Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Best and Worst Christmas Present

Legos were one of my favorite toys.  You can use it to build anything you want.  My friends and I used to make planes, rocket ships, tanks, houses, robots and just about anything else that our little brains could imagine.  What a great toy!

    Legos are possibly the greatest toys ever invented.  With the basic set, every kid can be a virtual millionaire, able to make just about anything they can imagine. 

     Legos existed in the 1960's.  My friend Robbie Raymond and I used to make little tanks and run them into each other to see which one would survive better.  Robbie usually won, but his tanks were build solid to the core.  I used to keep an empty volume in the middle, because that is where the imaginary soldiers would have to sit.  How can you have a tank with no place for army guys to sit?  No matter, Robbie's tanks usually survived better than mine, but in any case it was a challenge to figure out how to make more robust tanks. 

      These days however, times have changed. Now Lego comes in special kits, like this Star Wars Spaceship. 

      This stuff costs more money than the basic set, and it has 3000 parts, and there is only one way for them to go together right, and only one toy for your kid to make, and if you lose any one piece, you're dead.  It takes not hours but weeks to build something this complicated, and then once you have it there is nothing to do with it except buy other kits to go along with it.  This will drive both you and your children completely insane.  This is not Lego, it's actually the Antichrist.  

Part of the problem is that kids have way more toys than they ever did before.  I'll bet if your kids took all the toys and spread them out on the floor, your entire house would be knee deep in toys.  Hence toys with small parts are certain to get dispersed amid this sea of toys, and it is impossible to keep everything sorted out.  I bought  my son some Lego airplanes and trains and regretted it.   They took hours to put together, and despite our best efforts, some pieces got separated from the rest, and are now lost in the Great Void of Small Parts.   In general, anything with small parts is to be avoided, and these Lego kits are the worst of the worst.  

    Hence, my advice is to go with a big bucket of Legos, without any particular theme.  It's about one third of the cost and it will be way more fun in the long run.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Daniel Inouye

     Daniel Inouye was an authentic American hero.  Of Japanese descent, he was one of many who volunteered for the  All-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II.  In those days, the Army was segregated, so the 442nd was made of persons of Japanese descent and sent to the European Theater, where it was thought there would be less risk of them changing sides.  Inouye and others in the 442nd were determined to prove that they were loyal Americans, and that unit become the most decorated for bravery of all units in the United States Army.  

      You want to read about a tough guy?  Here is his Medal of Honor Citation:

      Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 21 April 1945, in the vicinity of San Terenzo, Italy. While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions. In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge. Second Lieutenant Inouye’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.
      They say that his arm was injured while he was holding a live grenade, and he pried out his fingers with his left hand and threw the grenade, taking out a Nazi machine gun.

     Jiminy Christmas, I can't imagine somebody continuing to charge enemy positions with his arm blown off, but he did that.  Eventually he passed out from loss of blood after securing the objective, and he woke up to find his troops huddled around him.  So he yelled at them to get back to work. "Nobody called off the war!"

    Now that is one tough dude, and why foreign countries should not want to mess with Americans in wars.  

    Guys like him inspired me to join the military and in a very small way follow in his footsteps.  Maybe that's why the older generations of Democrats and Republicans, like Kennedy and Nixon, were able to get along relatively well.  After you've fought alongside someone, you learn to respect them even if they are from a different political party.

     Nowadays, however, America seems determined to elect politicians who thought they were too important to serve our country in the military.  They tend to be great talkers, but spoiled and used to getting everything they want,  and for that reason they can't get along with each other. 
     I remember seeing Inouye in the Watergate panel during the Nixon Administration.  He was asking tough questions, but generally very fair ones, without mugging for TV time like the other contestants, I mean members of the panel.  

    All his life, Senator Inouye fought for the equality of all Americans.  I continued to be inspired by his vision.   

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Climate Change or the End Time?

     I have decided to hurry up and write this blog now, given that the infallible Mayans predicted ages ago that the world would end this December 21.  

    An amazing article appeared in Reuters reporting the result of an opinion poll.  Apparently 40% of you out there believe that recent weather has worsened, and that this is the sign of the "End Times."  In other words, you think that God is going to destroy the world, and one of the things he has incorporated in his formula is bad weather.  And you are also sure that those who do not agree with you are in league with the devil. 

   Equally amazing, another 60% of you think that we are having exceptionally bad weather (such as the superstorm that hit the East Coast last month) and that it is due to man-made climate change.   This should not be confused with global warming (i.e., the well documented rise in global average temperature by 1 C since about 1900), but refers to disastrous weather like floods, hurricanes, earthquakes etc.   
     In other words, you basically agree with the religious right that the world is coming to an end, and that it is due to evil actions by humanity,  but you believe that there is a scientific explanation for the whole thing.  Pollution and especially carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is the culprit.

     Jeez, if you add it up that seems to come up to 100% who apparently believe that the weather is worsening to such an extent that global destruction is at hand.  It might not actually be 100% if some of you are being double counted (you believe God is getting ready to destroy the world, and fossil fuels are helping him to do it).  But it is clear that a very high percentage of normal average Americans believe that the world is coming to an end due to bad weather.  22% believe that it is within the next 50 years or so, and a significant fraction are genuinely worried that the world will end next week, in the supposed Mayan prophecy (there is no such prophecy, but far be it for the Village Elliot to spoil your fun). 

    The right believes that the Apocalypse is coming, and the left believes that fossil fuel consumption is destroying the world for reasons that do not involve God, but almost everyone agrees that the world is coming to an end, at least according to the opinion polls. The right believes that the left is wacky, and the left believes that the right is wacky, despite the fact that both sides are in basic agreement that the world is coming to an end due to weather related phenomena. 

    Apparently, most people believe that the world is coming to an end soon, but we may the opportunity to live a normal lifespan.  But according to Reuters, 22% of Americans (and 15% of people worldwide) think that the world will end in their lifetime.

     The Village Elliot thinks you are all wacky, frankly.  I believe in God, and I also believe in the infrared absorption cross section of carbon dioxide, but I don't believe that the world is being destroyed by either one. 

    It may be that I am now in a tiny minority that does not believe in the imminent destruction of the earth due to weather (a more reasonable case can be made that humans will destroy the earth with nuclear weapons, but let's leave this possibility for a future blog).  

     It seems that there is simply a deep seated human need to believe in the end of the world. It used to be that Gaddaffi was the AntiChrist, or Saddam, or John Kennedy (not a Protestant, you see), or Hitler, or Kaiser Wilhelm or Napoleon.  My personal favorite was Ronald (6 letters) Wilson (6 letters) Reagan (6 letters).  Imagine the Antichrist posing as a Republican.  What a trickster he is!

    The Village Elliot thinks that before assuming that the world is being destroyed, we ought to let meteorologists  characterize current weather patterns and compare them to data from the past.  What a bland thought! I think they might say that the weather has in fact been worse in recent years, but overall the meteorlogical forecast is a little more optimistic than the death of the universe.

    Bad weather played a role in the last presidential election, as Mayor Bloomberg expressed his belief that President Obama would be more effective in changing the climate for the better than Mitt Romney.  Bloomberg believed that Hurricane Sandy was a consequence of bad environmental practices in the United States, although I'm not sure how he reached this conclusion.  I thought King Canute of England had already done this experiment when he commanded the sea to stop rising, and found that the sea would not listen.  But it is now a valid political perception, if not a scientific reality, that politicians are the key to saving the world from natural calamaties. 

 Reasonable people now believe that King Canute was actually right, and political action will improve the weather.  But the world will probably come to an end anyway, or so people say.  



Sunday, November 4, 2012

The War on Coal

     One of my friends asked me to blog about the War on Coal.  Well, you don't have to ask me twice. 

    The War on Coal is the US government's response to a perceived environmental crisis, for which their response is to dramatically increase environmental standards (both for mining and for power plant emissions)  to the point at which existing power plants and coal mines are forced to cut back  or even be shut down.  This is done through the Environmental Protection Agency, which is permitted to issue regulations, as authorized by the Code of Federal Regulations

     The great hope is that coal fired plants will be replaced by solar power or wind power or some other renewable source of energy.  But the fact of the matter is that renewable energy is horrifically expensive.  While rich folks can afford keep their houses warm in the winter with it, industries simply can not make a profit if they are forced to use expensive electricity (Kennel's Conundrum of Solar Energy is that no solar cell production facility can exclusively use solar-generated electricity to produce silicon cells because it is just not economically competitive.  You need fossil fuel energy in order to achieve practical economics).   Renewable energy is great philosophically, but it just does not conform to economic reality as we currently understand it.

   The true alternative is natural gas, which has emerged as an incredibly cheap and plentiful alternative due to massive new discoveries in the Marcellus  and Barnett shale formations,  with less environmental consequence than coal.  So all new power plants will probably be built using natural gas, at least for the next ten years.  No new coal plants will be build in the US, and existing coal plants are going to be phased out, it's just a matter of timing.
     Shutting down existing coal plants immediately does not alleviate any true environmental emergency.  It does make your electric bill higher and increases the risk of power outages.  Those concerned about carbon dioxide emissions need to face the reality of China, which now emits much more carbon dioxide than the US. Other economies (notably India) are eager to follow China's example and achieve economic growth with coal.    

     If the US were to drop its emissions to zero (which of course is not possible)China alone would make up for that within about five years if their growth continues and there is no international agreement for others to follow our excellent self-sacrificing example.  And in fact simple laws of supply and demand dictate that if we simply drop our demand to zero, the existing supply will be utilized by others.  So how exactly are we going to influence the rest of the world to abandon the prospect of trillions of dollars worth of gross domestic product fueled by fossil energy?  Perhaps a global economic depression is the surest path to environmental success.  American politicians seem determined to bring this about, so perhaps there is hope.   
     Nevertheless, whether or not it makes a real difference, I guess we feel better about ourselves as a country if we are cutting carbon emissions and eliminating coal jobs.  We can probably afford to do so as long as natural gas stays at its incredibly cheap level.   Our current leadership hopes that we can continue to borrow vast amounts of money for a while to continue importing oil and other basic commodities.  And that's our real energy plan.  Borrow, borrow, borrow.  Got it? 

    In energy states, the local authorities (especially Republicans but also fiscally conservative Democrats) are generally more friendly to new natural gas drilling, offshore oil drilling as well as shale oil projects, especially at the state level.  
     Irrespective of government desires, private industry has produced so much natural gas and oil using new drilling techniques that America has reversed its long term trend of more imports.  We can argue whether it is because of the government or in spite of it, but the US has actually cut back its imports of petroleum over the past few years while increasing domestic production.

     In the long run, I think the future of coal will be as a substitute for petroleum.  Coal can be thought of as a super heavy crude oil.  If chemical engineers put their mind to it,  they can convert it into oil via a number of processes, and at an acceptable cost.  In China, there are several processes being introduced.  Many of these processes were developed originally in the US, but not pursued because of the easy option of increasing imports.

      On the far right, the Libertarians oppose any government involvement in Energy, and would like to abolish the Department of Energy altogether.  They would like to turn everything over to industry.
     The Greens, on the other hand, seem to regard energy as a conspiracy, and especially the private sector. They would like to extend the war on coal to become the war on coal, oil and natural gas. If we punish the energy companies enough, renewable energy sources will be allowed to flourish and they will get what they want.   

   In summary, the War on Coal is a real feature of the current energy plan for America, although that term is not used by advocates.  But both major parties favor increased market share for natural gas and decreased market share for coal, with the major disagreement being on the rate at which coal utilization should decrease.  The Libertarians and Greens, in my opinion, are both in favor of destroying the economy, although each party has a different idea on how to best accomplish that goal.  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Beavercreek OH--Pass the School Levy!

   I hope that my friends in beautiful Beavercreek Ohio will pass the school levy!  Upon moving back to the Dayton area, we picked Beavercreek as the best place to live because it's not too far from my workplace, and it's a great community close to Wright State and Wright Patterson Air Force Base.  But our community has managed to vote against the last three levies.  According to the Dayton Daily News:  "In the last 18 months and amid three failed levy attempts, the district has made multiple cuts to personnel, programs and services — including eliminating more than 60 positions, cutting multiple academic electives and halving its elementary art, music and physical education classes.  Also, in January, the district eliminated busing for high-schoolers and reduced it for middle-school students."  (see )

     Folks, this is self destructive.  Yes, we hate taxes, but we have to pay for our children to be educated.  Neighborhoods and community depend upon having great schools.  We're talking about the future of our kids, not to mention the value of our homes.  Don't expect to get much for your house if we run the school system into the ground.  I hope that anger with the federal government does not translate to taking it out on our kids.  

Ohio Issue 2: Great Idea, but will it work?

Ohio Issue 2 seeks to have redistricting done by an independent commission instead of by the legislature. We have to do this every ten years when the census comes out.  The full text is here: .

Issue 2 is a great idea, because legislators have an inherent conflict of interest.   The majority party will always draw new districts that maximize their own chances.   So instead, the idea is that there will first be a committee of 8 judges (4 from the majority party) who will select a qualified pool of candidates, from which 4 majority party persons, 4 minority party persons and 4 independents  will be selected.  They will do the best job that they can to meet sensible criteria for redistricting (keeping communities intact; making compact boundaries, etc). No office holders or lobbyists can be on the committee.  7 votes out of the 12 are needed to pass the new districting boundaries.

Of course you have to pay for this service, but it's only once every ten years, so maybe it's not so bad. 

However, David Worhatch points out in the Plain Dealer that the 8 judges doing the screening will most likely be comprised of 4 from the majority party and at least one independent that leans to the majority party.  So they will still likely stack the group of 12 with independents that favor the majority party.  That is a very significant loophole.  David's article is found here:

Another question I have, though, is what if the group can't agree?  What if two of the "independents" side with the Democrats and two side with the Republicans?  Then the committee might always vote 6-6.  What then?  I can't see from the amendment what to do about that situation.  The status quo may not be an option if the number of congressional districts has to change.  It would have been better if they had had an odd number of people on the commission.

I'm not going to vote for good intentions.  I probably will vote no unless somebody can better explain how this will work.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Post Script: The Medieval Warming Period and Climate Stasis Hypothesis

    Last May, the Village Elliot made a rather brash and slightly heretical prediction that future refereed scientific studies might revisit the historical periods known as the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age ). This poses a mild challenge to conventional wisdom, which claims that global average temperature has been highly stable for thousands of years, until the 20th century, at which point carbon dioxide caused global warming to occur.  The majority of climatologists believe that only carbon dioxide has made a major change in global average temperature over the past several thousand years, and non-CO2 effects can probably be  neglected.

    Being not terribly bright, the Village Elliot wondered whether the climate stasis hypothesis is consistent with the historical record, which describes events such as the settlement of Greenland by the Vikings as well as the Inuit during the Medieval Warming Period; with those settlements being scaled back or disappearing during the Little Ice Age which historians say followed.  After all, a 1 degree Celsius temperature variation is less than the average difference in annual temperature between Cleveland and Columbus (or Boston and New York, if you prefer) which doesn't seem like the difference between an ice age and a warming period even when you factor in the fact that temperature change is higher at high lattitudes.  During the warming period, people were raising crops in Greenland, and during the Little Ice Age the Baltic Sea froze solid in the wintertime.

     Hence I was interested to read a recent article by Christiansen and Ljundqvisk, "The extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere temperature in the last millennia: reconstructions of low-frequency variability" (Climate of the  Past, 8, 765–786, 2012), in which the authors examine 91 proxy data sets.  To make a long story short, Christainsen and Ljundqvisk suggest among other things, that the Medieval Warming Period and Little Ice Age may have been more significant than previous reconstructions have thought.  Like, the Medieval Warming Period may have actually been warmer, and the Little Ice Age may have actually been colder. 
    Now, this does not in any way disprove a role for carbon dioxide in contributing to 20th century global warming, and in fact the paper does not directly invoke carbon dioxide at all. If you have enough confidence in computer models, you might still conclude that 20th century warming was due to CO2.  However, to my thinking the door is left ajar for continuing consideration of the various forces that affect our climate, both natural and human-caused. The question is how much warming is due to carbon dioxide, and how much is due to something else?  Although some people are certain of that answer, I'm not there yet.  
   A single article is rarely decisive, so it will be interesting to see whether future studies tend to support or refute Christiansen and Ljundqvisk's analysis. 


  A recent reconstruction by Christiansen and Ljundqvisk suggests that the Medeival Warming Period might have been roughly similar to the 20th century in terms of average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere.

Previous reconstructions have suggested that the Medieval Warming Period was not particularly warm compared to the 20th Century.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why I Love Central State University

     In addition to my primary job as a research scientist, my second job is as an adjunct professor of mathematics at Central State in Wilberforce Ohio.  I don't like Central State--I love it!  The reason is that I feel that I can make a difference in the lives of young people, many of whom were uncertain about attending college, and who find themselves once they attend Central State.  This is an incredible opportunity, and I hope that Historically Black Colleges and Universities--like Central State--continue to be supported nationwide.
     There is an ongoing debate at both the national level as well as the state level about whether there should be such a thing.   

    Central State was once part of Wilberforce College, but they split into two institutions in 1887.  Wilberforce University is supported by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Central State University is supported by the State of Ohio.  

     Some educators ask whether it makes sense to use state tax dollars to support a historically black university.  Is that in some way discriminatory?  The short answer is that there are no race factors in the acceptance process for CSU. I think a better question, however, is what the purpose of education is.  Aren't we trying to train people in our state to become better more productive workers, and to get jobs?  And does Central State appeal to enough people who want to go to school there?  Will they be better off if they are involved in higher education at Central State?

     The answer to those questions is definitely, unequivocally yes.  There are many fantastic schools in Ohio, but for a substantial number of people I have no doubt that Central State is the best alternative.  
     Although you shouldn't get the idea that everyone at Central State comes from a disadvantaged inner city background, a lot of our students do.  Many are the first in their family to ever attend college.  In many cases we are attempting to break the cycle of disregard for the importance of education.  Thus for many families we are helping to create a culture of higher education for the first time.

     Let me put it this way.  My own kids come from a culture in which Daddy went to college, and so did Grandpa and Grandma and even Great Grandpa and Great Grandma.   They have an excellent chance for academic success and a good job in adulthood.  But it's not necessarily the same for someone that grows up in predominantly African American West Dayton.  

    As  a society, we could just throw up our hands and say, "Well we're sorry, West Dayton kids.  You just don't have the money, the grades or the test scores or other academic achievements. And it's your own fault.  So, we're going to spend all our money on rich kids from the 'burbs, so college is not for you." 
    Some people would say that's exactly the right approach.  But to me the right answer is to continue to encourage everyone in our society to maximize their potential and to improve their ability to work and to contribute to our society.  It does make a difference to get people into higher education. Their lives will be more productive with college than they would be without it.  Or, from the State's perspective, you're going to get more tax revenue by having more college educated workers in your state than if you don't reach out.  We're also going to make a difference in the communities and help to develop depressed locations such as West Dayton.  It will make a big difference. 

    In particular a summer program called Upward Bound made a huge impression on me.  In Upward Bound, high school students come to college and are exposed to college, usually for the first time.  The program does not target the best students, but rather focuses on students that have potential but who might not be in a family or economic situation that encourages college.  I was amazed at the change in attitude that occurred with these kids.  Many were indifferent to the educational process when they came in, but by the time they left virtually all of them were determined to study hard and go to college--and not necessarily Central State.  Many hoped to apply to Ohio State or even some private colleges.

    The Upward Bound program makes an incredible difference for this group of students.  Being able to attend classes at an HBCU like Central State was unquestionably the best place for them to be exposed to Upward Bound.  I'm glad to have played a small part in it.  I think a few kids learned a little about math by attending my class.  I hope to see a few of them again in a few years when they sign up for my class at Central State! 

      If anything, I would like to see more programs like Upward Bound that get high school students in touch with the college process.  Too many of our young people are not exposed to college life and never consider entering college at all.  For too many Americans, colleges are little more than athletic clubs to be seen on TV.  But in fact, education is where it's at!  This is our hope for the future.  We're going to have a better future with higher education than without it.
        I think it is a great idea to locate a branch campus in West Dayton. It's on Germantown Pike, in one of the neighborhoods that was severely damaged in the riots of the late 1960's and which is only now recovering.  I predict Central State will become a pillar of the West Dayton community in time.  
        I might add that I actually went to school not far from there, at United Theological Seminary which at the time was located on Harvard Blvd.  Since that time, the property has been taken over by Omega Baptist Church, with our former Dean, Daryl Ward, as the Senior Pastor.  I might not be the greatest churchperson, but I had the greatest education possible, and I will always be grateful to UTS as well as the community.

     Of course, not everyone who is given the opportunity to attend college will run with it.  One of the things that gets me down is the large number of students that basically flunk themselves.  I have almost never had a student fail my class who attended every class and turned in each homework assignment.  Nevertheless, university-wide more than half the college freshmen do not complete college, and many students wipe out in freshman mathematics. I don't believe it's a lack of ability.  More than anything else it is a lack of vision, and a lack of belief in the possibility of academic success and future success as a person.  Sometimes, young people buy into the critics and the people who say they can't do it and that they're no good, instead of listening to those who say that they CAN succeed.    
   My biggest task as an educator is not to transmit information about factoring binonial equations, but to help people to believe in themselves.  Maybe it sounds corny, but it is absolutely true.  

    Central State University is making a big difference in the lives of its students  (not to mention its adjunct faculty!).  I believe it occupies an important niche in our educational system, and I hope it continues to be strong force to enrich people's lives, as well as the community it serves.