November 30, 2011

Anybody But Romney

Herman Cain's hopes for winning the Republican nomination for president in 2012 seem to be fading rapidly. A series of disclosures regarding alleged indiscretions--two allegations of sexual harassment and one report of a long-term extra-marital affair--have scared off potential donors and reduced support among potential Republican primary voters. Assuming the worst--always a safe bet--you have to wonder what he was thinking when he looked at himself in the mirror and decided to run for president. Did he think this stuff wouldn't come out? Really?

Following the principle that one man gathers what another man spills, Newt Gingrich has risen as rapidly as Herman Cain has fallen. This is all the more remarkable given the complete clusterf*k that marked the first two weeks of Gingrich's campaign. But Newt is smart, and he is a pro. He is also an asshole, although that will not hurt him among Republicans. Whether he does as well with independents, especially women, remains to be seen. This is not a guy who wears well. I already can't stand seeing that know-it-all smirk.

All of this activity can be filed under the heading of "Anybody but Romney." The other supposed front-runner in all this--former governor Mitt Romney--is distrusted and disliked by conservative Republicans, who dominate the Republican primary process, so in recent weeks there has been a frantic search for an alternative. Rick Perry's hopes ended as soon as he opened his mouth. Herman Cain's campaign has faltered badly. It remains to be seen whether Newt has the legs to pull off enough primary wins to unseat Romney.

In the end, it may not matter. As always, it's the economy, stupid. Only this time it isn't necessarily our economy that is the problem. The situation in Europe may decide the fate of the American presidency. That could go one of two ways. Either things get so bad here that any incumbent would be swept out, or people get so nervous about the future that they take the cautious road and stick with the devil they know.

November 23, 2011

November 22, 2011

November 21, 2011

A Fearful Symmetry

I've been reading a book with the rather intimidating title of Mathematics of Life, written by Ian Stewart. I won't pretend I understand it all, but here and there are bits and pieces of information that even a resolutely non-mathematical mind such as mine can grasp. The book covers a wide range of topics, from tree branches to virus structures to the internal wiring of our brains. One chapter deals with the problem of how species differentiate. The following couple of paragraphs in a longer discussion of symmetry caught my attention, as they seem to bear directly on the question of why climate change coupled with population growth is so worrisome:

As the environment or population size changes, the single-species state may cease to be stable, so that small, random disturbances can cause big changes. Like a stick being bent by stronger and stronger forces, something suddenly gives and the stick snaps in two. Why? Because the two-part state is stable, whereas one overstressed stick is not.
A population of organisms is stable if small changes in form or behaviour tend to be damped out; if is unstable is they grow explosively. Theory shows that gradual changes in environment or population pressure can suddenly trigger a change from a stable state to an unstable one.
 Sudden climate changes are well documented in Earth's geological history. The causes of these sudden climate changes are not well understood, but you have to think that what we have done to the atmosphere is surely tempting fate.

November 20, 2011

The Last Oil Hunt

In the 19th Century whale hunting was a major occupation. Whale oil was the single best source of oil for lamps, as well as a host of other useful industrial and household products, including high-quality machine lubricants and soaps. At that time, the sea abounded in whales and the need for whale oil outweighed any concerns over the well-being of the whales.

That viewpoint wouldn't sail today. Whales are viewed as an endangered species, thanks in large measure to over-harvesting by the whaling industry. International agreements strictly limit or ban whale hunting, depending on the species.Besides, we have an alternative to whale oil. In 1859, the first petroleum oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The fledgling petroleum oil industry would eventually go on to destroy the whaling fleet. We saved the whales, but at what cost?

We stopped killing the whales and began killing the planet. Unrestrained emissions from the burning of fossil fuels over the last 150 years has initiated a warming of the atmosphere, thanks to the dramatically increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This in turn is causing changes to the Earth's climate. New reports directly link the extreme weather we have been experiencing to climate change driven by human activity.

This should not come as a huge surprise. Mankind was largely indifferent to the fate of the whales when it was an essential source of oil. We saved the whales not because we suddenly became a more enlightened species, but because we found something better. And until we find something better, we will continue to hunt for petroleum oil, chasing it to the deepest parts of the earth so that we may squeeze out the last drops, heedless of the damage we are doing to the planet's atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

November 10, 2011

What the Frack!

Excerpt from an article written by John Daly that appeared in
On 5 November an earthquake measuring 5.6 rattled Oklahoma and was felt as far away as Illinois. Until two years ago Oklahoma typically had about 50 earthquakes a year, but in 2010, 1,047 quakes shook the state. Why?

In Lincoln County, where most of this past weekend's seismic incidents were centered, there are 181 injection wells, according to Matt Skinner, an official from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency which oversees oil and gas production in the state. Cause and effect?

The practice of injecting water into deep rock formations causes earthquakes, both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded.

The U.S. natural gas industry pumps a mixture of water and assorted chemicals deep underground to shatter sediment layers containing natural gas, a process called hydraulic fracturing, known more informally as “fracking.” While environmental groups have primarily focused on fracking’s capacity to pollute underground water, a more ominous byproduct emerges from U.S. government studies – that forcing fluids under high pressure deep underground produces increased regional seismic activity.

As the U.S. natural gas industry mounts an unprecedented and expensive advertising campaign to convince the public that such practices are environmentally benign, U.S. government agencies have determined otherwise.

November 6, 2011

Life 101

I used to hate science and economics. I rarely read anything in those subject areas unless school work required it, and I chose a university in part because it required no science. They did require six semesters of economics, which was bad enough.

Nowadays, the tables have turned completely. Most of my reading is either science or economics: the former out of love; the latter out of necessity. Let's face it. With the economy in the dumper and the world seemingly going to hell in a hand-basket at an ever accelerating rate, a working knowledge of how the economy disfunctions is basic Life 101 material these days.

As for science, my love of it has grown slowly over the years, as I have patiently unfolded layer upon layer of riddles wrapped in enigmas to arrive at a dim sense of just how incomprehensibly complex and beautiful and mysterious every single thing in the universe is, from the humblest scoop of dirt teeming with microscopic life to a night sky teeming with galaxies. That self-study has helped me to see more clearly the nexus between action and reaction.

Case in point: global warming. It's not necessary to dig all that deep into science to get it. Common sense tells you that we have burned enormous quantities of fossil fuels in the last 100 years. Common sense tells you that where there is fire there is smoke, and that smoke has to go somewhere. You can smell it from a long way off, so you know there is something real and physical in the air. Looking at smoke rising out of a chimney ought to give the average person a clue as to where it is headed. We burn stuff, and smoke goes into the atmosphere. Action. Reaction.

Jesus, how hard is this?  And yet ... despite a growing stack of increasingly dire reports warning in absolute terms that we are experiencing already the effects of climate change due to global warming, there are those who adamantly insist that it isn't real. They chose instead to ignore the science. They chose instead to ignore the warning signs that Mother Nature sends our ways. They chose instead to keep on with business as usual.

And so my grandchildren and everyone else's grandchildren will learn the hard way that it pays to know a little bit about science. They will also pay the price of this generation's indifference to science and fact.