting, but there are some things about those locations that are quite problematic for me: blatantly obvious telltale signs of a mechanized world.

In the first episode, the rider is galloping along a causeway through a lake:

In the third episode, the carriage is riding along a mcadamized gravel road through a forestry plantation:

In the sixth episode, the shepherd is chasing a lamb through a freshly mowed field (you can see the parallel swaths in the grass where the mower went along):

Now, I'm not really too annoyed with some of these things (such as the blatant mixture of early medieval costume with early Renaissance; these are things that are somewhat - if unfortunately - common when dealing with fantasy worlds, such as what one might find in D&D). I'm not even really annoyed with issues of simple physics, such as a wooden table being able to hold up a dragon's head that's been turned into gold (or even figure out how those three couriers plan on moving it without obvious aid):

The setting is, after all, a fantasy world; one with magic and trolls, dwarves, fairies, and talking crickets. (We'll probably be introduced to even more fantasy creatures before the end of the series.) Therefore, one could make the argument that these roads are magically made (or troll-made or dwarf-made), and that is why they seem out of place. This leaves open-ended questions of their own, however:

Perhaps the roads were built by magic (or trolls or dwarves or something else), but then what is the justification of that form of forestry plantation? (Remember: forestry plantations of the type that we see didn't really even start to come into place until after the late 1700s; well after these mish-mash costumes and sets could likely allow - assuming that the Neuschwanstein-esque castle is actually a medieval-to-Renaissance era construction, instead of a middle-late 19th century one.) Also, what is the purpose of having sheep grazing on a pasture land ... that is mechanically mowed? Sheep will - if left on their own and protected from predation - mow down a grassland quite nicely (which is why the Scottish Highlands are meadows and not forests).

Maybe it's just me ranting and going on. However, these modern inaccuracies annoy me. They make it just a little bit harder to suspend my disbelief.

... still, I do like the show.

China and climate change: an ironic succession of news stories

The environmental problems in China due to their fast industrialization of recent years has manifested in many different ways. The most recent one - that hit the PhysOrg newsfeed - is "Hundreds of flights cancelled due to Beijing smog." Yes, the city that hosted the Olympic games (and had to ban driving in the city, shut down factories, etc., in order to actually have decent air quality during the games) is once again in the news for having an industry-based atmosphere so thick that one might be able to cut it with a knife. From the story:
Local authorities cancelled hundreds of flights and shut highways as thick smog descended on the Chinese capital on Sunday and Monday, reducing visibility at one of the world's busiest airports. Pollution in Beijing in the last couple of days reached what the US Embassy monitoring station described as "Hazardous" levels.

Frequent smog in October and November has given fresh impetus to a growing public debate over air quality in Beijing, whose 20 million residents are increasingly worried.

Their concerns are being fuelled in part by data gathered by the US embassy, which produces its own pollution readings using a different gauge to Chinese authorities and broadcasts them online and on Twitter.

China currently rates air quality by measuring airborne particulates of 10 micrometres or less, adopting a standard known as PM10, while the embassy measures only levels of those that are 2.5 micrometres or smaller.

Scientists say Beijing's pollution is mostly caused by these smaller particles, which are deemed more dangerous to health as they can pass through smaller airways and penetrate deeper into the lungs, and even into the blood.

According to the state-run China Daily, if the US standard was adopted nationwide, only 20 percent of Chinese cities would be rated as having satisfactory air quality, against the current 80 percent.
(I love that last line: it's like the Cultural Revolution all over again, except instead of wheat harvests and steel production it's air pollution. This is another instance of physical reality being treated as the same as political reality: physical reality doesn't care what our societies say; physical reality happens.)

"But this isn't a story about climate," I hear you saying. However, air pollution from combustion has a large impact on local and global climate change... and the story that immediately followed this one was titled, "China lays out conditions for legally binding climate deal."
China's top climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua on Sunday laid out conditions under which Beijing would accept a legally-binding climate deal that would go into force after 2020, when current voluntary pledges run out.

While Xie said China has 122 million people living on less than a dollar a day, Beijing would continue to boost its climate-fighting efforts in step with its development.

Xie enumerated five conditions for China taking on pledges under a new accord that would go into effect after 2020, in response to a question from Alden Meyer, a policy analyst from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One is that the European Union and "other countries" sign on to a new round of enforceable pledges under Kyoto.

A raft of nut-and-bolts agreements outlined at the 2009 Copenhagen summit and married into the UN process at last year's high-level climate gathering in Cancun, Mexico must also move forward.

These include initiatives for technology transfer, adaptation -- helping vulnerable nations cope with impacts -- and new rules for verifying that carbon-cutting promises are kept.

Finally, China insists that a review of climate science begin as planned in 2013, and that established principles in which historical responsibility for creating the problem of climate change, and the respective capacity of countries to fight it, are respected.
Now, I'm not saying that China is being duplicitous in its negotiations. I'm just saying that I was struck by the interesting juxtaposition between these two stories.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Another scientific study that shows what only cognitive dissonance would try to disprove

From the annals of the science of "Well, duh!", we have another study to add to the overwhelming evidence that... wait for it... abstinence only sex eduction does not reduce teenage pregnancy, and is - in fact - correlated with increased teenage pregnancy.

Via Physorg:
States that prescribe abstinence-only sex education programs in public schools have significantly higher teenage pregnancy and birth rates than states with more comprehensive sex education programs, researchers from the University of Georgia have determined.

The study is the first large-scale evidence that the type of sex education provided in public schools has a significant effect on teen pregnancy rates, Hall said.
But what about social effects like education and socioeconomic status? I mean, if you believe in the stereotypes, then only the unintelligent poor girls are going to get pregnant. Well, like good social scientists, the team actually did account for these things.
Along with teen pregnancy rates and sex education methods, Hall and Stanger-Hall looked at the influence of socioeconomic status, education level, access to Medicaid waivers and ethnicity of each state's teen population.

Even when accounting for these factors, which could potentially impact teen pregnancy rates, the significant relationship between sex education methods and teen pregnancy remained: the more strongly abstinence education is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rates.
I can hear the cognitive dissonants chanting, "Well, correlation doesn't mean causation!" True, but remember, the saying holds for both sides of the argument; you cannot say that this study's correlation does not mean there is a causitive effect, but for the same reason you cannot say that abstinence only education's (imaginary) causitive impacts exist when there is no correlation to support your claim:
"Because correlation does not imply causation, our analysis cannot demonstrate that emphasizing abstinence causes increased teen pregnancy. However, if abstinence education reduced teen pregnancy as proponents claim, the correlation would be in the opposite direction," said Stanger-Hall.

The paper indicates that states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates were those that prescribed comprehensive sex and/or HIV education, covering abstinence alongside proper contraception and condom use. States whose laws stressed the teaching of abstinence until marriage were significantly less successful in preventing teen pregnancies.
(The paper can be found here. )

Of course, as we have seen before, this will not alleviate the dissonance. Why? Because the logic of the false argument makes sense; the position taken is intertwined with a moral stance; or because the position taken is one that is held by a respected authority figure. Merely pointing out that the position is incorrect will not help. Showing relational evidence that the position is incorrect will not help. Showing causational evidence that the position is incorrect will not help. All of these things will merely further entrench those who hold dear the position that abstinence only sex education works. Why? Because more information is not the cure for the condition of dissonance; changing the basis for accepting the narrative will be the cure.

Best Snowblower Ad Ever

Via Copyranter:
11HP/29" Snowblower
Price $900.00
Address Moncton, NB, Canada

Do you like shoveling snow? Then stop reading this and go back to your pushups and granola because you are not someone that I want to talk to.

Let’s face it, we live in a place that attracts snow like Magnetic Hill attracts cars, only that ain’t an illusion out there. That’s 12 inches of snow piling up and, oh, what’s that sound? Why it’s the snow plow and it’s here to let you know that it hates you and all the time you spent to shovel your driveway. Did you want to get out of your house today? Were you expecting to get to work on time? Or even this week?

You gave it your best shot. You tried to shovel by yourself and I respect you for that. I did it, my parents did it, some of my best friends did it. But deep down inside, we all wanted to murder that neighbor with the snowblower who was finished and on his second beer while you were still trying to throw snow over a snowbank taller than you are.

So, here we are. You could murder your neighbour, which could ensure that you won’t need to shovel a driveway for 25 to life, but there are downsides to that too. What to do?

Here’s the deal. I have a snow blower and I want you to own it. I can tell you’re serious about this. It’s like I can almost see you: sitting there, your legs are probably crossed and your left hand is on your chin. Am I right? How’d I do that? The same way that I know that YOU ARE GOING TO BUY THIS SNOWBLOWER.

I want you to experience the rush that comes with smashing through a snowdrift and blowing that mother trucker out of the way. The elation of seeing the snow plow come back down your street and watching the look of despair as your OTHER neighbour gets his shovel out once more while you kick back with a hot cup of joe (you don’t have a drinking problem like that other guy).

Here’s what you do. You go to the bank. You collect $900. You get your buddy with a truck and you drive over here. You give me some cold hard cash and I give you a machine that will mess up a snowbank sumthin’ fierce. I’ve even got the manual for it, on account of I bought it brand new and I don’t throw that kind of thing away. Don't want to pay me $900? Convince me. Send me an offer and I'll either laugh at you and you'll never hear back from me or I'll counter.

You want a snow blower. You need a snow blower.

This isn’t some entry level snow blower that is just gonna move the snow two feet away. This is an 11 HP Briggs and Stratton machine of snow doom that will cut a 29 inch path of pure ecstasy. And it’s only 4 years old. I dare you to find a harder working 4 year old. My niece is five and she gets tired and cranky after just a few minutes of shoveling. This guy just goes and goes and goes.

You know what else? I greased it every year to help keep the water off it and the body in as good as shape as possible. It's greasier than me when I was 13, and that's saying something.

You know how many speeds it has? Six forward and two in reverse. It goes from “leisurely” slow up to “light speed”. Seriously, I’ve never gone further than five because it terrifies me. I kid you not, you could probably commute to work with it dragging you.

You know what else is crappy about clearing snow in the morning? That you have to do it in the dark. Well, not anymore! It has a halogen headlight that will light your way like some kind of moveable lighthouse (only better, because lighthouses won’t clear your driveway).

Oh, and since it’s the 21st century, this snow blower comes with an electric starter. Just plug that sucker in, push the button, and get ready to punch snow in the throat. If you want to experience what life was like in olden days, it comes with a back-up cord you could pull to start it, but forget that. The reason you’re getting this fearsome warrior was for the convenience, so why make it harder on yourself?

By this point, you’re probably wondering why I would sell my snowblower since the first snowpocalypse is upon us today. I’ll tell you why: because I heard it was time for you to man up and harness some mighty teeth and claws and chew your way to freedom, that’s why.

This is my snow blower. Make it your snow blower.
Awesome. Just awesome. I don't have $900 to spend on a snowblower to move the ~1" of wet snow that fell last night, but somehow I wanted to buy it somewhere around the third paragraph!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Snow fall

The desktop weather adviser warned of a mix of rain and snow as I was leaving the office. However, by the time I had shut everything down and peeked out of the window, what might have been rain and snow had changed to just snow. (A wet snow as it turned out.)

I put on my coat, cap, and helmet, and headed out to my bicycle - now back in studded-tire mode. The ride to the Kroger was pretty uneventful (mostly because I avoided Liberty and stuck to the far less busy Washington).  

After leaving the store, I was met with this:

The two miles back to the forest was a little less ... peaceful. There's a difference with plowed roads: there's less slush for the cars to splash you with as they pass by. Luckily I was wearing a waterproof outer layer (thanks to the pouring rain of this morning), but it was still annoying - grocery-carrying panniers got soaked. Still I made it back all in one piece and the gloves and jacket are drying out.

Wait, is it "a history" or "an history"?

During one of my office hour sessions, I taught about the use of "a" and "an" in non-standard cases. The thing that (apparently) a lot of national curricula fail to teach about English to their students is that English - as much as it is a written language with thousands upon thousands of books - is a spoken language, and that parts of grammar are based on this point.

There really is no difference in the definition of "a" vs "an". The only difference is in the use of the latter when it precedes a vowel sound; not actually when it precedes a vowel (e.g. "an hour is a unit of time"). It's made complicated because English doesn't have a universally consistent pronunciation method. This is why through, though, bough, and enough are all pronounced differently (and likely why people are shifting to thru and tho; I haven't seen bao and enuf so much, though).

Anyway, the conversation started because the student hadn't used "an" in front of the acronym "N.F.R." (or something like that). So we went through the alphabet to collect the letters that use "an" (which are A, E, F, (H), I, L, M, N, O, R, S, X). The problem with H is that some people actually do pronounce it "haich" (most of them live in England), but I've heard people say, "a H" instead of the more commonly heard (at least in the US) "an H".

This brought us to the use of "a" and "an" with the word history. This word came into English with the Normans (I think), as historie; complete with the French habit of dropping the "h" sound completely. Since there was no "h" sound, then the word would have developed in the English language as "istorie", thereby requiring the use of "an history". However, I know many people who would look at "an history," "an historic," or "an historian" and say that it was wrong. Well, there's probably a reason for that: changing norms in writing, because English is a spoken language, and the "a" vs "an" debate is mostly about pronunciation.

Looking at Google n-gram viewer, you can see that the final shift away from "an historic"* occurred shortly after World War 2 (presumably with the rise of American publishing in comparison to British publishing). The shift away from "an historic" has only just recently been happening in British publishing.

I personally prefer using an historic over a historic, because of the existence of the word ahistoric. However, I think that I say (and write) a history, a historian, a histriography, etc.

* I chose to compare a historic and an historic, because a history and an history seems to have settled the change a LONG time ago, whereas the choice with historic is more recent. The n-gram for historian is even more dramatic than above.

Generational shift in perceptions about foreign policy

Times, they are a changin'. And not only with fashion, music, and communication technology. Times are also changing in terms of vast social trends, including acceptance of multi-racial marriages (and - presumably - the children from such marriages), homosexuality, marijuana use, etc.

One more thing that is changing is the perception of how the US should act militarily.

In a recent Pew poll, there is a very interesting - and very stark - contrast between what members of the "millenial generation" (aka "generation Y") and the "silent generation" think about the how the US should conduct foreign policy.

Apparently those Americans born from 1930-1945 are less willing to take allies' interests into account, even if it means making compromises. They also tend to prefer military strength over good diplomacy in order to ensure peace. Oh, and they don't believe as strongly that reliance on the military to achieve foreign policy goals is related to the hatred that breeds more terrorism.

True, some of this is likely due to youthful enthusiasm and empathy versus age-honed cynicism, and it would be nice to know what those born between 1930 and 1945 thought about similar topics when they were 20-35 years old. (Of course, the world was also a very different place in 1950-1965.) Still, those of us who grew up during Reagan and HW Bush seem to have a very different opinion about foreign policy than those who grew up during conscription. And the number of us who are voting will continue to increase in comparison to the Silent Generation.

For shits and giggles, I've put (some) of the information in the table into a graph. Line "A" is the response percentages to "In foreign policy, the U.S. should take allies' interests into account, even if ti means making compromises." Line "B" is the response percentages to "The best way to ensure peace is through good diplomacy." Line "C"is the response percentages to "Relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism." It's pretty clear how each successively older generation tends toward less favorability in just talking shit out (and less willing to accept moral backlash from those people who come across our military actions).

There is evidence that people - when forced into a minority position - tend to become even more militant in their views. That when their viewpoints - which they feel to be perfectly valid, and used to be perfectly normal - become challenged, there is a tendency of associating that changed social connection with being "wrong"; and how could they be wrong if they are moral people? It is - I think - an extension of the psychology of the "just world" belief to which many Americans (apparently) subscribe.

To borrow (a bit) from Shawn Lawrence Otto's book, Fool me Twice, there is a perfectly understandable reason for this type of behavior:
When presented with evidence that confirms our beliefs and conclusions, we tend to accept it uncritically. When presented with evidence that contradicts those same conclusions, however, we subject it to withering scrutiny, ignore it, argue with it, or try to intimidate its proponents, much like the opposing counsel at a trial does.
When one's viewpoints are the majority viewpoint, it is like being constantly presented with evidence the confirms one's own beliefs and conclusions. However, when time change and one's viewpoints are no longer in the majority, then it is sometimes easier to complain ("you kids don't know what you're talking about"), ignore ("yeah, whatever"), argue ("you're wrong"), or exert control ("let me tell you what we did that actually worked, and none of this namby-pamby bullshit"). This is part of the problem. There is, of course, another part of the problem, which is the base psychology that Americans (supposedly) tend to hold: the "just world" belief. To continue with Otto:
Beyond mistaken reasoning, rhetorical thinking, and a predisposition not to question authority, Americans as a whole have a high level of what social psychologists call the just world belief... People tend to believe that the world is inherently just: The wicked are eventually punished, and problems are corrected....
[This] view is a treasured part of the American ethos, and Americans as a whole have a much stronger belief in a just world than, say, Europeans, who tend to be less idealistic, more cynical, and more likely to believe that good or bad luck rather than individual merit or lack thereof plays a significant role in a person's circumstances....
The idea that despite your best efforts your fate is influenced by luck or the collective actions of others is antithetical to the classic American story that we have self-determination and that with hard work and responsibility anyone can grow up to be president.
Research shows that this conflict makes it more difficult for Americans to accurately assess personal responsibility. For example, the tendency to blame the victim, which is unusually high in Americans, is an effort, psychologists say, to maintain the just world belief that people get what they deserve... If we believe we are responsible for our circumstances, this prejudice makes sense.
My argument that the just world belief affects the results in this manner only serves to reinforce one's position when confronted with the evidence of a changed world, since it is easy to interpret a discontinuation of a particular moral stance as a question of "right" and "wrong" under the just world belief system. However, such a change (from being "right" to being "wrong") flies in the face of seeing oneself as being a moral person. Therefore, it must be the fault of the other, and it is the duty of the United States to change it; with force if necessary. Of course, who knows: I might well turn into a conservative hawk with time, too.

Finally, the just world belief system really does seem to explain why conservatives (who hold even more strongly to this belief) seem less inclined to accept that people in "war zones" are innocent, that the military can do wrong (especially to our own people), and that their moral code may not be universally applicable (oh, and that the US might not actually be the best place on God's green earth). In other words, it can explain a lot of the reason why the shape of Line "C" looks the way it does.

2011 is on track to be tied for the 10th warmest year on record

It's raining (a lot) today, so when I saw the news that 2011 is cooler than 2010 and is only the 10th warmest year on record, I thought of the news hitting the denialist camps and them bouncing it around, saying, "Yeah! See? The world's cooling! It's cooler this year than it was at any year from 2002 through 2010 (save for 2008, which was a La Nina year, so that's anomalous)."

But wait... 2011 is a La Nina year, too, and according to a recent press release from the World Meteorological Organization, 2011 is on track to be tied (roughly) with 2001 (which wasn't a La Nina year) as having the 10th warmest world temperatures on record. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise for people (save if your political or religious or philosophical viewpoints don't allow for the possibility of physics happening).

However, there's one thing that people are missing: 2011 is the warmest La Nina year on record.

La Nina years are usually characterized by being cooler 0.1 to 0.15 degree C cooler than the years that precede and succeed them. In the graph, these years are shown in blue, and it's pretty clear that they are all cooler than the red year bars that surround them. However, the worrying trend is that past La Nina years have also been increasing in magnitude (values from here):
  • 1989: +0.12 degree C
  • 2000: +0.27 degree C
  • 2008: +0.36 degree C
  • 2011: +0.41 degree C
This creates a worrying trend: when a La Nina year places in the top-ten hottest years on record, then we've got to worry, because it's not an indication of cooling: its an indication of warming. Since La Nina patterns are usually 0.1 to 0.15 degree C cooler, then there is a good chance that 2012 will be in the +0.5 (tied for 3rd warmest year on record) to +0.55 (1st warmest year on record) degree C.

Friday, November 18, 2011

History and misuse of BMI

In response to yet another post over at SocImages, I delved even deeper into the coining of the term BMI and how it became used in the health world. I have previously written about BMI (here, here, and here), but I never really delved into how this unit had become a part of looking at population health (specifically obesity). Well, it was because I like participating in the commentary in SocImages that I started to look even further into the history of the thing. Using a lead from Wikipedia's entry on BMI, I found the 1972 document ("Indices of Relative Weight and Obesity") that first coined the phrase "body mass index" (the authors didn't even use the intialism in the article). I was pleased to note that the authors recognized that the body mass index should not be used to describe the individual:
What we here call the body mass index, W/H^2, has a long history. Because Quetelet was the first to calculate that ratio, W/H^2 has sometimes been called Quetelet’s index. But Quetelet himself did not actually advocate that ratio as the general measure of ‘build’ or of adiposity; he merely noted that in young adults W/H^2 was more stable than W/H^3 or W/H with increasing height. ... [No] proponents [prior to this paper] offered a convincing objective analysis in favor of the [Quetelet] index. Further, it should be observed that the greatest emphasis in almost all of the index making of the anthropometrists was on growth with relatively little consideration of the evaluation of body composition, nutritional status or adiposity.
As noted elsewhere [43], the use of ideal or recommended weight confounds age and weight because on the average weight increases with age until the fifties while increase in height is over by the early twenties at the latest. The general trend to continue growth in weight may be undesirable but it has no relevance to the question of providing an objective description of relative body mass; it is scientifically indefensible to include a value judgement in that description. The characterization of persons in terms of desirable weight percentage has resulted in attributing to ‘overweight’ some tendencies to ill health and death that are actually only related to age [43].
Of course, the disappointing thing about some of the commentators is that they don't understand that some terminology is quite old. The BMI was originally referred to as the Quetelet index (named after the man who conceived it), which was formulated in the early-middle 1800s; about 150 years before the paper that first coined "body mass index". Of course, some people apparently didn't know this. "EschewObfuscation" wrote (and at least 1 person "liked"):
But the whole purpose of BMI was to define fatness and thinness of a population. And why do that? So that doctors could talk to patients about their weight. Why? Because you shouldn't fall out side the norm or desired BMI number/category. Who decided normal? Who decided desired? How were those decisions made?
It is a social construction because the names we put on those numbers have social meaning. Why not call them "flower", "blue", "headphones", "towel" and "tricycle" instead of “underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” “obese,” and “morbidly obese"? Or why provide categories at all and just use the number? Really what use is BMI anyway?

The words attached to numbers have social meaning that affects the society. Only one group is called 'normal' and that communicates a lot to the rest who don't fall in that category. Morbidly obese means "OMG!!! You are going to DIE!!!!11!!!!!!11" It is not a phrase that is purely objective.
Wow. That really did anything but eschewing obfuscation. It failed to approach and clear obfuscation in favor of allowing obfuscation to remain in order to justify what appears to be a normalized rationalization of what BMI is: an unjust, unobjective, and possibly something with an agenda to hurt people.

Now, it is, admittedly, a slightly difficult problem with regard to the idea of "objectivity", since its use for determining an individual's health condition is not objective, but many people fail to understand (quite apparently) the scientific use of BMI as it is used in public health research. My attempt to show why it is both an objective measure and a non-objective measure:
Also, BMI is "Completely NOT objective"? Remember, "objective" here means that it is not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice. Is measurement using standardized lengths (such as feet, meters, pounds, kilograms) not objective? Is dividing weight by the square root of the height (and applying the units correction of 703 if you did your measurements using feet and pounds) not give you an objective output? The measurement and calculation of BMI is objective.
However, is it useful for interpreting individual health conditions? No. (In this way it suffers from interpretive bias, is layered with social interpretation, has caused massive influence to personal feelings, and is - in this way only - not objective.)
In sum: BMI wasn't developed for doctors to talk to their patients about their weight. BMI wasn't used for studying obesity in a population until the 1970s (roughly 150 years after it was developed). BMI is a number calculated objectively based on objective measurements. BMI is next to useless in determining individual health conditions and suffers (for whatever reasons) a lot of social interpretations and personal feelings and is (in this final, falsely applied manner) not objective. Therefore, BMI is an objective, mathematical measurement and BMI - as it is come to be used - is non-objective social construction. 
The blog entry itself is a great article about a book (How Much Do You Weigh?) that shows women of various different body types (heights and weights) and different BMI values. It can, hopefully, diminish the amount of negative pressure that surrounds the (ab)use of BMI in the public by showing women the vast panoply of what it means to be a "21" or a "27.4". (There was also a link in a comment by Tracy Rohlin to a posting at Jezebel that looks like a great website that does a similar thing.)

Now, in the end, do I think that BMI is an evil, unobjective, completely useless measurement? No, but that's not what it is supposed to be used for. At the same time, I don't think that BMI the best thing in the world for all population level analyses (nor the best thing in the world for population level analysis). However, it is a useful population measurement that can show trends over time, and looking at current, historical, and ongoing trends is a very important part of a lot of the sciences that we have. BMI is a next-to-useless metric to help all individuals understand - by the BMI alone - what their overall health condition is, not because it is a "bad thing," but because it is fundamentally not meant to be used in that manner. (Although it is probably a little more precise than one's daily horoscope.)

All that being said, the use of obesity to punish yourself or others is just wrong. Partly because it is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of the application of a population level index, but mostly because using it to punish people is morally wrong.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The CIA should be more honest... about the threats from Climate Change

While a majority of Republican voters as well as representatives and senators consistently align on the side of global warming denial, they also tend to be the side of the political spectrum that demands that good government "listen to the generals" and "hear from the experts" and "be concerned with national security."

However, what happens when "listen to the generals" isn't actually what they are doing when it comes to climate change? What happens to "hear from the experts" isn't what they're doing when it comes to climate change?

Well, you can ignore the experts by claiming that there isn't a consensus on climate change (which is a specious argument, but that's a topic for another time), and you can try to discredit military planners about the defense fallout from climate change. However, what happens when "be concerned with national security" extends to not listening to the CIA?

In a recent piece by The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg reports that the US Defense Science Board (which is an expert panel of civilian scientists and advisers for the military) has, in a recent report, urged the CIA to release its information about climate change and national security; to stop treating climate change as a national security issue. The report attacks the manner in which the CIA disseminates (or fails to do so) information that will be critical for what the generals (as in "listen to the generals") understand climate change to be: a threat-multiplier.

So, will the CIA comply? Will the GOP - so quick to justify and defend the CIA's torture techniques - try to quash the information that they deem to be (as Sen. John Inhofe always puts it) "the greatest hoax perpetrated upon the American people"?

Why should we rethink how we think about environmental constructs

Having spoken with many non-US graduate students in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, it's clear that there are many people hold a different conceptualization of what "the environment" is. Furthermore, the distinction between "Natural Resources" and "Environment" (or "Natural Environment") is rarely clear, either (at least among the Koreans, Chinese, and Taiwanese grad students). Furthermore, I don't think that there is a formal recognition of these different viewpoints that are held across the student body, and (by extension) the population of those working in the field (generally speaking) worldwide.

The terminologies that are used in discussing and (arguably) studying the environment (and natural resources) are culturally defined. And, due to the nature of scientific evolution and the blossoming of environmental movement in the US, many of the terms that we use today (including the concepts and conceptualizations upon which those terms are based) are heavily culturally based. As such, the term "conservation" means a very specific - and cultural - thing in the United States than it does in the United Kingdom (another example of the "two people separated by a common language" meme), and the actions that emerge from these differing conservation mentalities lead to different (each internally logical) directions. These differing definitions of "conservation" do, however, share a lot in common, since they are rooted in shared commonalities of understanding the term itself (which predates the existence of natural resource or environmental conservation) and the two countries share a cultural understanding (although these could also be said to be diverging) of the relationship between the natural world and man. However, what happens when we move wildly outside that close (but diverging) relationship? Where should an American start a discussion of "conservation" with a PRC national is not likely going to share implicit understandings of "nature and man" or even share a shared understanding of the word "conservation" itself, since the meaning is translated and extrapolated from one language to the other?

As we move forward in an evermore-globalized and evermore-urbanized world, understanding what we all mean by "natural resources" and "the environment"; "conservation" and "preservation"; etc. will become evermore important lest we discover that we are talking past each other.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A dismal little truth

When we are talking about the problems of adapting to climate change, and the problems of the current climate bringing about weather that we haven't seen before, we have to stop and think about a small but crucial point. We have no experience of the weather patterns experienced of our forebears. True, we can rebuild the climatic conditions, and -- where weather data exist -- we can reconstruct what a particular day's weather conditions were like. However, even knowing that the weather in 1911 (or 1811, or earlier still) was like in one location will not help us to experience that weather, to internalize that experience, and to then be able to relate future experiences to that. The only thing that we have are accounts (written, transcribed, and measured) of those days; accounts that are interpreted into images and sensations that we -- each -- know and understand based on our experiences and imaginations.

I cannot imagine the snows that fell so high when my mother was growing up that she and her siblings would have to leave from the second floor of the house in order to shovel the snow. My mind cannot comprehend what that means, even though I can see images of how deep the snow gets online. However, according to my mother, the snow doesn't get as deep as when she was a child. How much of this is an absolute measurement, and how much of it is a relative measurement; I mean, she's taller than she was as a child, so things may not appear as large. Too, how much of it is a wistful memory?

The winters that I can relate to are not the winters of 30' snow drifts, but are the far less snowy winters of Tokyo, Budapest, St. Andrews, Denver, Flagstaff, and Ann Arbor. The idea of having to leave my cabin after even 4' of snow seems daunting, let alone having to clean the roof after a 10' or 20' snowfall, and yet these things happened; are happening, still. Yet I have no way of understanding the implications of such a phenomenon that was a real part of my mother's childhood. Therefore, the question of, "What should an Eniwa winter be like?" will make my visceral answer very different from that of my mother's. Even though I could look at photos, read written accounts, and study weather data to determine how different current winters are to the winters of 60 and 70 years ago, the answer I provide won't have any resonance to me.

Such, I argue, will be the same with our children and their descendants. Our would will be one that they won't understand, since they will never have experienced it. The only thing that they will know is their own world, and their own experience in growing up in it. They will hear the stories and read the accounts of "back in my day" and they may -- like we do with the stories of our grandparents' childhoods -- discount them as fantastical tales told through the mists of nostalgia. They may look at the data and see things as charts, numbers, and figures. They may even understand things as reconstructions of the past, but they will not likely ever be in a position of experiencing the weather that you are experiencing today, and (by extension) they will not likely ever viscerally understand how that weather is (or is not) normal for this time of year. True: they will have a lot of secondary clues as to how the weather of their forebears was different from their own; for instance they will know that (if sea levels do end up rising a few meters) much of Florida used to be above the tide. However, they won't know what it was like to live in Florida's climate of 2011 (or 1911 or earlier).

Why should we care, though? Well, if we wish to ensure that the climate is to return to a stable condition (even if it is at a higher CO2 level than now), we must understand that our progeny will come to think of their world as somehow "normal". It may be "messed up", but that condition of being messed up will -- as it is all they know -- likely be considered "normal". They will need to learn that their daily experience is not "normal", and what would that mean? How can we inculcate that notion? How can we normalize the actions of generations to come to move the climate away from warming; to make a culture of climate control? Also, is it ethical to try and inculcate a particular expectation of action for a goal that we set upon the shoulders of our children? Is it ethical, given the fundamental shifts that climate change will cause, not to do it (or even to try)?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that as surely as I cannot imagine the climate of Eniwa, Japan during the 1940s and 1950s, my children and (hopefully) grandchildren will not (if the studies of the impacts of climate change in the Great Lakes region are even roughly correct) be able to imagine the climate of Ann Arbor, Michigan during the 2000s, even if they end up growing up here. If the impacts of even the current drivers of climate change will play out over the next century (without needing us to add another net 1 kilogram of extra CO2 into the atmosphere), and if we want our descendants to benefit from our climate (one that has been extremely stable for millennia), then we will have to task our children (and grandchildren) with returning to a climate that they won't viscerally know (and will likely never know, if the time scales for reversion are correct).

Ahh: words that sound and look very similar... but aren't

I came across a comment at a blog entry on Soc Images about government censorship. The author of the comment (in addition to other grammatical faults) apparently didn't know the difference between censure and censor:
I don't think "state" is the  correct judge for ads, especially since it could allow them to censure political contents for example. But having an independant organ of regulation against such ads, i think it's a great move ! Let's teens stay teens and live without having to be sexy all the time. 
However, the verb to censure is very different than the verb to censor (indeed, the noun form of to censure is censure, while the equivalent noun form of to censor is censorship, whereas censor as a noun means a person who is enabled to enact censorship).

In response to this comment, I wrote*:
Government already has the right to censure political statements, especially if they are taking the action of censure against others in public service. This doesn't necessarily mean that the government has the right to censor political statements (even if the statements are made by those in public service).

(Censure and censor: they don't mean the same thing.)
Okay, it's true that the two words both (according to refer back to the same Latin root word, cēnsēre, and it's obvious that the two words have associated meanings, but the end result of censure is not always censorship. In other words, condemnation of a speaker does not always end in deletion of commentary; it could, but one does not automatically lead to the other.

There are many other examples of this in English (input and impute; complement and compliment; succeed and secede; resource and recourse; precede and proceed; cavalry and Calvary; etc.), and people get them confused as well. However, even with the apparently opposite definitions of the word sanction, one should at least know the definition of the words that make up the crux of your argumentation.

On another note: censure and a censor are both different than a censer. And (analogously), a brassiere and a brasserie are both different from a brazier.

* For some reason, the computer that I'm on does not allow me to post a comment on the blog entry. Maybe from a different computer, though...

Cavalry and Calvary: they are different words, people!

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a LONG time: people mistaking cavalry for Calvary (it rarely goes the other way, though). In recognition of Veterans Day (aka Armistice Day and Poppy Day in the British Commonwealth), I'd like to point out that there is a big difference between the divisions of the military that we refer to as "cavalry" (in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and NZ, for instance), and the location where Jesus Christ was crucified, which English speakers refer to as "Calvary".

Cavalry: mounted soldiers. We get this term from Italian (cavalleria), via French (cavalerie); the meaning of "mounted militia" to refer initially to soldiers that fought from horseback (instead of riding to battle and fighting on foot) makes a good example of how the term is still (somewhat more loosely) used in today's modern army to refer to mechanized and air cavalry. (The term used for mounted soldiers in Roman times was -- apparently -- eques (plural: equites), in reference to the Latin word for horse (equus). As such, the term cavalry does not come to us from Latin.)

Calvary: the hill outside of Roman-era Jerusalem upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Calvary is an anglicized form of the Latin Calvariae Locus, which was transliterated from the Greek "Kraiou Topos" (meaning "skull place"), which was translated (most likely) from the Aramaic "Golgatha" (which also meant "skull place"). Calvary apparently first appeared in the King James Bible, and became the standard English name for the Golgatha, having shortened the Vulgate Latin (i.e., the Latin being used by the Church at the time).

In short, there may well have been equites at Golgatha, but this does not mean that the word cavalry is in any way related to the name Calvary.

11-11-11, or is it?

To some, the idea of 111111 is, well, amazing. However, it only works in the 12-month, Gregorian calendar and using the reference frame that has become commonplace in the world. However, if we used the Proleptic Julian date, today would be 2455876. The Julian calendar date of 2222222 occurred on February 11, 1372.

This makes us remember that year and day and month are rather arbitrarily constructed:

If we use the Japanese imperial year convention, it would be: 平成23年11月11日

If we used the Jewish calendar, it would be: 14 Heshvan 5772
If we used the Muslim calendar, it would be the 14 Duh'l-Hijja 1432

There are other calendars that one could also look at, but I think that you get the picture... Anyway, happy 11-11-11, or whatever day it is happens to be in your calendar. (After all, to my Aussie friends, it's already 12-11-11 down there.)

200 years of temperatures

The BEST project was looking at trying to debunk the existing climate predictions by re-analyzing all the data. However, what they found was this:

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Gruesome little thing

The other day, as I was cycling home after dark, I noticed the flashing lights of a police car pulled off to the side of the Liberty Road, just west of Scio Ridge. Hopefully he's ticketing a speeder or a DUI, I thought to myself. The thought that it could have been an accident did briefly rear itself in my head, but since there wasn't any traffic diversion going on, I figured that it wasn't such an encounter. As I rode closer, I didn't see any car ahead of the patrol car. Perhaps the other driver has already left, and the policeman is putting together some additional paperwork or something, I thought. However, as I continued to ride forward, I noticed that the police officer was out of his vehicle, an automatic rifle in his hands, and he was walking toward something struggling and pawing around on the ground.

A deer.

Specifically a deer that had obviously been struck by a vehicle and was lying just off the road. As I passed by the officer, he was crouching and aiming his rifle at the deer; taking an angle so that the bullet would be more likely to pass through the skull and hit the asphalt at a more oblique angle. Ah, shit, I thought as I rode away, I don't want to be too close when he shoots the deer.

As I rode away, I heard a single report.

The next day, the asphalt was darker in that spot, a reminder until the next heavy rain, of the ultimately fatal interaction between cervid and sedan.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Origami amazingness

Like so many other videos, I happened upon this via another video.

In Japan, the art of origami (which literally means "fold paper") is something that all Japanese children are introduced to from an early age. It's an integral part of the culture. Although it's purportedly quite old, the mathematical theory of origami is only a few decades old. Before the discovery of its mathematical theory, it wasn't very easy (or possible in many cases) for people to derive new forms from the paper. (There may also have been some level of social conservativeness that slowed adoption of novel forms, but that's another topic.) However, certain forms became iconic (and still remain so), the crane being perhaps the most famous.

I like making cranes for the kids of my friends, using bits of paper I find around the place. Most are sufficiently surprised and  tickled with my quite limited ability of making this form. My brother -- a far greater origami worker -- achieved official ranking in Japan while he was still in high school, and can make far more interesting and intricate forms than me. However, the traditional crane has been (and still remains) the icon of origami (even though more realistic ones are possible).

However, with the discovery of the mathematical theory of origami, completely new shapes are able to be produced, sometimes with exquisite intricateness. These forms have exploded onto the scene in a Japan that is now far more obsessed with the novel (and new uses for traditional things) than with the conservation of tradition for traditions sake alone. Thus, we can get things like this:

The following video describes the secret of the mathematics behind origami: