Wednesday, May 27, 2009

No-till farming not necessarily a climate saver

Just thought I'd highlight this Climate Progress piece from a while back, saying the science behind the claim that no-till farming sequesters carbon is unsettled. I think Joe overstates the case (read the comments), but it was pretty surprising to me that there even was any question about it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Washington Week in Review doesn't care much about truth as a value

I normally like listening to the Washington Week in Review podcast as a way to catch up on news I might have missed and hear some analysis, but the critique of the mainstream media being morally empty has some application to their May 15th show. First, they were mystified as to why Pelosi and CIA would get in such a bitter public fight over whether she had been misled in the torture briefings. I can help out with that - it's because at least one of the two parties involved is lying, and the other party could be expected to be angry in that situation. I don't know who it is yet, but that circumstance justifies a public fight.

The other issue is Obama's reversal on releasing torture photos. The show participants describe it as a "nick" in his promise of transparency and can't see any reason to release them. It's interesting that the press has so little interest in the truth.

One thing that might help this show is if they encouraged posting comments on their website. Left, Right, and Center is a weekly news review that does exactly that, and I think they do a better job overall - even Tony Blankley on the right has become more accurate over time.

Final thought about Obama and the torture photos - the national security argument he's making has already been rejected by the courts, and he's never described how he could improve it. I think he's counting on the courts to force him to release the photos, so it's not his fault. I don't give a lot of credit to this type of behavior but it's not quite as bad as it could be.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ramesh Ponnuru concentrates the stupid

His post in full:

Unarmed in Yosemite [Ramesh Ponnuru]

I yield to few in my admiration for Heather Mac Donald, but if it comes down to an unarmed Mac Donald against a bear I'm betting on the bear. (Jonah: If The Fair Jessica wants to weigh in on the wisdom of going into the Alaskan wilderness without a side-arm, I'd love to hear it.)

I've spent a lot of time in Yosemite - most recently, last weekend - and six summers in central Alaska. In Yosemite, bears are everywhere. There was one about 20 feet from my rock-climbing group on Saturday. They're very dangerous to your cars and your tents if you leave food in them, but they're almost completely non-dangerous to people. Guns in parks translate into drunken idiots in crowded campgrounds, shooting bears that are breaking into cars where the idiots left their food instead of putting the food away in lockers.

As for Alaska, I never had a gun and never needed one. Use some intelligence instead. But if you rely on a gun, what the hell does Ponnuru think a sidearm is going to do to a grizzly bear?

And I think the Corner writers actually get some kind of pay to produce this stuff.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Potential Supreme Court nominees I know, kind of

Since they're not on the short list I better blog about it before it becomes outdated, but two of my Stanford Law professors have been mentioned as Obama picks: Pam Karlan and former dean Kathleen Sullivan. I don't actually know that much about them as far as their scholarship goes, but I can say that both are excellent professors. Sullivan in particular was one of the two clearest instructors I had in school, which I think does translate into clearly conveying and arguing for her opinion on an issue.

Karlan probably has more of the empathy thing that people talk about, at least on the overt telegenic level that could help in confirmation. Sullivan is extremely cerebral, although she was nice to students, and helped me out on one research project even when I wasn't her student any more (she also gave me grief for repeatedly signing up and then dropping a class of hers because it was too early in the morning).

There's been some media attention to both of them being lesbians. I don't remember anything about Karlan, but Sullivan's orientation was considered an open secret at school ten years ago. I don't know anything about it directly, and for the most part it doesn't seem to play too big a role now. One more good sign in our national social development.

Less well known fact about Sullivan: she recently took part in a climate change lawsuit, but represented the bad guys, automakers trying to shut down tightened vehicle emission standards. It's perilous to try and guess someone's motivations, but Sullivan is far too intelligent and non-rightwing to be a denialist. Maybe she actually believes their legal position is right (which doesn't have to coincide with whether climate change is bad). Or maybe she was trying to build some political viability by not always taking the standard lefty position. That last is kind of unfair speculation, but I can't rule it out. Anyway, I'm pretty sure the automakers just got their lawsuit nuked by new Obama administration regulations and will be dropping it, which may be another thing Sullivan counted on.

My real reason for writing this post though is to talk about the one time in law school that I kind of outfoxed Kathleen Sullivan. Not that anyone else should or would care, but I'm going to write it. The story is that one morning before her class, I read the newspaper and noticed the Supreme Court had just decided a case that dealt with the issues we'd be talking about that day. I was very surprised though that she didn't mention the case in that class. Logic said either she wasn't up on her game and didn't know about the Court decision (probability near 0%), or she deliberately decided not to mention it.

Two months later, my study group was prepping for the final exam (which was 100% of the grade), and I found the Court decision, made our group study it, and we all wrote our own practice answers based on the facts the Court dealt with. Several days later, the case was a major part of our final exam, with only somewhat-changed facts. The test was open book, so each of us could just pull out our practice answers and revise them. I was very popular with my study group, and that was my huge triumph in school.

Sometimes it pays to read the newspaper.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My tiny infraction of Godwin's Law: Singer's Downfall parody

The Hitler-throws-a-fit scene upon realizing he's the lost the war in the German movie Downfall (excellent movie, by the way) has inspired a lot of viral video parodies. Below is a parody I worked up for the worst of the climate denialists and a few others:

(If the subtitles don't show up, click on an upward-pointing triangle in the bottom-right corner, and then click on the letters "CC" that should pop up.)

A few links:

Fred Singer: a discredited former scientist who plays on what's left of his reputation to defend tobacco companies and whatever else floats his political boat. After denying warming was happening at all, he now claims it's a natural 1500 year cycle.

Richard Lindzen: not as bad as Singer but still deceptive and slippery. An example about Lindzen that I should probably bring up: he claims to be a Holocaust survivor. In fact, he was born in the US in 1940 and wasn't in Germany during the war and Holocaust. His Jewish parents emigrated from Germany in the 1930s before it started. He meets no generally accepted definition of a Holocaust survivor, and this gives a general indication of his trustworthiness.

Marc Morano, Pat Michaels, and Tim Ball: two-bit denialists, but loud ones. I'll raise my estimate of them if they ever put their money where their mouths are and bet over climate change. Michaels sometimes says things that are accurate, but usually doesn't.

Koch Industries: a shadowy, private corporation that funds all kinds of anti-environmental efforts.

Chris Monckton: some denialist secretary or viscount or something. Much more info here and a nice story here.

Roy Spencer: one of the scientists who screwed up the satellite data for years to deny global warming, until someone finally fixed their mess. His awesome science skillz has also led him to conclude that evolution is bogus and that Intelligent Design/creation models rock.

I'll probably add a few more notes over time. If anyone feels like doing something similar, the tools are out there for adding your own captions. Most didn't work for me, but this one did. I did have to hand-edit afterward, and I used a repair site too that might have helped. Accurate subtitles for this clip are here, and the clip with no subtitles here.

Go here to see this version on Youtube.

Part of me feels slightly bad for my Godwin violation. On the other hand, it's a joke, and it's nothing compared to the bad faith they use when approaching the science.

UPDATE: fleshed out some details, and new links. Will probably do some more over time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Geese, guts, and gays

Kristof in the NY Times about his childhood on the farm:

Then there were the geese, the most admirable creatures I’ve ever met. We raised Chinese white geese, a common breed, and they have distinctive personalities. They mate for life and adhere to family values that would shame most of those who dine on them.

While one of our geese was sitting on her eggs, her gander would go out foraging for food — and if he found some delicacy, he would rush back to give it to his mate. Sometimes I would offer males a dish of corn to fatten them up — but it was impossible, for they would take it all home to their true loves.

Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I would take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while my Dad or someone else swung the ax.

The 150 geese knew that something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I would grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled in my arms.

Very often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, male or female, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.

So, no more eating geese for me. The thing about it is, my feeling that it would be wrong to eat an animal that can behave like this, isn't an intellectual determination. By contrast, I can intellectually justify my general rejection of animal rights. I can also justify my acceptance of some level of rights for highly intelligent animals that the Great Ape Project supports, and even my squishy concerns regarding eating smart-but-not-sapient animals like pigs and some other mammals. But my reaction against killing geese is just a gut reaction.

Gut reactions aren't necessarily wrong though - I think any coherent ethical system could be used to justify horrible things, so a gut check is a good thing. On the other hand, I think it's exactly this kind of unthinking gut response that tells other people that gay behavior and gay marriage is bad.

So how do you reconcile gut instinct against intellect? I don't think you can, and I don't think you should really choose one over the other. But knowing that gut instinct can be directed by personal feelings that have nothing to do with morality makes me believe that my reaction to not eating geese is better than others' homophobia, because the consequences of being wrong are very different. If I'm wrong and eating geese is fine, then the world has not been badly damaged. Wrongly choosing to discriminate against a whole class of people, though, is a different ball of wax.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Question for Howard Kurtz about George Will; and critiquing Elizabeth Kolbert

I sent this question below to Howard Kurtz's Q&A at the Washington Post about George Will's swill:

So George Will is inventing facts again - sorry, he's presumably repeating an unsourced assertion from an email blast or hack website somewhere. This time it's that Toyota is either losing money or not profiting from the wildly successful Prius (he changed his storyline from day to day). Actual experts disagree:
When is enough, enough?

We'll see if Kurtz responds. (UPDATE: nope, didn't publish or respond to the question.)

Another issue: I'm listening to the New Yorker Political Scene Podcast, with the latest one interviewing Elizabeth Kolbert. She's supposed to have done excellent climate reporting, but made two mistakes in the May 7 podcast. First, she said it was a huge flaw in that the Waxman cap-and-trade legislation fails to estimate revenue generation from selling carbon allocations. She conflated this issue with the necessity that allocations cost something. The whole point of cap-and-trade is not to establish a price but to establish a limit.

The second, maybe less-clear mistake was saying that renewable energy stimulus monies wouldn't accomplish anything if the fossil fuel suppliers just switch to different customers from the ones who now are buying renewables. She misses the point of marginal change in demand - if the total demand for fossil fuel is reduced because some of the buyers now want renewables, the price that fossil fuel suppliers can charge will also have to drop. Total fossil fuel production would then drop because the most expensive suppliers can't compete anymore.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Pelosi being slippery on torture and her response to it

I see something of an analogy between Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Edwards - neither are responsible for the scandal that each knew about, but both knew about the scandal when it was a secret and didn't take the needed steps. Elizabeth should have killed her husband's campaign. Pelosi, it appears, did nothing at all.

TPM makes the excellent point that Pelosi's denying she actually knew waterboarding was used doesn't eliminate the fact that she knew it might be used, and did nothing. There's additional slipperiness going on, though:

  • A top aide was briefed about actual use of waterboarding in 2003, and it's hard to believe he never told Pelosi.
  • With the latest document release, Pelosi's spokesman Brendan Daly said, "As this document shows, the speaker was briefed only once, in September 2002. The briefers described these techniques, said they were legal, but said that waterboarding had not yet been used."
In fact, the document says the briefing included a "description of the particular EIT's [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] that had been employed." Pelosi is challenging whether this document is accurate, but the spokesman's description of the document is flatout wrong - it does the opposite of absolving her.

  • Finally, there's this statement from Pelosi: "It was my understanding at that time that Congresswoman Harman filed a letter in early 2003 to the CIA to protest the use of such techniques, a protest with which I concurred." This one really bothers me - exactly how did you express your concurrence, Madam Speaker? She's using language that suggests she did something, when I believe she did exactly nothing.

Amazing that so many Republicans thinks this absolves the need for truth commissions and legal investigations. It does the exact opposite. There's no potential legal violation by the Democrats, but those who knew and did nothing need to take their lumps, and stop being slippery about it.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Elizabeth and John Edwards

So Elizabeth Edwards has a book, John Edwards' campaign is being investigated to see if campaign funds were used to pay off his mistress, and Maureen Dowd actually writes a good column for once about them. Dowd has always had a way with words, but uses it only to poison and tear down anything she writes about. Maybe it was better this time because she pulled in the claws somewhat when writing about a terminally-ill woman she has to respect.

Dowd has one question about Elizabeth that maybe I can answer - what does Elizabeth hope to gain from writing the book? It's to be something more than a patsy, an empty shell for John's ambition. As a former Edwards supporter who got taken in, I can understand the need to explain that you're not just doing whatever he wants. Although, mostly, she did do just that. Understandable in the context of their relationship, but she still made a mistake in not absolutely forcing a halt to Edwards' campaign.

With that, I'll finally remove from the link list on the left side of Backseat Driving my non-working link to all my posts on the Edwards blog - one last insult from that campaign, that we can't even find what we all contributed to it. While it had some benefit in pushing Obama and Clinton in a progressive direction, overall it's just kind of sad.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Mike Pence: skeptical of warming, but 'reducing CO2 would be a good thing'

There's not much point in reducing CO2 unless anthropogenic climate change is real - it has no other negative impacts.*

Pence is the third-highest Republican Congressman in the House, considered a rising star, and appears to simply be stupid. His latest anti-climate change, plus refusal to acknowledge evolution is here. Yglesias has more on him not being very bright here, here (author of the Republican budget plan with no numbers attached to it), and especially here (couldn't understand the economic concept of moral hazard, even when explained to him).

While a party led by stupid people will be easier to beat, it can still cause a lot of damage in the American political system.

*I highly doubt this Republican party genius even knows about ocean acidification, and if he does he just groups it into his climate change skepticism.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Robert Samuelson retreads, repeats past mistakes on climate

Robert Samuelson got far more credit from me than he deserved until I realized he wasn't respected economist Paul Samuelson. Brad DeLong accurately describes Roger as "one of those who knows enough about economic analysis to use it as a tool but who instead uses it as a club."

Anyway, Robert has once again announced that it's too hard to do much about climate change, citing an Energy Information Administration study forecasting increased US emissions in 2030 compared to 2007.

I'll outsource much of this to Paul Krugman who notes that skeptics believe capitalism can manage any resource constraint except ones on GHG emissions, but also add these notes:

  • RS fails to link directly to the study, but rather to the EIA main website. The study is here and reading the first paragraph may indicate why he omitted the link: the forecast increase is based on doing nothing additional to control emissions beyond what's already planned, either legislatively or under Clean Air Act authority. Even so, just the relatively minor changes in policies in 2007 and 2008 decreased the rate of increase from 0.8% annually in 1980-2007 to 0.3% annually for 2007-2030. Of course Samuelson doesn't note this.

  • Two years ago, Samuelson wrote a very similar article saying future conservation won't work. At that time, he picked a study assuming only a 30% gain in vehicle fuel economy by 2030, and came up with 31% increase in carbon emissions. Now his current article says 50% gain in fuel efficiency, and 7% increase in emissions.* What he thought difficult to do just two years ago is already way behind what's anticipated. I think the same will hold true with his do-little position he now forecasts.

*Not totally clear from his articles whether in 2007 he's talking about global or US emissions, but the change in anticipated fuel efficiency is unambiguous.

UPDATE: per the comments, I corrected my screwup on the name from "Roger" to "Robert".

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Pielke Jr. and Dave Roberts are on the same (wrong) page

Recently Dave Roberts wrote two posts (here and here) telling people to ignore climate denialists, both those in the media and those in Congress:

Congressional Republicans are d******bags and everyone hates them. You might think from their program of uncompromising, unreasoning obstruction that they have some secret master plan to regain seats in Congress (which, as you might have noticed, they keep losing), but as Matt Yglesias points out, it’s not so. Even National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Cornyn (TX) admits that it’s all but a fait accompli that Democrats will reach 60 votes in the Senate in 2010.

That’s because everyone likes Obama, and everyone hates Republicans. As Chris Bowers has documented in an ongoing series, they are less popular among the American public than Obama, Congressional Dems, marijuana legalization, Venezuela, China, and probably this new pig flu, though no one’s polled that yet. They screwed up the country, they don’t have credible solutions to any of its problems, and the only people who listen to their increasingly loopy rhetoric are part of the 30% remnant.

Roberts might be surprised to learn that Roger Pielke Jr. preceded him in this opinion by over two years, arguing that a poll showing a majority of Congress members believed in climate change meant the following:

1. The issue of science is no longer relevant to debate in Congress. A majority in both chambers accepts the human role in climate change, and further a majority accepts the need for action, including mandatory caps on carbon dioxide.

Roger the crazy radical goes even further, saying one reason for Congressional inaction on climate back in 2007 was that "some scientists" like those at RealClimate spent time talking about skeptics' arguments. Damn you, RealClimate!

However nice it may be for Roger and Roberts to agree on something, they're wrong. You need 60 votes in the Senate to beat a filibuster over climate change, so 41 Senators can stop action. The bad guys have 30 votes in their pocket thanks to denialists, ones who listened the echo chamber enough to believe the nonsense. It's not as if all the remaining Congressmembers accept the consensus either - they can think there might be something to the critiques, a thought that would be magnified by the economic interests of their states and their financial contributors and friends. Unwarranted skepticism is a huge dead weight, something that keep politicians from doing the right thing, and knocking it down is still necessary.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Obligatory swine flu post

  • I remember reading about HIV that the disease was postulated to become less severe if it spread less quickly, the reasoning being that in this case evolution would favor a less destructive virus that kept its host alive longer, even at the cost of shedding fewer virus particles at any one time. I've seen no discussion of this concept in the musings over why swine flu is milder in the US than in Mexico, but maybe it plays a part. It might also be an additional reason to attempt to slow the disease's spread.
  • Swine flu is one more reason to become vegetarian, I guess. If we didn't eat animals we'd be much less likely to pick up diseases from them.
  • I find it annoying that WHO caved to the swine industry and stopped calling swine flu by its proper name, swine flu. Especially since the disease appears to have developed in US swine farms in the 1990s. Just because they caved doesn't mean the rest of us have to, though.
UPDATE: Also, this is inadvisable: