Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Crowd-sourced screening of abusive/misogynist comments for women bloggers

I've been reading more in the past few weeks about the type of garbage that women bloggers have to put up with, stuff I've never experienced.  A recent comparison:
 As the New Statesmanblogger David Allen Green told me: "In three years of blogging and tweeting about highly controversial political topics, I have never once had any of the gender-based abuse that, say, Cath Elliott, Penny Red or Ellie Gellard routinely receive."
One way to discourage this is for women bloggers to moderate and screen comments so the abusive ones never get printed.  This adds to the blogger's work load, though (and may not be possible at some work blogs), and more importantly, the anonymous abuser still gets away with exposing the blogger to abuse that ranges from mean-spirited to threats of rape.

The idea I'm suggesting is that for the bloggers who want to do so, they should be able to outsource comment screening to third-party volunteers who will kill the abusive comments (or alternatively, set them aside for later review by the blogger if she wants to check, or alert her if comments go beyond misogyny and make actual threats).  This would deprive the morons of their ability to directly insult the women they're targeting.  I suppose they could try and threaten us reviewers, but they wouldn't even know who we are or what our gender is, so have fun with that.

I don't think it would be too hard to crowdsource the screening:  you're reading for abuse, not trying to handle the content, so it would be a pretty quick and easy thing to do.  A confidence rating system like Ebay uses could help bloggers decide if they trust the reviewers.   We'd need some special software so comments could be redirected in this manner, but I can't imagine it would be that difficult.  An enterprising blogging platform could even attach some discrete advertising to make the project pay for itself.

Just an idea I'll thow out there.  I'd even put some effort into it if someone wanted to make it happen.

(Probably should re-emphasize that the best solution is for the particular men making the comments, to stop.  This is a second-best solution, and only for the bloggers who'd want to make use of it.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Godfather's Pizza and Al Gore

The graph shows a partisan change in approval of Godfather's Pizza since Herman Cain declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination (context here).  Republicans like his former company a lot more now, and Democrats a lot less.

I have in the past been pretty dismissive of claims from right-leaning and other analysts that Al Gore's prominence in climate change activism has much to do with Republican denial of climate reality.  Godfather's Pizza argues in favor of those claims, though.

Obviously, opinion on cheap pizza and on the fate of our climate involve different levels of moral responsibility.  If Republicans react poorly to Gore's warnings, that reflects poorly on them and not Gore.  Still, efforts like the We Can Solve It campaign might need a lot more reinforcement:

Of course, Gingrich has backed off of his earlier interest in reality.  There's only so much you can do, if the Republican leadership is so unwilling to do much anything at all.  Maybe there are a enough younger Republican leaders, people like Chris Christie (or maybe others like Romney and McCain if Romney loses next year), to join in the leadership on the climate movement.  Otherwise it's up to the public.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Climate related comments elsewhere

At Same Facts, James Wimberley continues to do a good job IMHO of defending the "solar on track to be cheaper than coal" idea. I wrote:

What I’d be most interested in knowing is the rate of starts for new coal power plants, especially in countries with no local coal supplies (therefore no coal lobby). A new plant takes a couple years to build and 30-50 years to pay off, so [Efficient Market Hypothesis] (if accurate) would expect to see a significant dropoff for these.

At Nature, on a post about whether mastodons got stuck in post-earthquake mud and starved over a period of months, I skepticized:

I follow climate change denialism closely, so I'm very suspicious when non-experts proclaim themselves to be personally incredulous regarding a conclusion by experts. 
That said, as a non-expert, I am personally incredulous that partially submerged mammoths couldn't pull themselves out of the soil when liquefaction had ended. 
Tar pits I can believe. Full submersion and immediate suffocation I can believe. But being stuck in one spot and slowly starving to death without being able to pull their legs out of the soil, is something that needs to be a little more convincing. Maybe they need to a mechanical analysis of soil strength and compare it to an elephant's strength.

Sure felt like an article I would read on April Fool's Day, but what do I know. (UPDATE:  the teeming hordes of pro-stuck-mammoth factionalists attack in the comments, all two of them, and I guess they have a point.)

Finally, not a comment but a link to an interesting NY Times article on growing crops underneath trees.  No mention of albedo issues from trees being darker than typical ag, though.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My review of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire: epic meh

So I can't exactly pan his books seeing as I've read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series in less than three months, but if I could go back in time I'd warn myself, don't do it. Or maybe just read the first book, which is the best, and then watch the HBO Game of Thrones show as it gradually recapitulates the books (disclaimer: haven't seen it, but it gets great reviews).

The series is epic, but it's meh. The level of detail is stunning - I've never read a book with such descriptions of each dish of food at so many meals. The battles and intrigues are epic. And they don't lead to anything. Five books later, and I don't have a sense of a plot line that's really advanced from the beginning. The characters just run around in their clown car of a fantasy world, coming and going to various lands and occasionally getting bumped off. It feels like an alternate history, which is fine, even amazing, but after a while it just all fades into one damn thing after another.

Tolkien could wrap up a story arc in three books. Martin hasn't done it in five - he claims he'll do it in seven, but the last two haven't been written yet, so who knows really, and these aren't quick reads like the Harry Potter books. My suggestion is to just watch the show instead (based on all the rave reviews), it saves a lot of time. Of course, it's too late for me - I'll read the books when they come out.

UPDATE:  I half-expected to either get flamed or ignored, but apparently the rabbits agree that Martin's overrated. They provide alternatives.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Peiser relies on deception

Benny Peiser, sadly, appears to be on the upswing in climate change denialism (and possibly wrong elsewhere, although I don't know the Easter Island issues well). My experience with him is that he made an incorrect factual assertion, stopped making it when caught by a knowledgeable audience, and then repeated the original assertion in front of different audiences that didn't know the truth and didn't know about his retraction. This is the person being quoted by news media today.

I laid out the sequence of events here. To summarize, he claimed in a comment thread at Deltoid to have repeated an analysis by climate historian Naomi Oreskes and found a different result. Other comments proved him wrong. Peiser continued to post in the comment thread without but stopped repeating his assertion that he had replicated Oreskes. Several days later he then repeated the original assertion on a different website where people don't know that he'd been refuted. I also found him repeating it in subsequent weeks, despite saying in email correspondence with me "I [Peiser] don't know" if he had done the same analysis.

I know the media has a problem trying to get accurate information on denialists because this type of deceptiveness is so common there, but they should communicate to the public that their sources like Benny Peiser make claims to the public that they refuse to defend in front of informed audiences. A far better approach would be to analyze the denialists, not for the credibility of their claims but for the politics that the denialists are manipulating.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

To fluoridate, someday, and a personal announcement

Previous post dilemmaized over whether and how to fluoridate at my next Water District Board meeting, which was yesterday. Here's the news:

Santa Clara Valley Water District OKs adding fluoride to its drinking water

Silicon Valley's largest drinking water provider took the first steps Tuesday toward adding fluoride to the drinking water in most of Santa Clara County, including San Jose, the largest city in the nation without the cavity-battling additive.
After a lively 90-minute debate at a packed meeting, the board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District voted 7-0 to put the district on record supporting fluoridation.

It could've been 6-1 because of a side issue where I disagreed with my colleagues about creating yet another Board committee to oversee this, but they were willing to split up the vote so I could agree with them on the main issue and then get shot down over the new committee.

If you're so inclined, you can listen to a couple minutes of my comments while looking at uninteresting shot of the board room below (source link here):

I made clear that I wanted public education on infant formula and on reverse osmosis for those who don't want fluoride, and that we keep checking in on the scientific consensus. I think I'll win that fight. When we'll do this and who will pay for it is less clear. I think it's a legitimate expenditure of public funds, but we're not a public health agency. If they want Water District money to fix people's teeth, my vote would be that they have to wait a while. We need to fix our seismic risks at our dams, restore the environment, and reduce flood damages.

So there ends my fluoride series for this blog. My personal announcement is that after nearly nine years at my day job with the Committee for Green Foothills, I gave notice that it's time for me to do something else, starting in January. It's a great place, but it's time for me to do something new. I am very interested in climate change policy work, but am open to other ideas as well. I'm looking forward to seeing what will happen next.

Monday, November 07, 2011

To fluoridate or not to fluoridate, that is the question. Next Tuesday at my Water District Board meeting

I'll reproduce below most of an old post about fluoridation. I had previously expected to see an identical situation with climate change in terms of the debate, but it's not. I think factors overall favor fluoridating, but not quite as overwhelmingly as I expected. On Tuesday, my fellow Directors and I get to figure out next steps.

Fluoridation opponents have made lots of mistakes in my opinion, but supporters have overstated the consensus. In particular, fluoride levels four to eight times the recommended level do have rare adverse effects, which isn't a huge safety margin in toxicity issues (UPDATE: I mean rare and severe effects - some cosmetic problems to teeth are common). Very slight adverse effects on larger groups would also be hard to rule out.

The Center for Disease Control recommends mixing non-fluoridated water in formula for babies that use formula exclusively. I can also attest to hearing from the significant number of people, if still a minority, who are just anguished that we're putting something they consider toxic in their water. Home-based reverse osmosis systems can remove their fluoride, I think.

And then there's the money cost - over $4m to construct and $800k to operate. We might get funding to construct but get stuck with operating, which people forget is the bigger cost.

So. The staff recommendation is to proceed if someone else pays for it. We'll see. If we do go forward, we may need to educate people about infant formula and let people know they can get reverse osmosis kits if they want.

Anyway, here's most of the old post, with the science:

Fluoridating water, or a funny thing happened on my way to backseat driving

I originally labelled this blog Backseat Driving back in 2004 because I anticipated it to be a blog where I would second-guess decisions made by politicians and other people. That worked out fine more or less until November 2010, when for some reason I was elected to the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board. Turns out that San Jose is the largest city in the US without fluoridated water supplies (in much of the city, anyway), and the seven of us directors have to decide whether we'll help or hinder the fluoridation process. So I'm pushed into the front seat for this one.

We've got some legal and economic issues to handle (it's not quite as cheap as everyone says, I want to know where the money's going to come from), but the relevant issue here is science. I read the guest post at climate blogger Coby Beck's place, The Case Against Fluoride, fairly closely a while back, especially the raucous debate in the comments. As a spectator with some, limited reading of the available information, I'd say the fluoridators seemed more persuasive than skeptics, but it wasn't the absolute demolishing that I expected.

The fluoride skeptics really hurt their cause when say fluoride doesn't prevent cavities - it's so obviously effective that people making this claim are damaging their own credibility. I'd consider it comparable to denying that the planet has warmed in the last 50 years.

The closer issue is adverse effects, and whether a substantial number of people are very slightly harmed by fluoridation, or if a small number of people are substantially harmed. The 2006 National of Sciences report doesn't condemn fluoridation, but it doesn't absolve it, either:
Bone Fractures

....Overall, there was consensus among the committee that there is scientific evidence that under certain conditions fluoride can weaken bone and increase the risk of fractures. The majority of the committee concluded that lifetime exposure to fluoride at drinking-water concentrations of 4 mg/L or higher is likely to increase fracture rates in the population, compared with exposure to 1 mg/L, particularly in some demographic subgroups that are prone to accumulate fluoride into their bones (e.g., people with renal disease)....There were few studies to assess fracture risk in populations exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L in drinking water. The best available study, from Finland, suggested an increased rate of hip fracture in populations exposed to fluoride at concentrations above 1.5 mg/L. However, this study alone is not sufficient to judge fracture risk for people exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L. Thus, no conclusions could be drawn about fracture risk or safety at 2 mg/L....

(In California, 2 mg/L was the limit, and 0.7 is the new proposed goal. -Ed)
Neurotoxicity and Neurobehavioral Effects

Animal and human studies of fluoride have been published reporting adverse cognitive and behavioral effects. A few epidemiologic studies of Chinese populations have reported IQ deficits in children exposed to fluoride at 2.5 to 4 mg/L in drinking water. Although the studies lacked sufficient detail for the committee to fully assess their quality and relevance to U.S. populations, the consistency of the results appears significant enough to warrant additional research on the effects of fluoride on intelligence....

Endocrine Effects

The chief endocrine effects of fluoride exposures in experimental animals and in humans include decreased thyroid function, increased calcitonin activity, increased parathyroid hormone activity, secondary hyperparathyroidism, impaired glucose tolerance, and possible effects on timing of sexual maturity. Some of these effects are associated with fluoride intake that is achievable at fluoride concentrations in drinking water of 4 mg/L or less, especially for young children or for individuals with high water intake. Many of the effects could be considered subclinical effects, meaning that they are not adverse health effects. However, recent work on borderline hormonal imbalances and endocrine-disrupting chemicals indicated that adverse health effects, or increased risks for developing adverse effects, might be associated with seemingly mild imbalances or perturbations in hormone concentrations. Further research is needed to explore these possibilities....
(Removed discussion of bone cancer as not very troubling given its rarity. Ed.)

These were the most troubling findings, mostly about what hasn't been proven, and mostly dealing with levels that are five times what's planned for drinking water. The report expressly ignored the benefits of fluoridation. It's important to balance out potential concerns over rare, severe complications related to fluoride with the certainty that rare, severe complications can result from cavities.

The bottom line as a policy maker in my little arena is that I shouldn't try and figure out the science myself, but I should try to figure out what the scientific consensus is, figure out where the consensus doesn't yet exist, and then plug that information into everything else we have to balance.

The science seems to favor fluoridation, but it's not a slam dunk. And we still have potential policy barriers, and the overall cost issues. Figuring this all out will be interesting.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Tidal wetland sediment accretion might keep up with sea level rise in one location. Maybe.

I attended our annual Santa Clara County Creeks Conference last Saturday, with an even better than usual program that included a panel on tidal wetlands restoration in South San Francisco Bay, where we're bringing back 16,000 acres of tidal wetlands from former saltponds (will post a video link when it's online).

The restoration has barely begun, but the land that sank after being separated from tidal flows has gained sediment rapidly, something that's necessary to create a complex environment of open water, partially submerged, and emergent tidal environments. While it's slowed more after the first few years that individual ponds have been opened to the the tides, they're still adding sediment, two inches annually, far more than the worst projections for sea level rise.

So, good for us. Except that California is a geologically young area with lots of gradients, erosion, and sediment flow. Our particular part of San Francisco Bay might also disproportionately benefit from the "backwash" of sediment from the rest of the Bay.

Our tidal wetlands can keep up where they are, for now, but whether that will work in other places is less clear.  Still, it's one small piece of good news that demonstrates the value of restoring tidal wetlands, which have been lost to a far greater extent in the US than even freshwater wetlands have.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Ideal human population is 100 billion. Off-planet.

My off planet assumptions are for 200-300 years; that the Moon, asteroids, and free-floating colonies have been settled with lots of people; that Martian life discovery protects Mars from colonization; and that Venus hasn't yet been terraformed. And that there's no Singularity - otherwise all bets are off.* There's lots of room out there in space, and changing some of these assumptions make mine a low-end figure.

I think this is the good way to approach it if you're a space nerd who's deeply concerned about population growth and how little any side of the political spectrum has done to address it. We're not anti-human. Live long and prosper! Just as long as it's mostly out there, where you can't take the sky from me.

On planet Earth, we're messing up big time. What the global ideal population would be depends on trading off numbers against resource constraints. If we don't want resource constraints, want everyone to live like kings, and want minimal harm to the environment, then I think we're looking at 100 million people. If you settle for the median American quality of life with some reasonable technological upgrades to reduce environmental impacts, then we're looking at a billion people, one-tenth of what we'll see in 89 years. For larger numbers with modest environmental impacts, the only way I can imagine an ideal life is if people get most of the high quality of life experiences through virtual reality.

It's a rotten shame that the left in the US has mostly forgotten about the population problem due to some overstatements decades ago, and a fear of doing anything that tar them with espousing a policy that's also espoused for racist reasons by racists. The right is even worse, either ignoring the problem for ideological reasons or dog-whistling racist or fear-inducing reasons to control population. All the above gets magnified tenfold when discussing immigration to the US, where we convert the usually-young immigrants into highly impacting Americans, with descendants.

Maybe we can take the latest milestone of 7,000,000,000 people to do something about population, and even about immigration, without playing into the hands of racists.

*I think we'll pass the Singularity point in less than 50 years.

Friday, November 04, 2011

A scientist is a feather, a lawyer is a sail

Some time ago I guest-lectured to some undergrads in a science curriculum track about environmental advocacy. I said I had read somewhere that a scientist is a feather and the evidence is the wind - the scientist makes no effort to control the evidence but just floats wherever it takes her. Obviously this is an incomplete construct that ignores hypothesis formation etc., but is supposed to represent the ideal of how a scientist reacts to evidence.

The advocate isn't a feather, neutral as to where the wind blow. I didn't have a good analogy then for an environmental advocate/lawyer, but now I think the advocate is a sail and the evidence is the wind - how and where it blows is critical, but you have a role as well in where you're going. I also like the sail analogy instead of a sailor, retaining the ideal that the lawyer is a tool of the client/sailor (ideally) and isn't in charge of the ship.

What the sail analogy doesn't capture is the idea that legal contests are pattern-fitting contests. One side says the present facts and law fit that side's represented pattern of facts and law, while the other side presents different patterns.

Still working it out.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

China follows up India in committing to being better than US on per-capita emissions

As has been covered in a few places, China has committed not to "follow the path of the US" with its current level of per capita emissions. (I agree with Joe Romm, btw, that they're not otherwise likely to hit the US level by 2017. They were at one-third the US level three years ago, and it can't go up that fast.)

India made an even better commitment three years ago, not to exceed the average developed country's per capita emissions (significantly lower than US per capita). These two commitments significantly exceed anything developed countries have done, especially because of the legacy emissions from developed countries over past generations vastly dwarf that of developing nations.

The third line of defense for denialists and delayers is that India and China are the problem because their total emissions are increasing. They have yet to provide a convincing reason why Western nations deserve permanently higher per capita emission levels.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, and I have one-seventh of the vote over several hundred million dollars

My light-speed brain took over a month to put the two issues in the blog headline together. Santa Clara Valley Water District has several hundred million dollars in financial reserves. I wonder if there's anything financially responsible that the Water District can do with the voters' financial reserves, in light of the abuse of the financial system by Wall Street titans.

Just thinking, no answers yet....

UPDATE: I figured the bunnies would have some ideas.

UPDATE 2: KQED's California Report shows other people thinking about the same thing.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

California creates second-largest cap and trade market, to start next year

Still looking around for the best writeup, but this seems pretty good:

The California Air Resources Board yesterday [Oct. 21] gave its final approval to the state’s cap-and-trade system, which sets limits on carbon emissions starting next year.
CARB unanimously approved details of the regulations over the objections of industry groups, the San Francisco Chroniclereported, with the board’s major actions focusing on the allocation of carbon allowances.
Under the plan approved yesterday, the state will limit carbon emissions from its 350 or so biggest emitters starting in 2012, with enforcement starting in 2013. The carbon cap will drop every year until 2020. Over this time, CARB expects the program to prevent 273 million metric tons of carbon emissions.
The regulations will cover electric utilities and large industrial plants first, later expanding to cover fuel distributors. Each company covered by the program will need to hold allowances for carbon that they emit over the cap, and companies will be able to trade these allowances in the marketplace. This will create the world’s second-largest carbon market behind that of the EU, with about $10 billion in allowances traded by 2016, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Initially 90 percent of allowances will be free, with companies needing to buy the other 10 percent. From there some industries will see the percentage of free allowances drop to about 30 percent. Emitters will also be able to meet up to eight percent of their required emissions reductions through carbon offsets.
In a letter to the board, industry groups and the California Chamber of Commerce called the 10 percent purchase requirement an “unjustified, job-killing tax,” and they said California would lose business to other states and countries. Water agencies are also covered by the regulation, and they told the board that the program would increase water rates.
Environmental justice groups had argued that cap-and-trade would increase pollution in low-income neighborhoods near high-emitting facilities, because polluters could simply buy the right to increase pollution.
The board yesterday responded to these concerns by approving an adaptive management plan, which would monitor the air quality of neighborhoods near regulated facilities, the APreported. If pollution does increase, the CARB said it would respond.
Last week Bank of America Merrill Lynch announced it is entering the nascent California carbon trading market with an agreed option to buy several million tons of offsets from TerraPass, through 2020.

Just to add a few comments: limits in 2012 with no enforcement until 2013 sounds to me like the program really starts in 2013. OTOH, the market is already getting moving (see the last sentence from the article), so that's good.

I believe the free allowances are grandfathered from past emissions. That would also be anti-competitive, because new entrants would have to buy allowances. No wonder the Chamber wants them to be all free.

The part about water agencies complaining is news to me. Guess I should look that up.

The enviro justice groups' lawsuit is a huge mistake. This response is cutting it close to the law though - I hope it works out.

Together with Australia's carbon tax and the European Union's cap system finally getting beyond its intentionally-easy stage, we're seeing some incremental progress. We need far far more than incremental progress, but we shouldn't forget that it's happening, either.

Good writeup of the original California program here, by an offset critic who thinks California's system isn't too bad. I believe the finalized program is only marginally different.