Archive for the ‘weather’ category

Ceci N’est Pas Un Chien

February 15, 2015

I simply love this:

Dog lower third

Nothing like Auntie Beeb making sure we have all the news we can use.

I do not love this:

2-15-snow view

For comparison sake, here’s Tuesday’s shot (posted yesterday):

Big snow backyars

This is getting ridiculous.  I’ve spent the morning looking at stuff like this, just to remind me that the at least an idea of beach exists:

Bird crop


Yup.  I’m reduced to wader-porn. (That was taken at Reid State Park on Georgetown Island in Maine, for those that hang in that part of the world.)

Oh Dear FSM Make It Stop, redux.

Snowpocalypse Now

February 14, 2015

This was the view from my back door sometime in early January:


As you can see, the first faint flakes of snow are visible streaking across the frame.

Here’s the same view as of last Tuesday:

Big snow backyars

We’ve got as much as two feet more coming tonight and tomorrow according to a true Valentine’s Day gift of a storm bulletin from the National Weather Service:

The result will be an intense nor’easter with heavy snow and blizzard conditions for eastern New England by Sunday morning, with one to two feet of snow likely along with wind gusts in excess of 50 mph! This same storm will usher in a truly arctic airmass behind it, with some of the coldest weather of the season for parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. by Sunday. High temperatures are expected to be 20 to 35 degrees below normal by February standards, with afternoon readings in the single digits and teens, and 20s extending well into Virginia and North Carolina. The strong winds will combine with these frigid temperatures to produce brutal subzero wind chills.

Thanks Obama.

I console myself with the contemplation of psychokitty Tikka:

Psycho cat

I  am so not getting that iPad back…

I call this one “At Leest I Haz Mah Diggnahtee!”:


And one last one, where he’s just looking kind of sweet (uncharacteristically so, but then we all have our weak moments):

Tikka staring

You may think of this as the  Oh God Make It Stop thread.

Burrowing into tragedy: a story behind the story of the Iraq War Suicides.

June 5, 2008

Cross Posted at Cosmic Variance (thanks Sean).

My thanks to all here who gave me such a warm welcome on Monday (and, again, to Sean for asking me here in the first place).

This post emerges out of this sad story of a week or so ago.

Over Memorial Day weekend this year there was a flurry of media coverage about the devastating psychological toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The single most awful paragraph in the round-up:

“According to the Army, more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers attempted suicide or suffered serious self-inflicted injuries in 2007, compared to fewer than 500 such cases in 2002, the year before the United States invaded Iraq. A recent study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. found that 300,000 of the nearly 1.7 million soldiers who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a major mental illness, conditions that are worsened by lengthy deployments and, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.”

(For details and a link to a PDF of the Army report – go here.)

This report, obviously, is the simply the quantitative background to a surfeit of individual tragedy – but my point here is not that war produces terrible consequences.

Rather, the accounts of the Iraq War suicides — 115 current or former servicemen and women in 2007 – struck me for what was implied, but as far as I could find, not discussed in the mass media: the subtle and almost surreptitious way in which the brain-mind dichotomy is breaking down, both as science and as popular culture.

How so? It is, thankfully, becoming much more broadly understood within the military and beyond that “shell shock” is not malingering, or evidence of an essential weakness of moral fiber. PTSD is now understood as a disease, and as one that involves physical changes in the brain.

The cause and effect chain between the sight of horror and feelings of despair cannot, given this knowledge, omit the crucial link of the material substrate in which the altered and destructive emotions can emerge. PTSD becomes thus a medical, and not a spiritual pathology.

(This idea still faces some resistance, certainly. I launched my blog with a discussion of the attempt to court martial a soldier for the circumstances surrounding her suicide attempt. But even so, the Army is vastly further along in this area that it was in the Vietnam era and before.)

Similarly, depression is clearly understood as a disease with a physical pathology that underlies the malign sadness of the condition. (H/t the biologist Louis Wolpert for the term and his somewhat oddly detached but fascinating memoir of depression.)

This notion of the material basis of things we experience as our mental selves is not just confined to pathology. So-called smart drugs let us know how chemically malleable our selves can be.

More broadly, the study of neuroplasticity provides a physiological basis for the common sense notion that experience changes who we perceive ourselves to be.

All this seems to me to be a good thing, in the sense that (a) the study of the brain is yielding significant results that now or will soon greatly advance human well being; and (b) that the public seems to be taking on board some of the essential messages. The abuses (overmedication, anyone?) are certainly there. But to me, it is an unalloyed good thing that we have left the age of shell shock mostly behind us.

At the same time, I’m a bit surprised that the implications of this increasingly public expression of an essentially materialist view of mind haven’t flared up as a major battle in the science culture wars.

Just to rehearse the obvious: the problem with cosmology for the other side in the culture war is that it conflicts with the idea of the omnipresent omnipotence of God. The embarrassment of evolutionary biology is that it denies humankind a special place in that God’s creation, destroying the unique status of the human species as distinct from all the rest of the living world.

Now along comes neuroscience to make the powerful case that our most intimate sense of participating in the numinous is an illusion.

Instead, the trend of current neuroscience seems to argue that the enormously powerful sense each of us has of a self as distinct from the matter of which we are made is false. Our minds, our selves may be real—but they are the outcome of a purely material process taking place in the liter or so of grey stuff between our ears.

(There are dissenters to be sure, those that argue against the imperial materialism they see in contemporary neuroscience. See this essay for a forceful expression of that view.)

I do know that this line of thought leads down a very convoluted rabbit hole, and that’s not where I am trying to go just now.

Instead, the reports of the Iraq suicides demonstrated for me that the way the news of the materiality of mind is is slipping into our public culture without actually daring (or needing) to speaking its name.

That the problem of consciousness is still truly unsolved matters less in this arena than the fact of fMRI experiments that demonstrate the alterations in brain structure and metabolism associated with the stresses of war or the easing of the blank, black hole of depression. The very piecemeal state of the field helps mask its potentially inflammatory cultural implications.

To me this suggests two possibilities. One is that it is conceivable that when the penny finally drops, we might see backlash against technological interventions into the self like that which has impeded stem cell research in the U.S.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the public can be motivated or even bamboozled into blocking the basic science in this field. Too much rests on the work; any family that has experienced Alzheimers knows just how urgent the field may be — not to mention anyone with a loved one in harms way.

This actually gives me hope for a shift in the culture war. For all the time and energy wasted over the last several years defending the idea of science against attacks on evolution, with the cosmologists taking their lumps too – the science of mind could force a shift in the terms of engagement decisively in the right direction.

Or I could be guilty of another bout of wishful thinking. Thoughts?

Image: Brain in a Vat, article illustration. Offered in homage to my friend and source of wisdom, Hilary Putnam, who introduced the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment in this book. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Update and pointer on the ongoing carbon fest/Postrel roast.

May 2, 2008

I just want to call attention to Eric Roston’s latest post on the news of a research paper on ocean circulation and possible northern hemisphere cooling for the next decade or so.

Eric makes one key point — that those who would either seize on or deny this result because of a preconceived commitment to a policy prescription miss the real nature of science: that it is an ongoing, self-destroying, self-renewing enterprise. (He also makes the point that the mass media, and especially advocates, have a terrible time figuring out what each new iteration of scientific understanding actually means, especially in as complicated a subject as climate.)

Read Eric. To what he said I’d add just one point, something that Steven Postrel failed to grasp in the provocation that got this whole exchange of posts going.

That is: the central issue in the uncontrolled experiment we are doing by injecting carbon pollution into the atmosphere is not the precise change in global average temperature that will result, nor specific predictions about the fate of this locality or that.

Rather, it is about the ever increasing uncertainty about weather and climate that accumulates as wholesale changes in the bulk chemical composition of the atmosphere work their way through the physics, chemistry and biology of climate.

As I discussed below at too great length, the problem with climate change now, whether natural or anthropogenic, is that human beings have built an enormous, complex, and in many ways very vulnerable material infrastructure on certain assumptions about the stability of climate.

Current carbon profligacy casts those assumptions into doubt. We thus face both the daily costs of weather and more persistant patterns that do not conform to our expectation (Katrina; prolonged droughts; etc), and the costs of insuring ourselves against less and less accurately quantifiable risks of future climate events.

That uncertainty ultimately becomes something else: the fact of a climate regime different from the one within which we have built our cities and planned our farms. The Dust Bowl, or the collapse of the Sahel provide recent examples of the kinds of consequences we may expect from such an effect: not just suffering, but movement — the migration of peoples that traditionally produce stress at least, and armed conflict at worse.

The imperative both to understand climate dynamics and to avoid turbocharging whatever transformation is going on, derives from a healthy caution in the face of confounding the fundamental human belief that the world will behave tomorrow pretty much as it does today.

Update: Eric Roston’s name spelled correctly, again with apologies.

Image: Dallas, South Dakota, May 13, 1936. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

More On Steven Postrel’s Climate Issues…

April 30, 2008

Issues, as in he has ’em, and it matters because his ill-informed comments (and I’m trying to keep the discourse on a reasonably polite level, as Dr. Postrel himself has done) actually capture a much broader pathology in the realm of those who oppose taking climate science and its predictions seriously.

Last night, I posted my much too-long and still incomplete response to Dr. Postrel’s comments further down this blog — but I also pinged my internet-friend Eric Roston, to see if he wanted to have a crack at the same material that I saw, frankly as nonsense born of a dangerous brew of ignorance of the field and an ideological predisposition to a given outcome.

I did so because while I have written at length about climate change — I did so mostly two decades ago. I have complained (to Eric among others) that what’s most depressing about that is how little I would have to change in my basic take on the subject now, and you can see Eric’s treatment of that claim here.

But the point is that Eric, a former Time magazine science/tech correspondent is now the author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age (Macmillan, July, 2008), and is much more deeply immersed in the current science and policy literature than I ever was. So when in doubt, call in the expert — and here is Eric’s first whack at Postrel’s argument. I should warn you — it ain’t pretty (that is to say, Eric fired for effect, and he got it).

Update: Eric Roston’s name now spelled correctly (with apologies).

Image: Francisco de Goya “Bravo Toro,” 1824-1825. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Does Climate Change Matter: Steven Postrel Edition

April 29, 2008

Last week I blogged at length (too much! sayeth the mythical average reader) about McCain’s gas tax holiday and the evil consequences for hopes to rein in carbon pollution/climate change.

In doing so I linked, approvingly, to Steven Postrel’s analysis of the relative policy and economic consequences of a carbon tax vs. a carbon cap-and-trade system to limit and/or roll back carbon emissions in the US. At the same time I snarked a couple of times (reasonably politely, I thought) about this bit of Postrel:

Let’s suppose you’ve been swept up in the recent frenzy and decided that it actually makes sense to apply coercive regulations to reduce human carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s further suppose that you’ve caught up to the 21st century and know that imposing specific technology standards on particular sources of emissions is a sign of policy incompetence: You know that market-ish mechanisms can do a much better job than technology standards of allocating clean-up tasks to the lowest-cost producers; you know that market-ish mechanisms provide incentives for private innovation in emissions control while technology standards stifle better ideas.

Congratulations! You are now about where the public policy debate has fallen these days — naive about the quality of the natural science involved but possessing a sound insight about the smartest way to do a foolish thing. (Italics added — TL)

The essence of my snark was that Postrel was out of his competence — and wrong — by suggesting that the science of carbon pollution and climate change was poor.

In the comments thread to the second of my provocations in this direction, Dr. Postrel responded with a courteous and thoughtful defense of his claim, along with a slightly more irascible re-response to another commenter (and old friend of mine) who took issue with some of what he said in his first micro-essay.

Postrel’s comments are worth reading, as they are clear, internally coherent, and provide as sound a brief precis of the arguments for the do-nothing approach as anything I’ve read.

And what makes them important, IMHO, is that they thus succinctly express several of the most significant errors of that approach.

So — as Werner Wolf fans may remember, Lets Go To The Videotape!

By way of adjusting the frame of his argument, Postrel begins his first comment with a slight but significant shift. He says that climate scientists’ “judgment about what can be done with their scholarship is very much in question. Not just at the level of prediction, but at the level of policy evaluation and control.”

Well that’s open to debate — and I’ll take a crack at that below. But note the tricky little sidestep there. In his own post on taxes v. cap and trade, he clearly indicts “the quality of the natural science.” Here, called to the mat on that, he says, in effect, no– not really — it’s just when climate scientists apply their knowledge to domains beyond the reach of their pretty little heads that we get into trouble.

OK — he didn’t say that; but the implication is clear, and its clearly not what he said in his initial post, so my snark still stands.

But so what? Rhetorical sleight of hand is always nice to expose, but Postrel goes on from this claim, to argue the implications of his assertion that climate scientists — along with those who believe what the vast majority of them are telling us — are foolish naifs, and it is here, I think that his more serious errors become apparent.

Postrel’s first argument in favor of doing nothing rests on what he calls thought experiments. (They aren’t really — in the shameless self promotion department, see my account of thought experiments in the hands of someone who knew how to create a hypothetical that actually penetrated to the heart of an issue.)

Postrel asks “if there were a provable natural trend toward cooling would anyone be arguing for increased CO2 emissions to balance and stabilize the climate? Answer: When pigs fly.”

There are several problems with this, and with the parallel straw man question on natural warming. First, the rhetoric: Postrel asserts, absent evidence beyond his own assessment of human nature/political process, that humans would not attempt to control nature to their own advantage. “Because I said so” (a loose translation of “when pigs fly”) is neither persuasive nor accurate in this case.

(By the way — Postrel took my old friend and trenchant blogger Lovable Liberal to task for an alleged confusion of the distinction between rhetoric and argument. I’d say the phrase “When pigs fly” settles the case in LL’s favor — though I’m happy to allow my friend to wield the blade of his Harvard philosophy degree to discipline Dr. Postrel on this matter in his own time and space.)

But beyond the fact that Postrel advances as argument a mere ex cathdra claim, the problem here is that he is clearly wrong on the facts. Human beings have routinely intervened in large ways and small to alter climate/environmental conditions to their benefit in the context of natural, cyclical change. See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature for some classic writing on the subject — but examples are legion, and stretch back at least to Sumerian attempts to irrigate their corner of the fertile crescent.

More broadly — and more to the larger issues with Postrel’s case — there is both a moral and a practical argument to be made that the “experiments” Postrel proposes are in fact arguments of either ignorance or bad faith.

Bad faith first: It seems reasonable to test the assumption behind the question. Postrel asserts by implication that reasonable observers should see no difference between a “natural” and an intentionally, consciously chosen act. Is that so? Ask yourself whether you feel or reason a difference between a natural process that alters ecological conditions and actions undertaken by humans now fully aware of the fact that their acts have consequences for people and ecosystems who/that derive no benefit from the original action.

I think that it is obvious that there is such a difference, and I think the recognition of that distinction is deeply ingrained in our law, customs, cultures, systems of belief and so on.

(For an example in the realm of both law and belief consider the Talmudic discussions of responsibility and compensation required when an ox causes damage depending on what knowledge the owner had of the propensity of his animal to cause injury.)

Hence my use of the term “straw man” for what Postrel would rather label more grandly a “thought experiment.” It fails to achieve that status both because, at least in Postrel’s hands, it becomes a question that assumes its answer (airborne pork and so on) — and because it rests on a false assumption of the equivalence of the question with the situation to be explored.

Now to the issue of ignorance. Why might it be a good idea to intervene now, when it would not have been, say 70,000 years ago, (when, we have just been informed, homo sapiens may have flirted with extinction brought on to poor adaptation to an undeniably natural climate change)?

Because, (more relentless self promotion alert) as I discussed here, before Jared Diamond and John McPhee did the same to much greater effect, the current anthropogenic climate change has one crucial difference from all the natural variation humans have endured throughout their evolutionary history.

That change?

We’ve built a whole lot of stuff in the way since the last Ice Age ended.

Over the last several hundred years we have constructed critical infrastructure on the assumption that the climate regime is going to stay more or less constant over time. We’ve done that all over the world, of course, and while there are some technological fixes available to the rich (see the Dutch engineering of their sub-sea level coastal fortifications), more broadly, we’ve got a lot of life, wealth and property invested in the notion that the ocean will stay more or less where it is.

And of course, it isn’t just coastlines we need to worry about. Global warming is not just an issue of sea level rise; it presents, as Postrel does accept, a much broader range of possible consequences.

Climate change affects rainfall, storm severity, longer term patterns of drought and damp and so on. Global agriculture on industrial scales are built on climate assumptions. Land use and distribution reflect generations of dispute and resolution on the question of access to climate resources and so on. Radical change in the climate regime — an expansion of drought areas, shift of rainfall patterns and so on — might not, as Postrel and others have argued, produce a net loss of ecosystem capacity world wide. But such shifts do devastate human constructions built on a set of beliefs about the climate that are no longer true.

Put this another way: Hurricane Katrina was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. Rather, it was a natural event — category 3 or 4 hurricanes are going to hit in the western gulf with a certain frequency; that’s just the way that part of the system goes.

What made Katrina a human disaster was the fact that since the last major hurricane came that way, New Orleans in all its modern glory and inadequately engineered levees had grown up in the way. Take that and spread it all over the globe, and you have the reason why modern anthropogenic climate change is scarier than the Little Ice Age was. The broad argument we should do nothing because the climate has always varied fails to take into account this change from then to now.

This has gone on long enough. Just a couple more errors to pick at, and then I’ll stop, not having exhausted the problems with Dr. Postrel’s much more elegantly brief original comment.

His argument on the difficulty of agreeing on a temperature (“hubands and wives can’t agree on thermostat settings in their living rooms!”) is another straw man. The question is whether we should slow or reverse the forcing agent of climate change. The target, if any, is an atmospheric concentration of CO2, not a temperature. The straw man gets even more hay-like when you consider the issue is not even purely about hitting some admittedly at least partly arbitrary target: it is about at least slowing the pace of change to make possible what Postrel says he wants.

What’s that?

Adaptation to climate change.

Here, Postrel shows a glimmer of the real risks involved, the fact that so much of human built society depends on ecosystem assumptions that carbon pollution calls into question. But his call for engineered solutions to the effects of climate change, rather than approaches to alter the underlying driver of the shift another way of saying that rich nations, the source of most carbon pollution to date, will ride out whatever storms there may be while the poorer ones suffer.

That may be a depressingly realistic assessment of the likely outcome (particularly under the current administration) — but it’s ugly, and I suspect, poor policy as well.

Poor people rendered desperate move. Such motion causes conflict. Conflict is not always, but is often vastly more costly even for very distant, and seemingly uninvolved parties than resolving the causes of conflict before the shooting starts. I’m sure acute readers can think of other costs ecosystem change impose on the rich.

Postrel closes with the hope that we would look for other technological solutions to climate change besides simply reducing carbon emissions — mentioning a scheme to reduce the earth’s albedo (reflectivity) by injecting particles into the upper atmosphere.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable here, but I read that as he being willing to experiment with the global ecosystem properties to ameliorate the consequences of another, larger, less controlled experiment the human species is currently conducting. I’m not against technological approaches to climate change, where appropriate but I can’t see why Postrel favors one experiment over another here. (I know — presumed cost — but his claim that changing the earth’s albedo is inevitably cheap seems to undervalue the risk involved in such a what-the-hell tech fix.)

I haven’t exhausted all I’d say about Postrel’s comment, but given that this response is already several times longer than his original thoughts, I’ll rumble to a halt here.

We do agree on one thing: creating policy that does the least harm with the greatest possibility of good is exceptionally difficult. But he has inferred from that difficulty that the principle of least harm thus leads us to no or minimal policy response to our ongoing, uncontrolled experiment with not only our own lives, but those of everyone and everything else on earth.

With all due respect, I think that this is, strictly speaking, nuts.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, “Hunters in the Snow,” 1569. (One of my favorite works of art and an iconic image from the Europe of the Little Ice Age). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: NY Times/Ansel Adams edition

April 29, 2008

The Gray Lady of 43rd St. (no more!) has posted a nice taste of Ansel Adams’ Yosemite photos.  The commentary comes from one of Adams’ assistants, but it’s the photos that carry the day.

This isn’t exactly science, I’ll admit — but I’m with John Muir on this one.  It’s worth being reminded of the wellsprings of scientific imagination.  Here’s Muir  on an afternoon storm in the valley:

About noon, as usual, big bossy cumuli began to grow above the forest, and the rainstorm pouring from them is the most imposing I have yet seen.  The silvery zigzag lightning lances are longer than usual, and the thunder gloriously impressive, keen, crashing, intensely concentrated, speaking with such tremendous energy it would seem an entire mountain is being shattered at every stroke, but probably only a few trees are being shattered, many of which I have seen on my walks hereabouts strewing the ground.  At last the clear ringing strokes are succeeded by deep low tones that grow gradually fainter as they roll afar into the recesses of the echoing mountains, where they seem to be welcomed home.  Then another and another peal, or rather crashing splintering stroke, follows in quick succession, perchance splitting some giant pine or fir from top to bottom into long rails and slivers, and scattering them to all points of the compass. Now comes the rain, with corresponding extravagant grandeur, covering the ground high and low with a sheet of flowing water, a transparent film fitted like a skin upon the rugged anatomy of the landscape, making the rocks glitter and glow, gathering in the ravines, flooding the streams, and making them shout and oom in reply to the thunder.

How interesting to trace the history of a single raindrop!  It is not long, geologically speaking, as we have seen, since the first raindrops fell on teh newborn leafless Sierra landscape.  How different the lot of these falling now!…(Italics added)

(John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, Houghton Mifflin, 1979, pp. 124-126)

Muir was no scientist.  A great naturalist, a founding environmentalist, a passionate advocate, but not a scientist.  But I read in him the joy in nature that makes me, at least remember why scientific discovery does more than please my curiousity; following Muir, the recognition of order within beauty moves me too.

Ansel Adams’ photgraphs say it better.  Enjoy.

Image:  Ansel Adams “The Tetons and the Snake River,” 1942 Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1)  Not one of the Yosemite images, of course, but it is one of the great ones nonetheless.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.