Tonight, My Kids are Going to Learn About Carolyn Porco

Carolyn (at right) re-enacting the famous Beatles photograph at Abbey Road with the other members of the Cassini Imaging Team.
Carolyn Porco (at right) re-enacting the famous Beatles photograph at Abbey Road with the other members of the Cassini Imaging Team.

I have two daughters, both of them interested in science.  I like to show them examples of how ordinary people can do amazing things, just by following their passion.  Carolyn Porco is an amazing, brilliant and delightful example of that.  I’m tempted to call her the embodiment of girl power, but that would be selling her short.  She’s an ambassador for the power of finding and pursuing your passion.  Ask yourself this.  How many people talk about their job with this sort of excitement?  How many people can hold your attention like this?

Not many.

Kids, I hope one day you can look back and tell a similar story of how you discovered your passion, chased it hard and made a positive difference.

At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

(via io9)

Why is National Geographic Killing Science Blogs?

I don’t care whether Yahoo merges with AOL.  In fact, other than serving as a synonym for Huffington Post and a foil for Mike Arrington, I’m not really sure what AOL is or does.  Can you still log on to AOL?  I honestly don’t know.  I’m guessing not.

I used Yahoo for a long time.  My Yahoo was only supplanted by iGoogle as my old school news page about a month ago.  I still use Flickr some, but it seems to be in the post-purchase, pre-death coma that plagued Delicious for years (Delicious eventually got bought- or given away- I’m not sure which, but it still looks pretty sleepy).  If Google Apps users ever get to use Google+, I’ll probably move my photos to Picasa.  If I’m not too old to use a computer by then. 

The death of things internet is inevitable.  Remember ProdigyCompuserveGenie?  MySpace?  TechCrunch?  Kidding, sort of.

That’s OK.  Take Yahoo.  Take AOL (please).


But what in the heck is happening to Science Blogs!?

It would be hard to overstate how much I have enjoyed Science Blogs over the years.  I have an entire folder in Google Reader for science-related blogs.  Almost all of them used to be Science Blogs blogs.

Until a series of staggeringly bad decisions conspired to kill them.

Last year saw Pepsi-gate.

Earlier this year National Geographic bought Science Blogs.  You’d think that would be a good thing.  Stability.  Cred.  Money.  Cool photos.  But maybe not.


I’ve read National Geographic.  I was a subscriber back when I read printed magazines.  I like the publication.  But I liked Science Blogs better.  Liked.

Because now there seems to be an exodus.  Some of it seems to be over the new corporate overlord’s decision not to allow people to blog under pseudonyms.  That is a horrible, and probably fatal, policy change.  And I’ll tell you why.

Lots of the Science Blogs bloggers are, directly or indirectly, involved in academia or government.  And there is simply no way someone in either of those fields- or any field for that matter- is going to write as freely or as interestingly if they have to write under their real name.  Plus, if you use your real name and those (quacks in some cases) who disagree with you do not, you are incubating social terrorism.  There is a reason why I have rarely mentioned my day job here.  Well, actually there are two.  One, it’s boring.  But, two, people know who I am.  If I could go back in time, I would probably blog under a pseudonym.  Thor.  Or Persifal.  Or Cat Daddy.

I don’t know the full back story at Science Blogs, but Drug Monkey dropped some pure wisdom in one of his/her last posts:

It is pretty clear that when corporate flacks ask you for your opinion in response to their reflexive stance they are not in fact going to be influenced.

That is an absolute fact.  Less than a month later he/she split, in search of more progressive bananas.

Mike the Mad Biologist soon followed.  And set up shop here.  Greg Laden is sort of leaving.  And sort of staying.

At least Tara Smith, one of my favorite Science bloggers (lower case) who shares my wish for a time machine, is hanging around.  I just wish she’d blog more.

I don’t know what’s happening to the internets these days, as old media tries to conscript parts of new media.  Do what you will dinosaurs.  But keep your hands and rules off my Science Blogs.

Cat Daddy, signing off for now.

Global Warming, Motivated Reasoning and Me

globalwarmingI’m just as certain today that global warming is an immediate and serious threat to our planet as I was in the summer of 1969 that Apollo 11 had actually landed on the moon.  And I get just as frustrated today trying to explain global warming to disbelievers as I did that long ago summer trying to convince some of my fellow 9 years olds that their parents and grandparents were full of crap to claim the entire space program was a governmental fabrication.

Which is why I no longer try.  I have expanded my growing policy of non-engagement to cover global warming and most other environmental issues.

I’ve talked a lot here and in the real world about how hard it is to have a reasoned debate with people who are so psychologically bound to their position that the merits take a back seat to world view preservation.  The older I get the more willing I am to leave someone’s jacked up ideas unchallenged.

Here’s why.

There was a very interesting article the other day over at Contexts.Org about a study that found that rather than look for the truth, a lot of people seek out information that confirms what they already believe.  It’s a concept called motivated reasoning.  These theories are similar to the concept of emotional reasoning, which I read about most recently in Mary Pipher’s excellent Reviving Ophelia (must reading for parents of little girls), and a first cousin of the basic concept of rationalization.

All of this provides scientific support for, and at least in my mind an ironclad logical defense of, my theory of non-engagement.  Nevertheless, I feel strongly about environmental issues and believe that the Idiocracy-worthy policy of placing an extra buck or two now above everything later is going to profoundly affect the quality of lives of our grandchildren, if not our children.  A hundred years from now, people will consider our generation who, for all intents and purposes, pillaged the earth for the last quarter of the 20th century and at least the first quarter of the 21st century to be the most selfish, greedy and harmful generation in history.  That’s a pretty big tumble from the lofty perch that our parents’ generation achieved, and for which history will one day give them the credit they deserve.

And from time to time people ask me what I think about global warming.

I end up having to choose between beating my head against the wall or just ignoring the question.  Neither of those is satisfactory.

So from now on, I will direct anyone who asks me about global warming to this page.  Where they can read how I feel, and find some really good information if they care to read it.  But without the ability to ruin my day with illogical denials and half-baked rationalizations.

But first, this post has multimedia.  Click play below and proceed.

In hindsight, this song may have
been too optimistic.

Like everything else scientific, let’s look to my favorite blog network- ScienceBlogs.

How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic.

That resource, put together by Coby Beck, is the most important compilation of information on the internet.  Bar none.

Let’s use that resource to punch some holes in some motivated reasoning.

“There’s no evidence of global warming!”  This is the argument I hear the most.  Coby responds:

Global Warming is not an output of computer models, it is conclusion based on observations of a great many global indicators.  By far the most straightforward evidence is the actual surface temperature record.  While there are places, in England for example, that have records going back several centuries, the two major global temperature analyses can only go back around 150 years due to their requirements for both quantity and distribution of temperature recording stations.

These are the two most reputable globally and seasonally averaged temperature trend analyses:

Both trends are definitely and significantly up.  As well as the direct measurements of surface temperature, there are many other measurements and indicators that support the general direction and magnitude of the change the earth is currently undergoing.  The following diverse empirical observations lead us to the same unequivocal conclusion that the earth is warming:

There is simply no room for doubt: the Earth is undergoing a rapid and large warming trend.

“Antarctic ice is actually growing.  So global warming is a myth.”  I hear this a lot too.  Coby’s rebuttal:

There are two distinct problems with this argument. First, any argument that tries to u
a regional phenomenon to disprove a global trend is simply dead in the water. Anthropogenic global warming theory does not predict uniform warming throughout the globe. We need to assess the balance of the evidence. In the case of this particular region, there is actually very little data about the changes in the ice sheets, and the conclusions we have seen of some growth in the East Antarctic ice sheet is such a small amount, that with the uncertainty, it might be shrinking. But even this weak piece of evidence may no longer be right. Some very recent results from NASA’s GRACE experiment, measuring the gravitational pull of the massive Antarctic ice sheets, have indicated that in fact ice mass is on the whole being lost.

Secondly, the phenomenon of thickening of an ice sheet is not by itself inconsistent with warming! Such an increase in ice mass in the face of actual warming would be the result of increasing precipitation and this is fully consistent with the Antarctic in a warming world. The Antarctic is actually one of the most extreme deserts on the planet, and warmer climates tend towards more precipitation. So even if you warmed a whopping 20oC from -50oC, you would still be well below freezing and accumulating snow, not melting in the rain.

While on the subject of ice sheets, Greenland is also growing ice in the centre for the same reasons described above, but it is melting on the exterior regions, on the whole losing approximately 200 km^3 of ice annually, doubled now from just a decade ago. This is a huge amount compared to what the changes may be in the Antarctic, around three orders of magnitude larger. So in terms of sea level rise, any potential mitigation due to the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is wiped out many many times over by Greenland’s ice sheet.

And finally, “Even scientists disagree about whether global warming is real.”  Coby has facts that say many of them do agree:

Sure there are plenty of unsolved problems and active debates in climate science. But if you look at the research papers coming out these days, the debates are about things like why model predictions of outgoing longwave radiation at the top of the atmosphere in tropical latitudes differ from satellite readings or how the size of ice crystals in cirrus clouds affect the amount of incoming shortwave reflected back into space or precisely how much stratospheric cooling can be attributed to ozone depletion rather than an enhanced greenhouse effect. No one in the climate science community is debating whether or not changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations alter the Greenhouse effect or if the current warming trend is outside of the range of natural variability or if sea levels have risen over the last century. This is where there is a consensus.

Specifically, the “consensus” about anthropogenic climate change entails the following:

  • the climate is undergoing a pronounced warming trend that is beyond the range of natural variability.
  • the major cause of most of the observed warming is rising levels of the greenhouse gas CO2
  • the rise in CO2 is the result of fossil fuel burning.
  • if CO2 continues to rise over the next century the warming will continue
  • a climate change of the projected magnitude over this time frame represents potential danger to human welfare and the environment

While theories and alternate view points in conflict with the above do exist, their proponents are in a very small minority. If one requires unanimity before being confident, well, we can’t be sure the earth isn’t hollow either.

This consensus is represented in the IPCC Third Assessment Report, Working Group 1 (TAR WG1). This is the most comprehensive compilation and summary of current climate research ever attempted, and is arguably the most thoroughly peer reviewed scientific document in history. While this review was sponsored by the UN, the research it compiled and reviewed was not, and the scientists involved were independent and came from all over the world..

The conclusions reached in this document have been explicitly endorsed by:

  • Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias (Bazil)
  • Royal Society of Canada
  • Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Academie des Sciences (France)
  • Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
  • Indian National Science Academy
  • Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
  • Science Council of Japan
  • Russian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Society (United Kingdom)
  • National Academy of Sciences (United States of America)
  • Australian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
  • Caribbean Academy of Sciences
  • Indonesian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Irish Academy
  • Academy of Sciences Malaysia
  • Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
  • Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

in either one or both of these documents: [PDF] [PDF]

In addition to these national academies, the following institutions specializing in climate, atmosphere, ocean and/or earth sciences have endorsed or published the same conclusions as presented in the TAR report:

If this is not a scientific consensus, then what in the world would a consensus look like?

All of the quotes above are directly from How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, but there are lots more resources there.  If you are
interested in the topic- and you should be- bookmark that page and read every entry.

Your grandchildren, and mine, will thank you.

Evening Reading: Rational Swine Flu Edition

One of the most annoying problems of modern journalism is the trend, born out of competition for attention, to overstate everything.  To create some headline that stands out from the crowd, and as a result occasionally stands out from the truth.  The result is that headlines that used to read like encyclopedia topics now read like used car ads.  That’s annoying enough when it concerns the newest Web 2.0 application that is somehow going to “kill” Google.  It’s inexcusable when it involves a strain of flu that could kill a bunch of people.

I live about three blocks from the (now temporarily closed) school attended by the girl (thankfully recovering) who had Houston’s first confirmed case of Swine flu.  All three of my kids go to a school that is literally right beside that school.  So, yeah, I’m pretty interested in getting reliable information about the Swine flu.

There’s a lot of bad information flying around out there.  Here’s where I’m getting my Swine flu information.

First, I ignore 100% of the stuff I see on Twitter.  All that talk about Twitter as a reliable source of breaking information has been debunked.  Photos of planes in a river, yes.  Information about a developing public health hazard, not so much.  Unfortunately, Twitter is not the only place to see panic-inducing reports.  Major media is doing its part too.  In fact, I completely tune out, figuratively and literally, the TV coverage.

The first place I look, and probably my number one favorite daily read even before the Swine flu story, are the Science Blogs (About page; RSS feed).  I enjoy their scientific topics all the time, and I find the various science blog writers to be generally level-headed, informative and super-smart without being eggheads.  And in at least one case, super-smart and pretty (Good heavens Miss Sakamoto – you’re beautiful!).

So what have the scientists taught me so far. . .

First, that it is always better to be safe than sorry:

By raising the pandemic threat level to phase 5 have done something very important: served notice that it’s time to mobilize resources in the event this virus shows sustained transmission in several countries. The severity of the disease it produces doesn’t have to be extremely serious or lethal for a widespread outbreak of flu in a community to do a lot of damage in productivity, economic loss and quality of life. It’s the job of public health agencies to warn communities this might happen and so they can prepare to manage the consequences.

They’ve taught me what the WHO pandemic levels mean:

Phase 5: characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short. This is the key–Phase 5 is a signal to governments to get their act together, because the shit is about to hit the fan.

More, including a handy chart, here.

And that it’s not a good idea to start tossing antibiotics at everyone at the first sign of trouble:

We wouldn’t want to resistance to evolve when, overwhelmingly, most cases will resolve on their own (and without extensive hospitalization).

I got a little background on the name thing.  As an aside, those who are getting their panties in a wad over what we call this disease are, in my opinion, idiots.  Period.  It’s not about pork, it’s about people.  And do those dumbasses really think it’s ever going to be known by any other name?

I’ve learned why this variant is resistant to certain antiviral drugs.  I’ve read a little about the genetic history of the virus, and why that is important.  And I learned about the Flu Wiki, and about a 2007 outbreak in Ohio

I read a legitimate reason not to panic, but to be a tad nervous:

The real bad news is that since this is a new flu part of which (flu has different parts that may have different histories) only recently entered the human environment, there might be a slightly higher than we would like to have chance that this flu, while it swaggers around the human population making people sick, will recombine with one or more other flu viruses that are already out there with very nasty results.

As a bonus, they sometimes call an appropriate bullshit on other media sources:

As my readers know, I hate the Huffington Post’s “science and health” reporting. The main reason is that they approach health and science the same way they approach politics: ideologically. I have no problem with people holding particular political ideologies. My medical partners and I have very different political views, but we all practice the same science-base medicine, and that’s what unites us (that, and our daily kumbaya sessions). But science in service of ideology is always problematic.

Here’s the latest- on the questionable benefit of travel and border restrictions.

Another good source of information is Harvard Medical School (even if for some insane reason they want you to buy their full report):

The initial symptoms of this flu virus are like those of the regular, annual flu viruses: fever, muscle aches, runny nose, and sore throat. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may be more common with this swine flu than with the regular flu. If this epidemic hits your community and you develop flu-like symptoms, it is likely your doctor will take samples from your throat or material you cough up and send them to the
ate public health laboratory for testing.

Of course, the CDC’s web page is also a reliable source of information, that is updated regularly.

We need to have reliable information about the Swine flu.  Rather than extreme headlines from both ends of the spectrum, we need reporting right down the middle.  The sources that do that will do better in the long run than those who toss up used car ads in the name of attention.  We deserve better than that.

Reason No. 572 Why I’m Glad We Didn’t Have the Internet When I was a Kid


British neuroscientist says that Facebook and other social networks are bad for children’s brains:

Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned.

Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centered.

She also says that computer games and “fast paced” TV shows are also causing damage.

Well, there’s always the golf channel.

Calling Lou Diamond Phillips

I was about to turn on tonight’s Sci-Fi Channel offering of Lou Diamond Phillips dealing with genetically altered bats (which sounds like a movie designed specifically to my tastes), when I came across something better. Engadget either getting owned or owning others (I’m not really sure which) over a dog brain in a dish.

According to this Engadget story, some cat (the human kind, but keep reading and you may begin to wonder) has grown a dog brain in a dish. Now we could make a Sci-Fi Channel offering out of that alone- but there’s more.

What, you might ask, is the highest and best use of a dog brain in a dish?

To play video games, of course. It sort of takes “man’s best friend” to a whole new level.

Now all we need is for the Sci-Fi Channel and Lou Diamond to team up and bring us a movie about the dog brain’s entry into and domination of the pro video game circuit. After the dog brains start winning all of the teens of dollars of prize money, Lou Diamond could play a human gamer who unseats them and returns mankind to its rightful place at the top of the couch potato chain.

Possible sequels could involve squirrel brains that needlepoint, whale brains that rap and turtle brains that play fart football.

Earthquakes, Hurricanes and the Math Thing

Doc Searls has a thoughtful and scary post today on earthquakes.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Thankfully, I’ve never experienced an earthquake. But Hurricanes are a constant worry here along the Texas coast and I have stood outside my house more than once in the yellowish glow of a bad storm and listened for the train-like sound of a tornado.

I remember the very first Sim City game. I didn’t like the natural disasters, so I turned them off. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in real life.

I hope we are spared another hurricane and I hope California is spared another earthquake. But as Doc points out, the math is not in either of our favor.

The Persistence of False Memory

I am very skeptical of the whole recovered/repressed memory thing. You know, when someone, usually someone with a lawyer, suddenly recalls being abused by someone else 30 or 40 years ago. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but I don’t think it happens nearly as often as it is claimed to have happened. For one thing, I have yet to hear about someone who had a repressed memory about something good (“wow, I just remembered that I went to Disneyland when I was nine”). It’s sort of like how everyone who believes in reincarnation used to be somebody famous.

Another reason I have my doubts about recovered/repressed memory is because I have a false memory- something that seems exactly like a real memory. Only I know it didn’t happen. Ironically, it is a pleasant memory. Since it’s Christmas-related, here goes.

videogame-710323I have this memory of getting an arcade-like, multi-game video game for Christmas. It was maybe 6 feet tall, light blue on the sides, with a some black parts where the knobs and coin slots were. It had a single joystick with a red ball at the end of it and a few black buttons. This is a drawing of it. I got it for Christmas, and my memory of getting that game is as sharp now as it would have been the week after I got it- except I didn’t.

For one thing, I have no memories of ever actually playing the game, or even what games were on it. I have no later recollection of it in my room or house. I don’t remember getting rid of it. My only memory (and it’s a vivid one) is of getting it Christmas morning, and later that day having it moved (by people or forces unknown) upstairs to my room.

Additionally, this would have been around 1970 or so and I’m pretty sure these sorts of games didn’t exist then, and if they did, they would have cost a lot more than my mom would have spent.

I can’t recall exactly when this memory made its way into my consciousness, but it’s been there at least 10 years.

Very strange indeed.

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