Archive for 2008 March

The Black Swan Speaks: Beyond the Narrated

"We love the tangible, the confirmation, the palpable, the real, the visible, the concrete, the known, the seen, the vivid, the concrete, the emotionally laden, the salient, the stereotypical, the moving, the theatrical, the romanced, the cosmetic, the officials, the scholarly-sounding verbiage [b*****t], the pompous Guassian economist, the mathematicized crap, the pomp, the Academie Francaise, Harvard Business School, the Nobel Prize, dark business suits with white shirts and Ferragamo ties, the moving discourse, and the lurid. Most of all we favor the narrated."

"Alas, we are not manufactured, in our current edition of the human race, to understand abstract matters — we need context. Randomness and uncertainty are abstractions. We respect what has happened, igorning what could have happened. In other words, we are naturally shallow and superficial — and we do not know it. This is not a psychological problem; it comes from the main property of information. The dark side of the moon is harder to see; beaming light on it costs energy. In the same way, beaming light on the unseen is costly in both computational and mental effort."

"To be able to focus is a great virtue if you are a watch repairman, a brain surgeon, or a chess player. But the last thing you need to do when you deal with uncertainty is to "focus" (you should tell uncertainty to focus, not us). This "focus" makes you a sucker; it translates into prediction problems, as we will see in the next section. Prediction, not narration, is the real test of our understanding of the world."

Nassim Nicholas Taleb — The Black Swan

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The Bushian View of Antarctica

Tom Toles of the Washington-Post is the editorial cartoonist most concerned with the fate of the natural world, by far, but he’s also the editorial cartoonist best able to find humor in our Prez’s view of the world, sez me. It’s a balancing act that leads to some unforgettable visions…even in his sketches.


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Quote of the Day: Limbaugh

"We have no intention of prosecuting Rush Limbaugh because lying through your teeth and being stupid isn’t a crime."

Marc Dann, speaking for the Ohio Attorney General’s office, on why the state doesn’t intend to prosecute the radio host for inveigling Ohio Republicans to change parties to vote for Hillary Clinton–

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The American West: Hotter, Drier, More Disease-Prone

The lede from ScienceDaily:

The American West has warmed 70 percent more than the planet as a
whole, according to a new analysis in a new report released by the
Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) and the Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC). The West’s most pronounced temperature increase
is in the Colorado River basin, which has warmed more than twice as
much as the global average, with effects that put at risk a major water
supply for over 30 million people from Denver to Los Angeles.

Some deniers will dismiss any such analysis, even by an association of Western governments, as slanted, but Kelly T. Redmond, who oversees climatological analysis for the Desert Research Institute, told the AP:

That sounds about right. It’s been warming in this region for the past 35 years, after a cool period
in the 1970s. We’ve been decidedly above average. You could put an
exclamation on it," he said. 

Redmond has made
calculations similar to the report’s 2.2-degree rise, which has meant
fewer subzero nights to control the population of mountain pine beetles
devastating Colorado’s lodgepole pines.

Another report to read — although this one looks well-laid out and written. In the meantime, a graph for your viewing displeasure:


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“Humility and Remorse”: A Southern Baptist Conversion on Climate Change

Jonathan Merritt is a young theologian in Atlanta who broke into the national conversation this month by championing within the conservative Southern Baptist faith the declaration of a new set of principles regarding creation care and climate change.

While noting continuing debate on some global warming questions, the declaration made a point of stating that we as a species can damage the planet, and that such actions are wrong. The declaration stressed that "We do not believe unanimity is not necessary for prudent action," and said "Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change—however great or small."

The declaration was signed by three of the four most recent presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, including the current office holder, Frank Page. In a phone interview, Merritt conceded that the resolution, like all resolutions issued by the SBC, is non-binding, but said he and his fellow counselors are pleased that since the declaration made the national news, hundreds of prominent Southern Baptists have signed on, including divinity school presidents, pastors, seminary professors, and missionaries.

Merritt said that it represented an "evolution" of the Southern Baptist position on the issue, but the mildness of that description is debatable. In the Resolution on Global Warming issued in June 2007, the Southern Baptist Convention used the dismissive rhetoric of climate change denial, claiming the science was "divided" on the question of global warming, and that measures to reduce emissions were "very dangerous" and costly. Because the Southern Baptist denomination is the second largest in the country, with over sixteen million adherents, the church’s position on social issues makes news.

Not only do these believers stake out a new position on the issue, but use the language of repentance to describe the change, which makes their change of heart sound almost like a conversion experience. The declaration mentions the "study, reflection, and prayer" the signatories went through before reaching consensus on the declaration, and in a widely-quoted statement, added:

We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues have
often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. Our
cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may
be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed.

I asked Merritt about this language, saying that if I was as reporter in a courtroom, that I would describe this as a statement as "remorseful." Merritt agreed. For more, please see my post in Gristmill.


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Racist Democats Don’t Like Obama

A shocker! From the latest Pew Research Center poll:

In particular, white Democrats who hold unfavorable views of Obama are
much more likely than those who have favorable opinions of him to say
that equal rights for minorities have been pushed too far; they also
are more likely to disapprove of interracial dating, and are more
concerned about the threat that immigrants may pose to American values.
In addition, nearly a quarter of white Democrats (23%) who hold a
negative view of Obama believe he is a Muslim.

Less educated and older white Democrats, who have not backed Obama
in most primary elections, hold these values more commonly than do
other Democrats.

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Jaw-Dropping Web-Only Commentary

Much as I feel for newspapers and their reporters as they are being cut to shreds, it must be said that commentators and the communities they attract on the web are remaking print discourse for the reading public in some jaw-dropping ways. We may all be getting "free jobs" soon, but at least we’ll have good stuff to read on-line as we’re making our t-shirts.

Three examples:

A discussion of the alleged "incoherence" of No Country for Old Men, by publius, of Obsidian Wings, and his/its vastly thoughtful commentariat:

An examination of the recent post-Wright polling between Clinton and Obama, by the highly experienced Mystery Pollster Mark Blumenthal, a first-rate writer and statistician. who argues that the Obama decline in recent polling vs. Clinton is within the range of error and within historical norms.

And, most astounding of all, a shockingly-factual cultural commentary on the song Hallelujah (by Leonard Cohen) and its re-interpretation (by Cohen, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley).

Author is a writer and an accountant who goes by the name clapclap. He’ll change your mind — or at least, inform it.


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Sea-Level Rise, According to Michael Tobis

Michael Tobis, a climate scientist with a dry sense of humor and a wide-ranging thoughtfulness, succinctly discusses the crucial issue of sea-level rise on the globalchange Google group discussion list. (Look a few posts down, if you want the context.)

He’s talking about Al Gore’s discussion of sea-level rise in "An Inconvenient Truth." Worth a look:

There is little doubt that the WAIS [West Antarctic Ice Sheet]and Greenland will melt eventually unless CO2 concentrations are actually made to retreat. The only question is the time scale. Since Gore did not specify the time scale, he is strictly speaking correct.

On the other hand, the viewer of AIT [An Inconvenient Truth] was left with the impression that such rises were imminent. This is fair grounds for criticism of the presentation, and indeed it was the first thing that left my lips on leaving the movie. That is not generally considered likely. There are outliers though, notably James Hansen who believes several meters in the current century under business-as-usual is to be expected.

If you listen to what Gore says in detail, he merely says it is plausible. That is a defensible position. However, people respond to symbols rather than words. It may be argued that the constraints on what Gore says are distinct from those on what a scientist should say.


A decade ago we believed that ice sheets retreat mostly by melting. This turns out to be false; land ice can simply fall into the ocean by mechanical processes with weakened ice. So recently the trend among informed opinion has been to greatly increased concern about this.

The likely mechanism for retreat of the WAIS in particular is not well-constrained as to time scale. Several meters in the present century is outside the consensus expectation but within the realm of plausibility.



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Wilkins Ice Shelf Collapses

Can we appreciate the bluntness of Seth Borenstein’s reporting for the AP on this?

I can…note the factual but alarming phrases he uses, such as "suddenly" "collapses" "risk" "runaway" "global warming" and "British scientist."

No false balance in this story.

WASHINGTON — A chunk of Antarctic ice about seven times the size of
Manhattan suddenly collapsed, putting an even greater portion of
glacial ice at risk, scientists said Tuesday.

Satellite images show the runaway disintegration of a
160-square-mile chunk in western Antarctica, which started Feb. 28. It
was the edge of the Wilkins ice shelf and has been there for hundreds,
maybe 1,500 years.

This is the result of global warming, said British Antarctic Survey scientist David Vaughan.


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The 2007-2008 La Nina: Coldest in A Decade

A nice chart by NASA of seasonal temperature anomalies, via Climate 411 and Environmental Defense, succinctly makes a point about the cold winter we just experienced, which is that the cold temps of the past couple of months…would have been normal just twenty-five years ago.

For more, see the short but unusually informative post by Lisa Moore.


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