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Our National Weapons of Mass Destruction

Gun Control - Can We?

2012 has been another year of gun killings, the latest being the mass murder at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. After each mass shooting, gun control is discussed for a while, before anger and anguish peter out. As we write, just days after the tragedy, Senator Feinstein has vowed to renew assault weapons legislation. Will we actually do something this time?

If you look at people's interest via the program Google Trends1, just as a rough proxy, it doesn't look optimistic. On July 20th, a gunman in Aurora, Colorado killed 12 and injured 58 in a movie theater, and on July 21st, the day after the shooting, "gun control" searches peaked. They also increased after the Oak Creek, Minnesota Sikh Temple shooting (6 people killed and 3 injured) on August 5th, and after the Empire State Building shooting August 24, 2012 (2 people killed and 9 injured). But nothing ever happened. Politicians mourned before cameras, tipping their heads to wipe a tear off their cheeks, then did nothing.

GunControlTrends1
Google Trends shows the relative frequency of one or more search terms1.
The graph shows the frequency of the term "gun control" in the US for July and August, 2012.
(Google)

Of course, in addition to these mass murders, there's the baseline murder rate, the quotidian murders of bystanders, husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, mothers and fathers - thousands of deaths. Chicago had almost 500 murders this year, roughly half the murders of 20 years ago, but much higher than last year despite the 10% lower overall crime rate. Like Newtown, Connecticut, Chicago has struggled to get guns off the streets, and every attempt, from banning handguns and shooting galleries to disallowing concealed handguns, has been fought by gun owners and lobbies, often successfully.

Cord Jefferson described Chicago's struggle with gun violence last summer, and Marc Lamont Hill discussed the multifaceted nature of the problem here at HuffPost. Both suggested that there's a lack of attention to inner city high gun violence because the murders are often associated with black men and gangs. I don't doubt that.

But people's overall attention to gun violence is sporadic, like their attention to climate change. When a hurricane destroys lower Manhattan, do New Yorkers' worry more about climate change than when a hurricane destroys some island in Asia? You bet. What about when familiar, safe-seeming places like movie theaters and schools become frequent targets of mass murderers? Are we more terrorized by deranged people armed with military grade firepower intent on taking out entire pop-corn eating movie audiences than by inner-city murders? Apparently. Then Newtown, Connecticut happens. Who is more innocent and more vulnerable than children, and what place is presumed more safe than a suburban grammar school?

GunControlTrends2
The frequency of the search term "gun control" in the US, 2004 - 2012.(Google)

After a seven year old kid was killed in Chicago last summer, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel warned gangs to "take your stuff to the alley", but "don't touch the children of the city of Chicago, don't get near them". The nation seems to have a similar response to last week's Newtown killings. The Google Trends report for "gun control" after Newtown is off the charts compared to any other gun related incident in Google Trends' 8 year history. The question is, will the concern be sustained enough to force the slower, more tedious task of legislative action?

GunControlTrends1
The frequency of the search terms "gun control" (blue), "climate change" (red), and "kittens"(gold), in the US, 2004-2012 (Google)

Gun control will not solve all the violence, all the problems. But it's a start. We can no longer bide politicians who cower before gun money, wantonly abandoning constituents who then die in deadly fusillades discharged from automatic weapons, or survive traumatically -- the six year old girl who "played dead" under the carnage of her Sandy Hook classmates in Newtown. Journalists should examine their leniency towards the lily-livered politicians who serve up excuses for action.

The challenge will be that we're so easily distracted, and gun makers, lobbyists and politicians bank heavily on our fleeting interest. The trends work in their favor. Distractions come as competing headlines, cute kittens, and as heartfelt, canny, or vicious arguments from people who support unlimited lethal power. We get a barrage of confusing information, some of it deliberately misleading - various headlines yelling that the root cause is violence in the media, or mental illness, or misinterpretation of the Second Amendment, or that the problem is too multi-faceted and big to tackle, that laws don't/won't work, well they work but Australia is different, the NRA wields too much power...All of this mutes resolve.

But when little boys are offering to lead classmates out of a school besieged by gunfire because they "know karate", we must do more than wax eloquently about our seven-year old heroes. Can politicians be courageous? Can they be heroes? Or do we have to go to historical movies like "Lincoln" to see that? Can citizens and journalists muster the guts to hold our politicians the slightest bit accountable for our reasonable safety?

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1 Google Trends has been used to make predictions about disease outbreaks, here are some studies. The program has improved significantly since we last looked. Of course it has also been mocked.

Thanksgiving, 2012 - Cheers

Last Thanksgiving we stumbled upon a cache of recipes politicians had submitted to the public over the years, hundreds!- quite a collection. Some were odd - "BrainsNGravy", some rich - "Chocolate Mousse", or even uninspiring - "Microwave Chicken". We commented on the penchant of member of Congress, governors, presidents, for publishing people pleasing pot-luck recipes in the face of pressing national challenges.

WhiteHouseBeers

White House Beers
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We therefore couldn't let the holiday pass without noting the Obama family recipes popularized this year. In the Family Circle's Presidential Bake-off (a dustbin worthy mid-century tradition if there ever was one), Michelle's chocolate chip cookie recipe won a few hundred more votes than Ann Romney's M&M/peanut butter cookies. Some people excitedly noted that the bake-off winner ended up in the White House in the last four of the last five elections, popular speculation even though I'd rate it a middling B-...we ALL know that there are more accurate ways of predicting these things.1

Home Brewers - A More Powerful Voice Then You'd Have Thought?

That fanfare was nothing compared to the excitement over the White House Beer recipes that I somehow missed last summer because the European media was more worried about the plight of Greece, and Fran´┐Żois Hollande's ideas for taxing the rich. Apparently American home brewers submitted a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) for the recipe, because it was so important, and more brewers started a "We The People Petition" request for the recipe on the White House website. Unlike the hundreds of unanswered FOIA requests, and before the petition even reached the needed 25,000 signatures 2, the White House published recipes for two of the three brews, an ale and a porter. They even made a very slick YouTube video explaining the whole process, part of the Inside The White House series.

A writer at the Boston Globe brewed the White House Honey Ale and reported that it was an easy recipe to follow and that the ale was "an entirely pleasant drinking experience".

Hush, Hush About the Commoners' Brew?

Beer has a solid place in American history, although a lot of quotes about beer attributed to the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are made-up. It is true that way back, George Washington brewed beer at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson brewed beer at Monticello. The White House ale and porter recipes use honey that the chefs get from the White House bee hives. Jefferson's beer had honey too. But the Obamas might be the first ever to brew beer in the White House, despite a long and proud tradition of beer brewing in America.

Why has no one else brewed beer in the White House? I have no idea. Although Prohibition ended in 1933, there has been a raised-eyebrow-view of drinking by White House inhabitants. Even today, there is a disdain for the type of relaxation common to everyone coming home after a long day at work. As you can see in this hilarious FOX News clip from last summer, where Hilary Clinton is described as "throwing back a beer and tearing up the dance floor at a Colombian salsa bar" by anchor Stuart Varney. Varney interviews Nile Gardner from the Heritage Foundation, who criticizes Clinton for appearing unstatesman-like on "the world stage" and the two bicker collegially about her transgresions in clipped English accents. As anyone would, Varney actually laughs at Gardiner, a British Conservative commentator, and for balance interviews a GOP strategist who tempers Gardner's intolerance, by saying Clinton deserves a beer.

This echoes a prickly uneasiness around drinking that extends back through several White Houses. Maybe it's the culture wars, or the old Protestant work ethic coming back to bite us. Some presidents either couldn't or wouldn't admit to enjoying alcoholic beverages. A few came from families of nightly beer drinkers, which I'll speculate may offer some explanation. Others, like Richard Nixon, couldn't handle alcohol. According to John Haldeman: "Often times, he would rage at his enemies, fancied and real, and imagine various revenges...one beer would transform his normal speech into the rambling elocution of a Bowery wino."3

Then there were the so-called culture wars. We wrote about Reagan's horror over "a dance" with "three bands playing simultaneously", in "Letter From Berkeley, California -- The Cliche". The Bushes also leveraged intolerance to win elections and maintain power; though, if you type in "Bush" and "beer" into Google, the search engine relentlessly auto-corrects to "Busch" (beer) - so that family's liking for beer I can't say. Apparently George W. Bush was a heavy frat drinker, but more recent photographs of him with a beer mug held to his lips tend to mention "non-alcoholic" or "O'Doul's".

Out With Arugula, in With Ale?

So is this all part of an old-fashioned uptight America in it's last throes? Paul Begala, back in January, 2012, wrote that "Romney Would Fail the Presidential Beer Test". Obama socializes easily, he observed, but when "Romney tries to relate to ordinary folks, he looks like a debutante at a cow-chip-tossing contest: he just doesn't fit in, and the harder he tries, the more ridiculous he seems". That, Begala wrote, "could have Republican's crying in their beer come November".

Maybe this whole beer-brewing thing transpired because the Obama team perused Facebook for some arugula antithesis with which to market the president. But scanning the hundreds of recipes in the repository, it's clear anyway, that the Obama White House is the first in a long history of politicians submitting recipes to offer a recipe for beer - or any libation. And even though my taste in beer is about as sophisticated as picking the one with the cool bicycle label on it, I find the White House beer distraction very refreshing.

Cheers! Happy Thanksgiving.

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1 Regardless of the sound statistical analyses, I'll admit that I too was on the edge of my seat on election night -- and relieved not to have hang a "Despair" poster.

2Very few of these petitions succeed in getting the 25,000 signatures needed to get an official answer, it seems. The White House did answer another We The People Petition requesting that Rush Limbaugh be removed from the military media offerings, but Mr. Limbaugh has his rights, the White House explained.

3 President Nixon's Inner Circle of Advisers Author(s): Betty Glad and Michael W. Link Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1, The Nixon Presidency (Winter, 1996), pp. 13-40

Related readings:

Carter, Paul A.: Prohibition and Democracy: The Noble Experiment Reassessed: The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Spring, 1973), pp. 189-201

Tim Hefferman: Last Call, plus useful comments.

Talking Turkey and How To Pick The Correct "-ologist"

In 2007, we wrote in Thanksgiving - all Things Ottoman, about the origins of the turkey, as well as some other Thanksgiving day staples, many of which were thought mistakenly to originate in the country of Turkey.

You've Come So Far, Turkey

The ancestor to our domesticated turkeys was thought to be a wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo, domesticated in Mexico then brought to Europe, as we wrote in a post about the historical confusion about the turkey's origins:

"The Spaniards fancied the turkey when they invaded Mexico where turkey was indigenous, and then introduced the bird to Europe when they returned in the early 1500's. However, during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, turkeys were thought by northern Europeans to be a product of Turkey..."

The great thing about science is it's always moving on. Research forever advances as new technology is developed or because scientists think of new experiments to test ideas and previous research.

Wild_turkey_eastern_us
Wild Turkey Eastern US
via Wikimedia Commons, used with permission, Creative Commons.

Since 2005, research has significantly advanced our knowledge of turkeys. In 2010, scientists finished sequencing the turkey genome. Turkey is the second most important agricultural fowl, the chicken is the first, so sequence data provides information for researchers to learn more about both the origins of the turkey as well as information to improve breeding and production. For instance scientists have compared the turkey genome to the chicken genome, the two shared an ancestor 40 million years ago and have analyzed and compared today's domesticated turkeys with various fowl and ancient turkeys (including ones from museums).

This year scientists ventured out for other interesting turkey research. Archaeologists unearthed evidence they published in PLoSONE, describing (perhaps) domesticated turkey remains at a Mayan site in Guatemala that date back to 300BC-AD100, almost 1000 years before the turkey was known to be being raised in captivity in Mexico. Although their evidence needs bolstering because it's based on scant DNA samples, they also hypothesized that this new research pointed to possible turkey trade between the two places.

Wild or Mexican? Turkey Talk

I found this papers comments at PLoSONE interesting. Whereas most scientific journals depend on peer-review prior to publication, this particular PLoS journal research depends more on post-publication peer-review. Comments are theoretically key to evaluating the paper in PLoSONE, then, an interesting twist that many people are unaware of. For this paper, one commenter takes issue with a common name the authors give to the turkey Meleagris gallopavo - "Mexican Turkey". It's "not and never has been" called a "Mexican Turkey" he writes, it's called a "Wild Turkey". It's "misleading and incorrect", he says. The researcher is an ornithologist.

The lead author of the paper writes back. We chose to call the bird a "Mexican Turkey" to designate that it was a Mexican bird found in Guatemala, they say. They point out that they were archaeologists, they'd conferred with other archaeologists, and archaeologists were their "primary audience".

The first author writes back again, chastising the paper author for "inventing your own English-language" name for a species, a name that is "inherently confusing and could be interpreted as somewhat disrespectful to the ornithological community". Not only that, he writes, there are other species of turkeys indigenous to Mexico that could also confusingly be called "Mexican Turkeys."

The paper's lead author writes back again: "I am an archaeologist, not an ornithologist", she writes, and re-explains her position, including that they consistently used the Latin names also, so readers shouldn't be confused.

I found this fascinating for several reasons. One, it was great to see the journal's goal for discussion being fulfilled - so many papers go without comment. More discussion about other aspects of the paper would have been even more interesting.

But since I'm not an expert in either ornithology or an archaeology, which expert we should believe, the ornithology expert or the archaeology expert? PLoSONE is by design not a journal for a specialist or expert audience, in fact isn't it just the opposite? So how is the average reader to know? Sure there are good ways to work through this issue if a) you read the comments in the first place and b) needed to write something as a journalist, say, but I venture that excludes a good number of readers.

This is an incredibly common and general problem, that of conflicting expertise, therefore it's important to keep in mind, with which expert do you choose to confer? Which expert ("expert") do you choose to believe? How do you know?

Let's Just Talk About The Weather

You can look to the Olympics to see records broken, or you can experience everyday excitement noting records set by 2012 global temperature highs, flooding episodes, Greenland ice melt, weather catastrophe insurance losses, and millions of people displaced by extreme weather and climate change. Everyone's worried about this, despite what you hear - even the media.

Climate Change Media Fail?

The poor besieged media. As newspaper income plunges, papers continue to lay-off local reporters, publishers contract workers who mine US databases from the Philippines, and armed robbers attack journalists who still have jobs - even in the US. Now this: The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Media Matters, Huffington Post Green, and others accuse the media of ignoring the link between climate change and the weather catastrophes. Said Media Matters:

Life of Pi by Neil BabraIllustration by Neil Babra.
Used with permission.

"The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states. All together, only 3 percent of the reports mentioned climate change..."

Huff Post Green wrote:

"The media just might be starting to see the obvious link between climate change and extreme weather...Given the extreme weather we've been seeing lately, it's becoming (finally) clear to many journalists that we have a trend in our weather patterns"

It's true that many meteorologists don't believe human activity causes climate change. Perhaps it's a job-securing stance, since many work for large energy interests, although in 2010, three-quarters of meteorologists polled said they hesitate to talk of climate change because they fear "audience backlash".

Scientist Backlash

Also, let's not forget, not too long ago scientists berated reporters who linked weather with climate change. In 2005, scientists advocated saying "climate change", not "global warming", because saying "global warming" could lead people to think that every time a snowstorm blew through there was no global warming. Reporters generally went along with this reasoning and also stressed after every hurricane, flood, or heat wave that no one event could be attributed "climate change". In July, 2010, for instance, Time wrote:

"Just as the record-breaking snowstorms of this past winter on East Coast didn't disprove climate change, a record-breaking heat wave doesn't seal the deal either. Weather and climate aren't the same thing. To use a World Cup analogy (which allows me to link to more Lego football, this time in German), it's as if the players on the soccer pitch represent the weather, and climate is the team manager."

If sports comparisons didn't click with you, a HuffPo reporter came up this:

"...think of weather as a one-night stand. Then climate would be raising the kid resulting from that night for the next two decades. One immediately leads to the other, but the two are completely different phenomenon. And that is why we have two distinct fields of study: meteorology and climatology."

Pick your analogy. As Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground summed it up when critiquing Al Gore's movie "The Inconvenient Truth": "I was glad to see that he didn't blame the heat wave on global warming--he merely said that more events of this nature will be likely in the future."

This is still the message, and it may seem clear as a cool autumn morning to you and me, but perhaps broadcasters, in their nightly frenzy of hair spraying, parka donning, and witness interviewing, view it as an unnecessary cluster of crazy-making detail and nuance. 30 second spots depend on very cut-and-dried events. Show yellow tape and police carrying evidence-bags. Say murder. Show smoke and flames. Say fire. Show devastating weather. Say global warming. No, say climate change. No, say it isn't necessarily climate change, but as scientists explain...

Worry For the Animals

So could we imagine this is why so many news shows default to saying "heat wave" while they turn the cameras on - zoo animals? For the past few years news shows have produced thousands of stories and pictures of tigers and sloths, elephants and porcupines cooling off in the heat -- cutely eating popsicles, playing in pools, and being attentively hosed down by zookeepers. Zoos make the incessant heat a selling point:

ZooIceBundtCake.png

SayHeatWave.png

I suppose trying to get in cheaper by saying "global warming" would ruin the spirit of it. As the climate changes, one can find instructional videos on how to make "tiger popsicles" - frozen treats from various ingredients - real blood, real chicks, Gatorade, and water. All of this, plus more. Reporters who could focus our attention on impending calamities instead spin magical bedtime stories. As the Weather Channel reported recently:

"At the Houston Zoo a snow day offered heat relief for animals for the second summer in a row. TXU Energy provided the man-made snow while zoo keepers provided the fun by building snowmen for the elephants..."

Fun.

Redefining Nonfiction

Where to turn for science? While snowmen for the elephants passes as news, Discovery Communications, "the world's #1 nonfiction media company", recently re-aired an Animal Planet show about mermaids so convincing in its nonfictioness that the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first fielded a barrage "is it true?" phone calls, then felt compelled to issue a press release asserting that mermaids weren't real.

In response, Discovery Channel bloggers either defended the show as masterful theater "like the Blair Witch Project"; or baited readers: "The real question is, what do you believe?" Readers ate it up:

"I totally think this is real. not the magical mermaids we hear about from drunk sailors but the evolved kind. i am a christian and dont believe in the whole evolution thing, but what we have here is fact..."[sic]

The comment could be that of a child who won't let go of Santa (or someone aping a child), but theirs is an all-ages fantasy-reality mix-up. When adults experience derechos, or see walls of flame like nothing firemen have ever witnessed, they exclaim, "just like a movie!" When people hear about global cooling, or explorers "seeing mermaids" they want to own that "fact".

At Least This is Where we Focus our Despair

This summer's extreme weather hints that we're losing our cavalier climate wager. It's not only scientists who see the tangible repercussions of wantonly shoveling greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Frequently, people show open concern about climate change. More people scorned Animal Planet's "Mermaids, Body Found", than declared undying faith in mermaid evolution. Recently, even some industry paid denialist-researchers seemed compelled to acknowledge long documented anthropogenic warming.

Perhaps we're collectively realizing that although the need for action on climate change may be a tough pill to swallow, there's no escape. Blood popsicles aside, there's not much to see at the zoo on very hot days. Zookeepers say the heat makes the animals "tired in the afternoon". Polar bears and sea lions slip into pools, while other animals are "allowed to return to their 'backstage bedrooms' to cool off".

Hopefully, although we fret over every poll reporting people's unexplainable trust of meteorologists, the same polls show that more people trust scientists - 74% - than any other source.

Overall, it seems that people are eeking away from climate denialism, which is good, because in the end, climate doesn't care whether we *choose* to believe physics and chemistry. Sea level still rises when North Carolina politicians outlaw it. Oceans continue to heat up when those same politicians 'compromise' with a moratorium on current science that local headlines call "a blend of science". So escape, as you will be invited to, to prince and princess fairy tales, to lands inhabited by unicorns, mermaids, and talking tigers, or to soothing climate tall tales. But remember, that science, wondrous as it is, doesn't "blend" with fairy tales like a scoop of protein powder in a mango ice cream milkshake.

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NOTES:

Thanks to Neil Babra, illustrator, writer, etc. for letting us use his illustration of "Life of Pi".

We read Yann Martel's magical book "The Life of Pi", on a train in India several years ago over a couple of sleepless nights. The movie, by director Ang Lee, will be released in November/December, 2012. The studio recently posted previews online.

We wrote about TXU in "TXU-Greenmail?"

We wrote about the hypocrisy of city officials who after a disaster denounce people who move into disaster prone areas, but before a disaster prevent precautionary measures like building moratoriums - for economic growth reasons, in FEMA and Disaster

We wrote about climate change awareness and communication in "Sea Change or Littoral Disaster?"; "Climate Change, Fueling the Debate", and many others.

We wrote about science TV programming in "Science Programming: Penguins and the Lethal Cannon"; and animals portrayed in media in Mongooses and Snakes - Combat Training; and "March On Penguins", and others.

NIMBY-ing the Keystone XL Pipeline

"God help us if this becomes like baby seals", said a University of Alberta energy economist after research about the extent of pollution downstream from the Athabasca Tar Sands became public a couple of years ago. Protests decrying the Keystone XL pipeline with its associated tar sands may not have reached "baby seals" fervor, but the plan to pump crude oil from Alberta to Texas certainly hasn't raised the popularity of Alberta and its oil extraction industry.

Baby-Sealing the Pipeline, If Not The Tar Sands

The extended pipeline would route through Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies millions of people drinking and agriculture water. Nebraskans are especially apoplectic about the prospect of the pipeline with all its hazards running through their lands.KeystoneXLUSDeptState.jpg They worry about how 91 predicted leaks in the next 50 years will endanger drinking water.

Meanwhile, the company is urging the US to approve laxer standards to allow them to pump more oil at higher pressure through a thinner steel pipeline. TransCanada has promised the safety of the pipeline running over the aquifer and backed that up with bonds.

Of course people have challenged TransCanada's promises, but in corroboration, the US State Department reviews of the project had also been reassuring. That is, until this week, when the agency announced an independent investigation of the pipeline following revelations that the contractor hired by State to do environmental studies and public relations listed TransCanada as a client.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for its part, issued a scathing review of the pipeline project, criticizing projected greenhouse gas emissions, the history of Keystone pipeline spills, probable wetlands destruction, migratory bird disruption, and the impacts the pipeline could have on poor and indigenous populations.

Obama: Not In My Backyard (At Least Not Until After The Election)

Striking against the greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands and the pipeline, the continued investment in oil energy technologies, and the related environmental affronts, protestors had noisily decamped to Washington DC over the last few months, letting their opinions be known as they marched around the White House and the EPA.

The total of all this -- the thousand turning up to hold hands in a giant circle round President Obama's home, the uncovering of conflicting interests, and the affected state governments discontents built to a grand crescendo until finally the White House announced it needed more time to study the situation.

The administration effectively put the decision off until after the election. (OK, I know, I Obama built my reputation on community organization, but enough for now...) The White House protestors went home to declare success.

Lobbying So Hard It's "Not Lobbying"

It's not for lack of lobbying that the pipeline was postponed. TransCanada and friends did just about all they could do. They spent millions, wrote editorials in places like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and got good support from entities like the American Petroleum Institute, not to mention economists, journalists and citizens on all sides of the political spectrum who impressed talking points like jobs, energy, international cooperation, and opportunity.

The Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, so new to the job that an internet search results shows her predecessor as Premier, will visit Washington D.C. next week. "Not to lobby", she says, rather she'll explain the economic situation of her oil dependent province and try to improve Alberta's public image. The previous Premier was a big lobbyist for both the tar sands and the pipeline, as depicted in "Ed Stelmach's Clumsy American Romance". British Columbia's The Tyee scoffed at the duplicity of the full page "get out the facts" ad former Premier Stelmach posted in the Washington Post, and winced over the $55,800 of tax payers' dollars he spent on it after the Post rejected his editorial. Between this and visuals of the province as a giant tar sand pit, the new Premier is wasting no time trying to remake Alberta's image in order to sell some oil.

Who Will Love The Pipeline In Their Backyard?

In announcing the postponement, the State Department said it wanted to look at "alternate routes" for the pipeline. While protestors had been promising to stop the pipeline, the Governor of Nebraska was also busy taking his state's cause to Washington. He's not opposed to the pipeline, he said, explaining why he was pushing to get the pipeline rerouted, just didn't want it in that particular part of his state.

This delay that the Obama Administration just served to TransCanada is exactly what corporations do to everyone else when they're trying to keep business the same. One delay at a time, it is actually an end game, and the oil companies play it well. And it turns out they're not happy when someone else is doing the delaying. TransCanada has not been responsive to requests for it to voluntarily change its route. A company spokesperson had warned The Guardian: "You can't just erase a line on a map and draw one somewhere else", and said the move would put the whole project in doubt.

That's doubtful, given how much oil and money is on the table. As Nebraska and grassroots efforts claim a coup, TransCanada will accelerate its lobbying, of course. And where will the pipeline end up? If they keep the current siting, it runs not only through the Ogallala aquifer, the Sandhills and a Nebraska seismic zone, it also crosses through Oklahoma's seismic zone with its recent 5.6 earthquake (and 36 aftershocks in the past week). Would that be good? But what state wants the pipeline in their backyard?

Whatever the new plan, however positive the delay, I'm not sure the protestors can necessarily claim victory quite yet.

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Acronym Required wrote about the Alberta Tar Sands in Gas Pipeline: Open Season Coming to Alaska; Higher Pollution From Alberta Tar Sands, and others.

Lest You Want to Do More Than Sit Under The Tuscan Sun

Blue Screens

When I traveled to Italy a few years ago I found the blue screens on computers to be the most memorable travel experience, you know, aside from the terraces and olives and Caravaggios of travel lit - the "Blue Screens of Death". I hadn't seen so many blue screens since the 1990's. Fresh off the plane, the machine to purchase tickets took our money without producing train tickets. The station agent cocked his head and displayed doleful eyes at our request for a refund. Like it was the most absurd thing he'd ever heard! Then he walked around the room gesticulating at exhibits A, B, C, D...all blue screens on all computers, and he explained verbosely in Italian: That's why we wouldn't get a refund. He did finally produce our tickets, not because we explained how to fix the screen problem - which he dismissed with a flick of the hand; not because we subsequently insisted that he use a telephone work-around; but most likely because we threatened to sit there forever. We are usually in a big business hurry, but...

That was only the beginning of Blue Screens in Italy. Blue screens at the airport, blue screens at internet cafes, the hotels, the train stations, the offices, even at the empty museum exhibit -- how? This was a far cry from countries even a decade earlier where the remotest places, say in Asia, got on online and stayed up and doing business. That was my Italian experience.

Trials

Today, Italy is still looking a little medieval, isn't it? All that ancient stone architecture with the tiny little windows romantic in one view, lends a sinister backdrop to the bizarre Perugia murder trial, which Perugians complain sullied their town's reputation.

Then there's the other trial, that of the seismologists being tried for information they supposedly didn't provide to townspeople of L'Acquila before the earthquake. Thousands of scientists have written to protest the prosecution of scientists. Actually, the scientists did relay the risk of earthquake on that day, about 1:1000, but subsequently a government official garbled the message. At the same time, disturbingly, a non-scientist was claiming (falsely) to be able to predict earthquakes based on radon gas measurements. So that radon-guy jacked the townspeople up, then the official tried to reassure them, now the scientists are on trial.1

Shutting Down Speech

This week, the computer screens went black in Italy. The government introduced a new wiretapping bill that imposed severe restrictions on online speech. The Italian bill declared that the online author of any 'alleged defamation' would need to correct the problem within 48 hours or be punished by a large fine. Guilt of defamation would be in the eyes of the "defamed". Wikipedia protested with a blackout.

Wikipedia's action got the bill partially changed to apply only to larger businesses, not blogs and Wikipedia. But as Nieman Lab explains, the bill stills stands. Furthermore, it's the overall state of press freedom in Italy that's "dismal". As Nieman Lab writes:

"Berlusconi owns the influential private media company Mediaset; he exercises direct control over state television. Italy's 100,000 professional journalists, to get work, must belong to the Ordine dei Giornalisti -- a group that is, in effect, a modern-day guild. This year's Freedom House survey of global press freedom, citing 'heavy media concentration and official interference in state-owned outlets,' ranked Italy as only 'partly free."

It makes it seem like blue screens would be the least of their problems. I know, it's totally biased to judge Italy on these select things, just it would be to judge Americans on their predilection for their cowboy hats, guns and anti-science moves. Nieman Labs interviews several people (from Perugia) who understandably worry how severely the government threatens press freedom. And of course many other governments, not only Italy, seek to curtail internet expression. If governments continue to corral the "Internet" -- rather, the now familiar "internet" - will we have to start calling it the "Intranets"?

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1 In a recent post, we criticized Fox News for profiteering on the weird, absurd, and false earthquake predictions of Jim Berkland. This trial adds another dangerous twist to Berkland's odd-ball predictions. Confusing people about the real risks isn't just bad for science, it's an actual liability for governments.

Secret Geoengineering? Says Who?

A recent Financial Times article reported on a £1.6 million geoengineering trial launched by Spice (stratospheric particle injection for climate engineering) at a British Science Festival. In "Trial Seeks to Hose Down Warming Climate", Clive Cookson describes how the company aimed to test the feasibility of cooling the planet by creating atmospheric conditions simulating volcanic activity. Beyond the trial:

"A full-scale global cooling system would cost more than £5bn and take two decades to install, said Hugh Hunt of Cambridge university, another team member. It would require 10 to 20 gigantic balloons, each the size of Wembley stadium, attached to ships distributed in the world's oceans and pumping 10m tonnes a year of material into the stratosphere.""

Geoengineering - How Far Have We Really Come?

Interesting enough. We often hear of plans for geoengineering. Certainly weather modification has been around for so long that when a Texas licensing board approving projects convened recently, one member suggested that the technology was so routine the licensing board should disband. Although we know generally about cloud seeding and futuristic geoengineering, we don't often hear about experiments with some of the more sophisticated climate technologies, which makes the FT article somewhat interesting.

But even more interesting than the article itself was a letter to the editor in response to the article, published by the FT a couple of days later (Sept. 15). In it, the President of an American aerospace company wrote that the "trial" reported by FT was old news. He explained that injecting particulate matter into the atmosphere has "been in full swing at it for nearly a decade...", and continued "Dozens of aerospace, defence and technical companies like ours have been advising into the initiative for many years. He explained:

"...[a] series of tests to create a polymerised and ionised mixture of certain metals, including aluminium, barium, thorium and selenium, among other contents, was perfected and tested in US facilities. A joint public-private operation, initially called "Cloverleaf", was operationalised and subsequently supported by US state and federal weather modification legislature.

Throughout the continental US, dozens of tanker and other aircraft are daily applying thousands of gallons of aerosol nano-particulates that serve several objectives, including the purported ability to reflect UV radiation. Similar operations are being conducted in Canada and parts of Europe.[emphasis ours]

What the actual secondary effects of this operation are, including human health impacts, are currently unknown or undisclosed. The Bristol university team may be wise to "hose down" those facts as well. In the meantime, anthropogenic climate impact is in this regard, quite real indeed."

REALLY?

Before the Financial Times boldly printed this editorial, people firmly relegated "Cloverleaf Operations" to conspiracy theory territory. True, thousands of YouTube videos devote bazillions of hours to documenting "chemtrails" streaked across blue skies -- often accompanied by music of the producer's choosing, making them no less boring.

And true, hosts of crackling talk radio shows tell audiences that their guests "risk death" divulging whatever huge secret government chemical spraying operation they then divulge.

A search for "chemtrails" on YouTube actually turns up 29,200 results. But have you heard of this chemtrail thing? It's easy to ignore, unless, say, one or more of your formally rational friends goes through some weird mid-life crisis, and with testosterone flagging (my theory), veers off bizarrely denouncing the rational in favor of numerology, Mad Hatter utterings, and chemtrails. Else how would you know? Unless you read the Financial Times editorial section.

Fact or Fiction?

Of course some people -- the subset who espouse chemtrails and read the Financial Times editorials -- were elated: "PROOF!", they crowed on their blogs. But try to find one other mention of such a program in any other respected publication -- one who's mission isn't to divulge "scary secrets your government's hiding from you". Even if the chemtrail crowd isn't totally sniffing glue, the Financial Times editorial seems like a rather casual airing of the news -- and it is news.

It must be true, you say, it's the Financial Times! Many people attest that the FT and its sister publication The Economist do an above respectable job covering science. I really like both publications, but they both publish quite a few "science" articles that are more or less press releases for some company's pie in the sky technology that you've never heard of and will never hear of again. Yes, they have some in depth coverage of science, and sometimes feature British science establishment luminaries like Paul Nurse, but frankly I think their coverage of economics, yachts, and watches is better. The original article on the water aerosol trial was sort of in this in the sky technology vein. But the theme got way more interesting with the editorial.

Existent or Not Existent?

The editorial was written by Mr. Matt Andersson, who signed as the CEO of a Chicago company called Indigo Aerospace. Indigo Aerospace is not listed in Hoover's, so it's hard to guess how much money he makes "advising into the initiative". Or maybe he didn't really mean in his letter that his company was running geoengineering programs but more literally that companies "like his" were. Or maybe his company does advise such initiatives.

Being curious, I easily learned that Indigo Aerospace used to be incorporated in Illinois, where they reportedly consulted to Booz Allen Hamilton, known for its military and government business. But as of May, 2011, Illinois lists the Indigo Aerospace Inc. as "involuntarily dissolved". So then is the corporate entity for which he signed as CEO not in existence anymore? This unfortunately throws doubt on his whole Cloverleaf assertion (at least to us). But why be judgmental? FT wasn't.

But we unfortunately don't know if the FT editorial is credible. If we were the FT editorial team we would do a bit more checking into this story -- really. Now we can only wonder: Do governments drastically change weather patterns, ruin sunsets, and subject us to chemical experimentation, and is this so ho-hum that we only read about it on conspiracy theorist sites, on Ron Paul 2012's blog, and in the editorial section of the Financial Times? It's potentially very interesting news people, more please. Or is it a conspiracy theory, as contended by every state agency, military organization, scientist, urban legend site, and news publication -- except for the FT? Mildly interesting but worthwhile noting. What do you wager?

Hurricane Irene Disaster Management

Just Like 1908?

After Hurricane Irene, some people joked that the media sees hurricanes as a grand opportunity to dress up in the newest outdoor gear and brace against the howling wind, downed trees, and rain driving sideways (although sometimes pranksters steal the show.) Hurricanes have all the right elements for media profiteering too - drama, death, destruction and lots of "human interest". But to build drama, you need to build up the storm. On Friday night, August 25th, we linked to these four news stories in successive Tweets:

  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1903 (Published August 26, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1908 (Published August 24, 2011) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1938 (Published August 26, 2011 10:28 p.m. EDT) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired
  • Hurricane Irene could be the most destructive hurricane to strike New York City since: 1985 (Published August 26, 2011 1:23AM) 25 Aug tweet acronymrequired

Not only can't forecasters predict with 100% accuracy the power or path of a storm, but certainly, as we showed, newspaper reporters can't. The media can't necessarily be faulted though, after all a hurricane is a moving target. In fact, as long as everyone tunes in, the media actually plays an helpful role public safety role, that is by creating more drama on television then any one person can witness outside, over-the-top media coverage can actually aid public safety officials.

The list of East Coast storms throughout history is extensive, but reporters plucked somewhat random mix of historical events out of the hundreds available: The so called Vagabond Hurricane of 1903, produced 65mph winds in Central Park; the deadly New England Hurricane of 1938, was a Category 3 at landfall; and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 struck as a Category 2 hurricane. It's unclear what storm in 1908 the Lehigh Valley Morning Call reporter was talking about, since none of the storms that year amounted to much, and on August 24th 2011, when the Morning Call published, most reporters were comparing Irene to Hurricane Katrina, not some random storm that blew out to sea in the Caribbean. Maybe the reporter hadn't had their morning coffee.

But there you have it, taken together, it's clear that storms can go many different ways and we don't have the technical or intuitive abilities to predict them exactly accurately, or at least to the degree that audiences seem to be demanding after the event.

That Healthy Cry, The Complainer - Alive and Well

When Irene actually hit, the hurricane created lots of flooding and destruction not to be trifled with. But as the New York Times reported after the storm, some New Yorkers were peeved at the pre-storm hype. New Yorkers expressed anger at the cops on bullhorns telling people to go inside, anger at the storm itself for not living up to its potential, and of course anger with Mayor Bloomberg. One person complained Bloomberg made people spend too much money: "The tuna fish and the other food, O.K., we're going to eat it. I don't need all this water and batteries, though."

But lets compare this outcome with the great bungling of Katrina in 2005, to see how things can easily go the other way. At least 1,836 people died in Katrina and property damage was estimated to be $81 billion 2005 USD.

FEMA took most of the fall for the Hurricane Katrina management disaster, along with FEMA administrator Michael Brown ,who appeared utterly useless despite fervent support from George W. Bush. As we wrote at the time in "FEMA- Turkey Farm Redux?", FEMA had failed US citizens in multiple hurricanes during the administration of George H.W. Bush in the 1980's, and had been expertly revived and made useful during the Bill Clinton administration under the leadership of James E. Witt. Then George W. Bush decimated the revived FEMA, using it as his father had. As the House Appropriations Committee reported in 1992, FEMA had been used as a "political dumping ground, 'a turkey farm', if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment". (Washington Post July 31)

So given the recent history of Katrina, and the debacles of several state and city governments in last winter's multiple blizzards, it seems inane that so many people who lived through those disasters now fault Bloomberg as "the boy who cried wolf". But then people might complain no matter what, and given the somewhat unpredictable path of storms, I think everyone would agree that it's better to be alive complaining, than dead and swept out to sea because of lack of government warning.

Assuring Future Disasters are Worse

Of course we don't know how the government would have fared in a worse disaster. And while people complain about the lack of a bigger hurricane, FEMA is currently hindered from helping with Irene. Why? Apparently, a FEMA funding bill is being held up in the Senate while politicians with idiosyncratic proclivities indulge their hypocritical "family values" by meticulously delineating all the organizations that can't be paid with FEMA money.

To our detriment, we ignore larger issues while we complain. FEMA's role takes a role not only during and after a hurricane, but in adequately preparing people ahead of time, as we wrote in "FEMA and Disaster Preparedness". Neither FEMA nor state or local governments adequately helped prepare for Katrina, as we detailed in: "Disaster Preparedness - Can We?". Although states and cities didn't play as large a role in the the federal government failings as G.W. Bush would later say, rewriting of history, their role is important.

Of course, disaster preparedness means not only motivating citizens to buy supplies and stay inside, not only mobilizing a deft response, but shoring up infrastructure ahead of time. In the wake of Katrina, we all heard about the failure of governments to build adequate New Orlean's levees, an issue Acronym Required wrote about in "Levees - Our Blunder". However before Katrina, few people realized just how flagrantly officials ignored warnings about the weak levees. When the hurricane breached the walls, politicians acted surprised, that surprise masking the blunt unwillingness of politicians and US citizens to support and fund infrastructure.

We wrote about more widespread infrastructure failings in 2007, in "Guano Takes the Bridge, Pigeons Take the Fall". But infrastructure is easy to ignore. Just as vociferously as citizens complain about the hype preceding Hurricane Irene1, they remain stunningly silent on the lack of infrastructure preparedness. In fact there's loud clamoring to dismantle the very agencies that assure our safety. Obama has tried in some ways to address the infrastructure problem, not without criticism.

In the case of the New Orleans levees, the New Orlean's Times-Picayune reports that although $10 billion has been spent upgrading the levees, the Army Corps of Engineers is giving them a failing grade. The report says that the refurbished levees might stand a 100 year event, but a larger event will result in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. This was exactly the criticism of the levees after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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1 Here's an interesting analysis of the hype-factor of news relating to Hurricane Irene. The author uses a quantity of publications analysis to argue is that the storm was not hyped.

Warner Herzog's latest movie, the highly rated "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" explores some cool cave paintings at the Cave of Chauvet-Pot-D'Arc in France. The ~30,000 year old paintings are significant archaeologically, geographically and culturally, and the movie does a great job of bringing the art of the restricted cave to a larger audience, albeit at times ponderously.

Some people will surely appreciate the mystical sometimes overwrought other-world importance Herzog brings to the cave finds. In the film's postscript, Herzog films some albino crocodiles that he describes as downstream from a nuclear power plant near the valley. The move perhaps encourages the audience to compare some dystopic nuclear future inhabited by spooky radioactive albino crocodiles crawling the land, to his vision of a beautiful pristine valley once populated by mammoths, bears, lions, rhinoceros and loin-clothed artistes.

Herzog seems to imbue the Aurignacian culture with the same mythical qualities that James Cameron gave to the fictional Na'vi of "Avatar", both are feted with dreamlike qualities these men seem to admire - wisdom, god-like eco-consciousness, and the capacity to appreciate (and produce) immense beauty. 1 Herzog makes a good film. But our ancestors of 30,000 years ago perhaps mastered the exquisite details of very large and dangerous beasts via many close and no doubt brutal encounters. Such encounters perhaps stirred memories that kept them up nights feverishly scratching very vivid animal portraits on cave walls with charcoal sticks. Is it too facile to point out that the art wasn't necessary created in the lush, happy tranquility of a remote French valley as viewed through modern man's eyes 30,000 years later?

At the end of the movie, Herzog tacks on some fictional "radioactive crocodiles". When interviewed by Stephen Colbert, Herzog said he wanted the audience to come with him on a "wild fantasy" that "illuminates". Without embellishment, he said, reality would be the Manhattan phone directory, 4 million entries, all correct. You would not know what anyone thinks, he said, or cries about...Therefore he's not "this kind of filmmaker". (Colbert invited him to party sometime.)

So the film seems a sort of 'up in smoke' melding of fact and fiction. The paintings are real, but with a fictional allegorical meta-framing. And the postscript crocodiles are in fact non-radioactive alligators, alligators imported from Louisiana, to a French Crocodile Farm where he filmed them. There are only about 20 albino alligators in the world apparently, because they are rare and genetically fragile. The two of Herzog's wild fantasy movie are usually used to attract tourists. Wild.

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1 Added 06/11/11: Except now I learn Herzog more or less hated "Avatar", comparing it unflatteringly to yoga

Notes in June 2011: Cell Phone Warnings, Fossil Teeth

  • Cell Phone Warnings

    Recently, the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) put the risks of cancer associated with cell phones in a 2B group: Possibly carcinogenic to humans, based on their analysis of available studies. From greatest to lowest risk the classifications are Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans, Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic; Group 2B Possibly carcinogenic; Group 3: not classifiable as to carcinogenicity; Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic.

    Scientists and journalists responded to this with their own interesting and sometimes quirky analyses. Many said the new information made them feel safe about cell phones and pointed out that the 2B group included the coffee. Others said they were concerned about the new classification, and focused on the fact that the 2B group includes DDT. And others argued in more complicated ways, things like - since DDT only affects eagles' eggs, they felt ok about cell phones. Some people reasoned that they know with certainty that tobacco is carcinogenic, and cell phones aren't in that category. How do people decide how to judge risk?

    Because logically, of course, some of this reasoning breaks down. It's not clear what people mean when they announce they'll take a risk with cell phones *because coffee is a possible carcinogen too*. Most likely they haven't read the research on the possible/maybe/sometimes connection between coffee and bladder cancer (the deciding factor for IARC on coffee). No, they're not thinking *bladder cancer*, they're thinking they'll take their chances with cellphones since they drink coffee all the time. But possible/maybe/sometimes isn't really reassurance.

    Some people say that since cell phones have been in use for 15 years or so, we would know if they caused cancer. But the use patterns were different, as were the strength of signal. And recall that cigarettes were only widely acknowledged to be carcinogenic in the 1950's and 1960's, when people had been smoking for hundreds of years. Then it took decades for that research to be acted upon. And people still smoke, no matter how clear it is that smoking causes cancer. At the present stage of cell phone research, we might not even know enough about physics and physiology to understand how cell phones cause or don't cause cancer. It adds up to a lot of unknowns.

    But still, everybody wants an answer. So do journalists and bloggers feel compelled to try to give one? This is sort of funny since no one really knows yet. But science journalists should understand how research works and the inherent uncertainty and risks and the unpredictability of evolving health research. So why feel compelled to provide an answer? Personally, (see, because we can't help ourselves) I think there's enough research that I won't walk around with my cell phone in my front pocket or stick a little mini cell phone inside my ear all day and night. And I hate to say this but I really do want to see more non-industry research. But that's based on what I know of the research, science, economics, and politics.

  • Our Ancestors' Social Groups...Two Million Years Ago

    Scientists looked at the teeth of two million year old fossils and found that female hominids were more likely to leave the area they were born in, whereas males were more likely to stay closer to the cave they were born to...Oh wait, that's not catchy. We should say something like this: "Ancient male hominids had 'foreign brides'", or, hominid men "like[d] their man caves", they were "mama's boys" or were "homebodies"? See, all the good ones are taken. But by all means, lead anachronistically to catch the reader's attention.

    "Foreign Brides"? Really? It's not cool enough that scientists figured out how to analyze the teeth of our human ancestors from 2 million years ago in order to determine their possible social group structure? 1

    Using newly evolved laser technology, Copland et al profiled the strontium mineral levels in the teeth from Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus, and from modern plant and animals around two caves in South Africa. Strontium moves up the food chain from plants to animals, and accumulates in developing teeth until about the age of eight. Scientists can analyze radioactive strontium levels in teeth for instance, and compare them to surroundings bedrock to determine birthplace. In this study, the two caves were within a band of dolomite bedrock in South Africa and non-dolomite geology surrounds this band. Researchers designated the dolomite band as local, and the non-dolomite regions further afield (~3 - 30km), as non-local.

    The teeth from both species were previously found to be similar in size, but importantly, females typically have smaller teeth than males. So the investigators found that females of the Australopithecine more likely had teeth with non-local strontium profiles, and the males teeth more likely to have a strontium profile reflecting their dolomite home turf. A probable explanation is that the females left the social structure they were born in to. This conclusion is supported by the pattern of female dispersal in our nearest ancestors, chimpanzees and bonobos. By comparison, in gorillas and other primates to whom we're not related, males tend to leave their natal group.

    1 Copland et al; Nature 474, 76-78 (02 June 2011) doi:10.1038/nature10149

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