Showing posts with label environment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label environment. Show all posts

29.7.14

MARKING OFF.

Perhaps later this summer, we'll see how the nature preserve turns out.


Updates before the new academic year starts.

25.7.14

PRICES FUNCTION TO ALLOCATE DEMAND.

Some months ago, Cold Spring Shops linkbuddy John Palmer noted that water is not exempt from that proposition.
Oh, some people will be hurt when the price of water is raised? Yes, that happens. They have been benefiting from a price that has been held too low for far too long. Time to face reality.
He was referring to California, but his argument holds equal force in Detroit. Detroit's rates are high, particularly to the naive view that sees nothing but Great Lakes all around Michigan. The city has been cracking down on residents who are behind in their bills, which creates a political economy problem when governmental and business deadbeats owe a lot.
Over the past decade, sales have decreased by 20 to 30 percent, while the water department’s fixed costs and debt have remained high. Nonpayment of bills is also common. The increasing strain on the department’s resources is then passed on to customers.

But residents aren’t the only ones with delinquent accounts. Darryl Latimer, the department’s deputy director, told me that the State of Michigan holds its biggest bill: $5 million for water at state fairgrounds. (The state disputes the bill, arguing that it’s not responsible for the costs of infrastructure leaks.)
Detroit's water utility faces a stranded cost problem. In the presence of falling average costs, decreasing usage means a greater divergence between average cost and incremental cost, and piecemeal scrappage of water mains on abandoned blocks is unlikely to raise enough cash to cover the costs, nor is it likely to produce a more efficient water network.  But the editorial writers of the New York Times don't get it.
But cutting water to homes risks a public health crisis.

Instead, the water department should more aggressively target delinquent commercial customers who carry a large share of the unpaid bills. It should enact a comprehensive plan to fix leaking pipes; flooded streets are common here, and water customers — whether the state or ordinary residents — must pay for sewerage, not just running water, and often are billed erroneously for these leaks.

The department must also ensure that water is shut off to abandoned buildings, and eliminate errors in address transfers.
There's a public utilities research project here, identifying the death spiral that ensues as residents leave, revenues fall, maintenance is deferred, mains break, and more residents become disgruntled and leave.

Here's Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes summarizing the discontent.
Blame the water department, partly. Blame a political culture steeped in favoritism and victimization. Blame mismanagement that perpetuated a system in which half of the city’s property owners don’t pay their taxes and thousands ignore their water bills because, well, they can and elected officials willingly wield influence to keep it that way.

“There was no rigid enforcement policy or practice at the water department for years,” Bill Johnson, a department spokesman, said in an interview Thursday. “Some of it was under pressure from the mayor’s office, some of it from City Council.

“You allow the situation to languish and some people think you don’t care,” or that the department won’t pursue those who aren’t paying their bills.

Now they are, sparking the kind of backlash that is predictable in the ossified ways of Old Detroit. Thursday, protests continued over the water shut-offs; one radio report quoted a guy explaining, rightly, that Detroit has a high poverty rate even while complaining that council just agreed to hike water rates nearly another 9 percent.

Why is that? In large part, Johnson explained, the increase is driven by the disproportionately high number of water customers in Detroit who consume water they do not pay for.
As Doc Palmer puts it, "Raise the friggn price and watch the quantity demanded drop."

Meanwhile, in California, long the poster child for easy living made possible by subsidized water, when drought comes, the authorities try everything but the price system.
Mostly, we use prices to match supply and demand. When supplies of some item are short, rising prices provide incentives for conservation and substitution, as well as the creation of creative new sources of supply.

When we abandon prices, often out of some sort of political opportunism, chaos usually results.

California, for example, has never had the political will to allow water prices to rise when water is short. They cite all kinds of awful things that would happen to people if water prices were higher, but then proceed instead with all sorts of authoritarian rationing initiatives that strike me as far worse than any downsides of higher prices.
Yes, even NBC's "water police" segment has trouble sugar-coating the authoritarian impulse.
At the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, we met someone trying a new approach. Rachel Garza is a water conservation technician who is going door to door, responding to complaints about water violations. With her calm and maternal demeanor, Garza talks to people about the drought, suggests ways they can cut back on water use, and helps homeowners to make their lawns more drought-friendly.
The ve haff unpleazant methodz to ensure your compliansss comes later.

15.7.14

REFINING IN TRANSIT.

Crude oil can be partially refined before it's loaded onto tank cars.  The resulting cargo is safer.
The stabilization process involves heating and pressurizing the oil to force out light hydrocarbons, such as ethane, butane, and propane, which can then be transported separately. These light hydrocarbons are the truly combustible components that make the light sweet crude coming from both Eagle Ford [Texas] and Bakken [North Dakota] susceptible to explosions in the event of a derailment. Heavy crude, such as from Alberta’s oil sands, is nowhere near as dangerous as the Bakken and Eagle Ford crude; as I’ve said before, you could probably blast such oil with a flamethrower, to no effect.
There's something in the behavior of North Dakota crude producers and the railroads that calls for further scrutiny, though.
The railroads could ask that the oil be stabilized, but their common carrier obligation to handle all business offered them perhaps prevents them from requiring such processing. Ditto the pipelines. And if the rails insist and pipelines do not, guess what happens then? So it appears to come down to government, in particular the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Administration, which has the authority to order stabilization.
I was under the impression that the railroads (BNSF in particular) were hauling so much Bakken oil for lack of any convenient pipelines (there's a complication involving the Cushing, Oklahoma basing point).  If so, that puts them in a better position to refuse dangerous shipments, particularly dangerous shipments that are straining capacity and on at least one occasion, catastrophically derailing at a choke point on the railroad.

27.5.14

A HERMAPHRODITE KARMANN-GHIA.

Men's Magazine offers readers "10 Cars You Don't Want to be Seen Driving."  Worst, or first, is the late, unlamented, Chevrolet SSR, which also made Time's Fifty Worst Cars.  I've never understood the logic of combining the worst features of pickup trucks and sedans, but the car companies insist on rolling these out from time to time.  Perhaps there's a counterexample to Mencken's "nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence" proposition.

14.5.14

NOTHING NEW ABOUT INVASIVE SPECIES.

At Quid Plura, we learn that Creeping Charlie used to be a cheap way of flavouring ale.
Meet Glechoma hederacea, the mint-like ground ivy called “creeping Charlie” in the United States and known, at least around my place, as “existence’s bane.” Rampant, sinister, nigh-unstoppable, this weed was brought to North America by early European settlers, who presumably appreciated its value as ground cover and its not-unpleasant scent.

Medieval people found Glechoma hederacea medicinally useful, as shown by a drawing of the stuff in a tenth-century manuscript from Constantinople. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can buy a watch and other jewelry based on its depiction in a 15th-century woodcut, gifts apparently intended for people who’ve never torn intractable fistfuls of the stuff from the contumacious earth.

More interesting is its etymology in England, where it’s known as Gill-on-the-ground or, intriguingly, alehoof. Britten and Holland’s 1886 A Dictionary of English Plant-Names claims the word comes from “‘Ale-hoove,’ meaning that which will cause ale to heave,or work,” because in an era sans hops, the Anglo-Saxons used the plant to give their ale its bitterness.
I've heard that the stuff is common in the midwest because early farmers used it as chicken feed.  Whatever its provenance, it's only slightly less prolific than kudzu, a Southern invader whose presence at these latitudes may be another indicator of warming.

18.3.14

IMPROVING ON HAMURABI?

A forthcoming Ecological Economics paper, "A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction," by Motesharrei, Rivas, and Kalnay, has been receiving attention outside of the customary circle of academic readers, perhaps because its conclusions make one set of policy advocates comfortable with their prejudices.
The model has just four equations that describe the evolution of the populations of Elites and Commoners, Nature, and accumulated Wealth. Mechanisms leading to collapse are discussed and the measure "Carrying Capacity" is developed and defined, The model suggests that the estimation of Carrying Capacity is a practical means for early detection of a collapse. Collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at the maximum carrying capacity, if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed equally.
The problem, dear reader, is that the model builds on the simple Lotke-Volterra predator-prey equations. I couldn't copy and paste them from the .pdf of the paper, so, with some abuse of notation, here goes.  Let W be the population of Workers, B the population of Bosses, X the stock of natural resources, and Y the accumulated wealth.

The four equations of motion of the model are

(1)   dW/dt = (b - a)W, where b is the birth rate and a the death rate;

(2)   dB/dt = (c - d)B, where c is the birth rate and d the death rate;

(3)   dX/dt = gX(L - X) - uWX, where L is the exogenous carrying capacity of the environment, g a regeneration factor, u is the constant marginal product of workers, whose productive activities deplete Nature;

(4)   dY/dt = uWX - S - A, where S is the consumption of Workers, assumed to be at a subsistence level, and A the consumption of Bosses, who extract surplus value.

The dynamics of this relatively simple model are not radically improved on those of Hamurabi, an ancient computer game I probably wasted too much time on years ago, and which you can play online at your leisure.
HAMURABI: I BEG TO REPORT TO YOU,
IN YEAR 1, 0 PEOPLE STARVED, 5 CAME TO THE CITY,
POPULATION IS NOW 100
THE CITY NOW OWNS 1000 ACRES.
YOU HARVESTED 3 BUSHELS PER ACRE.
RATS ATE 200 BUSHELS.
The simulator gives you some information, and you try to keep your subjects alive for ten years.

In the working paper, the structure of production has a Marxian feel to it, with the Bosses appropriating some of the production for themselves without depleting Nature, and the Workers getting only subsistence pay.  Not surprisingly, a gripe session about the modelling, and the folly of using NASA money to fund the research, ensues at Insta Pundit.

But there are opportunities for further research, some of which have been anticipated by the authors (See Motesharrei, Rivas, and Kalnay p. 7.)

[The initial model] models the Depletion side of the equation as if it includes the reduction in Nature due to Pollution.  Future versions will differentiate Depletion from Pollution.  The depletion term includes a rate of depletion per worker, [u], and is proportional to both Nature and the number of workers.  However, the economic activity of [Bosses] is modeled to represent executive, management, and supervisory functions, but not engagement in the direct extraction of resources, which is done by [Workers].  Thus, only [Workers] produce.

Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource of [c.q.] extraction, such that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use. ... The extent of these effects varies, but in this initial model, we assume that the effects of these trends tend to cancel each other out.  In future versions, the rates of these trends could be adjusted in either direction.
The paper notes that the source code for the model is available online at http://www.atmos.umd.edu/~ekalnay/handy-ver1.mdi, on the Maryland site of Professor Kalnay.  I received a 404 error checking that link earlier this evening.  My hope is that we're dealing with a temporary server hiccup, perhaps account high casual interest coming in from the public intellectuals.

One of my early interests in economics was playing around with simple Keynesian Cross models, with the help of a Commodore calculator and pencil and paper.  There are a number of tweaks that occur to me in the simple model, including making L endogenous, having improvements to u arrive randomly, having depletion or pollution surprises arrive randomly (the Newcomen engine improves u, depletion of England's coal begins immediately, and carbon concentrations in the atmosphere increase).  As a further complication, I want to have u affect the compensation of both Bosses and Workers.  Perhaps u attaches to a Worker who then contracts with other Workers to implement the idea, raising the living standard of what becomes a Boss and his spawn, as well as the living standards of some Workers.

Yes, that begins to get messy, but in my second childhood, I hope to have some thinking time.

18.1.14

NEVER BEFORE HAVE SO MANY HAD SO MUCH WHILE STILL WANTING MORE.

The New York Post's Karol Markowicz gets that bon mot off in the course of a chastisement of the owner of a business catering to upscale moms who is rediscovering the frugality of the Thirties.  The concluding paragraphs of the Markowicz column suggest that rising inequality coexists with a positional arms race.  "In a world where we talk about 'inequality' as the greatest problem we face, of course we support each other’s need to have as much stuff as our friends and neighbors." That's the only point with which the business owner is likely to agree.
My mission was to make life easier for new moms when I opened in 1996. Now this neighborhood is filthy with baby haircutting/toy shops, clubs, babyccino cafes, baby DJ lessons, $600 baby proofing companies and cooking lessons for nannies -- and I no longer feel comfortable here as I struggle to pay my bills. It's become a neighborhood of excess and ease while I have sunk into poverty. Here I am, the owner of a shop in the epi-center of the [upscale] baby universe, and I can't make my rent.
The owner is quitting business. She speculates that a new owner might be able to make the business successful by putting some money into it (and raising prices?)  There, though, is where the economics comes in.
I just want people to know how some of us are hiding in plain sight, serving you with a smile while our gut lurches with hunger and anxiety. I am putting Boing Boing up for sale, and the next person will use social media and about $30,000 to turn my well-loved shop into a great, successful highly profitable business. That person just isn't me.
Or the well-to-do might find themselves in the position of the well-to-do in the transition from the Gilded Age to the era of Fordist manufacturing. The butlers and footmen found more gainful employment elsewhere.  What intrigues, though, is that many people viewed the avarice of the industrialists of the Gilded Age as impolite or un-American.  Railroaded author Richard White recently made a presentation at Northern Illinois based on work he is doing for the Gilded Age portion of The Oxford History of the United States.  (I own several already and plan to add Professor White's to the library.)  Note the conclusion of Michael Kazin's New York Times review of Railroaded.
The railroad barons wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age. But their behavior revealed a trait they shared with many of their fellow citizens: too much was never enough.
That sentiment is compatible with today's mind-set: whether you call it keeping up with the Joneses, or engaging in positional arms races, or being a dutiful citizen staving off recession the way Franklin D. or Maynard Keynes or Dwight Eisenhower or George W. Bush or Lee Iacocca would have it, it seems as settled a norm as white spats and Arrow collars.  Professor White's analysis of the Gilded Age is going to come as a surprise to many.  The aspirations of the yeoman farmers, mechanics, and merchants were to achieve a level of comfort, not necessarily to die with the most toys.  I have to rethink an old post in light of that analysis.
Get enough people in responsible positions [questioning work for its own sake] and the 24/7 treadmill begins to crumble. And perhaps it won't take 135 years. Why 135 years? Consider this picture. We are looking at my second great-grandparents and their children. This picture dates to the early 1870s.
The Francis Hopkins family certainly might think of a world in which people complain about sixty hours as the nearest thing on Earth to Heaven.  Their aspirations, however, might have been to no more than ownership of 160 acres free and clear, with a frame house and a windmill pump replacing a log cabin and a windlass well.  What intrigues, though, is that the popular term for that aspiration was "competence", which connoted "sustainable."

Enter the environmentalists, stage left.
While neoclassical economists pose the consumption-leisure tradeoff as a choice made by individuals, whether or not people work in the first place is clearly determined by decisions made at a society-wide level.

It’s beginning to look like we should have taken the other New Deal. We need to explicitly shift toward working less — to reorient the consumption-leisure tradeoff towards the latter on a social level — and share the work that remains more evenly. The sociologist Juliet Schor says we could work four-hour days without any decline in the standard of living; similarly, the New Economics Foundation proposes we could get by on a twenty-one-hour workweek. Meanwhile, David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot suggest that the US could cut energy consumption by 20 percent by shifting to a schedule more like Western Europe’s, with thirty-five hour workweeks and six weeks of vacation — certainly not a panacea, but hardly impoverishing for a start. In a study of industrialized nations over the past fifty years, Schor, Kyle Knight, and Gene Rosa find that shorter working hours are correlated with smaller ecological footprints.

While making people work shitty jobs to “earn” a living has always been spiteful, it’s now starting to seem suicidal. So perhaps it’s time to reclaim job-killing environmentalism, this time not as a project that demonizes workers, or even work — but rather, as one that rejects work done for its own sake. Instead of stigmatizing, criminalizing, and imprisoning the unemployed and “non-industrious poor,” perhaps we should see them, as David Graeber suggests, as the “pioneers of a new economic order” — one where we all work and consume less, and have more time for other pursuits.
The farmers and mechanics and merchants of the early Gilded Age would understand.  For the social scientist, however, it means one more place to look for early evidence of an emergent phenomenon.

15.1.14

SHIFTS HAPPEN

Professor Munger has a news round-up of the South Polar excursion that encountered, shall we say, something other than summer sailing on the open ocean.

Chinese ice-breaker.  Gets stuck.  Australian ice-breaker.  Gets stuck.  Call out the Coast Guard.  (Be nice to have a few Iowa class battleships in commission for other sorts of rescue missions.)  First, though, the winds change, and the stuck excursion ship and the stuck ice-breaker get un-stuck.  There is, however, other work for the Coast Guard in the antipodes.

12.1.14

NEVER MIND CLIMATE CHAOS.

In mathematics, "chaos" can describe emergent and self-organizing behavior.  Such as declines in carbon emissions from the United States.
In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal.

Many of the world's leading climate scientists didn't see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action against carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.
There's division of labor. Climate scientists ought to concentrate on stochastic or chaotic dynamics and measure carbon concentrations. There's room for economists to concentrate on relative prices.
Natural gas has become significantly cheaper, leading more plants to switch over.  One reason gas is cheaper, of course, is fracking technology.  So our environmentalist friends have a bit of a quandry here:  opposing fracking means opposing cheaper natural gas, which means opposing getting rid of those dirty, CO2 producting coal-fired power plants.  Once again, profit signals lead entrepreneurs to find substitutes for expensive, dirty processes, in turn leading them to develop new technologies that create usable and valuable resources where none existed before.  This drives down prices of that substitute, which leads to it replacing the old dirty technology. 
Let the climate scientists continue to work on the complex dynamics by which changes in the sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide, atmospheric mixing dynamics, and the strengthening or weakening of the jet stream allow for the southward migration of the polar vortex, or equalize temperatures in the atmosphere such that there is neither jet stream nor polar vortex.  But let us unbundle the confirmation of climate change hypotheses from the discussion of policies to reduce human influences thereupon.  Doing so is not as easy as it looks.
For years, American greens have pushed carbon-trading as the best way to reduce carbon emissions. Yet now carbon emissions are dropping, thanks not to an intrusive government tax on carbon, but to the brown industry and fracking technologies greens vociferously oppose.
A government tax on carbon might accelerate the development of fracking technologies and cleaner-burning fuels, but the resulting supply shock will lower the price of carbon allowances.

8.12.13

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE.

Travel and Trains offer four pictures illustrating how light rail (or a streetcar) might reduce traffic congestion.  The premise of the essay is that single-occupancy cars take up a lot more street space per seat than a single Canadian Light Rail Vehicle, or a PCC, or a Peter Witt with all seats occupied does.

Fair enough, if it's all single-occupancy automobiles with drivers headed to similar destinations.

Reality is messier.

That young man in the Dodge Charger, the one with the rattling windows because he's cranked up the sound system ... his hearing isn't so good, and his idea of "inside volume" on his head-phones is loud enough to rouse the ghost of John I. Beggs.

That real estate hustler in the BMW, juggling three deals on her smartphone, do you think she's not going to treat the trolley like her office?  Enjoy listening in.

That tired man in the rusty Corolla, who just got off work and hasn't had a chance to shower up yet ... his presence precedes him to the rear of the tramcar.

And cars can have multiple passengers.  That mom in a Subaru, with a young hellion strapped in the back seat ... he's going to think it great fun to throw the fare inspector from the tramcar a t-shirt.

Those are a few of the riders enticed out of their cars and onto mass transit.  Then there are the transit-dependent people.  You don't have to be John Rocker to contemplate what's getting on at the next stop.

So while there's a role for mass transit, there might be good reason people don't avail themselves of it.

9.10.13

TOTAL RECALL.

The Chicago Tribune offers a photo gallery of excursion trains in the Southwest.


Grand Canyon Railway photograph courtesy Chicago Tribune.

That's former Burlington 4960, converted to burn recycled vegetable oil according to the caption, on the Grand Canyon Railway.  The string of stainless steel cars behind, including some dome cars, brings to mind some of the final Burlington steam excursions of the mid-1960s.

18.8.13

SCIENCE IS A PROCESS, NOT A RECIPE.

Don Surber returns to his web-log, for the time being posting a daily roundup of things that interest him.  His August 13 roundup recommends von Storch, et. al., "Can climate change models explain the recent stagnation in global warming?"  The abstract is lengthy, and informative.  Out-of-sample prediction is difficult in models, no matter how careful the researchers are to calibrate the equations of motion (which are themselves abstractions of reality) to observed reality.
However, for the 15-year trend interval corresponding to the latest observation period 1998-2012 , only 2% of the 62 CMIP5 and less than 1% of the 189 CMIP3 trend computations are as low as or lower than the observed trend. Applying the standard 5% statistical critical value(8), we conclude that the model projections are inconsistent with the recent observed global warming over the period 1998- 2012. (note, however, that the standard statistical-test terminology, although widely used, is not strictly appropriate in this case; see supplementary material(9). The inconsistency increases rapidly with increasing trend length. A continuation of the current observed global warming rate for a period of twenty years or longer would lie outside the ensemble of all model-simulated trends.

What do these inconsistencies imply for the utility of climate projections of anthropogenic climate change? Three possible explanations of the inconsistencies can be suggested: 1) the models underestimate the internal natural climate variability; 2) the climate models fail to include important external forcing processes in addition to anthropogenic forcing, or 3) the climate model sensitivities to external anthropogenic forcing is too high.

The first explanation is simple and plausible. Natural climate variability is an inevitable consequence of a slow system (climate) interacting with a fast system (weather)(10)
Serendipity.

Note, though, that the quest for recalibrated (feasible) or more accurate out-of-sample (the greater challenge) climate models can go on completely independently of the quest for carbon taxes or emission markets or hydraulic fracking.

17.8.13

THE BURDEN OF PROOF.

Failing to reject an hypothesis is a different intellectual exercise than demonstrating that elliptic curves are modular, from which it follows that Diophantine equations of order greater than two have no solutions in integers.

The Heartland Institute's Rich Trzupek hasn't yet grasped that point.  He starts with an assertion by Penn State climatologist Michael Mann that ought not to be controversial.
“Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. It’s not for science,” Mann says. “Science works in evidence through best explanations, most credible theories, and so in a sense we’re at a disadvantage because we have to play by the rules, the other side doesn’t… They’re not offering up credible alternatives or explanations. In most cases they’re trying to pick holes. Not real holes, just things that the public will think are holes, in the science. We are at a disadvantage.”

Bound by honesty, the scientific consensus is going to struggle to overcome this problem, appearing unable to actually back up its results with tangible events, offering, Cassandra-like, warnings of a future that will go unheeded until it is too late.
Mr Trzupek is either suggesting that the case for consensus isn't strong enough, or is demonstrating the failure of his chemistry professors to explain methodology.  (That may be a common failing: q.v.)
Now it seems pretty obvious that Mann’s attempt to separate proof from science stems from increasing public awareness that the warming predicted by the high-sensitivity models that Mann and others have championed just hasn’t occurred over the last fifteen years. No matter. You don’t need “proof” when you have “credible theories.”

That comes as something of a shock to me. When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truths and proofs at the end of the day. “Credible theories” is how you got to those truths, not an alternative to them.
Where you have anomalies, you have to reexamine the premises of your models. Where the evidence is refractory, you have to be particularly sensitive to the possibility that complex adaptive systems do what they darn well please, as well as to the premises of your model.  Here's where the academic stance (no final say) conflicts with Political Principle.  Mr Trzupek responds to some of his critics.
Anyway, the point of my particular screed was not to reaffirm the difference between Chesterson’s (rather obvious) point that two plus two equals four because there can be no other result, and the scientific need for proof in our discipline’s eternal search for truth. It was to re-emphasize the fact that offering evidence that your particular hypothesis approaches reality is even more important in the scientific sphere. Such evidence is not to be despised, but rather to be embraced.
Well, 2 + 2 = 11(3). We generally don't work in base 3 in intellectual endeavours. But when intellectual endeavours take on political colouration, then the fun begins.
In my case, as a chemist, I see the intricacies of my discipline misrepresented by the “environmental movement” on a regular basis. And the reasons I use my skill as a communicator (however poor those skills may be) to push back against those misrepresentations are my love for science in general, and for chemistry in particular.
Those misrepresentations might be political. To make sense of the evidence, though, it takes a theory to beat a theory.
You can have an idea that seems right, and is supported by some observations, but may eventually be shown wrong (or incomplete) by better tests. Ideas are tentative. Provisional.

Of course, some ideas are better than others. It turns out some do an excellent job describing reality, and some not so much. And even the ones that are good can be better.
The problem isn't necessarily with the theories, or even with the evidence. It's more often with the policy implications.
From climate science we know the Earth is warming; the evidence for that is overwhelming. We know humans are at least partially if not mostly to blame for these increasing temperatures; the evidence for that is overwhelming. We know the ramifications are costly at best and catastrophic at worst; the evidence for that is overwhelming.
Yes, and what to do about the evidence, and how to choose to respond to that evidence and at the same time to all the other troubles confronting people, is outside the realm of settled science.  The best social scientists can do is often to teach the controversies.

14.8.13

A REGRESSIVE TRANSFER.

Politicians can make hay by questioning subsidies for Amtrak, but, inconsistently (?), not for the air carriers.
As just one example, the U.S. government subsidizes air service to two smallish cities served daily by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief – Dodge City and Garden City, both in Kansas. The combined Essential Air Service subsidy last year just for those two towns came to $4,607,624.  As the venerable Casey Stengel once famously said, “You could look it up!”

It’s amazing how many people don’t know that. But members of Congress do. So, I ask again, why do the Republicans object to Amtrak’s subsidy and not to the subsidy the airlines get? Anyone?
Perhaps because the Essential Air Service subsidy is part of the welfare payments to Rural America.  No Essential Air Service, Archer Daniels has to buy more corporate jets.  Let the Republicans be philosophically consistent about not spending tax money on transportation, and listen to the griping from Republican constituents.

Megan McArdle suggests environmentalists have a similar blind spot when it comes to air travel.
[F]lying rarely provokes the kind of environmental shame that driving a Hummer or running the washer and dryer with a single item might. It’s hard to say exactly why, but I have a theory -- it’s easy to act like an environmentalist when it means buying cool new stuff like reusable grocery bags, a high-efficiency washer, or a hybrid car. When doing the green thing requires actual sacrifice or a substantial change in lifestyle, well, that’s where most of us draw the line.
Scoff at those jet-skis or motorized quadricycles or leaf-blowers or pickup truck the size of aircraft carriers, yes.  Question your access to conferences or the Third World, no.
Giving up air travel and overnight delivery is much more personally costly for the public intellectuals who write about this stuff than giving up a big SUV. If you live in one of the five or six major cities that contain virtually everyone who writes about climate change, having a small car (or no car), is a pretty easy adjustment to imagine. On the other hand, try to imagine giving up far-flung vacations, conferences, etc. -- especially since travel to interesting locales is one of the hidden perks of not-very-well remunerated positions at universities, public policy groups, nongovernmental organizations, and yes, news organizations.

If we’re going to get serious about greenhouse gasses, we need to get serious about air travel. Going to a distant conference should attract the kind of scorn among the chattering classes that is currently reserved for buying a Hummer.
I'm tempted to try that, looking askance at the next NPR-listening, Prius-driving metrofexual looking forward to a trip to Italy for the wine or to somewhere in the Third World for the wildlife.

The more serious social science, though, is in identifying the distributional effect of the Essential Air Service subsidy, the use of general revenues to maintain airways and highways, and cheap overweight permits for heavy trucks.

31.7.13

BLAME THE MELTING POLAR ICE CAP.

Lakes Michigan and Huron, which, if viewed as a single body of water, constitute the largest freshwater lake in the world, have been receding in such a way as to leave formerly waterfront property in Georgian Bay and other poverty pockets high and dry.

Climate change is at work.
The rock-solid plug that had kept Lakes Michigan and Huron in place for thousands of years had been turned to mush.

The Army Corps acknowledged that something was amiss, pointing to the relative surface levels between Michigan-Huron and Lake Erie.

Because the two systems are connected, when Michigan-Huron drops, downstream Lake Erie historically dropped similarly. But in recent decades the approximately nine-foot difference in "head" between the two had been shrinking — by as much as a foot, according to the Georgian Bay study. This meant Michigan-Huron and Erie's levels were getting closer.

Other explanations for the shrinking difference between the two systems include shifting weather patterns that sent increased precipitation over Lake Erie, as well as the ongoing, uneven rebound of the earth's crust from the last ice age; the land under the Georgian Bay region is rising in relation to areas to the south.
But attempts to make the St. Clair River shipping channel more productive, and seawalls installed by well-to-do Michiganders building their North Shore estates well north of Detroit have contributed to the problem.  Meanwhile, your tax dollars paid for a scale model of the basin, in order to test a fix that would have put an end to the river scouring the channel bottom, possibly replenishing aquifers far below.  That project was abandoned during an episode of high water in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Milwaukeeans with long memories might recall the kerfuffle over a Hoan Bridge engineered for mean water level becoming too close to the lake for the tallest lakers to get under it.)

During a period of historically low interest rates, a project to restore the channel bottom might make economic sense.  Political sense, less so.
Lana Pollack, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Commission, declined to sign the letter from her commission recommending that the governments explore what it will take to bring lake levels up and instead wrote a dissent arguing that a St. Clair restoration offers only "false hope."

She fears the project will detract the public's attention from what she sees as the real issue — climate change causing increased evaporation. Her husband is Henry Pollack, a University of Michigan scientist and member of the team of climate researchers who shared a 2007 Nobel Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

While Pollack's fellow commissioners have recommended exploring a system that could allow more water to leave Michigan and Huron in wet years, she said the big lakes are so slow to respond to long-term weather patterns that predicting when to let that water go or when to hold it back could prove impossible.

"Some of the very same people who deny the reality of climate change being caused by our energy choices are the same people who say, 'We want you to fix this,'" Lana Pollack said. "So on the one hand they say mankind is too small to impact Mother Nature — that forces of nature are much stronger than the impacts of man. Yet they somehow turn around and say, 'OK, governments: Put a plug in — engineer something, dredge something, dig out, blow up, modify.' They don't think man is too weak to engineer a fix, but they somehow say we're not responsible for the cause."

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee meteorologist Paul Roebber agrees controlling flows out the St. Clair could be a complex job, but he believes it is one worth exploring, especially in an era when he expects increased evaporation and precipitation cycles to bring unprecedentedly big swings in water levels.

Roebber isn't worried about preserving fluctuations essential to wetlands health.

"It's unlikely to me that the problem is really going to be that we won't have variability in lake levels," he said. "It will be that we still have too much."
Summer weather patterns appear to be more static than they used to be, most recently with Georgia and Tennessee on the brink of a border dispute over a reservoir this spring, and this summer suffering with too much rain for the peaches, peanuts, and pecans.

9.7.13

A FALSE ECONOMY?

IN order to conserve on crew expenses, the freight railroads will park freight trains until a rested crew becomes available or space opens in the yard.
A look-see quickly tells us this is an abandoned train, its three forward locomotives consecutively cycling on and off. More than a mile long, it is comprised solely of 40-foot double-stack containers that most likely were loaded at the Port of Long Beach or Los Angeles. We have been hearing of a lot of BNSF Railway trains on the Transcon being left for a day or two in Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois, and have seen a few of them ourselves since leaving Chicago a day ago.
On the old Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, there are still a few recessing sidings from the days of 90 mph Chiefs overtaking 50 mph freights, and two main tracks to keep the priority intermodal trains and the one daily Amtrak each way running.  Christmas can wait.  Other lines on BNSF, and other railroads, may not have that kind of capacity, and the abandoned trains occupy sidings that make threading an Amtrak train or a priority freight with a crew on short time through traffic more of a challenge for the dispatcher.  Now throw in a mechanical problem with an active train ...

It appears as though the unit oil train that derailed and burned in Lac-Megantic, Quebec was such an abandoned train.
Investigators are looking into the brakes on the trains, as well as what role a fire on the locomotive shortly before the derailment may have played. A fire broke out onboard the locomotive after the engineer secured the brakes and left the train parked at about 11:25 p.m. Friday night. That fire was extinguished by local firefighters, and not long after, the train began rolling unmanned toward Lac-M├ęgantic.
The coverage on Monday evening's Huntley-Brinkley Report (with Lester Holt deputising for Brian Williams) included tape of roving reporter Katie Tur walking alongside those locomotives.  I still do not have enough information to work out how some cars separated from a train, and why cars from the rear of the train, which was headed east, would roll east into Megantic while the locomotives remain west of the town.

The recriminations are going to be interesting.
The disaster is sure to fuel the debate over whether pipelines are a better way to move petroleum products compared to railroads, which have been picking up business as pipeline projects face stiff opposition. Energy companies have increasingly turned to rail to move their products around North America. In 2008, trains carried fewer than 20,000 barrels a day of oil in the United States, but by the end of last year, roughly 500,000 barrels of oil per day moved via rail.
Yes, and when U-Boats prowled the Atlantic Seaboard, the railroads were ready.  In those days, the environmental fears (or NIMBYism) could be trumped by The War Effort.  Energy independence is not the Moral Equivalent of War, and the railroads may be able to move all the new crude oil, pipeline projects or not.

SECOND SECTION.  The Bangor Daily News interviews railroad executive Ed Burkhardt.
Burkhardt said the train picked up speed quickly and was likely going “far, far faster” than the speed limit of 10 mph as it reached a curve in the track in the very center of Lac-Megantic at around 1:15 a.m. Saturday and jumped the tracks.

He said the locomotives separated from the buffer car — a heavy railcar loaded with stones or rocks or sand — and the tanker cars, which were laden with a free-flowing type of Bakken oil from North Dakota.
The locomotives and the buffer car may have remained on the tracks as the tank cars piled up, which explains why Canadian investigators were able to use the locomotive event recorder, and the railroad evidently moved the rear end of the train, which remained on the rails, back to the siding where Katie Tur filed her report.

6.7.13

NOBODY KNOWS HOW TO MAKE A TENNIS BALL.

The Weather Channel ran a brief story this morning about the distances travelled by components that become tennis balls in The Philippines for use at Wimbledon.  Here are the details.
For over a century, the Slazenger tennis balls used at Wimbledon made the short journey from the company's Barnsley factory to centre court. Today, a new analysis has revealed, the official balls travel over 50,000 miles around the world before finally arriving from the Philippines factory in which they are now made.

"It is one of the longest journeys I have seen for a product," said Mark Johnson, an operations management expert at Warwick Business School, who conducted the analysis. "On the face of it, travelling more than 50,000 miles to make a tennis ball does seem fairly ludicrous, but it just shows the global nature of production these days, and in the end, this will be the most cost-effective way of making tennis balls."
It helps to know some location theory in order to understand why.
Johnson's research shows materials for the Slazenger balls fly between 11 countries and across four continents before being manufactured in Bataan in the Philippines and then travelling the final 6,660 miles to SW19. He found that the complex supply chain sees clay shipped from South Carolina in the US, silica from Greece, magnesium carbonate from Japan, zinc oxide from Thailand, sulphur from South Korea and rubber from Malaysia to Bataan. Wool is then shipped from New Zealand to Stroud in Gloucestershire, where it is weaved into felt and then flown back to Bataan.
Presumably all of that clay and silica and MgCO3 and ZnO and S and rubber had to be schlepped to Barnsley to be made into tennis balls.  The transportation of wool to Stroud for conversion to felt and thence back to Bataan is the one oddity in the supply chain, but it makes sense that the production plant be located closer to the weight-losing materials, most notably the rubber.  There may be more miles travelled involved this way, but less total mass transported.
Meanwhile, Johnson found, petroleum naphthalene from Zibo in China and glue from Basilan in the Philippines are brought to Bataan where Slazenger, which was bought by Sports Direct in 2004, manufacture the ball. Finally tins are shipped in from Indonesia and once the balls have been packaged they are sent to Wimbledon.
Keep that in mind when reckoning the environmental consequences of preempting Meet The Press for two Sundays in July to offer views of the backsides of tennis players.
Monetary cost has been minimised but, with such a vast footprint, it seems very unlikely that the environmental cost has been even closed to minimised. It is a striking example of how failing to ensure that manufacturers pay the true cost of their environmental impact can lead to extraordinary supply chains in a globalised world.
Put another way, in the absence of carbon taxes, manufacturers still bear the private costs of transportation.  If the new location of tennis ball production lowers transportation costs (as well as probably incurring lower labour costs) the environmental impact is less than it would be if additional ton-miles are incurred schlepping rubber and tin blanks and the various compounds all the way to Barnsley.

3.6.13

PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MALTHUS.

There's a large stack of books finished, awaiting a review to be posted.  The logical thing to do, thus, is to get back to work by making Book Review No. 8 the recently-released Inferno by Dan Brown.

28.5.13

THE QUICK-GROWING EUCALYPTUS TREE.

Last December, we noted the oddity of paper milled in China being exported to Wisconsin (and, for all I know, Millinocket, Maine?)

The followup articles in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel noted that something more than productivity-obsessed clear-cutting was at work.
Wending Huang, Asia Pulp & Paper Co.'s chief forester in China, calls them his "Yao Mings" - after the towering Chinese basketball star. The tiny green tissue samples, methodically implanted in Petri jars, will become hardwood eucalyptus trees that need only four to six years to reach full height, up to 90 feet or more.

"And then we harvest," said Huang.
It's difficult for naturally-grown pulpwood trees that require four to six decades to reach harvestable size to keep up.  It's in the growing of trees by that method, however, that the paper business and the friends of nature find common cause.
As Wisconsin showed decades ago, the environmental and economic benefits of trees intersect.

Trees, of course, provide a refuge for wildlife and serve as giant carbon sponges. Replacing trees that are thinned by logging can keep a forest young and healthy, less susceptible to forest fires. The logging, in turn, gives the owner an incentive to keep the land undeveloped.

"If you lose that economic value, there's less incentive to keep those lands forested," said Paul Delong, chief forester for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Suddenly, the incentive to keep that habitat healthy goes down."
What intrigues about the combined stories, though, is that the Chinese eucalyptus farms also appear to be taking advantage of what would otherwise be scrub land.
The plantations are at least two hours from the nearest city, by way of dusty roads populated with water buffalo, wild pigs, goats and clattering motorbikes. The labs, in the shadow of a faded water tower, are not fancy. Women from nearby villages have been trained to clone the trees and prune and tend to the precious cutlings, wearing straw hats to guard against the hot sun.

Wisconsin's mills long competed with those in other states and Europe that had a similar northern climate. In time, countries such as Brazil and Australia turned to eucalyptus plantations, but not with the assembly-line intensity of China.

The APP plantation land was once considered "degraded" - all sandy soil with scrub vegetation.

Now eucalyptus trees stand straight as matchsticks, with no branches apart from a tuft of leaves at the top, meaning less waste and more pulp.
Trees growing that fast have to capture a lot of carbon to produce the wood. The mathematics of replanting are the same whether a tree reaches full height in four years, or forty.

19.5.13

KOCH'S COKE.

The New York Times publishes what may be an environmental report, although it appears to be more of an attempt to shore up its base.  Apparently river-front property in Detroit is so devoid of other commercial prospects that it becomes a cheap place to pile up petroleum coke for trans-shipment.
Detroit’s ever-growing black mountain is the unloved, unwanted and long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands boom.

And no one knows quite what to do about it, except Koch Carbon, which owns it.

The company is controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy industrialists who back a number of conservative and libertarian causes including activist groups that challenge the science behind climate change. The company sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste, usually overseas, where it is burned as fuel.

The coke comes from a refinery alongside the river owned by Marathon Petroleum, which has been there since 1930. But it began refining exports from the Canadian oil sands — and producing the waste that is sold to Koch — only in November.
This coke doesn't have the strength to serve as reducing agent in a blast furnace, although it apparently can be used as fuel in Chinese and Mexican power plants.  Whether shipping the stuff to China rather than shipping Powder River or Crowsnest coal is on balance environmentally more friendly the story doesn't say.

The story, curiously, doesn't have as much to say about the third Koch brother.
One of the world’s largest dealers of petroleum coke is the Oxbow Corporation, which sells about 11 million tons of fuel-grade coke a year. It is owned by William I. Koch, a brother of David and Charles.
You'd think Times readers (the paper, after all, runs wedding announcements that David Brooks famously characterized as more like merger announcements or alliances among the 1% royalty) might want to be reminded that Bill, along with Buddy Melges, once defended an America's Cup.


Race 5, May 16, 1992.

(Was that really 21 years ago???)

But, once the reminder that nasty limited-government types might be engaging in rent seeking in the energy sector is out there, the paper's mission is accomplished.  You probably wouldn't use an America's Cup-class sloop to fish for Midgaardsormen.