Sunday, January 11, 2015

Half a Degree and Harvest Failure. Why We Need to Understand Climate Change

In his January 8th Albuquerque Journal essay on climate, George Will made two major points. One, that since climate varies naturally, humans cannot be "primary disruptors of climate normality". There is a fallacy here: because climate varies without our help doesn't mean we can’t have an important impact. Mr. Will discusses historical climate change and the impact even minor climate variations have on human civilization,  noting that temperature changes as small as half a degree centigrade can determine crop success or failure. Because small changes in climate can have large impacts on critical human activities, we need to study and understand climate, and all the influences causing its change.

Climate responds to how much heat the earth receives from the Sun, to how much of that heat the planet retains, and to how it is distributed on the earth.  Variations in solar output (often correlated to sunspot cycles), wobbles in the Earth's orbit (Milankovich cycles), slow changes in the arrangements of the continents and oceans due to plate tectonics, eruptions of volcanoes that release climate-impacting particles and gases to the atmosphere, and variations in how ocean currents and water masses (i.e., the Gulf Stream, Japan Current, El Nino/Southern Oscillation) distribute heat to the planet influence global climate. The chemical makeup of the atmosphere controls how it retains or loses heat to space, acting as a giant radiator. In essence, its a complicated system; these processes work on different time scales and to make matters interesting, there are feedback loops between these processes.

The reason we worry about using fossil fuels is that when they are burned, they release their carbon as carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2, as well as water vapor and methane,  are important "greenhouse" or Tyndall gases. These gases, because of their molecular structures, absorb and re-radiate to the atmosphere infrared energy that would otherwise simply escape back to space, an effect studied since the early eighteen hundreds by scientists including Joseph Fourier, Svante Arrhenius, and John Tyndall. Moving large quantities of carbon as CO2 to the atmosphere from carbon sources long buried in the earth makes humans agents of climate change. This is because we are changing the atmosphere's effectiveness in retaining more of the Sun's energy. Some estimate that without any Tyndall gases in the atmosphere, the earth's climate would be some tens of degrees colder. We have, in a little over a hundred years, increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by some forty percent and we are not slowing down. Sixty to seventy percent of the Earth’s greenhouse warming is due to water vapor while carbon dioxide provides just a few degrees (NASA's Cosmos). But as Mr. Will reminds us, a few degrees can be profound. Both cooling and heating of the earth impact human and biological activities, weather patterns, and sea level.

Our ability since the Industrial Revolution to change atmospheric chemistry and thus the atmosphere's ability to retain the sun's heat, in a nutshell, is why humans can profoundly (at least with respect to our own existence) impact climate. Since as Mr. Will tells us, even small changes in climate can be the difference between feast and famine, we really do need to recognize two things. One, humans influence climate, and I've just described one important way in which we do so. There are others; not all might produce warming. Two, we need to understand how the Earth works and how we impact it if we are to manage rather than react to change, sometimes feasting, sometimes starving, often not knowing what to expect next.

This was published in the 25 January 2015 Albuquerque Journal, complete with the original comma splices.... 
Judy Curry on climate: WSJ: The global warming statistical meltdown.

Climate Heretic: Judith Curry Turns on her Colleagues (Sci American, reprinted in Nature)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Idealism vs. Idealism....

Interesting contrast in idealism.

For Jihad Recruits, a Pipeline From Minnesota to Militancy

Los Alamos Native Seeks Help For His International Battalion

In one case, Minnesota youths become radicalized Islamists and join an international assortment of young men fighting for ISIS; later two die in service of their "ideals". In another case, a young man from Los Alamos joins an international assortment of volunteers who have formed a brigade as part of the Israeli Defense Force as they head off to fight in that cauldron of violence, injustice, and evenly matched political pig-headedness, Gaza. Seems to me the last thing the Middle East needs is more young idealists heading over there to kill each other. Maslow's Hammer, you know.

I'm sure no one in the FBI or State Dept. will object too strongly if we send money to Jonathan Miller, but I would check with the Feds before I wrote a check.. Try writing a check to those Minnesota boys who joined ISIS and see how fast Uncle Sam's black SUVs will be pulling up to your door.

There is certainly no equivalence between ISIS and Israel, but there is an equivalence of young men overwhelmed with idealism, following their bliss, and taking up arms for what they consider a just cause--and killing other people. We just don't know except in retrospect if the cause is really just. Many men came back from Vietnam pretty jaded. Or for that matter, from more recent conflicts. Heck, there was a time in my life when I lustily cheered on the IDF, my first name notwithstanding. I'm a little more detached these days. That's what age and history does to you.

It seems to me that if young American men want to join an army, it ought to be ours. Or, become a citizen of another country. Abraham Lincoln Brigade notwithstanding.

Added later.

Valerie Harris has attacked me and my letter, which is certainly her right, just as it is my right to criticize young men for volunteering to join various Middle Eastern military or terrorist organizations when it is apparent that neither military force nor terrorism have a ghost of a chance of solving the problems endemic to the region for the last half century.

Indeed, Mr. Miller's request was for equipment that would be used as his unit marches off towards Gaza, which is the latest scene of violence and devastation in a region long used to senseless acts of tit for tat attack and retribution.

Ms. Harris could not, however, do a better job of conflating Israel the nation-state with Judaism the religion or with the Jewish community in order to shut down any criticism of the nation-state by hanging the threat of an accusation of religious intolerance or hate crime over the heads of those with which she disagrees. Such conflations are highly unfortunate, and to some degree, are red herrings.

I truly hope that Mr. Miller gets home safe and sound, whether home is in the US or State of Israel, but also wish that all of the various adversaries in the Middle East would find a more constructive way than bombs and rockets to solve their problems. The State of Israel is a fact of life and it is not going away nor should it contract to indefensible borders. The inhabitants of the region would be well advised to find constructive ways to live together rather than fight each other. I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Can You Tell Ferguson from Fallujah? These Guys Sure Can't.


The over-militarization of the police in many American jurisdictions, egged on by Dept. of Homeland Security grants and the Pentagon's 1033 program that gifts (taxpayer funded) surplus military equipment to police departments, is coming home to roost in excesses of violence and Constitutional infringements. SWAT teams are no longer small elite units dedicated to potentially high violence situations, but are the go-to units for a wide variety of mundane jobs as discussed in The Economist (i.e., checking barber shops for licenses, raiding low-stakes poker games, raiding homes for a thousand bucks worth of stolen clothes, checking bars for underage drinking, etc, etc).  Regulatory inspections have become no-knock, warrantless searches and mistakes are being made as trigger happy cops are shooting innocent people (and occasionally being shot themselves) as citizens, er, I mean enemies, wonder who the hell is breaking down their door.

As Radley Balco (book author, Washington Post writer) has said quite eloquently, this has gone too far.  The only beneficiary is the bloated military industrial complex, where arms suppliers can keep building and selling stuff like MRAPs to the military, which can then pawn the stuff off on the police, making it look like there is not as much waste. Meanwhile, the waste continues, in the form of  the people wasted by militarized cops, and the deluge of your tax dollars continuing to fall into a Federal black hole. Indeed, some of these police forces seem to have fallen victim to Maslow's Hammer, i.e., when all you have are warfighters and MRAPs, everything looks like a war.

Data on Transfer of Military Gear to Police Departments (NY Times)


"...Make no mistake, I don’t want to see operators in MRAPs smashing through a front door to serve a No Garage Sale Permit warrant. But I also don’t want an innocent victim to bleed out in front of a house where a lunatic is firing an AK. If an MRAP can be used to rescue that victim, I’m all for it...."  --Chris Hernandez, police officer and army vet writing "Cops, MRAPs, and the Heartbreak of Police Operator Syndrome"
 I find it rather predictable that nowhere in this latest confrontation between citizens and police who have been over-militarized by the Dept of Defense's Excess Property Program has there been a hue and cry from the militia and Tea Party types who love to rail against how Big Government has intruded on our freedoms and Constitutional rights.  I am sure the folks in Ferguson would agree, if they were asked. I wonder where those militia types who rallied behind deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy are right now. Would they give a rat's ass about these people?  Sure is quiet out there.

There was a mythical time long ago where Hill Street Precinct Captain Frank Furillo kept SWAT Team Leader Lt. Howard Hunter under a tight leash, only letting the team loose as an absolute last resort; there are times you damn well need them. But it seems to me that old Howard "never saw a situation he couldn't use to deploy a SWAT team" is now running the show. Of course, fiction preceded fact. Recall that episode when Hunter buys the flamethrowing tank?

"...Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Whether With the Pen or Gun, It Helps To Hit the Target

Vincent Chravalle's recent Daily Post letter opposing gun control laws and attacking his primary opponent has been followed by a series of opinions on the subject (here and here) and more recently, a scathing one by John Pawlak attacking National Rifle Association members. This elicited a response by Dee Alei, questioning Mr. Pawlak's choice of tactics, insulting his opponents rather than attacking the quality of their ideas or lack thereof.

Rarely does anything rile up residents of Los Alamos to the point of replacing reason with vitriol; that one thing being roundabouts. But even during the most contentious roundabout hearings before the Transportation Board, which I chaired for most of those discussions, I can only think of one instance when a member of the audience loudly engaged in name calling (and to clarify, both of my parents are members of Homo sapiens). Therefore it surprised me when Mr. Pawlak forgot to secure his cannon before opening fire.

The pen is still mightier than the gun or sword, but regardless of the tool, one has to hit the target.  The gun discussion in America stays heated, in part due to the continued carnage caused by the misuse of firearms and the response of outraged citizens to these events. Thus eliciting equally heated responses  from those who never misuse a weapon but feel like they are being targeted for exercising what is by state and federal definition, a Constitutional right.

But regardless of how much we have heated up the discussion, the problems have all remained, as this past weekend's events in and around Santa Barbara, CA remind us.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

County Ordinance 02-223 and Firearms Rights

In a Letter to the Editor in the Daily Post, Mr. Vincent Chiravalle conflates a 2012 County ordinance regulating the discharge of firearms and archery equipment within the county with gun control laws meant to prevent the commission of violent gun crimes but as an unfortunate side effect of these laws, place the burden for compliance on law abiding citizens.

Here is the ordinance in question:

Sec. 28-181. Discharging firearms and other hunting devices.

It is unlawful to fire or discharge a firearm or any muzzleloader of any description within 1,000 yards, or any bow and arrow, crossbow, or other hunting device within 150 yards of any dwelling, house, inhabited building or any area or place where livestock is regularly kept or housed; provided, however, that any person may discharge a firearm or other hunting devices when reasonably necessary to carry out his duty or to exercise a legal right or privilege or when the discharge is within a lawfully operated shooting range.

Nothing herein shall preclude the safe use of bow and arrows or crossbows confined exclusively within private property.

(Ord. No. 74-78, § 10-1-19, 1983; Code 1985, § 9.24.010; Ord. No. 02-223, § 1, 2-28-2012)

I don't see this ordinance as addressing violent crime, in any way restricting my 2nd Amendment rights, or adding an undue burden such as licensing, registration, or background checks. Indeed, such a move by a municipality in New Mexico is explicitly prohibited by Art. II, § 6. the New Mexico State Constitution:
No law shall abridge the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms for security and defense, for lawful hunting and recreational use and for other lawful purposes, but nothing herein shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons.  No municipality or county shall regulate, in any way, an incident of the right to keep and bear arms.  Art. II, § 6 (first sentence enacted in 1971, second sentence added 1986).

What I see in 28-181 is a common sense safety regulation that ensures we don't accidentally shoot each other or each other's animals by hunting or target shooting in developed areas where one cannot always vouch for the safety of what is downrange. Such locations include not only residential areas but our heavily used trails on the mesas and in the canyons. I don't think such restrictions are unusual, and are consistent with good firearms practice. Indeed, when I first started handling guns as a kid, the first thing my dad, an NRA Life Member, taught me was "always be sure of your backstop and what is downrange of your target".

I recall there being some discussion in 2012 regarding the final wording of this ordinance, and I am not aware of the original wording. Apparently, there was discussion among stakeholders before the final draft of the ordinance was passed. That's how the system should work.

I thank Mr. Chiravalle for his promise, if elected, to protect my 2nd Amendment rights, but I think as far as this ordinance was concerned, he is shooting at the wrong target. Meanwhile, we have had yet another senseless, mass shooting in the United States, this one, by a demented student, at UC Santa Barbara. While the pro and anti-gun folks continue to talk past each other, no one has implemented a meaningful way to both protect our 2nd Amendment rights and our right to be free from deranged lunatics with a chip on their shoulder and a deadly weapon in their pocket.
The Only Thing Stopping a Homicidal Lunatic With Three Guns???
 NY Times story and photo here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A preventable and tragic death: Some Lessons

Google maps view. 
Black line is the route of a cyclist riding the 
rail-trail, south to north. Ms. LeBeau was riding
 north and crossed the tracks 
at the crossing just S. of Zia.

On Saturday morning, April 19th, Suzanne LeBeau, an avid cyclist, was killed when she rode her bicycle directly into the path of the southbound Rail Runner train at the point where the Santa Fe Rail Trail crosses the tracks just south of the Zia Road rail crossing. According to discussions with a Journal reporter, she was travelling northbound on the rail trail, which jogs briefly east to cross the tracks and then continues north on the west side of South St. Francis.

Commenters to a local TV outlet claim she was wearing some sort of headphones or earphones. This has not been confirmed by the ongoing police investigation. Presumably if earphones were present, they will be discovered.

Also relevant is that rail trail runs parallel to S. St. Francis at that location and approaches from behind the train station. A cyclist riding north at that point will be screened for a while and then looking at the sides of the lights and crossing arms in a large and busy intersection. The cyclist will also be looking directly towards the southbound train. Although we are told "...the (Santa Fe Police) department stated that the railroad barrier arms, safety lights, warning sirens and the train’s horn were all activated and working properly..." readers must note that there are in fact no barriers or safety lights whatsoever at the actual rail trail crossing used by cyclists!

We will never know everything that happened on Saturday to cause this tragedy, as Suzanne is not here to explain it. My condolences go out to her family and to the train engineer, who was powerless to stop events.

Are there lessons here for cyclists, municipal planners, and facility designers?

First, the cyclist must always maintain his or her situational awareness and anticipate hazards. We must constantly be asking "what can happen at this intersection or crossing and what will I do about it". Whether the cyclist was wearing headphones is less relevant than how a cyclist compensates for the loss of critical sensory information under potentially adverse conditions. Darkness, cold (requiring headgear), high winds, and other inclement situations can compromise one's sensory safety envelope and require adjustment. Distracted riding, or riding with a lot on your mind can be perilous as it takes away your ability to sense and evaluate danger.

Secondly, the design standards we require for trails should be comparable to those for an immediately adjacent roadway -- if there are barriers and lights for a busy roadway, why not for a key rail trail crossing at that very busy intersection and for the same reasons: we anticipate people will need advance warning of conditions at a busy intersection or crossing. Indeed, this is not just any trail, but a major part of Santa Fe's offroad bicycle network, made necessary because many of its major roads (and especially its state-managed highways such as St. Francis Drive) are decidedly bicyclist-unfriendly, thus requiring off road workarounds. In this context, it is not clear to me why a cyclist should fail to benefit from some sort of warning light or barrier system similar to that enjoyed by motorists. This is especially true because a cyclist arriving via the Rail Trail is riding at right angles to the barriers and warning lights. Is it possible that this reduced visibility coupled with background visual clutter did not give the warning that the designers assumed?

Some of this discussion goes to the very heart of defining the roles of the cyclist and the government in maintaining roadway safety. We have to balance personal responsibility with an appropriate government role in building safe, well-engineered facilities. Let's reexamine these roles today, and not let Suzanne LeBeau die in vain.

The author, me, has been heavily involved in cycling advocacy for a quarter century. I am a League Cycling Instructor, board member of the Bicycle Coalition of New Mexico, a member of the Los Alamos County Transportation Board and while a member have contributed to the 2005 Los Alamos Bike Plan and 2010 Complete Streets ordinance. I am currently chair of the LANL Traffic Safety Committee, While president of the Hawaii Bicycling League, I assisted in the creation of the Honolulu Bicycle Master Plan (1999).  Having said that, the comments above are mine alone and are not endorsed or blessed by any of those entities. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Creating Jobs: Is It Really Business vs. Government?

43rd District GOP candidate Vincent Chiravalle and others, one here have recently batted back and forth the idea of job creation and whether Government is involved in a constructive or negative way. I think both sides miss the point a little, or perhaps their letters are not long enough to elaborate.

First off, its rather hilarious to think that in little Los Alamos County, government does not create jobs. Without that 900 pound Federal gorilla in town redistributing other people's tax dollars (Vince and I both work there), "...the woman who does your nails, the local organic farmer, artists and musicians, your landscaper and the restaurant owner..." would not even be here. Perhaps a feed store and a general store, and if it had not been moved, a small private school would be all that would exist on the Hill. Indeed, New Mexico's economy is quite dependent on public sector, i.e., government jobs and indeed there are legions of stories about overregulation and public sector faceplants to be found.

But in the bigger picture, it has to be a fruitful collaboration of good government and good business practice that creates an advantageous environment for an economy to grow. Reliable and state of the art public services and utilities, high quality public education, fair taxation to provide essential services, and laws that provide a good regulatory roadmap to guide the private sector while ensuring the pubic and its land are protected against short-sighted goals that create long term costly side effects, are all essential ingredients for a robust and sustainable economy. Business, in turn, has to provide a good product and act in a way that instills the trust of the public and its work force, both in its products and business practices. It also has to make enough money and endure a tolerable amount of red tape if we want Joe's Business to want to stay in business rather than voting its feet! The purpose of elections is to air out the competing public interests that inevitably arise in these discussions, let the competition of ideas give us better solutions, and let the voter decide on priorities.

Let's stop putting black and white hats on people and institutions. There is too much to do in the 21st Century for us to be arguing over cardboard-cutout adversaries. Meanwhile, I thank Vince, Geoff Rogers, Stephanie Garcia-Richards, and any other candidates I've forgotten, for giving us good people to choose from in the coming 43rd District election. Plus, I thank all the local businesspeople for providing us the services that make Los Alamos a great place to live and work.