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The recent news footage out of Syria showing victims of a chemical attack is haunting. When I first saw it I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was looking at. But after a minute of increasing discomfort I began to grasp the horror of the situation. Victims lying on the ground in puddles of water or in the midst of being flushed with a stream of water, gasping for air and limbs quivering in wide-eyed disbelief and fear of what they were experiencing. Others were unconscious or dead. Rescuers were moving around the victims not knowing what to do beyond rinsing off the bodies. Those handling the water, I’m sure, were grateful to be giving some kind of aid no matter how small.

It is interesting to see how people, myself included, react to this kind of news. I mean, this shouldn’t be happening. After all, the world has international conventions and treaties banning the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare. Humanity has gone to some length to bar the use of war shots designed to release toxic gas or aerosols over anyone anywhere.

When we shudder and express sincere horror at the barbarity of a chemical attack on civilians, along what track is our thinking guided? What kind of decision process might lead us to believe that a sarin attack is a higher level of depravity than a bomb blast? Could it be true that people who release chemical agents are actually guilty of a higher crime than those who send bombs in the direction of a civilian neighborhood or even just 50 caliber bullets?

Explosives are chemicals that unleash kinetic and thermal violence for a few seconds per explosion. Nerve agents move like the wind, breathing lethal aerosols or gas as they flow and leaving who knows how much contaminated … everything … and for how long. Bombs can be aimed, a gas cloud not so much. Bomb violence is much more common than death by acetylcholinesterase inhibition, yet our attention is always drawn to chemical violence.

We have an industry called show business that exploits bomb violence in its entertainment products. And we the viewing audience have become desensitized to the horrific effects of explosions by sheer repetition of highly staged portrayals. Perhaps it is the very novelty of a chemical attack that captures our attention. If you survive a bomb blast, there is a chance that you can be sewn back together again. If you receive an exposure to sarin, well, what do you do to stop the inhibition of an enzyme? Find a dose of atropine if possible from someone who knows it’s in stock somewhere.

The acceptance of explosives but not chemical agents as legitimate weapons of war is at best a false dichotomy. But, we are a world of men and women and weaponized conflict. If a ban on chemical and biological weapons can be negotiated faster than a ban on the use of explosives, then we take what we can get. But let us not get desensitized to high explosives and the horrific tragedies they produce.

Oh, one pet peeve. They’re not ‘explosive devices”, they are bombs. The former may infer skillful and clinical dispassion. The latter suggests dumb, blunt force. The latter seems more to the point.

Dear Rep. Lamar Smith,

Yer a smart feller there, Lamar. Ya have a BA from Yale and that JD from SMU. Ya passed the bar exam and started private practice in San Antone. In 11 years ya worked yer way up ta national ‘lected office.  It’s an accomplishment no matter how’ya look at it. And that America Invents Act piled on some mighty fine improvements ta the patentin’ process. That was good work there boy.

As chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Tech-nology, ya been perty skeptical ’bout them snooty climate science boys with their jar-gon and their uppity attitudes actin’ all high’n mighty-like ’bout climate n’such. A good ole’ boy from the Hill Country ought ta be able to pick up on that fancy c’mputer modelin’, right?

I think that ya ought ta throw some of yer many talents inta climate modelin’ yerself. You’d be doin’ the scientific folks a favor. You’d roll up yer sleeves an’ dig in ta clean’n up that po-litically correct climate data. Darn tootin’ you would. I’m sure the folks at NOAA would give ya a desk er somethin’ ta do yer cipherin’.

Give it some thought, Lamar. Shouldn’t take more’n a few Saturday afternoons ta make a big dent innit. Don’tcha think? Keep yer head on a swivel.

Th’ Gausslin’

 

(Texican language services provided by Elroy)

 

 

 

 

A lot of science is about trying to find the best questions. Because the best questions can lead us to better answers. So, in the spirit of better questions here goes.

By loosening environmental regulations aimed at pollution prevention or remediation, the mandarins reporting to POTUS 45 have apparently made the calculation decided that some resulting uptick in pollution is justified by the jobs created thereby.

Question 1: For any given relaxation in regulations that result in an adverse biological, chemical or physical insult to the environment, what is the limit of tolerable adverse effect?

Question 2: How will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined?

Question 3: Will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined before or after the beginning of the adverse effect?

For a given situation there should be some ratio of jobs to acceptable environmental damage.

Example: By relaxing the rules on the release of coal mining waste into a river, X jobs are created and, as a result, Y households are denied potable drinking water. What is an acceptable ratio of X to Y?

Those are enough questions for now. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Much as I would like to indulge in witty and ironic commentary about the results of the 2016 general election, it would be yet another steaming load of pathetic word paste gumming up the internet. There are no words or sentences you could construct that would make a meaningful difference in the direction our wobbling American culture seems headed for.

I’m left with the conclusion that only civil disobedience can disrupt the unholy congress of corporate media, banking, energy and the foetid red-light district of governmental-industrial conjugation. After all, aren’t the B-school gurus always going on about disruption? It’s good, right?

Could it be that donors and lobbyists amount to a 3rd house of Congress?

Enormous corporations, it seems, no longer have need of our democratic republic. Fortunes are stashed abroad, sheltered in tax havens lest a slice finds its way into public kitty. Thanks for the use of American infrastructure- you know, public education, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Border Patrol, FBI, FDA, NIH, NASA, NSF, public highways, airways, NOAA, etc., etc. Deregulation is creeping forward. We live in a period of reconstruction. Neoliberal doctrines have taken hold and may be near a critical mass in state legislatures, perhaps to bring a modern constitutional convention.

America has become a big barrel of fish, stunned by the high voltage of short life-cycle electronic marvels and easily harvested. We’ve become increasingly compliant with the tightening harness of ever advancing complexity and the cloying whispers of big data.

Neoliberalism has its flying leathers on and wants to take flight. There are minerals to extract, civic institutions to suffocate and public lands to privatize. Like the quivering desire of a lusty 18 year old, capitalism knows only one thing- that it wants more. Always more and in bigger gulps. The second derivative dollars over time must be greater than zero in perpetuity. Our brains soon grow tired of static luxury and comfort. Satisfaction, like our lives, is only transient.

The invisible hand of the market, we’re told, will surely trickle down a baptism of unexpected benefits to the masses, if only the rotten buggers would let the acquisitive have their way. After all, if your taxes are lower, the first thing a business owner will do is to add hirelings. Yes?

Wait a minute … if business is flat, why add staff? Why not keep the premium handed to you by the 99%?  Hmmm.

The gospel of laissez-faire is practically physics, you know. A force of nature both inevitable and irreducible.

Taking to the streets is a form of persuasion that has rewarded many movements here and abroad. In thermodynamics, power is the rate at which work is done through the transfer of energy resources. Anthropological power lies in the ability to allocate and focus resources on a need or desire. Money is power because for a price, you can persuade someone to get most anything done. There is no shortage of those who would step up to the challenge or sell their souls or accept any spiritual disfigurement for the hefty feel of lucre in their hands.

If the tin ear of corporate media are deaf to the reasoned voices of those who don’t buy advertising, then what is left for us to do? Elect a businessmen? This general election cycle a species of disrupter was elected president. This charismatic fellow can work a crowd like Castro or Hugo Chavez or Mussolini or (add your own dictator)? A large crowd in the spell of a colorful and grandiose orator seeking high office meets the show business definition of “compelling.” If the event results in fisticuffs or tempers flaring like Roman candles, so much the better.

Electronic news broadcasting is really just show business. A key element of a good story is conflict. Look at any movie. The writers take a sympathetic character and do terrible things to them. There is a chase, violence and intrigue, reconciliation and a twisty ending. Sound familiar? TV is made to do this and they are good at it. And it sells. Watch Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Civil disobedience, as opposed to picketing, makes meaty footage because there is the possibility of imminent violent conflict. It is compelling. As an exercise in power, though, immediate resolution rarely happens. The power aspect comes to play when and if the establishment is forced to confront awkward questions. Often establishment authority is refractory to public scrutiny. Other times it folds like a lawn chair.

 

 

 

More than a few people in my meager sphere of coworkers, family, and acquaintances are of a decidedly conservative bent and apparently bathe in the fetid wellspring of the Fox network for their daily ablutions. I recognize this because more than a few use substantially the same phraseology as they express the similar contentions on politics or of some duplicitous liberal miscreant. Most are admitted non-sciency folk and have heard that the current dust-up about AGW, Anthropogenic Global Warming, derives from assertions of a self-serving conspiracy by unscrupulous scientists angling for grants or in service of some deeper, darker purpose.

Like many people I’m trying to follow and comprehend the topic of climate change and AGW. Having taken no more than an undergraduate semester of meteorology and oceanography as well as flight training, I can grasp basic concepts and use some of the vocabulary in a sentence. So, when I’m asked for my opinion I usually just shrug my shoulders and offer a scenario for consideration.

Forget CO2 for a minute. What happens to surface water if the atmosphere and oceans get a bit warmer? It’s safe to say that, generally, there will be more moisture entering the air. It’s a fact that water vapor is a greenhouse gas. Water vapor absorbs infrared energy from the sun. Any influence that manages to cause the atmosphere to hold more water is an influence that will cause the atmosphere to capture more thermal energy and result in warming. Being more buoyant that dry air, moist air can convect to produce clouds.

The change from liquid water to gas is an endothermic process. Energy is absorbed to produce water vapor from surface water. During cloud formation, upwelling air naturally cools and condenses to aerosols and droplets. These may freeze to ice and liberate the latent heat of fusion. This is an exothermic process, liberating latent heat which warms the air causing further convection. So, a parcel of moist air convecting upwards will result in an inrushing of surface air which is drawn upwards to sustain a column of rising moist air. The early cloud building phase of a thunderstorm (cumulonimbus) is characterized by strong updrafts from convection.

So, one might expect storm behavior to change as the relative humidity increases. As the average air temperature rises, the higher latitudes (north and south) might be expected to see some change as well.

In the northern hemisphere one of those changes could be the melting of higher latitude snowpack and glacial ice. Ice and snow pack consists of fresh water. Fresh water is less dense than salty ocean water. As fresh surface water runs onto briny oceanic water, it will tend to stratify according to density with lower density, less briny water tending towards the surface.

The thermohaline circulation, also referred to the Atlantic conveyor, is responsible for the gulf stream current that flows in a northeasterly direction along the Atlantic coast of North America and into the north Atlantic. This current is responsible for delivery of relatively warm water to the north Atlantic. These warm waters are partially responsible for the temperate climate of the UK and northern Europe. One of the most important concepts of climate science is that one cannot separate the oceans from climate. Due to the considerable heat capacity and latent heats of water (relative to air), the oceans are a substantial reservoir of energy capacity in direct thermal contact with the atmosphere.

The gulf stream’s arrival to the cooler north Atlantic where the water increases its salinity and density due to low temperature and evaporation to form a region of sinking water that forms a subsurface current. This current circulates to the Pacific and Indian oceans and eventually back to the north Atlantic in a loop of circulating water. For the north Atlantic, this loop is at the surface and transfers heat back to the north Atlantic in the form of warm surface gulf current water.

The gulf stream submerges between the coast of Norway and Greenland. In doing so, warm water is transferred to the north Atlantic. Should Greenland undergo a sudden warming with subsequent release of melted fresh water, it would be expected that the process of sinking of briny surface water would be suppressed due to the presence of less dense surface melt water from Greenland. The effect would be to suppress the potential energy of descending cold briny water feeding the Atlantic conveyor as well as oxygen transport to the ocean depths. Upwelling water from the deep transports vital minerals to support the food chain. The loss of this upwelling will have a distinct affect on the fisheries.

If it transpires that the loss of heat transport to the north Atlantic results in a general cooling of that body of water to form ice, how is the overall heat balance of the earth affected? Could it trigger another ice age?

The point of this is to offer that a rise in air temperature can lead to consequences that are not intuitively obvious. Talking about global warming should not end with just “warming”. The ramp up to global warming is a disturbance that may have surprising results.

Over the last few decades the notion of political correctness has been held, particularly by conservative and conservative protestant evangelical elements in the electronic media, as evidence of moral decay or wrong-headed concern for frivolous sensibilities. Political correctness has been hailed as a form of speech expressing hypersensitive and exaggerated deference to the sensibilities of groups or to certain political beliefs. The words “political correctness” and “liberal” themselves have become epithets through repeated accusatory statements attempting to poison the well of progressive credibility.

Born in 1957, my growth and schooling has been coincident in time with a good deal of what is now called political correctness (PC). My perception of what lead to PC is not hard to describe. Over these years, especially in the 1960’s, there was a conscious attempt by progressive, fair-minded people to remedy the effects of centuries of bias and oppression of minority groups by the caucasian dominated power structure under the heading of Affirmative Action. The civil rights act of 1964, the voting rights act of 1965, the Stonewall riots, assassinations, counterculture, expanding feminism, and a controversial land war in Asia lead to a large scale pushback of the establishment.

During 1960’s the threat of nuclear annihilation and the domino theory of communist aggression had already been in the popular conscious mind since the early 1950’s or before. Add to this the internal upheavals listed above and you have a period of great anxiety and turmoil. For many young people like myself, the notion of equality and fairness to all was imprinted by television, teachers, and a few adults. But especially, seeing the growing integration of black Americans on television programs gave way to a strong normalizing effect on myself and others in lily white Iowa. I began to suspect an essential arbitrariness of racial discrimination.

By the time I moved west and entered high school in 1972 the notion of racial equality was openly embraced by many of my fellow students and found in a few readings assigned in school. Busing desegregation was in full swing and news of controversy filled the airwaves. That is, when the Watergate congressional investigation was not playing.

I have come to think that the origins of PC has evolved from this era. In my view, PC is an attempt to level the playing field for diverse groups seeking equal treatment and opportunity. It was manifested in law by way of operational practices in hiring and equal protection in general. The military embraced racial equality in a large way through recruitment and promotion. But perhaps the most obvious form of PC is in language. The use of epithets and slang that demeaned a person’s race or religion gradually became taboo in many parts of the country. Since the 1970’s this taboo on demeaning language and treatment has broadened and institutionalized to include gender, sex, and sexual preference.

In my college years a ban on epithets and belittling or demeaning language was part of the institution’s mission statement and policy. When I eventually taught at the college level, we were expected to speak and treat everyone in a fair and civil manner, respecting the individual and their rights to their beliefs and speech.

Research has shown that the nuances of grammar in a language affect the way the speaker perceives people and objects (see Boroditsky below).

The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. How Does Language Shape the Way We Think?  Lera Boroditsky [6.11.09].

If, as Boroditsky argues, the subtleties of language can affect perception of the world around you, then it follows that caution must be applied in the nouns and verbs we use in reference to one another lest we infer meanings that are offensive, unintended or slanderous. Plainly we do this all the time with people we know and care for. In regard to those we do not know, is it defensible to make broad assertions that are demeaning or belittling? It will be defended by the meek and the bellicose if bystanders do nothing. And that is what has been happening over the last few decades over conservative talk radio, TV, and even religious broadcasting. These broadcasters repetitively spew divisive rhetoric meant to drum up anger and frustration in it’s listeners. It has worked well. If this kind of rhetoric didn’t work, do you think they would use it anyway? Anger and conflict attract audiences and audiences attract advertisers. Ad revenue encourages purveyors of truculent and intransigent rhetoric to continue. Witness the popularity of Rush Limbaugh with his golden voice and vitriolic diatribes.

If a child grows up hearing and using language asserting that skin color defines people as “other” or “lesser” or “lazy”, this distinction as other or lesser or lazy can become normalized in the child’s thinking.

So, what is wrong with the language of political correctness if it is the attempt to promote fairness and equality? Like any aspect of language, it inevitably undergoes meaning-creep. PC may devolve into ridiculous conflicts when people overreact to a perceived slight and claim that they have suffered some mental trauma. Likewise, PC may cause institutions to enact policy overreach in an effort to avoid perceived threats based on a breach of PC.  Like any social meme, PC can be taken too far. But that doesn’t mean that the concept is without merit.

If we truly want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it must apply to everyone. Why wouldn’t we clean up our language a bit, if for no other reason than to enjoy reciprocity?

 

In the course of my professional society memberships I receive an email newsletter called API SmartBrief from the American Petroleum Institute. An article caught my attention today. The API newsletter blurb read-

Senators say methane rule will have unexpected impact

“The Obama administration doesn’t understand the full economic effect of new federal rules meant to cut methane emissions from oil and natural gas production, according to a letter signed by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and colleagues. “Given that so many of our communities are being impacted by current market conditions, [italics added for emphasis] any new regulations impacting oil and natural gas should be based on reliable, transparent data that is devoid of any political considerations,” read the letter sent to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.” 5/23/16

This API summary is sourced from HoumaToday.com.

The alarm expressed by Vitter, API, and unnamed others struck me as amusing. The methane rule will have unexpected impact. Golly Mr. Wizard, tell us more. Naturally, API is beating the drum for petroleum interests. It is their charter, after all. Vitter bemoans the cost impact on workers and communities in his state and, to be sure, that is his job. Thus, the interpenetrating political-industrial partnership seems aligned in their opposition to possible rule making by EPA. Alles ist in Ordnung.

The funny part is that the current market condition cited by Vitter and, I would suppose, API, is the result of years of delirious drilling and hydrofracturing of oil and gas deposits. Perhaps someone of credible standing mentioned that a bubble was forming and that maybe, just maybe, we’ll end up with a glut. If such a voice did arise, it was not widely cited, at least to my knowledge.

So, this self-inflicted malady of excess supply and low prices has crept up on this colossal industry with it’s legions of swingin’ d**ks leasing and drilling methane glory holes. Boom and bust is not new to big oil. Not unexpectedly, OPEC failed to cooperate and reduce their oil production, the greedy bastards. King coal is staggering like a large sauropod after an asteroid impact. And even more dismaying to big petro is that solar, wind, and who knows what else is creeping upwards in power production and taking market share.

With all of this recklessness with oversupply, could it really be that big oil is bad at basic price collusion? Shiver me timbers!

My point is that using a self-inflicted market down-turn to justify reckless disregard in furthering large scale contamination of the atmosphere is a malfeasance of the first magnitude. If the free market gave birth to such an awful turn of events as an oil and gas oversupply, how can we expect the invisible hand of the market to steer us away from certain ecological ruin through destruction of the biosphere from accelerating consumption and advancing overpopulation?

The market is like the male sex organ. It has no brain and seeks only one thing- More.

 

 

Here are three items on my wish list for the future. There are more but this is enough for today.

  • The nomination of Donald Trump as Republican candidate for president in 2016. This political intestinal disease needs to run its course. Hell, let him win in 2016. Why? Given that a win means the electoral system has spoken, the GOP will have to reconcile this unforeseen event to the rest of the electorate and to the Citizen’s United beneficiaries who were accordingly disappointed. Perhaps there will be leadership purges at both the RNC and DNC. Even more fantastical would be a rethinking of what the parties stand for. But … nah. It won’t happen.
  • Fewer movies about Nazis. It is a tired and tiresome meme. Move on.
  • I’d like to see the Rupert Murdoch empire taken to task over their FCC broadcast licenses. Recalling that the public airwaves are just that, I’d like to hear them explain how his use of broadcast spectrum really merits the public trust. The same goes for other news outlets and cable providers. But before Murdoch croaks, I’d like to see him squirm.

<< cue theme song>>

 

Schneier on Security is one of my favorite non-chemistry blogs. The particular link here is to a post on the NSA and It’s apparent commandeering  of the internet for its own, opaque purposes. Bruce Schneier developed the Blowfish encryption algorithm.

While I have previously criticized Libertarianism and its peculiar conflation of civilization with Austrian economic thinking, I am enough of a civil libertarian to be deeply alarmed by post-911 security paranoia with its narrow readings on the 4th amendment and attending case-law.

Ask yourself, how much of your life do you want to be subject to structural snitch features that trigger silent alarms when your face is recognized in a building, when you called the front desk of a business or agency, or when you download particular information from the internet or just do keyword searches on Google?

You can bet that hordes of NSA folk as well as contractors are working feverishly on what else they can do with this metadata and location data accumulating in datacenters.

Many friends have said half joking that they feel sorry for spooks who have to sift through their chatter and insignificant browser searches. But what if an NSA spook were standing over their shoulder while they did it? How would they feel then? Maybe fellow citizens who approve of this kind of activity should be flagged for participation and the rest of us left alone. Would they feel the same about it?

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Power is as power does, or the fact of power is the act of power.

Just a reminder. In the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, what is important to understand is not that an emperor can be highly delusional. The real lesson directs your attention to the ease with which those around him facilitate his delusion.  This is an insidious condition that creeps in silently like a fog that soon envelops everyone. It takes a child-like innocence of perspective to see through it. Regrettably, child-like innocence is rarely encouraged in organizations.

Power is in the ability to allocate resources. A successful business person must excel at accumulating and centralizing the power of resource allocation.

Business power stems from centralized control by a few. Representative democratic power is granted by voters.  What is behind the fascination with setting up a businessman in a legislative or executive power position? Business is inherently non-democratic.

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