Archive for 2013 December

How nicotine builds addictive structures in the brain

Cigarettes are evil. 

What is evil?

"Evil is movement towards void," said (memorably) the novelist Don Delillo.

In the context of cigarettes, evil is intending to push users towards the void — to sicken or kill them.  

But how can a naturally occuring substance, a venerable plant such as tobacco, express malice?

Here's how —  by taking over the body's machinery, and using it against us.

Not unlike HIV, if you think about it. A fascinating study (and science fiction-esque video) detail the process, but the central point is that nicotine acts as a "pharmacological chaperone" to assemble nicotine receptors, and make them "more abundant" in the brain. 

Here's a visualization of this process in close-up — video available]

Nicotine as pharma chaperone

To hardwire us for more addiction, even as it is addicting us. That's evil in physical form. 

Update: as if to prove the point beyond dispute, a study by the Massachusetts public health agency  released in January showed that many cigarette-makers steadily increased the level of nicotine in their cigarettes in the last decade or so –by about 15%. 

Consciously plotting to addict users to a substance that causes cancer and disease. That's evil. 

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If climate change is dangerous, can’t a scientist say so? (Hansen’s keynote address at the AGU 2013)

Back in l988, physicist/climatologist James Hansen told Congress that that we had begun to change the earth's atmosphere. This was during a heat wave in Washington, and his testimony made headlines. That's rare for a scientist of any sort. 

"Global warming has began, Expert tells Senate" reported the NYTimes. 

"It's time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here," [Hansen] told a Senate panel. He added that it was "99 per cent certain" that the warming trend was not a case of natural variation.

He testified: 

''Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming. It is already happening now.''. 

Since then the Kyoto Protocol — an international pact that grew out of a UN effort to begin a global conversation about climate change — has come and gone. The goal at that time was "stablization of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the cimate system."  

We have not yet succeeded in avoiding this oncoming disaster, and Hansen's views are not unique among scientists. A poll conducted by Naomi Orestes of UC San Diego found a 97% consensus of climatologists on the basic facts of global warming, and the fundamental idea that heating the atmosphere and the oceans poses serious risks to our civilization. .

Yet no matter how many times Hansen states the scientific argument, American culture continues to shrug off his warnings, and silence him when he speaks out. 

This month he revealed he and a formidable group of collaborators cannot publish a study warning of the consequences of inaction on climate in the in the most estemmed of public science journals, PNAS [an outlet associated with the National Academy of Sciences]. 

Hansen gave the keynote speech to a crowd of of perhaps 2500 scientists at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. The speech ranged from the potential extinction of the Monarch butterfly to the threat to coastal cities around thew world, and included numerous attempts to puncture our shield of denial. At one point Hansen pointed out that energy departments at the state and federal level publish graphs showing fossil fuel extraction skyrocketing, and emissions too, indefinitely, "as if that had to happen."

"Isn't there such a thing as free will?" he said. "It's still possible for us to get on another path, but not if we don't try to do it." 

Hansen went on to recount his struggles with the PNAS, which unlike most science publications makes its papers freely available to the public He mentioned that the paper that he and his esteemed colleagues, eventually published elsewhere was repeatedly slapped down for "normative" language. 

For, in other words, for suggesting that we should act to defuse the threat of global warming. 

"It tooks us three years to publish this paper, and part of the reason was that we submitted it to PNAS, And although it got the highest ratings by the referees, the editor gave it to the editorial board, and they insisted that we remove "normative statements" from the paper." 

Hansen smiled, but not happily. 

"Which is a little strange. It seems to me that pointing out the implictions of science should not be prohibited," Hansen said, in his dry, matter of fact, Midwestern voice. "It got to the point with one anonymous board member reviewer that even the word "dangerous" was considered "normative." 

He laughed — exasperated. And showed us a telling graph


He ponted out that instead of trying to reduce carbon extraction and output, politicians from both parties were "falling all over themselves" to take credit for more fossil fuel extraction, which would only add to the peril. His frustration was evident, and he appeared weary. The ambitious speech seemed to go over the heads of the crowd at times, and he suggested at the conclusion that just as he was struggling to communicate the crisis, we were struggling too, to understand it.

Here's perhaps the simplest form of this plea for action on global warming: 


A pic/quote from one of the early titans in the field, tweeted from the conclusion of another excellent talk — by RealClimater Gavin Schmidt — on the difficulty of moving the needle on this issue. 

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Santa spotted in night sky: NORAD responds

Scott Simon of NPR tweets the news:

Some guy in a red suit on a sleigh buzzed our airplane. NORAD, get after him!

— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) December 24, 2013

But already it seems Ted Rall has thought it through: 



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Grateful for: a new national park in CA — the Pinnacles

In this time of giving thanks, I am grateful for a new national park in the heart of coastal California, the lovely Pinnacles. Not big (only 26,000 acres) but big enough to be home to two dozen condors, and numerous other interesting species — and much beauty. 


Via ecowatch.

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Why “every little bit helps” may not with climate change

Marc Gunther runs a new sustainability blog for The Guardian, and brings an acerbic intelligence to the topic — no little b.s. stories about how a tiny innovation or change will save us from a big problem. 

Example: plastic bags. Adam Corner for the blog writes:

In 2014, England will follow the example set by Wales and Scotland and introduce a carrier bag charge. If the Welsh and Scottish experiences are anything to go by, the policy will drastically reduce the number of bags in circulation, keeping unnecessary waste out of landfill and removing a little polythene from the diet of our cities' seagulls.

Like recycling, re-using carrier bags has become something of an iconic "sustainable behaviour". But whatever else its benefits may be, it is not, in itself, an especially good way of cutting carbon. Like all simple and painless behavioural changes, its value hangs on whether it acts as a catalyst for other, more impactful, activities or support for political changes.

The evidence from Wales is not encouraging. My colleagues at Cardiff University analysed the impact of the introduction of the carrier bag charge. Although their use reduced dramatically, rates of other low-carbon behaviours among the general public remained unaffected.

To be clear: fewer plastic bags would be a small, good thing. But as a major two-day conference at the Royal Society headquarters in London this week made clear, "every little helps" is a dangerously misleading mantra when it comes to climate change.

Of course, it's always possible that cloth or old shopping bags will open the door to something bigger, and there's no harm in it. Just a tinge of frustration. Can't we sacrifice just a little for the planet? Is this the best we can do? 

But my fav Gunther piece came right at Thanksgiving, on the eve of Black Friday, where he opened a column with a blast of sarcasm at those who would shop their way to happiness:

Ah yes, ’tis the happiest time of year, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas when people buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to create impressions that won’t last, on people they don’t care about. 

The older I get, the less Christmas shopping seems to matter.

Some people disagree:


Kidding. It's from Wes Craven, who tweets: "Let's keep it civil out there."

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Strange days: Winter dryness and smog in Bay Area

For countless years winters have brought to the San Francisco Bay Area wind and rain and green hills and fresh air 

Not this year. Not yet. 

From the San Jose Mercury News:

The main factor in the poor air quality, they said, is the relentless dry weather. Normally, particle haze in the Bay Area increases in the winter as residents burn wood in fireplaces. But those fine particles, which can lodge deep into people's lungs, causing respiratory ailments and heart problems, typically are washed out of the air every few days as winter rains come and go.

This year, however, Northern California is on pace for the driest calendar year since 1850, when records were first kept. So smoke from fire places, combined with road dust, soot from buses, trucks and construction equipment, along with other particles from industrial pollution, all build up, growing worse with every passing hour.

Making things even smoggier, wind levels have been low in recent days.

"It's like living in a terrarium. There's no rain and no winds. So we aren't having the normal cleansing effect," said Lisa Fasano, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco.

The agency issued a record 11th straight "Spare the Air" alert for Wednesday, making it illegal to burn wood, manufactured logs or other solid fuel indoors or outdoors in any of the nine Bay Area counties.

It's a little scary how dry it is. The hills look half-burnt already, by the sun. 


 [from the Marin headlands, looking north towards Mt. Tamalpais in Marin Co] 

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An environmental movement around “the Ambient”

While on the trail in early November, had a chance to read a fascinating essay in The New Yorker plumbing the depths of the informational world we live in today — what smartphones and related technologies mean (or don't) and how they should be regulated (or not).

Included in the discussion was a new book the essayist Evgency Morozov much admired, Ambient Commons, which looks at information as an environment, and argues that "Information deserves its own environmentalism." (Not to protect it from us, but to protect us from being overwhelmed by nowness.) 

In the book about "the Ambient," MIT professor Michael McCullough wrote:

A quieter life takes more notice of the world, and uses technology more for curiousity and less for conquest… It stretches and extends the now, beyond the latest tweets, beyond the next business quarter, until the sense of time period you inhabit exceeds the extent of your lifetime.

Like this balance: Not blaming the technology, nor us for using it, but delving into its impact, really trying to understand it. Later in this very thoughtful essay, which – irony alert  –is freely available thanks to the Internet, the writer quotes an earlier information theorist and boredom advocate, Siegfriend Kracdauer, who saw the rationalization of private life around work as a menace, and had two antidotes in mind:

What one expects and gets from travel and dance — a liberation from earthly woes, the possibility of an aesthetic relation to organized toil — corresponds to the sort of elevation above the ephemeral and the contingent that might occur within people's existence in the relation to the eternal and the absolute…through their travels […] the shackles are burst, and they imagine that infinity itself is spreading out before them. In trains they are already on the other side, and the world in which they land is a new world for them. 

Fortunate souls. But the point being that we must choose — and act — to enter the planetary world, as opposed to living in the world of our creation. It's not a new dilemma, but our distractive tools are shinier, noisier, and bring us streams of information, as opposed to samples. Still, maybe they could help get us out into the world, too, as this competition of pics taken by cellphone users on vacation suggests.  



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Does fear of earthquake in Delta justify $25 billion project?

Last week California water agencies dumped a 34,000 page project report — on Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the need for twin tunnel project — on an oblivious public.

The LA Times editorialized on the project without stating a clear opinion, but did mention that the city has become much much better at water conservation:

There are those who argue, here as well as in counties farther to the north, that a sustainable water future for Southern California lies in conservation and reclamation rather than in continuing to bring in current levels of delta water. 

Today their moderate Sacramento columnist George Skelton scoffed at the central justification for the project. 

Brown and the water buffaloes — government bureaucrats, corporate farmers, urban expansionists — are peddling their own rationale for a $25-billion re-plumbing of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

A catastrophic earthquake could topple current levees, flood the delta and cut off much of the fresh water supply to Central and Southern California for months, even years, tunnel promoters warn.

Never mind that there's little historical evidence to support the potential for such a calamity.

"If they have to resort to a lie to justify [the project], then the actual justification must be pretty darn weak," says Bob Pyke, a Bay Area consulting engineer who specializes in earthquake protection and is an outspoken critic of Brown's plan.


I bought into the earthquake argument for years until it finally dawned on me that I've lived in Sacramento for several decades and never felt — or heard of — a local serious shaker. Indeed, it's one of the pluses in residing here.

Sure, back in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake interrupted the World Series in San Francisco and collapsed an Oakland freeway and part of the Bay Bridge, we felt some rolling 100 miles away. That 6.9 temblor along the San Andreas Fault killed 63 people. But there was little damage in the state capital.

More relevant to this writing, no levees collapsed in the delta, between Sacramento and the Bay Area. In fact, they didn't even suffer damage. "None at all," Pyke says.

Hmmm. Add this question to the other doubts raised by the project. Such as: When designed as a bond project back in 2007 the cost added up to about $11 billion. Now it's officially $25 billion, and — skeptics charge — probably closer to $50 billion. Further, even earthquake experts such as the USGS question the justification. For instance, as noted at this site a couple of years ago, they no longer see a catastrophic risk of failure of the levees due to earthquake (as Skelton argues in simpler language). 

Further, the doubters now threaten to put the matter before the voters, seemingly confident that Northern Californians will not want to give Southern Californians water and Southern Californians will not want to pay higher rates to get water. 

Puzzlingly, the LA Times expresses in a general way support for the process, even as the paper decalres that the city has come a long ways in water conservation, but needs to do more. 

Los Angeles, especially, has excelled at conservation, using the same amount of water today as it did 20 years ago despite a growing population. We will need to do more — clean up contaminated aquifers, recapture storm-water runoff, increase storage capacity. Those projects and more are necessary parts of a water portfolio.

So the LA Times takes a hands off attitude, essentially, and ducks the possibility that it's agribusiness (according to Food and Water Watch) or the fracking industry that wants this project (according to the California Indian Water Commission). 

Adding to the malodorous stew, the bureaucrat that has spearheaded this campaign for Brown, Jerry Meral, recently resigned, after a) declaring that it was "virtually certain" the project would be implemented, and b) declaring that the twin tunnels is "not about saving the Delta…the Delta cannot be saved." 

One problem: Supposedly that's what this project is all about — heck, it's called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan


[graphic from a new group called simply Stop the Tunnels]

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The pleasure of making sense of the world: May Swenson

MayswensonOr trying to. To say something simply and well, is a pleasure like no other.

Poetry magazine, a consistently wondrous publication, concludes their December issue, their last issue of the year, with an essay on May Swenson that could not be gentler, nor more sweetly loving.

Example? Simply publishing a stanza that may be one of May Swenson's most charming poems, written late in her life: 

The purpose of life is
to find the purpose of life
to find the purpose
of life is
The purpose
Life is
To Find


She finds not just purpose, but pleasure in the finding out. 

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Tear down Hetch-Hetchy dam? Release a new Yosemite?

Two former attorney generals for the state of California, Dan Lungren, a Republican, and John Van de Kamp, a Democrat, together last week published an editorial calling for Congress to revise the Raker Act that allowed, back in l910, the flooding of a priceless valley called Hetch-Hetchy in Yosemite National Park. 

Hetch-Hetchy was deeply beloved by John Muir, who said it was second only to Yosemite Valley itself in terms of beauty. Muir just about killed himself organizing national opposition to the ruination of the valley. He wasn't able to stop it, but the efforts of himself and his allies did lead to the creation of what we know today as the environmental movement. 

The prospect of seeing Hetch-Hetchy surface entices. The AGs write:

Hetch Hetchy Valley was once home to a richly diverse ecosystem, surrounded by towering cliffs and waterfalls similar to those in neighboring Yosemite Valley. The Tuolumne River, the source of much of the Bay Area's water, flowed through it unobstructed. Today, most of Yosemite National Park's visitors crowd into Yosemite Valley, unaware of its submerged twin 15 miles to the north. Were the reservoir to be drained and Hetch Hetchy Valley restored, the world would rediscover one of America's great natural treasures and tourist pressure on Yosemite Valley would be relieved.

They also claim that San Francisco would be just fine without its water. The fact that San Francisco voters were consulted on the question and rejected it troubles them not a whit: 

A well-financed negative campaign ensured the proposition's defeat, in spite of numerous studies by government agencies, universities and independent groups that have concluded it would be possible for San Francisco to continue to obtain water from the Tuolumne River without storing it in Yosemite. Related reforms in the city's water system, such as the development of additional infrastructure and supply, are also feasible.

Bruce McGurk, who ran Hetch-Hetchy, politely called bullshit on this, um, plan. a point echoed in this story from last year in the Chronicle:

The battle over restoring the Hetch Hetchy dates back to the Reagan administration. Democrats have always smelled a GOP stunt that forces Democrats to defend a dam in a national park and lets Republicans quote John Muir about the splendor of mountains.

President Ronald Reagan's interior secretary, Donald Hodel, first proposed restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley in the 1980s, when Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco. The George W. Bush administration again proposed a study when Pelosi was House speaker. House Democrats removed funding for the study and blocked an attempt by Lungren to reinstate the money.

"The most powerful person in the House at the time was the speaker," Lungren said. "All I know is when I was debating it on the floor, I got some rather knowing looks from my friends on the Democratic side, and let's just say we didn't prevail."

Harrington said he can't debate Lungren's personal attachment to the park. "But let's face it," he said. "Everybody who has ever talked about going after Hetch Hetchy has been conservative Republicans who love to push it in San Francisco's face."

Which raises a question. Given that this scheme — er, proposal — has already been rejected by Congress and by the voters of San Francisco, why is the LA Times continuing to flog this dead horse?

Maybe to take a poke or two at the environmental hypocrisy — um, choices — of San Francisco? 


Had a chance to ask a real expert about this idea. This came after a press conference at the #AGU13 featuring a clever new NASA technology that uses old-fashioned airplanes to fly Lidar over the Sierras, the ASO.

At a press conference here at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco, Bruce McGurk, who for many years ran the Hetch-Hetchy reservoir, scoffed:

"They always make me laugh," he said. "Hetch-Hetchy provides a huge security for the city of San Francisco. The suggestion that they can store their water somewhere else — do they realize that the dam sites are already taken? And the immediate downstream dam, [San Pedro], has already been expanded, is privately owned, and they don't want to store San Francisco's water."

"The other issue is you'd probably have a $3 billion bill to expand water treatment facilities in the area, and then you'd have to operate them. With Hetch-Hetchy, we just add a little chorine and shoot some ultraviolet light at it and it doesn't have to go through treatment. So the water you drank this morning came out of the tap straight from Hetch-Hetchy." 

Yes, he said that. And went on to call this um — campaign —  "sniping" on the part of "some politicians." 


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