Friday, December 08, 2017


This is just a quicklink to a remarkable piece of news.

Eurelectric, the body that represents 3,500 of Europe's electric companies, has now committed to carbon-neutral generation of all of Europe's electricity by 2050 or before. They point out that this is a win-win decision, since electricity from wind and solar is rapidly becoming cheaper than electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, and of course pumps far less climate-destabilizing methane and CO2 into the atmosphere.

Wind farm in Romania, 2011
Credit: Sandri Alexandra

Given America's seemingly unbreakable, politically driven addiction to fossil fuels, the reporter's final comment is remarkably restrained:

"It is refreshing to see a regional commitment to clean electricity in Europe. Industry leaders in the US would do well to study the European approach and adjust their thinking accordingly."



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What would you think if you taught your child the rules of chess at breakfast and found that by lunchtime she had beaten the world champion? Awe? Parental pride? A bit of fear perhaps?

That's essentially what just happened at Google's DeepMind subsidiary in London. They created an ultra-powerful game-playing computer system called AlphaZero that implements a neural network capable of deep learning through reinforcement.

Unlike other chess-playing programs--which have outperformed humans since IBM's Deep Blue beat the human world champion, Gary Kasparov, in 1997--AlphaZero was not pre-programmed with any specialized knowledge or expertise about chess. It was simply given the rules of the game and allowed to learn by playing against itself.

Four hours later AlphaZero crushed the World Computer Champion, Stockfish, with 28 wins and zero losses in a 100-game tournament (the remaining games were ties).

 World Champion Gary Kasparov struggles against IBM's DeepBlue, 1997

British chess expert Colin McGurty sums up AlphaZero's achievement:

The AlphaZero algorithm developed by Google and DeepMind took just four hours of playing against itself to synthesise the chess knowledge of one and a half millennium and reach a level where it not only surpassed humans but crushed the reigning World Computer Champion Stockfish 28 wins to 0 in a 100-game match. All the brilliant stratagems and refinements that human programmers used to build chess engines have been outdone, and like Go players we can only marvel at a wholly new approach to the game.

Other chess experts describe AlphaZero's play as "divine," or "from another galaxy." 

As if one superhuman feat were not enough, the AlphaZero team used the same artificial intelligence (AI) system to tackle the games of Go and the Japanese chess game, Shogi. It took AlphaZero just two hours of play against itself to surge past Elmo, the Shogi Computer World Champion, and all of 8 hours to surpass AlphaGo (another DeepMind program), which itself dethroned the human Go champion, Ke Jie, earlier this year.

So, to summarize, in less than a day, starting as a blank slate knowing nothing more than the rules of the games, and simply by playing against itself, AlphaZero reached a superhuman level of play in three abstract games that have challenged humans for millennia. Not a bad day's work.

And just in case you're thinking that AlphaZero reached these superhuman levels simply by calculating faster than any other computer, that's far from the case.  It is blindingly fast compared to humans--for example searching 80 thousand chess positions per second, but it is tortise-slow compared to other chess-playing systems. Stockfish, which AlphaZero completely dominated, searches 70 million positions every second. The system's creators explain, "AlphaZero compensates for the lower number of evaluations by using its deep neural network to focus much more selectively on the most promising variations -- arguably a more 'human-like approach to search."

In recent years some very smart people including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned about the threat posed by out-of-control artificial intelligence. While the superhuman learning and game-playing of AlphaZero seem benign, and ubiquitous, mostly invisible AI applications help us every day in a huge variety of areas, there are red flags raised by robo-cops and soldiers, vital infrastructure managed by AI, increasingly capable and autonomous robots that may replace most workers, and the potential for super-intelligent AI creations that may not have the interests of humans at heart. AlphaZero, for example, could equally well learn to "play" at a superhuman level at politics, finance or war.

Gates and others emphasize that we need to figure this out before such intelligences emerge because once they do, like AlphaZero, they could leave us in the dust within a few hours.

So if your child became the world champion chess player after four hours of play, wouldn't you be scared? I would.

You can read the scientific paper describing AlphaZero's accomplishments here.
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Thursday, December 07, 2017

HOW CLEVER IS A CROW? -- New Caledonian crows carefully craft hooks

In Jean de La Fontaine's fable "Le Corbeau et le Renard" (The Crow and the Fox), it's Mr. Crow who plays the fool, tricked into dropping his morsel of cheese because of flattery from crafty Mr. Fox. However, if de La Fontaine had known about some eye-opening  recent research, he might have switched their roles. Crows, it seems, are nobody's fools.

It turns out that New Caledonian Crows not only use tools, as do many of their corvid cousins, but are the only animals other than humans who spontaneously make and use hooks. Although our ancestors started crafting stone tools more than 2.5 million years ago, it wasn't until about 25 thousand years ago that humans started to make hooks--initially for fishing.

 Goin' fishin'--a New Caledonian Crow uses a hook to snag insects
Credit: James St. Claire

Our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, also use tools, including hook-shaped twigs. However, unlike the New Caledonian Crows, which use their sharp beaks to carefully shape and trim twigs into deep hooks, chimpanzees don't modify the hook-shaped twigs they use. "We have recently discovered that chimpanzees routinely use naturally-hooked stems to fish for algae," says primate expert Christophe Boesch, "but they don't actively craft these hooks. The crows can reshape plant material with their pointed bills, which act like 'precision pliers', but this would be very difficult for chimpanzees with their large fingers."

 Chimpanzee using a twig to fish for termites
Credit: Valerie

The extra skill and effort the crows put into crafting their hooks pays off in how efficient they are at snagging bugs. "We suspected that tools with pronounced hooks are more efficient, and were able to confirm this in controlled experiments with wild-caught crows," says Christian Rutz, who led this research and has been studying New Caledonian crows for ten years. "The deeper the hook, the faster birds winkled bait from holes in wooden logs."

A month or two ago I saw a plain old American crow fly up to the peak of a multi-story building, land, and then let something drop from its beak. It turned out not to be a morsel of cheese but a walnut, which rolled down the slanted roof, picked up speed as it fell, and cracked open when it hit the pavement. The crow flapped his way down and snacked on the now-available seed. At the time I thought that this Mr. Crow must have dropped his prize by accident. But now, after reading this research, I'm willing to bet it was quite deliberate. Their brains may be small by our standards, but crows, it seems, make very good use of them.


You can find a link to the research report in Current Biology here.


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Tuesday, December 05, 2017


Busy office workers who spent just 20 fewer minutes per day sitting at their desks maintained more muscle mass and were healthier at the end of a year than their less-active peers. It appears that even a little exercise can go a long way towards staying healthy.

Get up from that desk!
Credit: Phil Whitehouse/Jonund 

Researchers in Finland studied 133 office workers participated in the one-year study. One group was encouraged to set goals and develop personal strategies aimed at spending less time sitting both at work and away. At the start of the study, the participants averaged 9.4 seated hours per day, as measured by accelerometers. The men and women who had set goals initially reduced their sitting time by an average of 21 minutes per day. Even at the end of one year, they were still spending an average of 8 more minutes per day on their feet.

Yet even those few minutes a day up and moving around continued to make a difference. Blood glucose levels, cardiovascular risk and lower-body muscle mass were all better than the more sedentary participants.

Arto Pesola, the study's lead author, points out that the increased activity levels carried over to participants' homes as well, where they could benefit participants and their families. "Parents may think at first that spending time with their children is away from their own physical exercise. However, that way they can reduce sitting time and show a good example to their offspring about a physically active lifestyle. This is motivating, and as shown in the study, may be beneficial for health in the long run."

As I've detailed in several previous posts, this study adds to a growing body of research that convincingly shows multiple physical and psychological benefits from exercise.

 I don't know about you, but I'm getting up from the computer right now!


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Saturday, December 02, 2017


Forget climate change, air pollution, the environment, or any other non-economic reasons for switching to an all-electric car. Even if all you're interested in is your personal bottom line, a new study in the UK, Japan, California and Texas shows that all-electric cars are now cheaper to own and operate than gasoline, diesel or hybrids.

The study, published in the journal Applied Energy tracked the total annual cost of ownership--TCO--in four major markets from 1997 through 2015. TCO includes depreciation, tax, insurance, maintenance and the cost of fuel or electricity. The differences were significant, with all-electric cars averaging more than $1000 per year less to own and operate than diesel, and close to $2000 per year less than gasoline powered cars over the last four years.

Tesla Model S at a Supercharger Station
Credit: Jusdafex
All-electric cars typically cost more than comparable gasoline or diesel models, depending on applicable subsidies, but more than made up for the difference because of lower maintenance and energy costs.

2016 Nissan Leaf being charged
Credit: Jakob Härter

Of course this doesn't mean that everyone is going to make their next car all-electric. Although lower-cost cars like the 100-mile range Nissan Leaf will work for some drivers, and high-end models like the Tesla Model S are attractive to others, there are few options in the vast mid-range market. And many potential buyers are waiting until electric cars have more range and can be charged faster and in more locations.

However, the study's authors point out, as electric vehicle production ramps up, prices are going down, and batteries are rapidly getting better and cheaper as well. "It is a really good news story," says James Tate, a transportation specialist at the University of Leeds, in the UK, and one of the study's authors. We couldn't agree more.


You can read the Guardian story on this subject here.


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Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Sex Sells!  The Ad man’s motto since modern advertising began has never been truer or more evident than in our latest “Cultural Moment” of coming to terms with sexual misconduct itself.    

Is it just coincidental that just as the most momentous tax shift in recent history is working its way through the halls of Congress, potentially affecting the entire economy and every American’s life for decades to come, the news is dominated with story after story of sexual misconduct by powerful men?

Sex sells because of both its attractive and repulsive qualities.  But its most notable quality at present is its tremendous power to distract.  Certainly the issues raised by overly aggressive or predatory behavior need to be vigorously aired and legal or social boundaries re-defined.  But with its magnetic public appeal, sex is dangerously drawing media and national attention away from other critical issues: in particular the egregious Republican effort to shift the tax burden from corporations and the already-wealthy to nearly everyone else.  

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain"
The Wizard of Oz, 1939
Credit: Creative Commons

The role that mainstream media might be playing in explaining and analyzing the tax “sausage” as it’s being made in unseemly haste in private party caucuses, without open hearings, serious debate or attempts to assemble a bipartisan coalition has somehow been superseded by the demands of reporting on the latest sexual harassment scandals.  

From Roy Moore to Harvey Weinstein to Al Franken and now Charlie Rose (with the specter of Donald Trump’s behavior looming in the background) sex has dominated both the news and the debate over national ethics and morals.  One result, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has pointedly noted is that because of their responsiveness to issues of sexism, it “feels as if liberal institutions are devouring themselves over sex while conservatives, unburdened by the pretense of caring about gender equality, blithely continue their misrule.”

This is the climate in which a massive, detailed and highly controversial tax bill which permanently cuts corporate taxes from 35% to 20% and ends the estate tax while greatly reducing, phasing out or eliminating middle class benefits such as deductions for medical costs, state and local taxes, school loans and mortgage interest is being rushed through Congress. Not to mention the recent approval of more than a trillion dollar addition to the national debt which seems miraculously to have left deficit hawks in the GOP unfazed!

All under the guise of tax reform—surely a topic worthy of everyone’s serious attention—but now being railroaded by the demands of major donors and a Senate rules deadline.

Donald Trump’s election and presidency, for complex reasons, has clearly allowed a number of previously repressed and unresolved national issues to rise to the surface, some largely symbolic such as the removal of Confederate statues, and others such as sexism and racism  painfully real.

Yet behind the scenes, and certainly taking advantage of the fortunate distractions provided by juicy sexual scandals, Trump’s tweets about black athletes disrespecting the flag, and border walls, powerful and very determined masters of the universe are moving to alter the basic economic ground on which we all stand.  Whether by design or coincidence, the explosive “cultural moment” provided by our current obsession with sexual wrongdoing may just create the necessary conditions to allow them to prevail.

Les Adler

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


According to the Institute for Policy Studies, three men--Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett--now own more wealth than the poorest 50 percent of the US population. That's three individuals versus more than 162 million.

Bill Gates (2003) by Remy Steinegger

To get a sense of the enormity of this inequality, let's represent the average wealth of those 162 million people--a bit more than $1500 per person--by someone six feet tall. Then Bill Gates--worth $89 billion--would stand over 66,000 miles tall in comparison--towering more than one-quarter of the way to the moon! Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO has done well this year; on this scale he'd tower 72,000 miles. They would both dwarf "poor" Warren Buffett, who would barely top 62,000 miles.

If we total up the wealth of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans we find that they own as much as the lower two-thirds of the American population, more than 200 million people, or 80 million households.

Most Americans don't begrudge rich people their wealth, believing rightly or wrongly that much of it was earned through talent, intelligence and hard work, and hoping that they too might someday join their ranks. However, they may be less forgiving when they realize that the ultra rich  leverage that wealth into near-total control over our political system and government. A recent study matched what many of us feel, showing that what most voters want simply doesn't count, while the demands of economic elites and well-funded special interest groups consistently win out in terms of legislation, policy and regulation.

Nor is there much reason to believe that the super rich take the needs of their poorer fellow-citizens into account as they groom candidates and influence elections, lawmakers and the executive branch of government. One can imagine that from the perspective of 72,000 miles, those 162 million people look like little more than grains of dust. Perhaps we should re-write "We the people . . ." to read "Wee the people . . ."

There are plenty of commentators, including many economists, who argue that this kind of inequality is inevitable, a necessary result of the grim laws of economics. That this is false can be seen by the fact that many countries--including well-off, highly developed nations such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands--share their wealth much more equitably than here in the US. It's clear that laws protecting workers and unions, curbing corporate abuses, and reining in financial speculation do make a difference, as do policies using tax revenues to support health, education and equal opportunity across ethnic, class and gender lines.

According to the World Economic Forum, the US ranks 23rd out of 30 developed countries in terms of "inclusive development"--a measure of how fairly income, health and opportunity are distributed. That means that 22 thriving countries do it better than we do.

Solving any problem first requires recognizing that the problem exists, then deciding that there are steps we can take to solve it. If the fact that three individuals have more wealth--and the power and influence that goes with it-- than 162 million of us doesn't set off alarm bells about our democracy, I don't know what could. Shall we wait until just one person has more wealth and power than 50 percent of us? 60 percent? 90 percent?

We may not be able to change the laws of economics, but we can change the laws, policies and practices that push millions of Americans into poverty and debt while showering more and more wealth on the already wealthy. A good start would be to defeat the current Republican tax "reform," which will further enrich the richest few at the expense of most of the rest of us, not just the poor, but also much of the middle class, seniors and students.


More on inequity at my post "Winner take all: 7 richest men own more than poorest 3.8 billion people."


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Sunday, October 22, 2017

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

The famous Milgram Experiments carried out at Yale in the early 1960’s and verified many times since then show that under the right conditions and given the overt or covert approval of authority figures, normally sane and rational people can carry out or allow others to engage in horrifying acts of aggression and cruelty towards their fellow human beings. One need look no further than current events in Myanmar involving the Rohingya minority, recent Sunni-Shiite atrocities in Syria and Iraq, Serbian attacks on Muslims in Bosnia or the Hutu massacres of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in the 1990’s to demonstrate the terrible destruction the right combination of conditions and leadership can provoke.

Donald Trump at a rally, May 5, 2016, Charleston, West Virginia. 

The question “Can it happen here?” is one which every American, regardless of party affiliation, political ideology or economic standing should be asking at this critical point in our national history. The alternative is to blindly assume that America is somehow exempt or immune from tides of history which have swept over so many other nations before us.

We have, for perhaps the first time, a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, ability to incite violent passions in significant portions of the population, lack of empathy towards minorities and vindictiveness toward those who stand against him significantly increase the possibility that, under the right conditions, this country as well could act out in a similarly destructive manner both at home and abroad.

The President has frequently demonstrated a willingness and even compulsion to assert his dominance by publicly humiliating and attacking members of his own Party and Administration—as well as gratuitously mocking and demeaning both his predecessors and political opponents. His seemingly boundless capacity for distorting and denying factual evidence while stirring up resentment toward vaguely-defined ‘others’, leaves little hope that he will observe any of the normally accepted rules of personal, social or political discourse or behavior.

By continually attacking the Press (“fake news”) for doing its job he has indicated either profound ignorance of or a deliberate effort to override Constitutional protections regarding freedom of speech and publication. In fact, even when his more cautious advisers have counseled restraint, he has acted as though restrictions on executive power were inconveniences to be ignored or disregarded rather than guidelines carefully designed to preserve the balance of powers necessary for democratic government.

Rather than seeking to understand and heal national or international divisions, President Trump revels in every opportunity to stir controversy and provoke passionate reactions, tweeting relentlessly about alleged ‘wars on Christmas,’ ‘wars on coal,’ ‘disrespect toward the flag;’ or demeaning a foreign leader as ‘Rocket Man’ while heightening tensions with Iran over a nuclear deal hammered-out by the US and multiple powers.

It is not difficult to imagine conditions under which a Trump-led administration would find it nearly irresistible to identify those with differing political interests, ideological beliefs and religious practices, as well as ethnic characteristics, not merely as legitimate opponents but as ‘enemies of the state,’ a term he has already dredged from what the New York Times has called a “Venomous Past.” A serious economic crisis such as that in 2007-2008; the outbreak of war in Asia; a damaging terrorist act on our homeland could provide the necessary excuse.  Each of these scenarios would heighten public polarization and facilitate a default to strong administrative action. Legal restraints would inevitably yield to aggressive policing behavior and the suppression of dissent. In such a moment of crisis, Congressional reaction would likely follow the President’s lead.

For the most part, the American political system has succeeded by containing differences--with the Civil War being the great exception—due ultimately to the recognition by those in power that dissent need not be perceived as disloyalty and that compromise is ultimately more powerful than winning at all cost.  Periods of enormous tension such as those during the “Red Scares” following World Wars I and II and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960’s and ‘70’s tested the system to, and at times, beyond its limits.  But it is this current test, occurring during a period of relative peace and prosperity but enormous cultural, technological and economic upheaval that may well provide its greatest challenge yet.

Never before has so much of our future fallen into the hands of a leader who seems unwilling, and perhaps psychologically unable to abide by either the formal or informal rules and standards of democratic governance.  Checks and balances are fine on paper, but, like paper, they can far-too-easily be blown away by tumultuous winds stirred by the unstable combination of crisis, unfettered passion and the authoritarian proclivities of a populist leader.

Les Adler


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Wednesday, October 18, 2017


You've probably read or heard about the latest breakthrough in gravitational-wave astronomy--the first detection to two neutron stars merging, with the added bonus of the first follow-on observations of the event across the entire electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves.

Artist's conception of neutron stars merging
Credit: NASA

With three gravitational-wave observatories online (see LIGO and VIRGO), observers were able to accurately triangulate the most recent burst of gravitational waves that rumbled past Earth on August 17. With a much smaller part of the sky to scan, astronomers were able to pin down the source of the event--the merger of two neutron stars in a distant galaxy producing a kilonova--and track its evolution through observations in gamma-rays, x-rays, visible light, infrared and radio waves. 

This unprecedented series of observations let astronomers compare the neutron-star merger to theoretical predictions in great detail, including proving that most of the elements heavier than iron--including gold, platinum and uranium-are forged in these collisions. They also provided new information about the accelerating expansion of the universe. In addition, it demonstates that astronomers now have a huge new window into the universe that promises a stream of surprises and new discoveries.

For great pictures, animations and a more in-depth description of this breakthrough and its implications, click here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I live in Santa Rosa, California. As you know, Santa Rosa, along with many other parts of California, is still reeling from the impact of raging wildfires.

A barn goes up in flames in Glen Ellen, California
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My wife and I are lucky--our house happens to be located a mile or two from where the firestorm stopped. We've spent several sleepless nights, bags packed and in our car, monitoring whether or not we would need to flee. But other than that, we have not been directly impacted by the fires.

Many people were not so lucky. This morning's paper lists 50,000 residents of our county--that's one out of every ten--under evacuation orders, 35 confirmed deaths, 235 people still missing, 5700 homes and businesses destroyed, and more than $1.2 billion in economic damage in Santa Rosa alone. Many of our friends and people we know have lost their homes, businesses or jobs.

We're all-too-used to reading about or seeing images of catastrophes somewhere else--floods in Bangladesh, drought in Australia, hurricanes battering Puerto Rico, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Perhaps we've been moved to a moment's empathy or pity, perhaps we make a donation to some aid agency, or perhaps we just shake our heads and move on.

It's different when it's here rather than there, in our home town rather than someone else's, harming our family or friends rather than strangers.

Our natural disaster, our catastrophe has brought several realizations home to me:

--It can happen here. None of us is immune. Here in Santa Rosa, it wasn't just the Journey's End mobile home park that was destroyed, it was also the middle-class Coffey Park neighborhood and the idyllic Fountaingrove neighborhood, home to many doctors, lawyers and other well-off citizens. Like the residents of Journey's End and Coffey Park, the residents of Fountaingrove had to desert their homes with little or no warning in the middle of the night as the unexpected firestorm blasted through, driven by 70 miles-per-hour winds. Some, many of them elderly or disabled, simply could not get out in time.

--It's real, and it hurts.  It's one thing to see struggling people on TV. It's very different when it's you spending hours hosing down your house and yard while hot embers fall from the sky, when it's you trying to decide what necessities to throw into the car, looking around your house wondering if you'll see it again, or you helping a desperate friend rescue a few precious things before the fire strikes again. It's different when the store you shopped in yesterday is gone today and the neighborhood you've visited a hundred times is a blackened wasteland.

--Ordinary, daily life is precious. It's trite to repeat that "you don't really know what you've got 'till it's gone," but it's also a profound truth. We may all strive to do or experience something extraordinary, have a peak experience, change the world, but in the end what's truly valuable is the everyday life of everyday people. When that's disrupted or lost, you suddenly realizes how precious it was.

We've experienced just one corner of one natural disaster. The dozens who have died, the thousands who've been displaced, represent just a tiny fraction of the estimated 65 million displaced persons and refugees in the world today. But even that enormous number pales in comparison to the number of people--people just like you and me--who are at risk from two existential threats--climate disruption and nuclear war.

I'm not going to argue the reality of either threat. I'll only point out that common sense should tell us that the number and intensity of the extreme climatic events that we're experiencing is far from normal, and that further destabilization of the climate could threaten any or all of us. And a moment's thought should be more than enough to remind us that even a "limited nuclear exchange" could result in misery or death for hundreds of millions of people.

The limited, local disaster I'm living through has brought home to me the preciousness--and fragility--of each of our lives. Multiplying the losses experienced here by millions is no longer unthinkable, but it is unacceptable.

I've been extremely impressed by the local leaders who have come to the fore in this disaster--the local and state fire officials, the sheriff and police officers, mayors and other elected officials. They have all been clear, direct, factual, and focused on responding to and resolving the crisis, step by step. Their efforts to protect lives, contain the fires, begin to bring them under control and now, line up the resources needed to rebuild, seem to be well coordinated and, as more resources have been marshaled, increasingly effective. I've been similarly impressed by how ordinary people have responded--rescuing and helping others, giving time, goods and money to help people who've had to evacuate or who have lost their homes, and showing great dignity and resilience in the face of disaster.

Unfortunately, the contrast with how our national leaders are dealing with the existential threats of climate disruption and nuclear war could not be greater. In both cases, actions by President Trump, his advisers and appointees, and Congress are making thinks worse rather than  better. Pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement is just the most blatant of the many steps Trump has taken to reverse global progress on the climate. And undermining the nuclear accord with Iran, and the belly-thumping battle between Trump and Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un are dramatically increasing the risk of a nuclear war.

The point of this commentary is to remind everyone that when it comes to the global risks from climate disruption or nuclear war, there is actually here, and they are actually us. People here in Santa Rosa took action as the flames approached, and most were able to save their lives and those of their loved ones. Government officials and agencies took coordinated action to limit the scope of the disaster. People at all levels did what what needed. We need our nation's leaders to act equally well.

We all need to take action now with respect to the threats of runaway climate change and nuclear war. Now, with every tool at our disposal, because when those fires come roaring out of the skies, it will simply be too late.

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Friday, September 22, 2017


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has now undone Obama-era regulations that protected campus victims of sexual assault, and Scott Pruitt just eviscerated Obama's Clean Power Plan. Those are just two pebbles in a bucketful of progressive changes implemented during the Obama administration that Trump, his appointees, and the current Republican-dominated Congress have erased or reversed, with more to come.

The list of Obama-era policies that have already been erased includes expansion of overtime pay, rules to reduce race-based pay differences, protections for women workers, rules to protect investors, a phase-out of private prisons, protections for voters, protections for the Arctic, fracking regulations, fuel-efficiency standards, and of course the Paris Climate Agreement and Obama's clean power plan. Next on the chopping block, the Iran nuclear deal.

The pattern is so clear that we think it's fair to say that a deep, underlying drive shared by Trump and his allies is to undo everything that Obama accomplished during his eight years as President, no matter the merits. Given that Trump kick-started his campaign by weaponizing the rumor that Obama was not born in the United States--birtherism--and so was not a legitimate President, it doesn't seem that far-fetched to infer that Trump and many of his supporters would be delighted simply to erase Obama, 1984-style, from the history books.

Ever helpful, here's a sample from the forthcoming edition of The Real True Americans: Fair and Balanced American History for Real American High School Students:

21-st Century American Presidents:

Bill Clinton, 1993-2001
George W. Bush, 2001-2009
Barry Whatshisname, 2009-2017
Donald Trump, 2017-

Barry Whatshisname
44th US President

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Just a quick link to an important piece by climatologist Michael Mann detailing the ways in which global warming and climate change added destructive power to Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey:

The factors Mann details include sea level rise (compounded by subsidence from oil drilling); warmer surface and deep waters in the Gulf which added to the energy/intensity of the storm, the storm surge it caused, and the amount of water it dumped on land; and the fact that it stalled over Texas, producing those all-time-record-breaking rainfall totals.

In the absence of meaningful action to control climate change, we're going to see a lot more of these "once-in-a-thousand-year" disasters.

One of thousands of rescues in the aftermath
of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey
Credit: Dept. of Defense

Thursday, August 24, 2017


With President Trump and North Korea's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un engaged in a nuclear-armed chest-thumping competition, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock now just 2 and a half minutes before midnight, the possibility that our civilization may annihilate itself is hard to deny. And that doesn't count the risks from climate change, biodiversity loss, runaway artificial intelligence and other human-caused developments.

The Doomsday Clock may tick for most technological civilizations
Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

If we're in this fix just 350 years after the start of the Scientific Revolution and just 7 decades into the Atomic Age, how much longer can we reasonably expect our vaunted but fragile civilization to last?

Not all that long, says Daniel Whitmire, a retired astrophysicist now teaching mathematics at the University of Arkansas. Whitmire bases his argument on one of the long-established principles of philosophy and science, the principle of mediocrity.

The principle of mediocrity makes the reasonable assumption that we're more likely to observe or experience common events than uncommon ones. This idea has helped us to recognize that Earth is not the center of the universe, that our solar system is just one among billions in our galaxy, and that the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

Whitmire notes that we are Earth's first technologically advanced species and that it's early in our possible technological evolution. If we are in fact typical of technological civilizations in general, that leads to two unhappy conclusions--technological civilizations don't last long before destroying themselves, and when they do, they take their planet's biosphere down with them.

To grasp Whitmire's reasoning, we need to think like a statistician, in terms of a distribution of technological civilizations with different lifespans. Imagine a big bowl full of marbles, each representing a technological civilization somewhere in our galaxy. So far, we've only gotten to reach into the bowl once, and out came our particular civilization. What can that one draw tell us about the rest?

Whitmire points out that if most technological civilizations last hundreds of thousands or millions of years, our few-hundred-year experience with technology would be very atypical. However, Whitmire calculates, if most technological civilizations last no more than a few thousand years, we would be typical, falling in the middle 95 percent of the distribution, although among the youngest.

The implication from the most likely distribution--most technological civilizations don't last very long, say 500 years or so.

Five hundred or a thousand years may seem like a long time from the perspective of a human lifespan, but it's extremely short compared to the age of the Earth and the Earth's biosphere. Whitmire notes that, left to itself, Earth's biosphere can be expected to survive for at least another billion years. If humans (or other technological species that might evolve here) went extinct, but didn't damage the biosphere in the process, there would be time for many subsequent civilizations to evolve. But that would again make us, as first-timers, atypical.

The implication--when technological civilizations die, they destroy their planet's biosphere, or at least degrade it to a level that doesn't give the planet enough time to evolve a second technological civilization. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second chances for planets that evolve technological civilizations.

In short, if we are typical, than other technological civilizations would, like us, be early in in their potential life-spans (implying a short lifespan in general), and be the first on their planet (implying no subsequent technological civilizations, and hence destroyed or massively degraded biospheres).

Whitmire concludes:

Our inferences regarding the fate of the typical technological species are based
on two observations and essentially one assumption. The observations are that
our technological species is (1) the first such species to evolve on Earth and
(2) early in its potential technological evolution. The assumption is that the
Principle of Mediocrity applies to the reference class of all extant technological
species. Given this assumption, the suggested inference is that the typical tech-
nological species has a short lifetime and that their extinction coincides with
the extinction of their planetary biosphere.

Of course, we can always hope that we're not just a typical technological civilization, but one that's smart enough not to annihilate ourselves along with Earth's biosphere. That would be great, but if we follow Whitmire's logic, the odds are against it.

You can access Whitmire's article in the International Journal of Astrobiology at this URL.


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Monday, August 21, 2017


The researchers who leaked the National Climate Assessment in early August did so out of fear that the Trump administration would censor or simply refuse to publish the report--the product of years of work by 13 federal agencies.

Trump has already proved them right by shutting down the advisory committee charged with evaluating and translating the assessment's scientific findings into action.

It's not as though action on climate change isn't urgently needed--the assessment found that temperatures are rising rapidly, especially in the western US and the northern Great Plains; the Atlantic seaboard can expect more destructive hurricanes; California can expect more droughts; the Northeast can expect more deluges and floods; coastal cities will suffer more flooding as sea levels rise; and the risk of irreversible climate tipping points is growing.

Hurricane Isabel hits East Coast of US, 2003
Credit: Wikipedia
With Trump in the White House (or at Mar-a-Lago), and Scott Pruitt in charge of the EPA, the US will not just be ignoring climate change, it will be moving full speed in reverse.


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Sunday, August 20, 2017


Here's a quicklink to a Cleantechnia,com story about how South Miami is coming to its senses about global warming, climate change and, especially, the region's risk from rising sea levels and storm surges. It's the first city outside of California to mandate solar panels on all new homes.

Tidal flooding on a sunny day, Miami, 2016
Credit: B137

While our leaders at the federal level continue to march backwards with respect to climate change and its impacts, cities like South Miami and states like California and New York are, of necessity, taking the lead.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Climate scientists have been concerned about the risks from rising sea levels for nearly 50 years.

That a warming climate will raise sea levels makes intuitive sense--water, including all the water in the world's oceans, expands as it warms, and melt water from glaciers, ice sheets and the Antarcitc ice cap will of course end up in the oceans.

Although the pace of sea level rise seems small, on the order of a millimeter per year, its impact is multiplied by higher tides, stronger storm surges, sea-level-rise hotspots, and by the fact that 634 million people, close to ten percent of the world's population, live in low-lying coastal areas. The US is among the top ten countries with large numbers of people at risk from sea-level rise.

Pinning down the rate of sea level rise has proved to be challenging (see "Sea level measurement" at this URL). Now, however, a team of researchers has used sophisticated statistical techniques to deal systematically with the sources of uncertainty in different sea level data sets. "This likely is the first time a group of statisticians have had really close examination of sea level data," says Andrew Parnell, at University College Dublin.

Their approach allowed them to trace sea level changes over the past 2000 years, with increasing accuracy as more, and more accurate, data have become available in recent decades.

The group found that from 1 AD through 1800 AD, global sea levels rose by much less than one millimeter per year. They began to rise more rapidly at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and are currently not just rising, but rising faster and faster. They estimate that globally the rate is now 1.7 millimeter per year.

"Some people argue that sea levels are not rising," says Parnell. "We are showing them that sea levels are not only rising, but accelerating.

In terms of potential impacts, the East Coast of the US is at particularly high risk. It happens to be one of the sea level rise hotspots. For example, sea level near New York City is rising by 3 millimeters per year, putting more than $25 billion of infrastructure at risk.

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina
September 11, 2005
Source: NOAA
Author: Lieut. Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Corps, NMAO/AOC

Parnell and his colleagues presented their new findings at the 2017 Joint Statistical Meetings, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017


In his prescient novel, 1984, George Orwell introduced the world to Newspeak, a minimized and simplified revision of English designed to make nuanced, reasoned, independent thought impossible.

Inspired by our current president and his climate-change denial, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)--the agency whose mission is to guide and enhance American agriculture, conserve and improve the rural environment, and help feed America and the world--has decided to outlaw phrases such as "climate change," "climate change adaptation," "reduce greenhouse gases," and "sequester carbon." Newspeak is alive and well at the USDA.

Flooding in New Orleans--yet again

Those now-forbidden terms are to be replaced in official communication by what Orwell would call "goodthink"--terms approved by the all-powerful Party. "Climate change" becomes "weather extremes" or "intense weather events," "climate change adaptation" becomes "resilience to weather extremes," while "reduce greenhouse gases" and "sequester carbon" become "build soil organic matter" or the mind-numbing "increase nutrient use efficiency."

Wildfire, Black Forest, Colorado, June 12, 2013
Credit: DoD--photo by Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt, U.S. Air Force

In Oldspeak--plain old English--it's at least possible to think and speak clearly about the global problem of climate change and ways to minimize or adapt to it. But, in Newspeak, in Trump's Department of Agriculture, that's now a thoughtcrime, or, better yet, simply unthinkable.

The flash drought that's currently decimating the high plains' wheat crop is simply an isolated weather extreme. It can't be linked to the raging wildfires in the Pacific Northwestflooding in New Orleans, the fact that Virginia's Tangier Island is washing away or that Death Valley just experienced the hottest month ever measured anywhere on Earth. The concept that ties these "weather extremes" together no longer exists, at least at the USDA.

You can see this in action at the EPA, where scientists explaining how climate change has added to the destructive power of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey are being accused of politicizing the storm. In other words, understanding is politicizing. Remaining ignorant is the right thing to do.

 Credit: Stephen Bettany

One of the three guiding slogans of the Party in 1984 was "Ignorance is Strength." If that's true, Trump's USDA is certainly flexing its muscles.


You can read environmentalist Bill McKibben's comments  on this issue here.


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