Left Outside

Someone just proved the laws of physics wrong

Well, they’re always wrong, or subject to revision, but this is pretty interesting. Familiar with Dark Matter, the matter which we can’t detect but have to assume exists to make all our sums right? Well perhaps our sums were just plain wrong:

A modified law of gravity correctly predicted, in advance of the observations, the velocity dispersion—the average speed of stars within a galaxy relative to each other—in 10 dwarf satellite galaxies of the Milky Way’s giant neighbor Andromeda.

The relatively large velocity dispersions observed in these types of dwarf galaxies is usually attributed to dark matter. Yet predictions made using the alternative hypothesis Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) succeeded in anticipating the observations.

[...]

At stake now is whether the universe is predominantly made of an invisible substance that persistently eludes detection in the laboratory, or whether we are obliged to modify one of our most fundamental theories, the law of gravity,” McGaugh continued.

The MOND hypothesis says that Newton’s force law must be tweaked at low acceleration—11 orders of magnitude lower than what we feel on the surface of the Earth. Acceleration above that threshold is linearly proportional to the force of gravity—as Newton’s law says—but below the threshold, no. At these tiny accelerations, the modified force law resolves the mass discrepancy…

via Noahpinion. More at the above link.

Filed under: Science

Replace “trans” with “foreigner” or “woman”

The bus that trans people were thrown under. Joke stolen from Stavvers.

The bus that trans people were thrown under. Joke stolen from Stavvers on twitter.

There’s an important coda to yesterday’s post. The poor and the vulnerable have often gotten ahead only by standing on the heads of those even worse off than themselves.

I’m not union bashing when I say that the growth of real job security post-war was at the cost of immigrants and women. Look at it this way. If it is harder to exit a job it is harder for everyone else to enter one. In a world where most working people are white, british born men that excludes women and immigrants.

There’s a reason that immigrants have been whitewashed out of the history of the labour movement. As Jamie says, it’s because a lot of rather awful things were done to them in the name of the labour movement, deportations were just part of it. We’re all rightly embarrassed, but it’s important to understand why it happened at all.

If you’re strong enough to organise and affect change then you’re probably not the most vulnerable. I’m not saying don’t organise, I’m saying check your privilege. [1] The victories won by the second worst off might help advance the worst off or they might not. It’s entirely situation dependent.

The victories won by the labour movement in the mid-20th century were spectacular. But they weren’t won by the weakest and they didn’t always benefit the most vulnerable, as Anna and Jamie’s pieces highlight. Thinking about this and yesterday’s post, a similar story can be told about the Equal Marriage Act.

Gay and lesbian people (and to a lesser extent bi people) have won a major victory. But trans people are still being discriminated against, despite everyone shouting about how we’ve passed “equal marriage.” That will rankle, and without the momentum of a much larger, more sympathetic, group behind them it will rankle for a lot longer.

For the LGB  bit what’s happening this week signposts the end of tolerance and the beginning of acceptance. David Cameron said (*cough* after me *cough*) that Tories should support gay marriage because its a conservative institution. He’s right. The gays have gone mainstream and this means a lot of trans people are getting left behind. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident.

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[1] I’m a historian, looking for bias in your sources (and your own thinking and writing) is just what you do. Is there even another option? I was shocked to see twitter erupt in displeasure over the phrase “check your privilege.” You have no other choice.

Filed under: History, Migration, Politics, Science

Something that makes me happy

Mephedrone

CC image courtesy of Elad Rahmin on Flickr

One of the few things I’ve written about here which I’m actually proud of is the death of Gabrielle Price. Covering the death of a child is difficult and I don’t really want to do it again because it made me sad. The ECB makes me angry, and has caused more harm than I can comprehend, but it doesn’t make me sad in the same way as a politicised death of a child.

If you’ve heard of Gabrielle Price, and you probably haven’t, anywhere other than this blog then it is likely you think she died at a party after taking mephedrone (or meow meow as nobody outside Fleet Street called it) . I started covering the drug and her death because it seemed a moral panic was in the offing and I wanted to document one develop.

Mephedrone did actually kill some people, but far less than reported – the weasel word “linked” does a lot of work in the literature. But that was enough for the then Labour government to discuss making it illegal as part of a job creation scheme for the underworld.

Gabrielle Price didn’t die from taking the then legal high, it was  broncho-pneumonia following a streptococcal A infection that killed her. You can follow the sad tale hereherehere and here. Hopefully one of the uses of  this blog is that people googling her name might know she died boringly, normally, of a lung infection not from a drug with a funny name.

Anyway, the drug which didn’t kill her and which didn’t kill many people was banned and promptly stayed available, decreased in purity, modestly increased in price. I’ve never been in favour of banning drugs, quit the opposite, and I found the linking of her death to the drug  depressing and enraging.

Yesterday, I found out today that New Zealand are taking a completely different approach and will test, monitor and regulate legal highs like mephedrone:

It’s the first nation to take a dramatically different approach to psychoactive substances like party pills and synthetic marijuana… [that] go by names like bath salts, spice or meow-meow.

In a 119-to-1 vote on Thursday, the country’s parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Bill, establishing a framework for testing, manufacturing and selling such recreational drugs. (via)

Anyway, this made me think about the “Gabrielle Price” google alert I set up at the end of 2009. It returned depressingly misleadiong results about her for a long, long time after her death. But I realised I can’t have received one in years now. And that makes me happy.

Filed under: Foreign Affairs, History, Politics, Science, Society

The Nature of the Farm: Exploding pig shit

It isn’t often I get to write such a profane title which references Ronald Coase. Today is a good day for blogpost titles [1] and a bad day for farm workers. As with most factories with simple inputs and outputs pig farming scales very well. This means that they can get very big before they start seeing diseconomies of scale but once they do they’re pretty unique diseconomies of scale.

In a paper which makes me miss my Athens’ subscription, Alex Coads highlights that profit isn’t a very good predictor of firm growth. [3] In fact firm growth is a little random. But something which definitely prevents firm growth are diseconomies of scale.

Normally these refer to limits on staff monitoring, communication costs, duplications of effort and office politics. None of these are particularly relevant  for pig farms (pigs actually don’t collude, sadly for them), so they’ve just kept getting bigger and becoming more profitable to the point where they are discovering industry specific diseconomies of scale:

The problem is menacing: As manure breaks down, it emits toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide and flammable ones like methane, and trapping these noxious fumes under a layer of foam can lead to sudden, disastrous releases and even explosions. According to a 2012 report from the University of Minnesota, by September 2011, the foam had “caused about a half-dozen explosions in the upper Midwest…one explosion destroyed a barn on a farm in northern Iowa, killing 1,500 pigs and severely burning the worker involved.”

Apparently this just did not happen before 2009. Factory farming has helped us to feed the world. Intensively farmed pigs [2] have allowed for more protein to be produced at a great cost in terms of animal suffering and at little costs in terms of money. Negative externalities where they have existed have been more diffuse, like water pollution, such severe diseconomies of scale at the farm level are relatively new.

What we are seeing is a limit to farm size. There aren’t many firms that are limited in size by the quantity of waste produced, but it appears we’ve found one. I think it is safe to say Coase couldn’t have seen this one coming in 1937.

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[1] Is this the sort of post I should be writing if I want this job? I presume so.

[2] Writing this post makes me want Mario at Brindisa to cut me some Iberico jamon. From organically farmed, acorn fed pigs, that stuff though. And very expensive: Tesco value ham is £0.41/100g while Iberico jamon is more than ten times that, those prices tell a story.

[3] Do I really have to keep writing via Chris?

Filed under: Economics, Science, Society

Technologically induced anti-globalisation

Chris here talks about the current deceleration of globalisation.

Figures from the OECD show that globalisation is already slowing down. It estimates that import penetration in developed economies – the share of imports in total final spending – rose from 13.4 to 21.4 per cent between 1993 and 2007 – a rise of 0.5 percentage points each year. But in the five years since then, it has risen a mere half percentage point, to 21.9 per cent.

The shorting of food supply chains has been one response to the horse meat scandal. But that is one part of a wider trend against globalised supply chains. Credit constraints are slowing globalisation because international trade needs financing, currency volatility is slowing globalisation because it makes trade more unpredictable and the home bias has increased as during downturns people become more insular.

One other thing that Chris doesn’t directly mention driving shortening global supply chains and anti-globalisation is technological change. That sounds counter intuitive but it’s not. Normally we think that technological changes like steamboats, transatlantic telegraphs and the internet as driving globalisation forward, but other similar trends work in the opposite direction. What we are seeing is data-creation-biased technological and behavioural change. That’s a phrase I just invented, which explains why it is so clumsy.

Let me explain. As time and technology progresses each of produces more data. That data is valuable. At the moment we give that data away for free, authorising this app and that app to record our likes, our past times and so on. Our data is being monetised, it’s just not use getting the money. But where there’s money, there’s fraud. You can see some pretty unsubtle examples here. Someone can can capture the benefits if they surreptitiously get your data.

The objects and programmes which record this data thus become not only passive meters but engines of value creation themselves. You’re already seeing this happen. Have you hear of Huawei? Probably not. If some Chinese people plan to get up to no good it’s convenient that westerners can’t differentiate between one name and another. Anyway. There was a minor scandal last year when it was reported that some of their appliances were beaming information back to China in a classic “can’t trust the sneaky yellow people” brouhaha.

Whether the accusation are true or not is kind of irrelevant, the panic was real and the threat is real. If not Huawei, then someone else will soon be trying to steal your valuable data. If a firm wants the things it manufactures to be secure in the future it will need to monitor its supply chain and at the moment this means keeping it short. Anti-globalisation biased technological change in action.

Let’s take one concrete example. Smart Meters will (probably) be in every home in Britain by the end of 2020, they will record our energy use in real-time. Most mundanely Time of Use tariffs will allow people to buy energy when it’s cheap. But as appliances connect to this smart system, a cascade of data will be generated about our every habit, washing, TV watching, what is plugged in where and so on. Energy suppliers will become IT firms that happen to sell us electricity.

For a lot of firms, the final assembly of smart meters isn’t happening in China or Japan or anywhere else, it’s happening here. That’s because it is cheaper to monitor manufacture here than there. Data driven technological change is shrinking supply chains. If you want to control something you need to monitor it. When information is valuable security becomes important. Thus as we digitise everything from conversation to washing machines we should expect supply chains to shorten and globalisation to decelerate or even reverse.

Filed under: Economics, Foreign Affairs, Science

Nuclear Power can save us from climate change

I think the left and environmentalists need to embrace nuclear power. There are plans for EDF and British Gas to build four reactors, and it is likely that those would be the first of many; Hitachi, GDF Suez and Iberdrola are all interested in building new nuclear in the UK.

Why new nuclear? Well, I was initially a reluctant supporter, but when it comes to large scale, uninterrupted base load generation it is hard to beat nuclear. Plus, no carbon. Not none really, building things emits carbon, but near enough for it to be properly counted as a renewable fuel.

EDF have just announced they are planning on running their existing UK nuclear fleet for another 34 years (that’s across three plants, Hinkley Point, Hunterston and Sizewell). Increasing their life like this will do enough to reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing all the cars from UK roads for nearly five years. It is about 340 million tonnes of carbon that won’t be emitted. That is just from running longer our existing plants – that’s a big plus for the planet and for people.

But, there are huge problems with nuclear power in Europe.

First of all, Sellafield, it is a mess. Honestly, it is even worse than you imagine. Look it up, the National Audit Office have a report and Wikipedia have some background. Building 30 sounds pretty fucked up especially. And I’ve heard some odd things about the Seagulls that live there – huge they are. However, we are better at dealing with waste now and things are today built so that it is easy to take them apart safely.

That brings us to building, which is the real problem. No Europeans have built Nuclear Power Plants to budget for years. France and Finland have both fucked up colossally. Like three times above cost and behind schedule. Ludicrously badly. However, despite this, all is not lost. The Japanese and Chinese have built ahead of schedule. They don’t have special Asian-aptitude powers, anybody can do it if the corrupt, incompetent, unproductive Chinese can.

So to the problems of nuclear, I would say that they are in the past or that they can be overcome. The promise of nuclear energy is in predictable energy and tons of it with tons of carbon. I think it is the best bet for decarbonising the economy and I think serious environmentalists need to get behind it.

Filed under: Politics, Science, Society, , , , , , ,

Ugandan Kill the Gays Bill to become law as a “Christmas gift”

I think it has been about a year since I last wrote about homophobia in Africa. Despite a long history of man on man loving (as with everywhere else) many Ugandans still see homosexuality as immoral and un-African. For some time now a law has been discussed which would make homosexual acts capital offences. Gay Star News report that this process is about to reach fruition:

The law will broaden the criminalization of same-sex relationships by dividing homosexuality into two categories; aggravated homosexuality and the offense of homosexuality.

‘Aggravated homosexuality’ is defined as gay acts committed by parents or authority figures, HIV-positive people, pedophiles and repeat offenders. If convicted, they will face the death penalty.

The ‘offense of homosexuality’ includes same-sex sexual acts or being in a gay relationship, and will be prosecuted by life imprisonment.

Last year I wrote about a campaign to save Robert Segwanyi from deportation. The campaign was ultimately successful and Robert was saved. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Uganda will be saved from this law.

A google search turns up few active campaigns. Certainly when this was last in the news in 2011 there were many petitions, marches and campaigns. Perhaps all repressive regimes need to learn to suppress their people while America’s liberal campaigners are trying to get someone elected. Although I don’t want to belittle the efforts of African campaigners, it seems the most successful pressure on Ugandan politicians has been external.

If you’re spare and have time to spare, a polite email to Alitwala Rebecca Kadaga or Atim Ogwal Cecilia Barbara could be in order. They are two women representatives actively promoting the Bill. You can also write to your own MP asking them to lobby similarly.

The Bill has been stopped once, it can be stopped again, and again if necessary. However, it does require that these missives are backed up with material threats. That implies the possibility of cutting aid if this Bill is passed, piling misery upon misery. Uganda is clearly in need of aid, it remains very poor, and the tying of aid to particular policy stances has a chequered history to say the least, but I think it is worth threatening its withdrawal – this is a matter of life and death after all.

Filed under: Foreign Affairs, Science, , , ,

The arsehole theory of politics

Obama, if there is a hell (which there is isn’t, luckily for him), is headed there. His drone war in Pakistan is truly dystopian, and his other infringements of civil liberties would make even Blair blush, as Conor Friedersdorf describes:

1. Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue.

2. Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama’s kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did. It is as radical an invocation of executive power as anything Dick Cheney championed. The fact that the Democrats rebelled against those men before enthusiastically supporting Obama is hackery every bit as blatant and shameful as anything any talk radio host has done.

3. Contrary to his own previously stated understanding of what the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution demand, President Obama committed U.S. forces to war in Libya without Congressional approval, despite the lack of anything like an imminent threat to national security.

Aside immediately from stripping him of his Nobel Peace Prize – boy must the Norwegians be feeling silly now – we should ask “why Obama is doing this?” I wouldn’t argue that he is an arsehole. He doesn’t seem like an arsehole, he has done nice things for lots of poor Americans. I’ve also seen the point made innumerable times that Romney would be the same, or worse, but why?

Will Wilkinson seems to imply that the system of democracy in America is broken. You can vote for Obama and passively approve these attacks. You can vote for Romney and very likely end up with the same, or worse. Romney’s aides have suggested that if Romney were elected, one of his first acts would be to give back ‘mericans their right to torture people. Alternatively, you can offer a protest vote to a third party candidate like Gary Johnson, who actually opposes these attacks (imagine a third party more ineffectual and irrelevant than the Lib Dems and you begin to see how silly this last option is).

I disagree that democracy is broken. People are broken. How can you fix the fact that a lot of people are arseholes? Similarly to my analysis of Ian Cowie, as somebody who simply hates poor people, this analysis lacks a certain subtlety. But that is its strength. It is unsubtle because arseholes are unsubtle. Democrats are painted as weak on warmaking defence, and so Obama must appease the arseholes or face potential political annihilation.

This isn’t a feature of a failed democracy or of a failed republic or a failed anything. It is a feature of a democratic empire. One of the advantages of democracy is that people get what they vote for, good and hard.

Domestically this normally stays the hand of those with the most ludicrous ideas because people actually have to deal with the consequences of the actions. However, intrigue and murder are the rule internationally not because these policies are good, but because people don’t have to deal with the consequences of their own arseholeness. The same people who will refuse to starve their poor because they’ll riot will happily watch the poor starve abroad because they can deny them a visa.

Acting as a democratic empire the US has no choice but to sporadically accede to the demands of its arsehole faction. Sometimes, it will just be their turn to be appeased. Arseholes have no natural restraint on their actions because their victims are abroad. The US has the capacity for total destruction anywhere it likes. Eventually, inevitably, somebody is going to start bombing children in Pakistan.

The only way to prevent people dying in war is to throw hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, pilots, mechanics, engineers, consultants, etc. out of work. Give me an off switch and I’ll flick it in a heartbeat. However, while the technological ability remains to kill people, people will be killed. Arseholes don’t kill people, but armies do, so get rid of the army.

Filed under: Foreign Affairs, Politics, Science, , , , , , , , ,

They looked from pig to man and man to pig…

Prime Minister David Cameron has said “gaps” in national security must be plugged but there was “still time” to meet civil liberties concerns.

Sigh.

Time was when governments wanted to take away our freedoms we  would at least get some rhetoric about how dangerous our enemy was, you know, imminent nuclear annihilation by an ideological enemy.

We had to fight the creators of brutal gulags, fight to free people were held in violation of habeas corpus. We had to liberate people from repressive police states where the criminal justice bureaucracy lobbied for more people to be locked up just to keep the money rolling in. The enemy was the snooping Stasi who pretended to need ever more powers. That’s not to mention the prevalence of secret trials and overseas, secret, detention and torture.

Of course, facing all those things we the citizens of the free world needed to take action… so now what do we do?

Filed under: Science, Society, , , , , , , ,

Today’s worst person in the world goes to the managers over at Phillip Morris

Manufacturing cigarettes is not something I have a problem with. Pointless hobby in my eyes, but someone has to make the things if someone wants to smoke them. In one of the worst PR moves I’ve seen (even if it is rather ingenious), Phillip Morris have put in a Freedom Of Information request at Stirling University for research into why kids start smoking.

Get ‘em while they’re young, as the Jesuits say, and they’re yours for life. Stirling University are fighting the request on the grounds that it would jeopardise future research and would involve the university in carrying out research for a tobacco giant they would never be allowed to themselves.

If I weren’t so appalled by the barefaced cheek I’d be impressed by the barefaced cheek.

Filed under: Science, Society

No limits to growth

This blog was originally started with the intent of having something of an environmentalist focus. Unfortunately, I immediately began finding environmentalists both smelly, and stupid. Okay, not smelly, but possibly stupid. Reports like this from the nef (new economics forum) declare that growth isn’t possible, or that it is incapable of producing real term increases in wellbeing. Both are simply false, both historically and in terms of our future prospects. First of all, they compare economic growth to the growth of a hamster. It makes me want to cheese grate my face, take a look:

Argh! Hamsters grow by converting more input, food, into more output, size, at least until adulthood. They stop growing when they reach their optimal size. They, like all animals begin to suffer from diminishing returns and stop growing at some point. Human beings are unique in that they can generate more output, food or televisions, from fewer inputs. I have some graphs to prove this, courtesy of J Bradford DeLong. Below is a graph showing human population, world value added, and world value added per person alive.

Look at those lines! Look at them! Those are log scales so you are seeing truly phenomenal growth rates for recent years, and a reasonable clip for earlier episodes of growth. Some in the green movement seem to argue that somewhere in the last few millimeters of those graphs that something unsustainable has happened, that something has snapped.

I don’t buy it. What I see in those graphs is that growth is natural. Their hamster analogy is utterly incorrect, human beings have always chased after growth and our number, wealth, wellbeing, has been increasing for a phenomenal length of time. In fact, I would agree with Eric Jones; what we see is growth recurring. The natural state of human existence is growth.

For most of human history we have seen extensive growth, growth which is exhibited in stagnant living standards and expanding living standards. The bottom graph shows that the last 200 years have seen intensive and extensive growth, humans have continued to expand their number, but our standard of living has continued to improve.

Growth is a natural state for human beings, when not restrained we seek better ways of doing things, we experiment, fail and succeed and adopt best practice methods. If that results in environmental damage the solution is not to suppress a natural progress but to make those causing damage pay for it, so they direct their will to growth to more intendedly productive and less accidentally destructive ends.

Societies that have barely grown, like Mao’s China or the Soviet Union, still saw tremendous environmental degradation. The Aral Sea has been drained of millions of litres of water through the middle of the 20th century, causing almost immeasurable suffering. Millions of bird were killed on Mao’s orders leading to an explosion of insects which damaged crops and wold plants in the 1960s.

Growth is not the problem, any large society (human or animal) which does not place a value on its natural resources will deplete them faster than makes sense. That is why hamsters don’t keep growing, they are limited by their natural resources because they cannot control themselves. Humans can control themselves, they can price natural resources and if we do that, then even a growing society can ensure ample natural resources.

*****

The nef also argue that growth is no longer capable of reducing poverty. That is bullshit. There is no polite way of putting it. Below is a graph of global poverty taken from Sala-I-Martin‘s recent work.

That isn’t redistribution which has done that, it is an increase in the productive power of rural poor in China and India. They have moved from low productivity agricultural work to slightly (and sometimes much) higher productivity work in manufacturing and services. Redistribution is not an efficient way to eliminate that poverty which remains, there is little point in giving a $300 annual stipend to a subsistence farmer. The poor need to adopt modern productive methods and the international division of labour and trade. That will offer far more security, solidarity and autonomy than any fickle redistribution of income.

*****

Growth is limited. If today’s global growth continues forever we eventually come up against the limits of entropy, if we want to create more order by arranging matter in a way useful to humans we have to create more disorder elsewhere. The nef argue that this means that human civilisation necessarily creates a mirror image of destruction in the natural world.

This massively underestimates how much energy exists in the world around us, and overestimates how much order human beings have created. Humans annually consume 15 terawatts of power. About 18 terawatts of power hit the earth every second from the sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation. We’re still, astronomically speaking, small fry. Although we’re capable of influencing our atmosphere, when it comes to entropic limits to growth, we’re far from hitting out limits.

*****

My argument is not that growth is always a priori beneficial or desired.

But I would argue that left to our own desires, even without impetus from debt obligations, shareholder value maximisation or neoliberal economics, people will still seek out more efficient ways of organising production and that will produce a combination of more economic growth and an increase in leisure. I want the world to improve its productivity to the point at which a four day week/three day weekend becomes socially acceptable in the same way that five day weeks/two day weekends are now socially acceptable. Only in a richer world will that happen, and that richer world is not necessarily one in which the environment is ravaged or humanity torn asunder.

Unfortunately, the human ingenuity that will get us there seems more likely to come up against the arbitrary limits of humanity before we hit any limits of the physical world.

Filed under: Economics, History, Politics, Science

Ben Goldacre makes me re-examine my moral compass

When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, Rolf Harris chose to take his own song “Two Little Boys” with him. When war broke out, Rolf explained, his father and uncle had both joined up, his father lying about his younger brother’s age so they could both join the fight. But their mother found out and dobbed them in, because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing both her sons so young. Rolf’s uncle joined up 2 years later when he came of age, was injured, and died on the front. Rolf’s dad was beside himself, and for the rest of his life he believed that no matter what the risks, if he had been in the same infantry, he could have crawled out and saved his younger brother, just like in the song. Rolf played “Two Little Boys” to his grandmother just once. She sat through it quietly, took it off at the end, and said quietly: “please don’t ever play that to me again”.

This story always makes me cry a little bit. 2 million people die of Aids every year. It never has the same effect.

Read the whole article.

Filed under: Science, Society

Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/517XTY44SBL._SS500_.jpg

This is a book that exists. This is a book that exists and is not a joke. This is a book that says that “Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right” and that the Earth is at the centre of the Universe. There’s a conference too!

Sometimes I have so much faith in humanity, but times like these I wonder how we’ve managed to survive these 6014 years.

Filed under: Science

Solar Power

I don’t smoke so I don’t have the back of a fag packet for this.

The earth receives about 274 million gigawatt-years of solar energy, which translates to an astonishing 8.2 million “quads” of Btu energy per year.

In case you haven’t heard, a “quad Btu” refers to one quadrillion British Thermal Units of energy, a common term used by energy economists. The entire human race currently uses about 400 quads of energy (in all forms) per year. Put another way, the solar energy hitting the earth exceeds the total energy consumed by humanity by a factor of over 20,000 times.”

So 1% of the earth’s surface covered by 1% efficient solar panels would generate more than double the amount of energy we need?

The earth’s surface is about 500,000,000 km³ so we need 5 million square kilometres of solar panels to feed the earth for the next couple of decades.

About half the Sahara or US should do it for world wide supply. We already get much of our energy from that fractious region so no additional problems there. If you’re not with that then two thirds of Australia will do at a push.

If we want it decentralised, then every country needs to have 1% of its surface area taken up by solar cells. The UK would need most of the Isle of Wight or to cover both Birmingham and Bristol completely.

Job done.

Next week, I reveal what killed the Dinosaurs and exactly why it is Archbishop Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI have such sinister voices.

Filed under: Economics, Foreign Affairs, Science

Not very NICE (via Atomic Spin)

Last week, the drugs regulatory body and tabloid scapegoat NICE decided not to allow funding for the bowel cancer drug Avastin on the grounds that spending £21,000 per patient to extend their life by, on average, six weeks was not an effective use of NHS funds (Ben Goldacre has a brilliant column on the media scrum surrounding this decision). It’s a difficult choice, and it must be devastating news for families of bowel cancer sufferers, but on b … Read More

via Atomic Spin

Filed under: Politics, Science

#MMR Shit Storm ahoy!

A mother whose son suffered severe brain damage after he was given the controversial MMR vaccine as a baby has been awarded £90,000 compensation.

The judgment is the first of its kind to be revealed since concerns were raised about the safety of the triple jab.

From the Daily Mail. Six facts;

  1. This is a tragedy and the long fight this family has faced deserves publication.
  2. However, we know that no medical procedure is without risk, including vaccination, even if in aggregate it is a good procedure.
  3. We know that there is no significant link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
  4. In this case we know it was in fact epilepsy, not autism, which presented following the vaccination.
  5. We also know that The Daily Mail are scaremongering bastards keen to take advantage of any vulnerable individual to push an agenda.
  6. Nadine Dorries MP for mid-Narnia is involved saying “If an independent panel has reached the conclusion that there has been a link between the MMR vaccine and the brain damage suffered by this boy in this case, then it is fair to assume that there could be as many as thousands of children and parents in the same position. There should be full and easy access to all documentation relating to the judgment for any parent or professional to read and assess.”

Five questions;

  1. Are there any new scientific developments in this case to merit the reopening the “debate” on MMR, given the the suffering already caused in increased Measles, Mumps and Rubella cases?
  2. If the MMR jab remains proven relatively safe (and no new research has been presented suggesting otherwise), is the above story merely the abuse of an anecdotal evidence?
  3. Has advantage been taken of this family’s tragic story push an anti-vaccine agenda?
  4. Couldn’t this have been a story about the difficulty in negotiating the legal system surrounding vaccinations rather than a quasi hatchet job on the MMR Vaccine?
  5. If The Daily Mail are merely pushing an agenda, as it appears, what has made them choose this particular campaign?

I would suggest “no,” “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” and “because they market themselves to a bunch of moralising fuckwits who use science when it seems to suit them (Wakefield) and insult it when it doesn’t (all subsequent research on MMR and autism).”

Any alternative answers anyone would like to submit, as I readily admit I have not had a chance to read the judgement of look at the medical records?

Filed under: Science, The Media

Long Comment from Liberal Conspiracy on Climate Change and Matt Murno, crossposted for posterity.

Falco,

Lots of people suggest the climate is not changing. That is why pages like this are necessary. They are becoming less numerous, but people who deny the climate is changing are out there. There is some argument over what is causing climate change, but the overwhelming body of evidence points to many made warming.

Watchman,

1. The actual measuring of temperatures is not consistent, is over-focussed on urban areas and airports, and is seriously incomplete over large areas.

Numerous studies into the effect of urban heat island effect and microsite influences find they have negligible effect on long-term trends, particularly when averaged over large regions.

2. Most predictions are models. Science cannot make a firm conclusion based on models, and the older models (i.e. those that have had a chance to be verified) have generally been proven wrong.

While there are uncertainties with climate models, they successfully reproduce the past and have made predictions that have been subsequently confirmed by observations.

3. The mechanisms involved in man-made global warming are not yet fully understood.

Natural climate change in the past proves that climate is sensitive to an energy imbalance. If the planet accumulates heat, global temperatures will go up. Currently, CO2 is imposing an energy imbalance due to the enhanced greenhouse effect. Past climate change actually provides evidence for our climate’s sensitivity to CO2.

4. The paleoclimatological reconstructions have been dominated by reconstructions which are statistically poor, over-reliant on small numbers of proxies and which do not fit with the recorded modern trend, making the claim that current warming is exceptional rather doubtful.

The divergence problem is a physical phenomenon – tree growth has slowed or declined in the last few decades, mostly in high northern latitudes. The divergence problem is unprecedented, unique to the last few decades, indicating its cause may be anthropogenic. The cause is likely to be a combination of local and global factors such as warming-induced drought and global dimming. Tree-ring proxy reconstructions are reliable before 1960, tracking closely with the instrumental record and other independent proxies.

Those are just the arguments available from http://www.skepticalscience.com and they are all peer review journal referenced, so you can go to the primary sources from the links provided.

Matt Murno,

You say: [You are] making up your definition of sceptic and then trying to say that because I don’t fit in your box I can’t be a sceptic.

I say: “The Western tradition of systematic skepticism goes back at least as far as Pyrrho of Elis (ca. 360 BC – ca. 270 BC). He was troubled by the disputes that could be found within all philosophical schools of his day. According to a later account of his life, he became overwhelmed by his inability to determine rationally which school was correct. Upon admitting this to himself, he finally achieved the inner peace that he had been seeking.”

I say: “In ordinary usage, skepticism (US) or scepticism (UK) (Greek: ‘σκέπτομαι’ skeptomai, to look about, to consider; see also spelling differences) refers to:

  • (a) an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object;
  • (b) the doctrine that true knowledge or certainty in a particular area is impossible; or
  • (c) the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster).

In philosophy, skepticism refers more specifically to any one of several propositions. These include propositions about:

  • (a) an inquiry,
  • (b) a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing,
  • (c) the arbitrariness, relativity, or subjectivity of moral values,
  • (d) the limitations of knowledge,
  • (e) a method of intellectual caution and suspended judgment.”

I say: That other climate change “sceptics” have attempted to hijack one of the oldest philosophical schools of thought to lend credence to an anti-science campaign.

I say that the climate science is at times unreliable but that we understand the climate better now than we ever have. Climate change “sceptics” have adopted anything but a sceptical attitude, they have become radically detached from any mainstream epistemological position and just declare “the models don’t work” (where there is evidence they do), moaning that “the evidence is corrupted” (where there is evidence it is not), whining “we need more research” (where that is exactly what we are doing.

My problem with the climate change “sceptic” position is that in large part it is not sceptical, it is the opposite. Closed minded people deriding evidence even when it is presented to them.

To conclude, I’d ask again Matt Munro, have you looked at http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php yet? Because you keep making the same mistaken arguments and I keep pointing you towards a site full of contrary evidence. If you were a sceptic, even by your own definition, you would have already looked at this site, and you would be able to tell me why you are unconvinced.

I propose the euthanasia of the epithet “climate change denier”, as someone who has been to Auschwitz any flippant reference to the holocaust has always stuck in my throat. Instead we should call these people climate change “sceptics”, with emphasis on the quotation marks. I’ll finishing by quoting about real climate change scepticism:

“The distinction between scepticism and non-belief is a crucial one. While scepticism is healthy, non-belief in the face of overwhelming evidence is the antipathy of scepticism. Recent climate scepticism has been characterised by a visceral mistrust of science, scientific institutions and scientific governance. Never mind that the case for climate change has been painstakingly pieced together over decades – climate change sceptics are busy writing it off on the basis of a few inconsistencies.

But embarrassingly for climate change sceptics, the people who have thought longest and hardest about what it means to be a truly sceptical thinker seem in a hurry to distance themselves from their fellow sceptics. Michael Marshall, from the Merseyside Skeptics group that organised the homeopathy overdose is clear about the legitimacy of climate change sceptics: “In our view, climate change sceptics are not sceptics. A sceptic looks at the available evidence and makes a decision, and for homeopathy the evidence is that it doesn’t work. But the sceptical position on climate change is that it is happening.”

Filed under: Blogging, Science

Zombie Ants

The oldest evidence of a fungus that turns ants into zombies and makes them stagger to their death has been uncovered by scientists.

The gruesome hallmark of the fungus’s handiwork was found on the leaves of plants that grew in Messel, near Darmstadt in Germany, 48m years ago.

The finding shows that parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control the creatures they infect in the distant past, even before the rise of the Himalayas.

The fungus, which is alive and well in forests today, latches on to carpenter ants as they cross the forest floor before returning to their nests high in the canopy.

The fungus grows inside the ants and releases chemicals that affect their behaviour. Some ants leave the colony and wander off to find fresh leaves on their own, while others fall from their tree-top havens on to leaves nearer the ground.

The final stage of the parasitic death sentence is the most macabre. In their last hours, infected ants move towards the underside of the leaf they are on and lock their mandibles in a “death grip” around the central vein, immobilising themselves and locking the fungus in position. [cont]

Filed under: Science

“Russians calling for action on climate change after extreme heatwave & years of denialism”

As Sunny tweets, the Russians have been beaten into submission by the brute force experience of a 1 in 1000 year heat wave. Subsequently Dmitry Medvedev has called for more action on fighting global warming.

If you are having trouble visualising this then this is what a 12 degree temperature anomaly looks like.

http://media.economist.com/images/images-magazine/2010/33/eu/201033eum941.gif

Little need for a narrative on this one, mother nature’s “the world is warming and you’re gonna burn” shtick seems to be doing the trick.

Extreme weather events certainly focus the mind, but these events are of course weather not climate and it would be foolish to base our arguments on them.

When deniers used this winter’s snow as evidence that the world was not warming they were mocked as idiots, we would deserve the same were the tables turned.

However, extremes of temperatures have been changing, and that change closely tracks what models of climate change would predict.

Extremes of temperatures have been becoming more frequent and are going to continue to become more frequent as Climate Change advances.

However, I hope no more lethal heatwaves will be necessary to convince everyone of that and for action to be taken.

Filed under: Science

Does China threaten the Environment?

If China did not exist as an excuse to avoid tackling Climate Change it would have to be invented.

In fact it has been invented, in a way. I cannot deny that China belches out a colossal volume of pollutants, but it is currently lifting people out of poverty in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

If Copenhagen overtly confirmed the West’s impotence in the face of rising emissions, the evidence of China’s efforts are a little more subtle so I hope you’ll let me explain. First of all though, the bad news.

The Guardian’s Datablog provides information comparing the energy consumption of China and the US. China has increased its consumption of energy almost threefold since 1990 and this is predicted to increase a lot more.

USCHINA_energy.gif

On a per capita basis, energy use per head of population, China has, dodgy national statistics notwithstanding, almost reached the average for the World; again, it is on a course to significantly overtake this.

So far, so bad. But now it is time for the good news.

There are lots of ways to produce wealth. The Soviet Union used lots of resources – more coal, more steel, more blood, more sweat, more tears, more everything – and for a while grew at an impressive pace, before running out of steam .

Other countries have found better ways to become rich, and it involves getting more output from a given amount of input. These are increases in Total Factor Productivity (TFP) and these are what make you and I rich, at least by historical or global standards.

In fact, TFP is so important that Robert Solow argues it has accounted for 80 percent of the long-term rise in U.S. per capita income with increased investment in capital explaining only the remaining 20 percent.

Between 1995-2005 (Hat Tip Duncan), of the 94 countries analysed China was ranked 5th in terms of rate of TFP growth. If we exclude countries which were recovering from the collapse of communism in Easter Europe, a one-off event, then no country enjoyed TFP growth like China did in the period.

That means that China got more growth, and more poverty alleviation, out of fewer inputs, and carbon emissions, than any other country.

There are two challenges facing mankind. One is poverty, something as old as time and which we only started beating 200 years ago, the other is Climate Change which is new and almost as big a threat.

Although far from perfect, China is doing everything we can reasonably expect and much more to tackle both. If we want to alleviate poverty and tackle Climate Change then we need to stop seeing China as a threat and view it as a blessing.

Filed under: Economics, Foreign Affairs, History, Science, Society

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