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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 13 January 2006
Books: The Velocity of Everydayness
Topic: Science

Books: The Velocity of Everydayness

There is no Book Wrangler column in this weekend's issue of Just Above Sunset as that particular wrangler, columnist Bob Patterson, has left his Los Angeles haunts for a long weekend in Texas. He has one of the organization's digital cameras with him, so who knows what we'll see in the January 22nd issue? He mentioned nothing about dropping by Crawford to capture the presidential brush-clearing. Perhaps we'll get long vistas with cows. Perhaps not.

Wait! There's "an organization" here? Not really. We pretend there is.

In any event, in his absence it just seems wrong not to have a book column. So here it is, and it concerns The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life, first published by Viking Canada in 2003, but being published down here by Thunder's Mouth Press. The official publication date is February 9, but the early reviews are trickling in. The author, Jay Ingram, is host of the Canadian Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, and given the word "more" in the book title, you need to know this is a sequel to his earlier How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life.

Ingram, although he has a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Toronto, also has a sly sense of humor. So we've moved from the science how to dunk a doughnut - too many hours at Tim Horton's, no doubt - to calculating the velocity of honey. This is odd stuff.

So what is the science behind the theory of "six degrees of separation" and how do stones "skip" - and why does toast fall butter side down, and why does time seem to speed up as one grows older? And too, when visiting a new place, why does getting there always seem to take so much longer than returning home? There are twenty-four chapters, or "short meditations" if you will, on such things in this second book.

As Diana Lutz notes in her review in American Scientist, you might call the book "crossword puzzles for the scientifically minded - they offer a mental workout for its own sake but also soothe and amuse." In fact, Ingram calls this volume "a self-help book " -essays to "reduce stress" and offer "a brief interruption in the ridiculous rush of life."

Given the news of the week covered elsewhere in the pages, that's a good thing. If he's going to explain the physics of the way paper crumples and crackles when it is squeezed, then this makes sense. That's just what happens with the Los Angeles Times here some mornings.

But he's Canadian, so we do get a bit on the sport of curling. He wonders about those twenty-kilo "rocks" they use. As Lutz summarizes -
An upside-down drinking glass, rotating clockwise as it slides down a bar, begins to curve left. Why, then, does the curling rock curve right under similar circumstances? This question is harder to answer than you might think. The mechanism might have to do with the build-up of ice chips under the rock as it plows across the ice, which could conceivably also be what makes it growl (yes, rocks growl), but nobody knows for sure.
It's not the Molson's? Fascinating.

Other issues? Can you make yourself wake up at a predetermined time? (Seems so here.) Do you have a sixth sense that allows you to perceive objects in your path even in total darkness? (That's easy. No, you use one of the five, your sense of hearing, and he suggests hissing while you move your hand slowly closer to your face. You'll get the idea.)

But the scary part concerns why, as we get older, the years seem to go by faster and faster. There are real experiments that suggest an explanation for this - as we age, our biological clocks run slower and, since our clocks are running slower, the world seems to speed up. Lutz says Ingram describes a man with a brain tumor that affected his biological clock - and the fellow quit driving and watching television because traffic seemed to be rushing at him at an incomprehensible speed and television screeched on faster than he could follow. When I get a copy of the book I'll skip that chapter, as that may be happening here now. The bottom line is that when you're twenty, your life is half over, given how your "biological clock" works. Somehow that feels right.

Until you get you copy of the book, you might want to check out this radio interview (audio link and transcript) with Ingram from Living on Earth, November 18, 2005. The host is Steve Curwood.

Here's a bit -
CURWOOD: Okay, how fast is honey?

INGRAM: Well, it depends on the height you're dropping it onto your toes. The higher it is, the faster it's going to fall. It also coils up in a really interesting way on your toes, too. You know, honey dripping on toes is just one of the many everyday experiences that has really interesting science in it.
Yeah, but he doesn't explain it.

He does explain toast always hitting the floor butter-side down -
It's actually a very simple answer and that is - it really has to do with the height of the table above the floor.

Most kitchen tables where you're eating you're eating your toast are about the same height. And here's the thing: if the toast tips off the edge of the table, then it starts to rotate, so when it's rotating, if you gave it enough time, it could rotate a full 360 and land butter-side up and you'd be okay.

Or, if the kitchen table were just inches above the floor, the toast could tilt but not quite fall over. It will rotate less than 90 degrees and settle back so that it was still butter-side up. And it turns out that toast falling off the edge of a table and rotating, if it's a typical table, doesn't have enough time to do a full 360 and will land butter-side down.
Oh. The intelligent design people would say it was God determining this all - the toast always landing upside down is a mini-Job trial for us all. Science it seems, can explain lots of things. Even the most mundane.

And there's this -
CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) But wait a second, you're saying scientists sit around studying which side toast is going to land on when it goes off the table?

INGRAM: Yeah, so there's two ways of reacting to this. One, I detect in your voice, a kind of arching of the eyebrows. "What? Scientists do this?" But you know, scientists have senses of humor too, and I'm quite sure that those scientists who've investigated this are doing it partly to collect the data because it's kind of interesting; partly just to amuse themselves and, hopefully, others.
Science is fun? Well it can be. Except for the "Are You Staring At Me?" chapter. Check that out in the interview. If somebody's stares at you, do you generally interpret it as a threatening gesture? The experiment is strange, and disturbing.

And there's this on the time passing business -
Well, we all know, if we've been living long enough, as you get older time seems to move more quickly. And, you know, I think this is pretty common. You remember summer vacation when you were in grade 6 or grade 5? It seemed to take forever. Well, summer vacations now you barely catch your breath before you have start work again in the fall.

One of the questions is why does this happen? And it seems that one of our biological clocks in our brain slows down with age, just as many things slow down. And with a slower clock, more events seem to happen in a given time, so it feels like time is moving faster. The more interesting aspect, though, to me, is just how much faster is it?

And a guy named Robert Lemlich came up with an equation in the mid-70s or so, and he argued that... here's the really depressing part of this: Let's say that you're 40 right now, and you're going to live to 80. So you feel like, "hey, I've got half my life ahead of me." Lemlich says, well, you may have literally another 40 years, half your life, but it's not going to feel like that. And he did some calculations and showed that when you're 40 time is probably seeming to pass by, subjective time is going twice as fast as it did when you were ten. On that basis, you've really actually already lived more than 70 percent of your subjective life. So, you think you have half your life left; it's only going to feel like 30 percent of your life. And by the time you're 60, that 20 years is only going to feel like 13 percent of your life.
Yipes! And the he quotes the nineteenth century British poet Robert Southey - "Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they're passing, they seem to have been when we look back on them, and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them."

Damn, that's cold. Time doesn't really fly when you're having fun. It just flies, faster and faster and faster. Not fair!

Ah well. Time to hunt down this book.


Note: This is the age of the internet. Jay Ingram's blog is here.

Posted by Alan at 20:08 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Wednesday, 21 September 2005

Topic: Science

Follow Up: The Other Great Debate

At the end of July in these pages, in Counting the Seconds, or Not, there was a discussion of a controversy - the real problem with adding "leap seconds" in determining what was the actual, precise time at any place on the planet.

Say what?

Of course, it is a bit hard to explain. The July item discussed the heated argument between the Americans who wanted it one way, the British who wanted it another, and some folks at the Paris Observatory who had other thoughts. (By the way, "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has a photo of the Paris Observatory, as of last weekend, here.)

This is arcane stuff.

We have offered a proposal at the UN, to an obscure committee on such matters that meets behind closed doors - a very pro-business proposal - but astronomers hate it. And Britain sees it as a threat to its revered standard, Greenwich Mean Time. Our plan would simplify the world's timekeeping by making each day last exactly twenty-four hours. But you see, since the moon's gravity has been slowing down the Earth, it takes slightly longer than those twenty-four hours for the big ball to rotate completely on its axis. So every few years a group that helps regulate global timekeeping, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, tells governments, telecom companies, satellite operators and others to add in an extra second to all clocks to keep them synchronized - an adjustment made on New Year's Eve or the last day of June. But this just screws up all kinds of hyper-accurate computer systems, and GPS systems, even if it helps astronomers to point their telescopes precisely.

So what to do? There seem to be three choices:

You have your International Atomic Time, or "absolute timekeeping," based on atomic clocks. You have your Universal Time, the "classic system" based on the rotation of the earth. Since International Atomic Time was introduced in 1958, "atomic time" has run, now, thirty-two seconds ahead of "ordinary time" - it's those damned fluctuations in the rate of the earth's rotation, of course. And you have the compromise system to manage the divergence - that would be what came out of the International Telecommunication Union in 1971 - a system called "Coordinated Universal Time," a system uses the leap-second idea to keep everyday time accurate within 0.9 seconds. Close enough? We say "no" at the UN meetings. (Note: Leap seconds normally are declared every few years, but because of a recent stabilization in the earth's rotation, which no one is explaining, there have been no leap seconds since 1998.)

So what? See this from the Associated Press, Wednesday, September 21 -British Group Wants Debate on Leap Seconds - they're not happy at all:
Hold on a second! Britain's Royal Astronomical Society on Wednesday called for a public debate on the proposed abolition of leap seconds, a tiny end-of-year adjustment to keep clocks in synch with the earth's rotation.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will meet in Geneva in November to debate a proposal to abolish leap seconds after 2007. The next leap second comes at the end of this year.

Mike Hapgood, secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, said the debate has practical implications for computers, global positioning systems and for those who study phenomena - such as tides - which are related to the earth's rotation.

"The debate has been rather closed, mainly among timing experts," Hapgood said in a telephone interview. ...
So, should the debate be opened up? That might be fun, and a break from all the talk of war and politics and natural disasters, and oil running out and economic woes and global warming and coming pandemics. On the one side you have the purists, the business folks and the United States government arguing for absolute precision, for good reason, but ignoring the natural world with its imperfections. On the other side you have the realists, the folks who study the tides and stars, and this imperfect earth, and these people need a timekeeping system that matches actual, observable phenomena.

The purists versus the realists? Wait a second (no pun intended). That's the same debate as on all the other matters.

Posted by Alan at 10:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Tuesday, 23 August 2005

Topic: Science

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

A bit of environmental news:

Government Proposes New SUV Fuel Standards
Ken Thomas, Associated Press Writer - Tuesday, August 23, 2005 - (08-23) 16:59 PDT WASHINGTON (AP)

That goes like this:
With gas prices continuing to rise, the Bush administration on Tuesday proposed new rules to compel auto manufacturers to make pickup trucks, minivans and some sport utility vehicles more fuel-efficient. Environmentalists said the plan would do little to wean the nation from its dependence on foreign oil.

The proposal would require the auto industry to raise standards for most vehicles other than cars beginning in 2008. All automakers would have to comply with the new system by 2011.

"This is a plan that will save gas and result in less pain at the pump for motorists without sacrificing safety," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said.

Mineta, speaking at news conferences in Atlanta and Los Angeles, said the program was expected to save about 10 billion gallons of gasoline over the life of vehicles built from 2008 through 2011. The U.S. currently consumes about 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year, according to Energy Department statistics.

But the plan would not apply to the largest SUVs, such as the Hummer H2. Passenger cars, already required to maintain an average of 27.5 miles per gallon, also would not be covered by the changes. ...
So what good does this do?

AP quotes Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program - "At a time when Americans are paying record prices for gas, the Bush administration has sided with its cronies in the auto industry and rejected real solutions." John Kerry (yes, he's still alive and somewhere or other) calls this big news "backward looking" and "another lost opportunity to help our security, economy and environment."

The government claims the new plan will save more fuel than any previous rulemaking in the history of the light-truck CAFE program – the average mileage of manufacturers' entire fleet of light trucks - but that's a low standard. The new things here is we now would divide light trucks into six categories based on size. Smaller vehicles would have to get better gas mileage than larger trucks and so on, except for the Hummer, which is exempt from all that for some reason. But the manufacturers could earn credits for exceeding the minimum in certain categories and apply them to a category where they don't meet the standard. Whatever.

Still, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing nine automakers, said the "higher fuel economy standards will be a challenge, even with all of the new fuel-efficient technologies that are offered for sale today."

Why bother? Consider this:

How to Escape the Oil Trap
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are now awash in oil money, and no matter what the controls, some is surely getting to unsavory groups.
Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, Aug. 29 - Sept. 5, 2005 issue

The idea? The way to fix our foreign policy problems is to do something about our need for so much oil.
If I could change one thing about American foreign policy, what would it be? The answer is easy, but it's not something most of us think of as foreign policy. I would adopt a serious national program geared toward energy efficiency and independence. Reducing our dependence on oil would be the single greatest multiplier of American power in the world. I leave it to economists to sort out what expensive oil does to America's growth and inflation prospects. What is less often noticed is how crippling this situation is for American foreign policy. "Everything we're trying to do in the world is made much more difficult in the current environment of rising oil prices," says Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World."
And he goes on to make a convincing argument that our energy efficiency may be the key to getting out of any number of problems with terrorism, with the difficulties with any number of pesky governments and all the rest - rising oil prices are helping to finance the terror masters in Tehran, Saudi Arabia and so on. It's our demand for oil that gets us all messed up.

But what catches one's attention is this:
Rising oil prices are the result of many different forces coming together. We have little control over some of them, like China's growth rate. But America remains the 800-pound gorilla of petroleum demand. In 2004, China consumed 6.5 million barrels of oil per day. The United States consumed 20.4 million barrels, and demand is rising. That is because of strong growth, but also because American cars - which guzzle the bulk of oil imports - are much less efficient than they used to be. This is the only area of the American economy in which we have become less energy-efficient than we were 20 years ago, and we are the only industrialized country to have slid backward in this way. There's one reason: SUVs. They made up 5 percent of the American fleet in 1990. They make up almost 54 percent today.
The man said fifty-four percent. What? Well, a drive down any street in America will bear that out.

How did THAT happen?

The last time that issue came up in these pages was January 11, 2004 in Automotive Psychology: If someone's going to die, let it be someone else. Is it possible to limit the damage an obsession does to others?

Malcolm Gladwell with his long piece in the New Yorker on those SUV things - these luxury, top-heavy, truck-based transport vehicles just about everyone drives - prompted the item. And at the that time my nephew's wife out in Barstow was urging her husband to trade their nearly new Ford Excursion - the largest and heaviest passenger vehicle manufactured in American - for a Hummer - a bit more brutal and it looks bigger and safer, or maybe more "invincible and impenetrable."

Gladwell explained how we got into this SUV obsession in an interview about his New Yorker piece - Road Killers.

Why the obsession?
One school of thought says that SUV buyers harbor a kind of outdoorsy fantasy. But I suspect that it's more basic than that: this is a vehicle that can flourish in the most extreme environment imaginable. If it can ford streams and climb over boulders, just think how safe and protected you'll be on the trip to Wal-Mart! Of course, the logic behind that argument is backward: the trip to Wal-Mart is a good deal more hazardous than fording a stream in the wilderness, and we ought to be buying cars optimized for the conditions we actually drive in.
Maybe so, but you don't tell people what they "ought" to buy. That just makes them angry.

There's a bit on how market research shows that SUVs tend to be purchased by people who are "insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills." No kidding.

Then there's the marketing:
There's a television commercial for an SUV in which a woman is driving the SUV and a rock rolls onto the road in front of her, and she swerves around it at the last minute. That ad claims that SUVs are nimble, and suggests that the key variable in avoiding the rock was the vehicle. That is an attempt, it seems to me, to play to the driver who lacks confidence in his or her skills. The most dominant image in SUV commercials and ads is still the SUV mastering some off-road obstacle: fording streams, cutting through snowbanks, racing across virgin wilderness. Obviously, almost no SUV driver is ever going to use his or her car in those environments (in large part, of course, because racing across virgin wilderness in an SUV is, for the most part, illegal). Another interesting thing about SUV advertisements, along these lines, is how rarely children appear in them. Keith Bradsher makes this point in his book, High and Mighty. Minivans are advertised in family-centric ways. The SUV, on the other hand, is supposed to allow the buyer to pretend that he or she doesn't have a family, that he or she is still a kind of rugged loner without suburban entrapments.
Of course Gladwell adds that "the most important other issue" is the question of fashion: certain kinds of SUVs (like the Cadillac Escalade) are simply considered cool, in the way that Corvettes were cool twenty-five years ago.

Them there's safety and its costs:
If every car on the road was a Mini, then the cost of an accident would be quite small: if you are in a Mini and you hit a Mini, you aren't going to be that bad off. So, in the old days, the premium on active safety wasn't so large. On the other hand, if every car on the road is an SUV, the cost of an accident grows substantially. When a Ford Explorer hits a Chevy TrailBlazer, both parties suffer enormously. And, if a Ford Explorer hits a Mini, the Mini driver is a dead man. ... As a non-SUV owner, I simply cannot afford to get into any accident at all these days.
The irony here is that my nephew's wife did get her Hummer, and I got a new Mini Cooper. Here they are side by side:

She feels safe. And oddly enough, I do too - the Mini is nimble enough to get out of the way of most trouble.

Of course, I am delusional and she is in the careful mainstream. They want these things, and that's not going to change. It's a bit of an obsession:
I don't think we can easily cure people of their desire to feel safe - even if that desire does not correlate with actual safety. But what we can do - and ought to do - is limit the damage that that obsession does to others.
But Gladwell was only talking about engineering changes. When Fareed Zakaria limiting the damage caused by our obsession with big SUV's he's talking about something else entirely.

Slightly off topic is this from June 13, 2004 - Hollywood and Paris, Back and Forth. From Paris, Reuters has just reported this:
Bulky four-by-fours could be banned from clogging up the chic streets of Paris after a top official in the capital's left-wing government described them as a polluting "caricature of a car" unsuited to city life.

An anti-sports utility vehicle (SUV) resolution passed by the city council could lead to a ban on the popular vehicles in about 18 months if it is included in an overall project to improve traffic flow in the city, Deputy Mayor Denis Baupin said Wednesday.

"You have to wonder why people want to drive around in SUVs," Baupin, a Greens party member, said on Europe 1 radio.

"We have no interest in having SUVs in the city. They're dangerous to others and take up too much space."
Click on the link and see what Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, had to say about that!

Back on topic - the topic of limiting the damage SUV's do - there's this from Andrew Sullivan, who lives in Provincetown, out at far end of Cape Cod. Reading this got me stared on this whole business:
Some kind of move toward greater energy efficiency is essential in the war on terror. But what I didn't realize is how the curse of the SUV is so damaging. Fareed writes that 54 percent of today's U.S. fleet of cars are made up by these ugly, behemoth tanks that guzzle gas, and make life miserable for everyone not in them.

My anti-SUV ire always goes up in the summer, when I see these vast, bloated symbols of excess bulldozing down the narrow streets of Provincetown, pushing every bicyclist, pedestrian or small child out of their way. My only solace is thinking of how many of these SUV owners are pouring money away to keep their mobile homes on the road. Pity that same money goes to finance Islamist terror. And please don't give me all this guff about how I don't have a car (hey, I'm not indirectly donating to al Qaeda), having to take kids here, there and everywhere, with all their stuff and the dogs and suburbs and soccer practices and on and on. All of this took place before SUVs; kids were just packed into back seats and trunks were stuffed full if necessary. Parents coped. Kids thrived.

If all else failed, people could even have less stuff. Imagine that: less stuff.

As readers know, I'd gladly put a dollar of extra tax on gas, insist on higher fuel standards for cars, make SUVs comply with the fuel standards of other cars and put a tax on SUVs on top of all that. We are in a war. As far as I'm concerned, those people driving SUVs are aiding and abetting the enemy, and helping to finance the terrorists that want to kill us all. I'm well aware that the notion that the Bush administration has any interest in energy independence or taxing gas or deterring SUVs is about as likely as their demanding subsidies for sex-changes, but I might as well vent. We can always stigmatize these SUV-terror-enablers. How about bumper-stickers for non-SUVs that simply say: MY CAR DOESN'T SUBSIDIZE SAUDI TERROR. Would that help?
Probably not. Somehow driving the largest possible SUV or truck has come to be seen as patriotic. "No Arabs are going change this guy's lifestyle." That sort of thing. Makes no sense - the bad guys with the oil just get richer and richer, and less likely to do anything we suggest - but that's the way it is. And shaming people about their latest hyper-expensive purchase? That never works. They will just assume that you're a powerless loser, with a tiny penis, who envies them.

Still Sullivan proposes a bumper sticker contest:
How's this for an idea: send me your best ideas for anti-SUV bumper stickers. One reader already suggested: "How Many Soldiers-Per-Gallon Does Your SUV Get?" Another offering: "Osama Loves Your SUV."

Got a better one?
No. And the irony here? The Hummer, below, proudly driven all over my nephew's wife, is what she drives while her husband, a Major in the Army, spends his days in Baghdad, in the Green Zone, doing what he does, which I ought not mention here. Is she making it harder for him, or keeping the kids safe on the road, or making a "no one changes my lifestyle" statement? Who knows?

Something Sullivan and Fareed Zakaria don't mention is another little problem with more than half the drivers here in the SUV things.

Arctic melt likely to worsen, scientists warn
No natural process seen to curb trend towards ice-free waters
The Associated Press - Updated: 3:50 p.m. ET Aug. 23, 2005
WASHINGTON - The rate of ice melting in the Arctic is increasing and a panel of researchers says it sees no natural process that is likely to change that trend.

Within a century the melting could lead to summertime ice-free ocean conditions not seen in the area in a million years, the group said Tuesday.

Melting of land-based glaciers could take much longer but could raise the sea levels, potentially affecting coastal regions worldwide. ...
The link has satellite photos - before and after.

Just another SUV thing - conditions not seen in a million years.

Posted by Alan at 19:28 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005 20:13 PDT home

Sunday, 31 July 2005

Topic: Science

Heat Wave: Is This Weep-Silently-Apologize-To-Your-Children-And-Throw-Yourself-Out-A-Window Depressing?

300 scouts collapse in the heat waiting for President
James Bone, The Times (London, UK), July 29, 2005
The quadrennial gathering of 32,000 boy scouts now under way at an army base in Virginia has been struck by a series of misfortunes that have cost four lives and made hundreds ill.

… On Wednesday, tens of thousands of scouts waited for Mr Bush for three hours in an open field in their dress uniforms.

Although the scouts were given exceptional permission to remove their uniform shirts, as long as they were wearing undershirts, many were overcome by the sun and high humidity and temperatures approaching 100F.

… About 300 people were treated for symptoms of excessive heat as soldiers ferried scouts to the medical post on the base.

The day ended with the announcement that Mr Bush was calling off his trip because of bad weather - just as he had done four years ago.
Note this from James Wolcott:
It struck me that hundreds of Scouts collapsing in the heat awaiting a no-show president is a symbolic portent. I fully expect incidents of mass heatstroke to mount as we enter deeper and deeper into the baked Alaska of global warming. Years of ranting and heckling by Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and other ignorati that global warming is a myth propagated by environmental wacko and economic no-growthers have lobotomized the lobes of millions of Americans and their greedy representatives, inducing a state of denial that no amount of news footage seems able to shatter.
Note to Wolcott:

Bush Comforts Thousands at Scout Jamboree
Deb Riechmann, Associated Press, Sunday, July 31, 2005
Succeeding on his third try to visit them, President Bush comforted thousands of Boy Scouts on Sunday at a national jamboree marred by the electrocutions of four leaders and stifling heat that sickened 300.

"The men you lost were models of good citizenship," Bush told the estimated 50,000 Scouts, leaders and visitors attending the event near Bowling Green, Va., where boys yelled "Boy Scouts Rock!"

"As scout leaders, they devoted themselves to helping young men develop the character and skills they need to realize their dreams. These men will always be remembered for their leadership and kindness, and you scouts honor them by living up to the ideals of the Scouting they served."
Third time is charm, and one suspect his political advisors knew this was looking real bad. So he showed up and said the appropriate things. The guy gets enough grief for seeming contemptuous of others and an arrogant, uncaring frat-boy prankster.

The visited fixed all that? Hardly. I'm not sure you get points for showing up (late) - and for mouthing platitudes. But he did get around to it.

But what is Wolcott getting at with this dig at those who say global warming has not been proven? What is this about denial?

Wolcott links to the most recent news (July 29) of what he calls "The Great Arctic Sea Ice Melt-Off" - the source is this - scientists from our own government saying this is pretty ominous. (Will they keep their jobs?) This summer's melt is way out of line, and some of these science guys "are wondering if the melting of the sea ice has already gone beyond a critical threshold from which it can't recover."

Well, this has been the hottest June-July ever recorded in several eastern cities, according to data compiled by the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University. See this - and CNN here says it's the whole country.

Maybe a very cold winter will even things out, to a nice average.

Is something up? The Caribbean got warmer earlier this year, the kind of warm that provides the energy to turn minor storms into hurricanes, and this item quotes James McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University, saying that as the world warms, we expect more and more intense tropical hurricanes and cyclones. Of course. That's logical.

One wonders - or some may wonder - if something is up. Of course it doesn't help that HBO in it current rotation is running the recent disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004) five or six times a week. In the movie, curiously, global warming causes serious melting of the ice caps, and then all the fresh water in the ocean shifts the North Atlantic Current's salinity so it now runs cold, and then the climate patterns go all screwy - massive storms (Los Angeles is wiped out by tornados, one of which wipes out the Hollywood sign itself - and the Columbia Records building down the street!) - all followed by three new gigantic storms in the now much colder northern hemisphere, resulting in a sudden new ice age with most of the United States and all of Europe just sheets of ice, and the US government forced into exile in - get this! - Mexico. In the movie no one in the government would heed the warnings of the scientist-hero, especially the arrogant Vice President, who looked a lot like Dick Cheney, and sounded like him too. An oil man. Yeah, yeah.

Wolcott is on it. He quotes Ross Gelbspan who writes books on energy policy and global warming. Oil production will peak out in 2006 and then decline. And the climate is changing. And it may be too late now to do anything about any of it anyway. "Events are now set to run their course."

From Energy Bulletin:

"A few days ago Roger Pielke Jr. pointed to a paper (PDF) by Tim Dyson of the London School of Economics called 'On development, demography and climate change: The end of the world as we know it?' Pielke called it 'refreshingly clear thinking on climate change.' That's true, if by 'refreshingly clear' he means 'weep-silently-apologize-to-your-children-and-throw-yourself-out-a-window depressing.'"

If events run their course, what will that course be?

Here are the five main points made, quoted directly from the abstract:

"First, that since about 1800 economic development has been based on the burning of fossil fuels, and this will continue to apply for the foreseeable future.

"Second, due to momentum in economic, demographic, and climate processes, it is inevitable that there will be a major rise in the level of atmospheric CO2 during the twenty-first century.

"Third, available data on global temperatures ... suggest strongly that the coming warming of the Earth will be appreciably faster than anything that human populations have experienced in historical times. ... Furthermore, particularly in a system that is being forced, the chances of an abrupt change in climate happening must be rated as fair.

"Fourth ... the range of plausible unpleasant climate outcomes seems at least as great as the range of more manageable ones. The agricultural, political, economic, demographic, social and other consequences of future climate change are likely to be considerable - indeed, they could be almost inconceivable. In a world of perhaps nine billion people, adverse changes could well occur on several fronts simultaneously and to cumulative adverse effect.

"Finally, the paper argues that human experience of other difficult 'long wave' threats (e.g. HIV/AIDS) reveals a broadly analogous sequence of reactions. In short: (i) scientific understanding advances rapidly, but (ii) avoidance, denial, and reproach characterize the overall societal response, therefore, (iii) there is relatively little behavioral change, until (iv) evidence of damage becomes plain. Apropos carbon emissions and climate change, however, it is argued here that not only is major behavioral change unlikely in the foreseeable future, but it probably wouldn't make much difference even were it to occur."

If mankind is intent on committing mass suicide via stubborn denial, it could be argued that we will have earned our collective fate, even if that fate was reached largely without our consent. But the self-destruction of the planet also means the billions of animals and other living beings that inhabit this planet will also die, and their deaths will be truly innocent, the final indictment of mankind's failed stewardship of the earth.
Well, Wolcott is a tad upset that we're all in such denial, and that such denial led is to this situation where there really is no way to fix any of this. The oil supply is finite - and will peter out. And even if we stop burning fossil fuels and do all the green things, "it probably wouldn't make much difference even were it to occur."

We're screwed. Assess all the blame you want. What difference does that make?

Actually, if this is so - and the evidence points to it being so - then denial seems somehow appropriate. Fly in and say pleasant nothings to the sweating crowds of Boy Scouts. What's the difference?

Posted by Alan at 21:55 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 31 July 2005 22:07 PDT home

Friday, 29 July 2005

Topic: Science

Basic Science: Counting the Seconds, or Not

Much has been said, again and again, about the "ugly American" trying to make the whole world over to be just like us, and offending others who don't much want to go along - but this?

Why the U.S. Wants To End the Link Between Time and Sun
Astronomers Say Wait a Sec, Sundials Would Be Passé; Mean Blow to Greenwich
Keith J. Winstein, The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2005; Page A1

Okay, it was on the front page of the newspaper-of-record for the captains of industry here in America, but is it news or, perhaps, just a giggle?

What's the deal?

It seems the WSJ has a scoop here, that we made a secret proposal at the UN and the word is leaking out -
Time to change the way we measure time, according to a U.S. government proposal that businesses favor, astronomers abominate and Britain sees as a threat to its venerable standard, Greenwich Mean Time.

Word of the U.S. proposal, made secretly to a United Nations body, began leaking to scientists earlier this month. The plan would simplify the world's timekeeping by making each day last exactly 24 hours. Right now, that's not always the case.

Because the moon's gravity has been slowing down the Earth, it takes slightly longer than 24 hours for the world to rotate completely on its axis. The difference is tiny, but every few years a group that helps regulate global timekeeping, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, tells governments, telecom companies, satellite operators and others to add in an extra second to all clocks to keep them in sync. The adjustment is made on New Year's Eve or the last day of June.
Ah! It's these ad hoc "leap seconds" that are the problem. The last one was added in 1998 and we may be due again. And it seems this is going to create no end of problems for a subset of computers that cannot tolerate even one 61-second minute. And we are told of Symmetricom, an outfit out here in San Jose, that makes really, really, really precise clocks for telecommunications and the military – and for the space program. One of their executives is quoted as saying this is a "huge deal."

And it's not just the guys up north. It seems at the start of 1998, the last time an extra second was added, Associated Press Radio crashed - or at least started sending out the wrong tapes. The year before the Russian global positioning system (Glonass) was down for twenty hours when they uploaded an extra second and everything went bad. And we're told that in 2003 a leap-second bug made GPS receivers from Motorola briefly show customers the time as half past 62 o'clock - and no extra second was even added.

Well, it's not Y2K but it is a problem.
"A lot of people encounter problems with their software going over a leap second," said Dennis D. McCarthy, who drafted the U.S. leap-second proposal while serving as the Navy's "Director of Time." Because of these problems, the U.S. government last year quietly proposed abolishing leap seconds to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the U.N. body that tells the Earth Rotation Service how to keep time.

"Safety of life is an issue," said William Klepczynski, a senior analyst at the State Department in favor of the U.S. proposal, who asserts that programmers who ignore the need to add leap seconds present a "risk to air travel in the future" because a glitch might shut down traffic-control systems.

Eliminating leap seconds will make sextants and sundials slowly become inaccurate, but supporters say that's OK now that the satellite-supported GPS can give exact longitude and latitude bearings to anyone with a receiver. Sailors "don't navigate with the stars any longer," said Dr. McCarthy.
So what's the problem? (And our Navy has a "Director of Time?" Cool.)

One problem is the French, specifically the Earth Rotation Service's leap-second head, one Daniel Gambis, of the Paris Observatory. To wit: "As an astronomer, I think time should follow the Earth."

Don't we all?

He calls the American effort a "coup de force," and an "intrusion on the scientific dialogue." And he say ninety percent of the subscribers to his service are quite happy with the extra seconds now and then. And some of them?
"We should not so blithely discard the ties between our clocks and the rotation of the Earth," wrote Rob Seaman, a programmer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Tucson, Arizona. Jean Meeus, an influential Belgian astronomer, called the U.S. proposal "a disaster for classical astronomy" and a "dirty trick."
A dirty trick?

Well, ask the British about this. They want none of it. From 1884 to 1961 the world set its official clocks to Greenwich Mean Time, based on the actual rise and set of the stars as seen from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, just outside London. Well, now everyone uses Coordinated Universal Time - atomic clocks and all that - and everyone agreed to insert leap seconds in order to keep the official time within one second of the old Greenwich time.


It seems BBC and Big Ben now follow Coordinated Universal Time, but Parliament has just refused to change the country's official standard away from Greenwich time. It's a matter of national pride, after all. But if getting rid of the "leap seconds" may be necessary, so much for GMT - it slowly becomes just another quaint and utterly useless British custom.

But the WSJ reports that Britain's science minister, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, decided in April, during Tony Blair's re-election campaign, to oppose the U.S. proposal. "It could have been used to attack the government," said Peter Whibberley, a scientist who represents Britain to the ITU. "People regard GMT with some sensitivity," he said. "It gets tied up with the general anti-Europe feeling."

Many of us missed all that in the reports on the recent British elections.

But you see the real problem with dropping "leap seconds," don't you? Do that and the sun starts rising later and later by the clock - a few seconds later each decade.

But we have an answer! We're proposing adding a "leap hour" every five hundred years or so. After all, the Earth's rotation is expected to slow down further. You have to do something. It seems Ronald Beard of the Naval Research Laboratory - our man who chairs the ITU special committee on leap seconds (and favors their abolishment) - thinks this is no big deal. Think of the shift to Daylight Saving Time each year. "It's not like someone's going to be going to school at four in the afternoon or something."

But this whole "abolish leap seconds" proposal is, as noted, secret. The WSJ couldn't get any top US officials to comment. They called the head of our delegation - D. Wayne Hanson of the National Institute of Standards and Technology - but he won't talk. Through a spokeswoman, he said that our proposal "is a private matter internal to the ITU and not for public discussion."

Still the astronomers are ticked - do the extra seconds get dropped and do the upgrades to the telescopes have to be made - or not? They want some openness here.

Well, maybe it just has to be done, if only to coordinate air traffic control. That's what our State Department is saying (see above). It's a matter of safety. (But don't forget the military and space programs.)

The WSJ ends with this:
Deep down, though, the opposition is more about philosophy than cost. Should the convenience of lazy computer programmers triumph over the rising of the sun? To the government, which worries about safety more than astronomy, the answer is yes.
But then there's the one astronomer they quote: "Time has basically always really meant what you measure when you put a stick in the ground and look at its shadow."

Really? Not these days.

Posted by Alan at 20:26 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005 20:29 PDT home

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