Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lend An Ear For Science!

Today I lent my ear to science. Luckily for me, science gave it back.

I've been a bigtime fan of science ever since I read Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Sciences during Prayer Period at St. Edward's (which I justified to myself as learning about God's creation, or something. Reading books of prayer just put me to sleep, so this must have been more holy, or something. Just to be sure I didn't get in trouble, I always had a holy card bookmark ready to obscure the title, and I flicked through anything with equations, something which I still have an unfortunate tendancy to do, which was no help at all in college calculus. But I digress...)

Not having a head for science, I was happy to find a way I can contribute and also have a bit of fun: I volunteer as a health person in medical studies. The easiest way it to set my FireFox page scanner to alert me when there's anything new at University of Washington Health Sciences Research Studies Seeking Volunteers, although I've also done studies at a few other places, such as the local VA hospital.

Today I put in an easy hour at the UW Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences, basically being calibrated as a more-or-less healthy volunteer. I got a free hearing screen out of it, and they got another body (mine!) to dunk in their pool the next time they have a study. Everybody wins!

The screeners were a couple of graduate student (one enthusiastic young man, who vanished into an observation booth, and one cheerful young woman who was apparently learning how to do the screening under the gentle supervision of a motherly instructor. The instructor was probably about my age, yet I don't feel "fatherly"; some principle of General and Special Age Relativity is indicated.

The hearing screening consisted of listening for tones or spoken words through earphones. I found it very interesting that my instinctive reaction to tones different from that of to words; if I was not sure that I heard very faint tones, I basically didn't care but if it was a word that was just as faint, I felt disappointed if I could not interpret it into some word. It's irrational, but there you have it.

It was interesting observing the screener and the instructor work through a couple of problems that naturally arose (humans being nonuniform test subjects, and instrumentation being naturally perverse.) There were issues such as the proper equipment to use with ears so heavily laden with wax as mine, but the most interesting one involved the device that measured the something-or-other of my middle ear. It had some sort of plug for my ear opening, and getting a tight fit was complicated; I don't know whether my earholes are a nonstandard shape or what, but it was interesting to watch (or more properly, "hear") them work through the problem. I was especially intrigued when the instructor said, "This is for a reason I will explain later", since I will forever be wondering what the reason for what-ever-it-was may be. Perhaps I'll invent something and make a story!

At any rate, it was an hour well spent; I now have test results to take to my physician for a consult about a minor hearing loss in one ear at certain frequencies. I have the satisfaction of having contributed a tiny grain of sand to the edifice of health sciences. And I have the pleasure of encouraging you to lend your own ear, or other body part, to science!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

5 Easy Things President Obama Could Do to Improve the State of our Union

America needs to get working again, but we're suffering from a huge logjam in the Senate, where the Republicans block everything and the Democrats let them get away with it; meanwhile the President looks on in mock helplessness.

I say "mock helplessness" because, of course, the President is not helpless. His predecessor lead our nation into several disasters but at least he was unafraid to use his powers. It's time for THIS President to do a few things that would help our nation without requiring Congressional action.

Imagine his State of the Union Address containing the following lines:

  • Cut Prescription Drug Prices: "Under the priciple of Equal Justice Under Law, I find it unconstitutional to permit drug manufacturers to make their drugs abroad and bring them here, but to prevent individuals from importing the very same thing. As head of the Executive Branch, I have discretion to decide where to put our limited law-enforcement resources, and I find that prosecuting individual Americans who wish only to stay alive is insane. Therefore I am ordering every agency of the Federal Government not to investigate nor to prosecute any individual American citizen who brings legal, life-saving medicines into our country.

  • Bring Back Exported Jobs: "Using my discretion as Commander-in-Chief, I am directing the Pentagon to locate domestic sources for clothing and equipment used by our military. Too many of the computers vital to our national defense, and even the very uniforms our servicemembers wear into combat, are made by our competitors or by those who shelter under our defense umbrella. It does not make sense that we should ask our troops to protect those who are profiting off us, and it weakens our national security for our economy to be crippled by the export of jobs. The families of our troops need the work more do than our foreign friends and adversaries."

  • Regain Control of the Federal Reserve: "The control of our money supply is critical to everything we do, yet it currently resides in a federally-chartered but private organization called the Federal Reserve. It is our money and our charter; we will audit it immediately. If the Fed resists the audit, we can simply revoke their charter and go back to letting the Treasury Department create our money money, as our Constitution specifies."

  • End Expensive Mercenary Contracts: "The use of mercenaries to guard our embassies and perform other tasks customarily performed by our armed forces is extremely expensive. In addition, mercenary armies recruit some of our most skillful troops by offering insanely high wages. Therefore, no new contracts will be issued to mercenaries, and we will end existing contracts as soon as possible, saving the American taxpayer billions of dollars while putting America's security back in the hands of our Constitutionally-authorized Armed Forces.

  • Audit the Big Fish, Not The Small: "Over the last decade, the IRS has changed its audit procedures to nearly ignore the wealthy and to target working class and the poor. This is at best irrational; any businessman knows that you should invest limited audit resources where the dollar amounts of recovery are likely to be higher; therefore I am ordering the IRS to make the likelihood of audit proportionate to wealth and/or income. Incidentally, all members of my Cabinet, as well as myself and the Vice-President, and all members of Congress, will be audited on a regular basis, not because we have anything to hide, but solely to increase the confidence of the American people. We shouldn't ask them to go through anything we would not."

  • Fill Vacancies: "Congress has refused to give an up-or-down vote on numerous executive branch officers, most notably the head of the Transportation Safety Administration. In my capacity as Commander-in-Chief, I find this failure to be a grave dereliction of Congress's Constitutional duty; whether Congress votes up or down is not an issue, but refusing to vote at all is hampering our national security. Fortunately, our Constitution provides a remedy. I am putting Congress on notice that the next time they recess, I will give a recess appointment to certain candidate for which Congress has refused to vote. My predecessor did this, so I don't want to hear any partisan wailing;  if Congress won't act, I must."
Most of these ideas would cut costs either to the government or directly to the taxpayers, and even Pentagon procurement reform would show a gain to our nation because any additional costs would be in the form of wages paid to American workers. None of these would require Congressional action since they concern the execution of existing law, not the making of new laws.

Some may be challenged in court; for example, the WTO may attack Pentagon procurement reform.

I say: Bring It On! The court cases could be dragged out for a decade, and we need the jobs now.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Coffee Cup Love!

Back when I was just another cubicle drone, I guzzled so many cups of coffee, latte, mochas, and even carmel machiattos with little thought for tomorrow. The money I poured into them and the paper cups they were poured into are gone.

If you spend part of your life making money, and then waste that money, are you not making a little suicide?  Br-r-r-r-r-r!

Years ago, I was ejected from the world of wage-slavery (much against my will!) which compelled me to re-think everything. I found that I could make a decent coffee/latte/mocha, and at a greatly reduced price. I didn't need a throwaway cup either. Every thriftstore has a shelf of them for fifty cents or a dollar or possibly, for a very fancy one, $1.50. Why am I paying twice for a paper cup (once to acquire the cup, once indirectly from the environmental costs of disposiing of it?) when I can have a much better cup at a lesser cost, so long as I re-use it?

I was reminded of this recently by my bloggy friend Reduce Footprints' most recent Change the World Wednesday challenge:
"This week only use reusable mugs/glasses. Yep ... for seven whole days, refuse anything that isn't reusable. Bring your own mug to your favorite coffee shop ... haul your own glass to the soda dispenser at the corner convenience store ... carry your own mug/glass to fast-food restaurants. If a drink comes in something that will be tossed out ... either don't buy it or use your own vessel." 
This is something I've been doing for quite a while, so let me offer a few things I've discovered along the way.

  • Splurge on several stainless steel cups! Live Large! Get 2 or even 3 thrift-store travel mugs, so that you are never without one handy. They're cheap, and your thrift store purchases go to a charity you'd want to support anyway. (My favorite is the Mercer Island Thrift Shop ) While buying them new would only encourage the production of useless cr@p (imported in an orgy of local job destruction), this consideration does not apply to 2nd-hand items; in essence, we're mining an existing pile o'cr@p to extra usable materials, creating local jobs in the thrift store's intake area. I avoid the plastic and aluminum cups; while some people say they are safe, I can taste the difference, which suggests to me there is something there I don't want in my body.
  • Reuse anything washable. We have a special box for party supplies, such as a stack of plastic cups, forks and spoons. I suppose you're supposed to use them once and then throw them away, but I've discovered that plastic actually washes pretty easy, and can be reused quite a lot.
  • Compost paper cups. If you end up with a paper cup anyway ( happens...) give it a 2nd life. Here in Seattle, they can be put in the compost bin (a separate container from ordinary recyclables) but now that we have a yard, I prefer to tear them up and compost them myself (every yard needs a little compost pile, out of the way, in the back; not only does it reduce your waste stream, it generates usable soil with which to refresh your yard!)

I do love my coffee! and I love being in a committed relationship with real, not paper, coffee cups.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Storms of My Grandchildren" - Grandpa Hansen Tells Us What We Don't Wanna Hear

A good doctor tells you things you need to hear, but don't want to hear.

In "Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity" Dr. James C. Hansen tells us things we don't want to hear, but need to know:
  • What is the science and the danger of Global Warming?
  • Why are our politicians failing to solve the problem?
  • What technical solutions will work?
Don't worry - there is something in here for everyone to dislike! That's why it's so valuable; like the best kind of doctor, Hansen is not pandering to our wishes.

This book tries to bridge the gap between science and politics in an honest and forthright way. Some readers may be put off by Hansen's style; he hasn't wasted effort grinding off his human touches, but frankly, I like seeing that his primary motivations for getting out of the science lab (that he obviously loves) into the conference rooms of politician (that he obviously dislikes) is simple, human love for his grandchildren. There's nothing wrong with that; in fact it's healthy. People who doesn't care about the fate of their children's children are too crazy to trust with major decisions.

While much of this book includes interesting technical discussion of the science of global warming, that topic is reported in too many other places to note here. It was good to learn more about our problems with aerosols and methane, but I enjoyed Hansen's tech talk mostly as a way to establish is bona fides on other matters.

Hansen offers unique insights on a key question: why are we and our politicians not caring enough for our grandchildren to preserve them from runaway global warming?

Hansen offers a answer from his own experiences. In one telling example, Hansen debated Global Warming Denier Richard Lindzen (famous for expressing scepticism that cigarettes cause cancer) in front of members of the Bush Administration Cabinet. Like a good, fact-based scientist, Hansen cited a source for his first factual assertion in the debate. Lindzen promptly rebuts the facts by mocking the source as being "basically a newspaper." Lindzen and the politicians have a good laugh and the factual basis of the claim is ignored; everyone knows how unreliable newspapers are! The laughing boys don't care that this "newspaper" is "MIT Tech Talk"; the facts of the claim are irrelevant; what matters is that their courtier told a joke and the matter is decided in favor of their political and financial interests.

In the battle between jocks and science nerds, the science nerds get the wedgie every time. This may be o.k. in high school, but it's a hell of a way to plan for the future!

Let us not comfort ourselves with the fiction that this is a phenomenon of the Bush Administration only. When we turn to the question of what technical solutions will solve the problem, we find that the current Administration just does not get it either.

I started this book with strong feelings in favor of limiting carbon through a cap-and-trade system, in addition to reforestation and green power such as solar, wind, tidal and conservation. Hansen argues convincingly that these, while mostly helpful, won't be enough; let's say green energy sources replace 50% of our coal and oil use - what are we going to do about the OTHER 50%? We are ALREADY over the safe limit; we need to stop adding carbon to our atmosphere, and this is not going to happen without a big replacement source of energy. Billions of people around the world who don't have a decent standard of living are going to keep building coal plants unless we offer an alternative. Clean-coal technology is inherently expensive; something 25% of a plant's economic output would go into sequestering the carbon, which offers huge economic incentives to cheat.

Cap-and-trade, in Hansen's view, is especially perverse not only because it continues to raise CO2 levels but also because it installs economic disencentives for the entire economy to cut carbon. (If you invent a great new carbon-free technology, it can have zero impact on carbon emissions because whereever you install it will simply sell its carbon credits somewhere else.) Hansen properly ignores wishful solutions, such as practical nuclear fusion, orbiting solar power stations, etc and so forth, which might work if we had the technology but we don't.

Hansen offers two elements of a comprehensive solution. The first is a "fee-and-dividend" plan, in which we tax carbon pollution and (!this is key!) send the proceeds directly to American citizens. This differs from "carbon tax" because the government doesn't get to keep the money. These rebate checks would cover any price increases for items that pollute a lot of carbon, such as airline tickets or electricity from coal. In my opinion, this is a very logical plan, since people who burn a lot of carbon would end up paying for their pollution; at present, carbon pollution is an externality, similar to littering or pouring toxic waste into rivers. People who want to be responsible are disadvantaged economically because irresponsible people can operate cheap and dirty; "fee-and-dividend" frees consumers from the burden of ending our inadvertant carbon pollution. Furthermore: the temptation of the government to use the carbon fees for other purpose is eliminated.

The second element bothers many long-time environmentalists such as myself: to build many 4th-generation nuclear "breeder" reactors. While I can't explain the technical details, the key point is that these take our existing nuclear waste, that has been so hard to find a permanent repository for, and converts it to electricity with no added carbon, not incidentally leaving us with a much smaller amount of nuclear waste.

I don't want to hear about nukes. I have been a nuclear fission sceptic since the 1970s because of the dangers of operational safety and waste disposal. But we have to be grown-ups about this: Hansen persuasively argues that operational safety can be handled (Chernobyl happened in the absence of a containment vessel); breeder reactors actually reduce our existing nuclear waste problem; and above all, we now know that global warming is a greater threat than nuclear power. planet with one Chernobyl every 40 years will support human life better than a radiation-free hothouse Earth. 

Let me be clear: the nuclear power earned grave suspicion from those who think about the world we leave the next generation, but the game has changed. I would prefer that we have neither global warming nor nuclear fission, but because Hansen's conclusions are so contrary to my preferences, I find them all the more reliable.

It is unfortunate that too many of our politicians prefer the comforting message of courtier-scientists ("All is well!") instead of the solidly scientific, but uncomfortable, diagnosis of Dr. Hansen and the rest. If we are unwilling to take Dr. Hansen's unpleasant medicine for our own sake, will we do it for our children's children?