Saturday, February 28, 2009

Space politics - the scientists are learning

I've been intrigued by the political aspects of two space science missions: the Mars Exploration Rovers trundling around the Red Planet, and the Cassini mission to Saturn. Both missions arrived around early 2004, long ago completed their initial mission timelines, and have been granted funding for multiple mission extensions.

Several months ago, the Mars Opportunity rover controllers announced they were sending it to a massive crater 12 kilometers from its current position. That travel distance is equal to the total distance it's traveled in five years, and they expect moving quickly it will still take two years. After it arrives, many more months or years would be needed to analyze the crater's geology.

More recently, the Cassini mission announced plans for an extended mission all the way to 2017, with all the exciting things they plan to do in that time.

The trick in both cases though is that Congress hasn't authorized the budgets that would allow the missions to achieve their self-appointed goals, and Congress authorizes extensions only for significantly shorter periods. The mission managers acknowledge they need approval, but they leave unsaid how they've also put Congress in a bind.

If Congress cuts off the funding in the near future, they finish in the middle of a mission instead of at a logical conclusion of a mission extension. The Opportunity rover in particular would be seen as the equivalent of being commanded to cross half-way through a river, and then abandoned. Why send it all then?

I'm not criticizing. This will result in good science. But it's even better politics, and noone's paid much attention to it.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Will sashays again through the Post's multilevel fact checking

Here he is:

"The column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged."

Apparently the Post doesn't care about lies of omission, where approximately one million blogs have pointed out Will's reference to a prediction of an oncoming ice age omitted that the prediction was for the next "several thousand years."

Will claims he's right about his sea ice levels. He relies on a correction to the data that came out after his column was published (so it wasn't the basis of the claim), and that correction reduces but does not eliminate his error.

I still say asparagus pee is the only solution.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Science believers!! It is time to eat asparagus and march on the Washington Post!!!

I've run out of anything mature to say about the Post's publishing demonstrably wrong climate nonsense by George Will and then attempting to defend it. I think there's only one thing left to do, although it depends on action by people who can get to the Post's corporate headquarters.

Here's the plan:

1. Eat a lot of asparagus.

2. Enter the Post's headquarters building.

3. Use a public restroom.

4. Don't flush.

An optional fifth step is to notify the Post that this represents your opinion of their editing process, but I think even they will eventually figure it out. I also thought about advocating peeing on the restroom floor, but some poor janitor would have to deal with that. On the other hand, if there's a science believing, asparagus eating ninja out there who can penetrate the editorial office, then Fred Hiatt's desk and chair and are emphatically fair game.

I acknowledge that asparagus pee is a long shot for turning the Post around. On the other hand, they've refused appeals based on fact, reason, and truth. Asparagus pee is the level at which they operate. Time to fight fire with fire.

UPDATE: Endorsements are starting to roll in:

Scruffy Dan: "Brian over at Backseat Driving has a great suggestion."

Stoat: "BS has the definitive answer to the George Will nonsense."

Meanwhile, I'm considering offering a reward, maybe a check to a charity, on behalf of the hero or heroine who carries out the first mission.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tierney and Pielke Jr.'s wild exaggerations about Holdren and Hansen

Mostly outsourcing this one to Joe Romm. Several additions:

Pielke Jr. says "[scientists] pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense." He's apparently referring to John Holdren and likely to Jim Hansen. The article doesn't give any examples of those two pretending to be above the political fray. My guess is they'd admit they're taking political sides, so Pielke doesn't make sense. His arguments about exaggeration or "stealth science" is an underhanded way to pretend to support a prior statement that's wrong.

Second, Tierney repeats Pielke's pollyannish views on open-air carbon capture. To support this, Pielke announces:

Who else thinks air capture is important?
Lots of people. Jim Hansen is a notable example. In my paper I quote him as follows:
‘‘a feasible strategy for planetary rescue almost surely requires a means of extracting [greenhouse gases] from the air”

Pielke repeats it (page 5):
Of course, there is no guarantee that the installation of air capture facilities would be any les controversial than new nuclear plants or coal facilities with CCS. Even so, Hansen et al. (2007) suggest that the fate of the planet depends upon successfully deploying air capture technologies, ‘‘a feasible....(repeats quote)"

Pielke also lists Hansen as among those paying attention to open-air capture (page 1). Only once does Pielke drop the veil, slightly (page 2):
The most straightforward means of air capture is simply through photosynthesis. Hansen et al. (2007) propose that carbon dioxide emissions from power plants fuelled with biomass might be captured at the source and then sequestered in the deep sea.

Pielke's being sloppy - Hansen actually says "well beneath the ocean floor" (page 1950), a different process with less environmental risk than deep-sea injection.

Pielke also omits Hansen's central point in Hansen's paper - that we are in so much trouble already with current concentrations of greenhouse gases that we HAVE to pull the gases out of the atmosphere. Unsurprising that he'd omit this, since Pielke spends every possible moment fighting efforts to slow emissions (he'll claim differently though), and because of the fantasy that open-air capture would allow emissions to proceed mostly unchecked.

The most misleading aspect is that Pielke allows the impression that Hansen supports open-air capture in much the same way as Pielke. For all I know that may be true, but Pielke's never shown it while implying otherwise. Biomass generation with sequestration is a very limited concept that has little to do with Pielke's ideas, and the buried citation in one spot, with no clarification that this is all that Hansen talks about, does not eliminate Pielke's misleading.

My not-worth-much opinion is that we're in so much trouble over climate change that we need to be open to and spend some money on crazy ideas like geoengineering and open-air capture. The primary effort should be controlling emissions though. Pielke is no help.

UPDATE: edited to tone down a bit. Must find the right tone....

UPDATE 2 (Feb. 2010):  well, this is ironic.  I approved Roger's counter-attack comment below from the moderation queue, and now can't seem to be able to post my reply in a followup comment.  So here it is instead:
Roger, your cites to Hansen had the effect of avoiding a direct lie, but gave the impression that he was a supporter of chemical capture.  I didn't say that you expressly claimed he supports chemical capture, but that you misinformed people to use him as validation.
The definition you use isn't from the paper I critiqued - it postdates that paper and my critique.
To accuse me of semantic twisting in this context is quite a stretch.
And you still haven't addressed your mistake on sequestration "in the deep sea". 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Camelbak cleaning tip and climbing safety tip

Not that anyone reads this blog for random outdoor activity-related info, but I feel like writing about it anyway.

The Camelbak is a great way to take a lot of water with you, and a lousy pain in the neck to keep clean. I could never figure out a way to dry the bladder out completely, and the tiny film of water in the crevices eventually creates a film of slime.

The solution? Wash the bladder out, empty it, and then store it in the freezer. The only slime-growth time is when you're using it, so the frequency that you have to put the poison bleach pill in the bladder should get cut down tremendously. I've been doing this for two months without having to do a major clean or any sign that I'm harming the bladder.


My other, virtually unrelated tip is for multi-pitch rock climbing. There's a safety problem for every pitch after the first one - if the lead climber starts a new pitch and is going directly above the belayer at any point until the leader puts in the first piece of protection, then a fall at the wrong moment means the leader falls onto the belayer. The belayer should be anchored in so there shouldn't be a danger of knocking the belayer off the cliff, but the belayer's also supposed to control the rope that limits the fall length for the leader. If the leader's fall has knocked out the belayer or just tore the belayer's hand off the rope and belay device, then the leader could be in for a dangerous, long fall.

Several years ago as part of a party of three, I watched from below as the leader fell off and whacked his belayer in the face while the leader fell past him. The belayer got a bloody nose but held on to the rope, and the leader only took a 20-foot fall. A year later I was the leader, fifteen feet directly above my belayer, not feeling confident at all about my climb and worried about this scenario. Didn't fall, fortunately.

So, solutions. One is to use a Grigri or similar belay device that will hold even if the belayer lets go. This solution has its own problems - Grigris are heavy and don't work for double-rope climbing, which is safer than single-rope climbing.

Then there's my little solution. Before the leader starts the new pitch, the belayer ties a loose overhand knot in a bight of rope maybe twenty feet down the rope from the leader, whatever distance down the rope that is certain to be further than the distance the leader will climb before placing the first protection. If the leader falls and the disabled belayer fails to stop the fall, the knot hits the belay device and stops the fall at that point. If the leader doesn't fall and places that first protection, then the belayer undoes the knot with one hand only, while the other hand controls the belay device and rope.

The secret and problem with this solution is that the knot has to be loose but not too loose. If it's too tight, then the belayer will need two hands to undo it and won't be ready to catch the leader's fall during the time that the belayer's working the knot. If it's too loose, the knot may undo itself when an uncontrolled fall slams the knot into the belay device.

This solution can't be made foolproof and requires judgment, so it's unlikely to make it into the climbing books, but I still think it can help.

Glad to get that all off of my chest.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Post doesn't actually claim to have fact-checked George Will

George Will wrote a terribly-wrong column denying climate change (feedback here). When challenged about what happened to fact-checking, the Washington Post went radio-silent for a while and then made things worse, claiming the "facts" were at least defensible when they're not. Carl Zimmer actually makes the daring claim that fact-checkers should even eliminate misleading factoids, not just wrong ones, although the Post failed to do either.

Zimmer quotes the Post's response:
the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

The Post blundered its defense by mentioning the copy editors, because we know they didn't fact-check anything. Zimmer's right in referring to the response as lawyerly, because it is only about who "checks" the column, not about who fact-checks it. Yes, there were no grammar mistakes so the copy editors did their job, but that wasn't the question put to the Post by the reality-based community.

So what fact-checking really happened? Will might have had some flunky of his own incompetently check his stuff - or more likely, a fire-breathing wingnut kid working for Will came up with the misrepresentations and fed them to Will, none of them checked for accuracy by Will. From then on, it was just "checking" or editing, not fact-checking. The editors may have incidentally checked a claim or two, maybe, but thorough checks aren't their job. In short, the Post didn't thoroughly fact-check Will and didn't claim to while trying to give the false impression that they did. Sounds a lot like Will's article.

So my question is whether the Post is misleading its new ombudsman who reported this or whether he knows what actually happened.

Many years ago, I was a rinky-dink volunteer ombudsman at an AIDS hospice. It was clear to me that my job wasn't to support and parrot the hospice management; I was to use my independent judgment to support the people using the facility. I hope the Post ombudsman understands the same thing.

UPDATE: emailed the Post ombudsman about this (

UPDATE 2: Hank points out in the comments that copy-editors at some places do check facts, so their inclusion in Post's defense isn't necessarily a giveaway. Still I bet they do very little fact-checking, and their inclusion without specifics shows the Post is just babbling about process without showing they did their job (because they can't).

UPDATE 3: A search yesterday on blogs for "george will warming" gave me 45 hits before I found anyone willing to defend Will's column or the Post. The denialsphere seems to have mostly given up on this one, which is nice.

UPDATE 4: unrelated, but Will defends Obama over Iran here. Credit where due.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Conservatives choose inflation as a test of whether the stimulus will be a failure

I've seen conservatives railing against the stimulus package as something that will bring inflation without economic growth, or a return to stagflation. Sounds like we've got a good, Republican-chosen, measurable parameter of whether the stimulus fails. If inflation in the next year or two spikes dangerously far above last year's 3.85% without being caused by something external like an oil shock, then the Republicans turned out to be right. I don't think the absence of inflation by itself proves the stimulus worked, but it will show the downside risk was very low.

Of course, I expect conservatives will attempt to have people forget everything they said about stagflation when the time comes around, but this is one way to make it slightly harder.

For related fun, here are the Republican prophecies of doom at the time of the Clinton 1993 stimulus plan.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where George Will got his sea ice nonsense

The liberal blogosphere has done a good job of trouncing George Will's terrible column on climate change into the mud. The minor thing I'll add is the probable source of Will's incorrect statement that "global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979." It's this Daily Tech article from January 1 that was picked up widely among denialists and torn to pieces by Tamino.

The Daily Tech article was essentially wrong and deliberately misleading, but did use one true factoid. Due to the high level of annual variability in sea ice, there was one point last December where the ice was about the same as in December 1979. The problem with cherry-picking though as opposed to honest trendlines is that it's easy to screw up, and "now" is no longer December, and sea ice is once again in line with the trend of overall decline. I expect the reason that Will isn't responding to inquiries is that "I'm too incompetent to cherry-pick correctly" doesn't sound satisfactory.

I read once that the checkout tabloids usually start with a kernel of truth for their stories. A report of someone seeing a amputated leg twitch becomes "severed leg stands up, runs fifty feet." If Will is going to use this level of honesty, there are better publications to take his stuff than the Washington Post.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's not the idea, it's the execution

I hope the scan from my little invention notebook in 1997 is readable. The video is what somebody else has done with their own version of the idea to make it a reality. I did play around with the idea way back when, and even had some prototypes made, but that was as far as I got. I've thought for some time now that carrying out a good idea is far harder than having a good idea, something that really struck me when I watched the documentary on the fall of Enron. The Snuggie people understand execution.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Intelligence Squared debates favor initial loser, effect on climate debating is less clear

Intelligence Squared debates measure who wins not by which side has more votes at the end but by which side picks up the most votes compared to a pre-debate poll of the audience. Following up on a comment I left at Greenfyre that the initial loser generally picks up more votes, I put the results of the last 25 debates into an Excel file copied below.

In 16 cases, the initial loser picked up more votes, in 6 cases the reverse ocurred (written in bold below), and in 3 cases the start was nearly tied or the vote pickup was tied (shaded gray). Maybe not conclusive, but it doesn't seem like a random distribution.

The two climate debates both had "skeptics" as initial losers, both of whom picked up more votes. I didn't try to figure out if they beat the average spread, but I'd guess one was about average, and the other slightly worse than average. I don't think the results tell much about whether formal debates with skeptics is a good or bad idea.

Two tangents: first, mischief-makers on the right will notice that conservative positions picked up more votes than liberal positions, but again we hit the same issue that conservative positions tended to start with fewer votes. If you look only at the six cases where the initial winner also won more votes, there's no ideological consistency between red-shaded winners and blue-shaded winners.

Second, Intelligence Squared needs to come up with new success criteria. Their current one doesn't make sense.

(BTW, anyone who wants a copy of the Excel file should just email me.)

for art



virtual tied start

against art



virtual tied start

for cabon not worth the effort



against carbon not worth the effort



for bush worst



against bush worst



for google evil



against google evil



for guns reduce



against guns reduce



for US is winning



against US is winning



for universal health



against universal health



for legalize sale of organs



against legalize sale of organs



for islam is radical



against islam is radical



for tough interrogation necessary



against tough interrogation is necessary



for US should police



against US should police



for performance drugs



against performance drugs



for aid harmful



tie gain

against aid harmful



tie gain

for end affirmative action



liberal countertrend

against end affirmative action



liberal countertrend

for Russia becoming enemy



against Russia becoming enemy



for stop undocumented



against stop undocumented



for spread democracy is bad



against spread democracy is bad




for China is trouble



against China is trouble



for surveillance better than 9/11



against surveillance better than 9/11



for warming not crisis



against warming not crisis



for US too religious



liberal countertrend

against US too religious



liberal countertrend

for Hollywood is antiUS



against Hollywood is antiUS



for Hamas is terrorist



against Hamas is terrorist



for offensive expression



tie gain

against offensive expression



tie gain

for tolerate nuclear Iran



against tolerate nuclear Iran



Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hoping for a bet with Mark Campbell (selected by Marc Morano)

Chemistry professor Mark Campbell was cited as not believing in anthropogenic climate change in the latest press dump by Marc Morano from Inhofe's office. I've just emailed a polite note to him to see if he's willing to bet over that position, and will definitely write it up if there's any interest.

Hat tip: Joe Romm, who refutes the other parts of Morano's press release.

UPDATE: we're negotiating, so we'll see if anything results.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lifting a rating agency security freeze without a PIN, or "Welcome to Hell"

I doubt I'm the first person who placed security freezes on his credit rating to limit identity theft and stop credit card junk mail, and who then, years later, can't find the PIN numbers he received so he can get credit ratings quickly for loan applications. From the lack of helpful info out there, though, you'd think I was.

Even less helpful, the loan providers aren't satisfied with getting ratings from one or two agencies, but they must have all three (and they have no idea how to solve the PIN problem either, don't ask for help from the experts).

TransUnion was by far the best of the rating agencies - after just 20 minutes of dialing menus, I got a human who asked a few questions to establish my identity and then lifted the freeze (for a fee). Never found a human at Experian, but an exhaustive search of my papers turned up the PIN. Even then, dial-a-menu didn't work until I realized they were verifying my PIN with street numbers from my old address of over three years ago instead my current address - so much with their providing accurate info.

Equifax was the biggest problem because I never found their PIN or reached a human there. Fortunately my wife had purchased some credit product from them and was able to reach a human, who in turn gave us THE SECRET PHONE NUMBER TO CALL A HUMAN AT EQUIFAX FOR SECURITY FREEZES:


Who knows how long that number will be good. Maybe they've already changed it, like Al-Qaeda does.

Even the SECRET PHONE NUMBER wasn't perfect though - they still wouldn't permanently lift the security freeze without a PIN, but it occurred to me to ask for a temporary lift, and after answering a million questions semi-accurately about my identity, they granted me this boon.

So, lessons for others from my failings - if you place security freezes, don't lose your PINs!! If you have lost them, start the snail mail process for requesting new ones, regardless of whether you need a loan in the near future. And if you've lost your PINs and are planning on getting a loan in the near future, start dealing with this immediately, and don't expect any help from the experts.

And don't forget to have fun!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Volokh Correction #24 (and Pielke Jr.): Chu isn't abusing science

Secretary Chu:

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he said. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California." And, he added, "I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going" either.

I think Chu can be criticized for not choosing his off-the-cuff comments more carefully. He should know that people whose work generally aided the side that's trying to delay action to reduce emissions will choose to interpret him as saying there will be not a single occupied city or farm in California in 2100. Note they will also ignore his qualifier that devastation could occur only "if Americans [and others, presumably] do not act to slow the advance of global warming." In other words, a business-as-usual scenario that goes far past a doubling of CO2 levels in 2100.

Cue Jonathan Adler and Roger Pielke Jr. to go the literal route, ignore the qualifier and ignore the real point that California agriculture will be devastated and cities disrupted to the point where some will be virtually uninhabitable. The thread at Stoat covers basic points in support of Chu: the snowpack stores half the needed water, change from snow to rain lowers existing reservoir capacity, and building thousands of small new dams or a few giant dams is impractical and has its own environmental impacts. I'll add that we're also going to lose a lot of Colorado River water (something Pielke might have realized), that 5C degree increase (or more) will require more water for farming and landscaping than current temps, more people in many cities means more water demand, and that salt water intrusion will screw up coastal and Sacramento Delta agriculture.

I'll also add that skeptics should go to Fresno, Bakersfield, or God-help-you Barstow on a record-hot summer day, imagine it 5C warmer and describe whether people will choose to live there (remember we're talking about more than 2xCO2 levels). And it's not like those cities have pleasant, Phoenix-style winter climates.

But for a policy type like Pielke to say the off-hand comment by Chu is "exactly the same thing" as the abuse of science by Bushies is truly rich. I wouldn't complain all that much about Bush if that was all he did, instead of cutting access to contraceptives and sex education, shutting down stem cell research, and trying to reduce earth observation satellite programs.

Extra stuff: Adler provides a useful link here to California impacts. Note the effect of losing "chill hours" on agriculture, among other issues.

More extra: James says he likes this Pielke Jr. post. Let's see what James ends up posting about it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Computer problems

Have had trouble posting, among other time-sucking issues.

For the meantime, check out comments at Stoat about wrong-headed attacks by Pielke Jr. and Jonathan Adler on Secretary Chu's minor hyperbole regarding forthcoming devastation of California agriculture under climate change, and how some California cities will be virtually uninhabitable. More later.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

My Kiva loans

Finally using a (gratefully-received!) wedding gift certificate:

Roman Sandoval Mejia - I think his buying participation rights in a rice thresher sounds less risky than starting a new business.

Antonia Armendariz Guerra - the one Mexican borrower wanting a business loan rather than a personal loan to be repaid with business earnings.

Ghulam Fatima group - women micro-entrepeneurs in Pakistan pretty much means I have to give them a chance. Also a group mutually guaranteeing each others' loans sounds like a good bet.

Amy Lemalu - 28-year old widow with three kids. I'm a sucker, but that just induces a "click the button" reflex, and she's apparently repaid previous loans.

I'll keep track of how they all do, and maybe kick in some more money.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Back to the FutureGen

TPMDC notes the Senate stimulus bill includes $2 billion for "one or more near zero emissions powerplant(s)." Lots of renewable energy qualifies as near zero emissions, maybe even nuclear power, but Sen. Durbin says it's for carbon capture plants. Durbin plays cute about it, but that means clean coal and almost certainly the reincarnation of FutureGen demonstration plant back at its Illinois site, where Durbin and Obama are from.

FutureGen was intended to demonstrate whether clean coal with carbon sequestration was possible, and its previous collapse obviously didn't bode well for the concept of clean coal. I'd disagree with TPMDC that environmentalists are wholly opposed to it, though. We might as well see how expensive it really is. If it works at a feasible price, then we have something to offer the coal industry other than complete destruction. If not, then we'll know and plan accordingly.

Bonus climate blogging - a website on the history of climate change science via Weart's Discovery of Global Warming. Time for a new wikipedia article, I think.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Deep Thought

In January 2017, the newest politically-aware generation in college and high school will only have vague memories of a time when America didn't have an African-American president.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Conservative carbon-tax convert con job

Whether it's intentional or unintentional, the mini-wave of conservatives like Jonathan Adler saying they would support a carbon tax to prevent cap-and-trade legislation are really offering a poison pill. As Dave Roberts says:

The 111th U.S. Congress is not going to pass a carbon tax. Calls for a carbon tax, to the extent they have any effect, will complicate and possibly derail passage of carbon legislation....If you want carbon pricing out of this Congress, cap-and-trade is what you're getting.

I think the same is true for 100% cap and dividend, where all the money raised from carbon auctions has to be distributed to taxpayers. While sending some of the money raised back to taxpayers wouldn't wreck a deal, I think sending 100% of it back would, as well as cut off a source of funding for research, mitigation, and yes, adaptation to climate change.

The good thing about a carbon tax is that it's compatible with cap-and-trade. Once the cap system is in place, a carbon tax will reduce the economic incentive to emit carbon, and then reduce the auction price. Carbon taxers who really believe what they say should get a good cap system in now, and then work on a carbon tax that if significant enough, would end up overshadowing the cap system.