Friday, December 31, 2010

Historicity of Climate Change Phenomena

   My tenth grade history teacher, good old Mr. Hennis, used to paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana:  "Those who do not remember 10th grade History are condemned to repeat it."  Well, a number of people seem to have trouble remembering history when it pertains to climate change. 
   First,  the Earth was in an Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, and for some imperfectly understood reasons, that Ice Age came to an end, and the globe warmed abruptly.  Our current warming period is believed to be long lived but ultimately it is expected to end, , and we expect to go back to an Ice Age someday (but probably not this year despite our lousy weather, which is due to La Nina plus the North Atlantic Anomaly and the Polar Oscillation all going haywire at the same time). 
   In addition, more recently there was a Medieval Warming Period from 950 to 1250, which coincided with the rise of the Vikings, and the colonization of Greenland, which really was green at the time.  
   There was also a Little Ice Age, from circa 1650 to 1850, during which time the Thames River in England froze in the wintertime, and in addition Charles X of Sweden marched an army from Sweden to Estonia in 1658, over a frozen Baltic.
   We had a Year Without a Summer in 1816.
   In the 1920's, through the 1930's significant glacier melt was recorded in Greenland.  The amount of melting is estimated to be 50% higher than similar melting that occurred in the 1990's and 2000's, according to Petr Chylek's group at Los Alamos National Lab. 
    There was also a major disruption in climate observed in the 1930's in which the Western US was besieged by the Dust Bowl.  Some ecologists believe that it is a historical fact that poor soil management was the sole cause of the Dust Bowl, although others wonder if it might be part of a larger pattern.  
   After a long warming trend, from 1940 to 1975 there were colder temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere (i.e., a least squares plot of global average temperature as estimated by the National Climatic Data Center shows a gradual cooling trend).  
  Then from 1976 to 2002, global average temperature rose by about 0.5 degrees Celsius.
   From 2002 to 2010, however, the global temperature has been about constant, as estimated by the NCDC.  Some of my passionate friends have had trouble believing that global average temperature has not risen since 2002, but, as Casey Stengle used, you say, you can look it up: 
   Many skeptics have expressed doubt concerning the observed global warming that occurred from 1975 to 2002.    However, the Village Elliot believes that the data, though a bit fuzzy, is clear enough that there can be no mistake. The earth did get warmer, at least until 2002, and it's silly to argue otherwise. 

  Left to be determined is how much of that warming is due to natural cycles such as the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation, versus anthropogenic causes and specifically carbon dioxide.  The Village Elliot believes that other human-caused environmental issues such as ocean pollution may also play a major role. 
  What should be done about this?  That also is up for grabs.  Currently most of the Western nations urge a general dismantling of the fossil fuel economy, with the brave hope that something else will soon pop up to replace it.  So far, however, an inexpensive substitute for fossil fuels has not be identified, at least not anything that can replace the billions of tons which we now use.  
   However, climate change is not a simple subject, and if we hearken back to a time in history when climate was totally predictable, well, that probably is a fantasy. 

     The Village Elliot also despairs of the ability of the scientific community to have reasonable discussions on this subject.  In recent years, it seems that it has become acceptable to present a slanted, unbalanced view of the information in order to win an argument rather than to emerge with the best science.  It's more about what is persuasive, rather than what we actually believe to be true.  

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cold Weather, not Climate Change

Readers of the Village Elliot's blog are aware that he predicted that we would have a cold winter this year, based on three simple observations:

   a.  We are in a La Nina phase, in which an upwelling of cool water in the Pacific equatorial region usually leads to colder weather worldwide. 

   b. The Polar Oscillation favors a cold winter.  This weather pattern led to last year's cold winter as well as the cold winters of 1978-1979.

   c.  The North Atlantic Anomaly also is shifting in a way that favors cold winters in Northern Europe.

   This is just simple stuff you can get from reading the paper or checking out websites like the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The fact that we are having a cold winter doesn't mean squat as to whether the climate is changing over the long run. 
   Let's review, however, that carbon dioxide induced global warming is supposed to make the earth 2-3 degrees celsius warmer from 1999 to the hear 2100, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 
   The Village Elliot is certain that the mechanism exists, based on studies of the planet Venus, which is definitely warmer than we would expect, and the reason is carbon dioxide, over a thousand psi of it.  Will similar effects occur if CO2 is present at a few hundred parts per million? 
   The Village Elliot also believes that the globe certainly heated up between 1975 and 2002, using data from the NCDC.   The same data, however, points to no significant warming since 2002. 
   TheCO2 hypothesis also suggests that the difference between summer and winter should decrease, with most of the warming haplpening during the winter.  This has simply not happened, however.  Nor do we see warmer nights compared to days. 
    Is this confusing?  Well, fear not!  Here, from our friends in England, is the definitive video which will tell you how to be politicially correct:  

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Xmas from OPEC: $100 Per Barrel

   Today Kuwait's oil minister suggested that the world economy can withstand $100 per barrel petroleum. 

   The Village Elliot is quite angry about this on two accounts:  first, the rapid rise in oil prices, necessary to fuel the world's economies, is certain to cause painful repercussions around the world.  Second, the majority of the people in the United States still subscribes to a fairy tale version of energy, in which solar and windpower are supposed to somehow replace the 11 million barrels per day of oil that we currently import.  To put this into perspective, 11 million barrels * $100 * 365 = 400 billion dollars a year that goes overseas for oil.  That's $1300  per year for every man woman and child in America.  That's how much you are paying for the privilege of using oil from other countries, while you wait for some other energy source to appear.  The granola heads tout wind and solar power, along with teeny little cars, but it says here that it ain't happening. 
   America is in real danger of being ruined economically  We are afraid to drill in Arctic wasteland, fearing that caribou quality of life might be affected in a very small area.  We were also hurt by the BP Horizon fiasco, which has raised legitimate fears about the competence of the petroleum industry to safely carry out drilling in deep water.
   Meantime, researchers know how to convert natural gas and coal to liquid fuels, but we are paralyzed with fear, believing that increasing levels of carbon dioxide will set off an economic catastrophe, causing the heat death of the world.  These fears, it says here, are grossly overstated, as the global average temperature has stabilized even as carbon dioxide production has increased. 
   Nevertheless, the American public has been fed a series of half-truths about energy for years.  The fact is we can not use energy sources like solar, wind or ethanol to make up a substantial amount of the energy we currently import.  We are still a petroleum based economy despite two decades of song and dance about "getting off petroleum."  The reality is that it isn't happening, and we can not "get off petroleum" unless we are willing to "get off money."
   $100 per barrel oil ought to be a signal that it is time to develop new sources of North American oil, including coal and gas liquefaction, shale oil, Anwar drilling, and even deep sea drilling. 

NASA's Arsenic Life Forms Looking Pale

I'm still hoping that NASA's latest wild claim, about finding a new form of life totally separate from the rest of earth's lifeforms, which incorporates arsenic in its DNA will prove to be true.

But in an earlier blog (on, I pointed out that this line of research sounds kind of flakey. There don't seem to be control experiments, and the whole thing hangs on some supposedly infallible experimental measurements.  This leads NASA, and some imaginative science writiters, to conclude that this unique organism can incorporate arsenic its DNA, making it the equivalent of an alien life form, but occuring here on earth. 

But by now other skeptics are weighing in, and they suggest that the claimed arsenic-DNA molecules could not be stable in water.  Moreover, there is another test which could be done to prove that DNA molecules have arsenic in them, but which the NASA scientists didn't bother to do:

Oh yech.  Well, there is still an opportunity for advocates to prove themselves, but the more I find out about this business the more depressing it seems. .  I would/ have thought that NASA would be more careful, especially after their fiasco a few years ago in which they claimed to have found fossilized bacteria from Mars in a meteorite fragment.  The US needs NASA to be a careful advocate for space exploration, rather than being an incubator for weird science. 

The scientific community is still interested in the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, but it is in spite of research like this, not because of it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fabulous Fiddler Elmer Rich

     Most every Friday night at the Westover Senior Center, a group of old-time musicians gets together and puts together a wonderful display of old time fiddle music.  Most of the time, Elmer Rich leads the group.  Now, Elmer is a most interesting fellow.  Who among your friends was given an award by Eleanor Roosevelt?  Well this halppened to Elmer when he did well at a fiddle contest back in 1936.  Since then, he has won an incredible number of awards and accolades, and is known throughout Appalachia and America as wonderful musician and warm human being. 

Note:  if you learn to play rock guitar as well as Elmer learned the mountain fiddle, you get a recording contract for about a zillion dollars.  It's a pity that the mountain fiddle is not as well appreciated.  But it is a distinctly American instrument and sound, and nobody does it better than Elmer.

The first time I sat down with this group, I figured that I was home.  This is really something I want to do for the rest of my life.  I want to be surrounded by friendly people, carrying on our American traditions and passing them down to our kids.  I've got a renewed interest in improving my abilty to play the mandolin and other instruments. 

It's not that I expect to necessarily live as long or as well as Elmer, but that's really not the point.   The point is that for every day we are given on this Earth, we are blessed to be able to share it with others, and making music is one of the best ways to do that, for however long we are around. 

Thanks, Elmer, for being the unofficial King of Appalachian music.  I'm going to enjoy the rest of my musical journey, inspired by people like you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Morgantown WV Brew Pub Wednesday Night Jam

   The most fun I know how to have (besides being married to my beautiful wife Daphne) is to participate in a folk jam at the Morgantown Brewing Company (know locally as the Brew Pub), each and every Wednesday night, starting at about 930 PM.  The music there is referred to as "Old Timey,"  which refers to Appalachian style music as it was played 70 years ago or more. The big difference between Bluegrass and Old Timey, is that Old Timey does not use the Scruggs style banjo, because that really works best as a solo instrument due to its rapid fire picking and loud resonator. On a given night at the Brew Pub,  there might be three or four banjos playing together, and a like number of guitars, Dobro, mandolin and fiddles.   

I don't know the names of all the people who attend, but I'll just say that if you come on Wednesday you might meet people like Keith McManus, Bob Shank and others from the Stewed Mulligan band.  Fiddler Keith and banjo player Vince Farsetta are the main organizers, while Bob also plays clawhammer banjo as well as the meanest hammer dulcimer in these parts.

and you might see Libby Eddy and the Weathered Road, back from New York, no less.

As you might expect we also have some young people from West Virginia University who are interested in learning the folk style.  I got a kick out of a fellow named Carlos, from Brazil, who has become interested in Appalachian folk music.  He's learned all the songs, so sometimes if I am not sure what we are supposed to play I look over to see what he's doing, and he's always right on. 
Yesterday we had a fellow named Isaac who is interested in percussion, and he brought an African talking drum, plus an unusual instrument he made from PVC pipe which made a variety of sounds ranging from a bass, to a sound kind of like the Touvan throat singers from central Asia. It was great, and believe it or not it meshed very well with the Old Timey style of music we play. 

Sometimes a woman named Sue (sorry I don't know her last name) brings a cello to the mix, and a guy named Richard brings a National resonator guitar, which is usually thought of as a blues instrument, though it appears in folk and bluegrass as well.

As for me, I'm not nearly as talented as most of the others, but I've been bringing my mandolin, tuned to a mountain tuning GDGD which gives it kind of a Scotch-Irish resonance.  I'm learning some of the songs and can add a little, and when I'm not completely sure what I'm doing I just muffle the strings with my right hand and keep on playing.

So you are going to get an amazing blend of sounds.  It is really incredible when  you get 20 or so musicians going at the same time.  It wouldn't be possible to have a single band with so many  musicians, so having a jam is the only way to get this sound.

 Here's kind of what it sounds like, though this particular jam was actually carried out at the nearby Blue Moose Cafe.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dirty Coal Clean Future

Atlantic Monthly published a fasinating essay on coal technology, and in particular how China is seeking to build its economy around it.  This is of particular interest to the Village Elliot, who is currently working on clean coal with a consortium of US and Chinese companies, not to mention Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Dr. Friedmann mentioned prominently in the article.

   Most of us would rather that some combination of solar power and windmills be used to replace coal and to make up the staggering 12 million barrels of oil per day that America imports from places that it doesn't like.  Unfortunately, the sad truth is that these supposedly green technologies are too expensive to allow America to compete in the world marketplace.  Moreover, they aren't really green once you figure out how much fossil fuel is consumed to produce the hardware for green energy (hint:  making solar cells is not cheap, and so where do you suppose the energy comes from to make them?).  Fossil fuels, especially coal and petroleum are carcinogenic, poisonous and responsible for environmental disasters and kill workers involved in their use.  But other forms of energy are worse.

     Our politicians have sold Americans a bill of goods, suggesting that future energy needs will be met with hydrogen, solar power, wind power and corn derived ethanol.  Well, it just isn't true.  Although niche markets exist, there is no credible way that America can hope to use energy sources that are severalfold more expensive than fossil fuels.  We can't afford to shut down the economy waiting for totally clean energy sources to be perfected.  Instead, we should set national targets for increasing energy production while continuing to decrease harmful opinions.

   We should also have a blue ribbon panel of Nobel Prize winners to determine whether carbon dioxide reductions are really benefitting the environment as much as the politcal activists claim. Yes, carbon dioxide in massive amounts can raise the temperature of a planet (like Venus, for example, which sits under thousands of pounds per square inch of carbon dioxide).  But that does not mean that spending trillions of dollars is necessary in order to reduce carbon concentrations by a few parts per million on Earth.  Yes, carbon dioxide may have changed the swimming habits of polar bears.

   But at the same time, America has found it necessary to borrow 1.3 trillion dollars per year to maintain our lifestyle, while unemployment hovers around 10%,   Much of that money goes to buy oil to keep our economy running, some 300 billion dollars worth annually. We're counting on the generosity of our Masters in OPEC to continue to allow us to buy their oil with the promise (via interest from T-Bills) to take care of their children and grandchildren in the future. 

   America needs to set goals of achieving full employment, balanced budgets and energy self-sufficiency.  We can't do that with fictitious energy.  We need coal in order to do this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Balance the Federal Budget

How to Balance the Federal Budget

It's not so tough to balance the Federal budget. We've been led to believe that Americans are the neediest people on earth, so that our lives are so destitute that we need to borrow like crazy just so that the suffering can be alleviated for a year or so.

Well, it doesn't have to be that way. We can in fact balance the budget. But I'm not going to tell you how to do it.  In fact, you're going to tell me how to do it with this interactive graphic from the New York Times, which allows you to (on paper at least) make the budget decisions that Congress is going to make to either raise taxes or cut spending.  It will quickly calculate the budget for next year and then in the year 2030.

I found it remarkably simple to balance the budget, without even having to resort to radical Village Elliot ideas like actually increasing economic growth. Some things I would like to call to your attention are items like malpractice reform, which would result in real health care savings, but would lose a lot of well-to-do supporters in the legal profession. Also the "use alternate measure for inflation" sounds wacky, but many people figure that we are over-correcting for inflation, and benefits are going up faster than the (real) inflation. So we may be overspending by billions without intending to. Anyway, without further ado, here's your chance to balance the budget:

Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget

Today, you’re in charge of the nation’s finances. Some of your options have more short-term savings and some have more long-term savings. When you have closed the budget gaps for both 2015 and 2030, you are done. Make your own plan, then share it online.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Global Economic Reality

         Is the US economy going to rebound after the debacle of the Bush years, leading the world out of global recession?  Or are we about to slide in the abyss of socialism?
The numbers say that neither of the extreme images is likely to be true, but lean goverment spending coupled with emphasis on manufacturing and heavy industry is a good prescription for a growing economy.

Some of the things these numbers tell us are

     a. First, the US is growing, but at rate of only 2.6%.  Many countries are growing more than the US, but some countries are much worse (I  confess that I find it exhilirating to think that politicians in other countries may be dumber than ours!). 

     b. It is certainly not the case that free market societies are growing faster than countries which have more government control of the economy. China is growing at a healthy 9.5% per year. Even Russia is growing a tad faster than the US  (and no, that does not mean that the US is more Communist than China or Russia).

    c. There are countries which are worse than the US. Spain is actually contracting, due partly to running up enormous debts during the global real estate boom and bust. Heavily socialized countries like Japan, the Scandavians, etc. are also stagnant.

d. The Pacific Rim countries which rely on heavy industry, manufacturing and exports are enjoying much higher growth rates. Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are among the economies which are growing. I would guess that these countries have lower social spending per capita than the US, Japan and Western Europe.

    It seems to me that the countries which are still growing are those that resisted excessive government spending, but which favored heavy industry, and job creation via exports. Those that were disciplined enough to build up their industrial base are now reaping the benefits. On the other hand, the countries of Western Europe and North America, in which the politicians favor enormous deficits and high social spending, are now pretty much tanking.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Humans Will Live on Venus

Last week I attended the 13th Annual Mars Society Convention. I was enormously impressed by the quality of the papers that were presented there. One paper in particular stood out, even though it was not even about Mars at all. Rather, it was entitled "The Case for Venus" by Geoffrey Landis of NASA Glenn.
At first glance, this would seem to be a stupid, stupid idea, right? After all, the temperature on the surface of the planet is around 450 Celsius, and the atmospheric pressure is equivalent to that experienced a mile under the ocean on earth (i.e., similar to the Deepwater Horizon). The atmosphere is mainly carbon dioxide, with a generous helping of sulfuric acid. In other words, it is the embodiment of Hell!
But wait! What if, instead of being fixated on living on the ground, you were content to live in a Zeppelin, high above the clouds? It turns out that, like the earth, Venus is much cooler at hegher altitudes, and the pressure is lower as well. So if you choose to float at 55 kilometers above the surface of Venus, the atmospheric temperature and pressure are quite a bit like earth's. It may be a very very habitable location!
Plus if you want to fill your balloon with a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, like Earth's atmosphere, it is significantly more buoyant than, say, a hot air balloon on earth.
You could imagine a small city suspended above the clouds of Venus someday.
Another thing that struck me, with the high altitude, you are really at orbital altitudes, but with an atmosphere. You would not have to have a blazing re-entry to the atmoshpere like you do on earth. Rather, if my understanding of orbital mechanics is correct, you would just establish a low orbit, which would decay due to atmospheric drag. Then you would deploy your Zeppelin or inflatable balloons of your choice, and gradually slow from orbital velocity to wind velocity.
Inside your balloon, you can raise food crops in order to produce oxxygen, and carry out life in a relatively normal way. Solar power would be readily available, since Venus is closer to the sun than the earth, and the atmosphere would protect us from radiation, as it does on earth.
I thought about the floating city of Laputa imagined by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's travels (and later re-imagined in a beautiful anime cartoon by Studio Ghibli). Laputa, the floating city in the sky, will one day exist on Venus.
I'm certain of it!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why "Going Off Petroleum" is Difficult

What industries depend upon fossil fuels? Energy is the obvious one. But there are many others.
Agriculture is one, because of the dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizers. Without fertilizers, food can still be produced, but not at the same rate. The world population doubles every 40 years, and the agricultural industry plans on feeding everyone. Practically speaking, this can only be done by using petrochemical fertilizers and mechanization in planting, gathering, processing and distributing food. “Getting off of petroleum” sounds great but makes no sense in terms of global agriculture.
Petrochemicals now account for 50 billion tons per year of petroleum.
The steel industry requires metallurgical grade coke in order tow produce steel from iron ore. In round terms, this comes from some 400 million tons of metcoke per year or 500 million tons of metallurgical grade coal. Theglobal production of steel is around 1.2 billion tons.

Similarly, aluminum and many other metalscannot be made without consuming carbon, obtained from a combination of oil and coal. Some 60 million tons of carbon are consumed to make 140 million tons of aluminum. Aluminum is also an energy hog, requiring 3% of the global electricity consumed in order to produce it. Recycling requires much less energy, by the way.
Road building is usually done with asphalt, a petroleum product. If we switch to concrete, the best material is made with a certain percentage of fly ash from coal. In addition, you need energy to produce cement, some 500 million terrajoules per year, from burning some 10 million tons of carbon annually.
Glass also is energy intensive, and relies upon a combination of natural gas, coke and other products.
Look around you, and you will probably find that you are surrounded by fossil fuel products (either direct products or indirect ones), from the plastic in your computer, to the paint on the walls, to the vinyl siding on your house, the synthetics used in the carpet on the floor and the clothes you are wearing, the shingles on your roof, not to mention the cars in your garage.

At least 60% of oil isn’t used for gasoline at all, but instead is used for chemicals, plastics, cokes, pitches, heating oil, etc.
Some folks think that if we can only shut down coal, oil and natural gas, some new cleaner energy sources will naturally emerge due to market forces! Oh boy! To me when I listen to our politicians (including the President) explain how this will work, I am reminded of Linus explaining the story of the Great Pumpkin. It just doesn’t hang together for me. Still, shouldn’t we actually bring these new sources of energy (whatever they are) to market first, and then kill our old technologies second?

Many folks are disgusted that the US consumes some 25% of all the energy in the world! How horrible! Wasteful! Well, we also consume, on the average, some 25% of everything else in the world! To make it simple, just take the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and divide it by the world GDP, and darn if it doesn’t come out to be the same number as our energy consumption, give or take. The “problem” isn’t just our energy consumption, but our standard of living is much higher than the global average. So if you want to feel guilty about consuming too much energy, please feel free to feel guilty about everything else that Americans consume.

That starts to sink in for me when we turn to industries such as manufacturing. Auto and manufacturing, for example, would be a bit problematic without steel, rubber or plastic. Same with the transportation industry, and so on.

But what about the medical care industry? That doesn’t seem to require much energy, does it? Much of that is simply labor. The problem is, when the people get their paychecks, they want to have houses and cars and all the rest. So it winds up getting reinvested in more fossil fuel and more carbon.

I'm having trouble rationalizing how we are going to get off fossil fuels. Can anyone help?