Wednesday, December 31, 2008

LIBOR-ing through the Bailout: The trend watch continues

So, here's the latest LIBOR trend graph from I ran it back to 2005, and shaded in the current recession. As a performance measure, it confirms what we hear in the MSM nearly daily - banks are not lending to each other because LIBOR (which appears to rise in times of increasing economic activity) is remaining low. Infact, LIBOR is still lower in all 4 categories then it was 3 years ago. SOme bailout, huh?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It's the End of Year as we know it - and liberals feel fine?

As you know if you read the teaser below, you know that I'm closing out the year in a bit of a stew. Seems that, while I am supposed to be all atwitter about Mr. Obama's election (especially with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate), I am still uneasy. You see, Mr. Obama, for all his change, is still a centerist politician. he's not a traditional liberal Democrat. Which begs the question - does America really need a liberal antidote to ultra right (or even moderate) Conservatives? And if we do, how to we make it a reality?

The "common wisdom" in DC is that we don't. After all, these supposedly learned persons will say, the Nation began to move Right with Nixon. We swung farther that way with Reagan and Bush I. Clinton was no real liberal, and Bush II just took the pendulum too far. Mr. Obama, they will close, is just setting things back. He'll regulate business (but only just so much); he'll keep the bank bailout in place (and with few requirements of those banks); he'll get the economy going again with big infrastructure spending which will also be good for business.

But will it be good for workers? Will you and I - getting up each day, going to work, paying taxes, playing with our kids - will we really benefit from Mr. Obama's Change We Can Believe In?

Cynical? Perhaps. But as a liberal who has wandered about in the political wasteland, I think I am entitled to a little cynacism. And, as a true liberal, I am skeptical that Mr. Obama, even with a Democratic majority, will infact get us back to a more liberal country. You see, he has a lot to do - restoring the rights eliminated by the Patriot Act; closing Guantanimo Bay; repealing all the last minute Bush II evnironmental and health roll-backs; and then there is the minor issue of keeping the economy from collapsing further. its a tall order.

I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Over at Mike's place, I ask a burning question for liberals these days. It's a teaser, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More Grumbine Science: Science and consensus

Over at his Blog, colleague Bob Grumbine has an excellent treatise on what consensus is and isn't in science. I suggest you all read it. Makes framing easier, at least for climate issues.

More Grumbine Science: Science and consensus

Monday, December 15, 2008

What the Auto Bailout Really means, and why it may be a BAD deal!

If you've been following the news lately, you know that the CEO's of Ford, GM and Chrysler have been to Capitol Hill (twice) to ask for a financial baiout from Congress. The numbers have varied, but add to between $15 Billion and $25 Billion. This on top of the $700 Billion set aside for banks and financial institutions by Congress with the creation of TARP.

So, do the auto makers really need this money? Well, one philosophical argument says that they do, because it preserves American manufacturing in the face of foreign car companies. Never mind that The "Big Three" were too slow to adjust to a changing world, and continued to produce SUVs and pickups after the others had gone smaller again. While no one can claim Toyota or Honda or BMW are perfect tea leave readers, they aopear to be more nimble in terms of changing their manufacturing plan and sales pitches. It turns out that the American three were trying to force consumers to buy into the continued upswinging bubble, even though consumers had already figured out they needed smaller, more efficient transportation.

All that aside, I have to wonder how much a complete shut down of the auto makers will really hurt the American economy. As a scientist, I answer the questions by going to the numbers. Googling on auto industry employment, I find that both the auto industry and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are in agreement. It seems that about 190,000 Americans are actually employed making the cars in questions. Another 777,000 work in suppliers and ancillary support industries. There are 1,235,000 or so who actually sell the cars and trucks once produced (though many of these are part time gigs).

So adding it up, we get about 2.2 million people working in the auto industry. Seems like a lot of people. Yet the current unemployment rate (November 2008) is 6.7% or approximately 10.3 million people. That is up, by 1.7% or 2.7 Million people from December 2007.

If I've done the math right, the auto workers would add another 1.4% to that unemployment rate, driving it to 8.1%. TO put it in context, we went over 8% unemployment between 1977 and 1978; and then again between 1982 and 1985. That, by the way, is a far cry from the 25% and higher unemployment experienced by America in the Great Depression.

So we have a situation wher ethe impacts to the economy aren't going to be as bad as we keep being led to believe. Why is that? Partly its idealogy, partly its the MSM's need to have a controversy to report on. I also suspect, like so many other things, it has to do with American's increasing disconnect from the things, like farming and manufacturing, that underlie our economy.

Should we bail them out? Not if the lax controls that were put in place for TARP are applied here. Giving anyone else my tax dollars wihtout ensuring they do what is right for America is not something I can support. We as a antaion have done it twice in my life time - once with Chrysler in 1979 (!) and once following the S&L crisis. The opinions of the Social Darwinists in the Bush Administration not withstanding, we can do it again.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

LIBOR-ing through the bailout!

The London Interbank Overnight Rate (LIBOR) is supposed to be the definitive proof as to whether the credit markets are unfrozen. Over and over again, we have seen LIBOR touted as the bellweather for our “bailout” program. Give the banks enough money, the mantra says, and they will start lending to each other again. Once they do, credit markets will open up, and all the economic problems we are currently facing will go away. Business will be able to get loans again, consumers will be able to get loans again, and companies will be able to go into bankruptcy because they will be able to get debtor in possession financing again as they restructure. LIBOR will thus go up, because banks will be willing to lend to each other again. In other words, LIBOR is a performance measure for the functioning of the bank and bank to business lending portion of global financial systems.

I know a few things about performance measurement – it’s one of two non-scientific things I do as part of my job. Measuring how a system of discrete things, entities, people or agencies is working is not easy, and it does not lend itself well to the export of performance measurement schemes from one sector to another. Just ask any federal agency that is required to measure efficiency in terms of the increase in X units/percent of _________ created/enhanced/performed/completed for $Y Million under the federal PART rating scheme.

So when LIBOR was talked about as a performance measure to see if the bailout was working, I jumped on it. Granted, many of the best measures will be long term (like how well do banks do in keeping away from what we now call toxic mortgages), but in the short term, LIBOR seems better then the stock market.

All good things, right? Then why is LIBOR down around 29 % of its value 18 months ago? We’ve pumped $250 Billion into the banking and finance sectors since Congress authorized the bailout – which should have opened up credit markets and gotten lending going again. But it hasn’t. LIBOR’s wild ride between the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Treasury Secretary Paulson’s announcement that toxic assets won’t be bought proves it. And then, along come the auto makers to beg for what are essentially bridge loans to get them through tough times so they don’t have to declare bankruptcy. Add to that the CITIbank bailout proposed today, and I expect to see it go even lower based on its performance over the last two years.

So what does all this mean? Well, I think it means that the Treasuries plan NOT to buy toxic assets, but prop up failing financial institutions with toxic securities (or their underlying assets) is going to be a dismal failure. CITIBank is failing because it can’t get rid of it’s bad debt without writing off so much money that it will loose what little place it has in world financial markets. GM is failing for many reasons, but it floors me that GMAC’s mortgage unit (which I believe it sold off a few months ago) is not being pointed to as the money sucking leech that brought the company down. And like it or not, those toxic securities are still on the books of a number of banks, hedge funds, and other financial institutions. And as long as they are, LIBOR won’t go back up no matter how much money Treasury pumps into the system.

You see, while it may have surprised Alan Greenspan, it doesn’t surprise me that each bank put its survival and its profits ahead of the survival of the whole sector. They still are, mostly because no one – not Treasury, not Congress, not their corporate stockholders – is exacting a price from these banks for their bad decisions. Granted, those decisions were often made in response to policies run forth by both political parties over the last 15 years. But it is still no excuse. There is no moral hazard when you deregulate an industry or related industries, and then loan them money to cover for losses from taking advantage of those decisions.

So what to do? First, let’s keep measuring performance by LIBOR. IT shows a true picture (or as true as we can get) of how the financial system is functioning. And let’s get federal auditors going on sorting out those toxic securities. If we spent some of the bailout money to temporarily detail the thousands of federal auditors and contracts and financial specialists to review the books of each and every financial institution (and gave them IT support), my guess is that we would know in 3-4 months who owns what, and which debt is good and which debt is bad. Then the feds could help those with bad debt restructure. Those who just made bad decisions, failed to plan for the future, or entered into contracts that no longer work? We have courts and judges to handle that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Updating my Universe

AFter being away to do some real world things - like paint my living room and watch election returns, I'm now firmly back to more blogging. Hopefully I'll be able to get my production up here, as well as the othe rplaces I guest blog.

Meanwhile, I've added three new connections to my list of Other People I Like. I have to confess that I am not a fan of long blog rolls on a blog. I know folks who have lots of time - or get paid - to read and respond to lots of other bloggers. I'm not one of them. So I keep my blog rolling to a minimum, and I select sites to add that I really like and that I actually interact with.

So First, let me introduce Progressive Conservative. PC is one of the few right leaning blogs I read for one simple reason. While PC and I disagree, he is always civil to me, welcoming of my interaction, and willing to start from the stand point that liberals and conservatives have differences of policy, but aren't bad people. I encourage you to read his stuff.

Second, but no less important is The Science Cheerleader. Darlene was actually a cheerleader, is now a science advocate, and also makes a great lunch companion. She is really involved in actions to increase citizen involvement in science, and I can't wait to see what she tunrs up.

Next, I add Glenn Greenwald over at Yes he's liberal, but he's also civil and forthright.

Finally, I have linked to a particluar post from "From so small a beginning." Its author summarizes the need for science literacy far ebtter then anyone else I have seen.

Check these folks out. Read what they have to say, and think about it. Your world will be enlarged, I guarantee it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Let's go to the numbers!

Over at More Grumbine Science colleague Robert G. has an excellent discussion of precision in data, and how it can often be driven too far. This is an especailly prescient thing for us scientists types to pay attention to in an election season, especially sinmce we get bombarded more an dmore by "figures" and "numbers" that purport to tell us somethign about this or that candidate.

Excess precision, and manipulation of statistics, gets all the more interesting when you read Darrell Huff's How to Lie With Statistics. I owe Robert a huge Hat Tip for that one as well, though if you blow by his first paragraph, you'll probably miss the reference.

After reading the little tome, and surviving a graduate minor in statistics along the way to my M.S., I have to admit taht I'm having a lot of fun with statistics this campaign. I leave it to others to dig into the facts - I just don't have that kind of time. INstead, I'm focusing on looking hard at the analyses of the numbers, and making sure that when I hear inaccuracies bandied about, I correct them. I also strive to tell folks why a number i sincorrect, becuase I'm firmly convinced that too few Americans are sophisticated enough to figure out the methodological twists themselves. Of course, having said that, I'm sure I'll be accused of being a liberal elitist.

Take, for instance, the often repeated and analysed claim that Sen. Obama voted to raise taxes 94 times. By now, many outlets have noted that the vote tally actually consisted of 23 votes against tax cuts, 7 votes to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations, and 17 other votes were on 7 bills, mostly to amend them in one way or another. Bottom line - yes tehre wer e94 votes, but no, they don't add up to 94 seperate actions to raise taxes.

How is this lying with statistics you ask? Well, for starters, we are never told what the universe of Sen. Obama's votes is. Lookign it up through Google, we find that since taking office, the Senator has had the chance to vote on 1299 actions befor ethe Senate. He has, interestingly, missed 314 of those. That percentage, interestingly, didn;t get very big until Q2 of 2007 - once the Presidentail campaign began in earnest. So even if we looked at the "94" votes as separate legislative actions (which they are not), they would only be 7.23% of Sen. Obama's record. Worse yet, fo the 94 votes in question, 24.5 % were against tax cuts, which means that 1/4 of the time Sen. Obama was being . . . . wait for it . . . . . a Democrat who believes in taxing people for the services they enjoy from the federal government. How sad that Republicans, supposedly the "Conservative" arm of our political system, still think that forcing people to pay fo rthe services they are provided makes you a "tax and spend" liberal.

My point in all this is that modern campaigns are amazing whizzing machines at chruning out numerical assaults on opponents. Sure, out of context, 94 votes to "raise taxes" wounds bad. But when you get into the numbers, and you do some further testing, they tend to break down. Sort of like Huff's story about the "average Yale Man" making $27,000. huff's point - which Ithink you should read in his book, is that without knowing whether "average" refers to the mean, the median, or the mode, you can't really tell what that $27,000 actually means. Sounds a lot like the numbers game the campaigns are playing, and getting away with.

Well, I tried . . .

to blog regularly that is, but I don't seem to be making it. I suspec that lack of regular blogging occurs . . . regulalrly . . . mostly because we all have these pesky lives to live. Mine has been increasingly busy of late, but now that I'm sequestered away from home for a week - and thus not distracted by so may other pressing needs - I hope you will stay tuned for more output.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Face of Modern Science?

Elsewhere at the Intersection, Sheril has spent a lot of time writing about women in science, both from her professional perspective, and as an observer of the opportunities and challenges she and her sisters deal with. In a similar vein, Darlene challenged readers of the Science Cheerleader to tell her, and us, whether the U.S. is still a technological leader.

Against this backdrop, the Chronicle of Higher Education released its annual almanac issue on 29 August 2008. Known for its insider stories of success and challenges in university and college campuses, the Chronicle is not normally on the reading radar of most Americans.

That’s a shame, because if it was, Americans would know that American universities and colleges granted 594,065 Master’s degrees in the 2005-2006 academic year (the reporting year for this issue), along with 56,067 Ph.D.s The statistics don’t tell us how many of those went to American citizens, or to folks who stay in the U.S. after they finish their studies. But for the sake of argument, we’ll say that a majority probably do. Of that total, 356,169 women took Master’s degrees (59.95%), and 27,433 of the Ph.D.s were to women (48.93%). Not too shabby if you ask me.

How does this break for science? I pulled together the breakdown below to split out a few major disciplines that are easily recognizable as science or aligned with science:

Biological/Biomedical Science: 8681, MS; 57.9%, Female ; 5775 Ph.Ds, 49.2% Female.

Engineering : 30,989 MS, 23.2% Female; 7,396 Ph.D, 20.1% Female.

Physical Science/science technology: 5,922 MS , 39.8% Female ; 4,489 Ph.D , 29.98% Female.

Obviously, several interesting things fall out of this summary. First, the science related categories are fairly broad, and so there are very few of them. Second, we are turning out a lot of people with advance degrees in engineering fields. While it can be good in terms of Darlene’s question about innovation and technological leadership, it may not be so good for understanding the impacts of human actions on our environment. Finally, while women are making great strides biological and biomedical science, they are still in the minority in the physical sciences and engineering. I have to wonder what that says about America’s perspectives on climate (which is a physical science), and on the many engineering disciplines that keep our bridges up, our roads open, our buildings standing and our AC systems in top shape. I’m not saying that men can’t still contribute to these areas in new and innovative ways. I am saying that those disciplines are loosing something by not attracting more women.

Ok, fine you say, what do we do about this? Any solution has to start with girls (like my daughters) who are still in grade and middle school. They have to be exposed to folks like Danica McKeller, the Nerd Girls, and even Sheril, so they know that science and math are cool. Then we have to call them to the board, and we have to challenge them in their academics. At the same time, we have to recognize that, because women are not men, their perspectives, conclusions, and innovations won’t look or sound like they came from a man. And we as a society need to make that ok.

Friday, August 15, 2008

83 days and counting

Hat tip to my friends at the Intersection - linked to your left, for this one.

Astrophysicist urges presidential science debate

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Passing the torch - NOAA's fleet moves forward

This week in Seattle, NOAA has both closed a chapter in its operation of science vessels and opened a new chapter in both ship operations and ocean exploration. The closing regards the decommissioning of the R/V John N. Cobb. The Cobb wa sthe oldest of NOAA's research vessels, and the last one with a wooden hull. I have a soft spot in my heart for wooden boats, as my long time readership of Wooden Boat magazine will no doubt attest.
I had the pleasure of walking her decks when I lived in Seattle. Her lines were sweet, and you could actually smell the fish oil and the salt air in all her spaces. The Cobb was an important part of NOAA's long history of fish science studies in Alaska every summer, as well as Puget Sound. Her crew are understandably saddened that she is now tied up permanently, but their many memories and many contributions will not soon be forgotten.
Across town, however, NOAA commissioned its newest ship, the Okeanos Explorer. The Explorer will now ply the seas to help unlock the mysteries of our deepest, darkest places. This is an entirely new mission for NOAA - one not driven by laws, lawsuits or Cogressional pork. For a few cool videos, see this link and this one (click on the title "Seattle Ship Will . . . ").
Sojoin me in thanking the Cobb and her crew for their service, and welcoming the Okeanos to the Nation's ocean fleet. It should be a great ride.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The solar revolution continues?

Now here's news: many of the Nation's larger retail chains are racing to install solar panels on the roofs of their buildings. Granted, it seems they want to do so in time to get a huge tax break. Even so, why is that bad? Government incentivised good, environmentally friendly behavior, and it worked!
I know, they should have done it because it is good for the environment. economic cost shouldn't be an issue. but to private business, who exist to make profits in the short term, cost is an issue. Sure, you'd expect Whole Foods to do this (and why they haven't done it nationally is a bit of a mystery), but WalMart? My guess is they not only figured the cost of the tax break, but looked at rising utility rates and decided to run their bottom line down by reducing grid reliance.
Look, if we are going to be successful at moving away from burning fossil fuels for electricity, and we need to, doesn't it make good business sense to create a climate where business makes money by doing so? Isn't that capitalism at its finest?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Climate change and our kids future

Sometimes I get the words right. Sometimes others do. Today, Thomas L. Friedman does. Read it. You will understand why I do what I do once you are done.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

They still won't go - the Katrina Chronicles

In the Friday, 25 July 2008 Baton Rouge Advocate, there is an interesting and fundamentally sad article on Louisiana residents and their attitudes about hurricane evacuations. According to the story, 17% of those surveyed – almost all of whom likely suffered in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, would NOT leave their homes again if told to by authorities. And, as Jerry Sneed, director of the Office of Preparedness for the City of New Orleans, put it in the article - “I don’t know why they’re so reluctant,” he added. “It’s as if they don’t trust anybody.”

Well duh! Has he forgotten the days that New Orleans residents spent clinging to roof tops waiting to be rescued? Did it slip his mind how many residents of Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish, returned to slabs instead of homes? Does he not know the area’s history enough to know how fiercely proud of their homes most of my fellow Louisianians are?

Here’s the thing. While I and many others worked really hard to put the area right after Katrina (I was a Corps of Engineers Blue Roof staffer in Hancock County, Mississippi), the overall government response was too slow, too small, and too disorganized to make much difference. Most of the reconstruction successes have come, not from anything FEMA did, but from church groups, not for profits, and, of all things, the Amish community. I was on the ground, picking my way through broken house, crumpled roads, and downed power lines while FEMA contractors sat in air conditioned call centers wondering why no one was calling in for help. Seriously. So when I hear emergency officials ask why no one on the Gulf Coast trusts government, especially as related to hurricanes. I can only shake my head. They STILL don’t get it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Alaska Burns - and Global Climate change looses

Burning the Alaskan wilderness seems to have an impact on tundra temperatures. On the one hand, this shouldn’t be news. Anyone who has watched the temperature plummet after a good rain fall under a black cloud knows that if you limit how much sun reaches you, you can cool off. And anyone who has ready about Pompeii or any other catastrophic volcano has probably heard about lowered temperatures lasting weeks.

Back in the 1980’s there were many “doom and gloom” scenarios about Nuclear Winter , all variations on the theme that with a Mutually Assured Destruction type exchange between the US and USSR, the amount of debris and fallout would darken the skies for years. This would plunge us all into winter, causing further hardship for the survivors of the war.

Based on this climate work, it seems they were right about that one, though the scientists caution about the usual uncertainties that come with their work. And there is where I have a problem with the language. You see, too many scientists think that because they understand statistical uncertainty, everyone does. So they don’t bother to explain statements about how something “might” be caused by something else, or what they mean by an event being “highly likely.” By approaching their topic this way, scientists leave themselves open to criticism from groups opposed to whatever principle they are advocating. Doubly so for anything having to do with Anthropogenic Global Warming.

So, by being open and honest about the uncertainty surrounding the impacts of forest fire smoke on tundra, as these scientists are at the end of the article, they leave open a small door for others to take their conclusions and run in a totally inappropriate direction. “See,” those opposed to human climate impacts will say,” nature caused Alaska and Canada to burn, and the fires LOWERED temperatures in Arctic regions. Those fires were x times as much (or as little) as the carbon we generate in our powerplant/manufacturing plant/tailpipes, and it helped lower the temperature. So humans can’t raising the temperature by burning stuff. All this global climate change language is just a scare tactic.” Or something like that.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets: Mission Accomplished?

So, as I have said before, I don't often do links to others without comment. Today I'm making a huge exception. Hat tip to the guys at Deep Sea News for making this post their obligatory Friday reading. More soon, though I'm concentrating on getting married at the moment.

Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets: Mission Accomplished?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The end of Democratic Dreams?

So Puerto Rico has held its primary. The dead, finally, is done. The delegates can now be counted, the wrangling ended, and the Democrats can get down to the business of getting back into the White House while consolidating their hold on Congress.

Or can they? While Clinton and Obama were busy gutting each other for votes in a state without a real vote in Congress (much like the nation's capitol I might add), the Democratic rules committee was busy trying to deal with Michigan and Florida. In case you missed it, when the Democrats set out their schedule for primary races this year, Michigan and Florida, which have a significant number of electoral votes, went ahead and held their primaries outside of the Official Sanctioned order. For that transgression, they were told their votes wouldn't count in selecting the Democratic nominee.

Or won't they? You see, the Democrats are always consistent on one thing - inclusion to the point of dysfunction. When Sen. Clinton discovered that her ascendancy in the party would likely by blocked by Sen. Obama, she pulled the specter of disenfranchised voter out into the media, effectively shaming the Rules Committee into both seating and partially counting the delegates from Florida and Michigan.

I have two problems with this decision. First, as a parent, I learned long ago that discipline is best enforced with consistency and no negotiation. Basically, if you punish a kid for any reason, you don't back down. That's how they learn limits. BY allowing Florida and Michigan to be partially vote, the Democrats are undercutting their own authority. Who, realistically will listen to them the next time? All you need is a Presidential Hopeful with a big ego, and you too can disregard the national plan of your party. Never mind the hog tying of the party during the Spring and early summer months, when Republicans remained on the stage largely unchecked or questioned.

My second problem grows form the circumstances of the first - the claim that voters were disenfranchised by not counting Michigan and Florida. Since those states leaders chose not to follow the schedule, it should be up to the citizens of each state to determine if they were disenfranchised, and deal with the officials accordingly in the next election cycle. National Democratic Party officials don't need to wade into that swamp. But they did, because they couldn't stand the thought of having to tell Florida and Michigan voters that primaries are just internal decision processes. The only real disenfranchisement would have come if their votes had never been counted in the general election.

So what should Democrats do now? Well that's a tough one. Neither candidate has a convincing enough lead to claim a party mandate, yet one will eventually have to be picked to lead the fall charge. Perhaps the best we can hope for is the party saying that they didn't hide behind closed doors to deal with tough decisions. Perhaps that will be enough to convince voters that a Democratic President will be better then the Republican alternative.

Friday, May 30, 2008

New Orleans looses a light - the Katrina chronicles

Last Sunday, as we were preparing to celebrate the sacrifices of our soldiers that keep our nation strong, the city of New Orleans lost a light. The Rev. Cliff W. Nunn, pastor of First Presbyterian Church died suddenly. Cliff was more then a pastor in a church in a town that is, for me, essentially home. Cliff was a friend. He was a role model. And Cliff will be missed.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in Cliff and Nieta's house. You see, their son Bruce was, essentially, my older brother for a number of years. Though we have, sadly, lost touch, we were for a time the best of buds. Bruce and I shared many interests - Scouting, model trains, Star Trek. And the Nunns and my folks were also close, so many was the Sunday afternoon or the Tuesday evening I could be found in their white single story house. Many was the meal I shared with them, and many was the laugh that I carried home.

Cliff was a pastor as a second career, but was no less committed to the ministry then his younger colleagues. He moved the family to Louisville, KY so he could attend seminary, and I still remember the pictures and stories of the Volvo P1800 he and Bruce dismantled and reassembled in the basement to restore.

When Cliff and Nieta came back to Louisiana as part of his ministry, we all felt like something was right with the world. Though I was moving on into the world, I still got lots of updates from mom about them and their work.
And like many, Cliff and Nieta watched their world literally disintegrate when the Katrina flood waters ravaged New Orleans. But as soon as he could, and with the help of MANY volunteers, Cliff fought to both set his church right and set his community right. Cliff was still fighting that fight right up until the day God reached out to him and said "Well done, good and faithful servant."
So Cliff has gone home to a rest that, though way too soon for all of us, is more then well deserved. I will miss you old friend. I'll miss the smile, the laughter, and the slight impish twinkle in your eye. We'll try to keep up the fight for you. So rest well old friend. And thank you for showing us the way.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Presidential Qualifications

Much has been written lately about the "qualifications" of Sen.'s John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama. All three campaigns, as well as any number of newspapers, tv pundits,and blogs have all taken to discussing the supposed qualifications that a President needs. Experience keeps being raised to the top - as in Sen. X has all the experience needed to be President of the United States.

Problem is, no one who hasn't been President has the qualifications to be President. Think about it. None of the Senators still running has ever negotiated a treaty with a foreign power. None of them has run a major corporation, with the federal government having around 3 million employees world wide. And none has yet to receive the now infamous 3AM phone call. NONE.

Let that sink in. The only folks who have done this, in terms that the President has to deal with, is a current or former President. First Lady doesn't count. Senior Senator and POW doesn't count. Nope, when it comes to experience, none of them has it. What they do have is life experience, beliefs, and integrity. So what we have to do is look long and hard at what they offer, cross that against the issues facing us personally and as a nation, and make the best guess we can as to who will lead us. But if you think that this race can be decided based on who has the experience to be President, you need to rethink that notion.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008 - In honoring our history, are we missing its key lessons?

Today is Memorial Day, and like many int he U.S. my heart goes out this day to all U.S. Service personnel all over the world. These folks, regardless of your politics, are our proudest citizens, they make the largest sacrifice of any of us to perpetuate the ideals of our nation, and our service personnel face the harshest choices of any of us. That said, we have not done right by them in this current war. We have not insisted that they fight in wars that are truly just. We have not told our political leaders - who sent them into battle - that we will not tolerate one more death, one more wounded, one more bullet fired until we know for sure why they are fighting and dying in our name. And to top it off, we have forsaken the very lessons that their predecessors in uniform left us.

On a quiet corner of the National Mall, only a stones throw away from the Reflecting Pool, the World War II Memorial and the Tidal Basin, the World War I Memorial lies in a small grove of trees. Built by D.C. citizens. not the Park Service, this small open dome belies the huge sacrifices the U.S. made in the Great War. The U.S. left 116,708 dead in the trenches and on the battle field. The French, in contrast, lost 1,397,000 or so soldiers, all defending their own soil. So far, 4.083 Americans now rest in peace, having given their lives for the U.S. in our war in Iraq.

What the neglect of the WWI memorial (the National Park Service estimates it needs $500,000 in immediate deferred maintenance) tell us, unfortunately, is that the lessons of that war to end all wars are all but gone. Pundits, politicians, newspapers, and soldiers themselves have spent a lot of time talking about how the lessons learned in Vietnam are the best ones to guide us in Iraq. Perhaps that's true, from a tactical point of view. Strategically, however, Vietnam is no longer the best guide we have. Neither are Korea (still a draw militarily) or WWII. That leaves WWI, and here's why I think this is our best conflict to study.

First, there was no strategic reason for the U.S. to be in Europe in 1917. Arguably, there are strategic reasons to be in the mid-east now, but we've tried for 50 years to influence mid-east relationships and activities, all without much success. When U.S. doughboys went to the Great War, they soon found a front line that was bogged between immobile trenches, much like the U.S. is now bogged down in Falujah, Basra, Baquaba and Baghdad. The fighting in Europe basically ended when the major powers ran out of will to fight, and the major countries decided to stop shooting, and spend the next 30 years with their heads in the sand while Germany rearmed in defiance of the treaties that had ended hostilities. Today, the U.S.arms Sunni militias while ignoring the real issues of Syria and Iran, two countries that we could engage with and without appeasing, I might add.

The bottom line is that, while we are definitely loosing fewer soldiers in Iraq then we did in WWI, we only fought there 3 years before realizing, along with the rest of Europe, that more killing was not good. We've now entered year 6 in Iraq, and there is no end in sight.

So, as we celebrate those soldiers who have come home, stop and think for a moment. Do they really deserve to stay in that place, bogged down as our trench fighters were nearly 100 years ago. Have we learned nothing since then about what war should be?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Polar Bears listed under the ESA - a sign of things to come or business as usual?

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed polar bears under the Endangered Species Act as Threatened. Many in the Non-governmental Organization community hailed this as a victory, especially since the listing is based on climate change impacts to polar bears.

I'm not here to get in a debate over whether the polar bear is threatened by climate change alone. And to the climate change deniers, I say this - here's proof, whether you like it or not, that human actions which influence climate have consequences. This is a scientifically sound conclusion, reached and promulgated by the most science un-friendly Administration in living memory. If you want to debate this, I need good, solid, peer-reviewed data, not grey literature strung together that suggests there could be a small window of doubt because no scientist in their right mind dismisses uncertainty.

Now, what does this really mean? What does listing polar bears have to do with farmers in Kansas, or auto workers in Kentucky? Well, if you believe one camp in the debate, alot. You see, the ESA contains this clause called Section 7 that REQUIRES every federal agency to consult with the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Commerce, on federal actions. That means that every time the USDA grants farm subsidies to farmers, every time the Navy conducts an offshore drill or exercise, every time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues or renews a powerplant license, they are supposed to come to Interior or Commerce (through NOAA) to have those agencies determine if the federal action will jeopardize listed species.

Pause for a second. Catch your breath. It sounds all bureaucratic and like lots of paper pushing. But think about it for polar bears - if FERC has to consult with Interior on a coal fired powerplant license in Iowa because the pollutants from the plant are described as being in a suite of pollutants that cause global warming and ice loss, then conserving polar bears will require FERC to ensure that the power plant doesn't release those pollutants anymore. Magnify that across the hundreds of powerplants in our nation, and you get a sense of the potential societal change this will cause.

IF you own coal power stocks, however, I wouldn't run out and sell just yet. It will take FWS between 12 and 24 months to get all it's post-listing regulations in place. During that time there will be PLENTY of lobbying, and we'll hold a national election which will alter our leadership at the national level. So what you think this will lead to today, we may end up in a different place sooner then you think.

Yet in the polar bear listing we may well be seeing the opening of a chapter in US history where we, as a nation, have to finally accept accountability for our collective actions. We may also, finally, be forced to answer the question: What are we really willing to do to save the environment?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Responsibility in Government - the Katrina Chronicles

A federal judge ruled today that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can be sued by New Orleans residents over the Katrina - related damage caused by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). The Judge, already exhasperated by the Corps attempts to deflect the discussion away from things it could control, told the plaintiffs and the Government that, since MRGO is a ship canal, the Corps doesn't have legal immunity as it might if MRGO was part of the New Orleans based flood works.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you need to know two things: I grew up in Baton Rouge, and so I know MRGO better then many. I also spent 3 1/2 years working for the Corps in Seattle, where I was glad to be in a place where Corps folks actually care about the environment. I also worked in the Gulf after Katrina, doing Blue Roof temporary roofing inspection for the Corps.

That said, Katrina remains a real tragedy. The initial rush of running to the aid of so many that infected our nation after the storm has given way to the long, slow recovery taht too many Maericans refuse to admit is still going on. I've never been happy iwth the Katrina response, and one of these days I'll write about it here.

But I think the Corps is getting a bum deal in this instance. Like it or not, the Corps built MRGO becasue Congress decided 40 years ago that MRGO was a good idea. Likewise, the levee system was built to the . . . . challenging level it was because COngress decided the Corps didn't any more money and therefore couldn't build it to the level even Corps engineers thought it should be. So when it comes to damage to New Orleans being caused by Corps actions, someone needs to sue Congress as well. Of course, if we did sue Congress, or even if we turned them out of office for their failures, then we'd actually be doing what the founding fathers wanted us to do in our democracy. But that would mean we were holding ourselves accountable for the actions of our government. Instead, we sue the Corps, who are almost always between a rock and a hard place not of their own making.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Celebrity environmentalists - maybe they have a use afterall

As I type, I'm watching the fisheries collapse episode of National Geographic's Strange Days on Plant Earth. Hosted by Ed Norton, this new series is, perhaps, a good introduction to environmental issues for people used to the sound bite culture of modern media. I have to admit, I wouldn't think about Ed Norton as a spokesperson for well managed commercial fisheries which protect the environment. Yet it turns out, he's actually pretty well qualified. His father, to whom he was and still is pretty close, was a groundbreaking ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Asia. He talked about that, and his eco learning in a recent Washington Post on-line chat. All of this is to say, some celebrities may well be able to transcend their celebrity, and actually contribute to the changes that we need to make to protect our environment.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

YoungFemaleScientist: Jealousy.

So here's a short post to start off the Spring, and in honor of Earthday. You should read YoungFemaleScientist: Jealousy. because it shows all too well why women aren't as well represented in the sciences, and why some of the best minds eventually go on to other things. then , while your eating your locally grown organic fruit, zipping to work on your local handy timely mass transit system, having parked your electric car in the park and ride, you can decide what you will do about this. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Looking ahead - by looking back

It's not often that I'll refer to the blog posts of other, or the articles they write. Chris Mooney's latest piece on how our transportation infrastrusture needs to prepare to deal with climate change is a notable exception.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Another father looses it - and we all loose

I don’t know Mark Castillo. Never met him. Couldn’t tell you what his favorite food is. And I probably couldn’t pick him out of a crowd. That said, after Mr. Castillo allegedly killed his children in a Baltimore hotel the weekend of 29 March 2008, I am sure I won’t forget him.

You see, Mr. Castillo, if he is guilty, is yet another in along line of fathers who, mentally broken and emotionally exhausted, takes the lives of his children, and often his own life, as a last gasp of control in a world where everything he knows is being ripped from him.

The story is becoming all too familiar – man and woman meet, marry, and have children. Somewhere along the way, the marriage goes sour, a divorce begins, and the man finds himself stripped of at least two roles that he holds most sacred – father and husband. The statistics show that these days, slightly more women than men end these marriages, and the reasons are wide and varied. The reasons why the marriage is ending are also not important. What is important is the relationship the man has (or doesn’t have) with his kids, and how their mother views him in that light.

You see men, for all our chest beating, macho competition, and rampant stoicism; we undergo a profound emotional change when we become fathers. We run hard into a wall of feeling that is unlike anything we have ever experienced. It surpasses our loyalty to our football teams. It runs far past our feelings of accomplishment in our jobs. The joy, the new daily discoveries, and the worry that we’ll never be able to help this new young life flourish in the best possible way consume us.

Some men react to this by growing a stronger relationship with both their wives and their children. Some men react by becoming work-aholics, withdrawing from the thing that creates the strong emotions in the first place. Some men actually experience depression, and loose the ability to function. Until it happens, no man can predict which he will be. Astonishingly, even our day and age, few men can articulate any of this, so overwhelming is it. Their inability to put it all in words makes it hard to tell their wives about this enormous impact, so their wives have to sort out their man’s changed behavior based on her assumptions, which almost never match his. And no woman, married to a man, can predict how she’ll react.

When, in the midst of all this emotion, change, and stress, a marriage ends, the man is often completely lost emotionally and psychologically. He already has this huge emotional load he’s carrying by being a father, and then that central role is torn from him. Then he’s thrust into a system where he gets “visitation” instead of fathering, child support payments instead of tucking in at bedtime. Then he has to live that life, crushing as it is, until his kids grow up, and they can decide for themselves what kind of relationship they want to have with him.

And here is where men generally go one of three ways. First, they slog through it somehow, fighting the system and their ex-wives to remain a significant part of their kids’ life. These men somehow find a reserve of emotion to sustain them through it all, and they end up looking at each and every day them have with their kids as a gift. Others withdraw emotionally and financially, becoming the deadbeat dads that fill the news. In this scenario the kids loose, the fathers loose, and society looses. The final group, small in number as they may be, are the Mark Castillo’s’ of the world, who snap and decide that they will reassert control over the world by taking their kids and themselves out of it.

Since I am in the first camp, I condemn the choices of groups two and three. I could no more walk away from my kids then I could stop breathing. My kids deserve their father, and they deserve to grow up full and strong, learning from the mistakes their mother and I made, so they can become contributing, empowered citizens. Happily, they are wonderful kids, and I couldn’t be prouder. At the same time though, having spent eight years in the emotional blender of divorce, I can understand what makes other men snap.

So what do we do? How do we keep other men from going down this road? How do we help men in these situations survive the trials so they can become better fathers and so their kids can have full and fulfilling lives?

First, we have to stop telling fathers in divorce that they are ”visitors” in their kids’ lives. We need to change our laws so that each parent gets to parent, not visit. You see, for men, language and labels matter, so calling us visitors insults the relationship we want to have with our kids. The law also needs to be amended to make it explicit that men have as much right to equal time with their kids as women. Saying that each parent “should enjoy the benefits of a parental relationship” doesn’t go far enough. “Should” as a legal word is not enforceable, so when it is used, fathers tend to loose. Far better that each parent “shall be fully involved in their children’s lives, with equal parenting time.”

We also need to seriously reconsider whether no fault divorce is truly in the best interest of children. One of my therapists said once that no fault divorce give an easy way out to folks just having a bad day. While I think there will always be conditions that auger for divorce, most of the time the participants in the divorce haven’t really earned the right to walk away. If, as is so often suggested by conservatives in the US, the dissolution of marriage is the greatest threat to America, then we need to do all we can ensure that marriages and families have a fighting chance. In our modern divorce culture that won’t be easy. I’m convinced it’s worth it though, if it ends the story of men like Mark Castillo.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

This Saturday I did something that many consider a rite of spring – I mowed my lawn. And just to ensure that it was done right, I edged too. While it was a bit early in the year for some, I have at least 3 kinds of grass, maybe four. That means that, if we get some warmer days and sun, the grass grows, and grows at different speeds no less. I also helped turn my compost pile, and helped the Red One transplant daffodils from under the compost pile to the flowerbed up front.

Nothing remarkable there, except that I didn’t add to my carbon footprint to do it. You see, unlike 54 million Americans, I don't fire up a lawn mower with an internal combustion engine. Nor do I start a gas and oil belching edger. And while my weed-whacker can run all day, no petroleum products were harmed in its operation. Actually, the last one may not be a completely true statement – the weed whacker is a rechargeable electric, so some fossil fuel somewhere was burned to make the electricity that charged its internal battery.

Instead of running gas into the engine of my mower, I was the engine. I have an old-fashioned push reel mower, and my edger is one of those that consist of a handle, two small rubber wheels and a couple of star shaped blades. Needless to say, I got a great workout from all that pushing, and I do every time. That’s actually part of the reason I got it this kind of mower. It’s now Tuesday, and I’m still a little sore.

The other reason is that it does reduce my carbon footprint. How much you ask? Well that figure is a bit hard to pin down, but in 2006 the New York Times published an article that said the operation of a then-new lawn mower for an hour emitted 93 times the emission of a 2006 new car run for the same time. Others approach it another way – operating a 3.5 horsepower lawnmower for an hour releases the same amount of Volatile Organic Carbon as driving a car 340 miles. Either way, it’s estimated that lawnmowers alone may contribute as much as 10% of the annual green house gas load to the U.S. atmosphere.

So, how many of those gas-guzzlers would we have to replace with push reels to get a real benefit? I have no idea. I do know that if we did, Americans would achieve three things. First, we’d be able to achieve a measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing our standard of living. After all, who doesn’t want a green, well mowed lawn? Second, we’d increase the amount of exercise Americans get, since pushing the reel or the edger is a definite workout. And third, we’d also create neighborhoods where we could still talk to each other while doing our yard work, thus increasing our sense of community. Not bad way to start a season of yard work, if you ask me.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ocean Iron Fertilization - the next big . . . ?

Recently at the Intersection, Chris Money reported on current efforts to get permission for iron fertilization of the ocean. He was using this specific example to spark a larger debate about the efficacy of geoengineering – essentially human manipulation of Earth systems to meet human needs and “right” human wrongs. As a science fiction fan, I'm very familiar with geoengineering's close cousin terra forming. I understand the processes very well, and I'm actually intrigued by any such activity.

Now, a disclaimer – I work for one of the federal agencies that are considering whether to permit this scheme. I don’t work in the office handling it, nor have I seen the application. I have read a lot of scientific, peer reviewed literature on ocean iron fertilization, and I have encountered a number of views on the subject. So what I’m about to write is NOT the official position of any government agency I am or have worked for. It’s my own synthesis. Period.

The idea behind ocean iron fertilization is that iron is a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton in the ocean. That means the microscopic plants that live in the first few inches of the ocean can’t grow because there isn’t enough iron for them to grow from. Iron, along with nitrogen and phosphorous, is a key fertilizer for all plants, and an iron deficiency can in fact limit plant growth. So the idea is to add a lot of elemental iron to several open ocean spots to cause huge phytoplankton blooms. The proponents of this idea say the big blooms will soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide, thus lowering levels of a significant green house/ climate change inducing gas.

As a scientist, I have to ask – what is the science behind this? Are there peer reviewed studies that argue for or against the idea? And are there existing examples of similar activities that might guide an analysis of this idea?

There is lots of literature on Ocean Iron Fertilization. What seems to be missing from these analyses, however, is reference to unintentional but persistent existing ocean features that might mimic this process, and can offer what I think are significant insights.

Every year, the Northern Gulf of Mexico goes, biologically, dead. This death is due to a significant load of nutrients – including phosphorous, nitrogen and iron – washing down the Mississippi River each spring. Since the Mighty Muddy drain about 2/3rds of the nation, it’s no wonder it would have a huge nutrient load when it exits the continental US at Venice, Louisiana. The Gulf Dead zone was first documented in 1972, and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) has lead research on it every since.

The Gulf Dead Zone reaches between 6,000 and 7,000 square miles per year. It results when all the nutrients power a huge phytoplankton bloom. Once the plankton run of food, they begin to die, sinking to the bottom. On the way down, and on the bottom, they cause serious oxygen depletion as they decompose. This hypoxic zone has periodic fish kills, and all sorts of marine animals are known to run from it, literally for their lives. And sadly, while the Northern Gulf Dead Zone is the largest, it’s not the only one.

So what does this mean for ocean iron fertilization? I think it means we need to proceed with extreme caution. If run-off fed blooms can pull oxygen out of the water on the continental shelf and continental slope, what will an iron created bloom do to open ocean ecology? Will the cost to marine life through out the water column be worth the pay off in carbon dioxide reduction? And should we really alter natural phytoplankton systems because our modern economy won’t (yet) adjust to a more carbon limited model?

My own gut tells me we’ve done enough damage to the Earth already. I don’t think there needs to be a large scale ocean iron fertilization action. But I’m still open to the science, and if there are good, peer-reviewed papers that show how this might actually work, and what the water column impacts would be – I would be open to where that science led me.

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP

Arthur C Clarke, best known for his 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the series it spawned, died yesterday at the age of 90 in his home in Sri Lanka. In writing about the self-aware HAL computer, and about all the things good and bad the humans might do to their futures, Clarke was both prescient - he predicted wireless communications – and a harbinger of serious warnings. Yet as a person, as a man, he was one of the nicest most engaging people you will ever meet.

Over at the Intersection, Chris Mooney wrote yesterday about ocean iron fertilization. I had planned a post to talk about that subject – it’s the sort of futuristic humans attempt yet again to control their environment thing that Clarke would have loved to weave into a book – but with Mr. Clarke’s passing, I thought instead I’d commemorate his life by telling you what very little I learned about the man over dinner.

You see, while Mr. Clarke had the fabulous home in Sri Lanka and spent a lot of time there, in the 1990’s he also had a winter home in St. Petersburg, FL in the same retirement community that my late paternal grandparents lived in. Every winter, he’d come state-side for several months, and spend his days writing, dropping in on literary classes at Eckerd College, and hosting weekly dinners in the center’s dining room for fellow residents. Somewhere along the way, he made the acquaintance of my grandfather, a retired Presbyterian pastor, and so periodically he and my grandmother would get invited to dinner.

I was fortunate enough, being an Eckerd Student and then St. Petersburg resident, to attend one such feast. Mr. Clarke was as casual, as open, as any person I’ve ever encountered. As I recall dinner lasted about 4 hours, mostly because Mr. Clarke wanted to know each person he was dinning with. His questions, and thus our discussion, ranged all over, but what most fascinated him was the daily things we all did –whether the latest correspondence from a grandchild, the latest vacation, or one’s opinion on events of the day, Mr. Clarke had that knack of listening to you, really listening, and then weaving your story back into the conversation for the group as a whole. He was, or appeared to be, particularly fascinated with my studies and interests in oceanography, and for a lay person, was well read in the current issues in our field at the time. I would have loved to have had more such dinners.

So here’s to a great Author. Arthur C. Clarke was one of a kind, and both the science Fiction world and the real world have lost one of the good ones.

Friday, March 14, 2008

There's a war brewing, but it may not involve guns (or butter)

One of the advantages of living in the Nation's Capitol is that one can attend all sorts of intellectual happenings. You can see plays at the Kennedy Center (from PBS to your reality). You can hear just about any kind of music you want - I'm personally looking forward to the Japanese Tycho (sic) drums that will soon be a part of the Cherry Blossom Festival. You can go to the National Archives to learn about our past, and you can go to Politics and Prose to be regaled by the latest authors.

If you look hard enough, you can also find some really cutting edge science. I did so today, and while the title of the seminar might not appeal to the masses, it turned out that the talk was an evolutionary eye opener.

Delivered by Daniel Brooks from the University of Toronto, today's examination of marine parasites and their relationships to their hosts turned on a concept that parasites, and by extension other disease organisms, are really ecological specialists. They occupy specific micro-habitats, BUT they have the ability to exploit sort of similar micro-habitats in many related organisms. From that understanding, Brook lead us to examine, if this is true, how disease prevention and containment is not the best approach to emerging infectious diseases. He argues that we need to be looking at the micro-habitats and the organisms a host is related to in order to see what the next disease pathway might be.

Phew. I'm a fisheries oceanographer, so diseases and parasites hurt my brain ( and my eyes against the microscope). But the bonus - the reason I loved this talk so much - is what Dr. Brooks had to say about why humans don't follow this better pathway to elucidating emerging diseases.

His central thesis, drawing from paleontology, psychology, ethnobotony, and a whole host of other seemingly unrelated disciplines, is that humans can't take the complexity so we fail to act in the best possible way. He called it the "if you can't analyze complex patterns you are lunch" hypothesis. Basically, humans have evolved complex abilities to intuitively understand complex natural patterns and information. Yet at the same time, our ancestors learned to simplify complex interactions, so we didn't end up at the same watering hole as the jaguar at the same time. Basically, we have the amazing ability to both perceive complex richness in our surroundings, and deny the very existence of complexity because it makes decision making too hard. Hopefully I have that right.

How might this idea play out in modern human actions? Well, it might play out in denying that climate changes we observe are really caused by Green House Gas emissions. It might play out in launching war in a country whose history and ethnology you fail to understand because your ideology says the occupants of the country will switch to your ideology if you "liberate"them. It might play out in asserting that fathers are critical to children's development while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that modern divorce laws are designed to alienate fathers from the beginning.

In other words, the human capacity to deny the seemingly obvious is likely an evolutionarily hardwired trait. So we have to work, really hard, to overcome it. The war, which is already here, is really about which part of the brain, the denying part or the pattern recognizing part, will lead humanity into the future. I'm rooting for the pattern part.

Solar Energy - Not the mythical beast afterall?

These days there is a hot debate going on as to whether the human contributions to global warming can be reversed, or even slowed, by employing alternative energy technologies. On the one side, those who deny humans have any impact on global climate thus say there should be no concerted effort to change our energy sources. Even staunch supporters of human induced global climate change fear that there isn’t enough alternative energy to meet our needs.

What neither side has done, which irks the scientist in me, is a study on generating capacity of any of the alternatives. Everyone just assumes that if we switch to anything other then coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear, our economy will tank and our energy supplies will go down. These impacts will lead, they all agree, to a lowered standard of living.

So I did a simple study tonight that should point to a different answer. First, I looked up the area around my office on Google Earth. Essentially I created a viewscape in two dimensions that runs about ¼ mile or so out from the building. It’s really what I see out my window. Zoomed in enough, one can count individual buildings, and differentiate the residential structures from the commercial ones. With the proliferation of condominium buildings around the Washington DC area this calculation gets a bit difficult, but once I had an image I liked, I just called the condos commercial buildings to make the math easier.

Then I got out the multicolored crayon pack and colored the residences one color, and the commercial buildings another. Then I counted them – twice. I got 181 houses and 114 commercial buildings.

Now, the math gets a bit tricky. Assuming the residences had solar systems that generate 2 kilowatts (kW) and the commercial buildings averaged 5kW each (they would probably do more, especially the high rises with large roofs), these 295 buildings can generate at least 932kW at one time from roof mounted Photovoltaic (PV) systems. That’s 932kW each day, for anywhere between 6 and 10 hours a day, 365 days a year.

How does this help meet our energy needs – and reduce anthropogenic global warming? Simple really. The US Department of Energy estimates that in 2006, the US had a peak demand of 706, 108 megawatts (mW). So the few buildings I counted generate nearly 1 mW, thus reducing our nations energy needs measurably. Imagine what would happen if we expanded this to include, say, the 1500 federal buildings owned by the General Services Administration? What if those buildings had enough PV on the roof to reduce their daytime load by 30% on weekdays – when they are occupied – and they actually put hundreds of kW into the grid on weekends? Even better, what if every building in the DC area had the maximum PV system its structure could handle? Where would that put us for electricity generation? I don’t have the numbers, but I bet some enterprising engineering student hopped up on Jolt cola (or Red Bull) could figure it out.

Now I admit, the energy savings these PV systems create cease once the sun goes down, and that is a problem. Still, if we burn significantly fewer hydrocarbons during the day to make our computers runs, keep our coffee pots warm, and make sure our laundry gets cleaned, the fewer total hydrocarbons we have to burn period. I’ll admit that current thinking suggest that major reductions now may not take effect for many years, but why should that stop us?

My point in all this fuzzy math is this – we can say it can’t be done. We can say there isn’t enough capacity. We can say it’s too expensive. Those are easy statements to make when you haven’t taken the time to find out if it is possible. Unfortunately, our climate, our ecosystems, and our economy can’t wait for us to exhaust the excuses and then decide we should see if it is possible. After all, if Americans had taken a similar attitude in the 1950’s and 1960’s Neil Armstrong would never have set foot on the moon; August Picard would never have plumbed the depths of the Marianas trench; America would never have passed the Civil Rights Act and begun to rid our nation of the scourge of racism. But you are all probably right – switching to alternative energy sources probably won’t help us solve the problem.