I’m making a small (but fundamental) change to the way the site works to reflect the traffic coming to the site (which has mainly been directed towards environmental health and other work/science related posts).
For the foreseeable future, snarglr.com will only display posts from the environmental health and science categories; all other posts (including the more fun ones) will be accessible from snarglr.com/all/.
For those who appreciate the more whimsical and fun posts, you can visit snarglr.com/all moving forward or click the “View All Posts” link in the sidebar.
Bill Gates, at his blog:
Many developing countries are turning to coal and other low-cost fossil fuels to generate the electricity they need for powering homes, industry, and agriculture. Some people in rich countries are telling them to cut back on fossil fuels. I understand the concern: After all, human beings are causing our climate to change, and our use of fossil fuels is a huge reason.
But even as we push to get serious about confronting climate change, we should not try to solve the problem on the backs of the poor. For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.
Gates links to two videos from political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. They’re interesting and decent encapsulations of issues we grapple with regularly. We know what works, and indeed most of us in the developed world use either gas or electricity — or both — to cook everyday. Offering solutions that only partially protect health seems morally dubious, a point Lomborg and Gates make. Lomborg’s videos are embedded below. Grist for the mill.
Henry M. Paulson, writing in the NYT:
In a future with more severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising seas that imperil coastal cities, public funding to pay for adaptations and disaster relief will add significantly to our fiscal deficit and threaten our long-term economic security. So it is perverse that those who want limited government and rail against bailouts would put the economy at risk by ignoring climate change.
This is short-termism. There is a tendency, particularly in government and politics, to avoid focusing on difficult problems until they balloon into crisis. We would be fools to wait for that to happen to our climate.
When you run a company, you want to hand it off in better shape than you found it. In the same way, just as we shouldn’t leave our children or grandchildren with mountains of national debt and unsustainable entitlement programs, we shouldn’t leave them with the economic and environmental costs of climate change. Republicans must not shrink from this issue. Risk management is a conservative principle, as is preserving our natural environment for future generations. We are, after all, the party of Teddy Roosevelt.
“First, they came for your lightbulbs… Now the EPA, using taxpayer money to target kitchen stoves… Soon they’re coming… not just here, in third world countries. Why? Because climate change.”
Professor Kirk R. Smith, writing at Forbes:
The fracking furor over shale gas is the latest in a series of environmental debates that have bedeviled the oil and gas industry in spite of what might be considered an enviable record compared to related industries, coal for example. From off shore spills to the Keystone Pipeline, the industry probably feels a bit set upon at times. Similarly, its products are often the focus of environmental concern and consequent strict regulation, for example diesel air pollution. Finally, it often bears the brunt of concerns about carbon dioxide emissions leading to climate change risks.
The industry might keep in mind, however, that one of its products, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG — bottled gas containing propane and butane), is actually the most effective solution available for the largest environmental health risk in the world: cooking with solid fuels.
There is some opposition in the environmental community to promoting LPG, a fossil fuel, because of climate concerns. In reality, however, because of the poor combustion typical in biomass stoves, which produces black carbon, methane, and other climate-active pollutants, and the often non-renewable nature of the biomass supplies, which results in CO2 emissions, the net climate impact of a switch to LPG would be negligible. Even if only considering CO2, the incremental impact on global emissions of a switch to LPG would be no more than a percent of the emissions from the developed sector globally. It is not cooking by the poor that poses risk to the climate.
A decent journalistic piece in Nature about household energy use and health. My favorite bit, from the one-two punch of Kirk Smith & Kalpana Balakrishnan:
After decades of battling to get people to use improved cooking-stoves, many researchers worry that such devices will never win over consumers and thus never achieve the desired health and climate gains. “My bottom line is that nothing works,” Smith says. “The only thing we know that’s ever worked is gas and electric.”
Balakrishnan makes a moral argument against improved cooking stoves, which still produce harmful amounts of pollutants compared with LPG or electric ones, powered by remote energy plants that comonly use fossil fuels. “Are you justified in saying that it’s OK to be just a little bit better?” she asks. “If it’s OK for 40% of the population to use fossil fuels, then why is not OK for the other 60% of the population? How can we have dual standards?”
Today, in Nature:
Even though high-profile programmes have distributed millions of stoves to households in south Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is hard to find signs that the stoves are being widely used. There is a vast gap between reported accomplishments and what researchers see when they step into people’s homes.
The crux of the problem is that simply supplying the stoves does not establish demand for them.
Efforts could be redirected to providing people with the energy they most aspire to: not a stove designed by someone in the developed world to cook cleaner, but the actual stoves used in the developed world, which run on electricity or hydrocarbons such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
This is not an absurd goal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that bringing electricity and clean-cooking facilities to every person on Earth by 2030 will cost US$49 billion a year. Although that is a considerable sum, the agency points to major commitments by Indonesia, Ghana and Nigeria to aggressively switch large portions of their population to cooking with LPG.
Where will all this new energy come from? It will require some additional consumption of fossil fuels, and that will increase the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the extra pollution would be minimal at the global scale: the IEA estimates that it would boost CO2 emissions by just 0.7% above its base scenario.
Powerful opinion piece by Michael E. Mann in the NYT:
If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.
This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.
How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?
Those are the stakes.
As with all things Bill Murray, this is a gem. My favorite question and answer is the top one in the thread (for now):
Q. If you could go back in time and have a conversation with one person, who would it be and why? (from anniedog03)
A. That’s a grand question, golly.
I kind of like scientists, in a funny way. Albert Einstein was a pretty cool guy. The thing about Einstein was that he was a theoretical physicist, so they were all theories. He was just a smart guy. I’m kind of interested in genetics though. I think I would have liked to have met Gregor Mendel.
Because he was a monk who just sort of figured this stuff out on his own. That’s a higher mind, that’s a mind that’s connected. They have a vision, and they just sort of see it because they are so connected intellectually and mechanically and spiritually, they can access a higher mind. Mendel was a guy so long ago that I don’t necessarily know very much about him, but I know that Einstein did his work in the mountains in Switzerland. I think the altitude had an effect on the way they spoke and thought.
But I would like to know about Mendel, because i remember going to the Philippines and thinking “this is like Mendel’s garden” because it had been invaded by so many different countries over the years, and you could see the children shared the genetic traits of all their invaders over the years, and it made for this beautiful varietal garden.
It’s been a long time, blog. Blame India and Nepal. Both of which are seemingly under-represented in the below map. The embed code’s not great — click on a region or pull the map around a bit to see their assessment. Or, better yet, view the map in your full browser window here.
For the past three years, the Global Health program at the Council on Foreign Relations has been tracking relevant reports to produce an interactive map plotting global outbreaks of diseases that are easily prevented by inexpensive and effective vaccines. The diseases include measles, mumps, whooping cough, polio, and rubella.
“These outbreaks illustrate a worrying trend and raise the sense of alarm regarding failures in and public resistance to vaccine efforts,” says CFR senior fellow for global health Laurie Garrett. “Small decreases in vaccine coverage are known to lead to dramatic increases in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases,” she explains.
NASA and JPL continue to release some incredible images. Click the image to see a large version in a new window; click here to see huge ones over at NASA.
Humbling and magical.
On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth.
With the sun’s powerful and potentially damaging rays eclipsed by Saturn itself, Cassini’s onboard cameras were able to take advantage of this unique viewing geometry. They acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic is special as it marks the third time our home planet was imaged from the outer solar system; the second time it was imaged by Cassini from Saturn’s orbit; and the first time ever that inhabitants of Earth were made aware in advance that their photo would be taken from such a great distance.
With both Cassini’s wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras aimed at Saturn, Cassini was able to capture 323 images in just over four hours. This final mosaic uses 141 of those wide-angle images. Images taken using the red, green and blue spectral filters of the wide-angle camera were combined and mosaicked together to create this natural-color view. A brightened version with contrast and color enhanced (Figure 1), a version with just the planets annotated (Figure 2), and an annotated version (Figure 3) are shown above.
This image spans about 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across.
A bunch of folks across the internet have been doing some great stuff with the air quality data coming out of China via official channels and the US Embassy twitter feeds. My advisor asked for some graphs of available data. They are posted below (all were created in R using ggplot2). If time ever permits, I’ll post some interactive visualizations.
RAW is a really impressive and easy-to-use data visualization tool created by Density Design. I created the following plot in about five minutes from existing GBD data (of DALYs in India for women of all ages).
The first column contains risk categories as defined by the comparative risk assessment of the 2010 Global Burden of Disease. The second column contains individual risk factors (each of which fits into an aforementioned risk category). The final column shows attributable DALYs by cause. Some color would help differentiate the different risks and causes, but the basic picture is clear if you spend a few minutes with the graph. Women in India, according to the 2010 GBD, predominantly lose healthy life years from CVD, chronic respiratory diseases, nutritional deficiencies, and infectious disease. A fair amount of this is attributable to air pollution.
To make this plot, I opened a CSV, copied its contents, pasted into a text field at RAW, and then used its simple, elegant GUI to generate the code for the plot. The options are a little limited now (would like to add some color, shift label positions around, etc). If I really wanted to make those changes, I could edit the code and do it manually. A really impressive showcase of what can be done in the browser and definitely worth checking out and keeping an eye on.
Update: WebFaction released today a one-click installed for node.js, obviating Step 2 below. Leaving it in here for posterity.
Shiny “makes it super simple for R users like you to turn analyses into interactive web applications that anyone can use.” It’s a powerful tool with a relatively simple syntax. It’s great for local apps — but I wanted to set up a web-based app that others could access and that wasn’t beholden to Shiny and RStudio’s excellent beta server platform.
I host this site and a few others at WebFaction — an awesome service with little to no downtime, fast servers, and relatively flexible restrictions. Getting Shiny up and running on WebFaction required a little work.
Step 1: SSH into WebFaction. Follow the instructions on their website for your specific server(s).
Step 2: Make a source directory. Download and install node.js.
mkdir src cd src wget 'http://nodejs.org/dist/v0.10.20/node-v0.10.20.tar.gz' tar -xzf node-v0.10.20.tar.gz cd node-v0.10.20 python2.7 configure --prefix=$HOME make PYTHON=python2.7 make PYTHON=python2.7 install export NODE_PATH="$HOME/lib/node_modules:$NODE_PATH" echo 'export NODE_PATH="$HOME/lib/node_modules:$NODE_PATH"' >> $HOME/.bashrc
Step 3: Download and install R.
#install R wget 'http://cran.us.r-project.org/src/base/R-3/R-3.0.2.tar.gz' tar -xzf R-3.0.2.tar.gz cd R-3.0.2 ./configure --prefix $HOME make make install
Step 4: Make a temp/tmp/temporary director.
cd $HOME mkdir tmp chmod 777 tmp TMPDIR=$HOME/tmp export TMPDIR
Step 5: Download Shiny from source and install using NPM.
git clone https://github.com/rstudio/shiny-server.git npm install -g shiny-server/
installing from NPM directly did not work — Shiny would not launch. I believe this is because you’re not allowed root access on WebFaction shared accounts.
Step 6: Launch R and install whatever packages you need.
install.packages('ggplot2') install.packages('data.table') devtools::install_github("ShinyDash", "trestletech") devtools::install_github("shiny-incubator", "rstudio")
Step 7: Want plots to work? In your Shiny app’s global.R file, set
options(bitmapType = 'cairo')
Next up: a cron job to keep a Shiny instance running or to restart it if it goes down… and putting Shiny behind some light authentication to prevent pre-release apps from general consumption.
The Best American Infographics 2013 came in yesterday. It’s chock-full of goodness and inspiring visual displays of data. Some are nonsensical, some are dense and shocking. They’re all pretty engaging and the collection appears well-curated. Wired has a number of the selected graphics online.
The book’s introduction was written by David Byrne. I’ll add a link to the essay if it appears online. In the meantime, my favorite bit follows.
The very best of these, in my opinion, engender and facilitate an insight by visual means - allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece - when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!” - we can see how income affects or at least correlates with, for example, folks’ levels of education. Or, less expectedly, we might, for example, see how rainfall seems to have a profound effect on consumption of hard liquor (I made that part up). What we can get in this medium is the instant revelation of a pattern that wasn’t noticeable before.
One would hope that we could educate ourselves to be able to spot the evil infographics that are being used to manipulate us, or that are being used to hide important patterns and information. Ideally, an educated consumer of infographics might develop some sort of infographic bullshit detector that would beep when told how the trickle-down economic effect justifies fracking, for example. It’s not easy, as one can be seduced relatively easily by colors, diagrams and funny writing.
Arri Eisen, a close friend, mentor, and Professor of Pedagogy at Emory University, was recently featured on Living on Earth along with two of his most unique students — Lodoe Sangpo and Thabkhe Thabkhe, Tibetan Buddhist monks learning and doing science and taking courses. Check out the interview below.
The Verge highlighted some amazing photos from NASA and University of Arizona’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). From the HiRISE FAQ page:
HiRISE returns images of the Martian surface with higher resolution than ever seen before from an orbiter. This means we can see extraordinary detail in all kinds of surface features. Scientists all over the world are already using these images to understand many previously-unexplained phenomena on the Red Planet. We might also discover brand new types of features never seen before! The stereo and color capabilities will also allow us to explore Mars in 3D, and with compositional information. The ultra high resolution also makes HiRISE the perfect tool for investigating the safety of future landing sites for other missions, such as the Phoenix lander or the Mars Science Laboratory. We’ve also done some searching for past Mars landers, both successful and not. But even without the higher resolution and added capabilities, additional cameras in Mars orbit are always valuable for imaging new terrains on Mars, and for monitoring the dynamic surface and atmosphere for activity and changes.
A few more favorites:
A few requests had come in to download around 12 countries worth of the recently released Global Burden of Disease from the IHME website. There’s no way to quickly download multiple files; by my count, it requires you to type the country name, click a link, click a tab, and then option-click a CSV file.
The URLs had relatively similar construction, so I wrote a quick R script to download all of the data and save each one as a separate compressed RDS file. I also dropped a couple of redundant columns to try to save some space. The compression is pretty efficient; 25-27 MB files were reduced to between 6.6 - 7.4 MB. Check it out here or below.
Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator, tells an audience at the Moth about how she transitioned into Environmental Engineering. Great story.
A good interview with Naomi Klein leading her new book coming out in 2014. Read the whole thing here.
You’ve said that progressives’ narratives are insufficient. What would be an alternative narrative to turn this situation around?
Well, I think the narrative that got us into this - that’s part of the reason why you have climate change denialism being such as powerful force in North America and in Australia - is really tied to the frontier mentality. It’s really tied to the idea of there always being more. We live on lands that were supposedly innocent, “discovered” lands where nature was so abundant. You could not imagine depletion ever. These are foundational myths.
And so I’ve taken a huge amount of hope from the emergence of the Idle No More movement, because of what I see as a tremendous generosity of spirit from Indigenous leadership right now to educate us in another narrative. I just did a panel with Idle No More and I was the only non-Native speaker at this event, and the other Native speakers were all saying we want to play this leadership role. It’s actually taken a long time to get to that point. There’s been so much abuse heaped upon these communities, and so much rightful anger at the people who stole their lands. This is the first time that I’ve seen this openness, open willingness that we have something to bring, we want to lead, we want to model another way which relates to the land. So that’s where I am getting a lot of hope right now.
The impacts of Idle No More are really not understood. My husband is making a documentary that goes with this book, and he’s directing it right now in Montana, and we’ve been doing a lot of filming on the northern Cheyenne reservation because there’s a huge, huge coal deposit that they’ve been debating for a lot of years - whether or not to dig out this coal. And it was really looking like they were going to dig it up. It goes against their prophecies, and it’s just very painful. Now there’s just this new generation of young people on that reserve who are determined to leave that coal in the ground, and are training themselves to do solar and wind, and they all talk about Idle No More. I think there’s something very powerful going on. In Canada it’s a very big deal. It’s very big deal in all of North America, because of the huge amount of untapped energy, fossil fuel energy, that is on Indigenous land. That goes for Arctic oil. It certainly goes for the tar sands. It goes for where they want to lay those pipelines. It goes for where the natural gas is. It goes for where the major coal deposits are in the US. I think in Canada we take Indigenous rights more seriously than in the US. I hope that will change.