Short german video

Below find a nice short film about fossil-fuel based life. It's in German (w/English subtitles), and focuses on a German audience. Is there an equivalent film for the US?


Should we prepare for the singularity?

The singularity is the hypothesized moment when artificial intelligence becomes as intelligent as humans. At that point, machines might have the ability to decide to make smarter machines, which will make smarter machines, ad infinitum, relegating humans to a subservient role in society. Another view of the singularity is that it will free humanity from the shackles of the material world, allowing unimaginable lifespan and freedom to think, create, and explore. A NYTimes.com article covers a meeting of computer scientists who are starting to wonder whether limits on artificial intelligence research should be imposed [LINK].

The article makes it seem as though these scientists are concerned with current, or near-future, technologies that could disrupt society. It cites a few recent advances, especially pushing this empathy simulating robot. From my reading, none of these technologies seems very threatening, and most have much more potential for good than harm.

Thinking farther into the future, to a time when the singularity is imminent, these concerns become very relevant. I suspect the scientists are more interested in dealing with ethical issues now that will help decision making then. The fact of the matter is that the singularity, in one form or another, is imminent, and so some thought about what it means is important. Regulating research seems like a wrong-headed direction to me though, because that will mean that the singularity will sneak up on us. Everyone will be pushing their science to bump around the edges of the rules, and suddenly that surface beyond which lies advanced artificial intelligence will be gone, disintegrated, and humanity won't be properly prepared because everyone promised they weren't going to go past that boundary.

Don't get me wrong, even at the moment of the singularity, I don't think it means machines will start taking over. Simply having the capacity to be more intelligent than humans doesn't mean those initial machines will be successful at autonomous thought and decision-making... i.e., they won't really be conscious. Rather, those intelligent machines will be in increment in the machine-human interaction that will, I hope, push the boundaries of the human experience. There are possibilities to extend lifespan, expand thought capacity, stimulate creativity, and boost productivity. These are the promises of intelligent machines, but so were they the promises of digital computers and nano-bots, so we can't rely on it happening. We still don't have flying cars and jet-packs, and we still don't have nanotechnology that repairs roads and buildings or constructs moon bases for us, nor do we know whether a simulation of the human brain pushes artificial intelligence to a new level, or if very advanced computing technology will be able to interact with biological systems in any interesting ways [cf. LINK]. Despite my hope for the coming singularity, it is far from certain that we'll know when it happens or what it means, and it is unlikely, with any amount of planning, that we'll know what to do when that day comes to make the most of the technology.


Did the rain in Spain fall mostly on the plain, grandma?

A study about precipitation patterns in the Mediterranean region finds that there is a ubiquitous decrease [LINK]. The news article doesn't totally make sense, though, giving a mish-mash of half facts and ill-considered sentences. Maybe it's a poor translation? The figure caption is still in Spanish. The article gives the lead author and the journal, so I go to the GRL website to find the paper, and no, it isn't there. I search the web, finding the same news article over and over, "published" all over the internet, but no additional information.

I did find a very similar paper in the International Journal of Climatology, which would makes sense for this kind of study [LINK]. It's by the same author and was published in May. The difference is that this paper examines a set of precipitation indices, which I assume are based on rain gauges around the Iberian Peninsula, while the purported GRL article uses observations and the IPCC/PCMDI database of climate models. I'm not going to go into any detail on either paper, because I can't find the one that I want to see and because the one I did find doesn't seem to add any new information to the picture of decreasing precipitation in Iberia.

The topic can wait until I can get my hands on a proper analysis, but the bottom line is that there are observed changes in the precipitation across the Iberian Peninsula, especially southern Spain. This is also one of the regions that basically all the models agree will be severely impacted in the future, bringing persistent drought as global warming progresses. It's actually a pretty startlingly robust result, and is being borne out by observations. The pattern does extend across the Mediterranean, including southern France and northern Africa. The expectation is that warming will be greater in the region, and precipitation will decrease, and given the population and history of the region, I think it will prove an interesting result of climate change.


It's not just about polar bears

I just sat down to have a quick look at some of the (too many) RSS feeds I subscribe to, and I clicked on ClimateArk.org, which is essentially an environmental news aggregator. Five headlines appeared in my Google Reader screen. They highlight one of the directions that seems more and more relevant to climate science and policy: regional impacts of climate change. As the entire planet warms slightly, there will be substantial, life-altering changes to some regions, while others will be largely unaffected. Well, at least not as directly affected as some. Understanding these regional variations and predicting where they will occur and estimating the impact of changes in the physical system to ecosystems and populations is an emerging science. Even with relatively well-understood effects, like decreasing snow cover and melting permafrost in the far north, have unknown consequences (like understanding how much methane will be released when the permafrost melts).

The articles that came up on ClimateArk.org show some additional examples. First, form the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings about how climate change will impact national security. Essentially, this is an example of how regional climate change will amplify unstable political situations around the world by stressing food and water supplies, changing coastlines, and shifting weather patterns. Second, a study coming out of the University of Colorado and CIRES assesses the water supply in the Colorado River Basin, and the authors suggest that persistent drought associated with climate change could lead to severe water shortages in the basin, which supplies water to some 30,000,000 people. This article reminded me of Brian Fagan’s interesting book “The Great Warming,” which looked at the so-called Medieval Warm Period and the rise and fall of societies around the world. One of the take-home messages of that book was that a little warming isn’t too bad for a lot of societies, but persistent drought destroys them. The third news item that was sitting on the top of the ClimateArk.org feed was covered by two articles, and is about crops in California’s central valley. A UC Davis study finds there has been a decrease in the “chilling hours” that cropland experiences, and several important crops rely on this cold winter weather. I would venture to guess that this regional effect is partly due to land use change and partly due to global warming, but that is just a guess. The important thing is that this becomes a serious concern to the food supply for the whole country, and many other countries, not to mention that California’s economy had long depended on agriculture. If crops start to falter in California, it really could have a destabilizing effect on the national economy and will impact jobs (agriculture, packing, shipping) and food supply and prices.

It’s also worth noting that two of the above articles contain sentences that say something like, “climate change isn’t just about polar bears, it’s about security.” In the first it is national security and in the last food security.


Is this what news sounds like?

Working from home today, I spent some time with the TV on (CNN & MSNBC) and with the radio (NPR) on. Why did I have to read about the agreement between Munich Re and other companies to proceed with plans to build large-scale solar power plants across north Africa on a environmental blog? Thank goodness Grist exists to give at least a little coverage to the story [LINK]. This is a follow up to a previous entry on this blog.

The gist of the story is that the meeting appears to be a success, and the plan is for a 400billion Euro investment ( over how long I can't tell). It sounds like a lot, but according to the story, these solar power plants would account for 15% of Europe's power by 2050. Plus, it would provide a substantial amount of power to the countries of northern Africa. A reliable, reasonably affordable, source of electricity (and employment) would certainly help stabilize the local economical and political environments across the region. I hope that their timeline is conservative, as it would be much more exciting if they could get these plants online by, say, 2020, at least supplying some electricity to Europe.

There are critics according the article. The only one they cite is a German whose argument appears to be, why do this in north Africa and not Germany. Honestly, that is pretty lame. There are certainly prospects for solar energy in Germany, but they can't compare with subtropical Africa in terms of amount of sunshine and amount of open area. Secondly, if that's the only complaint, I hope these critics get together and put some money up to start building solar power plants in Germany; that would be terrific.

I can not express how exciting I think this project is. The fact that there are huge industry backers speaks to the potential benefits as well as profits. That the plan is long-term means that there won't be short-term disappointment when there isn't much progress in the planning stages (people get disappointed so fast, e.g., the American public's dissatisfaction with the pace of the Recover Act money being distributed). Plus, this project will push the technologies involved, especially those HVDC cables, into more affordable and reliable products. A bonus would be if some American companies took notice and started seriously working on a similar solution for both North and South America.


"Greenest" cities

Just came across NRDC's list of greenest cites, which they actually call smartest cities. I like using 'smart' here rather than 'green,' and might try to remember to use that turn of phrase in the future.

Anyway, Seattle is at the top, which isn't a surprise. Other cities near the top are San Francisco, Portland, Oakland, and San Jose. Hmmm... seeing a trend here? Kind of a western, northern kind of vibe? Hmm.

Other cities of personal interest include Sacramento at #7 (good job Sac-town!), Denver at #9, and LA at #13. That's a pretty impressive ranking for LA considering the size of the place (and environmental problems that aren't going away any time soon).

Fort Collins is #3 on the medium-sized cities. They somehow get a good grade for transportation, though I'm totally baffled as to how that happened. Berkeley came in at a disappointing #11 in medium-sized cities. It might be because they rely on Alameda county and other regional resources, but that's just a guess.

Boulder is a small city (barely), and comes in at #2 for green building, but is just #56 overall. It's behind Santa Fe! This is quite a turn of events... what is going on Boulder???

So, go look for your favorite cities, the website is very nice: SmarterCities


You too can calculate a linear trend, for just $1,800

I just saw the announcement that SPSS Inc. is releasing PASW Statistics 17 [LINK]. This is the new name for what used to be called SPSS Statistics, which was (as far as I know) ubiquitously known as SPSS. I'm not sure what prompted the name change, nor do I know what either SPSS or PASW stand for. SPSS Inc. has updated the interface, which now looks a lot like Matlab, except not as useful. Their promotional video really pushes the syntax highlighting and point and click to put in bookmarks/breakpoints or commands. These are features that other languages have had for many years. There are useful statistical features, like their nearest neighbor analysis tools, though it was hard to tell from the demo what the point of it is.

The price is $1,800. Yeah. This is an amazing price for software that is quite limited.

Especially when you compare it against the language R [news, official], which is free and more powerful, and still focuses on statistical analysis. The R language is based on an older language called S, and I think I remember learning that SPSS is also based on S. So these are two evolutionary lines from S, one free and open source and powerful and one very expensive, somewhat slick, and potentially powerful.

Both R and SPSS are limited to statistics (more or less). If you want to do something a little beyond statistical models or analysis, you'll still have to go to some other scripting language like Matlab, IDL, NCL, etc. And, in my opinion, if you have to know one of those anyway, there's really no reason to deal with R or SPSS, since all the same statistics can be calculated pretty easily in those more general languages. But, of course, there are large numbers of people who's work requires a bit of statistics but not much other computation, and I guess those are the people who use SPSS. So maybe there is a spectrum of users, some who use just SPSS, some who dabble in R, some who only use R, some who use R along with other software, and others who just use more general high-level languages. Still, at that price point, I can't believe anyone uses SPSS.


Munich Re -- the new sun god?

An exciting development in the development of large scale solar power is an upcoming meeting initiated by reinsurance company Munich Re [LINK]. The giant company is pulling interested parties together to, apparently seriously, discuss possibilities of building a series of large solar thermal plants in northern Africa and the Arabian peninsula and transmitting the power via high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) cables.

This isn't a new idea, but the fact that such a gigantic company is getting serious about it is a positive direction. It's an expensive proposition, especially because of the HVDC cables, which would run all the way to Europe (at least). But if these companies can actually put up some capital and show that the system works, then I'm sure the idea would spread and governments in North America and Asia would get involved. (Is it all too late? Maybe, but let's try to be a little optimistic today.)

(Okay, the normal spelling of the Egyptian sun god is Ra, but Re is an acceptable alternate spelling [LINK].)


Are we all going to burn?

Well, if the USA Senate has anything to say about it, we'll all sit and burn coal until we choke on the carbon dioxide floating in the atmosphere. Today the Senate "mothballed" the Waxman-Markey legislation until September [LINK]. Why? Because so-called moderate democrats in the Senate want to make themselves look important. To who? I have no clue, but they claim to be sticking up for farmers and electricity consumers. This is bunk.

This politicization of global climate change is threatening, now more than ever, to doom our entire society to multiple generations of increasing temperature, more extreme weather events, and dramatic alterations to the pattern of rainfall. Not just in far away places, but in regions all across the United States. I'm not just being alarmist here, there is published evidence of the effects already being measurable along with strong evidence that the longer we continue to burn fossil fuels at the present rate, the more irreparable damage is done to the climate system. Examples of recent reports you can take a look at include the new Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, Ecological Impacts of Climate Change (2009), Global Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events: Understanding the Contributions to Infectious Disease Emergence: Workshop Summary (2008), and the IPCC synthesis report. I'm happy to provide individual studies that support the findings of these reports as well, but they are generally easily found in the report bibliographies.

Do you know a scientist? If so, you're a rare bird!

Just a quick article coming from the Christian Science Monitor by Peter N. Spotts. He reports on a recent study by the AAAS and the Pew Research Center. Apparently, not many people know a scientist, which probably says a lot about our social skills. Even so, my reading of the article suggests that the general public mostly respects scientists and their work. However, the average Joe also seems to overestimate what science can do, and simultaneously rejects or denies or misunderstands what is already done.

What's the solution? Is it more scientist bloggers? No, probably not. How can we get the average American to better cope with scientific results and make decisions that are founded on fact? Well, I don't think it's the scientists who can do that. Scientists need to better engage the public, but that can really only get so far. The American public needs to take science education more seriously.... it's not all just reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic any more, I think we need to add biology, chemistry, and physics to the basics, even if they don't "start" with the letter R.


Get ready for some Senate committee action!

There are going to be some hearings starting tomorrow that should give a taste for where the Senate is going to take the Waxman-Markey legislation [LINK].


Waxman-Markey, or some derivative thereof

The NYTimes has an article about the wheeling and dealing going on to get the Waxman-Markey climate/energy legislation through the House [LINK]. It sounds so dirty and counterproductive, but I guess that is how things work in Congress, and without substantial changes to the system, it is the way it has to be. In the end, the Senate is likely to pass the bill, and Obama will sign it into law, and then the USA will finally enter the 21st Century on energy/climate legislation. The questions will remain though: Is it enough? Will it be regulated strongly enough? Do the new rules constrain more powerful action in the future? I don't know the answers to these questions, but with the atmosphere holding 386+ ppm of CO2 [LINK], something has to be done now, so I have to at least support the spirit of the bill. With the recent Copenhagen Synthesis Report urging action, the USA needs to position itself as a leader (if a tardy one) in the mitigation of climate change.