Friday, December 26, 2008

Connecting North American newts and Australian dolphins through mediocrity

Two interesting posts from Not Exactly Rocket Science: one on the evolutionary arms race between sometimes-poisonous newts and sometimes-immune garter snakes here on the West Coast, and another on how the recently-discovered tool use by Australian dolphins seems to be learned along matrilineal lines and also a recent invention by dolphins.

In the first post, newts in some areas of the West Coast have evolved poisonous skins as deterrent to predators like garter snakes, and snakes have evolved immunity that sometimes completely defeats the poison. Interestingly, in some places there's no poison and no immunity. One possible explanation for this is that we're at a special moment in time where the evolutionary arms race hasn't yet started in all geographic areas, but I doubt it. My speculation is that the time period the two species have coexisted is far longer than the period needed to go through the arms race (or even more likely than independent evolution, that genetic diffusion from areas further along in the arms race would spread quickly to new areas).

If we apply the Mediocrity Principle and assume we're not seeing a special moment in time for newts and snakes, then something else must explain the geographic difference. Time for more speculation!

I wonder if there's an alternative cyle: 1. newts develop toxicity. 2. snakes develop overwhelming immunity. 3. newts completely lose their now-useless toxicity. 4. snakes completely lose their now-useless immunity, and the cycle starts over.

Instead of the British Columbia newts evolving behind the rest, they may just be at a different point in the cycle.

Total guessing, but fun in a geeky way.

And then there's the second link, about dolphins who use marine sponges to protect their snouts while digging out hidden fish from the muddy sub-surface (one of the full articles is here). One in nine dolphins use sponges, although one in two dolphins use them in the deeper waters. The dolphins only appear to learn from their mothers, and males rarely stay with their mothers long enough to learn the technique. Finally, genetic analysis suggests that a recent "Sponging Eve" invented the technique and passed it on to her descendants now using it.

That only 11% of the females in the area use the technique doesn't sound all that impressive, until you consider that half use it in the deep water, that Sponging Eve was a recent ancestor, and that a lot of the male descendant dolphins are also indirect beneficiaries. Researchers observed 41 dolphins using the techniques, so Sponging Eve seems to have done pretty well.

But how does this successful technique relate to the Mediocrity Principle? Dolphins have been big-brained for millions of years longer than hominids, yet we just happen to observe the technique within a few decades of when it was first invented?

I speculated at some other science blog that the technique was only marginally useful, but this information suggests otherwise. The Mediocrity Principle isn't absolute, and sometimes weird things happen.

On the other hand, something else might keep the sponging technique from persisting over the long term. Maybe the dolphins get too good at exposing the fish, or use up too many of the sponges that are suitable tools. Instead of a steady-state equilibrium, it's more like the newts and snakes. The dolphins over-exploit their environment and either the tools or the fish disappear from accessible habitats, and then the dolphins forget the technique until it's reinvented.

It's all guessing, but it satisfies the Mediocrity Principle. Fortunately, it's also easily tested - just wait a century or so and see if the dolphins over-exploit the environment.

(And with that, I may be offline for awhile, so Happy New Year everyone.)

Wingnut award voting is ongoing at The Poor Man

Vote here for all categories, or here specifically for science nonsense. Lots of tough, tough choices, but I tended to vote for those who might actually be a little embarrassed about their misdeeds. Maybe Easterbrook will eventually come around.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who Bush pardons next month, and whether Obama can (and will) reverse the pardons

An interesting dustup from Bush's latest pardon attempts - after it was publicly revealed that one recipient's father gave almost $30,000 to the Republican party, Bush is trying to take the pardon back, and one 140-year-old case suggests he might be able to do it. If the pardon has been issued but not delivered and accepted, then it remains revocable.

I've been wondering whether Bush will try and push the envelope of the pardon power next month, issuing a blanket pardon without names attached to anyone involved in any capacity with extraordinary rendition and authorized interrogation techniques. I've thought he'd do it without naming names not just to exempt as many underlings as possible, but also in order to pardon himself and Cheney without doing so expressly. The problem comes with the old case at the link above, that "A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance, and a pardon by an outgoing President may be revoked by his successor before delivery."

I'm not sure if the concepts of delivery and acceptance still operate today, or how they worked for Carter's blanket pardon of draft evaders. To the extent they still work though and allow Bush to revoke his pardon, Obama could do the same thing.

Something Obama may have to think about.

UPDATE: See the comments, and also here for whether Bush really can revoke the pardon. I think that insofar as the legal question is open, Bush would have estoppel problems if he claimed that Obama couldn't revoke pardons that Bush himself gave but had not "delivered." I also think Obama would likely duck the issue, though.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Climate change and the snows of San Francisco Bay

I went on a run yesterday up at Castle Rock State Park, passing by my favorite waterfall/rock climbing spot. The creek surprised me by only trickling over the cliff at the same rate we'd see in late summer, despite all the stormy weather in the last week.

The potential explanation for the low flow was in patches on the forest floor around me - a lot of that precipitation came down as snow, some of it hadn't melted, and what had melted had slowly seeped into the ground instead of flashing into the streams.

A lot of non-locals don't realize the Bay Area gets snow every year (and even some local economics professors should know better). There are hundreds of thousands of acres in the Bay Area that lie above 2,000 feet in elevation, are virtually uninhabited, and get ephemeral snow for a few hours at a time each year. Tens of thousands of acres are above 3,000 feet, and snow can last for a few days at a time each winter, in addition to the ephemeral snow.

I've not seen anywhere how places like San Francisco Bay will be affected by the climate change switch from occasional snow to rare snow. I'd guess it will be a less-severe version of what will happen in the Sierras - higher winter stream flows, lower groundwater tables and lower summer flows. And while there'll be fewer hard frosts, there will also be fewer occasions where snow will protect plants from hard frosts.

And finally, fewer chances to bring some snow down to throw at your loved ones, like I did.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Marc Morano isn't even a Reliable Source on climate nonsense

William wrote recently about the wikipedia climate change edit wars that he's heavily involved with and that I occasionally wade into as well (come join the fight!).

Wikipedia uses the concept of Reliable Sources (RS) as a limit on the acceptable citation to back up any statement in an article. Even the denialists who fight on at wiki have grudgingly accepted William as a RS. This blog has occasionally been used as a RS on climate betting, although it's also been kicked out of some articles as I am clearly a lying knave.

And then there's Senator James Inhofe and his omnipresent Communications Director, Marc Morano, who constantly spew out denialist garbage. They're no RS for actual climate science, but have been used in wiki as sources on the state of the climate skeptic movement. I've even done that, but I shouldn't have.

Tim Lambert and many others have been pointing out huge problems in Morano and Inhofe's "Study" on "over 650" "scientists" who dissent over man-made warming. The issue for wikipedia isn't the obvious lies about climate science but the lies and mistakes about climate skeptics:

  • First, there aren't "over 650" individuals on the list. There are 603.
  • A number of individuals on the list aren't scientists, they're economists and engineers. One of them, Donald Boudreaux, is even quoted as saying, “I am a global-warming skeptic - not of the science of climate change (for I have no expertise to judge it), but a skeptic of combating climate change with increased government power.” This report says on its first page that is enumerating scientists disputing claims that the science is settled and there is a consensus. No, it's not.
  • A number of actual scientists on the list are misrepresented and/or have demanded to have their names removed from the list or its earlier version, but have been ignored. (See here (UPDATE: mentioned in the report but not listed among the 650 scientists), here, here, and here.)

Morano and Inhofe shouldn't be cited in wikipedia climate articles as sources about anything other than their own statements.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Planet Gore laughs at a potential extinction it doesn't understand

I slummed around at Planet Gore recently, where they've been chortling over a possible extinction of the white lemuroid possum, a variation on the lemuroid possum that some scientist think may have become extinct, and may have been killed off by global warming. Planet Gore reprints what they think are some good questions about this issue:

1. If the warmth of 2005 killed them all, how did they get through the Medieval Warm Period?

2. If warming is so devastating to them, why were they allegedly so easy to find after the warm year of 1998 but prior to 2005?

3. As a rule of thumb, if we don't see an animal after only 20+ hours of spotlighting, can we safely declare it extinct?

4. Is it a complete coincidence that this story is being released at the same time as the climate meetings in Poznan?

One suggestion I have for our denialist friends is that they actually try and answer their own questions first, before trumpeting them into the echo chamber. But let's help them out.

#1. Typical laziness in denialists thinking they know something they don't - in this case, that Australia was warm during the "Medieval Warm Period." I've redirected the link in #1 above from a denialist site in the original to wikipedia - turns out we don't know what the temperatures were like in Australia. Equally important, a millenium ago the possums didn't have to deal with habitat loss from deforestation that they face now, where they can't survive in second-growth forests. Climate change is the follow-up punch that knocks out a species reeling from habitat destruction.

#2. More generalizing - while 1998 was warm in Australia (not that the denialists bothered to even look that up), the warmth "came from significantly warmer than usual minimum temperatures," when it's maximums that kill possums. This graph shows the really bad maximums for eastern Australia have been in the last seven years, and that 1998 wasn't bad at all (and what really counts anyway is temperatures in the much smaller highland region where the animals live).

#3. Twenty-plus hours of spotlighting over three years may not be enough to declare a species extinct, as seen by the fact that the scientists didn't declare it extinct, just that they were very worried and going back for another look. Going from seeing lots to seeing none in three years would qualify for being worrisome, I'd think.

#4. I expect they call that a news hook. Is there any coincidence in that Planet Gore is seeking to shoot down the story around the same time as the Poznan conference? The only difference is between doing science on one side, and incredulous, unresearched objections on the other.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Crank magnetism in action

Deltoid finds that Senator James "Won't Bet" Inhofe's list of not-650, mostly-not-scientifically-qualified climate denialists includes some evolution deniers.

A day later, RealClimate reports on a technicality involving the Antarctic ozone hole, indicating there's little likelihood that cosmic rays have anything to do with it, and cites climate denier Timothy Ball (who gave this blog its subtitle) as someone who counted on cosmic rays as somehow being crucial. Ball, of course, is one of Inhofe's 600 denialists (see page 111). I expect that besides the five evolution deniers, there'll be even more CFC-ozone deniers on Inhofe's list (Patrick Michaels and Fred Singer come to mind), united by a political desire to deny human influence even though the scientific issues of ozone loss and global warming have different mechanisms.

It's all an excellent example of crank magnetism, "cranks are magnetically attracted to other crank arguments, and in the process show how shallow their understanding of science and nature truly is."

I'm sure there's more kinds of denial in Inhofe's list on a variety of issues.

Finally, a related note - Obama has repeatedly use the word "denial" in referring to climate change, so as far as affecting political discourse is involved, someone with Obama's ear for politics thinks it's a good term.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Requiring parity for autoworkers - what about management?

Kevin Drum has a good point:

"[Republican Senator] Corker today put forward a plan that would impose far more stringent auto industry restructuring standards than the House bill. It would reduce the wages and benefits of union workers at domestic car manufacturers by requiring the total labor costs of GM and Chrysler to be 'on par' with those in non-union U.S. plants of foreign automakers such as Toyota and Honda."

OK, but I have one question: Is Corker also insisting that the total labor costs of GM's white collar management staff be on on par with those of Toyota and Honda? Just curious.

I doubt it. And token one-time $1 salaries for CEOs isn't a response.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Watts Up With That mistranslates Norwegian glacier news

Watts Up With That says:

Scandinavian nation reverses trend, mirrors results in Alaska, elsewhere. After years of decline, glaciers in Norway are again growing, reports the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE).

The link provided is to a source reporting in Norwegian only.

Fooling around with automatic translation from several websites gave me this:

Senior Engineer Hallgeir Elvehøy in the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) said that the NTB in a note to the message that brefronten (the front/terminus) in 22 of 32 surveyed glaciers in Norway have pulled back in the past year.

Hardly matches Watts saying a trend has reversed when over two-thirds are still declining. In Watts' defense, the Norwegian headline says "Glaciers growing afresh," and there's signs that the decline is slowing but that's a statement about some glaciers, not a reversed trend.

Still more foolishness in Watts' statement:

The flow rate of many glaciers has also declined. Glacier flow ultimately acts to reduce accumulation, as the ice moves to lower, warmer elevations.

Is he fooled himself or trying to fool others? He makes it sound as if glacier retreats are a good thing. A retreating glacial terminus, except in really unusual circumstances, is an excellent sign that the glacier is losing mass - it can no longer push glacial ice downhill fast enough to keep up with the melt at the lower end.

Watts also gave no evidence of glaciers growing "elsewhere" besides Alaska and Norway. There will inevitably be a few due to local conditions, but he apparently couldn't come up with more nonsense to back up his subtitle.

Denialism originally found at Tigerhawk.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Guest Post: Why I Hate the Prius

(This is a guest post by Carbon Hacker, who may have some other guest posts here in the future. I'll post some thoughts later in the comments or in a separate post. -Brian)

First off, I don't really hate the Prius. I just thought it would make a better title than “I am mildly disappointed by the Prius.” Besides, I'm told it's a fine car, and most of its owners that I have spoken with are happy with it.

But really, here are a list of things, in no particular order, that “bug” me about the Prius.

  • Underserved Kudos for Toyota

Yes, the Prius comes with a lot of enviro-cred, but Toyota sells plenty of cars with low fuel economy, and they have fought increased CAFE standards as vociferously as our friends in Detroit.

  • Hacker-unfriendlinesss

Sure, all cars are close systems, not designed for tinkering, but it's too bad. The Prius could have been an interesting platform for amateur experimentation with hybrid technology. What if you put in a bigger battery? What if you changed the software that controls everything just so? Sure, some enterprising companies have done just this, but my understanding is that this voids the warranty, and in many cases means either 1) completely bypassing a lot of the Toyota control software and hardware and replacing it with something new or 2) not making any changes to the built-in controls at all, causing the car not be be able to completely take advantage enhancements like a higher capacity battery.

  • Engineering inelegance

To me, the parallel hybrid drive is an evolutionary dead end. The electric motor is a barnacle attached to a traditional ICE drive train. I'm sure Toyota had good reasons for doing it this way, but it means the car has a truly complex and funky transmission. I wonder how much energy is lost in that baby? I'm looking forward to seeing the series hybrids, where the ICE only turns a generator. Such systems may be able to avoid transmissions altogether, and have the added benefit of simplifying the design and operation of the ICE because it only needs to run at one, optimal, speed for charging the batteries.

  • Going nowhere

Another dig at Toyota, but why isn't this car getting better, faster? It's fuel economy has not changed in years (though the EPA method for measuring it has.) Clearly, the lack of serious competition in this space is having an effect. It doesn't look like Toyota has put a nickle into this car in years.

  • Conspicuous Consumption

Rather than its great gas mileage, I would argue that the defining aspect of the Prius is its peculiar shape. It is that shape, recognizable to all, that sells the car. This is not really a knock on the car, but something about human nature that never ceases to disappoint. People sometimes buy things because they make them look good. Unfortunately, if you want to reduce carbon emissions there are many, many things you can do that are going to be much more efficient than buying a Prius. But most of them don't impress the neighbors.

  • The wrong people buy it

I see it every day: people selling their 28mpg sedan to buy the 45mpg Prius. That's a nice thing, but unless you drive a lot, the CO2 impact is not that great. On 12,000 miles a year, that's an annual savings of 162 gallons of gasoline and it's associated carbon. Not bad, but if somebody could build a product that would convince a 15mpg SUV driver to buy a new SUV that got 24mpg (same ratio used above), that would save about 300 gallons. We're talking 2x as much gas savings. (And let's not even get into the energy debt of manufacturing a Prius – which is relatively high – or what happens to your old ICE after you sell it, both of which are very relevant to this conversation). There are a bunch of hybrid SUVs on the market, so it's particularly disappointing that it is the Prius that is the leading hybrid.

Taking all this into consideration, I will make a ridiculously proposal. Everyone who is considering buying a Prius should instead just keep their current car in good repair as long as possible, combine trips, carpool, and when the time comes, buy something cheap and simple. Pool your savings and donate them to a fund devoted to designing and fielding a hybrid tractor for big rigs. If you must, get a bumper sticker for your un-sexy car that says you did so.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

2008 to be the warmest La Nina-influenced year with no El Nino events?

Unless something happens in the last two months of this year, 2008 will be the warmest La Nina-influenced year discounting 1998, a year that was split between La Nina and an even stronger El Nino.

The list of El Ninos and La Ninas is here, with recent La Ninas in 2008, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1995 (prior La Nina years weren't nearly warm enough to compete). This graphic shows how 2008 is stacking up so far, while this chart shows temperatures for 1880-2007. Eyeballing the graphic to 2000, 1999, and 1995 shows this year trending towards being warmer than the others.

Another way to consider it is to use the first link and scroll to the bottom for years that only had La Nina and no El Nino events: this year (probably), 2000, 1999, 1971, 1974, and 1975 (and a few earlier ones). This year's on track to be the warmest year in the instrumental record with La Nina and without El Nino.