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.