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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And What's Wrong with This Picture?

I accidentally hit a site that is promulgating this graph; not the first time I've seen it.
Note that it's perfectly true, and that the vertical scales and start and end points have been carefully chosen to yield a misimpression. Does this constitute lying? To a political or legal mind, I think it doesn't.

(Update: also note that the two curves have different time filters applied. Consider why this would be so. Hint: it is related to the choice of vertical scale.)

In a blog comment exchange here, I casually mentioned "cherry picking" and "Ted" elaborated:
The summary reference to “cherry-picking” says a lot. What it illustrates, more than anything, I think, is the different sorts of argument that count as acceptable in science and in political discourse.

In science, the assumption is that it’s not okay to treat evidence selectively. You’re supposed to *try* to account for all the evidence.

In political discourse, I’m afraid, the de facto assumption seems to be that it’s fair to pick up whatever data point happens to be handy and throw it at your opponent, while (of course) ignoring and evading the data points they throw at you.

George Will’s recent column was an excellent instance of what happens when you take the norms of political discourse and apply them to science. Will may have thought he was just “spinning” — which is more or less what he gets paid for — but he was spinning a topic where “spin” counts as culpable distortion.
Update: Here's the same data without the three bugs. Consider plotting the above graph for 1996- 2006 instead of 1998-2008.

Stop the presses, huh?

See also How to Tell Different Stories with the Same Data.

What's wrong with this picture?

Regular readers will understand the nature of the problem here.

(quicktime download)

For details, go to the Media Matters site.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Cassandritis in the Financial Sector

Hats off to Gil Friend for spotting the New York Times' enthusiasm for Wall Street deregulation a decade ago.


''Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century,'' Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said. ''This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy.''


''The world changes, and we have to change with it,'' said Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, who wrote the law that will bear his name along with the two other main Republican sponsors, Representative Jim Leach of Iowa and Representative Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia. ''We have a new century coming, and we have an opportunity to dominate that century the same way we dominated this century. Glass-Steagall, in the midst of the Great Depression, came at a time when the thinking was that the government was the answer. In this era of economic prosperity, we have decided that freedom is the answer.''

In the House debate, Mr. Leach said, ''This is a historic day. The landscape for delivery of financial services will now surely shift.''

The Cassandras:

The opponents of the measure gloomily predicted that by unshackling banks and enabling them to move more freely into new kinds of financial activities, the new law could lead to an economic crisis down the road when the marketplace is no longer growing briskly.

''I think we will look back in 10 years' time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930's is true in 2010,'' said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. ''I wasn't around during the 1930's or the debate over Glass-Steagall. But I was here in the early 1980's when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.''

Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, said that Congress had ''seemed determined to unlearn the lessons from our past mistakes.''

''Scores of banks failed in the Great Depression as a result of unsound banking practices, and their failure only deepened the crisis,'' Mr. Wellstone said. ''Glass-Steagall was intended to protect our financial system by insulating commercial banking from other forms of risk. It was one of several stabilizers designed to keep a similar tragedy from recurring. Now Congress is about to repeal that economic stabilizer without putting any comparable safeguard in its place.''

The jovial rebuttal, of course, was that the worriers worry too much, and shouldn't do so much standing in the way of progress:

Supporters of the legislation rejected those arguments. They responded that historians and economists have concluded that the Glass-Steagall Act was not the correct response to the banking crisis because it was the failure of the Federal Reserve in carrying out monetary policy, not speculation in the stock market, that caused the collapse of 11,000 banks. If anything, the supporters said, the new law will give financial companies the ability to diversify and therefore reduce their risks. The new law, they said, will also give regulators new tools to supervise shaky institutions.

''The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown,'' said Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska.

Oh yes, and those gigantic super-powerful super-intelligent razor-clawed crabs bred for work at corporate construction sites? Don't worry about them either. Almost all experts are agreed that they pose no threat.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Slicin' and Dicin' with Dyson and Bryson

The mantle of lovable old coot of liberal persuasion who thinks global warming is hooey has been passed to a new old generation.

I tried to avoid saying anything nasty about Reid Bryson while he was around. Reid was, no doubt about it, a very nice man. He was also the founder of the department that gave me my doctorate, at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. (That is its name. I'd prefer the word "at" to the dash, but nobody asked me.) The meteorology department at UW , later the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, has been a major player through the years so this is no small feat.

Bryson used to say "the proper tool of the climatologist is the shovel" but he wasn't indulging in crude humor. He thought of climatology as a branch of archaeology. The tradition emerged with a presumption of a steady state climate with periodic oscillations superimposed: a powerful analytic method in some fields, but not, it turns out, in climatology. He did, however, take seriously the idea of the human influence on the environment. He was, in fact, the guy who was most responsible for pushing the "imminent ice age kicked off by human activity" idea. He did get some press in the 1970s, no doubt about that.

But there's little sign in the literature that his idea was taken very seriously. Even in the 1970s, as Oreskes explains in various places, there was a rough consensus among physical climatologists that long-lived, accumulating CO2 causing warming would eventually outweigh short-lived, quasi-steady particulate cooling.

As such he fell into an uncomfortable hole. His intuition that people would change the climate was right, but he got the sign wrong. Nobody paid much attention to his intuition after that. He never had the physical insight to get a grip on radiative transfer physics to be convinced by it. He ended up trapped into holding to his position that humans could not cause warming, and was much celebrated in that by the skeptic camp, but it wasn't grounded in any reasoned opinion. And, as he was a very nice man and the founder of the department, and as meteorologists and midwesterners are basically controversy-averse, nobody local ever challenged Bryson too hard on it. He'd appear at various media events, hosted by people who would make an effort not to stress the fact that they were really doing the bidding of the Cato Institute and that sort.

Now he has passed on. And though I didn't know him well, he was a kind and in many ways admirable man. I was saddened at his passing.

The sadness was tempered by a relief, though, that after a year or so had passed (which it nearly has) one could manage to be frank about Bryson's understanding of climate physics, which, sadly, was nil, and his ironic role in the much ballyhooed but not so much professionally esteemed ice age scare of the 1970s, which was, pretty much, as its most prominent voice.

(So you see, it was never "the same people" who talked about the ice age scare at all. It was largely the denialists' hero Reid Bryson all along.)

But one didn't reckon with the fact that the media would be casting about for a replacement. The year hadn't fully passed before they found their man in the less credentialed but more famed and more predictably curmudgeony Freeman Dyson.

Dyson, it appears, was part of the Jason team that wrote an early report (1979 I believe) by non-meteorologists, essentially confirming the global warming story. So Dyson has the advantage of having thought about this for some time. His conclusion is that the AGW hypothesis is roughly correct, but that there is plenty of room in the carbon cycle to hide the excess carbon. This, like Bryson's "human volcano" gets little attention. I am not a geochemist, so I don't know exactly how impractical an idea it is, but it does seem that Dyson hasn't worked a lick on the idea in the intervening time, so it's little wonder this doesn't come up.

How this justifies Dyson's incredibly broad-brush attacks on climatology as a whole escapes me. He complains that there is no carbon cycle in GCMs. This mistakes the purpose of GCMs. (*) Now climatology is by no means above criticism, but the principles of how the climate system works are understood to a very substantive and sophisticated level. Bryson didn't understand them, and was in no position to admit it. Dyson appears like most of the denial squad, having no real idea that they exist at all.
(*) Note: People are trying to build combined carbon/climate models now. They look like they are going to be called Earth System Models or ESMs. I think it's vastly premature but that's a topic for another time and place.
But similarities and differences aside, the press has their man. I don't think Bill Gray is on deck; he's a little too bitter. I think many people right now are wishing Freeman Dyson a long and healthy old age. I can't bring myself to say otherwise myself. He seems like such a nice man.

That's no reason to give him much press, until he actually has something of scientific substance to say on the matter. What we've seen so far is just grumbling, not counterarguments. The New York Times has done us another disservice by treating Dyson's ranting as serious or relevant.

The picture of Bryson in his emeritus office at 1225 West Dayton in Madison, an architecturally dreadful building where I spent many hours of my own life, was lifted from denialist site who probably lifted it from the department or the Madison local media.

The Dyson picture is the Wikipedia one.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Government as Them vs Government as Us

Globe and Mail on Red River flooding (h/t Kathy Austin @kdaustin):
Mr. Shaefer moved to higher ground in the north part of the city. Yesterday, the Red was lapping at a sandbag dike in his backyard. "We guessed this place would keep us clear of the river," he said. "Maybe we guessed wrong."

Downriver in Manitoba, authorities have taken some of the guesswork out of the Red equation. Starting with the construction of the Red River Floodway in 1962 - informally named Duff's Ditch for Premier Duff Roblin - provincial governments have consistently taken a longsighted approach to flood protection. The floodway diverts overflow from the Red around Winnipeg. In 37 years, the floodway has been opened 20 times, saving $10-billion in flood damages, according to government estimates.

"It's an amazing piece of engineering," said Dr. Schwert, one of North Dakota's foremost flood experts. "In 1997, if you were in downtown Winnipeg you were oblivious to the fact that there was a flood going on."

Since 1997, various levels of government in Manitoba have invested more than $800-million to nearly double the capacity of the floodway and erect ring dikes around small towns capable of keeping out 1997-level waters plus .6 metres.

But the political culture in North Dakota resists such solutions.

Earlier this week, one homeowner 15 minutes north of Fargo talked with pride about the flood-protection measures he'd erected with his neighbours. "That's how it should be," he said, trudging through knee-deep water inches from flowing into his home. "We don't need government in here screwing things up."

North Dakota hasn't voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson, and Libertarian Ron Paul nearly beat John McCain in last year's Republican primary.

"We have a lot of individualism here - that's just the North Dakota way," Dr. Schwert said.
(For the benefit of those from far away, this is not the Red River of cowboy lore, by the way.)

Dr. Austin tweets "Parable for climate change?"
Image of 1997 Red River flood from

Corn Ethanol Disaster

My current position is strongly pro-biofuel for two reasons:

1) Biofuels are the only path to carbon neutral jet fuel. I think if we give up international travel we will lose far more than we gain. Nothing fuels xenophobia more than not having a clear idea of who the foreigners actually are.

2) Biofuels plus CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) is, as far as I can tell, the only plausible path to near term reduction in atmospheric CO2. I hear a lot of talk about 350 and that's interesting, but most people with "350" hats don't seem to have a plan to move the number down from the 450 we have already bought.

But things aren't easy, and despite the fact that global warming looms over everything, we can't be indifferent to other problems, especially other global problems.

I have heard no sensible defenses of corn-based ethanol, even though politicians from the "aah" states (including President Obama) continue to champion it. But here is a side of it that is terrifying. Via Minnesota Public Radio via Big Biofuels Blog (h/t David Benson):

Mark von Keitz with the University of Minnesota's Biotechnology Institute said in ethanol production, the main enemy is a bacterial bug that makes lactic acid.

"What these organisms do is they also compete with the yeast for the sugar," said von Keitz. "But instead of making alcohol, they make primarily lactic acid."


"What people operating these plants are trying to do is to keep these lactic acid bacteria in check," said von Keitz. "And one way of doing that is with the help of antibiotics."

Ethanol producers use penicillin and a popular antibiotic called virginiamycin to kill bacteria. And that raises two potential concerns.

One is that these treatments might promote the growth of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The development of these "superbugs" is a major concern in health care because they reduce the effectiveness of medicines.

Mark von Keitz found some bacteria that were, in fact, resistant when he sampled bacteria at four Midwest ethanol plants several years ago.

The second concern is that the antibiotics could find their way to humans through the food chain.


Distillers grain is a major source of low-cost livestock feed. Any restrictions on its sale and use as feed will hurt the profit-scarce ethanol industry and the livestock farmers who rely on it.

Charlie Staff, executive director of the Distillers Grain Technology Council, said distillers grain is one of the few dependable moneymakers left for the ethanol industry.

"If they didn't have distillers grain as a revenue, many more of them wouldn't be able to operate," said Staff.

Emphasis added.

Yikes! An object lesson that everything is connected. Plus another argument against agribusiness-produced meat.

Knit your own woolen corncob from a pattern at

Open Thread Number Two

Everything is on topic, including Gore and Hansen. Open season on Grackles.

clipping at left from Wikipedia;
photo: me and my iPhone; Austin TX at Oltorf and Congress, Feb 2009

Friday, March 27, 2009

Evolution in Schools: TFN calls it a draw (but AGW?)

Bulk email from the Texas Freedom Network:
Dear Michael,

Just a short while ago, the Texas State Board of Education voted on new public school science standards that publishers will soon use to craft new science textbooks. This long-awaited decision is the culmination of TFN's two-year Stand Up for Science campaign.

The good news is that the word “weaknesses” no longer appears in the science standards -- this is a huge victory for those of us who support teaching 21st-century science that is free of creationist ideology.

The bad news is the final document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms. Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will almost certainly use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks. As TFN Communications Director Dan Quinn told the New York Times: "The State Board of Education pretty much slammed the door on ‘strengths and weaknesses,’ but then went around and opened all the windows in the house.”

What’s truly unfortunate is that we will have to revisit this entire debate in two years when new science textbooks are adopted in Texas.

While we did not succeed in ending this debate once and for all, I am extremely proud of the work we did together on this Stand Up for Science campaign. Your testimony, calls and e-mails over these past months really made a difference in the outcome of this science debate -- and the students of Texas are better off for it.

I sincerely hope you will consider participating in the last day of our Stand Up for Science matching gift challenge. Double your gift's impact to TFN Education Fund by contributing today!

As you know, hostility toward science persists in our state. From stem cell research to responsible sex education, crucial public policies hang in the balance. As always, TFN will carry your support for mainstream values and sound science to our elected leaders.

Kathy Miller
But from where we're sitting it's pretty disastrous:
the board added the following standard: “Analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.”
The Environmental Defense Fund sent out the following press release:
Indicating doubt about the existence of global warming, today’s final vote on textbook language by the Texas State Board of Education flouts leading scientific consensus as well as the board’s own scientific advisors.

Surprising environmentalists, the board’s last-minute decision Wednesday changed the language in a school textbook chapter on Environmental Systems to include the phrase “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.”

Dr. Ramon Alvarez, senior scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, said that to deny the existence of global warming is not only an affront to the board’s own advisors, but also to established science, citing agreement by the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and even one of the state’s premier academic institutions, Texas A&M University. “In a last-minute assault on science and sensibility, the board appears to be supporting its own ideological views rather than those of proven science,” Alvarez said. “Experts around the country, including the tenured faculty of Texas A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, agree that our climate is warming and that humans are responsible.”

The new textbook language also positions Texas children behind regions already addressing global warming. “The tragedy of this ruling is that it places Texas children at a competitive disadvantage in science education, thus failing them as they prepare to compete in the global marketplace,” said Jim Marston, regional director of Environmental Defense Fund.
As usual, TFN has the scoop.

Update: unfortunately the comments to this posting got out of hand and comments are now closed. I recommend going to the TFN site to discuss the present topic.

Update: Bad Astronomer is not happy. PZ isn't happy either. Even somebody called AstroEngine is on the case. Others?

Update Mar 29: Salon has an article: the creationists, apparently are happy. h/t @BadAstronomer

Image from PoliTex, a blog of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Avant Garde Biofuels

An aggie fellow (that is, from Texas A&M, our rivals), Robert Avant is apparently a big player in biofuels. He came and gave a talk today at the Pickle campus on the outlook for biofuels.

He's the kind of authentic, down-to-earth Texan that I like but it tends not to be mutual. (Think Boone Pickens.) Thick Texas drawl, refering to the "aah" states (meaning Illinois, Indiana, and "Aahwah", you know, the corn belt states whose names all happen to start with the letter "aah") when talking about corn ethanol, which he didn't talk about much. He was wearing beige pants, a pale blue button down shirt, and a loud, wide tie featuring bluebonnets (the state flower) and a huge,lone star flag image, but no jacket. He's a professional engineer and exudes competence if not exactly sartorial elegance. He said he had recently given a talk in Belgium; I was amused to imagine a roomful of Euros trying to decode his accent.

Avant's outline slide mentioned carbon benefits but he pretty much avoided the question. His motivation was all "energy security". When asked about long term climate change he shrugged and said he sure hoped Austin wouldn't end up lookin' like El Paso while he was still around to see it, but he made no claim that his efforts might have anything to do with it.

Probably the most interesting thing he said was "I'm an engineer. If you want America to be energy independent I believe we can do it, but you might not like how it would work out." He referred to ubiquitous windmills and solar installations, nuclear plants, and energy restrictions.

Of course, carbon independent is even harder. Yup. This is not going to be easy.

Avant sees a modestly significant role for biofuels but not a dominant one; perhaps replacing 15% of the oil supply in the US. (He very much has a national focus. The only other country mentioned was Brasil, in admiration of their sugarcane program.)

He was pretty clear that biofuels can't replace gasoline. He says that nobody will tolerate a new demand on irrigation water, so crops have to grow mostly where there is abundant moisture and sun. His focus then was on east Texas and points east.

He also stressed the enormous scale of the operation. If all the shipments travel by truck, even the 15% replacement would require a fleet of over 100,000 18-wheelers running full time. He seemd to think that was impractical. I wonder how big the truck fleet is now. If I read this right, about 1.5 million tractor-trailer type truck engines, so we're talking maybe a 10% increase in truck traffic. much of it on remote rural roads. I don;t know if the road quality is a problem. Much as I'd like to see a new freight infrastructure this seems doable.

Avant points out a daunting problem: switchgrass miles (or miles from energy sorghum, pictured, note also pale blue button down shirt with sleeves rolled up) matter a lot. You can't put so much energy into moving the plants to a processor as to wipe out your energy return. This means in practice that the first stage of processing must be close to the farm, some tens of miles. This is good news and bad news; moving jobs out to rural areas tends to be favored by most sectors, but it means infrasturcture commitment is very localized and thus vulnerable to weather issues and climate shifts not to mention other local issues. This makes for a riskier venture than might otherwise be the case, making financing difficult.

Another interesting business point is that various subsidies now go to landowners who grow food and feed crops. This puts energy crops at a systematic disadvantage. However, this needs to be reconciled with the fact that many people don't want food crops replaced by energy crops.

No biofuel source is currently price competitive.

As a speculative note, perhaps the most promising thing on the horizon is the prospect for salt-tolerant energy crops. If these can be bioengineered, they can use ground water that other water consumers will not compete for. Of course, in the end this is another nonrenewable energy source, but at least it is a carbon neutral one.

Another exciting prospect is energy from algae farming. There is considerable movement on this front in Texas, since sunlight, a major input, is something we have in ample supply. Many of us will find the world much more appealing if there is carbon neutral jet fuel, which they can now produce in small quantities at outrageous prices. Their production cost needs to fall by a factor of ten to be competitive at foreseeable market conditions. Avant referred to eight technical efforts, five in energy engineering and three in genetic engineering.

All biofuel production is water intensive, on the order of 1400 gallons of water per gallon of gasoline.

On the whole, in short, things are possible but not easy.

Let me make clear that my final thought is not Avant's, nor probably anyone's who would wear a Texas flag tie without a hint of irony: many things seem much easier to me if we simply give up eating beef. Most of the "aah" states are covered in cattle feed, you know, not in actual food. If we just eat the soy directly 90% of the time we'd ordinarily have beef, a lot of land would be cleared for biofuels. I understand that it takes 10 calories of cattle feed to produce 1 calorie of beef.

the algae farm from an export promotion site of the Israeli government, though I'm willing to bet the site shown is near El Paso, TX

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Problem and the Problem with the Problem

The prolific (and arguably indispensable) Joe Romm has a terrifying summary about global warming which appears to me to be pretty much on the mark.

Joe believes that people who understand the situation in this way should stick together. Given the scope of the problem, and the vast difference between the perspectives of those few who understand it and those many who don't, you'd think we ought to stick together through thick and thin.

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point:
Where he goes wrong is that he seems to see this primarily as a political calamity in terms of the administration’s standing both domestically and in the eyes of international participants at the coming Copenhagen conference. That’s all true enough, but I think it’s important for people not to write about this issue without mentioning that failure to start reducing carbon emissions in the very near term is a substantive human and ecological catastrophe. Absent emissions reductions, the globe will continue to warm. That will, year after year, keep altering weather patterns around the world. A world inhabited by six billion people based on patterns of settlement established under existing climactic patterns. Climate change means drought and famine, flood and forest fire, all in new and unprepared places. People will die.
Well, people will die anyway, but let's not split hairs. This is starting to look like the whole world is a complete idiot and will march over the cliff in some sort of hypnotic trance.

The problem with the problem is that people don't actually believe it. They think we are, not to put too fine a point on it, making shit up. Why they think that is obvious enough. Some people are trying very hard to confuse matters. And being very effective at it.

The question that immediately follows, the motivating question of "In It" is "so what should we do about it"? And here we have a problem: the confusers have managed to convince the public that people who express deep concern do so for personal gain. In my own case, it has been nothing of the sort, at least insofar as personal gain reduces to wealth.

I very much appreciate and enjoy any encouragement I get form my readers. It has been one of the nicest aspects of the past couple of years. Indeed, I would like to be able to get a tiny amount of personal gain from doing what I do here. While not everybody could do the work I currently do for pay, I'd have to admit I'm replaceable. I could make a much better contribution given the time.

But that leads to an interesting problem of credibility. Lawrence Lessig, at a very impressive talk at SXSW, argued that a big problem with government nowadays is the corrupting power of money which mostly flows through issue advocacy. Once you associate yourself with a position for pay, your opinion, your arguments, even your soundest unassailable proofs, automatically lose value in the discourse.

Unfortunately we have entered a period when the truth itself "has a liberal bias". Things are really serious.

Does that mean that one has to toe the line for fear of injuring one's allies? Many people seem to think so.

But I'd like CSS on the table, and nuclear, and also reduced growth and economic decline. All of these options are anathema to the engine of green politics. And as for the cap and trade vs carbon tax thing, I'm just completely dazed and confused. I'd like to take it up as a neutral party.

I am no longer interested in debating the "Ravens" of the world on their terms. They are a problem but I find it odd that people persist in engaging them as if they had any intention of examining their beliefs. But we have to find some way to make it visible to the world that they are not actually the real thing.

To do that we need credibility, and to gain credibility we have to avoid lining up behind ideas that make little sense.

For instance? I'm glad you asked.

I am interested in debating the proposition that "green jobs" will "revive the economy" in the short run. It's considered heresy to question this in some circles, but there's a simple argument that in traditional economic terms it just can't be true, else it would have happened already.

Yes, it will cost. The longer we wait the more it will cost. We have to get started regardless of the cost; there is no limit to the cost of never shifting to sutainability. No limit short of the end of life.

Does it really help matters to pretend that there is some conspiracy behind the use of coal instead of wind and solar? How shall we think about these things if nobody is allowed to say anything other than the most cheerful nonsense on their side?

Well, it's not disallowed, it just doesn't have much presence in the "marketplace of ideas". Scientists are funded to talk to scientists. Anti-scientists are funded to talk to the public. Even the political parties aligned with the science scowl furiously at any effort to publicly think things through.

So how to fund a voice that is perceived as intelligent and independent, that engages with politics while representing science? The traditional structures of science and of politics and of journalism all fail us: not just me, who really would like to do that sort work if it existed somehow, but all of us, who need to think our way out of our quandary collectively.

Like Lyndon Johnson, we should recall the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Come, let us reason together." That doesn't mean ignoring the seriousness of our predicament, but on the other hand it doesn't mean marching in lockstep either.

We have to butt heads or we won't get anywhere.
There's my paraphrase of Isaiah 1:18.

I am going to try to do better with image credits, but I can't track down the page the excellent drought photo was on. It is from a government site in New South Wales, Oz.
The grackle is available at
Stuffed Ark .

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Texas Board of Education Meeting on Slashdot

The final vote on the State Board of Education curriculum standard is tomorrow.

The story is not just on Slashdot but also the WSJ.

I have half a mind to go watch the ceremony seeing as I'm in town. Maybe get me a fedora and a little card that says press. But it's just a ceremony. Why burn a day's vacation time just to be exasperated bu a new group when my main hobby involves so much exasperation already. I figure the vote is the vote and the ceremony will just waste a day.

Catch up here, and come back tomorrow evening for the news.

Update 3/25/09 5 PM CDT: Texas Freedom Network is liveblogging as I type.

Update 3/25/09 8 PM: I misunderstood. Final testimony is today. The vote is tomorrow- Thursday the 26th. Sorry for the inadvertent suspense.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Long Thaw: The 100 K Year Tail of AGW

Via a friend at U of Chicago:
I am pleased to announce that David Archer has been chosen the receive
the 2009 Walter P. Kistler Book Award. This honor, given by the
Foundation for the Future, "recognizes authors of science-based books
that make important contributions to the public’s understanding of the
factors that may impact the long-term future of humanity." David's
book, /The Long Thaw: //How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years
of Earth's Climate/, was published last year by Princeton University Press.


Congratulations, David!

Michael Foote
Department of the Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago
Arthur recently suggested via Twitter that I write up David's work for a mass audience, but it's not necessary, as David has done so himself.

Via Amazon:
If you think global warming is going to stop in its tracks as soon as our fossil fuel fix runs its course, think again. Intensifying hurricanes, mega-droughts, and the mass extinction of species are just the beginning, says leading climatologist David Archer, renowned in part for his work with the respected blog RealClimate. Though we still have time to avert the worst of climate change, he says, the ramifications of our carbon spewing (think a ten-foot rise in ocean levels) will last well beyond even our grandchildren's years. A good storyteller, Archer walks us through the history of climate change, starting in the 1800s, when the term 'greenhouse effect' first made its way into scientific parlance. Tempering techie speak with accessible analogies, Archer manages in the James Hansen-approved volume to speak to scientists and laymen alike. - Plenty

The power of Archer's book is to show that such [climate] changes, which we can bring about through just a few centuries of partying on carbon, can only be matched by the earth itself over vastly longer periods... It's the kind of perspective we need in order to realize how insane we're being. - Chris Mooney.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Is Money Itself a Ponzi Scheme?

Here's an alternative view of economics that I heard in a talk, written up by Douglas Rushkoff. The most interesting point to me is this one:
Local currencies favored local transactions, and worked against the interests of large corporations working from far away. In order to secure their own position as well as that of their chartered monopolies, monarchs began to make local currencies illegal, and force locals to instead use “coin of the realm.” These centralized currencies worked the opposite way. They were not earned into existence, they were lent into existence by a central bank. This meant any money issued to a person or business had to be paid back to the central bank, with interest.

What does that do to an economy? It bankrupts it. Think of it this way: A business borrows 1000 dollars from the bank to get started. In ten years, say, it is supposed to pay back 2000 to the bank. Where does the other 1000 come from? Some other business that has borrowed 1000 from the bank. For one business to pay back what it owes, another must go bankrupt. That, or borrow yet another 1000, and so on.

An economy based on an interest-bearing centralized currency must grow to survive, and this means extracting more, producing more and consuming more. Interest-bearing currency favors the redistribution of wealth from the periphery (the people) to the center (the corporations and their owners). Just sitting on money—capital—is the most assured way of increasing wealth. By the very mechanics of the system, the rich get richer on an absolute and relative basis.

The biggest wealth generator of all was banking itself. By lending money at interest to people and businesses who had no other way to conduct transactions or make investments, banks put themselves at the center of the extraction equation. The longer the economy survived, the more money would have to be borrowed, and the more interest earned by the bank.
Does that make sense? Opinions please? Counterarguments?

Although Rushkoff has a substantial Google footprint I was unable to turn up a rebuttal. (This may be symptomatic of how thoroughly we talk past each other these days.)

To me it seemed compelling at first blush, but when I tried to convey it to others I was not altogether convincing. On further consideration, I conclude that it MUST be an oversimplification, because a Ponzi scheme can't work for 400 years, and after all, the system DID succeed in increasing wealth vastly since medieval times.

But there's a real question here for those of us (like me and Rushkoff) interested in economics, skeptical of it, and not especially well-versed. Is growth built in? Because if it is, we have a problem. Given that wealth has environmental impact, given that there is no particular constraint that causes environmental impact per unit wealth to fall as fast as aggregate wealth increases, we eventually hit a brick wall.

There is certainly a case to be made that eventually is now, and accordingly Obama's efforts to reboot the economy are doomed to failure. But that's not what I am trying to address here.

The question I would like to raise is whether unsustainability is built in; whether as Rushkoff suggests we are institutionally incapable of a steady state economy, or whether it might be workable.

The alternative, which I find very intriguing, is the idea that somehow we constrain environmental impact per unit wealth to fall slightly faster than wealth increases. This would be the least disruptive path to sustainability if it were possible. Admittedly this is a vague idea. I got the germ of it from Robert Rohde on a very interesting thread on the globalchange list a couple of years back, when he just calmly asserted that it could naturally emerge that way. Now with all respect to Robert I thought that was a bit, hmm, overoptimistic. But maybe there is a way to make something like that work with some careful design effort.

Maybe we can have a steady state impact constraint atop a nominally growth-based economy by design.

I don't know of anyone (besides myself) trying to envision how such a thing might be constructed. The concept that sustainability could be constructed as a layer on top of an unsustainable system came to me almost two years ago under the influence of a (mostly very technical) Google talk, but I haven't made much (OK, any) progress with it. I find it hard to communicate these sorts of ideas to the sorts of people who might be able to get a grip on the details. Maybe it's just not feasible, but I'd like someone who knows why to acknowledge what I am saying and then reply with an explanation of why it couldn't be practical.

I have a couple of grounds for skepticism myself.

It seems to me that eventually production is actually negatively correlated to wealth. First of all there is the lawnmower problem.

Then there is the fact that I, for one, measure my own wealth in social and artistic and intellectual experiences. This decreases my net impact but doesn't really promote growth at all. If the society moves to an economic metric that values low impact wealth, that means information will be monetized (DRM and such). Recent trends are not indicative that this will work. What's more, there are strong reasons to believe that they shouldn't. In other words, the attention economy doesn't map very well onto traditional economics.

Most economists treat these as aberrations, but both of them are core features of my experience, which may have something to do with why I regard economics with considerable skepticism. But maybe these things can be worked around too.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chris Mooney Responds to Will in Washington Post

As the newsy types among you probably already know, Chris Mooney has managed to convince the Washington Post to run a rebuttal to George Will's nonsense. It is a short piece, but it shouldn't be read the way you'd read a couple of typical paragraphs of blogging; it's a very polished, well-thought-out little gem of an essay. The bulk of it takes on some of Wills' most egregious errors, but the opening and closing paragraphs are what make it memorable:
A recent controversy over claims about climate science by Post op-ed columnist George F. Will raises a critical question: Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?
Yes. That is indeed the question.
Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists -- following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be -- now more than ever.
Yes again! That is pretty much the only answer I've ever been able to come up with. 

Kudos and thanks to Chris for getting this in the Post!

PS - Already over 100 comments! Some of the naysayer comments are amusing, if you are used to this sort of thing.

PPS - Adam Siegel has some interesting meta-comments on the DKos site (he remains critical of the Post) and a huge plethora of links on the whole business.

Friday, March 20, 2009

OK, So...

The rest of the sad tale is here.

Climate Science Open Thread

An experiment:

All points of view on all climate-relevant topics welcome in comments here. No ad hominem attacks, foul language, or innocent people's credit card numbers, please. Otherwise have at it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Texas Board of Education Again and Finally

Received from Sharon Mosher:

Next week the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) will decide what will be taught in science classes in Texas public high schools – final vote. We as earth scientists have a stake in two areas:

1) The proposed TEKS (curriculum standards) for the new high school Earth and Space Science course was amended at the last meeting. The most controversial amendment is the change in wording in the curriculum standards from the proposed:

(8)(A) evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution;


(8)(A) evaluate a variety of fossil types, proposed transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their appearance, completeness, and rate and diversity of evolution and assess the arguments for and against universal common descent in light of this fossil evidence.

The state appointed committee who wrote the original standards (mainly earth scientists) has prepared a summary of all amendments and has suggested compromise wording on the amendments in case the SBOE won’t go back to the original wording:

2) A similar amendment affects wording in the Biology TEKS with regards to fossil evidence.

Such wording provides an opening for State Board members to pressure textbook publishers to include creationist-inspired "weaknesses" of evolution, as occurred in 2003 – and because Texas has such a large share of the textbook market, what we require affects the nation.

What can you do? Contact your SBOE representative and the SBOE chair and let them know your opinion on these amendments – whatever it may be - or testify on Wed., March 25th.

How to Contact Your SBOE Member if you live in Texas

1. Go to

2. On the line "District Type" select "State Board of Education"

3. Type in your address and this will identify which board member represents you.

4. All board members use the same email, so make sure to put in the subject line which member you are trying to contact. However, for the Science TEKS ONLY use this special email address:

If you wish to testify before the board regarding revisions to the science Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, please call (512) 463-9581 between 8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Friday, March 20, or Monday, March 23 to register. You may fax the registration form in to (512) 475-3667 during that same time period. The registration form is available at:

Thanks again for your interest in the education of Texas students.


See also

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Journalists, Advocates and Scientists

I am deeper into considering what it is I do here and why, and whether it is a sensible life's pursuit. As I make more connections among others doing similar things, I have come to the conclusion that there are very fundamental sociological and cultural differences that underly our wretched incapacity to make good collective decisions.

I came to some realizations today as I pondered my mixed feelings about Climate Progress. I'm not going to go through the complexities of my feelings about Joe Romm's approach, at least right now. Instead, consider my astonishment at how much more traffic his blog generates than does any of the old sci.env gang's blogs (Stoat, Rabett Run, Empty, Grumbine and your humble host) or those of simpatico types like Things Break, Tamino, Maribo, Chris Colose, etc., according to various blog metric services. All of those blogs strike me as less predictable than Romm's and consequently more interesting. (And of course, the fact that his primary competition among climate-focussed blogs is Watt's Up is even harder to take.)

That astonishment has abated. It appears that the similarity between Romm and the rest of us is coincidental. Romm (and Watt and to some extent Deltoid, but this is somewhat confused by the fact that he does everything upside-down) are part of a different community.

My first great burst of popularity was after Freeman Dyson got some press, and I was first off the mark in criticizing him. It was far from my best writing or my best ideas, but people were frantically casting about for something to throw at the peculiar mess Dyson had come up with, and I was the first to cook one up. I got topical, newsy.

Attention is good of course. Once people see that you are saying interesting things, some of them stick around. If enough of them stick around, eventually you get to quit your day job. Since I find myself intrigued by that concept, trying to be newsy seems attractive.

But in the end, if you capitulate too much to newsiness, you aren't representing the scientific way of thinking at all. In an essay on science blogging, Bora Zivkovic duly salutes the best of the science journalists. I'd mention John Fleck. Bora mentions the very highly rated Carl Zimmer. And in fact I like Carl Zimmer, but consider this blog entry of his.

Yes the article is partly another rehashing of the George Will fiasco, but Zimmer comes around to a paper by Swanson and Tsonis, along with the comment that "This story has been bouncing around a lot around the blogosphere." And at MSNBC, and at the Heritage Foundation.

Despite all the attention, the fact is that this is under the category of "yet another Tsonis paper". Now, it's not just that I want to be polite to Tsonis. He actually comes up with some interesting stuff. But frankly it doesn't take the climatology world by storm. The reasons for this are hard to explain in brief. The fact is that for practical purposes what he is doing is at best a crude qualitative model of the climate system, and that's being generous. It hasn't got any physics behind it. He is essentially a mathematician and not a climatologist, and comes up with interesting excursions into nonlinear dynamics, inspired by climate time series, but he could use just about any time series in the same way. It is, for the purposes of anything the press might have a legitimate interest in, completely and totally irrelevant.

Very few papers cause instant buzz in a real scientific community and this is not one of them.

So why is Tsonis getting press? Well, because, as Zimmer quotes Tsonis:
"If political organizations want to pick up what they like in order to pass their point and ignore the real science, there is nothing we can do."
In practice, what interests a scientist is hardly ever a single paper without the context of a dozen other papers, and various social contexts. This is also how a trained scientist writes. We don't seek a play-by-play of the hockey game, who has the puck, who has the man advantage. We seek to understand why there is hockey at all, a question irrelevant to who is on offense and whether they were offside on the latest play.

Journalists give even coverage to each team. Advocates root for one team or the other. Most people are far more familiar with these types of discourse and find scientists way of reasoning very peculiar.

In fact, the advantage of advocacy blogs or advocacy articles is the fact that they mostly work to reinforce the beliefs of their respective followers. You know which topics they are going to bring up and what they will say about them. They will rarely back down, or point to places which give them pause, or where their opposition may have a point. They are providing ammunition, not discourse. (Most such blogs do allow significant conversation in their comments. This at least is a great improvement over traditional magazines. But usually you just get flame wars, so what is the point?)

So the question of where scientists fit into the spectrum of science journalism is quite fraught. Of course, journalists are not feeling very happy these days for all sorts of reasons beyond their control. The fact that someone like me might be looking to break into their field at a time like this will strike them as both stupid and threatening. On the other hand, the world needs the sort of information which is cumulative and sound, not impulsive and jumpy and, well, sometimes clueless.

Now that I understand that people read news and advocacy, and do not read science, I at least have a better grasp of the compromises and issues required to increase traffic. The expectation of "news" is neutrality among competing parties, and of advocacy to choose one side regardless of evidence. Both are fundamentally lazy.

We, the public, the whole world, need to learn how to think, collectively. It's a tall order. I am not sure that either of the two types of nonfiction feature writer that get most of the attention are up to the task. Science blogging is important, even if nobody has noticed yet. And now, in the climate blogging community (and biology as well) we have an emergent category of advocacy science writing.

Advocacy science? What the hell does that mean? Advocacy that is based not on alliances and social constellations but on facts. Advocacy that is unreliable in alliances but reliable in sincerity and principles. Advocacy that dares to change its mind once in a while!

Which is what I'm trying to achieve here. It turns out to be a very interesting challenge in itself, and as far as I know one with little in the way of pre-blogospheric precedent. That's even before we talk about building enough of an audience to support such an activity at a professional level.

More very recent discussion on the topic of science blogging vs science journalism appears at Nature. See, I am up on the news, right?

Keep up with the latest, ladies and gents! You heard it here first! Watch my recommends and my twitter stream!

Extry! Extry! Read all about it!
All the news that's fit for a sustainability nerd to cogitate on!

Update: Excellent article on Bioephemera.

Update / apology: Let me make it clear that while I don't always agree with Joe Romm, and I do find the more sciencey flavored blogs more interesting for myself, 1) I fully understand that other people find more politically flavored reporting more interesting and 2) on the whole I think Climate Progress is a force for good in the world. 

This article is not intended as criticism of either the teams or the referees in the hockey analogy, neither in general or with regard to any specific person or group. It's just intended to stake out some territory that isn't part of the day to day political world at all, and to note that the audience for that territory, at present, seems unfortunately small.

Specific mention of Climate Progress in this article should only refer to its prominence in the blog statistics and to my newfound understanding of the origins of that popularity. 

I have changed some wording to make other interpretations less prominent. I don't want to start a feud with Joe nor to distract from the main message. While I reserve the right to disagree with Joe on specifics, it seems inappropriate to paint our disagreements in such broad strokes. 

If I am to raise my profile I will need to be more careful with my words.  I sincerely apologize to Joe for my clumsiness and thank him for his forbearance in our email conversation.

Climate Change as Security Threat

IGSD / INECE press release:
Climate Change is Such a Serious Threat to National Security that Military Organizations are Now Part of the Solution

Washington, D.C., March 18, 2009 – International climate change policy must take into consideration the effects of climate change on national security and military organizations are part of the solution, said participants at yesterday’s “
Climate Change & Security At Copenhagen” conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Institute for Environmental Security and the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE-EU), in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. Dwindling natural resources is one factor that could fuel conflict and become a threat multiplier. “Climate change is threatening 1,500 miles of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau that feed the rivers that supply drinking and agriculture water to billions of people in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh,” said Air Marshal A. K. Singh, (Ret) Former Commander in Chief of Indian Air Force. “Less water from the retreating glaciers could spur serious conflicts between the countries. This is reason enough for military organizations to join with their governments in stopping climate change.”

Conference speakers such as David Sandalow from the Brookings Institute discussed both U.S. and international climate policy with regard to national security, and what it will mean for this December’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Other presentations focused on the role of military organizations worldwide in helping reduce the threat of climate change. “Environmental protection is not a new concept to military organizations,” said Stephen O. Andersen, from the U.S. EPA. “When ozone depletion threatened health and prosperity, the U.S. Department of Defense and defense ministries worldwide played an important role in eliminating their own dependence on ozone depleting substances and they shared that alternative technology worldwide. Now, military organizations are taking responsibility for protecting global security by helping eliminate global dependence on fossil fuels and promoting new, sustainable technologies.”

Last week at the Copenhagen Climate Congress, scientists confirmed that climate change is advancing much more quickly than anticipated, as well as tipping points for abrupt climate change events, such as the dieback of the Amazon rainforest and the melting of the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet. The resulting sea level rise would produce millions of environmental refugees.

In order to avoid abrupt climate change as well as security threats, world leaders must take immediate action on “fast-action” measures that will buy time for long-term climate strategies. “Unfortunately, the world is already committed to 2.4˚C of warming and recent research has shown that even aggressive reductions in CO2 emissions won’t provide significant cooling for 1,000 years,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, who spoke on the topic of abrupt climate change at yesterday’s event. “In light of approaching tipping points and the security implications of passing them, we need to be pursuing a number of mitigation measures that can be implemented now and bring quick reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Zaelke presented two main strategic “levers” to produce fast mitigation. The first is to reduce emissions of black carbon soot and non-CO2 emissions, such as HFCs. With over 20 years of success in phasing out 97 percent of almost 100 ozone-depleting substances and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process, the Montreal Protocol ozone treaty could be an effective framework for phasing down HFCs. The second lever is to expand bio-sequestration through forests, agriculture, and biochar (which in addition to sequestering significant amounts of carbon, also improves soil fertility for increased agricultural productivity). Some scientists have noted that bio-sequestration appears to be the only current way to draw down CO2 concentrations to a safe level of 350ppm. These strategies could be included under the new climate agreement.

Tom Spencer, Vice Chairman of the Institute for Environmental Security, stated that “the defence ministers of the world are expanding their superior threat assessment tools to analyze the threats climate change poses to national security. The military have a major ecological footprint…perhaps we should call it a ‘bootprint.’” Mr. Spencer added that “the defence community needs to join the climate battle in full force during the climate negotiations at Copenhagen in December.”

For more information, please contact:

Ms. Alex Viets
Communications Officer, IGSD

Monday, March 16, 2009

Guest blogger: Paul Baer re: Copenhagen

I just posted Paul Baer's transcription of the closing plenary of the IARU meeting at Copenhagen to a static web page. Unfortunately it was so long as to be unwieldy for the Blogger format. Paul also sends along these thoughts, which motivated him taking the time to do the transcription.

I'd like to add that Paul has become both a good friend and a close collaborator in the time since I first reported on his essay the Worth of an Ice Sheet, here. I'm pleased and honored to be associated with him. 

I had the good fortune to be invited to co-chair a session at the “Climate Change Congress” held in Copenhagen, Denmark last week. It was an impressive meeting, frankly overwhelming in its density, with far too many sessions to choose from and people to speak with. There were many interesting presentations of all kinds, and I could write about the meeting for far longer than I actually spent there.

What fascinates me – and frustrates me – is the complexity of the process by which a very diverse community of scientists is trying to find how to wield a collective voice in the political process. I focus here on only one very important question: the question of “targets.”

In the closing plenary, five prominent academics and the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, all spoke to the conference’s “key messages.” One of the academics who is actually a climate scientist, Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research, said in his response to the prime minister that “2ºC is not safe.” Rasmussen in turn asked pointedly whether he and his fellow policymakers should abandon the 2ºC target, and the “at least 50% below 1990 levels in 2050” long term goal that has also been embraced by the EU and elsewhere.

If you read the exchange, you’ll find that Rahmstorf tries to say that the 2ºC target should be considered an upper limit, not as “we’ll take fifty fifty odds of staying below it,” while Dan Kammen of UC Berkeley explicitly argues for an 80% below 1990 level in 2050 to achieve a lower risk – on the order of 15-30% - of staying below 2ºC. Will Steffen of ANU, somewhat in contrast says that 2ºC is a “reasonable” goal for the Copenhagen meeting, but stresses the need to take an “adaptive management” approach which allows for subsequent revision.

But when Rasmussen has his final comments, all that he seems to take away, is yes, the 2ºC target and the 50% below 1990 in 2050 is still good enough. Worse, he stresses that he needs fixed numbers, not the kind of nuance and hedging that proper science always produces. In this realm, there was no possible argument that could have prevailed that would have justified a lower target. Or so it feels…

If you don’t wish to read the whole transcript, start from where Katherine Richardson of the University of Copenhagen, the Chair of the session and the whole conference, introduces Rasmussen with “Mr. Prime Minister”.


Update: There's some interesting discussion over at Stoat's.

Copenhagen: Closing Plenary Transcript

Text moved to this static page.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The "Back Channel" Rules (O/T)

Venturing a bit off topic here.

So the most interesting thing for me about SXSWi today was a meeting about "new thinking in the book publishing business". I went because Clay Shirky was there. Despite the fact that I had never heard of him a week ago, he is now in my pantheon of heroes. And indeed, when he spoke he was great. But most of the panel presentation was irrelevant (and rather pointless) exposition on the part of the panelists of pretty much old fashioned editorial work.

This is hardly the first time such a thing has occurred, but the outcome was unexpected and enormously interesting. Why? Because almost everybody in the audience was on a pre-announced twitter channel #sxswbp. And by the time anybody in the crowd got to ask anything, most of the crowd was in a very collective and connected foul mood.

The twitter channel also caught some great bons mots, mostly from Shirky:
"Filtering is the single most important thing on the Internet today"

"Internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history."

"Teenagers are rushing home to read and write!"

"Once you know who's going to hate something, you don't have to write with them in mind."

"If you don't like paranormal romance you shouldn't try to fake it"

"Book writing is like driving an ammo truck; you can't pull over."

"Finding stuff you didn't know you were looking for is still a hard problem."

" Long-form writing must be relevant beyond NOW, by nature."
No doubt these are all smart and articulate people. But what about, you know, the future of the book publishing industry? You know, the topic we came to learn about?

Here's the upshot. Apparently, the publishers' point is this: if we didn't have publishers, who would discover brilliant new authors of literature?

I have an unpleasant little secret I want to share with you. I don't care about "literature" very much and in fact very few people do. (I care about SF and graphic novels a little, tech books and software management books a good deal more, and science and math and pop science and math most of all. Other people have other priorities.)

I wrote a book once that while never fated for literary greatness could have been much better were it not for damage by the editor and the publisher. Is this because they were all focused on finding the next literature Nobelist?

Fine, your call. Next time I'll take my business elsewhere. So this event confirmed my interest in self-publishing to, errm, "monetize" (eww...) my blogging. I'm not the issue here, but I got the sense that the members of the blogger-heavy audience (it was asked at one point and consistent bloggers formed a majority of the audience) were all making similar calculations.

The event was ironic because it was ultimately not about long form writing at all but about the very short form, i.e., the 140 or fewer characters in a Twitter message. For all I know it was a watershed event in the history of instant messaging. It certainly was a revelation for me, and that's why I'm glad I was there.

Twitter is nowhere near as silly an idea as it appears at first glance. If you still think it is, go look at the #sxswbp (yes, same as above) link. It was an amazing event, though not in the intended way.

(Picture: The Lego alcove at SXSW from above)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Grist for the Mill

Using SXSWi as an occasion to ponder the future of journalism has been fruitful so far.

Larry Lessig did not disappoint. He really had two themes. He said that the first problem is separating congressional job retention form money. "That's bnot the only problem. That's not the most important problem. But is is the first problem."

The odd thing is that while he made a compelling case for solutions to that problem being logically precedent (in the USA, what about elsewhere?) to all the other ones, it seems to me he ALSO made a case for a different logically precedent problem.

As Dylan Otto Krider quotes Amanda Gefter, "It is crucial to the public's
intellectual health to know when science really is science". And there is no shortcut. Lessig showed a very disturbing vidoe of RFK Jr, siding with the vaccination paranoids, calling real research "tobacco science". There really is no shortcut to knowing which science is the real science, and it is completely necessary.

The big picture, of course, is this: if you don't trust your government, your industry, your press or your scientists, you aren't going to come up with very clever solutions to your problems, are you?

Anyway, the relation between science and journalism in America in the next few years may be a linchpin for the future of the whole world. With all due respect to the people whose lives are being disrupted, I think it's a good thing that science journalism has to be reinvented under the circumstances; what this means for the rest of journalism doesn't concern me.

I'm starting to get some business ideas, but much as I'd love to babble about them here it's probably best to be a little circumspect.

Meanwhile, a lot of fascinating stuff to think about.

This one from Craig Shirky has been causing a splash in journalism circles this week: "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism."

Here's Tim O'Reilly's amen.

Similarly, a recent article in The New Republic by Yochai Benkler: "The newspaper's decline does not portend anything resembling the end of democracy."

There there's Steven Johnson's talk, the last few seconds of which I caught. A rough model for the new journalism business is sketched out at the end.

And here's Seth Godin on keeping existing businesses going.

Remember, science isn't the only topic that is being mishandled, though. Are the existing newspapers institutions we can afford to have around anymore?

(Picture: A guy wearing Google Austin shirt at SXSW)

Summit on America's Climate Choices

Just passing this on. Mark your calendars.
National Academy of Sciences Summit on America's Climate Choices

Mon Mar 30 – Tue Mar 31
2100 C St. NW, Washington, DC

The Summit on America's Climate Choices will be held March 30-31 at the National
Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, DC. The Summit provides an
opportunity for the America's Climate Choices committee and panel members
to interact with major thought leaders and key constituencies to frame
the study issues. Participants will include leading scientists, engineers,
and public health officials; business leaders; members of Congress;
Administration officials; federal agency representatives; state and
local decision makers; representatives from nongovernmental organizations,
nonprofit groups; and the international community; and other stakeholders.

The Summit will be open to the public but space will be limited.

Public registration will begin in February. A live video webcast of the
event will be available.

Kim Stanley Robinson Gets It

Well-known science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson says what I've been saying here, what many of the regulars say, stuff like:
First, we need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness; but now there is some cherry-picking of science going on in the various kinds of resistance to the news about climate change, and this double standard needs to be called out. The so-called climate change skeptics are now simply in denial. All science is skeptical, and the scientific community has looked at this situation and found compelling evidence for anyone with an open mind.
We already have good starter technology for lithium-ion batteries in cars; clean, renewable energy generation; cleaner building methods; and so on. The technical solutions are being improved all the time in research labs.

The main problem is making these changes happen more quickly than they can in the false pricing system that we have created and enforced within our hierarchical power structure. There is conflict over how to pay for decarbonizing, which is deemed “too expensive” to execute quickly. There is both a defense of the destructive carbon burning we are engaged in and a resistance to the most obvious solutions among people who remain frightened of the idea of government-led economic programs. But now we simply must have such programs because the market is not capable of taking action.

Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.
The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible.
All so nicely said that perhaps I'd feature it anyway, though it's nothing especially new to my readers. What's interesting is where this appears, which is on a McKinsey web site. That's amazing. Even a huge corporate consultancy has the nerve to consider these ideas. Only the press and the politicians seem to miss the scope of the problem, the scale of the transition.

Everything needs to be on the table. Everything.