When I'm walking down the street with a group, I steadfastly ignore the Greenpeace guys with the clipboards, because I'm in the middle of a conversation with my friends and I don't want them interrupting it.
But today I was walking by myself on the way to get a burrito from La Bamba so I figured hey, why not engage this dude and see what he says.
He was part of a campaign to outlaw bottom-trawling worldwide.
I already know all about how destructive bottom-trawling is to coral reefs and other fragile marine habitats, and how much damage it causes for a minimal return of edible fish (most of what they dredge up just dies and is thrown overboard). It's basically strip-mining of the ocean. And I already know that a lot of fish populations are either near the point of collapse or have already collapsed. It's a really serious problem for global sustainability and it's a hard political problem because so much of it happens in international waters, so it requires treaties to address and even once passed any treaty is hard to enforce. I know all about that stuff and why it's a serious issue. So I kind of made the guy fast-forward through a lot of the shpiel he had prepared (hey, I needed to get my burrito and be back at work in time) and skip ahead to "So what can I do to help?"
What he wanted was for me to fill out a form right then and there to sign up for an automatically recurring monthly donation to Greenpeace, who would then use my name in petitioning the UN to ban bottom-trawling. Hmm.
I felt uncomfortable signing up on the spot for a continuing drain on my bank account without knowing anything more about the issue, the campaign, or the organization. I don't really know anything about Greenpeace and whether their tactics are ones I want to support financially. Are they ethical? Are they effective? Are there other issues I'd rather donate to? If I do want to oppose bottom-trawling, is Greenpeace the best group to do it through?
I mean, having guys stand on the corner hitting up random passers-by for recurring monthly donations seems like it must have an incredibly low success rate. It seems like the unlikliest possible way to get people involved. If that's the kind of outreach Greenpeace does, then are they really an organization that's going to use my donations efficiently?
I made the old "need to consult with my wife before committing to any payments. Joint bank account don't you know" excuse and refused to commit to joining or to give him my credit card information. He tried to give me the hard sell but I held firm.
What was very weird about the whole thing was that I suggested several alternatives that would allow me a chance to look into the details - do you have some info pamphlet that I could take home? Can you send me an email and maybe I'll donate through your website later? He categorically refused them all. The only transaction he would accept was me signing up for a monthly recurring payment right then and there. He was clearly following a script and that was the only way the script could end. This seemed really sketchy to me. This is not the behavior of a group that wants to engage in dialogue, educate people, or be open to input from volunteers. It's the behavior of a group who carved their tactics in stone long ago and just wants your money to keep doing what they're doing.
In the end I just had to say no and walk away.
I don't want to be somebody who throws money into the black hole of an organization I know nothing about, to fight for an issue I don't understand, and then says "There! I did my part for the environment, now I shall return to my mass-consumption lifestyle with a clear conscience." I feel like if I want to really make a difference I need to do my homework, find the right issue and the right group and actually do something.
Science/Technology link roundup, June 2012
China's first manned space docking mission was a success. A "Long March"rocket carrying three astronauts rendezvoused with the Tiangong 1 space-lab module which was put into orbit last year.
Japanese biologists grow a human eye precursor from stem cells. Not yet a functioning eyeball, but an embryonic proto-eyeball structure called an "optic cup". We've long known that in principle the structure of all the body's systems and organs is encoded in the DNA of a single cell, but this is the first time that a complex three-dimensional structure has been grown on its own from human cells. A future where we can grow replacement organs from our own DNA is going to be pretty cool.
Scientists in Long Island have mapped out the "wiring" of the mouse brain. This is not the same as knowing what every neuron in the mouse brain does. It's the equivalent of sequencing the genome, which doesn't tell us what every gene does but does provide the vital high-level framework and context for future exploration. This is the first vertebrate brain to be mapped at this level of detail and is considered a first step towards mapping the human brain. The team has made lots of hi-res images publicly available.
Google Research has trained a 9-layer deep neural network to recognize faces based on an unlabeled data set. The cool thing here is that the training data is unlabeled. Usually when you train a classifier to recognize faces, you have to give it a set of pictures with faces and a set of pictures without faces, so it can learn what to look for. In this research, Google just fed the neural network thousands of pictures without any labels and it learned to tell features apart, without any knowledge of what it was supposed to be looking for. It didn't just learn to recognize faces; it also learned to recognize several other common picture elements, such as the presence of cats.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has been using the same sort of "deep neural network" method to train a system for better speech recognition; they're using it to make audio files searchable, which is pretty cool.
I seem to recall my machine learning course at U of C teaching us that a neural network with lots of hidden layers doesn't perform any better than a neural network with just an input and output layer. Apparently the "deep training" Google and Microsoft are doing is based on a breakthrough that was made in 2006 -- the year after I graduated. Ha!
Google is working on augmented-reality glasses, too. That might be neat!
They are also releasing some sort of mystical black orb of doom that costs $300. But what does it do? Something music-related? I'll let the designer explain:
“The sphere is a zero primitive form,” Jones says. “It transcends into this third wave of electronics where the interface, Android, is on another device. So now the actual object doesn’t have the burden of direct manipulation. It can have any presence and gesture within the room, and this encourages you to interact with it.”
Thanks, that sure clears things up. I'm sure everybody will want one.
I had been vaguely aware that there existed proprietary pre-internet networks in Europe, but I had never heard about "Minitel" until I read this article about the rise and fall of France's own government-sponsored proto-internet service, which is finally going offline this year.
Do-it-yourself surveillance drones, because why should the military have all the fun?
Germany is trying to go completely green energy, shutting down its nuclear plants while aiming to cut greenhouse gases 40% by 2020. They describe this extremely ambitious plan as "Energiewende", an energy revolution.
A new paper by a group of 22 climate scientists and ecologists summarizes what we know on tipping points in ecosystems. You may have seen this research reported on various news sites with sensationalistic and attention-grabbing headlines like "WE'RE ABOUT TO PUSH THE EARTH OVER THE BRINK".
The actual paper, as far as I can tell, does not appear to make this claim; from what I've read it seems to be more like "our ecosystem models are prone to rapid phase transitions when they cross a tipping point; the earth might be too, so watch out". They do point out that human activity uses 43% of the earth's land surface and speculate that maybe something scary will happen when we pass 50%? They don't claim to know the answer. We might be approaching a tipping point, but we don't know when, or what it will be, or what the ecosystem will look like afterwards. It's all about uncertainty and the need to know more about how the global ecosystem works.
Unfortunately, no matter how nuanced scientists try to be in their actual statements, the media always turns it into "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE". This is a good reason to be skeptical of science reporting in mainstream media and to try to get as close as you can to the original research (unfortunately, the actual article in question is behind a paywall.)
Hurricane Sandy: Is this the new normal thanks to global warming?
The day after Hurricane Sandy I called my relatives in Connecticut. They're all OK, though they've lost power and they report major chunks of what used to be the beach are now missing. My family lives on Long Island Sound, meaning they were sheltered from the worst of the storm, but even so it ripped up reinforced concrete and threw boulders up the road. Here's a picture Googleshng sent me from his neighborhood:
I have seen some amazing/horrifying pictures from New York City like this one and this one showing the blacked-out part of Manhattan.
Sandy smashed records for size, water levels, and tied with the great hurricane of 1938 for the barometicr pressure record. It was the worst storm ever to hit New York City.
Here's a page that had live updates of the damage - videos of the jersey shore wiped out, subway tunnels flooded, and over 8 million people without power.
There were a lot of fake pictures (either Photoshopped, or real-but-not-actually-from-Hurricane-Sandy) circulating. The Atlantic ran a guide to telling real pictures from fake ones. The one with the shark swimming down the street, and the one with the scuba diver int he subway, were 'shopped. It's not like the real ones aren't bad enough!
I've heard estimates of 20-50 billion dollars worth of damages, or about ten billion per day. (That's still less than Katrina!)
The thought that came to me as I watched the destruction unfold: Is this the new normal? With ocean levels rising and ocean temperatures increasing and extreme weather getting more common, are we going to look back on this decade as the start of the era of continuous, massive flooding of coastal cities and a never-ending refugee crisis?
The Onion read my mind with a non-fiction piece masquerading as satire: Nation Realizes this is just going to be a thing that happens from now on.
Three-quarters of the Arctic ocean melted this summer. We had a massive crop-destroying drought throughout the central USA. It's really hard to keep denying that the earth is warming, though some still argue that it's a natural process and not caused by humans. However, even a "natural process" can still kill us.
Bad Astronomy talks about how Sandy was made worse by warmer ocean temperatures. He calls it "The world's largest metaphor" and says it should be "a shot of adrenaline to the heart".
"We have a 100-year flood every two years now," said New York Governer Cuomo. "We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems and that is not a good combination."
NY Mayor Bloomberg says "anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality".
The sea level in New York harbor is already about a foot higher than it was in 1900. That's not a prediction, that's a measurement.
And yet, we have a candidate running for president (Romney) who openly mocks the idea of sea levels rising.
He also wants to de-fund FEMA, the federal agency that responds to disasters.
FEMA, which I hear has been working a lot better under Obama than it did under Bush. Enough that New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has been campaigning for Romney all along, stopped to praises Obama's leadership of the hurricane response. Because, surprise, when you staff a federal agency with competent people instead of partisan flunkies, and when you're trying to make the government work instead of trying to prove your "government-is-always-incompetent-so-cut-everything-to-pay-for-tax-cuts-for-millionaires" ideology, then an agency like FEMA can do its job.
Yeah, I know, I should feel dirty even to be thinking "how will this hurricane affect the election" -- but look: responding to, and preventing, tragedies is one of the important functions of the federal government and the candidates have very different ideas about this function. Disasters are already political, whether we "politicize" them or not. Disaster preparedness/response is relevant to the election and vice versa. Far more relevant than, say, how many horses Romney's family has or whether Obama is going to show Donald Trump his college transcripts or any of the other stupid, stupid stuff that the media used as News-Like Filler Product all year.
The longtime predictions of climate scientists are coming true, and if Manhattan being underwater is the new normal, I would really like to have a government that's not in denial about it.
"I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist"
Mark Lynas, who was a leader in the British anti-GM (genetically modified) food movement, has changed his mind and is now renouncing his former position. (Video is about an hour long including Q&A session, but there's a transcript if you wanna skim.)
He says that arguing with global-warming denialists taught him the importance of reading the original scientific research on a topic, and when he applied that method to the GM debate, he found that the fears he'd been propogating had little evidence to suppor them. He now says that GM crops, by feeding more people from the same area of land, and thereby preserving wilderness from agriculture, have been a net positive for the environment, and that trying to ban them is counterproductive.
The whole thing is worth reading, both for his description of his personal journey and for the details of the argument he presents. I respect somebody who is willing to change his mind based on the evidence. Far too many people, when faced with evidence that they're wrong, look for excuses and double-down on their challenged beliefs.
I think this is pretty important for anyone who wants to call themselves an environmentalist. Not just the facts about GM, but the philosophy of applying intellectual rigor to your pet issues. Good intentions are not enough.
Terrifying Global Warming Links
Arctic "death spiral" leaves climate scientists shocked and worried | The Vancouver Observer
As the chart above shows, three-quarters of the "permanent", year-round sea ice in the Arctic has been cooked away in just 30 years. Over half of it has disappeared in just the last eight years. A vast expanse of ice larger than the European Union has vanished. What's left is half the area and only half as thick. Now some ice experts are saying what remains could be gone in as little as ten years -- or even four... This jaw-dropping acceleration of Arctic sea ice collapse is completely out-stripping the worst case scenarios of the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The Last Time CO2 Was This High, Humans Didn't Exist | Climate Central
The news that CO2 is near 400 ppm for the first time highlights a question that scientists have been investigating using a variety of methods: when was the last time that CO2 levels were this high, and what was the climate like back then?... There is no single, agreed-upon answer to those questions as studies show a wide date range from between 800,000 to 15 million years ago. The most direct evidence comes from tiny bubbles of ancient air trapped in the vast ice sheets of Antarctica. By drilling for ice cores and analyzing the air bubbles, scientists have found that, at no point during at least the past 800,000 years have atmospheric CO2 levels been as high as they are now... That means that in the entire history of human civilization, CO2 levels have never been this high.
Even in the best-case scenario, climate change will kick our asses | Grist
2 degrees warming probably equates to about a one-meter rise in sea level this century. Thatâ€™s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees... The environmental-refugee problem becomes eye-poppingly scary when you look at the 150 million people living in Bangladesh. A one-meter sea level rise would swamp about 17 percent of the country.
Direct air carbon capture technology must be developed to help fight climate change. - Slate Magazine
Indeed, even moving relatively quickly toward a carbon-neutral economy will still result in a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere for the foreseeable future. But that is moot, because we are nowhere close to moving quickly in this regard anyway. Fossil fuel reserves have effectively increased, due to improved technologies for extraction, and investment in alternative energy sources has been limited due to artificially low prices on carbon-based energy. As a result, 2012 was likely another record year for human-induced CO2 production.
... As an upcoming paper being prepared by 15 of the participants* at the meeting will argue, we came to a broad consensus that there is an increasingly urgent need to seriously consider removing and sequestering CO2 directly from our atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide and global warming: More is NOT better - Bad Astronomy
This idea that CO2 isnâ€™t dangerous has been a denier talking point for some time now, but that doesnâ€™t make it any less ridiculous. They claim that CO2 is just a natural and â€śharmless byproduct of natureâ€ť, which is bonkers; try living on Venus to see why.
Why are the bees all dying?
Soaring Bee Deaths in 2012 Sound Alarm on Malady - NYTimes.com
A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nationâ€™s fruits and vegetables... A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.
Why You Should Care That Nearly A Third Of U.S. Honey Bees Died Last Winter | ThinkProgress
In April, the European Union implemented a two-year ban on three neonicotinoids... Despite the fact that at least 30 laboratory studies have linked neonicotinoids to bee die offs... the multibillion-dollar chemical industry has fought against a ban on neonicotinoids, rejecting the scientific evidence that the pesticides are contributing to bee deaths.