The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How we talk about extreme events nowadays

Batting Average Change: an analogy to climate change/severe events discourse. Suppose a hitter has improved batting average this year
Now you see the batter get a base hit. Somebody asks you whether the base hit was because of the improved batting average.

The alarmist says "Of course the base hit was caused by the batting average! Batting averages cause hits!"
The Polyanna says "Obviously not! In fact, the base hit has nothing to do with the batting average!"

The journalist sees that truth must be somewhere in between. SOME hits are caused by batting average, some not The wise scientist publishes a paper attributing 20% of the base hit to the improved batting average, the rest to natural variation. 

This happens every time there is a base hit. For some reason, this discourse illuminates nobody.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Writing Exercise

Took a 90 minute workshop on food writing.

 The thing I learned is that, while I was trained to stop using adjectives in college, for a non-academic audience, adjectives are good. So this is my attempt to re-adjectivate my writing.

 The exercise was to write whatever you were inspired to write by a paper plate containing a fig and a walnut.

People liked mine. I cleaned it up a bit but not too much. Here the lovely, adjectival, effusive, evocative, sentimental and personal thing is in all its overweening glory.

A walnut half and a fig. Our distant ancestors would have taken such delight.
It's an atavistic plate, an ancient masterpiece.
One can imagine such a delight in the dynasties of Egypt. 
But not for the pharaoh, no, the plate demands more. 
Some goat cheese, a splash of balsamic vinegar, a dab of honey.
Broil it for a few moments.
And surely a glass of red wine. 
The fruity, sticky grit of the fig
The wild sweetness of the honey
The intricate pungency of the aged vinegar
The earthy smoothness of the goat cheese
The toothy sweet crunch of the toasted walnut
And the slow savoring of the cool, glowing, bittersweet wine. 
Bring on the pipers, the drums, the dancers, the jugglers, the fool!
Nothing has changed. 
Cooking is an old old story, but it is made new on every telling.

 The crowd really thought I had nailed it.

But I had to stop myself from apologizing just the same. You know what another food analogy is? Schmalz.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The top emitters and our quandary

ABC of Australia has provided a cute embeddable widget (*) to help visualize the emissions problem:

We see that these 15 "contribute" (if that's the right word. "dyscontribute"?) well over half of ongoing emissions.

Also, some interesting observations by Ken Caldeira cited by Joe Romm, which I will steal because they are worth considering:

There is some noise around the idea that it useful to think about some amount of “allowable CO2 emissions budget” that would keep the world under 2 C of global warming.
This concept is dangerous for two reasons:
1. There are no such things as an “allowable CO2 emissions.” There are only “damaging CO2 emissions” or “dangerous CO2 emissions.” Every CO2 emission causes additional damage and creates additional risk. Causing additional damage and creating additional risk with our CO2 emissions should not be allowed.
2. If you look at how our politicians operate, if you tell them you have a budget of XYZ, they will spend XYZ. Politicians will reason: “If we’re not over budget, what’s to stop us to spending? Let the guys down the road deal with it when the budget has been exceeded.” The CO2 emissions budget framing is a recipe for delaying concrete action now.
We should be framing the issue around what we need to do today: stop building things with tailpipes and smokestacks and start retiring the things we have already built that do have tailpipes and smokestacks. Stop using the sky as a waste dump for our CO2 emission.
These are things that we can hold politicians accountable to today. Trying to hold politicians to a budget that will be reached 30 years in the future is a recipe for disaster.
If our current crop of politicians is any indication, it is unreasonable to expect politicians to feel constrained by something that might happens 30 years from now, long after they have left office.
The key point is that every CO2 emission is bad; the budget for “allowable CO2 emissions” should be zero.
When I emit CO2, I am transgressing against nature and future generations. It is not something allowed; it is a violation.
As long as we are still building CO2-emitting devices, the politicians are failing, and we must hold them accountable for their failure today, not 30 years into the future.
So, in short, we have two problems. First, all of this emission is fundamentally illegitimate. Second, there is no global sovereignty to allocate the pain of slowing down, so in negotiations each nation jockeys for position to minimize its own commitment.So even in the unlikely event of successful negotiations, they will be inadequate.

The fact that no power speaks for the earth as a whole is systematically killing the earth.


(*) Actually, the widget is sort of gratuitous, and they'll probably take it down someday anyway, so here are the three views for later reference if the link breaks:

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How Times Change

Seen on Facebook. Artist unidentified (attribution appreciated).

Image by Pierre Brignaud, a fellow Montrealer. The drawing won third prize in a contest, which had an award of absolutely nothing whatsoever:
3ème prix bidon: Un concours international de dessin d'humour organisé par un organisme renommé du Québec dont je tairai le nom m'a décerné le 3ème prix pour le thème : Humour noir.

Le premier prix : 2500$, 2ème et 3ème... Rien...
La première fois que je gagne un prix absolument sans valeur et qui me fait vraiment honte!

The Original Spartacus A P Pepsi Cola Oriental Restaurant

Well, I'm trying to pull together some longer writing and trying to keep my mind intact in the light of the fact that battle these days seems to be between the forces of malicious self-aggrandizement versus the forces of ignorant self-righteousness. Between that and having a cold and dealing with another aging relative, today I just couldn't cope.

I just wandered off to a Chinese buffet for some self indulgent soup and fried things and noodles. Irene being too sane to accompany me on this modest bit of self-destruction, I grabbed a book at random.

I don't recall why I purchased Daniel Pinkwater's memoir Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights in the first place.

I had been mildly amused by his monologues on NPR back in the days when I had to drive a lot and when All Things Considered was still a tolerable listen, before it too fallen prey to the forces of journalistic cowardice and compulsive difference-splitting that have pretty much destroyed the American collective capacity to think about any damned thing.

Maybe it was on special. I'm a sucker for a book bargain.

I recall reading it, and being mildly amused.

But Irene has this thing, you know, being a retired OCD and hoarding treatment specialist, this thing where you shouldn't have a collection of things that is too much bigger than the capacity of the house which contains it. And we're down to 1100 square feet, no attic or basement to speak of, and just two smallish closets. (Which by human historical standards is luxurious and all, to be sure. And it is a very nice little apartment with a spectacular location; please understand I'm not complaining.)

But the thing is, there's a perpetual battle where I want more bookshelves and Irene wants to me to own no more books than I will be able to read in my remaining years, as my mind continues to dwindle to a shadow of its former self.

So there have been several rounds of collecting up hundreds of books and selling them for two cents on the dollar to a reseller. Every time, I considered giving away this mildly amusing little book, read a few random paragraphs, chuckled, and spared it from recycling.

Today I started reading it again. I can't really explain how or why I suddenly adore this book so much. Maybe there's some nostalgic sentimentality for the twentieth century that couldn't really come into bloom until the time itself really began to fade.

I'm not sure how much value this book will be to people who are younger, unless they are writing period fiction set in the sixties. But somehow, despite its themes of incompetence and poor taste and failure and greed, to me it amounts to a celebration of the human spirit.

It's all non-fiction, but written by a guy with an eye for the stranger corners of the world, and who seems to belong there. This is a slice of the comedy hidden in the tragedy of gritty urban life in the middle of the 20th century. I've been there, but somehow nothing I write is like this, chosen literally at random:
Overall, my reaction to fashion food is this: ha! You may blacken all the redfish you like - I know there is nothing apt to be discovered or invented to surpass what I have experienced long years past.
I speak of the Original Spartacus A P Pepsi Cola Oriental Restaurant - the ultimate. It was known to regulars as the Original Spartacus - the sign outside displayed the full-length enigmatic handle. ... It was a Greek restaurant. In the same sense that Praxiteles was a stonemason. Dim and dingy, lit by a few fluorescent fixtures, no one of the with more than one bulb working, it was frequented by artists, communists, and Puerto Rican cab drivers, some of whom were artists and communists.

The walls bore one of the last examples of the work of the Mad Muralist - a specialist in Levantine and Middle Eastern restaurants, whose hallmarks were stencils and silver radiator paint. In the case of the Original Spartacus, the motif was many silver Acropoles applied at various angles to the blue walls.

There was no menu as such. Jimmy, the proprietor, sized you up and served you what he thought you needed. Some of Jimmie's creations were boiled porgies, dandelion salad, incredible tender lamb with orzo, coffee to raise the dead, and a sort of custard I've never encountered again.
The price for all this was determined by Jimmy's assessment of how much you appreciated his work. If you left anything on your plate, the price went up.
For page after page, Pinkwater has me somehow wishing I were there again and yet immensely glad that I'm not anymore. At the same time. Pretty much how I feel about my own time and place, except in reverse. I guess life's like that. But not everyone has the knack of reminding you.

I failed to fully appreciate Pinkwater's special knack for telling a colorful story over the years, and yet I saw it well enough to keep this odd little book while I let go of so many others.

I'm glad I kept it long enough to appreciate it for the gem that it is. And I'm glad I can recommend it to you in this day of instant gratification. You can get it on your Kindle for less than a buck.

I'm gladdest of all to note that despite being even fatter and more self-indulgent than myself, Daniel Pinkwater is alive and well enough to still be producing whatever the hell it is that he produces. I hope he'll notice this little review, and that he will accept my thanks for brightening a blazingly bright and ominously hot but otherwise spiritually gloomy Texas day.

Whaddya know, Pinkwater, you've been a Zen master all this time and didn't even know it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

They concede nothing; they can't

The perception of competing polarized scientific camps within climatology is a politically constructed illusion.

I argued as such in response to a question I saw on Quora:

What are the logical premises shared by both sides of the AGW debate?

 The questioner, Martin Stoehr, proposes for starters that:

* The average land surface temperature has increased over the last 200 years

 * A CO2 molecule does not absorb EM energy at visible wavelengths and does absorb EM energy at infrared and near-IR wavelengths (1437nm, 1955nm, 2013nm, 2060nm, 4257nm asym-stretch, 7205nm sym-stretch, 14993nm bending: Page on

Well, you'd think.

I respond as follows:

The question holds a premise that there are two coherent scientific positions. But there aren't.

Within science, there is no polarization, although there is a spectrum of opinion on a lot of open questions. The illusion that there are two competing camps is promoted by political interests. If you look at the actual scientific perspective of the few people who are constantly invoked by the naysayer camp, you will find no coherence or commonality among their opinions. Many of them are frank crackpots, and all of them are, by definition, scientific eccentrics.

Therefore there is almost nothing or maybe nothing at all that they would agree to among themselves. They really don't have an alternative theory they are advancing.

 It should be considered settled that

* humans affect the climate in many ways
* greenhouse gases are among those ways
* CO2 accumulates so the greenhouse perturbation grows every year
* CO2 accumulation causes energy to accumulate in the climate system on short and long time scales, which causes warming, some of which is delayed
* warming is observed, most of which is a direct result of human impacts
*  a great deal more warming is to be expected.

That some warming has occurred is obvious - sea level is rising and this provides a crude global thermometer just by itself. You don't need a whole lot of observations and subtle data manipulations to observe this.

Also it is demonstrated that the rate of CO2 accumulation overwhelms the ocean's buffering, creating ocean acidification.

We can debate ethically, economically, and politically what to do about all these things. We can debate scientifically about the numbers and scales. But those facts should be considered established.

People questioning these points are very rarely real scientists in the physical climatology domain . Such exceptions as there are don't agree with each other, so they collectively concede nothing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

DSCOVR - Better Very Very Very Late than Never

You'd think people who think we have the earth's energy balance wrong would be eager to go ahead and fund a science mission that could prove it. But you'd be wrong. You don't seem to understand how know-nothingism works. The denier position is not that we don't know enough - it is that we can't know anything and therefore we can do whatever we want. (If you don't follow the syllogism, you still don't understand know-nothingism.)

So observing the energy balance of the sunlit side of the planet turns out to be possible because of a peculiar consequence of orbital dynamics. And it turns out that, although a clever idea for "an expensive screen-saver", and arguably worth it for that purpose alone, such a satellite, properly instrumented, could offer important constraints on the earth's energy budget.

In short, if the consensus understanding of climate change really were badly wrong, this instrument would almost surely provide enough information to prove it.

The instrumentation and platform was proposed in 1998 in conversations initiated by then Vice-President Gore and quickly constructed; it was ready for launch in 1999. But Republican pressure in the 1999 budget negotiations mothballed the project, disparagingly called "Gore-Sat" by its opponents. (In some circles, and mention of Mr. Gore is considered disparaging. He's sort of like Mike Mann in that way, a serious, moderate, thoughtful and highly competent person who has somehow been painted as a demon. Witness modern discourse at its best.)

And in mothballs it sat. Because Al Gore. Because conspiracy. Surely not because the data would utterly fail to upend the existing consensus and would help refine it.

Until this year, when it was launched. Until today, when its first image of the whole earth was released, to much calloo-ing and callay-ing.

Here's Neil de Grasse Tyson's celebration of the image, which was released as a memo by the White House.

Here's astronaut Scott Kelly.

Here's Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic.

All the happy talk today seems to be trying to bury the very interesting back story of Republicans practically sabotaging the launch by delaying it for an absurd amount of time. Wikipedia has links on that

Going back to what I myself said a few years back, there is likely to be a deeper and more interesting story here than has been told to date:

Would it have been more sensible to redesign the platform rather than launch an almost 2 decade old gizmo? Is this the best instrumentation for the mission to launch today?  I don't propose to have answers for those questions; I would not be surprised if the contemporary purpose of the launch is almost as political as the purposes of the absurd delay.

These are also things worth talking about.

That all admitted, I would defend the screen-saver aspect of it. Actual photos of the whole earth available on a daily basis are worth the few cents per capita that we actually spent on this thing. Providing collectively funded information of collective utility is a legitimate function of government.

Science has never been the sole purpose of NASA
, or we wouldn't have sent astronauts to the moon.

Apparently taking pictures of Pluto is less controversial than taking pictures of the Earth, though.

Welp, Pluto is cool too. Perhaps a bit too cool, but that's another tale, nicht wahr?