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.