Johniac: Musings of a 50-Something Geek
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
The fraggle had it coming. | Anna Young made this.
Online Personalization Creates Echo Chamber to Affirm Biases - NYTimes.com
The Trouble With the Echo Chamber Online
By NATASHA SINGER
ON the Web, we often see what we like, and like what we see. Whether we know it or not, the Internet creates personalized e-comfort zones for each one of us.
Give a thumbs up to a movie on Netflix or a thumbs down to a song on Pandora, de-friend a bore on Facebook or search for just about anything on Google: all of these actions feed into algorithms that then try to predict what we want or don’t want online.
And what’s wrong with that?
Plenty, according to Eli Pariser, the author of “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.” Personalization on the Web, he says, is becoming so pervasive that we may not even know what we’re missing: the views and voices that challenge our own thinking.
“People love the idea of having their feelings affirmed,” Mr. Pariser told me earlier this month. “If you can provide that warm, comfortable sense without tipping your hand that your algorithm is pandering to people, then all the better.”
Mr. Pariser, the board president of the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org, recounted a recent experience he had on Facebook. He went out of his way to “friend” people with conservative politics. When he didn’t click on their updates as often as those of his like-minded contacts, he says, the system dropped the outliers from his news feed.
Personalization, he argues, channels people into feedback loops, or “filter bubbles,” of their own predilections.
Facebook did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
In an ideal world, the Web would be a great equalizer, opening up the same unlimited vistas to everyone. Personalization is supposed to streamline discovery on an individual level.
It’s certainly convenient.
If you type “bank” into Google, the search engine recognizes your general location, sending results like “Bank of America” to users in the United States or “Bank of Canada” to those north of the border. If you choose to share more data, by logging into Gmail and enabling a function called Web history, Google records the sites you visit and the links you click. Now if you search for “apple,” it learns and remembers whether you are looking for an iPad or a Cox’s Orange Pippin.
If you’re a foodie, says Jake Hubert, a Google spokesman, “over time, you’ll see more results for apple the fruit not for Apple the computer, and that’s based on your Web history.”
The same idea applies at Netflix. As customers stream movies, the recommendation system not only records whether those viewers generally enjoy comedies but also can fine-tune suggestions to slapstick or more cerebral humor, says John Ciancutti, the company’s vice president for personalization technology.
But, in a effort to single out users for tailored recommendations or advertisements, personalization tends to sort people into categories that may limit their options. It is a system that cocoons users, diminishing the kind of exposure to opposing viewpoints necessary for a healthy democracy, says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and the author of “You Are Not a Gadget.”
“People tend to get into this echo chamber where more and more of what they see conforms to the idea of who some software thinks they are — like a Nascar dad who likes samurai swords,” Mr. Lanier says. “You start to become more and more like the image of you because that is what you are seeing.”
Mr. Lanier, who is currently doing research at a Microsoft lab, emphasized that his comments were his own personal opinions.
If you want to test your own views on personalization, you could try a party trick Mr. Pariser demonstrated earlier this year during a talk at the TED conference: ask some friends to simultaneously search Google for a controversial term like gun control or abortion. Then compare results.
“It’s totally creepy if you think about it,” said Tze Chun, a filmmaker who agreed to participate in a similar experiment at a recent dinner party we both attended in Brooklyn. Five of us used our phones to search for “Is Osama really dead?,” a phrase Mr. Chun suggested.
Although our top 10 results included the same link — to Yahoo Canada answers — in first place, two of us also received a link to a post on jewishjournal.com, a newspaper site. Meanwhile, Mr. Chun and two other filmmakers had links to more conspiratorial sites like deadbodies.info.
For Mr. Chun, who visits a variety of true-crime Web sites as part of his screenplay research but tends to favor sites that sell vintage T-shirts in his private life, the personalization felt a little too, well, personal.
“You are used to looking at the Internet voyeuristically,” he said. “It’s weird to have the Internet looking back at you and saying, ‘Yeah, I remember things about what you have done’ and gearing the searches to those sites.”
With television, people can limit their exposure to dissenting opinions simply by flipping the channel, to, say, Fox from MSNBC. And, of course, viewers are aware they’re actively choosing shows. The concern with personalization algorithms is that many consumers don’t understand, or may not even be aware of, the filtering methodology.
Personalized Web services, Mr. Pariser says, could do more to show users a wider-angle view of the world.
But some of the most popular sites say they have already built diversity into their personalization platforms.
“People value getting information from a wide variety of perspectives, so we have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page,” said Mr. Hubert, the Google spokesman. He added that the company looked forward to “carefully reviewing Mr. Pariser’s analysis of this important issue.”
At Netflix, the system recommends a mix of titles, some with high confidence of viewer enjoyment and others about which it is less sure, Mr. Ciancutti says. Netflix’s flat monthly rate for unlimited streaming, he adds, encourages people to select films, like documentaries, that they might not have chosen otherwise.
INDIVIDUAL users could also do their part.
Mr. Pariser suggests people sign up for a range of feeds on Twitter, where the posts are unfiltered. Mr. Lanier suggests Tea Party members swap laptops for a day with progressives and observe the different results that turn up on one another’s search engines.
If we don’t chip away at the insulation of consensus, they caution, the promise of the World Wide Web could give way to a netherworld of narcissism Net.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Let’s stop blaming America | ARAB NEWS
Let’s stop blaming America
Published: May 27, 2011 21:06 Updated: May 27, 2011 21:06
We are still the prisoners of a culture of conspiracy and inferiority
I AM a proud and loyal Saudi citizen, but I am tired of hearing constant criticism from most Arabs of everything the United States does in its relations with other countries and how it responds to global crises. No nation is perfect, and certainly America has made its share of mistakes such as Vietnam, Cuba and Iraq. I am fully aware of what happened when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unprecedented abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. However, what would we do if America simply disappeared from the face of the earth such as what happened to the Soviet Union and ancient superpowers like the Roman and Greek empires? These concerns keep me up day and night. It’s frustrating to hear this constant drumbeat of blame directed toward the United States for everything that is going wrong in the world. Who else do we think of to blame for our problems and failures? Do we take personal responsibility for the great issues that affect the security and prosperity of Arab countries? No, we look to America for leadership and then sit back and blame it when we don’t approve of the actions and solutions it proposes or takes.
For instance, if a dictator seizes and holds power such as Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi, fingers are pointed only at America for supporting these repressive leaders. If the people overthrow a dictator, fingers are pointed at America for not having done enough to support the protestors. If a nation fails to provide its people with minimum living standards, fingers are pointed at America. If a child dies in an African jungle, America is criticized for not providing necessary aid. If someone somewhere sneezes, fingers are pointed at America. Many other examples exist, too numerous to mention.
I am not pro-American nor am I anti-Arab, but I am worried that unless we wake up, the Arab world will never break out of this vicious and unproductive cycle of blaming America. We must face the truth: Sadly, we are still the prisoners of a culture of conspiracy and cultural inferiority. We have laid the blame on America for all our mistakes, for every failure, for every harm or damage we cause to ourselves. The US has become our scapegoat upon whom our aggression and failures can be placed. We accuse America of interfering in all our affairs and deciding our fate, although we know very well that this is not the case as no superpower can impose its will upon us and control every aspect of our lives. We must acknowledge that every nation, no matter how powerful, has its limitations.
Moreover, we conveniently forget that America’s role is one of national self-interest, not to act as a Mother Teresa. Every great nation throughout history has used its power and gained ascendancy in order to serve its own strategic interests. America is not just its foreign policy. We must not forget who promoted education and respected learning, who took on research as a way to discovery, who made the airplane that carries us to our destination and the luxurious car we want to own, who created the Internet and developed social media that has transformed the way we do business and interact with one another, who conducted the scientific research that has saved lives and treated cancer, renal failure, AIDS, malaria, poliomyelitis, and who discovered genetic engineering. When man walked on the Moon, it was an American. Who did Japan turn to for help after the devastating earthquake and tsunami? America that led and organized the international relief effort of the Red Cross. Who do people turn to for support when their leaders seek to brutalize them? Who organized NATO air cover and saved the Libyan city of Benghazi from certain destruction by Qaddafi’s brutal armed forces?
Anyone who is a student of history knows that America is simply doing what all other civilizations before it have done for thousands of years, which is to protect and further its own self-interest. The Greek civilization could not have lasted had it not served its own interests, and the same applies to the Persian, Roman, and Chinese civilizations. All of these civilizations put their own welfare before all others, and by doing so, they strived to achieve great things. The truth is that no nation can ever become great without understanding this reality. Indeed, the Islamic civilization has been through horrible and cruel phases. Hideous events that send goose bumps up one’s spine can be extracted from Islamic history, such as that of As-Saffah (The Shedder of Blood), founder of the Abbasid Caliphate, who took out the remains of the caliphs of Bani Umayyah, one after the other, but found nothing but the tip of a nose from the remains of Hisham Bin Abdul Malak. He took him out and whipped him. He then crucified and burned him and sprinkled his ashes in the wind, without mercy, oblivious to any religious or moral restraints.
There are many other similar examples. But does this mean that Islam is unholy? Of course not. Does this imply that Islamic civilization only had Saffahs? Absolutely not. Islamic civilization has given the world brilliant examples in the areas of art and education and promoted a culture of forgiveness, peace and love. However, today, we as people, not Islam, are in desperate need of an intellectual earthquake, a cultural tsunami to get us back on track, to revive Islam’s cultural intellect and combat our undeniable inferiority complex.
The Holy Qur’an states Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. He has the power to change them, but He prefers that they change with their own will power which He respects.
What we are seeing now in the Arab streets is a new hope and a step forward to change what is in ourselves. I remain very optimistic because we have now begun to realize that simply blaming the United States for our problems will not help us progress toward great personal freedoms. Our enemy is not America but an inferiority complex from which I am sure the Arab world with its rich culture and history will eventually recover.
— Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a columnist and a Saudi attorney with offices in Riyadh and Jeddah. He can be reached at: Khalid@lfkan.com and/or Twitter (kalnowaiser).
© 2010 Arab News
A Public Service Announcement | Corey Vaspasiano
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Right-wingers flood teen who challenged Bachmann to a debate with threats of violence | Crooks and Liars
You all remember that high-school sophomore who challenged Michele Bachmann to a debate (because she knew full well she'd be able to kick wingnut butt)?
Seems she's attracted the usual right-wing response -- threats and thuggery:
Several media outlets reported on Myers' challenge. As a result, she said, people have threatened violence against her and threatened to publish her address online, the Courier Post reports. Myers' high school has also reprotedly received inquiries regarding Myers' letter.
"A lot of them are calling me a whore," Myers said of the online remarks against her. Added her father Wayne Myers: "I personally did not think there would be a reaction like actual stalking and the vitriol that's coming out."
The worst was reading the work of trolls at right-wing sites, the girl's father said:
Amy and Wayne Myers said the comments on conservative websites alarmed them most. Several commenters threatened to publish the Myers' home address.
Others threatened violence, including rape, they said.
"They're targeting me just because I'm challenging Bachmann," Amy said.
Amy's challenge is arguably unrealistic: Few if any sitting members of Congress would actually agree to debate a teenager.
Bachmann, talked up by the Republican right wing as a 2012 presidential contender, is often the subject of unflattering press. An aide said Tuesday the office would have no response to Myers' challenge.
The Courier-Post had scheduled a video interview with Amy Thursday. On Wednesday, a somewhat panicked-sounding Wayne Myers phoned to cancel, citing the alleged threats.
"I got a call from the principal that the main office received threatening mail," said the computer programmer and single father.
Such a classy bunch. Especially when you consider their fondness for depicting the Left -- and especially unions -- as a bunch of thugs.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation | NeuroTribes
Why the GOP Hates the National Science Foundation
Yesterday in Washington, amid great fanfare, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, released a 73-page report called The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. The report – deemed “scathing” in an “exclusive” by ABC News, and widely touted by other news organizations, particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch — purported to expose a culture of waste, fraud, and mismanagement at the NSF.
“This report identifies over $3 billion in mismanagement at NSF,” the authors intoned ominously. “This includes tens of millions of dollars spent on questionable studies, excessive amounts of expired funds that have not been returned to the Treasury, inadequate contracting practices that unnecessarily increase costs, and a lack of metrics to demonstrate results.”
This sounds like a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money in a time of fiscal belt-tightening, and the type of “studies” cited by the report sound dubious indeed, including research into “How to ride a bike; When did dogs became man’s best friend; If political views are genetically pre-determined; How to improve the quality of wine; Do boys like to play with trucks and girls like to play with dolls.”
Three of the most egregious sounding items in Coburn’s report are described as a study in which a “scientist put shrimp on a tiny treadmill to determine if sickness impaired the mobility of the crustaceans,” an effort to design robots capable of folding laundry, and an outbreak of “jello (sic) wrestling in Antarctica at the NSF research station McMurdo station.” The Senator and his team of fiscal watchdogs helpfully included a grotesque snapshot of the Jell-O incident, which looks like it was cut and pasted from some other Congressional report on the menace of online pornography.
Surely there is waste and mismanagement at the NSF, as there is at any large organization staffed by human beings, though even allegedly LOL-worthy studies of ailing shrimp can yield results that inform the fate of fisheries that provide food and jobs for millions of people. Many outlets in the mainstream media and the right-wing blogosphere dutifully mocked the alleged absurdities detailed in the report, complete with the inevitable photos of sick shrimp on treadmills (also furnished by Senator Coburn’s office) and Jell-O swingers partying at the South Pole in this year’s installment of a recurring GOP series that you might call Scientists Gone Wild – a phrase that actually appears as a headline in Coburn’s report. (“This science isn’t just weird, it’s expensive!” gushed Murdoch’s New York Post.)
Highlights of the 2008 version of the same partisan show included John McCain and Sarah Palin — then running for the highest offices in the land — fulminating about earmarks for “fruit fly research in Paris, France,” with Palin throwing in a plucky “I kid you not!” to express her taxpayer’s righteous indignation.
Never mind that thousands of world-changing breakthroughs in health and basic science have resulted from studying Drosophila, and that the specific research Palin was ridiculing was focused on proteins in the brain called neurexins that may play a role in neural dysfunction in autism. Never mind that improving care for kids with developmental disabilities (such as autism and Down’s syndrome) is allegedly one of the causes dearest to the heart of Palin, who is the mother of a kid with Down’s syndrome, and has just announced her candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Her logic is not terribly profound: If government-funded scientists are behind these fruit-fly antics in “Paris, France,” the science must be fruity indeed.
Never mind that the NSF funds thousands of studies a year in basic science, engineering, medicine, climate, physics, and an impressive variety of other fields, training the next generation of American scientists to make the next round of world-changing breakthroughs. You’d hardly know that from reading Coburn’s broad-brushed tarring of the agency, which includes an image of an internal warning from the agency to its evidently rosy-palmed staff (“Stop Surfing Porn!”) and this unflattering portrait:
One senior executive spent at least 331 days looking at pornography on his government computer and chatting online with nude or partially clad women – costing the taxpayers between $13,800 and $58,000. When caught, the NSF official retired but defended himself by suggesting he visited the porn sites to provide a living to poor overseas women. The senior executive explained “that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that.”
That’s a little Rembrandt right there, sketched out in high GOP style: The arrogant “senior executive,” puffed up with liberal notions of helping the poor and downtrodden, pissing away Joe the Plumber’s hard-earned paychecks by chatting on teh Internets with not only nude but “partially-clad” women. Why the additional photographic detail? Because the Senator from Oklahoma wants his readers to see the scanty lingerie, as well as the little trickle of drool issuing from the lips of this fatuous, condescending senior executive at the Ministry of Silly Science.
The problem is that, as with most GOP initiatives, the closer you look, the more the worldview of Coburn’s report seems deliberately and blatantly skewed in ways that support overlapping GOP narratives. One of the wastes of hard-earned tax money described in Coburn’s report is described as “a study on whether online dating site users are racist in their dating habits.” Well, that sounds PC enough to make any red-meat Republican senator’s blood boil, raising the specter of egghead academics sponsored by Obama’s nanny state spending their expensive hours scrutinizing the kinks of OKCupid habitués.
Predictably, Coburn’s synopsis of this research — led by Andrew Fiore and Coye Cheshire at the UC Berkeley School of Information — is as superficial as McCain’s crusade against Drosophila research turned out to be. The scope of the research in question was not just determining whether or not dating sites are infested with potential KKK members, but how the advent of social media is affecting awareness of race in social interactions. In an email to me, Fiore explained:
The key question our study examined is whether we perceive people online in the same way as we do offline. What if interpersonal perception is different enough online that we prefer different types of people than we would if we met them in an offline context? Where the choice of romantic partners is concerned, the implications are significant: People may be meeting, marrying, and having children with different types of partners than they would have chosen had these mediating technologies not been available.
Considering the sheer number of people who search for romantic partners and spouses online these days (one-third of all couples surveyed by researchers at Stanford and the City University of New York in 2009 met online; I’m happily married to a science teacher I met on Usenet 16 years ago), the changing racial dynamics of these interactions seem worthy of investigation, not mere fodder for easy ridicule.
I found it interesting that my call to Berkeley researcher Coye Cheshire yesterday was the first he’d heard of the Senator’s report, though his study is cited as a particularly egregious example of NSF mismanagement; an email from one of the Senator’s interns might have yielded additional perspective on the research.
But that’s, like, looking for “data” that can only cause trouble. The truth is, the current incarnation of the GOP, frozen in its pose of perpetually indignant outrage, doesn’t want additional perspective, more data and nuance, and — Heaven forbid — dissenting voices. The impulse to marginalize, condemn, ridicule, and finally choke off dissenting voices is not only what’s behind Senator Coburn’s war on the NSF, it’s behind the GOP-sponsored culture war that has sucked much of the oxygen out of the national discourse for more than a decade now.
Republicans don’t like science and scientists because they are sources of data that are independent of GOP-approved propaganda mills like Fox News. Pesky scientists and academics are always popping up to dispute the Roger Ailes-approved buzz-quote of the day — on climate change, on health care, on the effects of poverty on the rapidly evaporating middle class, on the diversity of American families, and on the importance of funding basic research instead of commercially-driven ventures constrained by short-term considerations like ROI.
Today’s GOP has a visceral distrust of scientists for the same reason that it has a visceral distrust of the “lamestream media” (particularly deeply reported news organizations like The New York Times), teachers, organized labor, regulatory agencies, National Public Radio, and protest movements that are have not been astroturfed for Fox News’ cameras by Koch Industries: They’re not with the program, whatever this week’s program might be — more windfalls to Big Oil, justifying torture, or floating amendments to officially brand gay people as second-class citizens.
Science, you could say, has a built-in left-wing bias, because it does not appeal to simplistic notions of God, country, tribal supremacy, or any of the other lesser angels of our nature that the GOP finds handy for its get-out-the-angry-vote drives. (The backers of a spectacularly mean-spirited effort to put a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the 2012 ballot in Minnesota — despite the fact that marriage equality is already illegal in that state — admitted that fundraising concerns were a motivating force in ramming the bigoted amendment through the House at the last minute, even against the wishes of Republicans in districts that are open-minded about marriage equality.)
In his introduction to the report, Senator Coburn — solemnly describing himself as a “practicing physician and two-time cancer survivor” — declares his “very personal appreciation for the benefits of scientific research,” before going on to paint President Obama as a budget-busting liberal heaving millions of scarce tax dollars toward putting sick shrimp on treadmills, analyzing the dynamics of FarmVille on Facebook, and hosting Jell-O-fueled orgies for scientists at the South Pole.
The message of Coburn’s report is the message of Sarah Palin’s slams against the media is the message of the right-wing blogosphere’s mockery of climate scientists is the message of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attacks on labor is the message of Maggie Gallagher’s expensive war on gay couples who want to get married: These alleged “experts” don’t really know anything. Not only that, they think you’re stupid. They claim to be independent and objective, but in reality, they’re corrupt, self-interested, and purely partisan. They’re making fools of American taxpayers while indulging their liberal — indeed, sinful — excesses in a time when “common sense” Republicans are prescribing drastic measures to scale down the national debt, like, oh, say, demolishing Medicare, smashing labor unions, defunding Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio, and shredding social safety nets.
(Never mind that the GOP added billions if not trillions of dollars to the national debt by launching a war in Iraq on the phony premise that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling Weapons of Mass Destruction in the desert.)
Whatever you do, don’t look at the data. Keep your eye on the sick shrimp on the treadmills, the towel-folding robots, and the Jell-O wrestlers at McMurdo station.
Twister's Tale: Violent Weather and Common Sense - NYTimes.com
Twister’s TaleBy TIMOTHY EGAN
Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
In that swath of the American flatland that has been so brutalized of late, a 93-year-old woman gave me a warning. She had lost her house as a little girl, a homestead property of timber-sheltered memories that shattered in a twister’s strike and took to the Oklahoma sky.
She had cautioned me to be wary of springtime — glorious days in a glorious stretch of prairie that can turn deadly on a dime. “Don’t get too far from a shelter.” Yes, yes, I’d heard plenty about hail the size of grapefruit and how the weather might kick up four things that could kill you — wildfire, blizzard, flash flood, tornado.
But it seemed quaint to these urban ears, a “Wizard of Oz” artifact from Dorothy’s pals on the farm. What I learned that afternoon in Tornado Alley is that nothing is more terrifying than a sky of robin’s-egg blue turning bruised and churlish, a moment that transforms trees and telephone poles into missiles.
The spring of 2011 is shaping up as one for all the wrong kind of records. Flooding, twisters, Texas wildfires, deaths by fast-moving air that has its own awful category known too well by millions — the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the worst being EF5, winds 200 m.p.h. or more. In a year when almost 500 Americans have died from tornadoes, and 60 or more twisters touch down in a single day, even the cable weather jockeys look humbled as they stand next to flattened neighborhoods.
April and May are the cruelest months, when systems and seasons collide, warm moist air at the surface meeting drier air higher up. Brewing, building, these tornadoes develop out of rotating thunderstorms called supercells.
For an outsider, when the radio suddenly goes into emergency broadcast mode and clouds bleed a ragged black, there is an instant that technical talk turns to terror. You feel exposed in a naked land. You feel a target. You think nothing is permanently anchored. You look for an overpass. You understand, somewhat, what it must have been like in wartime London when the sirens went off in advance of another bombing by the Germans. You feel helpless.
It is human to want to see these storms as part of a larger pattern, to anthropomorphize them with words like “nature’s wrath,” to ascribe a motive to the mayhem. But also something else: to see a warning of the oldest kind, dating to Greek mythology, a warning about hubris.
Earlier this year, Republicans in a congressional panel declared, by a majority vote, that climate change caused by humans does not exist. The majority of the House then voted to get rid of federal funding for the world’s finest scientists in the field to study the changing earth, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Blink, blink, just like that — our representatives wished away the future.
The twisters, floods and fires of this year have another say, and remind us that some political gestures are no more relevant than a lone pair of lips flapping in the wind. Of course, among atmospheric scientists there is ambiguity, at best, about whether global warming has anything to do with the worst tornado season in modern times.
But the consensus of fair-minded research — ignored by those who assume to know better in the Republican Congress — is that an earth warmed by an excess of man-caused carbon emissions will cause more weather extremes. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air — that’s an axiom that a congressman with a set of talking points paid for by Exxon cannot wish away. Torrential flooding in all parts of the world could easily be part of a new phase brought on by just a few upticks in ocean temperatures. The forecast is simple: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
To recognize this threat, even with its implicit calls for sacrifice in a country that cannot tolerate $4 a gallon gas, is not to be alarmist. The unknown — that is, any possible link between a surfeit of lethal tornadoes and a warmer planet — makes a case for proceeding with caution. We treat our bodies that way, most of us; when a warning comes out of possible cancer links to a food or substance, sensible people change course.
But there is a loud and intellectually corrupt segment of public life dedicated to fact-denial. They will not allow even a slim chance that humans are making a mess of this place. They will not do what a homeowner facing unlikely odds of a fire has to do just to hold a mortgage — take out insurance.
Listen to people who have lived long lives in the American midsection, a place of peril, and a place that is deeply loved. They tell us to be prepared, to be humble in the face of nature, to think about the worst thing that could come from the sky. If this is radical advice, then common sense has surely met an early death.
Warmer Ocean Fueling Tornadoes | Mother Jones
Warmer Ocean Fueling Tornadoes
Tue May. 24, 2011 6:25 PM PDT|
The stats on tornadoes so far this year are horrifying. A record-breaking 482 people (and ABC News  reports 1,500 are unaccounted for in Joplin, Missouri) have been confirmed killed as of 24 May.
We know that spring's a bad season for tornadoes. We know that La Niña years fuel stormy Aprils . But 2011 is redefining even those parameters.
Here's what NOAA  has to say about last month alone:
- April 2011 set anew record with a total of 875 tornadoes.
- The previous April record was set in 1974 with 267 tornadoes.
- The average number of tornadoes for the month of April during the past decade was 161.
- The previous record number of tornadoes duringany month was 542 tornadoes set in May 2003.
- NWS [National Weather Service] records indicate 321 people were killed during the April 25-28 tornado outbreak.
- NWS records indicate 361 people were killed during the entire month of April 2011.
The temperature in Laredo reached 111 degrees the day prior to the peak [April] outbreak, the hottest on record at that location for so early in the season. Precipitation extremes have been extreme even by extreme precipitation standards, with April rainfall upwards of 20" in Arkansas and record levels on some rivers in the central US, juxtaposed with an exceptionally large amount of Texas being classified in extreme or exceptional drought.
Now May is racing to catch up to and maybe even pass April. Here's what NOAA finds  so far:
- The National Weather Service's preliminary estimate is more than 100 tornadoes have occurred during the month of May 2011.
- The record number of tornadoes during the month of May was 542 tornadoes set in May 2003.
- The average number of tornadoes for the month of May during the past decade is 298.
- May is historically the most active month for tornadoes.
Sunday's horrific twister at Joplin, Missouri, was likely a multiple vortex tornado , says Thomas Schwein, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s Central Region, reports  the Kansas City Star.
Jeff Masters' WunderBlog  describes the Joplin tornado's nine-minute path thus:
A violent high-end EF-4* [Enhanced Fujita Scale ] tornado [initial assessment] with winds of 190-198 mph carved a 7-mile long, 3/4 to one mile-wide path of near-total destruction through Joplin beginning at 5:41pm CDT Sunday evening.
*UPDATE: After surveying the Joplin tornado track, the NWS announced that its winds exceeded 200 miles per hour. This makes it the fourth EF-5 tornado this year, according to WonderBlog —and the most costly ever. Initial estimates: $1-3 billion.
You can get a sense of what that monster was like from this video—which due to darkness is mostly only audio. It's honestly one of the scariest things I've ever listened to.
You can hear the tornado rolling in about 01:20 into the video (perhaps the first of the multiple vortices?), then really winding up at 01:59. But that's nothing. At 03:00 all hell breaks lose.
So what's fueling this year's record-breaking tornado season? There are the usual suspects, which the Cliff Mass Weather Blog  lists as:
- Strong Instability
- Large Vertical Wind Shear
- Low Level Moisture
His blog does a great job of explaining  those in detail.
And then there are sea surface temperatures.
Unusually warm surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico—about 2 degrees Fahrenheit/3.6 degrees Celsius warmer than normal—may be a factor in this season's tornado frequency and strength, according to National Weather Service director Jack Hayes . Add that to an uncommonly southward jet stream track, reports  Scientific American, and you've got a recipe for the kinds of disasters we've been seeing so far this year.
Warmer sea surface temperatures are also one of three reasons NOAA is forecasting  a 65 percent chance of an above normal season—characterized as 13 or more named storms, 7 or more hurricanes, and 3 or more major hurricanes—in the Atlantic this year.
Crossposted from Deep Blue Home .
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Quantum theory can’t explain all of life’s mysteries | New Statesman
Quantum theory can’t explain all of life’s mysteries
Published 12 May 2011
There's a principle in pseudo-science where, if you have two things you can't explain, you can often put them together and convince yourself they might solve each other. Separately, you've still got two mysteries, but shackled together they suggest there's an answer in there somewhere. It's known as the "conservation of mysteries", because it gets you nowhere.
The central pillar here is usually quantum theory. Experiments show that the fundamental particles of nature, which follow the laws of quantum theory, are able to do seemingly ridiculous things. They can, for instance, exist in two places at once. In certain situations, widely separated particles - which can be on opposite sides of the universe - are also able to influence each other without any physical link, a phenomenon known as entanglement.
Though strange, these abilities are well established, confirmed in experiments. They are forming the basis of a new generation of computing and cryptography tools, and giving us profound insights into the laws of physics.
They are also a godsend for anyone who is stuck for a good explanation. Because these strange quantum effects don't fit in with our everyday experience of the world, they have been invoked to resolve myriad things we don't yet understand, such as supernatural phenomena. Quantum theory has also been used as an explanation for how water could form memories of the substances that have been dissolved within it, a useful idea for homoeopaths.
Then there is consciousness. Many good scientists are researching consciousness with due diligence, and they should have been protesting outside the Aula Magna Hall of Stockholm University during the first week in May as scientists, doctors, poets and mystics gathered there for the annual "Towards a Science of Consciousness" conference.
Science has struggled to explain our conscious experience of the world; that is why quantum conservation of mysteries seems such a promising route. In Stockholm, Deepak Chopra explained how "consciousness is the ultimate reality", citing quantum entanglement as the phenomenon that links everything in the cosmos and thus creates consciousness. Or something. In his book Quantum Healing, Chopra suggests that an understanding of "quantum reality" can unlock the potential to defeat cancer, heart disease and ageing. If only we knew what quantum reality was.
Even very respected scientists get seduced by the "mystery" side of quantum theory. Also on the bill in Stockholm was Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel Prize for elucidating the link between HIV and Aids. He has since claimed that DNA uses quantum tricks to teleport itself into neighbouring cells, using electromagnetic signals.
Most disappointingly of all, on 6 May, the eminent mathematician Roger Penrose gave the keynote talk, arguing that we will need to invoke "new physics and exotic biological structures": rewriting quantum theory to make sense of consciousness. Penrose is one of our great minds, but he legitimised the obfuscation of scientific inquiry. Untestable quantum solutions to life's mysteries might be enticing, but they are not science, and no one should be allowed to claim otherwise.
Two questions about tornadoes and climate change | Climatide
April 2011 set a new record for the most tornadoes in any month, with 875 tornadoes – nearly three times the next most active April, and well ahead of the previous record of 542 tornadoes set in May 2003. May has brought it’s fair share of deadly and devastating tornadoes in the southern and central portions of the U.S. It’s got a lot of people wondering …
1. Is climate change to blame for this spring’s tornado outbreaks?
There’s no quick and easy answer here. Warm air and water temperatures can contribute to stronger storms and more extreme precipitation, and many well-respected climate scientists have been drawing a link. A team of NOAA researchers responsible for trying to link specific extreme weather events to climate change has done a quick analysis of three specific factors that influence tornado formation and concluded there’s no long-term trend toward increasingly tornado-friendly conditions in the affected region. But they note that theirs is a “preliminary assessment” and “isn’t the same as saying ‘Climate change has had no impact on tornado outbreaks.’”
A lot has been written on this topic in recent days. For a deeper exploration of the issue, I highly recommend Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. He’s got a conversation going with input from the aforementioned NOAA Climate Attribution Rapid Response team and prominent climate scientists, like Kevin Trenberth (National Center for Atmospheric Research), Kerry Emanuel (MIT), and Gavin Schmidt (NASA, RealClimate blog). Revkin tends toward the skeptical – not about the reality of climate change, but about its role in the numerous natural disasters of the past year. But the important voices are all there. And he makes a good point about the vulnerabilities that such disasters reveal. Which brings me to the next question …
2. What do tornado outbreaks mean for those of us outside tornado alley?
The natural disasters of the past year – whether it’s tornadoes or flooding or deadly heat waves – hold a warning. While the jury is still out on the relationship between climate change and recent tornado outbreaks, scientists are quite clear that temperatures are rising and a warmer world will be one with more extreme weather. Put extreme weather in the same place as human development and you get natural disasters.
The nature of the disasters depends on the location. Some will see flooding, others drought. The mid-west may get tornadoes, while the east coast gets hurricanes. The point is, changes will happen everywhere, and already are happening in many places.
Natural disasters, like the tornado outbreaks of the past two months – whether or not they are specifically linked to climate change – highlight our collective vulnerability and the need to begin finding ways to cope with natural disasters that we can reasonably expect to increase in coming years.
Like a Headless Chicken — The Brooks Review
I have never had the privilege(?) to see a a chicken after its head was cut off, nor do I ever want to. What I used to picture growing up was a bloody, but oddly comical scene, of a headless chicken aimlessly running around Ozzy Osbourne. Now after witnessing the transgressions of the Twitter crew over the past few months, well I just picture it as a very, very, sad thing.
Twitter is acting like the proverbial headless chicken.
I have been a passive Twitter user for a very long time, more recently becoming a much more active user. Twitter has become one of the last social networks that I even bother with using, let alone actually liking. Up and until about a month ago I was pretty happy with the state of being at Twitter 1 — things were moving swimmingly.
Then Twitter got its head cut off.
Instead of getting the warm and fuzzies when I read about what Twitter is doing next (like I do with say Square), I get the voice in my head that says: “crap what now?”
It feels like Twitter is aimlessly running with two general goals right now:
- Make money!
- Get more users!
Both are valid, but I always used to see Twitter as having these goals:
- Be awesome!
- Don’t be jackasses! (e.g. Microsoft and Google of late)
The difference is huge. The latter was a company that was building a service that they used, loved, and wanted to continue loving. The former is building a business at the user’s expense for the sake of VCs.
That’s not to say that Twitter can’t build a business — they should — and it’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive — they aren’t. Instead of integrating the goals, or simply adding them on, Twitter has decided that these goals are mutually exclusive and that sucks.
It is very clear that Twitter dropped their old mentality with the approach they are taking towards third party developers — they are treating them with blatant disrespect and using a cloak of vagueness to hide it (albeit poorly).
The first blow came with the not-so-subtle, shall we say, “encouragement” that developers should no longer make full-featured Twitter clients. OK, we get it you don’t want people partying on your lawn anymore.
Then came the outright crippling of the usability of all these apps under the cloak of “security” with the forced change from xAuth to OAuth for DMs.
Now we get the TweetDeck acquisition that lands another sucker punch to third party developers.
TweetDeck has a pretty large user base, all while being a pretty crappy Adobe Air app 2 that Twitter is more than talented enough to replicate. Yet instead of going out and making their own version of TweetDeck, they rewarded that developer with a large cash payout (oddly enough more than I bet the poor VCs get back from Twitter in the end).
Essentially this tells other developers that they now have two options:
- Continue developing in a hostile environment with ever changing rules, for a company that doesn’t want you developing for it.
- Get your user base big enough that Twitter will pay for you to stop developing your app.
Of course Twitter has said they will keep TweetDeck around — I for one am not holding my breath on that one. 3
The respectful thing to do would have been to say that they are ceasing to allow full API access in six months time — no exceptions, unless of course they buy you. That would at least show your community the respect it deserves and allow them the time to plan for transitions to the future. Instead Twitter have decided to leave developers wondering: “what’s next?”
It’s the equivalent to being invited somewhere and saying: “maybe I’ll stop by, maybe.” Answering so is just disrespectful to the host that is trying to plan things. While rejecting third party apps outright would be an outrage for developers and users, it would at least be honest.
Million Directions, No Course
The craziest thing is that even though Twitter is very clearly focused on growth and money — they seem to be going a million different ways with it.
Add the quickbar with promoted trends in a highly popular client, remove it and apologize. Add cumbersome rules for other developers. Spend tons of money to buy an Adobe Air app.
Look at these three things and tell me what the strategy is? It looked like with the first one Twitter was going to try and monetize the service with paid ads and the like. Then they decided to put that to bed and start being cranky to the developer community, seemingly to push use back to their free (and ad free) apps. Then they blow a wad of cash on another app that is free and lacks ads.
So what Twitter now has done:
- Annoyed users
- Pissed off developers
- Bought a free Adobe Air app
What they are still lacking: money.
They went from looking for more ways to inject advertising (the revenue model of choice for Twitter) to looking for ways to force users on to their platforms, that lack a revenue model.
User Base Argument
It’s easy to say that they are clearly working on building the user base to make a larger play for money. The problem though is that, as I have talked about, their current strategy of using promoted items is not an ideal option. So it looks like they are building a massive user base and raising costs for the end game of a boost in advertising rates.
Then of course you better hope there are actually advertisers out there willing to pay those rates so that everything stays in the black. Which of course when you serve very few ads in very discrete locations — well to survive doing that you need to have very high prices. Very high ad prices mean that there are very few companies that can afford to pay you.
Google makes money off of a volume play, not of a tightly focused play. There is a difference.
I don’t know how often I say this, but I will say it again: lots of users don’t equal money.
Competing Network Argument
Many have stated that if Twitter didn’t buy TweetDeck that it would have joined up with UberMedia to create a rival network. Thus the acquisition was a defensive move.
Let’s put that to bed right now: you don’t worry about a new competing network that has yet to be built and doesn’t have any current users. That’s like driving down the road constantly worrying that every other car is actively trying to run into you.
Thus Twitter just paid $40 million to get users that they already had and that aren’t likely going anywhere…
In the end though it is the users of Twitter that are getting dicked around with the most. They will see cumbersome logins now just to use the apps that they prefer using (thanks to OAuth). They will likely see a reduced choice set of Twitter app offerings (thanks to Twitters strong discouragement). They will begin to see less discrete advertising (thanks to the need for money).
The walls are closing in, Twitter only wants you to use official Twitter products with their service so they can control every aspect of the service. They have every right to do so, but they should be very cautious of the fact that Twitter, since its inception, has very much not been a walled garden. Twitter has very much always been a place where you could participate no matter what your preferred tool was.
Such a massive change is never met with open arms.
I can’t decide if Twitter is the chicken aimlessly running around Ozzy, or if they have just lost their soul — maybe both.
Gene Expression in the Brain Offers New Clues to Autism | Time
Sen. Ron Wyden places a "hold" on the PROTECT IP Act
Sen. Ron Wyden places a "hold" on the PROTECT IP Act
"Senator Wyden plans to hold the bill," said his office by e-mail. "We will have a longer statement shortly."
Wyden called last year's version of the Internet blacklist bill a "bunker-busting cluster bomb" when precision-guided munitions would be better suited to dealing with copyright and patent infringement on the Internet. He placed a hold on that bill, which kept it from coming to the floor.
Now, he's at it again after the PROTECT IP Act failed to incorporate enough of his desired changes.
A Senate hold is, according to the Senate, "An informal practice by which a Senator informs his or her floor leader that he or she does not wish a particular bill or other measure to reach the floor for consideration. The Majority Leader need not follow the Senator's wishes, but is on notice that the opposing Senator may filibuster any motion to proceed to consider the measure."
More controversial recently have been "secret" holds in which the name of the senator was withheld and legislation simply stopped; the Senate voted to end that practice earlier this year, though the rule won't apply until the next Congress.
Update: Wyden's office has just sent out his explanation for the hold:
“In December of last year I placed a hold on similar legislation, commonly called COICA, because I felt the costs of the legislation far outweighed the benefits. After careful analysis of the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, I am compelled to draw the same conclusion. I understand and agree with the goal of the legislation, to protect intellectual property and combat commerce in counterfeit goods, but I am not willing to muzzle speech and stifle innovation and economic growth to achieve this objective. At the expense of legitimate commerce, PIPA’s prescription takes an overreaching approach to policing the Internet when a more balanced and targeted approach would be more effective. The collateral damage of this approach is speech, innovation and the very integrity of the Internet.
"The Internet represents the shipping lane of the 21st century. It is increasingly in America’s economic interest to ensure that the Internet is a viable means for American innovation, commerce, and the advancement of our ideals that empower people all around the world. By ceding control of the Internet to corporations through a private right of action, and to government agencies that do not sufficiently understand and value the Internet, PIPA represents a threat to our economic future and to our international objectives. Until the many issues that I and others have raised with this legislation are addressed, I will object to a unanimous consent request to proceed to the legislation."
How to get to a fully renewable power system | Grist
26 May 2011 1:26 PM
What's it going to take to substantially ramp up the amount of renewables in the electricity system? There are many nerdy discussions of that question on the interwebs, but lemme try to talk about it in reasonably non-nerdy language.
There's a certain amount of demand for electricity that is steady and reliable. Above that, there are fluctuating "peaks" of demand each day, usually evening, when everyone gets home and starts watching TV and running the dishwasher, or in hot areas, the afternoon. For that steady core of demand, we have "baseload" power plants -- in the majority of cases, large coal or nuclear plants. Once they're built they're pretty cheap to operate and you can run them around the clock. In nerdspeak, they have a high "capacity factor." However, they're not well suited to ramping up and down in response to short-term fluctuations. (It takes days to turn a nuke plant off and back on.) To supply power during the fluctuating peaks, we have, appropriately enough, "peaker" plants, which can be turned on and off quickly. (Nerdspeak: they're "dispatchable.") Generally speaking, these are natural-gas plants, which are smaller and easier to cycle, though the power is somewhat more expensive.
So you've got your baseload plants and your peaker plants. The fundamental problem with renewables, according to conventional wisdom, is that they are neither. They are variable and intermittent, with low capacity factors, so they can't satisfy baseload demand. But the wind and sun are not dispatchable, so they can't reliably satisfy peak demand either. They are an unholy mutt, a square peg for a system with two round holes.
In the U.S., already so resistant to change, the reaction has been to say, "Bummer, renewables can't do much, woulda been nice." When I was in Germany recently, though, the reaction among folks I talked to was, "Yes, that is a problem. We are going to solve it!" They don't see it as the reason they can't integrate lots of renewables. They see it as what has to be done to integrate lots of renewables. The dispute is between the Merkel government, which wants 80 percent renewables by 2050, and the Green Party, which wants 100 percent by 2030.
So, how would one go about solving the problem?
The answer is to stop thinking in terms of swapping one source out for another and start thinking about how to construct a new system.
The idea, in a nutshell, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the need for baseload power plants (the big polluters) by tying together enough renewables with a smart enough grid and enough energy storage -- in effect, to build a high capacity-factor system out of low capacity-factor parts.
Perhaps charts will help! Here's a sample week of renewables, from Germany, in 2007:
Sorry for the German -- I couldn't find an English version. The big gray bumpy mountains, the "residuale last," show the residual demand that renewables aren't covering, throughout the week. ("Wassercraft" is hydro; you can probably figure out "Windenergie" and the rest.)
So: all renewables put together are providing a fairly small chunk of Germany's power demand. Here's what it could look like in 2050:
In this chart, renewables are providing, in effect, baseload power. The gap between what they provide and total demand will still have to be met with some combination of baseload and peaker plants, but as you can see, there's not much room left for baseload plants. If you stack too much renewables on top of too much baseload, you end up at points with more power than you need, at which point you have to either shut down some renewables (which is, obviously, counter to the goal of using more renewables), shut down some baseload (which is expensive as hell), or export some power.
The green strategy is to build up renewables as far as possible, shut down as much baseload as possible, and fill the gap with more, and more sophisticated, peaker plants (or demand reduction -- more on that in a second).
So what will be required to do this? A lot! It will be difficult and expensive. In many ways, some European countries are better equipped than the U.S., since their grids are more robust and interconnected. They can import and export power more easily. But the U.S. has some advantages too.
The first priority is a better grid. That means better long-distance transmission, to connect renewable-heavy areas with the rest of the country and to take advantage of America's enormous geographical spread. The more you can move renewables from where they are to where they're needed, in real time, the higher the total capacity factor of the system. After all, it's always sunny or windy somewhere in the U.S.
The second priority, which runs in parallel to the first, is building the crap out of renewables. The more renewable sources there are on the grid, the wider the geographic area they cover, the more every region has maximized its local, distributed resources, the steadier the total supply is. That's especially true if you ramp up hydro, geothermal, and biomass, i.e., non-intermittent renewables.
With more renewables and better transmission, you start backing out baseload. It helps that, as you can see on the graph, intermittent sources tend to be strongest during high-demand hours.
What about peakers though? The answer to that is threefold.
First, you can shrink the peaks (nerdspeak: "peak leveling") by moving demand around (nerdspeak: "demand response"), either by persuading people to spread their consumption out by charging more during peak hours (nerdspeak: "variable pricing"), or by building appliances that can cut back automatically.
Second -- another species of peak leveling -- there's energy storage. Stored energy is dispatchable: you can send it where you need it when you need it. "Pumpspeicher" on the chart above is pumped storage, which today is one of the few cost-effective, large-scale storage technologies in common use, though others are coming online. There are also batteries, ultracapacitors, compressed air, flywheels, fuel cells, and the distributed storage represented by the growing electric car fleet. Storage solves all sorts of other problems too, but let's not get distracted.
Together, demand response and energy storage illuminate the path to 100 percent renewables, however distant that point may be. For the time being, though, you still need the third peaker solution: natural-gas plants. (Incidentally, that's why I didn't join in the "natural gas is dead" celebration after the Howarth study a few weeks ago. Natural gas isn't a "bridge" for renewables; it is, for the time being, a crucial enabler. Losing natural gas would be a serious blow.)
There's a great deal of idle natural-gas capacity in the U.S. system, so just by ramping up the plants we have we could cover some lost baseload. But we'll also need new gas plants, ideally smarter and more efficient gas plants.
As it happens, energy companies are starting to anticipate that need. GE has a new line of 7FA gas turbines explicitly engineered to be able to start and stop quickly. Look at this bad boy:
Looks like a flux capacitor! Todd Woody has an interesting story about a new power plant GE unveiled today, specifically designed to complement renewables. Not only is the plant small, modular, and fast to respond, but it's hella-efficient -- 61 percent efficient, to be precise -- in part because it captures waste heat.
So anyway! Sorry for the long post. The point is, there is a practical path whereby renewables can grow to play a dominant role in the electricity system. You back out baseload with renewables and transmission, back out peakers with storage and demand response, and fill the remaining gap with natural gas. Voilà! It's not easy, or cheap, but it's doable. Crucially, building more baseload, nuclear or otherwise, will not move us in the right direction. It will delay us. I discussed that a bit in a previous post, but it hasn't penetrated the U.S. energy conversation at all, which is still stuck on "all of the above" platitudes.
In Germany, on the other hand, they get it. That's why they are eschewing nukes and going all out on renewables. They are leading. Remember leading? Seems like America used to do more of it.
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