Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Words, words, words

Hamlet responded something like that to Polonius. I had a similar reaction when searching for some information on a certain Christopher Walter Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. Who is that and why you should ask? He gained some notoriety at the recent Climate Change conference in Bali as one of the leading sceptics of climate change.

One of the sites that I found is another scientific blog called the Reference Frame, penned by a self-confessed "conservative physicist" called Lubos Motl a Czech. I quickly realized I should abandon this blogging thing immediately since I am just not cut out for it. I noted our Lubos had 38 posts in December alone and a whopping 782 so far in 2007. Can one really have more than two meaningful things to say per day and have the time to write them all down and really think that others will benefit from reading them?

I was taken with the "conservative physicist" moniker since I had seen the same descriptor applied to the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons - a faux "journal" posing as a soap box for right-wing activists to peddle their agendas. Lubos is clearly enamoured with the Viscount. Regarding the Viscount's GW scepticism he writes,

"His conclusions more or less mimic the conclusions of a vast majority of those people whom I know and whose IQ exceeds 120, who are able to think critically and apolitically..."

Lubos clearly numbers himself and the Viscount among the brainy people who are able to think critically and apolitically. Wait a moment, I thought our Lubos is a conservative physicist. Can one be both conservative and apolitical at the same time? I tend not to interrogate people as to their IQ when I'm talking to them and I have never measured my own; perhaps I'm afraid it won't fall in the lofty territory occupied by those of Lubos and the other critical thinkers. The implied criticism in his quote is that all those other thousands of scientists who are not GW sceptics are dumb and unable to think either critically or apolitically, and must be motivated or corrupted by political influences. Is that likely?

Wikipedia, the one-stop shopping for all knowledge shares some interesting information about our aforementioned Viscount. Back in the day he gained some notoriety for his compassionate views on AIDS. I quote from Wikipedia,

"In an article entitled "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS", written for the January 1987 issue of The American Spectator, he argued that "there is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease for life. Every member of the population should be blood-tested every month ... all those found to be infected with the virus, even if only as carriers, should be isolated compulsorily, immediately, and permanently." The Wiki entry goes on to say that the Viscount later disavowed those views; but the comment suggests that he only did so because the 33 million carriers would render the approach impractical.

As we have seen with other notable scientists recently, being a nutter in one area does not guarantee nuttiness in another (or the converse: being brilliant in one area does not guarantee it in another); but I'm thinking that, just because you went to Harrow (a few miles from where I was brought up) and Cambridge, and have a long name and title, does not of itself bring credibility, particularly when the resume is distinctly absent of scholarship.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Product placement

Just checked my blog - I mean what else has a chap to read that's good on Christmas Day? The advertising fellows clearly are aware of the blog titles, but probably don't actually read the content, when placing the ads, for the ad currently displayed talks about climate change and Al Gore. Turns out it's an advert for the upcoming "other" climate exchange conference sponsored by the Heartland Institute. Synchronicity again because I was going to talk about them and other institutes and think tanks in relation to science. But not tonight.

Chicago's bottled water tax is looming and so the Tribune was discussing the implications of this Daley-inspired, money-raising prank. Actually, if it discourages the needless and excessive expenditure on this commodity so much the better. Did you know, for example, that it takes 3 liters of water to make 1 liter of bottled water? Why, you might ask? Because the nasty plastic bottle needs to be manufactured. Factor in further the contribution to the carbon footprint from the energy involved in the manufacture, the use of non-renewable resources and one is left wondering how these products can be so popular with the (probably) environmentally conscious consumers. And we haven't even discussed the disposal/recycling of the mountains of empties that accumulate.

One consumer spoke of the health benefits derived from her bottled water: one bottle before exercise and another later. So what mysterious component within the bottle is responsible for her eternal youth and well-being? None that isn't equally available from your tap. It is completely beyond me why so many people go to the trouble to truck back vast crates of bottled water of all shapes and sizes yet spurn the same (or better) product from their own faucets. Standards of treatment for the water supply are generally higher than they are for bottled water, yet people have the perception it is somehow inferior to something that has a cute name or appealing label.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Radioactive coal?

Scientific American Newsletters scored in the department of misleading headlines with its recent article "Coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste." Read it here:

Closer reading reveals neither anything that is not already well known, nor anything of any concern; though of course the intent I think is clearly otherwise. Coal contains small quantities of naturally occurring radioactive elements which become concentrated in the ash when the coal is burnt and released into the atmosphere. Because of this release, residents near coal-fired power stations are actually exposed to about four times more radiation than residents near nuclear power stations, from which, when properly managed, there are virtually no emissions of radioactivity (the odd tritium spill notwithstanding). This has been known for ages; the EPA website's online radiation exposure calculator contains the numbers. I have used it in my class to illustrate one of the myths about the hazards of nuclear power. Try it yourself at: And, as the article makes clear, even the radiation exposure from the coal burning poses no health risk; it is far less than what one gets from staring at a TV and so far I have not heard risk of radiation poisoning as a reason for rationing TV time in the young.

Of course the nuclear waste that the coal is being compared with is not the actual spent fuel, which is hugely radioactive and poses an ongoing challenge for its effective disposal - at least in this country. For whatever reason, the French, with their much higher penetration of nuclear power generation, don't seem nearly as agonized by the whole thing.

The radioactive coal article is a neat segue into the recent announcement that the Futuregen advanced coal power plant project has been awarded to little Mattoon, Illinois. Dulcie and I visited there once on the occasion of an Honors conference at which some of my students were presenting. Mattoon is close to Charleston, home of Eastern Illinois University. It is really a one horse town, the lone Sonic Burger by the highway representing perhaps the height of its gastronomic repertoire. We searched high and low before finding the single coffee shop in Charleston, albeit a rather interesting and idiosyncratic dive with all unmatching furniture but WIFI, welcomingly far removed from the scrubbed, sterile corporate cleanliness of your typical Starbucks. Overall a depressing place, although some beautiful old homes no doubt available at killer prices and horrendous heating bills (the wind blew cold when we were there). I left with the thought that I could never recommend EIU as a destination for students.

But that is all a bit of a digression from the main point: the significance of the Futuregen project. Will this be SSC-II? Back in the day the same two states (Illinois and Texas) battled it out to land the Superconducting Super Collider. It eventually went to Texas; but the project was subsequently killed for mammoth cost overruns. Already there are dark mutterings over the costs of Futuregen ($1.8 billion and climbing) which may cast a shadow over its future.

And what of the viability of the project? Clearly, the development of new/alternative energy sources must become a political matter and cannot rely on a few well-intentioned folks buying hybrids; but in so doing the process can become corrupted and perverted by political interests. To wit: Illinois possesses corn and coal. Local political interests will favour pushing these over other energy sources like wind and waves for example (Cs over Ws). Is that actually desirable? Skepticism abounds over the viability of corn (more on that later). Meanwhile, the Futuregen is based upon the mind-boggling idea that all the CO2 generated in the energy extraction from the coal will be buried deep underground (sequestration is the official term) and kept there for eternity. In other words, this once prime villain in the greenhouse gas department would become carbon-free. The project's champions like to call it clean energy. Others don't agree. Brian Urbaszewski from the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago (long-winded new name of what used to be the Chicago Lung Association), who had spoken at our Global Warming town meeting (and whose name no one seemed to be able to spell), wrote in the Tribune about the particulates that the Futuregen would still be producing. Still dirty after all these years. It will be interesting to see how the project goes. If it does, it will be banner days at Sonic Burger.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Trying to make sense of it all

Two weeks on from the "town meeting" on global warming solutions for Illinois I am encountering sensory overload from all the material about alternative energy and global warming washing over me from various sources: the Tribune (wind, coal, corn in recent weeks), New Scientist, Scientific American, podcasts, articles. I feel the need to process it all and respond to it, but it is a daunting task.

The meeting itself was a pleasing success despite an almost complete lack of publicity. I understand that the Campus Greens were the real organizers, but they seemed to have omitted a key component: advertising. Thanks to the efforts of a few faculty members (like me) who bribed/strong-armed their students into attending with incentives of extra credit, the meeting was standing room only - the sort of cosy crush one rarely, if ever, experiences in the rather sterile wastes of the SRC. Thanks to the largess of my department, we had proper amplification and the whole event was recorded, hopefully for wider dissemination at some not-too-distant future. The rent-a-crowd was suitably educated by a diverse panel. To me the most interesting address came from a pastor from United Methodist Church, Downers Grove. It has been my sense that the church (if one can use such collectives meaningfully) has tended to drag its feet vis-a-vis the environment, thinking perhaps that it was identified too closely with the left and all that entailed. The speaker gave an enlightened and spirited call to arms that could speak to all faiths that stewardship of creation is a responsibility borne by all.

Attendees were invited to create a video postcard to send to our representative and many responded. I sensed that many of my students felt better off for having gone, extra credit or no. It is encouraging that many will talk earnestly about buying those CFLs and recycling more and maybe riding a bicycle, and yet a part of me wonders if all those good intentions are misplaced. The issue is much bigger than light bulbs, but I did just buy some myself.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Celebrity haircut #3 and meeting the top Floyd

Looking at the date of the last post, I can't believe it has been two weeks already. There is so much to say, but alas too little time to say it all; and perhaps there are many who are thankful for that. If CNN can devote several minutes this morning lingering on the story of the size of some actress' bottom, then I think I am entitled to place a high priority on describing our latest adventure to deepest Indiana in search of haircuts and beer. On Saturday we set off once again to Griffith, Indiana for an appointment with our very own celebrity hair stylist Ben Mollin. Since it was also Dulcie's birthday, it was determined that we would all repair to the Three Floyds afterwards to celebrate with Dreadnaught. With typical bravado we ignored dire warnings of snow storms and set off in a very grey, damp and cold December afternoon.

Almost inevitably it seems the conversation descended into the colon. Was it I that brought it up? More than likely, but, though we are highly sceptical about the whole business, we learned that our Ben is quite a devotee; he even engages the services of a consultant to dissect the outworkings. Ben's assistant chimed in with her own advocacy for positive ion therapy. I learned that this involved putting one's feet in a bucket of water containing some mystical substance and having a potential applied. As she describes, positive ions serve to eliminate the toxins through the soles of the feet; she observed that one can feel the process working its way up the body step by step. The water, initially clear, becomes increasingly cloudy during the treatment. There is clearly money to be made peddling "scientific" health procedures, though I'm not sure I would want to be too closely associated with the colon, even for ready money.

Hair suitably restored, it was to the Floyds. It was slightly incongruous for an aging (let's say into the advanced stage of late youth) chemistry professor to be sharing pints with a tattooed hairdresser almost half his age. The excitement wasn't over though because the senior Floyd made an appearance. It turns out he hails from Northumberland and is/was a kidney specialist (huge irony here for Dulcie). We were introduced and exchanged a few pleasantries. He went to Cambridge and likes to sport a modest ponytail and an Ascot. Later his wife appeared - a much younger woman that he might well have found on the internet.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

White asparagus: definitely not green

While in Wholefoods (AKA Foulfoods) before Thanksgiving, my eye fell upon some white asparagus. In an experimental mood, encouraged also by the price reduction, I made a purchase of said vegetable. It is blessed with an exquisitely gentle phallic form, as befits its reputation, real or imaginary, as an aphrodisiac (as to that I can provide no evidence either way). On further reading I learned that my purchase originated in Peru. I have not knowingly dined on Peruvian produce previously (how is that for alliteration?). As it was undergoing preparation for the Thanksgiving Day repast, I was given to musing to what extent the purchase of the white asparagus had expanded my carbon footprint: after all, the stalks would have to have been chopped by some exploited peasant no doubt, driven by truck to some far-flung airport, flown to another airport in the U.S., and finally another truck drive to Foulfoods. Dulcie chimes in with some mention of locavores, about which of course I knew nothing. What does she listen to I wonder?

Locavore, it turns out, is not only a new word, but the Oxford Word of the Year. It's origin is a group of women in San Francisco (where else?). There is a website now, and the following is what I retrieved from there:

"We are a group of concerned culinary adventurers who are making an effort to eat only foods grown or harvested within a 100 mile radius of San Francisco for an entire month. We recognize that the choices we make about what foods we choose to eat are important politically, environmentally, economically, and healthfully."

There is without doubt much merit in this initiative. Easy for them, you will say, in San Francisco, surrounded by a bounteous ocean and productive, diverse agriculture. Imagine being a locavore in Chicago in winter, consigned to a steady diet of rutabagas and turnips.

My white asparagus exposes the difficulties of being green. Foulfoods is all over the business of greenness, sustainability, organic, ethics and so on; its website positively swells with noble sentiments about "Holistic Thinking." And yet here it is, in reality, enabling the upper middle classes to indulge their insatiable lust for exotic produce, at the cost of using precious fossil fuels to import an unnecessary vegetable from halfway round the world.

In closing I note that "locavore" has not yet found its way into the spellchecker.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Going Green - In Full Reverse

One of the sections of the paper last Sunday featured the new subdivisions sprouting up far west of Aurora - some forty six miles from Chicago. The structures of the farms into which these developments are encroaching are still visible beside the voluminous drafty boxes. The folks moving in are regarded as the new pioneers; the article made comparisons with the development of the western suburbs some fifty or more years ago. There were some similarities: the land around Schaumburg and so on was largely farmland. There are also substantial differences: the houses back then were about one third the size; the developments were also closer to mass transit.

I really want to know when it was, and how it was, that people were hood-winked into believing that they "needed" more space. A family with one small child "needs" a triple garage, a family room with cavernous ceilings and a master bathroom of such formidable dimension that the very private personal functions must be akin to doing them in a center of a shopping mall. Whatever happened to the concepts of intimacy and coziness, a quiet nook to read with dimensions on a human scale?

Well I suppose these new pioneers are all suckers for marketing ploys and getting "more" for your money. In the context of going green, reducing one's carbon footprint and so on, it is completely in the wrong direction. It is not a matter of rocket surgery (or brain science for that matter) to show that the costs of heating huge volumes of dead, wasted, unnecessary space are higher; that the costs of transportation from these rural ghettos are far higher (even for the simplest errand to find a grocers); that there are no alternatives of public transportation available nor likely to be any time soon.

Which brings me to my next point. While the odious Daley poses and preens and waxes lyrically (no he never does that - mumbles incoherently is better) about bicycles and green roofs and all the other myriad ways in which Chicago is a world leader in greenness, the public transportation system, already an embarrassment, is about to dive into the malebolge as funding for it falls apart. Is it not completely obvious that for any serious attempt on reducing carbon emissions to be successful, efficient and widespread public transportation must be a number one priority, regardless of alternative fuels, hydrogen cars and so on? Meanwhile, the already pathetic mess that is public transportation has priority zero. The bumbling Blago - oh how poorly we are served by elected men - learns of the funding demise while watching an ice hockey game.

We are having a town meeting next week at the COD on Global Warming Solutions for Illinois. Some politicos are going to be in attendance I think. It could be an interesting evening.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

An Incomprehensible Truth

Riding the wave of publicity generated by the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, (a bit of a stretch I say to characterize a scientifically inaccurate, alarmist, albeit influential film about climate change as a peace-making activity), the climate change brigade are certainly pumping up the jam on the airwaves of the intelligentsia. Over the last couple of weeks I have listened to several broadcasts on NPR covering rising CO2, alternative fuels and "cars of the future." Another on the Scientific American podcast dealt with the "ethics" of global warming. This coincided neatly with a piece in the Tribune that was a perspective on the guilt induced by the relentless and largely alarmist media blitz. Now New Scientist is in the act with two thought-provoking articles on the point of going green (?) and the danger of over-doing the fear-mongering.

The Tribune article was a somewhat light-hearted take on the guilt induced by the Go Green movement and how all our activities lead to agonizing over their impact on our carbon footprint. The author's own footprint came out to be a shrieking "LARGER THAN AVERAGE" at a weighty 7.5 tons. Many acts of eco-consciousness can be undone at a stroke by a single plane trip; and yet, in many instances, what choice do we have? Plane trips are sometimes unavoidable.

The real point of this article, which is echoed very much by the New Scientist commentary, is that there is a real danger of over doing the alarum bell ringing on the part of the environmental activists. The consequence will be that the general gender will tune it out, much in the same way that I would tune out the odious, carping of Rush Limbaugh. Then, far from mobilizing people to take action, the movement will have mobilized them into complete inaction. This was the subject of a very interesting and provocative essay by John Lanchester called Warmer, Warmer, published earlier this year in the London Review of Books. Now that makes it sound like I am spending my hours nobly in self-betterment, but I actually came across it quite by accident when looking for something else. The theme of the article addressed the difficulty of dealing with global warming from the individual perspective. Since it appears to be so large (global in fact) and so bad (if you believe what they all say), then the response is really to ignore it (what after all can I as an individual do?) and go on as if nothing was amiss. This only makes the activists even more incensed of course.

Now we have the ethics of global warming to contend with. Piling on the guilt trip, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, a medical practitioner as opposed to a scientist, was expounding on this topic on Scientific American (Science Talk November 7). The dreaded carbon footprint featured prominently - exhibit A in fact. We denizens of the USA boast a footprint of 6 tons per year on the average. I forget what the global average is, but I was told that huge amounts of the world population have a footprint below 0.1 tons. Furthermore, I am told, there is an almost complete mismatch between the carbon producers and those that will suffer the terrible consequences. This is something that I should be feeling guilty about. My reckless and selfish car driving is bringing global-warming-induced disease and devastation to the poor folks of Africa. So their plight is all my fault. I'm sorry but I'm not quite ready to plead guilty and promise to abandon the good life and return to the simple ways of the peasant on that account. Their plight is the responsibility of the corrupt leadership of those nations that has singularly failed to advance their citizens' status by continued misuse of resources both their own and what has been given in aid over the decades. I am sure that the ambition of each citizen would be to burn as much carbon as I do. Look at China, from bicycles to SUVs in a single generation.

My final comment is directed towards one of the NPR Talk of the Nation pieces on climate change. One of the guests was Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Notes From a Catastrophe. A loaded title by any measure. I have read some of her stuff in the New Yorker. Here's one thing that needled me. She has repeatedly said things like the modern car gets no better gas mileage than the Model T Ford. The obvious inference there is that the greedy, lazy car makers have done nothing over the years regarding fuel efficiency, and that they are all embroiled in an evil conspiracy with oil companies to keep cars inefficient. It is not helpful to the case at all because it is completely disingenuous. For one thing, there are fundamental limitations to the efficiency of a heat engine (see Carnot). For another, the modern car is far safer (for safer read heavier), larger and faster. For yet another, the complex emission control systems imposed by environmental legislation cost energy to run, thereby reducing efficiency. Is Ms. Kolbert suggesting the T is really equivalent to the modern car? I'm all for a legitimate debate on the future of transportation, but let's talk constructively.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Living Genius

I am in possession of the results of a list of the "Top 100 living geniuses" as compiled by a panel of six "experts" (my quotes) in "creativity and innovation" from Creators Synectics - a self-styled global consultancy. Now, it turns out the source of the names was in fact 4,000 Britons who were solicited to nominate up to ten geniuses. Each nominee was then ranked according to some nebulous criteria like "paradigm shifting" and "cultural importance." Okay, you are saying, the slightly snide attitude here is entirely because I am not on it. Perhaps in part that is true, but aren't all such things manifestly ridiculous?

Interesting to note though that two chemists are in the top six and one of them, Albert Hoffman, is number 1 overall. For those who don't know who Albert Hoffman is, and I admit I had to look it up for he is not the same man as the legitimate genius Roald Hoffman that bestrides organic chemistry like a colossus, he is the chap who discovered the singular properties of LSD. Further reading revealed that he adopted the old-fashioned approach to chemical research by experimenting on himself with the material. Aside from that he has contributed nothing. Does this mean the 4,000 Britons or the Creators Synectics are all latter-day acid heads? Down in fifth equal is Frederick Sanger, one of only a handful of dual Nobel prize winners (and the only one with two in chemistry) so that is perhaps well deserved. Surprisingly, Steven Hawking comes in a comparatively dismal eighth, for he always seems to be synonymous with genius. My rectum clenched slightly at the sight of Richard Dawkins in 20th equal; evidence indeed that being clever with the pen and adopting edgy and controversial attitudes is far more likely to get you noticed than genuine scholarship. And he is a New College man! I am slightly envious of Sebastian Thrun's (32nd equal) given occupation as "probabilistic roboticist:" hard enough to say, let alone do. Wait, did I read this correctly? Osama Bin Laden in 43rd equal! Occupation given as "Islamicist." Enough said.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Confronting one's inner toilet

Senator Craig brought the subject into sharper perspective earlier this year by taking a "wide stance" in an airport restroom; and readers of this column will have been made aware of the centrality of the lavatory in this author's life. Yesterday the Tribune revealed that South Korea, of all unlikely places, is about to launch a "toilet revolution." I had to check the date to make sure it wasn't April 1st; but no it was November 10th as expected. And yet there is this fellow known as Mr Toilet with his million dollar home built in the shape of a high-tech lav. The World Toilet Association, soon to hold its inaugural meeting, wants us to start talking "freely" about toilet issues. Music to my ears. This meeting will also include a toilet expo "designed to excite the public about the cause." Note (Mr Poshard) the use of quotes there to indicate that I borrowed the phrase from the article. This would perhaps not surprise me as much if the movement (so to speak) had begun in Scandinavia (very fastidious race regarding hygiene), or Germany (one day I must a German about the purpose of the shelf), or even France. South Korea, socially backward, repressive as it has been, is not a country I would associate with enlightened thinking around the bowl. Organizers of the meeting want to encourage the creation of associations in other countries. I wonder how I can become involved in this. I think I could make major contributions to the dialogue.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Good plagiarism and bad plagiarism

Fortunately, a few people are not letting the president of SIU slip entirely gently into his good night over the "unfortunate" or "accidental" "oversights" in his plagiarized thesis. Last week a law professor (no surprise there) from SIU presented an artful but disingenuous rationalization of the work of the mealy-mouthed committee by introducing in a letter to the Tribune the novel concept of two types of plagiarism. The bad type is where you really meant to be dishonest; the good type, of which the president was guilty, is where you don't really mean to be dishonest - honest. In the latter, it is completely forgivable to just leave out the quotes because it wasn't really intended to leave them out, or something like that. The author rather took the paper to task for apparently being unaware of the two types, although his letter was the first time in history the notion had ever been introduced. It was reassuring that this act of mental gymnastics got a hammering by the Tribune readership. A recent editorial in the Daily Herald by an emeritus of our mighty COD continued the well-deserved lambasting of the whole sorry crew. Read it here:

I wonder though if the president feels any shame about the affair. I somehow doubt it. Powerful people rarely do; there is always so much hubris associated with them. Look at the odious Ryan off to Oxford proclaiming his innocence and crying "victim" after he was gifted a multi-million dollar defence. Look also at the man with the "wide stance." They are always innocent in their own eyes.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Oxford Graduates

I learn from the Tribune this morning that I now have something in common with (former)Governor crook George Ryan. We have both gone up to Oxford. The difference being that his Oxford is not the dreaming spires but some kind of holiday camp prison in Wisconsin.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Synchronicity again: controversial science

One day following my little post about the fall o f Watson and the problem of science contravening social conventions, I open the Tribune over my Go Lean (but not lightly) and find a potential example from the pen of Dennis Byrne on the snubbing of a cancer study that purports to link abortions with breast cancer. You can read the original on his blog at this link.

At first glance it fits the bill perfectly: how inconvenient for the armies of women's rights activists if science were to show that it abortion was dangerous (all morality and philosophy aside). Mr, Byrne complains that the study has been snubbed by the media (those liberals) whereas another one linking drink and breast cancer got a lot more air play.

But wait: further reading reveals that the spurned study was published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. Sounds legitimate enough you might think. Mr. Byrne refers to it as a conservative journal. That's odd: if, as it is supposed to do, science rises above the prejudices of political viewpoints in pursuing knowledge, there should be no such thing as conservative or liberal science. I imagine that conservatives and liberals would want to do different things with the results. Interestingly, only a week or so previous I had received an unsolicited glossy reprint from this self-same "journal," which purported to show scientifically that global warming is a load of bunkum. The reprint was accompanied by a request to sign some petition to be used in the fight against global warming activists. I was so taken aback by this paper that I did a little investigation into both the authors and the journal. It seemed very odd that any major paper on global warming should appear in a medical journal in the first place. It turns out that the authors of the paper are not climate researchers and are associated with some crackpot organization in the wilds of Oregon. The journal appears to be a faux scientific mouthpiece for propagating particular agendas. Among the authors for example is a certain Peter Duesberg, the Berkeley retrovirologist renowned for his controversial views on the origins of AIDS. Short of doing a complete investigation of all the papers published in this journal, I think it reasonable to assert that the scientific legitimacy of this journal is very much in question on the basis of what I have seen so far.

Improving scientific literacy is a major goal of our science courses. Developing the ability to discern credibility in published work is a substantial part of that work. The merchants of crackpot agendas are becoming increasingly skillful at dressing up those agendas with the veneer of scholarship and scientific methodology.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Spiralling down the lav

I wonder if Dr. Watson is really regretting the remarks that caused his ouster from Cold Spring Harbor. I think there is little doubt that he meant them, even if he wonders how it could have happened. If you are wondering what I'm talking about, James Watson (half of the famous Watson and Crick DNA double helix discovery) recently opined that the intelligence of Africans is not the same as "ours" (ours being the intellectually superior white folks that populate Long Island). Naturally there has been a PC flood of condemnation of his remarks and swift action. Perhaps he would like to think that science can back up his views, but it seems that, in the complex area of intelligence, there is no evidence. The interesting question would be, what would be the reaction if it did? Could society allow such a thing? Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, said that "nothing should stop you ascertaining the scientific truth; science must be free of concerns about gender and race". Easier said than done I suspect.

Watson seems to be continuing a tradition of famous scientists who have demonstrated a degree of nuttiness in their views outside of the realm of their expertise but yet believe their celebrated status bestows some kind of divine right upon them. For example, Shockley in the last century was an inventor of the transistor, a not insignificant enabler of the electronic age, but also demonstrated extreme nuttiness in his indefatigable prosecution of the hypothesis that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites - a Watson forerunner. He went so far as to propose that those scoring below 100 on an IQ test should be sterilized. In the 19th century, the archetypal Victorian gentleman scientist Francis Galton contributed to important developments in a range of subjects from weather mapping, statistics and tea making; but he also founded the subject of eugenics, being convinced that superior intellects could be developed by breeding. He was notoriously dismissive when it came to the intelligence of women: if I remember correct there was a theory about the size of their brains or something. Way before that, Isaac Newton actually devoted more time to writing on Biblical interpretation than mechanics. Today his ideas would be viewed as occult.

I can't say I feel sorry for Watson since I have always felt that his celebrity (along with that of Crick) was achieved largely at the expense of Rosalind Franklin, whose critical X-ray data was used by them unbenknownest to her in their unravelling of the spiral. Her tragic early death denied her the ultimate prize that they achieved. Could it have been that her gender figured in the haste of the duet to publish in such a way?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Inadvertent" copying

One day after a regular meeting of our Academic Integrity Committee, where we discuss ways to improve awareness among both students and faculty alike about plagiarism, I open the paper over my bowl of oaty flakes to learn that the embattled president of SIU has been largely let off the hook for copying large chunks of his thesis from other sources. The recommendation of the committee that investigated the case is that the offending thesis should be returned to the library once it has been corrected. We should note that the committee consisted of SIU faculty members over which the president holds not inconsiderable clout. Exactly how independent could their decision making process be? They did not waste much time reaching the decision: not the indecent haste of the OJ jury perhaps, but quickly enough to put the sorry tale behind them and "move on" as is the general wish of the university and its administration.

I'm thinking that correcting the thesis is a complete waste of time at this stage; how many people actually read the thing so many years on? Theses are written to satisfy the degree requirements and then can sit on a shelf, in a library or a den, gathering dust for evermore. How many contain original work worthy of note and recitation later on? Martin Luther's perhaps an exception. The useful parts of any thesis end up being published as papers, which are more easily accessed and referenced. So I suppose that poor Dr. Poshard has now to flog through and put quotes around all those passages. How tarsome.

I'm a bit more bothered about the broader message that this weak decision sends to students about the costs (or lack thereof) of being caught plagiarising. As we lowly folk talk earnestly about integrity, morality and ethics, and preach imploringly about the horrible end that will await any cheater, the world teaches a very different lesson. The possible exception to that is the sports world (baseball excepted), where there has been a massive piling on by vindictive journalists over Marion Jones eventual confession. Generally though, in business, in academe, in politics, in the arts, you can get away with it even if you are caught. Joe Biden, presidential hopeful, once fabricated a story about his background based on that of an English politician. It cost him then; but now it is as if it never happened. Mitch Albom faked a story. I can go on.

The excuse for Poshard that standards were different back then is, to borrow from Gordon Ramsay, complete bollocks. If the university and its members did not know for sure back in the 1980s, even if it wasn't carved on some stone tablets, that copying whole passages from other sources and calling them yours was cheating (plagiarizing) then the institution should be dissolved. I think I knew that back in primary school. This was back in the day before cutting and pasting from the Internet became so easy and tempting. The scribe would have to painstakingly transcribe each word. One thinks it would have been quicker to write one's own, unless the author was so completely devoid of ideas.

Meanwhile, I am flogging through essays, noting with sadness a marked similarity in some cases with Wikipedia, an indication of the putrid level of effort and imagination exerted by those authors in executing a simple assignment. Do they imagine I won't find out?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

From skeptic to activist?

Time was you could have called me a GW skeptic (I'm talking environment here not the other; in that regard I have become one). Recent history is punctuated by soothsayers proclaiming the imminent demise of the planet due to the latest human activity and to date the predictions have never been realized - fortunately for us I suppose. Was it only thirty years that the climactic doomsday was predicted to be that of global cooling? You might wonder then, if global cooling was thought to be so bad, then how can global warming be bad too? Obviously the cooling never took place; rather it has morphed into the warming.

So I said I was a skeptic; it is my nature. I would argue that scientists ought to be healthily skeptical. I am no longer. As Pascal once argued in regard to faith in God, it is of far better value to bet on GW being real than betting on it being without foundation. What, after all, would be the problem if, after taking action to reduce carbon emissions and promote alternative energy sources, current climate change models were found to be completely false? Society would benefit from these new technologies with or without GW.

What if the planet continued to warm even as the carbon emissions were reduced? This would indeed be an alarming thing because that would suggest another mechanism was actually at work. Given the absence of plausible models other than the greenhouse effect, we would be facing a situation we could do nothing about. In a way, it is to our advantage if the greenhouse effect is really the cause of GW, because at least there are measures to be taken.

To my surprise I found myself chatting with a paid member of Greenpeace, one of the more aggressive environmental groups, rightly known in some quarters as ecoterrorists. One of my students wanted him to meet some environmentally minded COD people. I guess I qualify. I ended up writing a letter in support of their rally outside the office of Peter Roskam who, according to Greenpeace, is not sufficiently "green." I used to do a lot more letter writing to politicians, normally about issues I probably wouldn't write about anymore. Anyway, seeing as how I had used an assignment about GW to have students craft letters to elected officials, it seemed like a good assignment for me to do to. Rather hurried it is but I reproduce it below.

You might think that one person writing a letter achieves nothing. That is probably accurate. Groups of people writing each their own letters can achieve something. It's important to believe that you can make a difference.

The Honorable Peter Roskam
House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515.

October 4, 2007

Dear Representative:

I am writing to encourage you to set a standard for your colleagues in the Congress to follow by taking a strong leadership role in supporting policies that will combat the threat of global warming. I think you would agree that, although the exact consequences of global warming are still a matter of debate, the need to begin taking action urgently is universally acknowledged. Future generations cannot wait for details to be clarified.

To that end, it is a disappointing to note that you have voted against recent bills such as The Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2007, The Renewable Energy Standards Act, The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, The Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007, and The Clean Energy Act of 2007. In their various ways these bills sought to improve standards of fuel efficiency for vehicles, decrease the quantities of carbon released into the atmosphere, promote the development of alternative energy sources and decrease the nation’s dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels. At the same time I do acknowledge that you were outspoken against BP’s plan to increase the amounts of pollutants released into Lake Michigan. However, more must be done by the government to give leadership to the quest for alternative, clean, cost-effective energy solutions.

As individuals, we can each play a role in the fight against global warming through the choices we make in transportation and domestic energy use. As John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books, “It is a good thing to choose to pollute less, to ride a bicycle and take the train and turn down the thermostat, and to fit low-energy light bulbs, but there is a serious risk that these activities will come to seem an end in themselves, a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change. They aren’t. The changes that are needed are global and structural.”

Individuals cannot by themselves produce global and structural change; that is the job requiring strong government leadership. As a citizen responsible for developing scientific literacy and concerned about the future of his children, I exhort you to be part of that strong leadership.

Yours truly,

Richard H. Jarman, M.A. D.Phil (Oxon)
Professor, Chemistry

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A stench in the Fresh Air

So I was listening to a recent Fresh Air podcast as is my custom during my constitutional in Danada on yet another peerless late summer Sunday (if this is global warming then bring it on). Terri Gros introduces each recording with a masterfully disinterested "thanks" to listeners; there must be a school where they train all these liberal intellectual NPR announcers to evince a world-weary cool detachment from all their subjects. But I digress. The subject on this occasion was largely about a person, one of nine siblings, who stayed behind in Poland while all the others left for America at the time of the Nazi ascendancy. Eventually the man and his family perished in the Holocaust and only a few letters remain. As usual, it is very harrowing stuff. There had been a similar sort of broadcast on the Welsh radio program All Things Considered (not to be confused with the NPR version) a few months ago.

The stories of bravery, resilience, courage and cruelty that emerge from Holocaust topics are always riveting. So I'm wondering what the average Holocaust denier would be thinking when confronted by tales such as these, because for these individuals the whole thing never happened. I am aware that one of those deniers is an Associate Professor at Northwestern University. His name is Arthur Butz . He has achieved a certain celebrity in the select circle of deniers by publishing a book on the subject. The university, rightfully so in my view, has taken a large amount of heat for permitting Butz to continue in his teaching role. Last year The Daily Northwestern was lambasted for publishing an article by Butz in defence of the denial on the basis of "fairness" and "balance." I can perhaps see the need for balance and fairness if the topic under debate actually had positions that were open to debate in the first place. The Holocaust does not fall into this category as far as the authenticity of its existence is concerned. Perhaps it is possible to debate its various details and subtleties, but the fact of its existence cannot be at question. It would be equivalent to publishing an article in defence of the mathematical relationship that 2 + 2 = 5.

The nauseating thing about Butz and his ilk is their attempt to legitimize their views by presenting them wrapped in veils of "scholarship" and academic pursuit. Butz has written extensively contesting the meanings of the words in various documents to suggest that the gas chambers were never such. It all comes down to very fussy arguments about the interpretations of individual words in documents. He passed himself off as a member of the "Journal of Historical Review" (the innocent sounding name promotes perversion while seemingly supporting legitimate scholarship).

The fairness and balance tactic has been similarly used by Creationists in an attempt to infiltrate the education system with alternatives to evolutionary theory. In days of yore the Creationists were quite happy to stick to the Bible. More recently the game has become a lot more cunning and the literal interpretations of the Bible (so completely unnecessary for true faith) have been propped up by all sorts of pseudo science and products from heavily supported "research" centers. Intelligent Design has been one such outworking of the savvy modern creationist. It has the trappings of science, though it lacks the actuality of it. So now we must incorporate this idea into the curriculum on the grounds of balance? Imagine if we had to allow any ideas at all on the grounds of balance. A man could maintain that atoms were made of tomatoes and have a soapbox on the grounds of balance.

Okay, Creationism is a far milder "crime" than Holocaust denial. Some of my best friends have been Creationists. I don't think any of them deny the Holocaust. I was wondering what it would be like to have such a one as Butz as a colleague. The pusillanimous administration of Northwestern have not moved against him citing "academic freedom" and the fact that his views are not introduced into the classroom. I cannot imagine though sharing a room in a discipline meeting with him. How would you feel if your neighbour espoused sexual intercourse with animals or young children for example? I mean, what is the difference? Maybe Butz is regarded as a good teacher. Frankly that is completely beside the point.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Foul or fair...

The papers have been swamped this week by a tsunami of stories about cheating covering all walks of life. There are few occasions where a connection can be found between my first love, F1, and education. My American audience will probably be familiar with the coach of the Patriots being nailed for furtively videotaping the opposing coach to steal the signals; the story was even on the front page. The fine of $500,000 to him may seem substantial, but it pales completely into insignificance when set beside the colossal $100 million assessed McLaren in F1 for having, and apparently using, confidential documents obtained from arch rival Ferrari via a disgruntled Ferrari employee. The Tribune's editorial page also had a strongly worded piece on the plagiarism seemingly committed by the SIU president Poshard - a story that has been floating around for a few weeks now - written by a bold SIU faculty member. He better check the locks on his office door Monday. Even in our lowly Courier, student rag at COD, there is a piece on plagiarism by students.

The discussion of these various incidents reveals how, to borrow a piece of NPR terminology, nuanced the business of plagiarism, cheating, whatever you want to call it, is. In the sports examples, which, by the way, are getting a lot more exposure than the academic one (surprise), defenders and apologists for the guilty parties say that getting an edge has always been part of the game (implication: there's nothing wrong with cheating). They add with a shrug that the actions didn't really make any difference; in other words what's all the fuss about? During the broadcasts over the weekend from Spa, the level of McLaren sympathy was simply astonishing. Perhaps not so surprising given the level of anti-Ferrari sentiment in the Anglo-philic racing world.

Of the Poshard business, his defenders say that it was all along time ago and is now irrelevant - it was just a thesis after all. A thesis, mind you, that was considered to be an essential piece of his qualifications for the job in the first place. Poshard himself says variously that he was busy at the time and that the format didn't require quotations. So I'm wondering how he would respond to a student using just those kinds of lame arguments to defend the copying of an assignment prior to punting said student out of the institution for violating the code of academic integrity. As we mere mortals labour to impress upon our charges the need for integrity in the process, is it any wonder, given the examples in the big world outside, that our labours are considerably in vain? Consider how the dreadful Mitch Albom has flourished despite blatantly faking a report on a basketball event. There was even talk of inviting him to the college for the lecture series. I would have opened a vein.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mayor on a bicycle

Interesting juxtaposition of pieces in the paper yesterday: ludicrous photo of Mayor Daley (the words stick on my key pad) pratting around on a bicycle in Paris (on the tax payers' Euro) and a damning condemnation of the pathetic and useless CTA's approach to track safety.

Does anyone take this buffoon seriously? Can he believe that we do? Never listen to Daley while dining; it will result in instant regurgitation. He would be an almost entertaining comic figure were it not for the fact he is the puppet head of a massive organization of self-interest and corruption. It is an indication of the magnitude of the hubris of people like Daley that they cut figures on bicycles while the real transportation infrastructure crumbles while under the inept control of patronage cronies and henchmen. To think that the CTA is touted as an asset for the misguided Olympic bid - another Daley ego-trip. A comparison of the eight cities in the bid shows that the CTA boasts a far greater track length than the others; what the comparison doesn't show is that none of it works effectively.

Instead of poncing around on a bike His Honour should take a look at the Metro and come back and demand the CTA should copycat that. I would use it.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

In search of Higgs

Yet another lengthy article about high-energy physics in the paper this week. I suppose the proximity of Fermilab to Chicago does mean that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) nearing completion in France/Switzerland has greater significance for this area than many scientific endeavours; for once the LHC bursts into life, Fermilab will have lost its status as the leader in particle physics. A brief survey of the Fermilab website reveals the extent of its contributions to uncovering various quarks, charm, bosons, neutrinos and so on. The world of particles has moved on a bit since my education when we were pretty happy with protons, neutrons and electrons.

Even now the physics community is migrating to Europe where the seven times greater energy of the LHC will afford greater probability of identifying the illusive "Higgs Boson." What's that you may ask? According to Wikipedia; my first resort when seeking information, and it is by no means half as bad as purists want to make out; the Higgs is the only particle of the Standard Model of physics yet to be observed. It is the icing on the cake to borrow a hackneyed phrase. There is almost a sense that it is simply a matter of time and with the right equipment, so solid does the theory seem to be; after all, everything else has fallen into place. But the work still has to be done, and the thing still needs to be found in order to be certain; and I suppose in that there is the anticipation and tendency to wonder "what if it isn't?"

What indeed would be the upshot if the Higgs doesn't make its expected appearance? Uproar in the physics world, new theories no doubt; but for us, the simple folk, will there be any difference? Does the presence or absence of Higgs make any difference to our lives? The most probable answer, no, is probably why the Superconducting Super Collider, once sought after at Fermi but later moved to Texas, was eventually axed. So little gain for the pain.

Astonishing is the human effort dedicated in this: the article stated that 7,000 scientists will be working at the LHC. It is unclear as to whether this army is dedicated to the single cause or many causes, but it is an amazing figure, and one that is in stark contrast to the early tradition of science as being the work of individuals. Consider that almost all the great scientists of history were individuals; the theories and laws have almost always a single name attached. The personality traits of scientists often include introspection and isolation. Some of them were downright quirky, even shunning public exposure. It is fascinating to consider how this army can be organized coherently in the search for the Higgs; what egos must be soothed, personal ambitions managed and agendas manipulated to make it all happen.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Toilet Tapes

The lavatory has always figured strongly in the English humour; although I often wish to disown the heritage of Benny Hill, his comedy offers proof of this scatological obsession. My readers then must forgive the following temporary descent from the intellectual heights of the quantum theory as I mull over the revelations stemming from the Idaho senator's misadventures.

When I recently returned home from my gruelling evening class I flipped on the TV with a view to catch up on the latest Bravo reality show, only to find the instrument unaccountably tuned to some cable news channel. Dulcie again. By some synchronicity, I was just in time to listen to the tape made subsequent to the senator's arrest. Call me prurient, call me voyeuristic, but it was riveting stuff and I remained transfixed as the sordid details unfolded. It summoned up some long dormant memories of my youth on the London Underground and the legend that used to surround those dank subterranean caverns of public toilets in places like Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. I must hasten to emphasize that, lest I be misunderstood, and there are perhaps those that will remain unconvinced, my interest was not piqued by the senator's particular peccadilloes, but by the fact that the stage upon which the action occurred was the humble public restroom: that unsung, overlooked but essential component of our daily existence.

Literature rarely intrudes into the personal hygiene of its characters; we all I suppose take it for granted that it happens. The needs of people trapped in elevators or mine shafts for days are never discussed in the aftermath. A great silence surrounds the whole business thus tending to create a sense of isolation. I for one; and surely I am not alone, and I know I am not after a startling revelation from a colleague at Amoco; approach the ritual of the institutional restroom with great seriousness; it is not something that can be taken lightly, as one might say take throwing out the rubbish (or marking papers). If a market existed for a guidebook to public lavatories I would gladly write it, because I always evaluate the restroom facilities when visiting somewhere.

A contributing factor to the activities described on the tape must surely be the open plan nature of the typical U.S. public facility. I was filled with misgiving when I first encountered the saloon door quality of the dividers and the spacious cracks between the panels, because I was used to the tomb-like privacy of the English privy. It can be very unnerving to look up and find the head of a seven footer gazing serenely above the stall's divider. Over the years I have come to terms with the utilitarian divider that dominates the U.S. public lavatorial landscape, where personal feelings and privacy are sacrificed to the altar of cost and efficiency. Now this.

Of course you can distinguish the English character from the French by their very different approaches to the public restroom. For nowhere in England would one find examples that liberally sprinkle the towns of southern France, where the restroom occupies pride and place in the main thoroughfare, and lower limbs and heads are plainly visible to all, and conversations are carried on as if it were over a cup of tea.

Memorable restrooms include those at the Royal Society and Wallace Collection both in London. The former is elegantly constructed from fine wood and provides an almost sound-proof tomb; the door closes with a confident thud, entirely separating the occupant from the rest of the world. Of course, someone dying within may not be discovered for several years. The latter takes a much more cosy approach, there is plentiful use of coloured tiles, a little chair nicely upholstered; it has more the character of a discrete reading room than a lav. Equally memorable, though a savage contrast in style, was the first ecological lav I encountered in New Hampshire. Beneath the seat lay a pit of untold depth, containing God only knows what, causing one to grip the car keys with more than the usual firmness; it was a terrifying sight. Nonetheless, one could derive pleasure from the fact that it was all in a good cause. Green-ness being a very modern thing these days, I sense a growth in interest in the Eco-crapper.

There, I have got it off my chest. We can move on to more cerebral things such as the price of butter...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Now is the summer of their discontent

My loyal fans, all two of them (perhaps I exaggerate), must have been wondering as to my fate. I sometimes wonder how these professional blogger types manage to conjure up something worth saying every day; or perhaps they don't but just say it anyway. Anyway, summer activities at Argonne are over; my days as a highly paid but under-respected TA are done; Dulcie and Aylwin's adventures in the Pacific Northwest are a thing of the past (observations to follow); the new term has just begun.

The new term has indeed begun and it is always exciting to meet the new crop of students. I hope that they don't take too much notice of Ratemyprofessor as my ratings have taken a bit of a pounding of late. Since we converted to semesters, the summer night chemistry class 1552 has become more intensified since we cover half a year in 8 weeks; under quarters, it was only a third of a year. I have noticed the impact on performance has been quite drastic. I am not sure that the students who enroll for the summer really anticipate how demanding that makes it. Naturally, some of those that struggle hold me entirely responsible for their grades. One suggests that I obviously don't like my job; another claims I must add my own ratings for else how could they be good. It is amusing to me that those peevish scribes who claim I cannot explain anything are the very ones that don't attend the lectures, never participate in anything, don't ask questions, hand in pathetically inadequate lab reports, never seek me out in the generous allocation of office hours. And, shock of shocks, they lament loudly an exam that interrogates ability.

I just hope the new students are not dissuaded by the torrent of negativity.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Big Sleep

I read a story in the Tribune this week about a chap who was issued a $300 ticket for sleeping on a CTA train after a hard day's work. He was summoned to appear in the City Hall Court but, given the heavy presence of the press, the creepy prosecutors dropped the case out of embarrassment. Ironic, is it not, that it is apparently illegal to sleep on a train, while the entire administration of Chicago can spend its collective career in torpid, corruption. But, I was given to thinking about the possible benefits of outlawing sleeping in class. Applying fines of $300 to students for sleeping transgressions would quickly reverse recent financial over-runs on building projects. To be fair, I can quite understand why people can nod off in lectures as I listen to the droning emanating from classrooms as I proceed through the IC. However, I do rather take exception to those who slump very obviously on the desk from the very beginning and remain thus for the entire class.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Shear Genius

Dulcie and Aylwin indulge in a star****ing haircut this weekend as they make the pilgrimage to Griffith Indiana to meet Shear Genius finalist Ben Mollin. So we are suckers for Bravo reality TV shows; what can I say? Even so, it is slightly odd to be transfixed by a show about cutting hair, when there are important problems in the world to worry about like what is dark matter made of? It turns out that Ben Mollin, the tattooed Chicagoan who almost won the thing, has his "salon" in Griffith, Indian, located by some synchronistic miracle within shouting distance of Three Floyds Brewery (see earlier post about Dark Lord Day). So Dulcie does the unthinkable and calls up to make an appointment. Slightly surprisingly he answers the phone and appointments are fairly easy to come by. So this Saturday we retraced our steps to northern Indiana with the duel mission of achieving haircuts and landing some growlers of Three Floyds, which we failed to achieve on our DLD visit.

So it is with a slight feeling of unreality that we enter Griffith (blink and you will miss it) and pull outside the combined music and hair salon, the least imposing center of haute couture as you could imagine. There is our Ben sitting casually in the window framed by guitars. Fame and celebrity have not spoiled him it seems and we have an enjoyable visit. Notable though was his complete lack of interest in us other than where we had come from. But of course we are nothings and the talk had to be about the show and the personalities. I will say this much: the fellow can cut hair and the prices are dead reasonable. I even had the privilege to buy him a shot from the neighboring store. If you can tolerate the automobilic purgatory of 80/94 I highly recommend a visit. Don't try to use a credit card though.

And so to FFF. The scene we found this time bore no resemblance to the madness of DLD. Gone were the tattooed, pierced, black tee-shirted youth, to be replaced by a much more sober middle-aged crowd, with the possible exception of a couple of bikers. There were even people there not drinking beer. You might wonder how can this be? I can answer: the food is a match in quality to the beer and reasonably priced. The range of beers on offer, both FFF and from all parts, exceeds the capacity to sample them. The SSCP's recommendations: Dreadnaught and Fantabulous Resplendence. They are highly alcoholic and immensely hopped and completely fantastic. The obligatory growler was procured. In days of yore the working man would take his growler to the local for a post-work beverage. I'm thinking that if I consumed one of these every day I would be left completely incapable. But perhaps the beverage of yesteryear lacked the punch of your typical Alpha King.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Return to cheap energy: think again

Talk of energy is all the rage these days as we confront the intertwined issues of GW and higher petrol prices. The pundits have their pet solutions, though the politicians, for probably very good reasons, show scant coherence as to implementing any of them. As a thoughtful piece in the Tribune this week pointed out, any solution to "dependence on foreign oil" runs counter to the popular desire for low prices. Simply put, any alternative energy source will be more expensive than the current "exorbitant" high price. Remarkably, or perhaps not so, the surge in petrol price seems to do little to alter behaviour so perhaps it is not that high after all. With my torrid half-mile commute to the college I fortunately do not notice the effect; although my summer Argonne adventure now demands a gruelling ten mile journey and so my transportation costs have soared stratospherically. I am now looking to wind power - perhaps a sail-assisted car; though I'm not sure that sails will be a help or hindrance at the obligatory 80 mph on I-355. I'm thinking perhaps it's not such a good idea and probably explains why there aren't many sail-assisted vehicles on the roads (a different kind of hybrid).

The notion that energy independence will somehow ensure low prices along the lines of what were enjoyed for so long is delusional. Independence assumes alternatives dominate because for sure oil alone cannot do it. I enjoyed my annual free lunch at the Argonne Guest House courtesy of a former Amoco colleague who now commands some upper echelon administrative role there, though he is curiously obtuse as to exactly what it is. That aside, as I set about my salmon, quite passable apart from the somewhat stale Terra chips (okay it was Monday - I suppose they were left over from the previous week), we discussed the energy business. What about the hydrogen economy? Can this deliver at an economical price? What is not recognized in all the hype about the promise of this carbonless technology (at least at the point of its combustion) is the cost of delivery. At a low market penetration, the kind of entry level appropriate for a young technology, the cost of delivering hydrogen would hugely exceed the current delivery costs of petroleum - a fact overlooked by many I suspect, and one which really emphasizes the cost dilemma for politicians: it is impossible to campaign for reduced fuel costs and alternative fuels at the same time.

In Illinois the dilemma is readily apparent in the fight over electric rates; the popular approach is to extend the low price to the consumer; the long-term view would be to let the price of electricity reach its market value - highly unpopular with consumers.

So how even could a hydrogen, or whatever alternative fuel, economy get going? A realistic approach, avoiding subsidies and artificial price fixing, would be to burden the fossil fuels with taxes that reflect their negative environmental impact - a carbon tax. I can't imagine any legislator campaigning on that ticket and I don't expect to hear about any carbon taxes any time soon around here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Last Aria: The SSCP turns critic

So there we have it: about 6 hours to go before the final episode. And I am not even able to focus properly because of the hailstorm of action unfolding at Montreal as Lewis aims to win his first race. Lewis who you might be asking? But if you asking, you don't really need to know the answer. Some critics have complained about lack of action in F-1. Today gives the lie to that. But to that main business at hand. The last three episodes have really turned up the ratchet on the dramatic tension and after just one more hour it is all over and will probably result in a massive post-episode depression.

I confess to being a major Johnny-come-lately to this all-time epic of TV drama. Only a few years ago I laboured under the impression (not uncommon I understand) that The Sopranos had something to do with opera singers. It was in the late summer of 2005 when Dulcie, poking around for some Saturday evening televisual entertainment uncovered the series 1 boxed set in a draw. I did not take to it straight away; the accents were heavy and I couldn't get the names straight - why did they (Sato overtakes WC Fernando on merit: am I dreaming?) all seem to be called Pussy albeit of different size? - and the rapid sequencing of scenes was complex. I persisted and the hook was set. Over the course of the next few weeks we proceeded to watch, at the rate of about 2 or 3 a night, all the series in order in order to be set for the beginning of season 6. By the time it begun I had probably seen them all twice at least. It's slightly odd because I am not a fan of violence; I faint at the sight of blood; but there is something completely compelling about it. My favourite episodes are Pine Barrens and Long Term Parking, both written by Terry Winter, who I had the good fortune to talk to last year - courtesy of a class at COD. Obviously the show is very popular and I think it is because it functions on many levels. For many, the majority I suspect, the entertainment and action are sufficient (plus the Bing). The superlative use of language and intertwined plots and nuance probably wash over the heads of many. Some just slip unannounced: "...he has to piss into a cathode tube." Tony laments. One season finishes on a quiet note in the restaurant as our gang sits out a storm. The last lines are left to Paulie and Silvio (I think). "Irregardless..." opines Paulie. Everyone goes on and on about David Chase, but you cannot understate the immensity of the performance of Gandolfini.

It is a truly Shakespearean achievement. Okay there have been some down moments; the dream sequences I can mostly do without, and all that stuff with Johnny Cakes last year (I hope that wasn't an homage to the PC crowd); but as one scribe wrote in the New Yorker, there is dull stuff in Dickens too. I once polled my class as to the most memorable whackings. Interestingly the death of Adriana did not rate. For my money the most memorable part of the whole thing. The journey within the journey on the road to that wood was brilliant, as was the treatment of the execution. Second in my book for revealing character was the beating of the pregnant dancer by Ralphie. She disrespected the Bing was the response of the crowd as they looked upon her corpse. Tony alone knew more the awfulness of it; but it did not after all alter his behaviour because, in the end, he is one of them too.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Beware celebrated scientists bearing good news

It has become my custom of late to listen to improving podcasts during my daily constitutional as opposed to the more rhythm-sustaining loud music I was won't to do. Just to clarify the meaning of constitutional, I am using the English vernacular which means exercise; in a recent conversation with a native I learned that constitutional might be taken to imply a much more intimate activity normally associated with one's early morning preparations. Let it be known that I am very much with Kenny Williams, the White Sox GM, on this one: I need my maximum focus in that department, and improving podcasts would constitute, so to speak, a substantial distraction. In any event, I appear to be digressing from the main thrust. One of my favourite podcasts was Scipod, produced for more than a year by New Scientist, long my preferred scientific publication. The podcast shared much in common with the parent publication, being informed, engaging, accessible and witty. There was one particularly memorable discussion on sources of domestic injuries and trousers, it appeared, presented a greater source of injuries than kitchen knives. So, imagine my disappointment when it recently signed off with the message that it was shutting up shop.

As an alternative I have been road-testing Science Friday hosted by someone with a name that sounds like Ira Playdough, but perhaps I am hard of hearing. One of the topics this week was about hydrogen - a very timely business, particularly since my summer research at the mighty Argonne is on the very subject of fuel cells. In this segment, Jerry Woodall, a highly decorated pioneer of semiconductor electronic devices. Success in that field does not necessarily prepare one for ground-breaking progress in alternative energy. The premise, I thought, was mistaken in that the biggest problem for hydrogen-propelled fuel cell cars was the danger of the hydrogen fuel tank. I would have agreed with the biggest problem being the generation of the hydrogen in the first place economically, assuming all other issues with fuel cells are sorted, which is far from being the case. So, Prof. Woodall has a cunning solution, although by no means an entirely novel one based on other work I have seen: generate the hydrogen insitu by adding a reactive metal to a tank of water. There is a certain magic sound to this: the use of water as a fuel. I have learned from some cursory research that there is much myth, hype and outright mischief associated with the pursuit of the water powered vehicle - more of that to follow.

The chemistry here is trivial and the metal selected is aluminium (Al), suitable for both its reactivity and low molar mass. Of course, as any devotee of canned beverages can attest to, Al cans are not at all reactive in fact due entirely to a very thin but impervious passivating layer of oxide that forms rapidly on any fresh Al surface. Without it, the widespread application of this supremely abundant and low density metal throughout society could not have happened. Woodall's trick was to recognize that an alloy of Al with a heavy member of group 3, gallium (Ga), did not possess this passivating layer, and that it reacted readily with water to generate hydrogen.

All very well I thought, but in his enthusiasm to promote this putative automotive "technology" a few questions remain unanswered. One of the great attractions of hydrogen as a fuel is its energy density - a mammoth 34.2 kcal/g compared with 8.7 kcal/g for gasoline, which is no slouch in its own right on that account. So, I have to ask, why would you want to replace compressed hydrogen, for which there is no real evidence of any danger greater than with conventional fuel, with a tank of water and metal to react with it. Consider the numbers. In the water molecule (H2O) the H accounts for only 1/9 of the mass. Now throw the metal into the equation. 54 grams of Al would be required to obtain 6 grams of H2 from 54 grams H2O. So now we are down to the fuel being less than 6 % of the total mass. The energy density is now down to less than 3 kcal/g - almost five times worse than conventional fuel. And I am not even factoring in the gallium which only makes matters worse. Woodall spoke of using a little gallium but his website shows graphs with Ga contents as much as 80 %.

There are other questions. Woodall is definitely correct in saying that Al is abundant; but back in the day when I was working on alumino-silicates like zeolites, we were substituting the Al by Ga but knew that this was not really an industrial possibility because of the limited availability of this element. What gives one to think that something unsuitable for widespread deployment in catalysis could be suitable for transportation?

The reaction of Al with H2O will produce the H2 fuel for the fuel cell; but it will also produce a quantity of heat. It is not clear how this heat will be utilized if at all.

The process is said to be easily recycled. "Cheap" electricity will reverse the aluminum oxide product to the metal for reuse using a "highly efficient" electrolytic process. Of course recycling of Al is one of the most economically viable processes in the pantheon of recycling but that is largely because of the high cost of producing virgin materials. It is an energy-intensive process because of the high stability of the oxide. Factor in also the transportation costs and logistical problems associated with recycling massive quantities of the Al2O3 residue. After all this "cheap" electricity will only reside near the windfarms, waves, nuclear plants or solar panels that will generate it, even presupposing that these sources will indeed be cheap. I am not entirely sure that will be the case. Has nuclear ever been cheap? Maybe I am missing something, but I cannot see how this approach gets off the ground compared with using pure hydrogen off the bat.

I mentioned earlier an abundance of nonsense associated with water as a fuel. I intend to pursue some of this in future notes.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Compares favourably with a Welsh claret

The culmination of the year's academic activities and completion of all administrative obligations connected therewith had left me in a somewhat festive and celebratory mood, so I ventured over to Binny's to pluck from their hands some Chateauneuf du Pape that was being offered at a very attractive price. The old cellar, or should I say wardrobe, was a little lacking in that vinous region. Assuming it had not just fallen off the back of a lorry, or was not the product of some fake wine label operation on the south side it was an almost can't lose situation. Nonetheless, I sought the advice of CellarTracker prior to completing the deal. Fully fledged winos are probably familiar with this web-based cellar management software already since it boasts some thirty thousand members. Developed by some ex-Microsoft guy with way too much time on his hands (or so it seems), it represents a giant data-base which interconnects every bottle (some five million or more) and its attendant data by name. Every member can be his own Robert Parker and declaim loudly on the virtues (or not) of a wine to those who care to listen. The site now boasts upward of 300,000 tasting notes (TNs in the business). Dulcie and Aylwin confess to having contributed their share to this superfluity of information. I find they provide the benefit of being a largely independent and honest (if not necessarily educated) opinion of a wine. I am moved to give these notes more weight, their poor spelling and lack of style or grammar not withstanding, than their more illustrious "professional" counterparts. Jancis Robinson (trying hard here to suppress the envy) for all her flair cannot be everywhere all the time; and in any case who pronounced her palate to have some divine right? Wine stores like to post the Parker ratings or their equivalents (whenever favourable of course) as an inducement to purchase. The following is not atypical, "Nevertheless, it is an enormously endowed effort revealing notes of licorice, blackberry and cherry fruit, melted asphalt, tapenade, truffles, and smoke." (This in regard to a Chateau Beaucastel 1999) I guess it needs a lot of that to be worth $265 a bottle; but can we really believe it, and what does it all really mean when it comes down to it? Does the melted asphalt distinguish it from the also-rans? What if I, the humble peasant, cannot find the asphalt? What do I do about not having the faintest notion what tapenade smells or tastes like? Dulcie questioned whether this was a review of a wine or a mulch.

Some of the CT-ers like to out-Parker Parker with their run-on lists of adjectives and similes and, in a way, provide their own entertainment for those with ample time on their hands - like me at this moment. This one in regard to a Hermitage is representative, "The nose has all the typical N Rhône notes of meat, grouse blood, wet earth, pepper, dark fruit. The palate is fruity - perhaps there is also a touch of unfortunate sur maturité also..." Grouse blood? I can imagine the scene at a wine-tasting class where various fouls are slaughtered and the smells of the freshly run blood compared. Well it would be grouse of course to evoke game, wealth and prestige. Sparrow or crow would not do at all. Dulcie observed that similar exotic smells could be had from the laundry basket, though it is possible the descriptions may be a little too gamey or intimate for some. Modesty forbids me to pursue that line of creative thought further. And the little foray into French - "sur maturité" - adds that "Je ne sais quois"

We are thinking of adding to our TNs Gerald Samperesque food recommendations in the style of Cooking with Fernet Branca which just arrived from Amazon - a perfect match for otter chunks for example.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lowering the curtain

Thursday evening and it was all over - the final exam of the final class of the semester. The last student hands over his paper and, with a quiet muttered exchange of thank yous, vanishes into the night. There I am left with my little pile of Scantrons (okay I take the easy way out sometimes) and a few memories.

Sidenote: as I am writing this, the FA cup final is approaching its end. My aggravation at the fact that the game is not on television, already worsened by the discriminatory disclaimer on Radio Five Live that commentary is available only to UK listeners (some nonsense about copyright I suppose), is further compounded by the BBC website malevolently and unpredictably failing to update in a timely fashion. Curses, the thing has just updated twenty five minutes in the last refresh betraying the result that Chelsea won. Some comfort can then be had from the whole experience to know that the Cup has eluded the vile Man U. I often marvel at the depth of purple hue on Alex Ferguson's nose. I'm given to thinking he must like his dram as much as his football; but nothing is ever intimated about that aspect of his life, which appears to be beyond reproach. Unlike that Swede and his indiscretions all over the front page; but then he didn't win the World Cup, nor ever looked like doing so. I suppose you cannot argue with the results.

Back to the business in hand. It's a slightly sad event the end of the class. There we are, sixteen weeks in each other's company, thirty-two weeks in some cases, and it's suddenly all over. I wonder to what extent differences are really made. For many, it's a question of ticking the box, another step on a road to some desired degree or qualification. Often I suspect the enthusiasm and politeness to be masks worn to gain favour in pursuit of a creditable grade. A few for sure evidence genuine interest. Some take the trouble to compose nice notes of gratitude. They can often be quite moving: one woman confessed that she had avoided chemistry for ten years such was her fear of it, compromising her achievement of her desired goals in the process (she easily got an "A"); another did not want to sell back her book so she loved it so much (I didn't think the book was that great, but that's hardly the point). One or two, not more thankfully, express a version of reality that differs from mine when it comes to assessing the final grade. Attempts to negotiate upward adjustments can be the cause of some uncomfortable moments, leaving me feeling somehow responsible for unmet objectives. Careers in tatters as a consequence of a tenth of a point, self esteem destroyed by the appearance of a single "C" on the transcript and so on. Do we not worry too much about such minutiae? A select few will grasp the bigger picture and develop an appreciation for the beauty of the subject. All of a sudden they are off on their own, probing for greater understanding and discovering other questions, which often are forwarded to me for answers. I know then it has not been in vain.

Friday was the big graduation night. I had attended for the first time last year, the whole gay fandango and ceremony just being a little off putting. There is a great speech in Henry V centered on ceremony though I remember not a word of it now - thrice gorgeous ceremony or something. Out of a growing sense of duty I made the effort last year and endured the palaver of getting the gown and stuff. I was a little skeptical about the authenticity of the rented "Oxford" colours. This year I privately looked forward to seeing the students in their borrowed robes march proudly across the temporary stage in the noisy PE center. What is perhaps tiresome for us world-weary academics is for some a once-in-a-lifetime event. Why be churlish about that? I would note how many of them I knew. I had a front row seat on the end and the line would file right past me. None of them saw me and each time I was immobilized by indecision as to whether to acknowledge them, an unwelcome intrusion of their moment perhaps, or not. I chose not, with a note of regret. Afterwards, a rapid retreat beaten from the "cookies and punch" reception (why do these sorts of things have to separate us from real universities?) to Houlihan's - appetizers provided by the Faculty Senate (but not drinks of course!). Il Presidente graced us with his presence for an extended period and even bought a round guaranteeing by that transaction my eternal loyalty. How cheaply I can be had.

A few more days and then the new rounds begin. One week to explore other interests in the interim.