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: http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=72070

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.