It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Creationism Stealth Campaign in TX

The following is quoted verbatim from DailyKos:

Boy am I hoping that Republican Pat Hardy wins her primary for the District 11 seat on the Texas State Board of Education. All I know about Pat Hardy is this:

Ms. Hardy is no free-thinking liberal. She's a rock-solid Republican and dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist who firmly believes God is behind all of creation.

But she also believes in teaching evolution in science classes. Her opponent, Dr. Barney Maddox describes evolution as

"a myth" and "a fairy tale."

Why is this race so crucial? Well, right now seven of the fifteen members of the State Board of Education favor introducing some form of intelligent design creationism into Texas science classes. If Maddox wins, they gain the majority.

Update: Frederick Clarkson has more here.

Here's an AP story from Feb. 23. Haven't turned up any local coverage. I don't know anyone in the vast district, which stretches out from day trip country near Austin all the way out to the New Mexico desert. I can't believe this is getting so little notice in Austin (and presumably College Station). I don't think this will do wonders for faculty recruitment. Aargh.

Systemic Inefficiency

Some fool shut down a power substation that among other customers services the Pickle was hit. Hence Ranger and Lonestar, our supercomputers, which were out of full service yesterday. Interestingly, backup power kept the building going. Those of us privileged to breathe the same air as the world's largest computer (this month anyway) who were not actually typing at a login node didn't notice.

The fool was duly electrocuted, but posterity will find this story of interest mostly because after his critical burns the poor fool was shipped to a hospital 80 miles a way in San Antonio, according to the brief news account.

I suppose there is a burn unit somewhere in Austin. I wonder whether his prognosis improved by this transshipment. I wonder how much energy was expended.

I suspect this all has something to do with money. Shifting responsibility from the wealthier community (Austin/Travis) to the poorer one (San Antonio/Bexar) is not to my way of thinking an obvious benefit. Putting the idiot's life at additional risk (which, by treating him at all rather than shooting him, we presume we care about), and expending a lot of energy sending an ambulance 80 miles down the road at speed and 80 miles back at leisure makes no obvious sense to me. At what gasoline pricing does the perverse motivational structure that this story implies break down? Are we just going to be sticking Bexar County with an even larger bill next summer when gasoline is up to $4?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fergus, Roger Sr., and James !?!

I imagine Fergus and James have this up but I discovered it via ICE who points to the informal publication on Roger Pielke Sr.'s "blog-qui-n'est-pas-un-blog-car-on-ne-peut-pas-commenter"

"Is There Agreement Amongst Climate Scientists on the IPCC AR4 WG1?" I'm pretty much in agreement with ICE, so I'll just paraphrase for those who don't read French. Basically, a set of published authors in a preselected set of climate journals (somehow including me in the mix, a bit of a stretch I'm afraid) was asked to what extent they agree with IPCC WGI. The majority thought it just right, with about equal numbers thinking it overstated vs understated the risks, and not a single person contacted supported the "no such thing as global warming" hooey, unsurprisingly.

ICE says (if I may translate) "overall, I find the whole honest and the results unsurprising". ... "The incorrigible Pielke nevertheless presents these results as being much more diverse than commonly asserted and the failure to publish in EOS or Nature indicates a scandalous politically motivated repression of contrary opinion."

ICE doesn't address this lack of publication. I can't really account for its rejection as an EOS Forum piece, entirely. It might be reasonable to avoid polling of scientists as a legitimate form of scientific inquiry. Rather it might be seen as belonging in policy journals. After all, the interesting question is how well the position of the scientific community is represented in the policy sphere; not a geophysical question at all. To be sure, Pielke says

From this experience, it is clear that the AGU EOS and Nature Precedings Editors are using their positions to suppress evidence that there is more diversity of views on climate, and the human role in altering climate, than is represented in the narrowly focused 2007 IPCC report.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is how new thought patterns emerge from the online community, and how people with enough respect for truth can collaborate despite known differences of opinion. Thanks and congratulations to all involved.

Update: Joe Romm has a thoughtful opinion piece about what Fergus's poll means up on Salon.

Please direct comments to Fergus' blog here. Comments are off for this posting.

NYT Op-Ed: There WIll be Floods

A New York Times Op-Ed by chef Alex Prudhomme (coauthor with Julia Child) of all people:
anyone familiar with the drowning of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina will tell you this: Levees fail.

In Texas City, Tex., for instance, levees protect 50,000 residents and $6 billion worth of property, including almost 5 percent of the nation’s oil-refining capacity. Imagine the consequences, in this day of $100-a-barrel oil, if those defenses fail.


Even more vulnerable are the 1,100 miles of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, north of San Francisco. Cobbled together 150 years ago to provide farmland, they are now part of an intricate, fragile system that supplies fresh water to California, the eighth-largest economy in the world.


Should the levee crack, be overtopped by a storm or liquefied by an earthquake, saltwater will surge inland, destroying lives, perhaps flooding Sacramento and paralyzing California.
There's much more; read it.

I'm no expert on this matter but it seems plausible enough to me based on what we have seen lately. It seems like yet another problem with the same "don't bother me 'til it's too late" flavor that we're seeing everywhere; yet another place where competent government has taken a back seat to political expediency and knee jerk tax aversion.

Here's the mentioned list of 122 known at-risk levees according to the Army Corps ca. 1 year ago. The Texas gulf coast levees don't make the list, but they seem pretty vulnerable to coastal settling and sea level rise. There's also nothing here about New Orleans, so make of it what you will. It seems from the accompanying press release that this might not be intended as an exhaustive list.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La Vida Tejana

Here's a very effective picture of a modern Texas landscape (in this case in San Antonio) via a link from a link from a comment by Dano.

This isn't unusual. If you spend any time here in Texas you will end up somewhere that looks very much like this.

The only way to avoid it is to drive in on a back road and never enter a big city, or to stay at an airport for a few hours and fly out. Funny you never see scenes like this in the postcards. It's both very typical and very striking, actually.

Most Texans will pass through a spot like this today and many of them will stop. I only have an 8 minute commute to work but much of it looks rather like that.

Update: The morbidly fascinated can find lots more like this at the unofficial Texas Freeway site, including my commute (US 183 through Austin) viewed mostly from below. Another very striking image is image A on the I-10 and Loop 375 intersection (El Paso) page.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Empathy Counts for More Than Reason

In another reminder that democracy and science are different games played by different rules, a recent Slashdot story links to this story on Ars Technica
The recent AAAS meeting had session devoted to understanding how the public receives and evaluates scientific information. I can't find any primary information about it but the AT artcile itself is interesting. I'm especially interested in the report of Anne Schuchat of the CDC's assessment:
Simply speaking from a position of authority isn't enough, Schuchat argued. She cited surveys indicating that, for credibility assessments in areas of "low concern" (she suggested Tsunami risk in foreign countries as one example), US citizens are happy to defer to expertise, rating it as accounting for 85 percent of their assessment. When the topic shifts to areas of personal concern like family medicine, the importance of expertise vanishes. Schuchat said that it drops to where it accounts for only 15 percent of the decision, equal to a sense of honesty and openness, and far below the value of empathy, which accounts for roughly half of the decision. The message was pretty clear; for the public, how decent medical information is conveyed counts for more than the quality of the information itself.
The conclusion of the article strikes me as about right. It's where "In It" came in.
The clear message of the session was that a command of facts is never going to be good enough to convince most segments of the public, whether they're parents or Congress. How the information is conveyed can matter more than its content, and different forms of communication may be necessary for different audiences. As became clear in the ensuing discussion, most of the public act as consumers of information, with journalists acting as middlemen. To connect with the public, scientists have to work with the press to ensure that two things happen. Reporters have to overcome their ingrained aversion to the uncertainties of science, and have to avoid presenting uncertainties as a matter of balance that's addressed via material from crackpots with credentials.
Framing, in other words.

The best advice is to be honest and patient, and look honest and patient while you're doing so. Don't attempt an advanced undergraduate lecture series every time you are asked a question. That is not how the truth will out. Remember that you have adversaries playing a very different game.

Is There a Downtown Austin?

I have had quizzical reactions from Austinites when I suggest that Austin has no downtown. It's true that high density condos are going in, and it's true that there is a scattering of large commercial buildings in the center of town, but bricks don't make a downtown.

In Jane Jacobs' terms, an urban core is a "macro-destination", (mentioned in passing in this interesting article about suburban governance) a place where one goes to do more than one thing. When I go to downtown Chicago, or downtown Montreal or Manhattan or even Ottawa or Madison, I park the car and walk around. Often I have several destinations in mind: restaurant, theatre, grocery, bookstore.

Every time I have gone to central Austin I have driven to my destination, done one thing, and left. I suppose there has been an occasion where Momo's and Katz's have been combined; these are actually places I go that are in the same building; a music club and what passes in Texas for a deli style restaurant.

Recently I combined a trip to BookPeople and the Whole Foods flagship store. Those are very close on the map, but the walk between them is sufficiently unpleasant and inconvenient that I found myself driving from one vast parking lot to the other. Admittedly this makes me part of the problem. In Toronto or Montreal or even Houston there would probably be a pleasant climate controlled pedestrian tunnel linking them, but that's asking too much. In Madison or Ottawa, the walk between them would be short and pleasant, landscaped and decorated, attractive in itself. The idea of a five minute drive being less unpleasant than an absurdly circuitous fifteen minute walk mostly through huge parking lots and a pedestrian-hostile intersection just wouldn't come up.

I believe that Austin, like any mostly post-automotive city in America, expects this behavior. To the extent that my hypotehsis is true it means that the urban density downtown is mostly theater. It's not a macro-destination at all, just a dense cluster of microdestinations. Not surprisingly it has traffic problems.

Yes, the summers are wretched here, but eight months out of the year the climate is delightful. A little landscaping, a little attention to human scale, and a little less attention to the convenience of vehicles would go a long way toward pulling downtown together as a destination in itself. Unlike on the bicycle front, I think Austin is working hard toward this end. I just think it has a longer way to go than it likes to think.

Suburban Collapse?

There are signs that some suburban neighborhoods in the US are in rapid decline.

People tend to blame this on oil prices, and the day may indeed come when that is a big factor, but I think it's more a consequence of 1) the attractions of density and 2) overbuilding as a direct consequence of growth mania built into the decision making system. It doesn't matter how cheap oil is; spending two hours a day in traffic jams is a huge cost I'd prefer to avoid.

Here's an Atlantic article by Christopher Leinberger that makes the case for abrupt decline of the sprawl, entitled "The Next Slum" and blurbed "The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements." In a nutshell:

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Recycling as Theater

I am, as ever, unsure what to do about the blogroll.

Should the tech blogs I follow be on there? Maybe they aren't interesting to my readers, but they are interesting to me. Regardless, those are the blogs I follow. Take it or leave it.

Anyway as I've mentioned here once already I consider Ian Bicking a man to watch. He's got a bachelor's degree from the University of No-Place, but he's easily one of the smartest people I've ever encountered and I've learned a great deal from him. His cleverness is more mathematical than technical in flavor. I don't even know if he's had any calculus, but has an amazing knack for finding the right abstraction that pays off in his work as well as in his writings.

(It really peeves me how little appreciation the academic sector has of how smart and insightful software professionals are, and how much the scientific community has to learn from them. That's another story though. Ian himself gets plenty of attention from the people who matter to him, and this is my gripe, not his.)

Usually Ian writes about software, but here's an entry from him about recycling as theater that In It readers might find interesting. Best line:
People actually get angry when recycling programs restrict the plastics they will take. It doesn’t occur to them that some plastics are simply garbage. They are worthless, and moving them around in special recycling containers just wastes everyone’s time. They are angry because they want to pretend they aren’t being wasteful. They aren’t getting enough environmental theater.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Both Ends Against the Middle

In another good catch by Atmoz, Jeffrey Sachs has an opinion piece in Scientific American. Quoth Sachs:
The growing understanding that serious climate-control measures are feasible at modest cost is welcome.
More directly to brass tacks (David Roberts are you listening?):
A promising core strategy seems to be the following. Electricity needs to be made virtually emission-free, through the mass mobilization of solar and nuclear power and the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants. With a clean power grid, most of the other emissions can also be controlled.

The economics are also favorable. Carbon capture and sequestration at coal-fired power plants might raise costs for electricity as little as one to three cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The mass conversion of the U.S. to solar power might involve an incremental cost of roughly four cents per kilowatt-hour, with overall electricity costs on the order of eight to nine cents per kilowatt-hour. These incremental costs imply far less than 1 percent of the world’s annual income to convert to a clean power grid. The costs in the other sectors will also be small.

It's both ends against the middle here.

Don't listen to those who say that everything has to change or we are doomed. The romantic left and the righteous right agree that this is a battle for the soul of civilization. This idea is wrong and dangerous.

It's just a matter of well-placed and substantial but not overwhelming intervention into commerce. That's a tall enough order but it's not at all impossible. Let's take our medicine and make our corrections so we can get back to making progress on human dignity and peaceful collaboration.

I'm not a middle-of-the-roader about climate change itself. Physics is not susceptible to compromise. We are indeed flirting with an unprecedented catastrophe.

I'm just pointing out that there are apparent agreements among the political extremes that we have to be very careful about buying into. We need good old fashioned rational intervention by the body politic and we no longer have much time to waste about it.

Addressing our problems does **not** require a total reinvention of all the world's cultures, and that's a good thing because there isn't time for that.

I think the people in power have come around to this, and are simply waiting for the current ignorocracy in the US to end before taking action.

Much of the public is still missing the point though: the fix to our problems isn't easy but it isn't anywhere near as hard as the no-fix scenario. The fix is technical and regulatory.

The technical/regulatory clean energy strategy is the path that avoids the social upheaval, not the one that demands it. If the word "conservative" still meant anything I would swear it was by far the more conservative strategy. God only knows what some of the people calling themselves "conservative" think they are conserving.

Here's my nomination for something worthy of conservation:

Monday, February 18, 2008

Top Five

Wow. I have three of the top five articles on Atmoz's reading list today.

I am like the Beatles or something.

Hope for Austin Bicyclists?

A story on Grist gives me some hope. The Statesman has more.

Lance Armstrong will soon unveil his 18,000-square-foot Austin-based bike shop, Mellow Johnny's (named after the Tour de France's yellow jersey -- or "maillot jaune"). The goal of the shop is to promote bike culture and bike commuting:

"This city is exploding downtown. Are all these people in high rises going to drive everywhere? We have to promote (bike) commuting..."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Global View on Food Security

A pretty rushed article on WIRED points to an address to AAAS by Per Pinstrup-Andersen of Cornell. It's hard to get the gist of the talk from the report, but P-A himself looks like a good source.

According to the report he does not believe organic agriculture suffices.

Whiskey's for drinkin'

Water's for fightin'

"Water and energy are tightly linked, but these links are poorly understood and rarely used in policy," he said.

Utilities are struggling with this issue as they attempt to build new power plants amid the current water shortage in large parts of the Southeast and Southwest.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The First Big Surprise

A season or a few seasons colder or warmer than the trendline fall in the awkward gap between climate and weather. People who think about such things in terms of the particular peaks and troughs of the present and the near future tend to call themselves climatologists, but I think
they are doing something very different. Bill Gray is perhaps the best known of this type; he had a good heuristic for predicting hurricanes for a while. As the climate system slides or lurches into new configurations that approach will increasingly fail.

It's that slipping vs lurching that is on my mind this morning. Until whoever is funding the Heartland Institute and such mercifully pulls the plug on the denialist conspiracy, or until we actually encounter a year warmer than 1998, we will be hearing the "world is actually cooling since 1998" noise among the various distractors. (And after that we may well come around to hearing something like "the world has actually been cooling since 2011" for awhile...)

But what if the world actually cools for a bit?

Many places in the northern hemisphere are experiencing a cold winter. Not extraordinarily cold, sure, but cold enough that younger people accustomed to our recent half-winters might find it very striking. Does this event require explanation?

I'm concerned that it will fall under the "natural variability" radar for real climatologists (people interested in global dynamics and statistics), the tea-leaf-readers will simply conjure up some "oscillation" to account for it. Now the existence of oscillatory energy at multi-year time scales (mediated by ocean dynamics and possibly sea ice) is real enough, and the need for dynamic explanations real enough.

That all said, the possibility that an event is neither part of a gradual trend nor of a background oscillation can't be excluded a priori.

Now we understand the system well enough that we don't anticipate dramatic lurches in it without some mechanistic explanation. Is there a mechanistic explanation here?

Well, did anything unusual happen in the last few months? Yes, there was an abrupt, huge and unanticipated retreat of sea ice in the boreal summer. What's more, there was a comparably abrupt and huge recovery since. (I've seen a curve that shows it above the baseline mean for the first time in years; can't turn it up just now.)

We don't really have a mechanism for the rapid retreat, but consider the rapid rebound. What does that mean? Well as anyone who has lived in an icy climate can attest, ice melts faster in the presence of salt; i.e., it refreezes faster in its absence. The abrupt melting last summer must have freshened the Arctic allowing for an unusually effective freeze following. Does this portend a full recovery, or an increased seasonal cycle under greenhouse forcing, or something in between? Moderate that I am, I go for somewhere in between; some of the fresh water will have been exported into the Atlantic, and the forcing has not gone away.

Aha, but this brings us back to the original "unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse". Freshwater pulses into the Atlantic are associated by many paleoclimate theorists with severe cold anomalies. Can this mechanism account for severe winters in the north?

Note, this is mere speculation as of now. I would wait to see the scenario repeated before I would even endeavor to build a publication-worthy model of this. Please don't quote me without noting that I am speculating on my blog, not publishing.

If this makes sense it would be doubly unfortunate; I am sure even the most climate-aware people in the midwest are finding themselves wishing for "more global warming about now". Both the sense of urgency and the sense of confidence could be weakened by what in the grand scheme of things would amount to a delay in the temperature signal while extra heat is devoted to melting ice which causes a noticeable cooling signal.

In a larger sense, nature resists change. When you dig a deep hole, mud rushes to fill it in. Things that happen rapidly tend to kick off countervailing processes that are slower. Also, systems systems ring and wobble when you hit them. That's another source of increasing variability.

Neither of these principles operate magically. There are always physical mechanisms at work, and we need to identify them. The fact is, though, that the harder we perturb the system the weaker our ability to predict its responses will be. Consequently, surprises lay ahead.

Abrupt changes in biological systems notwithstanding, the abrupt retreat and advance of Arctic sea ice of the past year remains without known precedent and is perhaps the first unanticipated physical phenomenon of the greenhouse world. Whether my speculation about the relationship to the cold winter holds water or not, we are already into the realm of the unanticipated.

R. Pielke Jr. asks at what point the theory on which we operate might be falsified. I have to say I have a hard time answering. If this means falsifying the theory of the greenhouse effect, it's baffling. The question is sort of like what it would take to abandon the idea of gravity. It is pretty much incomprehensible to me how the theory of radiative transfer might be falsified without taking the whole of science down with it.

We are changing the radiative properties of the earth. In the long run we expect tremendous warming. In the meantime we expect a warming trend and maybe a bumpy ride. The appearance of bumps in the temperature record will surely be taken as evidence that we have nothing to worry about by irresponsible people grasping at far weaker straws than that, but rationally we should take no solace in the bumps.

Oresekes' History of Climate Denialism

Also via Quark Soup, an excellent video of a presentation by Naomi Oreskes; half about the early history of scientific concern about anthropogenic climate change (lots of new stuff to me there) and half about the history of the denial movement. It's an hour long, but I highly recommend finding the time to watch it.

Update: Atmoz also linked to this video. Check out caerbannog's comment there.

Planktos Backs Down

100% agreement with Quark Soup on this one.

Somebody proposing to make money on iron fertilization of the ocean has backed down and is probably folding.

Good, but we still have a problem.

Friday, February 15, 2008

You Are What You Eat

RMR sends this along in email. It's not clear who did the obviously extensive work for this project; it appears on several websites. So far I haven't found a proper attribution.

Here's a typical posting of this genre. It shows the weekly food acquisitions of families in several countries.

Update: Aha! Found it myself, you prawns. It's from Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, a follow-up to Menzel's Material World.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Human impact on Oceans Mapped

NPR has a story about a map of human damage to the world ocean, and it has the map, but it doesn't actually offer any quantitative advice as to what the map actually maps or any links. (Hello journalists, it is a web, see, not a fiefdom. Hello???)

A little digging turns up the UCSB site with more details and a Google Earth KML file.

It's not really a scientific result as such. The idea is to make the people conscious of their effect on the oceans. Best of luck on that one...

Austin Energy Eschews Nuke Opportunity

According to today's Statesman, "the Austin City Council is expected today to decline an invitation to invest in two new nuclear reactors".

Some predictable responses are quoted:
"We need more energy, but we don't need to destroy our planet in the process of getting it," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club.


"If you look at the demand for electric power, and likely constraints on carbon emissions," said [Richard] Lester, who helped author a 2003 MIT report, The Future of Nuclear Power, "I just don't see any chance of squaring the circle without a significant increase of nuclear power."

That or carbon capture/sequestration, or both, as I see it. I could be wrong, but here's another case where we need to start with the global numbers and work back to the local, not the other way around.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Globally Sustainable Population and Food

Looks like I poked a sleeping dragon in a passing swipe about the scalability of organic agriculture in an article yesterday.

I'm not sure I'm the right person to lead this conversation, but I'd frame it as "how many people can the earth support indefinitely?"

To make this tractable I begin by making several classes of assumption about diet. So what happens with an American (meat and processed foods) diet adopted universally? A Japanese (wild-caught fish) diet? An Indian (mostly legumes and rice) diet? An organic green-yuppie diet?

Orthogonally, we should consider two cases: energy limited vs. energy abundant.

Then I'd consider the global geochemistry of agriculture. We would need to trace the mass budgets of various elements, as well as fresh water. There may be other terms e.g. representing soil health and erosion.

My guess is that without energy abundance the world is already severely overpopulated. It's not an especially well-informed guess.

I presume there are whole-systems studies of this sort and would welcome any references. I don 't feel especially competent to take this on, but then again I don't have a horse in the race.

Which side of ten billion that number lies is a pretty crucial determinant of our prospects.

I've misplaced my copy of Joel Cohen's book "How Many People Can The Earth Support" which is an admirable place to start.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I dislike NIMBYism most of the time. I really hate the sort of localism that seems to believe that if everybody opposes undesireable local infrastructure everywhere then global problems will magically be solved.

Even organic agriculture is a flavor of this. The idea is that if every farmer goes organic there will be no more pesticide use seems to trump the fact that if every farmer goes organic most people will have no food.

Clearing out my paper inbox today (finally having a little slack) I came across a NIMBY flyer opposing a new landfill in East Austin. As a new East Austinite, I'm learning to get my back up about everything being sited here. Our local neighborhood association has a fight brewing about 110 assisted living units, the question being "why not on the west side"? (The answer being, duh, there's more property value to threaten there, and duh squared, don't half-crazed veterans want to live somewhere they can catch a bus or buy non-organic foods...?)

This flyer alleges that Travis County, (Austin area) accepts solid wastes from 33 neighboring counties, of which 22 have no landfill at all. Even Bexar county (San Antonio, a much larger city) has only two landfills and sends trash up this way. Or so they claim. Yet the organization ("Don't Dump Travis") offers no way to check their claims and doesn't even show up on Google.

I don't know as county boundaries or even national boundaries are the right way to think about this, but it seems very odd and inappropriate that a new landfill be targeted for the fastest growing and second-most-populous county in the region.

That it's on the east (poorer and flatter) side of town is no surprise.

Why Austin at all, though? I'd really like it to be possible to get more data from more or less authoritative sources. Perhaps the Bexar sites are larger than ours, for instance?

I can't get worked up about this without better information. In any case it's an example of the foolishness of acting locally to the exclusion of acting globally. (circular-filed)

Texas to Certify Creation Science?

Brrr. Received in email.

Dear AGU member,

The Institute of Creation Research (ICR) recently relocated its graduate school program from San Diego, California to Dallas, Texas. The school is attempting to obtain accreditation from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to grant Masters of Science Education degrees in Texas. The graduate school does not teach modern geology, biology, astronomy, or the scientific method, yet graduates of the program receive a Masters of Science Education and would be able to teach science in private or public schools.
A state advisory panel already has recommended that the Board accredit ICR's masters program; however, the Board will vote on 24 April to make a final decision on ICR's accreditation. The Board has delayed the proceedings because of a large public outcry from both proponents and opponents of ICR. If science teachers do not receive an appropriate scientific education they would not be adequately trained to teach the critical foundations of science such as modern biology, geology, and astronomy to the next generation of students.

If you would like to take action on this issue, contact one or all of the following:
* Your Congressional representative in Texas (find their contact information here:
* Dr. Raymond Paredes, Commissioner of Higher Education on the THECB (512-427-6101)
* The THECB ( to write an email, or visit for phone numbers of members of the Board)

Talking points can be based on AGU's recently revised position statement "Biological Evolution and the History of the Earth Are Foundations of Science" that can be found online at:
The National Academy of Sciences recently published a report on science, evolution, and creationism that reaffirms the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting evolution and the importance of teaching evolution as part of a science curriculum. Information about the National Academies Report can be found at: The ICR website is:

(AGU is not responsible for the T-shirt design, which is available here.)

Denialists Fail to Go Away

Man, the stronger the evidence the more sophisticated the obfuscation gets.

RealClimate has an analysis of the unbearably creepy Lawyers' Science Convention to Debunk Every Known Scientific Body of Significance.

See the full list of the shark jumpers at that last link; Bill Gray, Legates and Spencer is pretty much all they've got right now among actual contributors to climate science. Observationalists all.

Of course, none of them have any actual, um, theory as to why greenhouse gases will conveniently fail to warm the earth, never mind what exact phenomenon is inconveniently warming the earth to the expected degree.

Keeping them company are the illustrious likes of Craig Idso, Stephen Milloy, Benny Peiser and Lord Monckton. Not fooling anybody? Alas, think again.

Also in fan mail (keep those letter coming in, folk) I recently received a link to another egregious effort to play at science. Bleah.

I repeat my two perennial questions about these people:

1) Exactly whom do they think they are cheating? Do they have a plan to move to an alternative planet? Have they really not heard the Midas story?

2) How the hell do they manage to sleep?

I really don't get it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Prolonged Economic Relaxation

There's a nice discussion on Dot Earth about overconsumption called "The Endless Pursuit of Unnecessary Things", a phrase, astonishingly enough, attributable to Adam Smith.

My contribution to the thread is to raise the usual gripe about conventional economics. Here is what I wrote in its entirety:

I am thrilled by and grateful for this conversation.

The problem with the realization of the vicious circle of insecurity, overwork and overconsumption is that it butts directly against the dictates of classical economic theory and the contemporary politics that is so driven by it.

I have never met a person educated in a physical science who was comfortable with the idea of endless growth that appears to be dogmatic in most circles.

Indeed, conflated with our concern about energy, ecology and the environment these days is anxiety about “recession”. If we agree that we are striving too hard and consuming too much, a recession is something to welcome and celebrate (though of course it must be managed well).

We need to rethink all of the concepts of economics, which manage well in an open system with ample resources and scarce labor, and lead simply to our bizarre and counterproductive behaviors today.

(I can’t resist pointing out the analogy to Easter Island, whose culture was plainly successful and adaptive until the very end, when it abruptly got out of scale with its environment and maladaptive. See Jared Diamond’s book Collapse for more on this point.)

Your quotation from Mr. Handy illustrates the point perfectly:

“The conundrum is this: All that stuff creates jobs — making it, promoting it, selling it. It’s literally the stuff of growth. What I’d love to ask Peter Drucker is: How do you grow an economy without the jobs and taxes that these unnecessary things produce?”

It is no conundrum, Mr. Handy. You just don’t, that’s all.

Though he seems to be awakening to the fact that there is a problem, Handy can’t bring himself to address the question of whether growth is by definition inconsistent with sustainability. As a person committed to thinking about the economy the assumption is so deeply held that it’s simply invisible to him!

Just as healthy children grow and healthy adults don’t, underdeveloped economies ought to grow and developed economies ought to, well, sustain. Is this such a radical concept? Is this an unreasonable rough cut at what “sustainability” means?

Many of us are bemoaning the disconnect between our circumstances and what politicians and the press (present company excepted) seem to be discussing; issues about energy, ecology and the environment, for example. There’s a fourth “E” word, though: economics. The issues we are discussing here simply don’t map on to conventional economic thought.

The efforts that do exist to break free of the growth imperative at the fringes of) economic theory, with a few notable exceptions (look for Charles Hall at SUNY Syracuse for a good example), have generally been muddleheaded and romantic.

If there were any possibility of real leadership from modern politics, we’d be seeing leaders trying to help us through the establishment of a new intellectual framework for describing and planning the nature of economic activity in the light of new objectives and new constraints.

What we hear instead is almost perfect silence on this matter.

Let me start with my own small contribution to this endeavor, one of nomenclature. In a mature and wealthy society, a period of declining economic activity should not be called a “recession”. I propose the alternative name “relaxation”. Let’s hope that the current relaxation is long and deep, and let’s try to be open as individuals and as a society to helping people who have to make difficult adjustments as a consequence.

In summary, I think the best thing we could all do right now in recognition of the long overdue economic retreat is to take a deep breath and relax.

Have a cup of tea. Listen to some music. Talk to some old friends. Try to find some time to think about something besides your own troubles. Enjoy the fact that we’re doing ever so slightly less damage this month than we were twelve months ago. Look for ways to relax even more.

Update: Don't miss "tidal"'s comment, and check out these people that (s)he refers to therein.

Update: See also Workers of the World, Relax!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Questioning the Superbowl Consensus

A reader sends along a link to an article arguing that there is a greed-driven conspiracy to convince a gullible public that the Patriots lost the Superbowl.

Update: There's a sort of related story on Inkstain.

Best Science Blog Articles of '07

I'm sorry I missed the science bloggers' conference and I hope to make it next year. It sounds like a lot of interesting stuff went on.

In particular there was an articles of the year contest, and Coturnix has links to all the winners.

Highly Allocthonous, who is going to get added to my ever-more-unwieldy blogroll (I promise never to have one of those two hundred link lists, honest) has a wonderful article entitled Testability in Earth Science that applies to us geofluid folks as well as to the rockers.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Charlie Hall and EROEI

"Energy Return on Energy Invested" that is. (corrected per comments; unfortunately we are stuck with the URL)

Thanks to John Mashey who linked to this fascinating presentation [eww, MS PowerPoint] in a conversation on Grist on carbon capture and sequestration.
(As you will see, David has been rubbing me the wrong way on this. I am doubly appreciative of John's coming to my defense because of the fascinating bubble chart on slide 22. Is the nuclear bubble right, though?)

Anyway, there's more great stuff linked from Charles Hall's home page. I don't know why peak oil folks have such a bad sense of design, but anyway the stuff is good if you look past the nasty color scheme and slapdash layouts. Mostly I appreciate that Hall actually thinks about economics like a scientist. That's as opposed to trying to look scientific, as the usual misguided application of thermodynamic entropy by other critics of classical economics do.