Thursday, May 31, 2007

An apex predator in our worm composting bin

Not sure how well the picture shows the salamander, but now I know why we don't have many worms in our worm composting bin. Aside from the question of how it got in there, I can't figure out where it came from. We live in an urban/dense suburban area, and the nearest water body is a concrete channel for a stream about a quarter mile away.

I also don't know what the heck it is. It's bigger than the California newts I see in the woods around here, and has a big head. Instead of the newt's orange underbelly, it has yellow spots along the side and scattered on the tail.

Finally, I don't know what to do about it. We're near the beginning of the summer dry season. I expect if I dumped it out of the bin, it wouldn't last very long. I suppose I could make the effort to carry it to the concrete stream. For now, I'm doing nothing. Maybe the compost bin ecosystem is big enough to support it and some worms.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Scientists overselling or underselling climate change risks?

Kevin Vranes wrote a while back that he felt that scientists may feel like they've almost accidentally oversold their certainty about climate change and associated risks, particularly their confidence in climate model results.

On the other side, James Hansen says this about the risk of a 5 meter sea level rise in a century:

a 'scientific reticence' is inhibiting the communication of a threat of a
potentially large sea level rise. Delay is dangerous because of system inertias
that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control.
I argue for calling together a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and
issue a prompt plain-written report on current understanding of the sea level
change issue.

So who's right? Wish I knew. But, both of them could be right - scientists could be overselling 85% certainty as 95% certainty, while refusing to discuss a 10% risk of catastrophe. Or maybe just one is, or neither.

Hansen does add, "scientists preaching caution and downplaying the dangers of climate change fared better in receipt of research funding." Pointing out that something could be considered a risk at the current state of science, when it is likely (but far from certain) that the improved science will eliminate the risk, isn't going to make the scientist look all that prescient. Hansen's argument makes some intuitive sense to me, and we'll just have to see if Kevin Vranes is right or not.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Rachel Carson should get an "American Nobel" award for public health

Tim Lambert continues to fight the endless war against right-wing lies about Rachel Carson that argue the "ban" of DDT has killed and is killing millions of children infected by malaria. I think a systematic way to fight this garbage would be to go on the offensive, and try to get some important public recognition for the millions of people she saved by limiting DDT use and subsequent mosquito resistance to it.

The Lasker Awards are the "American Nobels" in medical science. They give out awards for public service too, not just medical research, and unlike the Nobels, the awards have been given out posthumously (although it appears to be a rare practice).

Unfortunately they've stopped accepting nominations for the 2007 awards, the centennial of Carson's birth. Maybe someone was quicker than me in thinking of this idea. Regardless, there's next year for Lasker, other medical awards should also consider Carson, and when we've got a non-liar in the White House, I can hardly think of a better recipient of posthumous Medal of Freedom for her actions reducing DDT resistance.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Reasonable Libertarian and Girls Gone Wild

At first glance, the proposal by Garance Franke-Ruta to raise the age of consent for someone to be viewed or filmed nude coincides well with the Reasonable Libertarian concept of transitional adulthood. Her idea, primarily, is to protect 18-20 year-old women from future humiliation for drunkenly consenting to being filmed naked by predators like the Girls Gone Wild video makers.

I'm unconvinced though on both practical and libertarian grounds. She hasn't been very specific about what she herself proposes, although she later supported the idea of a required waiting period for consent to be effective. This alternative removes some objections, except that it would be impractical unless applied only to people filmed in private locations, and not applying it to public locations virtually eliminates its usefulness.

Then there's the libertarian issue. I like the transitional adulthood idea, but not applied blindly to protect people from all self-imposed harm. The transition is a period for people to handle whatever bad upbringing or economic suffering in their childhood that drove the person to do something dangerous. Prostitution and professional boxing strike me as dangerous and things that 18 year olds are likely to fall into because something was screwed up in their upbringing. Being viewed naked, for pay or for no reason, doesn't fall into that category. Some people might not regret it (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Madonna) and others who consider it a mistake might learn from it with relatively little harm.

A strong feminist might disagree about upbringing affecting a young woman's willingness to disrobe at the urging of the men around her. I understand that point, but people should be allowed to learn from mistakes (if that's how they see them). And anyway, the proposal is impractical from the perspective of getting video cameras off the spring break beaches and Mardi Gras streets.

A final note - I really dislike Garance's language choice, that this isn't a restriction on consent, it's "a greater right to control their own erotic images until age 21." Give me a break and just call it what it is. This framing stuff can go too far, like her implicit argument that the freedom (to consent) is (a form of) slavery.

(Despite writing all this, btw, I think Garance is a valuable blogger.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Latest Tangled Bank

The science blog carnival, Tangled Bank, is up, and includes a link to my post about exoplanet Gliese 581c.

Understanding boreholes

The Open Mind blog has an excellent explanation of how underground boreholes work in recording temperature changes over time (very differently from ice boreholes) (UPDATE: William says ice boreholes aren't different - see comments). They're very good at detecting whether past temperatures were above or below average, but are less specific as to when the variation occurred, and get still more less specific the further back you go in time.

I'll just repeat here a comment that I left there, that boreholes seem like something that could resolve whether the Little Ice Age, and possibly the Medieval Warm Period, were regional phenomenon or were more widespread. Since those issues are still unresolved, I assume there are complications to the technique.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Jerry Falwell and the Hitchenizing lefty blogs

I really enjoy the snarky blogs on the left, even while I vacillate between being snarky myself over climate change versus trying to persuade the other side. Sadly No is a great example of one of the best blogs using attack humor to ridicule the powerful people who very much deserve it.

But ridiculing someone who's just died and expressing joy at his death seems a little different. These blogs are following the Christopher Hitchens path of taking the occasion of a famous person's death to launch the most vitriolic attacks possible. Hitchens did it with Mother Theresa and many other people, and of course he's got something out on Falwell right now.

I can't condemn the lefty blogs as being completely wrong. Falwell admittedly did a lot of damage, and it's easy for me to react like this when I'm not part of the demographic he often attacked. My friend Junichi acknowledges the problem, and bloggers who simply quote Falwell to respond to one-sided accolades also have a point.

Still. There are some people out there who mourn Falwell as a grandfather or friend, not just a political ally, and while ridiculing the powerful is fine, a dead man isn't powerful and can't even respond. I'd let it go, at least right now.

Also missing from both the Falwell hero-worship and the attack post responses is that Falwell sometimes apologized for the worst things he said. And then, sometimes, repeated them.

There's an interesting science fiction book called Speaker for the Dead, featuring a type of eulogy where the "speech is not an apology, but rather a way to understand the person as a whole, including any flaws or misdeeds." Seems to me like a better way to go about it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Will Marc Morano or Senator Inhofe bet over climate change?

Below is an email I just sent to Senator Inhofe's communications director, Marc Morano. I'll be sure to let you all know if there's a response.

Marc Morano
Communications Director
Senator James Inhofe


Dear Marc:

This email follows a voice mail I left you two days
ago, saying I wanted to follow up about the bet
between myself and David Evans over global warming
that you've been highlighting. I see that it's just
been put up at your Senate Committee website:

(Website link here)

I have three brief points.

First, I want to thank you for directing a lot of
traffic to my website, although I find it confusing
that some skeptics think this bet at all vindicates
their position. Maybe they should wait and see who
wins the bets, and in just three years we'll start to
see who's in the process of winning. It's also worth
noting that it took me nearly two years to find a
skeptic willing to put his money where his mouth is.
The more prominent skeptics who you've highlighted,
people like Dick Lindzen and Bill Gray, have refused
to bet.

Second, you may not be aware that the category of
prominent skeptics who refuse so far to bet include
your supervisor, Senator James Inhofe. I emailed and
faxed him last summer offering to bet over global
warming, and wrote about it here:

(blog post link here)

I'm willing to bet Senator Inhofe for profit or, as
the link above says, for charity, and I'd be happy to
use the same terms as in the bet that you are now
circulating widely. I encourage you to ask him to

Third and finally, Marc, your personal dedication to
the climate skeptic issue seems to go beyond the "just
doing your job" level, something that's quite
admirable in a political staffer. Accordingly, I
would be honored if you personally would be willing to
bet me over climate change. Same terms as the bet
post you've been circulating, for profit or for
charity. The charity site in the link above solves
the problem of ensuring bets are paid. If a
for-profit is your preference, I'm sure we can find
someone we both trust to hold my money, and I trust
your word that you will pay.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Brian Schmidt

UPDATE: After Marc Morano linked to Backseat Driving for the guest post by my betting opponent,
I asked him again to bet, and heard nothing.

Skeptical about policy versus skeptical about climate

I've been corresponding with one of the bloggers I invited to bet me over climate change, Craig Newmark. He gives his reasons for skepticism and for not betting me here.

Among the not-unusual reasons that I find unpersuasive, Craig includes a kludge factor that I've often seen in various places, along the lines of "I'm not betting over global warming because I think Kyoto Protocol is a bad idea from those watermelon socialists."

This is a kludge because the question of what do about a problem is separate from whether the problem actually exists. I'm trying to advance the policy discussion by eliminating areas of disagreement, and I think there's less actual disagreement about climate change than the denialists claim, as shown by their general refusal to bet. Getting rid of that non-controversy can help us move on to determining the best solution.

Craig defends the kludge as a persuasive strategy akin to what lawyers use. It may be persuasive to some, and some desperate lawyers use it, but it's not good legal reasoning. Legal analysis (in theory) dissects issues into their component parts, answers each part, and then comes up with the overall answer. Craig didn't do that.

I'll add to his lawyer story with another my law professor joked about, concerning what to do when arguing in front of a judge: "If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. And if you don't have the facts or the law on your side, pound the table."

Being skeptical about the science, based on the allegation that Kyoto is bad, is just pounding the table.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The "Goldilocks Planet" might really be a too-hot, gas giant

Exoplanet Gliese 581c is referred to as the "Goldilocks Planet" for extraterrestrial life. It appears to be small enough to be rocky planet, not a gas giant like almost all the other planet discoveries, and it's at the right distance from its star so that the surface temperature might be between water's freezing and boiling point, if greenhouse gases in its atmosphere doesn't make it too hot.

Typical reporting about the size of the planet, from CNN: "new planet is about five times heavier than Earth...." From MSNBC: "it has a radius just 50 percent larger than Earth's, a mass five times greater...." Even from the European astronomers who discovered it: "Astronomers have discovered the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date, an exoplanet with a radius only 50% larger than the Earth and capable of having liquid water. Using the ESO 3.6-m telescope, a team of Swiss, French and Portuguese scientists discovered a super-Earth about 5 times the mass of the Earth that orbits a red dwarf...."

The problem with all these reports is that the planet is very likely to have a significantly higher mass than five earths. The planet was discovered with the radial velocity method, which only determines the minimum mass. The radial velocity mass determination is based on the equation msini, where m, the actual mass, is multiplied by the trignometric sine of i, the inclination of the planet's orbit with respect to earth. The only situation with current technology where we know what i is, though, is if the planet transits directly in front of the star with respect to earth, partially occulting its light, and that doesn't appear to be the case for Gliese.

To be fair to the European astronomers, they do add a footnote saying, "Using the radial velocity method, astronomers can only obtain a minimum mass (as it is multiplied by the sine of the inclination of the orbital plane to the line of sight, which is unknown). From a statistical point of view, this is however often close to the real mass of the system." I don't know the basis for that second sentence, though, unless they define "close" very loosely.*

Gliese 581c has five earth masses only if the inclination is edge on, i=90, and sini=1. There is no reason why the inclination shouldn't be random, so 45 degrees is the 50th percentile likelihood, where the real inclination and therefore real mass is equally likely to be greater or lesser than that figure. The sin of 45 is .707, and five divided by .707 is seven earth masses. The planet has a 50% chance of massing between five and seven earth masses, and 50% chance of being more than that. If the planet has 10-12 earth masses, then it's a Uranus-to-Neptune size gas giant (sometimes called ice giants), and nothing like the earth. At an inclination of 30 degrees or less (33% chance), the mass will be at least five divided by .5, or 10 earth masses.

So unless I've messed up, the Goldilocks planet has a 33% chance of being a gas giant. And even before that level, there's a problems with temperature. The larger the planet, the more likely it will trap enough greenhouse gases to experience a runaway greenhouse effect that in some distant future will make the Earth resemble Venus.

So it's certainly possible that the planet's mass is close to five earth masses, and maybe the smaller mass levels might allow it to escape the runaway greenhouse, but I wouldn't count on it being habitable.**

*I see even wikipedia says "One of the main disadvantages of the radial-velocity method is that it can only estimate a planet's minimum mass. Usually the true mass will be within 20% of this minimum value, but if the planet's orbit is almost perpendicular to the line of sight, then the true mass will be much higher." Again, I don't know the basis for the 20% statement - am I missing something?

**Some good comments at Bad Astronomy, especially this one: "Definitely I am aware that this is a minimum mass, however I think the small scale of the system suggests the masses cannot be too much greater, or planets b and c would very likely be unstable." That argues against my inclination argument, but raises other reasons for the planet not being habitable.

UPDATE: Lab Lemming has some good ideas in the comments. I still think even with LL's ideas, it should be considered substantially more than 5 masses.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Please sign the petition to junk Junk Science

Via Deltoid, we have Desmogblog's online petition to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News asking them to can the denialist Steve Milloy. In addition to Desmogblog's points about denialism, and Deltoid's point about Milloy taking undisclosed money from cigarette companies while saying cigarette smoke is safe, I'll add pages 112-113 of The Republican War on Science, where Milloy attacked research on modern, environmentally-damaging pesticides as fraudulent, with no evidence to back up the charge.

Friday, May 11, 2007

It's more than just sushi journalism

I don't get the implicit ridicule that Howard Kurtz shows for a newspaper investigation into a widespread restaurant practice of selling sushi labelled as expensive snapper when it's actually tilapia (UPDATE: originally I wrote "snapper" at the end of the sentence; I meant to write "tilapia").

First, even if it had no broader implications, this is the kind of gumshoe work that journalism ought to do. If writing restaurant reviews is legitimate journalism, why can't they write about whether the food is what it's claimed to be?

Second, an economic point: "And most sushi fish in the United States comes from just a handful of suppliers." The absence of real competition promotes fraud.

Third, a religious point: much of the sushi fish distribution in the US is controlled by the Unification Church, a controversial religion with questionable tactics on conversion and political strategies. Their involvement takes the controversy to a whole new level.

Finally, an environmental point: snapper is overfished, while tilapia is a far more environmental choice. While it's appropriate to substitute for snapper, it's more appropriate to openly show that tilapia is an adequate substitute.

No reason for ridicule here that I can see.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Yet another market signal about climate change, but it'll take work to get the answer

Yesterday was about the commodities market and a global warming index, today is about equities. KLD, an investment research firm heavily involved with socially responsible investment, has had a "climate solutions" stock index and last month, it partnered with a financial management firm to allow people to invest in the index.

The GC100 is based on the concept of the climate solutions value chain. Companies in the climate solutions value chain are positioned to benefit from increasing constraints on carbon, high fossil-fuel prices, rising energy demand and a growing acknowledgement of climate risk. The index is constructed to form a basket of companies that provides exposure to companies providing climate solutions.

Their methodology:

The Global Climate 100 Index includes a mix of 100 global companies that will provide near-term solutions to global warming....Constituents are selected from the global universe of companies for their involvement in the following themes: Renewable Energies, Future Fuels, and Clean Technology and Efficiency.....The leading companies in each category are included on the Index....The Index seeks companies representing a range of corporate responses to climate change, including a group of large-, mid-, and small-cap companies representing sectors ranging from energy and utilities to industrials and consumer products. As a result, the Index is more broadly diversified than a traditional energy sector index.

Neither the current price of this index nor its change over time will show a market signal about climate change directly. But there's more - the price-to-earnings ratio, relative to P/E ratios for comparable businesses not investing in climate solutions, should partially reflect whether the market believes climate change will force business changes. Companies can have high stock prices relative to their annual earnings if the market believes the companies will grow rapidly. If the market believes in climate change, the P/E for these companies should exceed the industry average. The companies are here, starting on page 4. All someone has to do is compare the companies to the appropriate sector of the market (which might be a little tricky, but seems doable). Pretty good business school student project, I would think.

Of course there are confounding factors and noise in the signal - people might invest in these companies in anticipation of peak oil or energy security needs; the market will be influenced by government underreaction or overreaction to climate change; and the index depends partly on the skill and P/E preference of the index selectors.

Still, it would be interesting to see what the result is of a P/E comparison. I bet the index managers actually know that, although I don't know if they'd give that information out.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Promising start for a "Global" Warming Index

James and William have more info on UBS-GWI, a composite index of 15 American weather futures markets. It will certainly have to expand geographically to be "global", but it seems like a good start.

I do have two concerns: first, it's unclear to me whether the index will be weighted by the level of trading in the particular submarkets. While that could well make sense to an energy trader, it biases the information from a straight-science perspective. Second, it will necessarily be an Urban Heat Island index, I think. That doesn't validate the worn-out skeptic argument of cool rural temperature stations transforming into warmer urban heat islands, but it does mean, for once, that land use will be an important factor for purposes of the index. For example, the highly laudable movement towards green rooftops and higher-albedo building and paving materials will affect the index without affecting global temps.

Regardless, a very promising start. I've sent some questions off to UBS, and we'll see if they respond.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Yesterday I saw an ant pick up an aphid and fly away with it

Okay, maybe this isn't earth-shaking news, but when I think of E. O. Wilson I still think of The Ants before his other books, and I've never seen this happen before. Wandering on a trail in San Mateo County, I came across a goldenrod-ish plant with brown aphids clustered everywhere. On the very top was a single, winged ant grasping a green aphid in its mouth. After a minute or two, the ant flew away with the aphid.

Ants eat other insects but are also known to tend aphids and collect a type of "honeydew" from them. Worker ants are wingless, but dispersing, reproductive males and females can fly. The only thing that males care about is finding females, so the ant I saw was a dispersing queen. Also, aphids can reproduce asexually, and like Tribbles, the females are born pregnant.


1. The new queen has already mated and was taking an aphid to found another aphid-tending colony. She'll settle down at a host plant with no aphids, which therefore has no existing ant colony that would quickly terminate her command.

2. The ant queen has already mated and is acting somewhat like her relative the wasp - she's carrying a one-time food source for herself as she founds a new colony somewhere.

While I think #1 is cooler, I suspect #2 is more likely. I think I would have heard of ants transporting aphids before. While only one of the hypotheses is correct for the ant I saw, both could be true as a general matter. But more ants species are likely to hunt insects than herd them, so my guess is the aphid is now lunch.

IMPORTANT UPDATE TO THIS IMPORTANT ISSUE: I talked to a butterfly biologist about this. He said he had no knowledge about it, but "when it comes to insects, anything is possible."

Friday, May 04, 2007

Volokh Correction #20 outsourced to Warminglaw blog

Warminglaw says:

Todd Zywicki, a bankruptcy professor at George Mason Law and blogger at the libertarian “The Volokh Conspiracy,” recently informed the world that while he has “no special knowledge” of whether global warming is occurring, if it is occurring he wonders why people aren't "buying up all the land 300 yards or so from the current beach, or wherever they expect the sea level to rise to in the future?” Todd goes on to ask: “Shouldn't Al Gore be cornering the market on coastal land twenty feet above today's sea level?”

Warminglaw then takes him apart. As I think one of the Volokh commenters notes (besides the issue of a 20 foot rise being exceedingly long term), near-beachfront property is still very expensive right now, while turning it into under-the-ocean property isn't so valuable. Guessing wrong on sea-level rise would have bad economic consequences.

Warminglaw finishes with this:

Why pick on Todd here at Warming Law? At the risk of ruining your day, dear readers, we feel compelled to note that Todd has lectured our federal judges on the economics of climate change at libertarian judicial seminars hosted by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (for the agenda, go here and scroll down). One can just imagine the rigorous, balanced, and thought-provoking economic analysis he presents to our federal judiciary.

Zywicki has made many, many appearances here at Volokh Corrections.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

April 2007 Iraq casualties

Avg. daily Coalition fatality rate during the last month: 3.9 (nearly all Americans, and excluding Iraqis)

Previous averages
March 2007:
February 2007: 3.0

Last year, April 2006: 2.73.

Overall daily average to date is 2.41. Total US dead as of today: 3355.

Iraqi monthly military and police fatalities: 158.

Previous military/police fatality rates
March 2007: 215
February 2007: 150

Last year, April 2006: 201.
Total Iraqi military dead: 6551.

Note that I've seen media reports suggesting the Iraqi military casualty figures are signficant undercounts.

Iraqi monthly civilian fatalities: 1521

March 2007: 1674
February 2007: 1381

Last year, April 2006: 808.

To-date civilian total, begining in March 2005: 28,583. Note that the civilian numbers are far less accurate than others (most likely to be greatly underestimated, or even ridiculously underestimated), but could still be useful in determining trends.

Comments: Now eight months in a row with American casualties above average, no prior bad stretch lasted longer than three months. The overall average rate continues to move up, from a low of 2.29 deaths daily.

As before, civilian casualties remain terrible. The rate seems to hover around a level that is nearly twice as bad as a year ago, and three times worse than in 2005. Neither we nor the Iraqis realized how good we had it back in 2005.

Three months have passed since the troop escalation began, with no indication in these statistics that it has accomplished anything.

Annan refutes Evans' skeptic arguments

James Annan, who's done more than anyone to promote the idea of betting over global warming, refutes David Evans' arguments here. Sounds pretty good to me (other than the Bayesian statistics stuff, which is beyond me). Money quote:

Are we really supposed to believe that the planet is highly sensitive to some speculative and unquantified mechanism such as cosmic rays, and simultaneously insensitive to an effect that's been reasonably well understood for over 100 years? Why?

UPDATE: Evans responds in the comments, and here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Wow, the denialists really like me! Wait, it's David they like...

Yesterday's guest blog post by my betting opponent David Evans has generated more hits on my blog than I've had in the last two months. It's amazing how differently people will view the same event - the denialist blogs are linking to it, and see this as some kind of vindication in that David used to support the consensus, and in that he's willing to bet.

I should start as my mother taught me though and say something nice, which is that the comments in the post, mostly by skeptics/denialists, are very complimentary to both David and myself for keeping our debate civil. It's good for me to get that reminder about the decent people that are on the other side of the fence. And I think I've already made my respect for David clear.

Okay, enough being nice. The irony is that most of the referrals are coming from Tim Blair and Planet Gore. Blair's site labelled me a troll and de-facto banned me for repeatedly offering to bet Blair and others at his site. I emailed Planet Gore just 3 weeks ago offering to bet them, and never heard a word. So now if they think David's action is commendable, why don't they show it by betting me themselves?

It would also help if they were accurate - both short posts on Planet Gore got essential things wrong - first, David isn't a climate modeller-turned-skeptic and never claimed to be. Second, he isn't betting that temperatures will cool (a claim repeated by other denialists who fail to read the post); instead he's betting that temperatures will increase at a slower rate than predicted by the consensus.

Finally, they fail to note that it took nearly two years for me to find someone to bet against the consensus position, I'm still open to more bets, as are other people, and we can't find betting opponents. From a free-market perspective, this seems a pretty clear indication that the consensus position is nearly universally-held, and people like David whose disbelief in it is strong enough to be backed up with their wallets are quite rare.

Summing it up, the effect's unclear so far. Stoat thought my bet was a good one but entails a PR risk, and he might be right earlier than he thought. On the other hand, in three years we'll start to see whether I'm on the path toward winning or losing the bets, and we'll see what PR effect that has too.